Authenticity, transparency and vulnerability: What’s the difference?

I’m having a hard time writing about this topic. must admit, the last presidential debate was pretty horrifying. We all watched the leader of the US of A, ranting and interrupting and bullying in a tragic example of authenticity.

According to Vanity Fair, “Trump doesn’t accept the consensus that the debate was a disaster because, sources said, he was unabashedly himself.

In other words, he was authentic. The genuine Trump. The real deal.

He was also completely transparent: he wasn’t trying to hide behind convention or be someone he’s not, which is often why his supporters say they like him.

But vulnerable? No way. Vulnerability requires self-awareness in the context of other human beings. It’s the feeling we get when we’ve perhaps revealed too much of ourselves, or we’re afraid to reveal out of fear of being judged.

Authenticity is the truth of who we are, whereas transparency is the degree to which we reveal that truth. From opaque to translucent to transparent, we make judgement calls on how much we can reveal, to whom, and when.

Alone on a desert island, we’d all be authentic and fully transparent. We could run around naked, shout expletives at the sky, and be as weird as we wanted without any sense of vulnerability. I suppose that can describe narcissists as well.

But of course none of us live on desert islands.

It’s not all or nothing

We all yearn to bring our whole selves to work, because the energy required for mask upkeep is exhausting. All eyes are on the leaders to model the level of transparency that’s acceptable within the culture.

Historically there’s been too little transparency, where everyone’s walking on eggshells trying to guess at people’s real identities, emotions and intentions behind the armor and masks.

In an over-correction, the trend now is to let it all hang out. But too much self-transparency can scare the crap out of people and potentially cause you to lose credibility; there’s such a thing as authentically inappropriate. When a plane hits turbulence and everyone’s watching the crew, it’s wise to keep imposter syndrome under wraps.

I’m not so sure about this vulnerability trend; vulnerability is intimate; it can’t be forced. It’s a guide, not a goal. Instead of being caught in duality of all or nothing, perhaps there’s a third way.

The third way: Translucent

Being mindfully transparent is about revealing our humanity without pointing out the hair growing out of the wart. Transparency is potent stuff: we need to know the right dosage, the right degree of “see-through-ness” or translucency for the situation. What’s the right degree? That depends on an awareness and understanding of both ourselves and our listeners. 

It requires an exploration of the intersection between ME and THEY… which, of course, is WE. It’s about balancing relatability and truth with confidence.

  • ME: What is the most genuine version of me? What am I feeling right now? What do I need? This self-listening and self-validating step helps ground us in our truth. It’s about being vulnerable with ourselves first, so that it can be transmuted into strength.
  • THEY: Who are my (peers, team, partner, etc.) as human beings, not titles? How do they feel now? How do they want to feel? How comfortable are they with emotion? What do they need from me? These answers come from empathy and deep listening. 
  • WE: Within the context of our shared humanity, what’s my role as a leader in moving us towards our collective desired state? What’s one story I can tell that establishes a human connection? What do I say (or how do I say it) to earn both relatability and trust?

Start with who.

This is all part of the process I call Start With WHO. So much business discussion is focused on why (purpose), what we do and how we do it. But so few start with who: Who am I as a leader? Who are my peers and colleagues and customers, and what shared identity bonds us together?

A leader doesn’t build a product or a department or a company: he or she builds a sense of belonging by magnetizing a tribe of diverse individuals who come together because they’re wired similarly. The similarities may be purpose, or it may be identity, values, or needs. Rebels, travelers, change-makers, connectors, security-seekers, DIYers, catalysts… when we start with an authentic who, beginning with leadership, everything else falls into place.

Within this tribe, we can safely drop the masks. We can model a greater degree of transparency, showing our genuine selves, because we’ve created a safe space for people just like us. The uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability are diminished; we know we won’t be judged. This still doesn’t mean we can let it all hang out in a vulnerability-induced verbal vomit that shakes people’s confidence, but it sure simplifies where to draw the line.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

I wish I hadn’t said that.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with last week’s article. 

I fully believe in what I wrote about flowing versus striving, BUT… when I pushed send, the contraction in my body told me that the way I said it wasn’t exactly right somehow. Too long, too business-y, too cerebral. Too blah blah blah.

The voice in my head punched me around a little bit. Told me that I should have waited to start my newsletter until I had planned it all out perfectly… waited until I’d fully practiced and perfected the new writing style that feels more authentic to me now. 

Do you get that perfectionist voice in your head too? The one that delights in pointing out you didn’t get something right? That you should have done it differently? 

That voice has good intentions, for sure. It wants to keep us safe, but instead it keeps us trapped in a corner feeling bad about ourselves. It prevents us from experimenting with what feels aligned and what doesn’t — those somatic signals of YES and NO in our bodies that tell us when we’re on or off our path.

A YES feels expansive and right; it’s our soul’s way of saying “do more of this.” A NO feels tight, constricting: do less of that. Simple breadcrumbs that unerringly lead us forward.  

I’m now writing a memoir about my path to authenticity. This kind of book demands of me a different writing style: a shift from head-based business insights to heart-based stories. And that requires a new way of seeing and moving through the world… one that’s based on feeling, not thinking

I’m still practicing. Sometimes I get it right; sometimes I don’t. And I’m ok with that. 

This is all part of finding our authentic voices, in writing or in life.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” 

Ernest Hemingway

What’s true for you right now? Underneath the smart thoughts, the fears, the rationalizations, the mask, the expectations — what’s your truth? Embrace it. Marinate in it.

What true sentence can you say to someone right now? I’m scared. I’m sorry. I love you. I feel like an outsider. I don’t feel safe. I screwed up. Whatever’s alive for you that you’re trying to hide… will you share it? 

Next week we’ll talk about the fine line we need to walk between authenticity and credibility as a leader. When does vulnerability become a liability? 

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Are you in flow, or on a hamster wheel?

This week’s topic is on creating both stability and flow to better roll with the changes. 

Change… gawd, it’s so commonplace now that it’s almost boring to talk about. Layoffs, working from home, COVID lockdowns… 

I’m sure that’s why this HBR article on being forever employable in this era of rapid change is striking a chord for a lot of people. Two of my coachees recently emailed it to me and asked for my perspective.

What Jeff Gothelf writes here triggered an “Absolutely!” mixed with “oooh, I’m not sure about that.” 

Yes, a thought leadership platform can create both stability and flow.

Jeff writes: “By becoming a recognized expert in your chosen domain or discipline you reverse the flow of jobs, leads and opportunities. Instead of you having to chase them down, they come to you.”

Totally agree: this flow of attraction is the sign that we are doing something right. And yes, the mindsets of entrepreneurialism and self-confidence keeps us open for spotting and pursuing new opportunities when they arise. 

So far, so good. 

But let’s try to stay off the hamster wheel, ok? 

Three of the five core concepts in this article are continuous learning, continuous improvement, and reinvention… gaaah! It’s not that it’s wrong, per se… but I feel overwhelmed just thinking about it. 

Do you feel this way too, or is it just me?

Maybe I’m extra-sensitive to this overly busy work environment we’ve managed to normalize. Sensitive after hitting burnout two years ago and escaping overseas without a plan. Since then, I’ve deliberately redesigned my life for balance. 

This idea of perpetual, ever-increasing, ever-faster hamster wheel of change is NOT NORMAL. Spinning, spinning, spinning… and we’re having a hard time holding on, let alone keeping up. 

It’s especially hard for “rebels with a cause” — we tend to be dazzled by a lot of different ideas and problems to solve; we see so many opportunities. How to focus? What to learn and improve? 

This doesn’t feel like flow.

Can we stop the endless doing and start being

There’s a balance between change and stability; we need to find that edge and surf it. The first question to ask ourselves is… what doesn’t change? Anything?

Yes… human nature doesn’t change. There’s a reason why Shakespeare is still relevant 500 years after his death: he knew how to play to people’s needs and emotions. For as long as humans have walked the earth, emotion is what drives us to do what we do. 

What lights you up? What brings you joy? As I wrote last week, these are the things that ground you in who you are. They’re what I call “motivational DNA,” unique to each person. How do you want to feel? 

Will you find new things that excite you? Sure. Will you evolve? Absolutely. But the Jen at 51 is pretty much the same as Jen was at 8, exploring, painting, writing, riding my bike with the wind in my hair. I’m a rebel with a cause; a free-bird problem solver. Always have been, always will be. 

This is NOT about endless reinvention. 

This is about excavating who you already are under the rubble of should’s, expectations and endless running on the hamster wheel. 

Your motivational DNA, combined with your skills and strengths, can help you identify your ground of power: the source of flow. This becomes your stable platform, and you’ll naturally enhance it with new skills and knowledge because you love it; it’s effortless, like breathing. 

It’s like the source of a river, high in the mountains: when we’re connected to our source, we tap a wellspring of boundless energy, creativity, security, and whatever else we need to thrive. 

Our source never moves. It never chases. It doesn’t care what other people think, what the latest technology is, or the latest job title, or the hottest unicorn in Silicon Valley. 

Instead, it magnetizes. This grounded source creates the flow. It’s both/and, not either/or. Flow and stability, simultaneously.

Questions:

Are you in flow, or on a hamster wheel? 

Are you attracting or chasing? 

Are you more focused on being who you really are, or endlessly doing more and more? 

Want to discuss? Shoot me an email, or leave a comment here on this blog post! 

Until next week!  Jen

PS. Most of my clients are navigating a transition right now, and we’re working on building their own thought-leadership platforms. If you’re interested, check out my coaching for flow page and/or book a call with me. 

What do you love?

If you haven’t seen Ethan Hawke’s video on TED’s YouTube channel, you’re missing out. It’s called Give Yourself Permission to Be Creative, but it’s really about giving yourself permission to be yourself.  

My favorite quote: “What do you love?… if you get close to what you love, who you are is revealed to you.” 

Amen. 

Too often, we try to make decisions by thinking and analyzing instead of tapping into the wisdom in our bodies and emotions. Ethan calls it love; I call it your YES — that vast, expansive, light feeling in your body that emerges when you’re in full alignment with your truth. 

This feeling reveals who you are. It reveals your path, like breadcrumbs. 

Questions: 

  • How often do you feel that sense of YES in your life and work? 
  • In what ways have you sacrificed what you love in the name of an expectation or a paycheck or…? 
  • If you could do one small thing this week to create more YES, what would it be? 

Share your answers in the comments; I’d love to hear from you!

Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash

masks at work

Authenticity at work: removing the masks

Conformity has been king for far too long. Stuffing ourselves into expectation- or fear-laden boxes creates stress, wipes out essential diversity, and kills our souls. My globe-trotting sabbatical last year gave me the opportunity to step back and pay attention to the masks I donned daily; my hope is that the coronavirus shut-down is affording you the same. 

It’s the job of leaders to model authenticity at work, but what does that really mean? And how does one go about doing it? One way might be to explore the three types of masks we tend to wear: Identity, Viewpoints and Emotions.

Identity: Who I am

The identity mask hides the fact that I feel different from other people. Given the fact that no two people are exactly alike, perhaps we all mask to a lesser or greater extent. Thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, more of us are learning about how our black colleagues code-switch, which involves “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” 

As a gay, neurodiverse female, I certainly played the game of conformity in ways I can only see now in hindsight. I became an armor-wearing brain on a stick, unhappy and burned out, eventually not fooling anyone but myself. It took a year-long sabbatical for self-reflection and acceptance, befriending my intuition and emotions, before I healed enough to return to the business world as a whole, integrated human being. I now know myself well enough to create a career and environment that works with my strengths and natural limitations.  

Thriving workplaces are safe spaces in which we’re free to be ourselves; authenticity is the foundation of employee and customer loyalty. It starts with leaders who have the courage to slowly reveal their own truths and give permission to others to do the same, which requires self-awareness and compassion. It’s essential to notice judgments about differences, starting with our own; what we want to hide is often the source of our power. The more love we have for our own uniqueness, the more easily we can value the uniqueness and diversity of others. 

The key to authenticity is knowing the difference between limitations (the natural boundaries of who I am as a human being) and weaknesses. We accept the former and seek to fix only the latter. When we become whole, without disowning parts of ourselves, we’re able to create whole, coherent organizations. The inner transformation creates the outer transformation. 

Questions: Do you fully embrace and love yourself, warts and all? Do you respect your limitations, using this as a guide for staying true to your strengths? Do you notice when you judge yourself and others, and challenge your own thinking? Do you call out others who judge? Do you actively embrace differences with curiosity, and seek to build diverse teams?

Viewpoints – what (and how) I think 

You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not experienced enough to have a valid opinion. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me, so I’m going to override it. If you can’t explain how you arrived at this conclusion, it must be wrong. 

Do these sound familiar? If we believe these messages are true, then we’ll either wear the masks of silence or agreement, engage in negative self-talk, or repeat these phrases to others; I know I’ve been guilty of all of these in the past. When we don’t know how to deeply listen to our own inner wisdom, it’s impossible to truly hear other people or stand up for ourselves.  It also becomes impossible to simply admit that we don’t know something, even though “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” can be one of the most empowering things we can say. 

Part of listening to ourselves is understanding how our brains are wired; if our dominant “mind mode” is different than those around us, we’re going to feel out of place. We’ll hear “you’re wrong” more often, even if it’s untrue. Either we need to choose a workplace that values how we think, or as leaders we need to recognize and encourage this diversity of thought.  

I’m a pattern-matching, bottoms-up, lateral thinker who tried way too hard to fit into top-down, analytical consulting environments. Thanks to my efforts to conform, I expanded my thinking styles and added more Analytical tools to my problem-solving toolbox… but it came at a cost. The toxic pressure to fit in, and my failed attempts to change systems that no one saw were broken, took a toll on my mental health. And my employers failed to capitalize on the fact that I saw things in a totally different and equally valid way. 

Questions: As a leader, do you disregard or judge opinions that aren’t in alignment with how you think or approach problems? Do you reward or suppress intuition? Do you create and orchestrate teams with diversity of processing styles, aka ‘mind modes’ (Analyzing, Connecting, Sensing and Feeling) in order to nourish creativity, innovation and personal growth of everyone involved? 

Emotions – how I feel 

So you’ve checked the boxes on inclusion and diversity. You have women, people of color, LGBTQ+ and neurodiversity reflected at every level of your organization. You’re discovering the innovative power of different thinking styles, and you encourage admission of limitations and not-knowing. Are you done? 

Not until you welcome what makes us truly human into the workplace: our core needs and emotions. After 3 decades of insight-based strategy work, my single biggest takeaway is that emotions, not logic, is what motivates behavior. Yet we hide behind the sterile mask of Analyzing Mind because the murky world of emotion feels too vulnerable and unsafe.

Our 34,000 human emotions fall into two camps: 

Mutable

This is the ebb and flow of pleasant and unpleasant emotions based on circumstance; emotionally aware leaders are able to work with discomfort, dropping into their bodies to name, embrace and release what they’re feeling so they can move forward in a healthy way. An emotionally aware organization is able to acknowledge, discuss and resolve the root issues of what’s keeping them stuck. 

Questions: As a leader, can you reveal that you too are human, and that you feel the common emotions of fear, shame, anxiety? Work empathetically with an employee to unpack why they’re feeling frustrated or unheard? Encourage others to verbalize what they’re feeling in order to address the real root of why your organization is stuck?

Motivating

A small set of motivating emotions connected to our 12 core human needs can serve as unchanging North Stars for organizations. Every great brand takes this approach, from Apple (creativity) to Nike (achievement) to Allstate (safety) to Virgin (freedom). The emotional outcome that is predictive of business outcomes serves as the central organizing principle of effective organizations.

What I have come to learn recently is that it’s one thing to objectively talk about the critical role of needs and emotions in business. It’s quite another to embody them as leaders… and it’s only when the latter happens can we fully harness the power of emotion. When cultures are built to help both employees AND customers to feel more (free, safe, creative, connected, etc.) — and when the leadership team are motivated by the same emotions — now we’re talking rocket fuel. The entire ecosystem wallows in exactly how they all want to feel. This is the root of customer-centricity and authenticity.

Questions: Do you know how you want to feel in your life and work, and use these in your decision making? Do you know how your customers want to feel when working with your business, and to what extent this emotion predicts top-line business results? Are you aware of the core needs and emotions that motivate the behavior of your peers or leadership team, and identified conflicting needs?

Which of the three types of masks are worn in your organization? Are diverse identities, viewpoints and emotions welcome and celebrated in your workplace?

What does it mean to be true to myself?

The best advice I’ve ever received comes from my immersion in Buddhist teachings: “accept what is.” Not what I wish it could be… not pushing it away or clinging or judging… but simply holding it — whatever “it” is — loosely.

Conversely, the worst advice might be the phrase, “You can be anything you want to be.” While it’s extremely well meaning, it’s also misleading. It’s a seductive phrase, implying that our identities are like a giant Indian food buffet: I’ll take this but not that. That spicy dish is really popular so I’ll eat it too, even though it gives me awful indigestion and I won’t be able to sleep tonight. This idea of infinite possibility elevates a wish above truth.

Truth – /truːθ/: that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go after what you really want. If you love music, by all means invest the time to be a musician or conductor or whatever floats your boat. What I am suggesting is that we need to accept what is when it comes to our fundamental strengths and limitations. And let’s recognize certain limitations for what they are — weaknesses, not opportunities — and be incredibly grateful for them instead of wishing they didn’t exist.

I believed I could be anything for decades, and gawd, what a burden. The choices are endless. How could I possibly begin to decide what I want to be? What if I make the wrong choice? Our brains like choice and variety, but not too much. Like the wall of 100 brands of toothpaste, too many options become paralyzing.

When we’re caught up in analysis paralysis, the easiest route then becomes the abdication of choice, getting swept along in the current of life and ending up in a place far away from what really lights us up. And that’s the story of most of my adult life, until I realized this truth:

Be anything” negates the beauty of individuality.

You can’t love yourself, nor can you be loved, while trying to be something you’re not. And you can’t truly love someone else if you hold the belief that they could be anything, too. “Be anything” introduces toxic should’s and expectations into the equation… because if you could be anything, why aren’t you already?

Here’s why we adore animals so much: they never try to be anything other than what they are. A mountain goat would quickly fail at trying to be a lion or a bear, yet she thrives while perched precariously on tiny ledge jutting from a sheer cliff. A hippo doesn’t berate itself on its inability to run like a gazelle; instead she relishes in her graceful swimming in cool water.

If you’re failing right now, perhaps you’re simply failing at being true to yourself… and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a gift: it’s the universe saying, “hey, you’re looking in the wrong place!” Living your truth is simpler than you think; this is where flow and joy can be found.

I vividly remember the moment when I finally accepted that I couldn’t be anything or anyone. You’d have thought I’d just won the lottery: wooo HOOOO!!! Not only did it explain my past failures and bullheaded resistance, but it’s incredibly liberating to sweep a bunch of options off the table because they’d require more effort and energy than they’re worth… and would likely make me miserable in the process.

“Being who you are is no luxury reserved for the idle rich, or the very young or old. Being who you are is necessary for the completion of the universe.”

Perron, Mari. A Course of Love: Combined Volume

What I teach in business and in life is that NO is one of the most powerful words we can employ. NO defines the boundaries of where I stop and you begin. NO defines the safe container of YES — what I call the ground of power — and from this rooted place of YES we gain the nourishment to grow in all directions: deeper, higher… vaster.

Standing on our ground of power means we’re not running around chasing happiness out there, but rather we magnetize what brings us joy; we allow it to find us. This is how the law of attraction works: like attracts like. Joy comes to me because my ground of power is defined by joy. Love comes to me because a wellspring of love is not only on my ground of power… it is the source of my power. The less I seek, the more I find.

Our purpose in life is to simply be ourselves.

How do we identify this ground of power? Not by analyzing our strengths and weaknesses, but instead, following what we love — what we’ve always loved — like a trail of breadcrumbs back home to ourselves. I’ve previously written that our purpose in life is to love more… to choose love as a state of being, not as a limited resource to give to special people.

The way we start achieving that is by remembering and honoring what we love, and bringing more of it into our lives. Here are a few questions I ask the women I coach:

  • What did you love as a child? In what small ways can you bring that into your life today? Can you give yourself permission to do it badly?
  • What do you love most about yourself?
  • What do you love most in others… and can you see yourself in that mirrored reflection?
  • What do you dislike about yourself… and can you embrace and love that part of you, like holding a small child or a puppy?
  • How do you really want to feel in your life and career? If you want to feel free like a bird, how is that fluorescent-lit cubicle job really working out for you?
  • What kind of people bring out the best in you? How can you surround yourself with more of them?
  • What no longer serves you that you can say NO to?

If you’re questioning your career, don’t worry so much about how to monetize what you love. Some of you are spinning around wondering how to create a job out of walking in the woods. That’s not the point of this exercise. Ask yourself: how does walking in the woods (or whatever it is for you) make me feel? Are there other times or situations in my life when I’ve felt that way? What are other opportunities that might elicit that emotion?

Maybe walking in the woods becomes a guideline for where you live, not what you do. It’s simply one more way of aligning the outer world with your inner truth. Living a joyful life starts with one question: what really lights you up? What’s your YES?

Now go do more of that, and say NO to everything else.

love, Jen


An open invitation

Do you want to be more true to who you are? Let’s spend an hour together. I am doing research for articles and potential group coaching sessions; I’d love to hear more about what’s on your mind, and you’ll get a collaborator to help you solve an issue of your choice. You can access my calendar here.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

We find belonging in our darkness

My biggest problem is that I look too normal. If you didn’t know me — heck, even if you do — my appearance would lead you to a pile of incorrect assumptions:  that this tall, slender, blue-eyed blonde has always been popular, probably a cheerleader in high school, successful in career and in love, and that I generally get what I want. And when I don’t conform to your expectations – which happens when my mask slips – you might write me off as weird, or a bitch, or entitled, or however else your filter might interpret my usually well-meaning actions. Trust me: I’m pretty familiar with all of them by now.

Let’s just get the big stuff out of the way right up front, shall we? I’m a gay, neuro-diverse (aka Asperger’s or high-functioning autistic), only child, ex-military brat who is never, ever going to fit into mainstream society no matter how hard I try. And oh, how I’ve tried. I learned all the social rules as best as I could, but they’re not instinctive. In my darkest days of trying to be someone I wasn’t, a friend told me, “you’re just not a girl’s girl” to explain why I was gently evicted from that circle of friends. I had no idea what that meant, but knew I simply had to try harder. At what, exactly, I wasn’t sure.

“What do you want from me?” I‘d cry to the uncaring world, weeping alone on my living room floor after another unintended social gaffe led to another rejection or another lost job, willing to drain my life blood for this feeling of belonging that seemed so easy for other people. Through decades of repeated traumatic losses, developing and eventually (mostly) recovering from PTSD, I’ve excavated the many reasons behind the fact that I am, and always will be, an outsider. And I’m ok with that.

Nowadays my outsides are a bit more aligned with my insides: I cut my hair, got a tattoo, and love to wear my motorcycle boots. I’ve slowly figured out how to be myself even in the business world. A few years ago I made an agreement with myself: that instead of sacrificing my life to fit into the mainstream world, I’d create my own. I now see that this motivation powered my decision to bolt overseas. And if I can succeed in creating a sense belonging while I’m on this nomad adventure, anyone can.

Why am I telling you all this? I think it’s essential to start normalizing and talking about the less-sexy stuff that makes us human. Over the past 6 months of solitude and reflection, I’ve come to realize that our power dwells in what we’ve hidden in darkness. That whatever we keep secret becomes a festering wound that’s visible in some form or another to everyone but ourselves. And that the only way to heal is to bring these truths and experiences into the light of awareness: to stand in our strength and embrace them, fully and completely: the beautiful lotus in the mud of human existence.

So I’m not writing this for you: I’m writing it for me. This is who I am, and it’s so liberating to set down the mask under the mask: the one everyone wears whether they know it or not.

The closet is not just for gays: it’s for any deviation from the media-defined norm, and let me tell you, it’s pretty damned crowded in here. When I shared with my dad my delighted discovery that I’m very likely on the spectrum – hurray! My entire life now makes sense! — he quickly advised, “don’t tell anyone.” Because that’s exactly what the older generation did: sweep uncomfortable things under the rug and don’t acknowledge it no matter what, even if the walls crumble and the house falls down.

There’s a reason why Brene Brown is so popular; she’s willing to openly talk about topics that no one else will even acknowledge. Much of the world is suffering from the absence of vulnerability. Society trains us to only see, respond to and judge each other’s constructed identities. As long as we all wear our masks, we can laugh, drink and pretend together that the world is as perfect as we make it look, all the while dying inside a little bit every day, thirsty to be seen for who we really are. And when seen, accepted.

The new thing now is Straight Pride: a far-right meme that snowballed into an actual event in Boston this year where a couple hundred straight conservatives marched in parody of Gay Pride. What a hoot. I actually love this idea, but they haven’t quite grasped the real purpose. A Pride parade is about taking out of hiding something deemed as shameful (but really isn’t) and wearing it like armor so it can never be used against you. Here’s what should happen in a real Straight Pride: everyone marches while holding up signs like:

  • “I’m overweight and I’m proud of it.”
  • ”I’m autistic and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m an introvert and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m sensitive and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m hairy and proud of it.”

Or maybe we dig deeper into things that might not make us proud, but they make us who we are. They’re those unhappy facts of life that we need to just own already instead of pushing away in horror like a dead rat. Why? Because countless other human beings are struggling with the exact same secret, all suffering in silence, all losing an opportunity for genuine connection and belonging with others who really, truly get it. Which means I’d expect to see Straight Pride signs with whatever is making each person feel so alone in this world:

  • “I’m depressed and can’t get out of bed in the mornings.”
  • “My brother is homeless.”
  • “I have a mental illness.”
  • “I lost my job.”
  • “I’m failing at ____”
  • “I’m HIV positive.”
  • “I was raped.”
  • “I committed a crime and I regret it.”
  • “I drink too much.”

THIS is what Straight Pride — scratch that — what life needs to be about: the deep inner work of owning who we really are and not what our masks lead others to believe. This is what members of the LGBTQ community have been wrestling to the ground. This is the spirit of Pride that I suspect we’d all love to witness: millions of people stepping into their power by paradoxically embracing what society says is weakness. Which means: understanding. Empathy. Inclusion into this big group we call Humanity instead of the ridiculous infighting that’s going on now between opposing groups in the name of a sad, diminished, lower-case-b belonging.

What do you think, dear reader? Are you with me? Don’t leave me hanging… I’d love a comment or like if you think I’m on the right track here.

Photo by Agustin Fernandez on Unsplash

No longer living someone else’s life

Midlife crisis is such a cliche. The countdown to my 5oth birthday started at 48 when I quit my job, bought a camper and roamed around the US national parks with my camera. By 49 I was nearly in a panic. Not because I was about to turn 50, but because I still felt like I was living someone else’s life. I couldn’t bear the thought of dragging the same old patterns and baggage past this important midlife milestone.

I sold everything in the US and boarded a plane to Europe a mere five days before my 50th birthday. Over the next four months, through France, Geneva, Morocco and Israel, the decision to continue working in business strategy remained unquestioned. Networking isn’t easy as a nomad, so I tried staying in Tel Aviv for a couple months to find a way, unsuccessfully, to ramp up a business.

The perils of should

That business success has eluded me while on the road is no surprise; it’s been something I had to make myself do, not out of passion but out of duty. Fact is, consulting fits me like an off-the-rack suit; while I’m good at it and occasionally enjoy it, the profession was designed with someone else in mind. I knew it. I’ve known it for years, in that way that we might know our lover is cheating or that our best friend has betrayed us. We think that if we don’t make a big deal out of noticing, it might just go away.

I couldn’t imagine what else I could do to earn a living. When my coach asked me last year, “what do you love to do?” I’d shrug my shoulders. Nothing came to mind that I could map to a real career. Even worse, I’d bought into the idea that it didn’t really matter what we love; grownups should do what need to be done when it comes to paying the bills and not chase silly notions.

There’s that “should” word again; I was a master at using it for self-flagellation when I failed to live up to expectations. But whose expectations? Well, that’s a good question. Now that I’m older and a tiny bit wiser, I recognize should as a flashing warning sign that I’m going the wrong way, or worse, that I’m actively rejecting part of who I am. The should applied to my career has been the last one standing; a barrier set up for safety, without which I might plummet over the cliff of irresponsible choices.

Our 8-year-old life coach

It’s so easy to get nudged, bit by bit, by our family, culture, media and friends onto a road that isn’t ours to travel. Until one day, some of us wake up, blink, and wonder where the heck we are. Hello midlife crisis! At this point, the only person who understands how far we’ve strayed is our inner 8-year olds.

Maybe you’re the lucky one who never banished your 8-year-old self to the children’s table. I suspect you’d be an exception rather than the rule. It’s easy to rationalize why there’s no room with the grownups; what does an 8-year old know, anyway? A lot, actually… not about business or mortgages or global politics, but about everything that really matters to our souls. The meaning and purpose of life. What brings us joy. Secret hopes. Play.

To banish our inner 8-year old is like a best friend’s betrayal. When we’re the ones doing the betraying, it’s easy to not make a big deal out of noticing. But it doesn’t go away, no matter how much we wish it would. This need for reconciliation with our younger, truer self is the incessant itch that wakes us up, or the narcotic that sinks us into a deeper sleep.

I think back now to my childhood, when all I wanted to do was write and draw and create. Even today, decades later, I’m a compulsive journaller. It’s not something I choose to do; it’s something I must do, whether in the quiet of home or in a busy cafe or bar. I write to understand myself and the world. To translate the swirling chaos of intuition and emotion into something my logical brain can comprehend. To problem-solve and make unexpected connections. To plumb the depths of the meaning of life in general, and mine in particular.

If writing is a compulsion, the visual arts are my medicine: my escape from an overly active left brain. Photography gets me out into the world and away from my computer; I’ll walk for hours in a new place with my camera, or sit patiently in a nature preserve waiting for the sunrise or a hawk in flight. And painting is visual problem-solving, something that sucks me into that third dimension called flow where I can stay for hours.

My 8-year-old coach, delighted that I finally asked her opinion, counseled me to get back to what feeds my soul. She reminded me that 20 years ago I journalled about my desire to move overseas, travel the world, and be a photographer and writer. Yeah, that desire, the one I buried in the name of impracticality, believing that path was for other people… surely not for me.

But hey, wait just a stinkin’ minute…. I’M DOING IT ALREADY! I’m traveling the world with my camera, and not even paying attention because I’m so damned distracted by this insistence on working at something I don’t even really like. How does this happen?

The heart is the source of our power

This was my big realization as I immersed myself in the charming port town of Limassol, Cyprus, last year. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” The people I met there — writers, artists, musicians, journalists, coaches — are rebels: authentic human beings in touch with their inner 8-year olds, unpressured to conform to some idea of what success looks like. They find that balance between leisure and hustle, focusing more on quality and realness of life that had thus far eluded me. I felt welcomed here like I was already a local… like I was already one of them.

And let’s face it: I am one of them. This is the truth I tried to avoid my entire adult life. It’s not a tragedy to fail at something we don’t really want to do. But when we’re betting the farm on something we love — no, that we are, at our essence — the risk is real. We’re vulnerable.

But as my new Cypriot artist friend Paris said to me, “the heart is the source of our power.” I’ve lived most of my life from my head; logic is safe. Logic is where “should” lives, our life choices calculated, pros and cons weighed. Living from the heart… well that’s crazy, right? I questioned my sanity as my 8-year old coach clapped her hands with delight. Yes, this feels right.

Be wild and crazy and drunk with love

If you’re too careful, love won’t find you.

Rumi

Which brings me to my new life based (for now) in T’bilisi, Republic of Georgia. I’m doing what lights me up. Every day I spend hours writing, interspersed with soul-reviving coaching calls. When I’m feeling a little stuck or down, I grab my camera and walk the old town or rent a car to explore the countryside. It doesn’t feel like work, but it is. My low-level stress, like the ever-present hum of the refrigerator, is gone. I have full faith that when we combine hustle with our 8-year-old coach’s advice, the money will follow.

Was it scary to drop everything I knew to embark on a truer path? Hell yes. But it’s worth it.

What about you?

What has your inner 8-year old been asking for? What’s keeping you from listening? Let’s start a conversation in the comments section. Your comments and feedback help me focus on future topics and questions you find meaningful and interesting.