The Discipline of Self-Restoration

The work we do requires more of us. Not just running faster, or even running smarter, but the ability to go deeper.

True social change work, work through which we apply ourselves fully in service of others, requires us to show up differently. It requires us to do deep work on our selves – the work of self-reflection that leads to self-knowledge that ultimately results in a progressively deeper exploration of purpose.

This exploration is not a solitary activity. For real understanding of self to emerge, we must conduct this exploration in partnership with others – so we can better understand them, and the world as they see it, and, through these conversations and relationships, more clearly see and understand our selves in relation to them and to their world.

All of this work, this emotional labor, requires us to go deep to the places where we unearth empathy, connection, meaning, values, loyalties and losses.  This is the guts of the work we aim to do.

Our starting point is our willingness to take emotional risks: the risk of being authentic, the risk of standing up for what we believe in, the risk of speaking truth to power, the risk of admitting our own shortfalls and limitations, the risk of being courageous, the risk of being brave, the risk of persevering, and the risk of being humble.  Ultimately, these all add up to choosing to take the risk of caring deeply about something, of putting ourselves on the line for that thing, and of knowing that we might or might not succeed in achieving a thing that is truly important.

It can be daunting to see what this work requires of us, to contemplate the limbs we have to be willing to walk out on. But it is intuitively clear why we must do it: how can we change the systems that preserve the status quo if we don’t fully understand them, and ourselves?

Yet, even as we muster our courage, there is an important piece of work that often remains invisible to us. This is the work we will need to do to sustain our practice of emotional labor: the work of self-restoration; the work of sharpening, cleaning and oiling the blade, time and time again, so that we can wake up again tomorrow and cut down the next tree.

This is a discipline like any other, the discipline of self-restoration.

For each person this discipline will look different. It might be sleep. It might be meals with friends. It might be regular conversations with someone who has known us for a lifetime. It could be quiet talks with a loved one. It might be journaling, or walking, or sitting. It might be exercise, or mediation, or yoga. But it is something regular, a consistent practice that keeps us grounded, one that refills our tank so that we have the strength to go out the next day.

Burnout in the social change world is common, and while this partly occurs because the road is both long and hard, another cause is that we don’t prepare ourselves for the emotional labor this work will require of us, and, once we come across it, we don’t build in the disciplines that will allow us to consistently reground, reset, and reignite the flame inside of us.

The discipline of waking up when the alarm sounds for our morning run.

The discipline of sitting on a meditation cushion and not in front of the TV.

The discipline of shutting the computer off and having dinner at home with your family.

The discipline of reading some poetry alone before bed, and not your twitter feed.

This discipline of a regular practice of expressing gratitude.

The discipline of good sleep hygiene.

The discipline of prayer, of reflection, of reconnecting with our spiritual selves.

The thing about disciplines is that they are not always fun, or easy, or immediately gratifying. Yet when we make space for them, when we ritualize them and build them into the fabric of our lives, the payoff is a practice that restores our capacity to do the brave, hard, meaningful work we all aim to do.

The humanity ante

The “ante” in poker is a bet that every player has to make before the hand is played. Before the cards are dealt, each player puts some money on the table – usually a small amount – and this makes it harder to fold one’s cards and walk away. The ante puts everyone a little bit on the hook for each and every hand.

In some games, it’s customary for the ante (called the “blinds”) to rise as time passes. Late in the evening, the blinds get big enough that they change the character of the game: players have to pull out a whole new set of tactics and strategies when the blinds are huge.

A similar dynamic is at play when two people sit down across the table for a first conversation – or for their first important conversation. While the rules of this game aren’t as explicit, there’s an ante that each player puts on the table from the outset. This is an emotional ante, a statement of how human you’re going to be in this conversation and in this relationship. You can see the first glimpse of this ante as the players answer questions like “how are things going?” and “what’s been happening on your end?”  The true question you’re answering is: “how real are you going to be?”

I’ve increasingly found that most people will match the humanity ante I’m willing to put on the table. Hold my cards close and they will too. Be willing to take some risk, to show my own humanity – in the form of being willing to share my challenges or flaws, my dreams or my frustrations – and they will also.

This is basically the opposite of what we’re taught in big institutions. These institutions exert a strong socializing power that slowly and deliberately beats the humanity out of us. The message is: be as un-human as possible, because that’s what it means to be a professional. (This is the same reason the emails from these institutions are so unreadable).

Part of what we have to remember is that to do anything that matters we must dare to do emotional labor. And for us to do that emotional labor together, the first step is that we show up as full human beings.

Ante up.

Where the Magic Happens

I’m a big believer in people’s capacity to change.

In fact, I think that one of the most powerful levers we have in life is recognizing that we can change.  This can be around mental plasticity – realizing our ability to learn big, new things.  Or we can go deeper, reconfiguring our habits, our outlook, even our emotional responses – how we are wired.

It all starts with knowing that we are not static beings.  And with recognizing that the way we act and the person we are aren’t one and the same thing.

We also have to give ourselves permission: the space to see that it took us decades to learn to act the way we act today, so it no doubt will take years, not months, before our new behaviors and orientation grow deep roots and feel natural.

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the first Lean Impact Summit organized by Leah Neaderthal and Leanne Pittsford.  It was an energizing, entrepreneurial event based on the premise that we will create faster, more powerful change if we learn to embed Lean Startup principles into social change work (you can too!).

I got a huge positive reaction (judging from the Twitter pics) to the last slide of my presentation, an image drawn by Jessica Hagy – whose new book How to be Interesting has lots more great stuff.

Where the magic happens_Lean Impact Summit

Jessica’s right, of course, the magic does mostly happen outside of our comfort zones.  That’s where we change and grow.