Tag Archives: Work and Family

One Small Step

Neil Armstrong descending the ladder on the lu...

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I’m pretty sure it was a Philco. I know I was five and half.

It’d been a typically hot summer day where my best friend Marcus had spent much of it carving our initials in the hot, soft asphalt of East 26th street and floating wooden Popsicle sticks at the gutter river rushing out of the open hydrant. July 20, 1969.

My father calls out from the front window of our ground level apartment. “Jerry!” he shouts, “Come inside.” The tone means either I’ve done something wrong or something important is going on. I hope for the latter.

I come  inside and find my parents, my brothers, and my sister gathered around the Philco (or was it a Dumont?). Neil Armstrong is  just stepping down the ladder of lunar landing module.

I thought of that moment years later when, after deciding to go into work a little late that day, I watched the Challenger first lift off and then explode.

And I thought of it again a few weeks ago as Hugh MacLeod talked about going to watch the last Shuttle take off. When I saw his drawing, his take on what this all meant, I understood a little more about my own experience.

Watching that one small step on the static-ky, shaky black and white TV, with the tinfoil on the antenna to get a slightly better reception, I realized I had been inspired in small ways to live a life that would always push against the limits of my own fears.

Hugh’s “Incredible Times” drawing implicitly challenges me to see more clearly, to articulate more dearly, those folks who inspire me to see the incredible, the unbelievable. Fortunately, I can see it in the everyday.

I see it, for example, in the client who discovers a tumor that needs to be removed from her liver or the friend who’s tumor is in her breast. I see it in the client who–despite the gnawing, aching fear of never being able to be good enough to please a parent–still goes in every day making, as I am wont to say, “incremental progress that is directionally correct.”

We do ourselves a disservice when we look only to the extraordinary for affirmation of the incredible. We set ourselves up, then, to see that our struggles with the pathology of every day are somehow less then. And, of course, that then reinforces our own gnawing aching fears that we are never enough.

It helps to see the incredible inspiration in the man, the artist, whose demons were so ferocious that his only solace was to drink, smoke, and sleep in a kind of hazy denial of life. When that man wakes (albeit with the shock of a fearsome medical diagnosis) and begins the painful process of reclaiming his body, and through that act reclaims his souls…well, when that happens, boy howdy, we do live in incredible times.

So Hugh is right: there is work to be done. But I think the work is not getting people to romanticize our heroes but to see the incredible in the simple act of getting along, of growing up, of becoming more and more wholly, utterly, ourselves.

When Siddhartha woke up and became the Buddha, the awakened one, he didn’t wake to see the triumphant earthly gods and goddesses. He awoke to the utterly breathtaking beauty of the everyday person facing the truth of the pain and fear of life; facing that truth and choosing to move ahead, regardless. That feels like one heck of a small step.

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Work-Life Balance is Bullshit

I spat out the words with an anger that surprised me: “Work-Life balance is bullshit.”

Ann Mehl and I were on a call with a reporter looking into doing a piece about the workshop we’re doing in a few weeks. I’d connected the two of them in a conference call while I was at LaGuardia, waiting to board a flight to Denver, for a board meeting in Boulder. The morning had been rushed. Lately, it feels, like everything is rushed.

“I’m scared,” I’d told my Buddhist teacher on Monday. “I find myself doing more and more…the calls and inquires for coaching are so much more than I can handle.” He smiled in that way that says, “I’m not going to say anything. You have to keep going.”

“I’m afraid I’ll lose myself…again. I’ll find myself overweight, sickly, disconnected from my body, my family, and back at the point where the subway tracks seem like the right answer.”

“It is different now,” he said. I waited for more and then realized I wasn’t getting any more.

The workshop sold out (as Charlie Crystle predicted). There’s talk of doing a second iteration. A new friend reached out, saying, “Bring it to Berlin.”

I’m trying to meet the need so evident in the market by working with teams, doing workshops, encouraging others to work with folks like Ann, or even thinking about ways I might help folks help each other.

It’s different now, said my teacher, because right livelihood. What I’m working towards now is less about my own ego aggrandizement (although that temptation is always there) and more about helping.

And I think again of the guy who sat on my couch on Tuesday. By all accounts, successful, his little company not only survived the recession (having been launched at the start of the collapse) but pivoted and grew. Today, with less than $2 million in capital raised, they are projecting $5 million to $6 million in revenue. And they’re profitable. And this guy spent much of his session in tears. I was relieved to see those tears because I don’t know what would have happened if he’d continued to walk around with no one to talk to, no place to put the stress.

The concept of work-life balance is bullshit. First, it presumes that work is in opposition to life. And the fact is that work is a fundamental part of life; who we are and what we do merge–sometimes with good results and sometimes with bad.

Second, the concept sets us up for terrible guilt. When I’m at my kids’ concert, I feel guilty that I’m not answering email. When I’m at my desk, I feel guilty that I’m not watching So You Think You Can Dance with my kid. You can’t win.

I like the word balance in the concept, though.  My teacher finally spoke: “One third, one third, one third.” Fucking koans.

He let me off the hook then, explaining, “One third of your time for the external you. One third of your time for the internal you. And one third of your time for the Other.”

One third taking care of business. One third taking care of the subtle and gross bodies–the inner you and the physical you. And one third for family, friends, community, the world at large.

Now that’s a balance that makes sense.

This morning, as I lay awake in my wonderfully cheap motel room in Boulder (shout out to my friends in Boulder–it’s amazing to wake to watch the sunrise reflected against the Flatirons), I realized that even that concept of balance falls short if it’s not twinned with the notion of presence.

In our vain effort to assuage the guilt of not being at the other end of work-life seesaw (regardless of which end we find ourselves on), we end up neither here nor there. Remember running back and forth on the seesaw trying to stand legs apart in the center, one foot in each world, getting both ends to balance? I remember the nasty bump I got in that vain effort.

The real gift is learning to be present in whatever third you’re living. So when you’re working, work. And when you’re loving, love. And when you’re eating, eat. As the wise old Ram Dass said: Be Here Now.

That is the only way out of conundrum, the bullshit of work-life balance.

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