States of Being

By Jae Ellard, Simple Intentions Founder and CEO

[Note: This post originally appeared on Thrive Global]

032217_States of BeingNever underestimate the impact you have on other people. It is almost impossible to fully understand how your behavior (actions and words) has impacted others in the span of your life. Think for a moment about someone who has impacted you greatly in your lifetime. Do they even know it? Do you think their impact was intentional? Aware or not, your behavior has an impact on every single person you meet each day (including yourself). It is therefore interesting to think about why many of us keep choosing the same behaviors, words and actions day after day — effectively creating a future that is the same as our past.

Why do we keep doing what we are doing when we know what we are doing is not working? Some of the answers can be found in the field of neuroscience, which studies interactions of the brain with its environment. Right now we are sharing a reality that is made up of whatever you are touching, smelling, and hearing — that includes the voice in your head (the one wondering when I’m going to get to my point). The great news is we all have a voice in our head — (if you have more than one — this likely isn’t the right content for you!). You can think of the voice in your head as the voice of awareness. And, as neuroscience tells us, our actions are linked with our senses: smell, taste, feel/touch, seeing, and hearing. This includes the internal conversations we have in our head.

In other words, our actions (behavior and words) are linked with our senses and our internal dialogue. And the only way you can really shift your reality — is to shift the voice in your head. To do that you first have to hear the voice — THEN ask yourself if what you are saying is true. Think about all the weird stuff that pops in your head throughout an average day — some of it is not true or based on old stories or old values that you may no longer have. It is possible that we continue to repeat the past because we listen to the same internal conversations over and over again.

Harnessing the power of the impact of your behavior is as simple as changing the dialogue in your head. If you alter the dialogue in your head, your behavior will begin to change as well. You can change what you are experiencing by changing the conversations you have with yourself. How you see the world, and the conversations you have in your head about it, make up how you relate to the world and the energy which you bring to your reality. This can be referred to as your state of being.

There are two primary states of being: disempowered and empowered. You have likely heard of these concepts before — optimist/pessimist, at-risk/at-stake, abundance/scarcity, victim/non-victim. The idea is the same behind disempowered and empowered states of being.

A disempowered state of being is one in which you feel overstressed and as if there is never enough time. Your life might feel like a house of cards — if one card falls, the house will crumble. You might feel anxious, as though you have to defend yourself and the status of your work at all times. You tend to feel as if it’s all yours to lose and both resources and support are scarce. In other words, you operate from a place of fear. You will most likely approach interactions with others from this perception, this energy or way of being.

An empowered state of being is a feeling of having purpose. You most likely have a feeling of clear direction and connection to your internal world and the world around you. You likely feel energized and absorbed in what you are doing and feel the value of achieving what you are committed to. If you are functioning in this state, you feel empowered, as though you have something (or everything) to gain: It is a place of abundance and love. You will most likely approach interactions with others from this perception, this energy or way of being.

One state of being is not more right than the other — we all will move through many stages of life and states of being where we feel empowered and disempowered. The learning here is to recognize the state of being you are experiencing and know that shifting that state begins with shifting the internal dialogue in your head. It is true that some people are “wired” to be more empowered or disempowered. It’s also true that regardless of how you are wired, shifting states is as simple as shifting your thoughts.

You’ve likely heard the phrase: ‘you bring about what you think about’ — this is what we are talking about here. If you think you will have a bad time, you will; and if you think you will have a good time, you will. Your thoughts are directly correlated to your behavior and the impact of your energy and actions.

Even more powerful is that when you shift how you experience and think about your personal or professional worlds, the behavior of others around you will also experience a shift. Your behavior has an impact whether you are aware of it or not. It’s the same principle as “a smile is contagious.” Think about it — most times you can tell if a person is happy or sad, excited or angry even if you don’t know them or what is happening with their internal dialogue. Their state of being, just like yours, is having an impact.

When it comes to reflecting on your state of being there are a few important questions to consider:

Do you operate more from an empowered or disempowered state of being? There is no right or wrong answer, just focus on building awareness. Begin to tune into your thoughts and see if they are mostly empowered or disempowered — no need to try and alter any thoughts at this point — just notice your default state of being.

What state of being is more common among your family? If you work — what state of being is more common among your teammates or in your company? This may shift from team to team and family member to family member — again the action here is just to notice.

What are you willing to do to shift your state of being when you feel disempowered? Are you ready to have awareness around noticing when you feel disempowered? Are you ready to listen to your internal dialogue? Ready to question it? To shift it?

How do you know when you are in an empowered state of being? What does it feel like in your body? Next time you’re feeling empowered — notice it — record how (and where) you feel it so you can recall that feeling to help you shift from disempowered to empowered in the future.

As you reflect on your answers, begin to become aware of where your behaviors are supporting you and where they are sabotaging you. Notice the choices you make, notice when you feel in balance, notice when you feel out of balance. Then make the necessary shift.

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Live Your Values Through Your Work

By Mellicia Marx, Founder of Poplin Style Direction and Friend of Simple Intentions

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Author Mellicia Marx pictured top left at the 2017 YouthCare Luncheon

Early in my career, I was drawn to public service and the nonprofit world. Why? It seemed obvious. Careers in these sectors were the best and perhaps, realistically, the only way to give back and make a difference in any significant or productive way. After all, making the world a better place is central to the job description. Later, I thought, corporate America could also offer the same opportunity, but only if you were able to land one of a company’s few corporate social responsibility roles.

Eventually, of course, I discovered that none of this was true. It turns out you can live your values no matter your industry; that you can have a meaningful impact on the people around you by nurturing your own strengths and sharing them with others. It can even benefit you in your career. And you don’t need to uproot your life to do this — really.

Now I’ve left non-profits and public service. I run my own small business as a personal stylist — I help women communicate who they truly are, using personal style as a lens. And it is by far the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. By providing clear guidelines to help a woman know what flatters her frame, and guidance about how to convey what makes her uniquely her, I plant a seed that helps her flourish in all aspects of her life. Especially gratifying is to work with a client a year or two after we first met, and to see how her life has been influenced by our work together. Peoples’ lives are being improved, or even transformed, by this work. And I can see it at close range, in a way I never could earlier in my career.

And yet, there’s more. In addition to my work with clients, I devote a great deal of my energy into my volunteer work with YouthCare, a Seattle-based nonprofit devoted to empower homeless youth ages 11–24 in my community. It’s a rewarding and rejuvenating part of my everyday life — and it presents yet another opportunity to channel my personal values into something meaningful and productive.

We all have the ability to seamlessly integrate our values into our work and life, with less effort than perhaps is common belief. And as I have learned first-hand, this not only makes a positive impact on your community but can propel your career or enhance your business in unexpected ways.

Leverage Your Expertise

What do you have to offer to your community? For starters, you are almost certainly an expert in something — most likely the thing that helps you put food on the table. What value do you create with your work? How could the community benefit from it? In my case, as a personal stylist I can help people with a problem we all experience, regardless of lifestyle, income, or even housing status — what am I going to wear today?

By partnering with YouthCare, I’ve made my expertise available to a segment of the population who, it turns out, can really benefit from it. Working together, we’ve created a styling session program for youth in YouthCare’s Barista Training Program. We teach them what clothing is appropriate for job interviews and the workplace, then help them “shop” from a boutique of quality clothes donated by the community — and my client base. It’s a successful, thriving community program that is really just an extension of the work I do every day with my clients.

Think about your own work. Do you have skills you take for granted, but that just might be incredibly advantageous to someone in need?

Identify Your Resources

Let’s face it: we live in a hectic world where time is at a premium. Maybe, given the pressures of your career and the time it takes up, volunteering is a separate, subordinate dream that you might eventually realize — in retirement. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, you can actively benefit your career by way of volunteering.

In my case, I’ve found that by threading together my volunteering and my business, I have tangibly enhanced my clients’ customer experience. I offer each client the opportunity to donate her extraneous clothes after we have gone through the step of editing her closet. I take those pieces to YouthCare for our styling session program, and the organization sends tax information back to the client. It doesn’t stop there. I also invite clients to attend graduation ceremonies for the youth finishing up the Barista Training Program. There’s no obligation, just the chance to see the impact of their donated clothes on the lives of young people in our community. And I host tables at YouthCare’s annual luncheon (pictured above) and invite clients to attend — I regularly have over twenty attendees. Every once in a while, I share stories about youth on my blog and Instagram and tag clients who donate with a public thank you.

This approach is in line with my values, and is good for business in so many ways. Not long ago, I started working with a new client transitioning to female after she read my blog posts about working with transgender youth. I also have clients who reach out after our initial styling sessions because they have more clothes to donate; this allows me to stay connected with clients in the long term without needing to “sell” them something. And client surveys show that learning about my work in the community contributes to their choosing to work with my company.

Living my values not only enhanced my sense of fulfillment but helped build my business and brand – this can be true for anyone, regardless of job title.

Select Your Cause

Youth homelessness is particularly upsetting to me. These are just kids. They’re kids who didn’t have someone to help them buy their first car, or encourage them to take the SATs, or even help them choose their first bra or tie their first tie. They live a challenging and often dangerous life. But I’ve found that one afternoon of warmth and attention from our team can really shift the path for some of these kids. They know that someone, who is not paid to care, really does care. They know that there is no question too embarrassing to ask, and they know that when they leave they will not “look homeless” — something so many of them fear on a daily basis.

For you it might be the environment, or animal welfare, or social justice that fuels your passion. Think about causes that mean something to you. They might even be naturally aligned with the expertise you have to offer. Then do some research, find the organizations that are doing the best work in that field, and ask how you can help.

Yes, some jobs offer more flexibility than others to choose how one spends their time and resources. But it doesn’t take much. Every time you write a letter, make a call, or spend an hour with someone in need, you are positively contributing to your community — and maybe even your career.

 

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4 Ways to Mindfully Prevent Office Burnout

By Jae Ellard, Simple Intentions Founder and CEO

030817_4mindfulwaystoburnIn 2007 I collapsed from exhaustion at an event that I was producing. It was the culmination of far too many hours working, the lifestyle choices I was making (and not making), and the always-present stress of trying to be “perfect” at my job.

My doctor said my body was in adrenal fatigue and that my career was killing me. His advice? Get a new job. I knew that wasn’t the “right” conversation — yet I didn’t know what was. I chose to stay on, but went deeper into my own mindfulness practice to try to understand what had happened.

Over the next year, I discovered that the right conversation sits in the knowledge there is a choice regarding the type of relationship you want to create with your work.

For those of you flirting with burnout, you are not alone. According to the American Institute of Stress, 80% of people feel stress at work. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 75% of all doctors’ visits are stress-related.

There is hope, however. And it comes down to being present to what’s happening in your life, and acting with mindful intention to make some changes.

Burnout is not so much about the specifics of your job. It’s mostly about the choices you make (and don’t make) about how you want to live. Being aware of these choices, and approaching the inherent stressors in any job with mindfulness and clear purpose can transform our relationship with stress — and put work in its place. To start, here are some actions you can take in this moment to start to redefine your relationship with work.

1) Define the core issues

Can you pinpoint what causes the overwhelm? Is it a capacity issue? Do you have more work than hours to complete? Is it a skill issue? Is there a gap in the skills you have versus what is required? Is it a communication issue? Are you able to share what’s causing stress? This is your first step: Collect all the relevant data so you know where to focus solutions.

2) One step at a time

You didn’t arrive at burnout overnight, and the process to undo some of the habits you created will take time. Pick one behavior right now that you can consciously begin to shift. For example, create clear start and end times for work each day. The flexibility that technology and remote working offer can be overwhelming and contribute to burnout if boundaries between work and non-work time are not well-established.

3) Befriend your body

How do you hold stress? Maybe you grind your teeth at night, experience a knot of tension in your neck, or have trouble staying asleep. Now think about what helps you to unwind. Taking a lunchtime walk outside, going for a post-work run, or getting a weekly massage, as examples. Regularly tune into your body so that you can recognize the earliest signs that stress is present, and take the preventive actions you’ve identified to work through it before it overwhelms.

4) Share what you need

Professional stress can be extremely isolating; we often withdraw in order to “deal with” work issues on our own. But letting the people in your life know what you need to feel supported is essential for putting things in perspective and managing stress. None of us can do it all alone. Your colleagues and loved ones won’t know how to help if you don’t tell them.

 

[NOTE: This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Mindful Magazine.]

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Slowing Down

By Melisa Portela, Simple Intentions Lead Consultant: LATAM Region

Some years ago, I was in a coaching session, taking the role of the coachee, when my coach stopped me and said: “Let me interrupt you for a second. I want you to look at the speed of your speech. What does that say to you? What would happen if the rhythm was much slower?”

I was left speechless… and then I realized that, in my hurry, I was not allowing space for things to happen – both in the present coaching conversation and across my life.

I began to become aware that whenever I ran errands, the speed of my pace was incredibly fast. It was as if I thought someone was trying to catch me, and I had to prevent that from happening. I started taking an inventory of the speed in all areas of my life: work (not leaving even a minute to pause, because, I would say to myself, that is what they pay me for. To work!); gym (jumping, non-stop, from one exercise to the next); personal time (fragmented and inconsistent).

It was as if I was watching a movie of my life, with the same ending time and time again – one where I was racing to complete the “shoulds” in my life. I was so afraid of what could happen to me if I allowed space and put my guard down, that I suddenly was aware that I had become my own prisoner. That realization came as quite a shock, but, however uncomfortable, it was also a relief to understand. I knew the power was in me and the choice was mine to change my movie, to change my life.

I knew I needed a shift, so, little by little, I started to gain awareness on the choices I was making and how I was living my life, allowing space for things to flow, letting go of the need to control. It wasn’t easy at first, because old habits and conditioned behaviors always find a backdoor to let their way in, but, with enhanced awareness, you can catch them… and tell them they are not welcome anymore.

It is incredible all the things we can perceive when we slow down the pace. We notice other people´s expressions, recognize the feelings they are experiencing; witness a full range of colors previously unnoticed; become aware of the clouds reflecting on the glass buildings; hear the unspoken words; even hear the sound of our own breathing.

Now that I have slowed down, I am conscious of the camera recording my movie. I’ve finally slowed down enough to create the space to fully see myself and my actions. And I know that my movie is continuing to change as I become more aware, more connected with every slow, deliberate step I take.

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An Uncomfortable Conversation About Stress

By Jae Ellard, Simple Intentions Founder and CEO

WARNING: This content may be uncomfortable.

Just like balance, stress means different things to different people and stress impacts each person differently. What is stressful to you might not be stressful to your manager, coworkers, friends, or spouse. It is important to remember that when it comes to defining stress, everybody has their own idea of what is acceptable, tolerable, and comfortable. Before we talk about resolving stress when we experience it, it’s important to understand WHY we experience stress.

At its most basic, the answer is survival. Fight or flight. We want the ability to experience stress — it is what has kept us alive as a species. When we face danger, such as being chased by a wild animal, the body secretes into the bloodstream stress hormones (called adrenaline and made up of cortisol and a few other hormones), this initiates the body’s “fight or flight” response. This hormone cocktail causes a quick gust of energy, a burst of increased immunity, tunnel vision and tunnel hearing to help you move away from danger, and lower sensitivity to pain as not to distract you if you get hurt as you flee from the source of danger. After experiencing this flood of cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, it’s important that the body and brain move to a relaxation response after the perceived threat has gone away so hormone levels can return to baseline. Research says it takes 40 to 60 minutes for this to happen.

If the body and brain don’t have the chance to relax then the body stays in a stress state because it perceives that danger is still near. When we were cave people, it was much easier to tell if a threat had moved away — the tiger was gone. In our modern world, many times the threat or cause of stress does not move away as quickly or in some cases at all, and our bodies and brains stay in a state of mild, persistent stress.

When the body doesn’t reach a rest state after a prolonged period of time, the result is a chronic stress state. Chronic stress can disrupt the immune system, sleep patterns, digestion, growth, and even reproduction. When the body feels perceived danger, it will prioritize its survival systems. Things like digesting lunch go to the bottom of the to-do list when the body thinks a tiger is going to attack.

As you are well aware, lots of things can cause modern day stress. The most common big stress triggers in life include moving, switching jobs, divorce, and death. Common situations that can lead to chronic stress states include unhealthy relationships, over-committing oneself, dysfunctional work teams, and unrealistic expectations of self and others.

Just as many people don’t know what balance means to them, the same is true for stress — many people are not clear on what causes them to feel stress in their daily lives. In my research, I’ve come to believe that most modern-day stress is linked to communication, or rather lack of it. And the topics we avoid talking about most often relate to our values. A lot of stress comes from the conversations we don’t have about our values with others as well as the conversations we avoid having with our selves. A great way to better understand what is driving your stress is to consider what conversations you are not having right now.

What stresses you out? Remember most modern day stress is linked to communication, specifically when we are hedging, when we’re not aware of how our complaints and criticisms are intermingled, and when we might be withholding to avoid feeling discomfort.

How do these situations make your body and mind feel? What symptoms let you know you are heading into the stress zone? For example, do you get stomach aches, skin rashes or headaches? Do you crave certain foods? We all have a stress “tell” — something our body does that sends a message to us to slow down and pay better attention.

What do you do to take care of yourself when you are feeling stressed? This is a big one as many people I work with haven’t considered how to intentionally care for themselves when they experience stress. We will all experience stress throughout our lives. But how do we want to manage it? Being active, time with friends and family, meditation, engaging in a hobby, being in nature — there is no wrong way to move yourself out of a stress state. Just know what ways feel right to you. The most important thing is to KNOW what is causing your stress, or what is likely to cause stress in the future so you can then nourish yourself when you encounter it. Know your answers and follow through.

As you reflect on your answers, begin to become aware of where your behaviors are supporting you and where they are sabotaging you. Notice the choices you make, notice when you feel in balance, notice when you feel out of balance. Then make the necessary shift.

[Note: This post originally appeared on Thrive Global]

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Cultivate Awareness to Manage Your Attention

By Carson Tate, Founder of Working Simply and Friend of Simple Intentions

There are certain work or career beliefs that we’ve convinced ourselves are true.

Things like:

  • – Work-life balance will always be a struggle.
  • – You get ahead or you get noticed by replying to each and every email.
  • – The loudest or most-often-heard vaoice in the meeting is best-suited for a leadership role.

These beliefs are just not true. But office politics, water cooler chat, and even pop culture have shown us otherwise, which is why it’s sometimes hard to get out of these belief cycles.

There is no better time than NOW to debunk these so-called truths and embrace a new work belief:

We have more control than we realize.

For some this is a bold, new truth that calls us to muster up a lot of confidence, courage, initiative or moxie. (All of which we are completely capable of.) We will all eventually get to that place, I promise. In the meantime, there is an easy, strategic place to start with launching this new belief. We can start by becoming more aware of what we pay attention to and how we pay attention.

Our brain’s wiring lends itself towards being distracted. Just think about how many times a day you find yourself checking your email, your favorite social media feed or just staring off into space. If we want to strengthen our voluntary attention–the attention we have direct control over—we must improve our focus and ability to proactively complete our work.

The first step in this process involves cultivating awareness. Learning to do this begins with a simple but surprisingly powerful exercise—the attention awareness exercise. Select a span of four hours, either during the workweek or on a weekend, as your tracking period for this exercise. Then choose an attention tracking tool that works for you: pen and paper, the notes feature on a smart phone, or a dictation device. Every time your attention wanders, you lose focus, or you are interrupted either by others or yourself, make a note on your attention tracking tool.

You may want to devise different symbols to refer to your own personal “distractors.” For example, I have had clients use hash marks to denote the number of times their attention wandered and create abbreviations for the people, things, ideas and emotions involved – for example, P = person, F = feeling, C = child, E = email, W = web surfing, and S = social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so on).

And, yes, the exercise itself is also diverting your attention. However, there is a method to the process. The attention awareness exercise enables us to see, literally in black and white, how often our attention wanders and the triggers that cause this to happen. We must notice that our attention has wandered in order to do something about it. I would suggest to repeat the attention exercise multiple times during a workweek and at different times of the day – we want to have enough data to thoroughly analyze our attention awareness trends.

Now that we have our attention data, we can start the path towards change. Review the data and notice any trends or themes:

  • Was it more difficult to focus right before lunch time or dinner time?
  • Was it difficult to focus after a long meeting or a difficult conversation with a family member?
  • Was it easier to focus after a walk or a workout at the gym?
  • Were there specific time periods during the four hours that it was easier to focus?
  • Were there specific projects or types of tasks that you could focus on for longer periods of time?

Keep notes on the trends and themes that emerge.

The second step to strengthening our voluntary attention involves optimizing the physiological conditions necessary for ideal attention management. It is ideal to create an environment that supports unique attention management needs and minimizes the impact of the hardwiring of your brain. When we are tired, hungry, or stressed, we are fighting an uphill battle with our attention. Guess who is always going to win – your brain! If you are up late the night before finishing a project, you may not have the ability to focus on a complex task at eight the next morning. If you’ve just had a very difficult conversation with a colleague or spent an hour consoling an upset friend, be aware and plan accordingly; your voluntary attention muscle is already fatigued due to this interaction.

Plan your self-management activities with all of these factors in mind. Keep packets of nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit in your office drawer, pocket book, briefcase, and/or glove compartment of your car to stay properly fueled for maximum focus. Create a playlist of soothing and energizing music to help you relax or recharge after stressful interactions and conversations. Keep comfortable shoes in your desk drawer or in your car or work bag so you can go for a quick walk up and down the halls of your office building or outside your office building. Physical movement is one of the most effective ways to mentally reset and discharge negative energy. And you do not have to walk long to benefit – ten minutes is all it takes.

When TV hostess and media mogul Martha Stewart was asked how she manages to accomplish so much during a day, she responded by saying, “I used to get tired before I started working out on a daily basis. Even a half hour makes a huge difference to the body’s energy level over the course of a day. Eating healthy, fresh foods is essential. With nutritious diet and exercise, I can get a lot done in a day.”

By optimizing the physiological conditions required to manage attention, boosting our sense of focus is completely attainable.

The third and final step requires that we retrain our brains using a “brain reboot”. Refocusing is hard because we have trained our brains to work on a variety of things simultaneously. How common is it to check email during a conference call? Or to feed a child breakfast, unloaded the dishwasher, and pack lunches all at the same time? Multi-tasking habits does not improve productivity; instead, it undermines our ability to focus.

In order to refocus, visualize a reset button in your brain and say, “I need to hit reboot and get back on track.” According to Dr. Srini Pillay, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, this takes the spotlight off the distraction and puts it on redirection—the refocusing of the task. By frequently rebooting the brain, it is being rewired for optimal functioning.

Another approach to brain rebooting is the use of breathing to restore focus. Try taking a deep inhalation breath, pushing out your navel, and then powerfully expelling the air by slightly bringing in your stomach. Repeat this breath five to seven times and observe how the tension and mental chatter in your mind dissipates. Another breath that also short circuits the mental chatter is to place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and blow out as if you were blowing out candles on a birthday cake. As you blow out, count to seven. You can now regain your focus.

Someone once told me, – whatever it is you think or believe, it’s true; meaning that if I believe I will always struggle with work-life balance, it’s true; or if I believe someone else deserves a promotion more than me, that’s true, too.

The same goes for the control we think we have or don’t have – if we believe we don’t have control over our choices in a situation, we won’t. But that’s simply not true. We have more control than we realize.

So, start with practice – begin with cultivating awareness to pay better attention. Once the belief exists that we can control how or what we pay attention to, we can start to take bigger steps towards exercising more control and debunking work truths that simply aren’t true.

 

Carson Tate is a productivity consultant and the founder of Working Simply, Inc. She is the author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style and serves as a coach, trainer and consultant to executives at Fortune 500 companies including AbbVie, Deloitte, Wells Fargo and United Technologies.

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Hospitality in the Eyes of an Outsider

By Joanna Fuller, Friend of Simple Intentions

ubeth (002)In 1992, shortly after the end of the Gulf War, I had the opportunity to spend a month in the West Bank, in the Palestinian territories. A relatively new college graduate with an English literature degree, I was there—ostensibly—to contribute to English classes at the University of Bethlehem.

But in the first class I visited, I opened the door to students jumping around the room and onto tables, staging a failed coup against Prospero in a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was clear they had a much better handle on the material than I did. I didn’t have much to teach them about the play, and instead found myself sitting back, enjoying their banter (all in English, rather than Arabic), amazed at how learned these students were, and how much they had to teach me about English literature.

I don’t remember much more about that class, to be honest.  But what I do remember vividly is how one of the students, Fatima, approached me, introduced herself, and insisted that I visit her home for lunch that afternoon. She told me to bring along all of my American girlfriends.

A few hours later, six young women from America joined six young Palestinian women in Fatima’s home. Fatima’s mother had gone next door to ‘borrow a chicken,’ which she magically transformed into platters of shawarma, accompanied by stacks of warm pita bread, mounds of deliciously sour labneh, and overflowing plates of saffron rice. After lunch, in the privacy of her home, Fatima and her friends removed their hijabs, tied them around their (and our) hips, turned on the music and taught us to dance. They told us that all their neighbors would consider it an honor that we’d chosen to be guests in their home.

I was surprised, to say the least. Not only that someone would go to all that trouble for us, but without hesitation, or planning. That summer was the first time I’d traveled outside the West, and I hadn’t yet learned what hospitality can look like in other parts of the world. It was the first time I’d heard the belief that many Middle Easterners share: that you must always treat strangers well, especially those traveling from foreign lands, because they could very well be ‘angels sent by God.’ It was a wonderful new way of experiencing hospitality.

Twenty-two years later, arriving as a newly sworn-in Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, I experienced a different but equally surprising reception. I laughed and in truth, bristled a little, when I first heard how the people in my community referred to me: as манай Америк хүн (pronounced manai Amerik hun, meaning ‘our American’). Fellow volunteers across the country shared the same experience, and none of us were sure how we felt about it. It was both flattering and slightly off-putting to feel like a town status symbol, along with the Land Cruisers and modern apartments owned by the wealthier families.

Hidden in that designation, though, is something I failed to realize at first: манай Америк хүн wasn’t so much an expression of possession, but of responsibility. I’d chosen to come live in their community and my Mongolian hosts considered it their duty to take care of me and to make sure I had what I needed to survive—be it a bed, a pair of winter boots, or enough meat in my freezer.

Just like in Palestine, it wasn’t always easy to be an outsider in Mongolia. But if there was one luxury I came to appreciate, it was the special status my American-ness afforded me – one of acceptance.  I could be completely different from the people around me, and it was not only OK, it was expected. There was a reason that explained all the ways in which I diverged from the crowd, and rather than causing people to reject or distance themselves from me, it instead somehow drew them in, and motivated them to take an interest in my well-being.

Today, it’s hard to believe I’ve been home from Mongolia for nearly six months. Since I’ve returned, people have continued to ask me how re-entry’s going. For the most part, I’d actually say it’s been amazing. (The WiFi! The paved roads! The bagels!) But it’s also been fascinating to find that I’ve been using the cultural integration tools taught to me during my Peace Corps training just as much here in America as I did during my time abroad.

In order to join the Peace Corps three years ago, I left a job of nearly twenty years and with it, the comfort of working at a place where I knew the ropes, and where my colleagues trusted and respected me. Looking to forge a different path upon my return home to the U.S., I took a new job in a new organization, with its own unique culture and systems and lingo and social dynamics.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been the ‘new girl’ in an organization. I don’t always know what I’m doing, and often have to muddle through first being bad at things (and people seeing that) before getting good at them. I’ve shown up, ready to dive in and get to work, only to first find out how much I don’t know and how much I need to learn from others. I’ve had to rely on people to show me how to do the simplest tasks, including how to make coffee and how to operate the copy machine.  I’ve gotten lost trying to find the restroom. I’ve had to remember what it feels like to have people make assumptions about me based on my appearance, my age and my title. Not because they’re not enlightened or evolved—but because they’re human and that’s what humans do. I’ve had to catch and stop myself doing the same to others.

The biggest difference is that, here in America, I don’t get the benefit of the mini-celebrity status I enjoyed in Mongolia and the Middle East, the status that made people want to drop what they were doing and take shared ownership in my well-being. In America, people have a lot going on, which means that often, I’m left to my own devices, and to learning by trial-and-error. Some days it feels like much more error than trial, and that’s when I have to remind myself to:

  1. Take time to listen and observe; resist the urge to act immediately and instead focus on truly understanding the situation and how I can best be of service.
  2. Anticipate that in the beginning, anything I try will take three times as long as I think it should, and likely be twice as expensive. Remember this is normal.
  3. Be gentle with and extend myself grace when things don’t go according to plan.
  4. Avoid being an island; while my natural instinct might be to withdraw or turn inward to hide my mistakes or feelings of vulnerability, continuing to reach out to others is the key to survival.

And while it seems sometimes as if every single person in America is time-starved and under pressure, I’ve been so grateful for those who’ve surprised me by their willingness to stop, take the time to connect in a meaningful way, and extend a hand to someone trying to fit into their new surroundings. Our American culture isn’t one that always allows for spontaneous afternoon lunches or dance parties, but there are at least a few hospitality angels out there doing their best. I’ve come to appreciate what a gift they are.

More than that, I’ve realized how important it is to be one of them, and what a difference it can make to another human when you’re able to show up, unhurried, and offer them your time and presence.

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