Old dogs are the best dogs. Puppies, like babies, get more attention, but it’s the old dogs who really embody the traits of what I love about the species; they are the most loyal, loving, and soulful…they are the sweetest and most comfortable.
I am an old dog. I initially shied away from attaching that moniker to myself, but it’s true. And when I think about the behaviors of old dogs, I realize they are my behaviors, and the aforementioned traits could also be applied to me. And that was pleasing to me.
For the first time in years, my mom spent the day at my house yesterday, and it was so wonderful to have her. She is a REALLY old dog and likely would not appreciate being called so. Part of the time yesterday was spent showing Mom new dog tricks – her dog, Zoe, has recently become a part of my family as Mom can no longer accommodate a pet where she’s living – and I have been working to teach Zoe new habits and behaviors.
I began my mindfulness journey at roughly the same time Zoe arrived in our household. Coincidentally, Zoe and I have both learned new tricks over the past few weeks.
Here are Zoe the Dog’s:
1. No pee or poop in the house
4. No licking (still working on this one)
And here are mine:
1. No electronics in the first hour upon awakening
2. Take time out of each day to have moments of fun and distraction
3. Acknowledge the positives – all of them, large and small
4. Be quiet sometimes (still working on this one)
I know you are wondering how to teach an old dog new tricks and it’s pretty simple, really – There are three key steps:
The first two techniques remained the same for Zoe and me – it was the third step that had to be redefined to fit my life. There was never a chance I would reward myself with the Newman’s heart-shaped peanut butter dog treats Zoe loves so much, even if peanut butter is my Desert Island Food. And I was mindful to abstain from treating myself with human food as well – this was my NEW trick journey, after all.
So here is how I decided to treat myself:
– I treated myself with love
– I treated myself with peace
– I treated myself with second chances (and third & fourth…)
– I treated myself with time
By the way, Mom was amazed at all of Zoe’s new tricks, and when I actually contemplated the broad scope of my own altered behaviors (my new tricks), I was pretty in awe of mine as well!
It wasn’t always easy to remember my commitment on how to treat myself and initially I landed on the gaps (no one said it was easy to teach an old dog new tricks, did they?). However, I was able to recognize and replace my self-criticisms with facts and compassion.
One of the best factors that contributed to the success of my new tricks experiment was a trusted mentor and friend’s lack of judgement, and her largesse in holding me able to create and complete the best version of my desired behavior changes that I can manage in each moment and within my own circumstances.
I realized recently that treating myself in a meaningful way is a process, a “trick” if you will, that I will need to repeat over and over until it becomes something I naturally do without thinking – sort of like when my other dog, Moses, starts rolling over before I actually give the command. He already knows what to do – and someday soon, so will I.
By Chelsea Elkins, Simple Intentions Program & Marketing Manager
The term ‘vicious cycle’ has always peaked my linguistic interest, both attracting and repelling me. I find more and more that there is a callous reality to the phrase that exists in my day to day world. It reflects a biological concept I learned in high school – a social translation of positive feedback. To pull straight from the textbook (since I got a C in that class), this process is characterized by “the enhancement or amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process that gives rise to it”. In other words, it’s a system or cycle that intensifies by creating a stimulus which triggers an effect that causes more stimulus which triggers a greater effect and so on.
In biology, positive and negative don’t translate to good and bad. Positive feedback just means that a cycle continues to grow by feeding and stimulating itself until it reaches its peak. An example in nature is the process of childbirth: a laboring mother releases the hormone oxytocin which stimulates contractions which causes more oxytocin to be released until the baby is born.
Recently, I can’t help but apply the concept of positive feedback to social systems around me. When cycles, whether internal thought patterns, workplace practices or societal systems, feed on themselves, enhancing and amplifying in the process, it can make a good thing better and a bad thing worse.
Our lives are surrounded by systems and cycles, some that benefit society and others that do not. The latter I’ll label as unhealthy positive feedback and takes the form of damaging systems or detrimental cycles in our world. Some recent acclaimed examples in American media include the still embedded justice systems that promote sex and gender discrimination that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks to in her book, My Own Words, as well as Academy Award nominated documentary 13TH which addresses systemic racism through mass incarceration. On a smaller scale, a workplace example that comes to mind is the system of rewarding employees who work long hours. This reward system often encourages employees to work longer hours and more frequently, which offers more rewards, etc…
How then do we break out of a cycle that’s not serving us personally or that isn’t serving a certain group or society as a whole? This question can feel daunting on the best of days. A sense of helplessness may swell at the thought of how to incite change in an unhealthy system, especially when it has been in place for a long time. Luckily, the first step is relatively simple.
I believe, truly, that the first and I’d argue most important step towards changing a cycle is to simply be aware. Really, just that. When we cultivate awareness around what unhealthy cycles or systems are around us, we start to shine a light on them, however dim that light might feel at first. This may be as simple as keeping up with current events, reading the written works of someone who inspires you, or asking your hard-working co-worker how she’s feeling with the never ending long hours. Collect data on the impact of the system in question – who does it negatively impact? Who does it positively impact? Do the benefits outweigh the cons? There’s no action to take – simply become aware of what cycles are around you and if they benefit or harm you, and if they benefit or harm others.
Once a basic awareness foundation is laid, the next step is to expand it. Go beyond the effect of the cycle and determine what your part is in the system or cycle in question. Acknowledge, without judgement, the ways in which you might feed the cycle. Did you give a shout out to your co-worker who’s been working 12 hour days at your last meeting? Explore all corners openly and honestly – and recognize that the cycle may very well be needed right now. Perhaps this is the busiest time of the year and long work days are currently needed. Just maintain awareness. If 6 months go by and the norm is still a 60-hour work week for your team, it’s time to reassess if this is a system that is still serving you and is still serving the whole.
To stress a point, creating awareness does not mean to blame (others or self). The purpose here is to become acutely (maybe uncomfortably) aware of what the cycle is, who the cycle impacts, and how we personally fit in the cycle. With that knowledge in place, we can make an informed decision on how to proceed to the next step. This step is still simple but at last requires some action: simply, to make a choice. It’s time to choose to either continue moving with the cycle or to make a new choice, even if small, that may help disrupt it. Perhaps in the next team meeting, you still give your co-worker a shout out for her hard work – and then start a discussion around team capacity and how to create sustainable success going forward. The smallest of choices may inspire others to do the same, creating its own positive feedback system – one whose results are more desirable.
Positive feedback in nature is extremely important and many of our social systems are incredibly needed. But it is up to us to determine when an internal thought cycle is damaging. When a workplace system is no longer sustainable. When an ingrained societal cycle is, well, vicious. And when it is not. It is up to us to first cultivate our awareness and shine a light on an unhealthy system. Something as small as that may start its own domino effect – and eventually break the cycle.
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.
Throughout my career, I have been blessed to mentor some very talented people. No matter the region of the world — from France to the United States and Asia to Central and Eastern Europe — a topic that comes up with almost everyone I’ve mentored is how to find the right work/life balance.
It is a very personal question. Back when I first started at Microsoft in 1992, work/life balance was very different than it is today. If there was work to do, you stayed until it was completed (usually accompanied by a pizza). When you went home, it was easier to switch out of work mode because you didn’t have emails coming right to a mobile device in your pocket. You had to make a conscious choice to open up your briefcase or, later on, connect your modem and dial in to the Internet.
Today, finding balance can be extremely challenging, especially when our technology gives us the ability to do business from anywhere. It’s easy for work to enter our home lives unconsciously. You look at your phone, and before you know it your head is back in the office. This connectedness can really blur the lines between work and home, making it hard to focus on just one at a time.
I don’t claim to have the whole recipe for success. Rather, the right work/life balance depends on who you are as an individual and where you are in life. But I do have one trick I’ve been using for many years that helps me choose how I show up at work and how I show up at home: Every day, I commit to returning home with the same energy with which I left. The “elevator energy test” is my way of making sure I follow through on that commitment.
I developed this test for myself while living and working in Paris. I lived on the eighth floor of my building, and I’d take an elevator between my apartment and the basement garage where I parked my car. The inside of the elevator was covered in mirrors, so every morning while I descended to the basement, I’d take a good look at myself to honestly evaluate my energy level. I would actually go so far as to score my own energy level on a scale of one to 10. Then, after work, as I rode the elevator from the basement back up to my apartment, I would consciously recalibrate back to the number I had given myself in the morning so that I brought back home at least the same level of energy as I had when I left.
In my own experience, at the end of a long, hard day it was a great refresher for me to bring that vitality back to my spirit and demeanor. It felt great to leave the workday behind in the basement garage, and my family appreciated it too. When the elevator doors opened, I would enter my apartment and spend the rest of the evening with them — feeling just like the person who had said goodbye that morning. I am not saying it’s always easy, but this state of mind helped me a lot especially during tough times.
Of course, you don’t need an elevator to do this test. You can do it anytime, in all sorts of situations. For example, you can look at yourself in your rearview mirror before heading to work each morning and again before heading home each night. I do the test before and after a tough business review, receiving bad news or taking a long multi-country business trip — every situation that might take a toll on my energy.
Throughout my career, I’ve tried to be an energy giver and not an energy taker. And there is a certain discipline to living that way. It’s the same discipline I learned as an international rower, where I had to be fit and prepared not only to help my own performance, but also to help inspire energy in my teammates. I have found that sustaining that kind of discipline is hard, but I always try because I feel strongly that the people around me shouldn’t have to pay the price for me being off-balance — not my employees and especially not my family.
So, my advice to people who are looking for a better balance is to make it a conscious choice again. Try the elevator test. It works for me.
Vahé Torossian is a Corporate Vice President at Microsoft Corp. For 30 years he has driven business transformation and turnarounds in high-growth and economic crisis environments.
But I’m also no stranger to the emotion. In a world rife with inequity, bias, and realities that can make the most patient of us want to scream, anger is not uncommon. When I’m in the throes of it, I can focus on nothing else (including effective solutions to the issue) and find that my productivity and longevity suffer.
I’ve been pondering the benefits of anger lately. How it can be a wakeup call. How it can create needed boundaries. Anger can be the spark – to start a revolution, to fight injustice, to say “enough”. But it cannot be the whole flame or we will burn out. While anger can trigger productivity, anger itself is inherently not a productive emotion. And for sustainable change to occur, I’d argue that anger must evolve – into whatever is needed: passionate organizing, relentless activism, a resolute boundary – because anger alone is not enough.
So how then do we turn our anger into something useful? I believe the answer is equanimity.
I recently spent a precious Saturday attending a dharma talk titled “Fierce Equanimity” through The Lotus Institute with Dr. Larry Ward and Dr. Peggy Rowe. The talk discussed how to relentlessly, fiercely display equanimity (or a calmness and evenness of mind and emotion) regardless of life’s circumstances.
This concept states that one can address and overcome challenge and injustice with equanimity in lieu of anger. Instead of rage, determination and perseverance may better serve us. Rather than shouting, a calm but resounding “no” can be just as effective. In exchange for riots, nonviolent protests can mobilize a community. Our middle fingers can be playful instead of aggressive (kidding). This way of being suggests we can combat hate with a fierce and stubborn gratitude.
Still with me?
I heard a powerful idea at The Lotus Institute regarding the non-personalization of experience. In other words, anger is not ours to possess. It’s not a toy, cell phone, or piece of clothing that we can claim as belonging to us. It is an unfettered, volatile (and hopefully transient) response that everyone from all walks of life has experienced. This means that since we can’t actually own anger, it doesn’t own us either.
One of the many benefits of equanimity is that it encompasses inclusivity. It transcends “otherness”. It’s an encouragement to try to understand the “humanness” that is always present behind an act of hateful rhetoric. Inclusivity is one of the most effective ways to deflate an anger bubble – because it does away with the us vs. them notion. Equanimity means objectively asking yourself, “What in my life needs to be nourished? And what needs to be de-nourished?” It’s critically looking at societal systems and asking “What here needs to be legitimized? What needs to be de-legitimized?” And based on your answers, acting accordingly.
I want to go on the record and say that letting go of anger and embracing equanimity does not mean succumbing to passivity. Quite the opposite – equanimity often means being part of a slow-moving force, but one that is startling in its power and lasting in its effect. In Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says, “I can’t turn back. I have reached the point of no return.” Dr. King is in my mind a model for equanimity. Though he had a lifelong dedication to nonviolence (an important component of equanimity), not one could call him a passive force. Rather, he heeded the call to remain collected and compassionate in the long fight for social change – to powerful results. If anger is the blinding flare, then equanimity is the slow burn that drives us day in and day out.
Passivity in the face of injustice is the opposite end of the spectrum. It is often the companion to apathy and ignorance, and enables the normalization of inequity. Passivity often stems from exclusivity, us vs. them. The funny thing is exclusivity (and therefore passivity) is illogical when accompanied with the awareness that most people desire the same things. We are all on a quest to find happiness, to find fulfillment, to find peace. But, as Dr. Ward asked that Saturday, find peace to do what? Find happiness to do what in the world?
I believe deep down we all know the answers (which are different for each of us). With equanimity, perhaps we can start to ask the right questions.
This is about the myths and misconceptions surrounding the many interconnected roles, relationships, and responsibilities we face each day, often referred to as this thing called “work-life balance.”
When it comes to this thing called work-life balance…
The First Truth
You can define work-life balance however you want.
There are a lot of ways to talk about this concept, but only one way that feels right for you.
And please, use your own WORDS to define the details of what it means to you.
Most people share a similar desire, which is to create easy joy and meaningful engagement between the interconnected roles, relationships, and responsibilities that make up life.
That said, there are as many ways as there are people on the planet to describe what living a balanced life would feel like. When it comes to balance, everybody has their own idea of what is comfortable, tolerable, and acceptable.
There is no right or wrong way to define balance. It is what it is for you and for you alone.
The Second Truth
You will be in and out of balance your entire life.
This is just the way the world works.
Things like new jobs, new relationships, new homes, new roles, new hobbies, births, deaths, and health (yours and others’) will all impact your needs for balance.
Your needs for balance will forever be evolving.
Your secret power is in recognizing and accepting that what you need now, in this moment, is very different than what you will need 12 months from now or one, five, seven, or 10 years from now.
Once you have accepted that your needs will change, it becomes about knowing and understanding your needs, making choices that support your needs, and communicating your needs with the important people in your life.
You will be in and out of balance your entire life.
Acknowledging and accepting accountability for your needs, wants, and desires is your secret power.
The Third Truth
Work-life balance has nothing to do with work.
Not the type of work you do…
We all have responsibilities that can be considered work. Whether you get paid for what you do or not. More than that, balance has nothing to do with your gender, family structure, parental status, religion, education, income, or geographic location.
Work-life balance is not about any of these things specifically — it’s mostly about the type of conversations we have or the conversations we avoid having about these things, as well as our feelings about the impact of these things on our lives.
Most of the issues we attribute to being “out of balance” at work or at home can be traced back to (and resolved through) a conversation — to be specific, an authentic conversation. (You know, the kind where you say what you REALLY mean.)
What gets us in trouble and keeps us busy and disengaged are the conversations we are NOT having with our boss, our business partners, our customers, our friends, our significant others, our children, and — especially — ourselves.
It’s possible that 99% of the time, these conversations we are not having are about the triggers that are causing the imbalance in our life.
These triggers, most times, boil down to your values and the boundaries (or lack of boundaries) that support and honor your values in all the relationships you are in:
the relationship you have with work,
relationships you have with others (in and out of work),
and the relationship you have with yourself.
Why are so many people not having these types of conversations?
The answer is simple. In most cases, it boils down to fear: Fear of rejection. Fear of being perceived as “less than.”
Fear of failing. Fear of asking for help. Fear of being different. Fear of actually being perceived as both balanced and successful.
Sometimes these conversations that we avoid are about saying no (and our fear of saying no).
Saying no to someone at work or someone you love might let them down, and no one wants to let anyone down, especially on purpose.
Let’s be honest: It’s easier to say no to your own needs than to disappoint someone else. (Even if it means disappointing yourself.)
When you say yes to people, requests, and projects, that are in conflict with your values, or when you engage with people who do not support — or even worse, who disrespect — your values, you are actually saying “no” to yourself and creating imbalance in your life.
work-life balance has nothing to do with work. It’s about authentically owning and clearly communicating your yes’s and no’s to the people WHO share your life.
(which includes yourself)
The Fourth Truth
Creating balance is free. (Great news — because everyone loves free!)
When it comes to creating work-life balance, you don’t have to…
These are all options you can choose — but you don’t have to do any of them. The only thing you have to do is choose balance as a lifestyle.
Okay, so you make the choice — you want balance.
Start small. Pay attention more.
Many people don’t spend much time where they are. They are either still thinking about where they have been or thinking about where they will be — which robs them of being where they are when they are there. The richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor have equal access to the currency of presence.
There is no cost whatsoever to being present.
It’s free to pay attention to your environment and see and feel as much (or as little) of the experience that you want. It’s free to pay attention to the people and the relationships in your life — to slow down, to really hear what is being said, and to notice what is not being said. It’s free to pay attention to you. Your body, your feelings, your wants, your desires, and especially, your thoughts.
We have all experienced this thing called presenteeism.
This is when you show up physically, but not mentally. The impact is that you are unable to be in the moment and contribute your best, because you are distracted about whatever might happen in the future or are reliving what has happened in the past.
(It’s okay — we’ve all done it, and will do it again, because sometimes that’s just what happens.)
Odds are you already have a pretty great life. Paying more attention might make it feel even better. Connecting to what you already have is free. It’s the disconnection that can cost you dearly.
The Fifth Truth
The choice is yours to create balance each day.
It’s your choice to define what balance means to you.
It’s your choice to accept that there will be times of greater imbalance.
It’s your choice to own and authentically express your yes’s and no’s.
Some days you might make choices that support your definition of balance, and other days you might make choices that sabotage the type of balance you are seeking.
The magic is that every single day, the choice is yours to make again, and again, and again.
The Five Truths About Work-Life Balance are SIMPLE:
You can define work-life balance however you want.
You will be in and out of balance your entire life.
Balance has nothing to do with work.
Creating Balance is free.
The choice is yours to create balance each day.
What you choose to do with these truths is up to you. The choice is yours.
It’s easy to get hooked in our modern world. Meaning many times each day we feel resistance when conversations, outcomes, projects and meetings don’t go the way we hoped they would go or as we had planned. Perhaps someone who works for you delivered an underwhelming performance, or you disagree on strategy with your manager, or a friend/family member holds views that are very different from yours – regardless of the scenario, the feeling we experience is similar.
Some common emotional responses when things don’t go our way are we feel wronged, invalidated, frustrated or at times angry, and likely our responses (conversations and actions) reflect that. This only compounds the feelings we are experiencing and creates a mirror reaction in the person or people with which we are engaged.
At times, we may feel as if the person or people who triggered us did it intentionally or on purpose -which rarely ends up being the case. Most people wake up each day with a desire to do good and be good in this world.
We live in a world composed of 7 billion unique people each with his/her own idea of what “do good” and “be good” means – none of which are more right or more wrong than the other – just different. It is true that at times we harm each other with words and actions, disappoint each other, miss expectations or plainly act as a jerk. And it’s also true that most times these choices are not premeditated – the intent of the action is not to harm, disrupt or divide.
There is a different choice each one of us has when we feel hooked or triggered and that choice is to assume positive intent. This doesn’t mean ignore your feelings of displeasure. Rather, address them from a different place – one that starts with assuming the others involved started with a positive intent that just didn’t land.
Next time you feel hooked or triggered experiment with making a choice to acknowledge that it was positive intent that created the situation and can get you out of it as well. The choice is yours.