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Some first impressions are unforgettable. That is how I felt when I met Andrew Nemr last month at the 2015 SupportTED Collaboratorium.
Those three words usually bring Abraham Lincoln to mind, the American president credited with ending slavery in our nation.
For me, however, someone else fills that role, someone who freed me as certainly as if chains of forged steel had been smashed and shackles removed.
During my childhood and teen years I struggled with perfectionism, anxiety and shame. My parents had a strong performance orientation and I was receiving messages, at least as I interpreted them, that I had to strive for perfection.
No, more than strive -– I had to be perfect, and look perfect.
I attended a private, very competitive all-girls school which has produced some of the world’s top thinkers and doers.
My friends were people who are now renowned experts in their chosen fields. I worked my heart out, trying to perform and be what I thought I was supposed to be – the perfect, straight-A student.
I’m a workhorse, but as hard as I tried I could never get better than a “B.” My teachers saw me that way, too -– merely a “B.” I felt I wore that label for all the world to see. To compensate, I worked harder than everyone else. I believed there was something wrong with me because I was putting in the same effort as others and not getting the same results.
I was trying harder, but not getting anywhere. Part of this performance standard was not just to be the best, but to always look the best.
Eventually this desperate attempt to be what I thought I was supposed to be led to a serious and shameful addiction – Bulimia. I kept this a big secret.
In college, I spent a semester in Dublin, Ireland, land of my family roots. Every weekend I stayed at the home of a cousin I had never met before, but I was soon embraced as family.
Máire McDonnell Garvey was much older than I, with her own five children, a row house with dirt floors and an alcoholic husband. She had her hands full as the sole support and driving force in that family, yet Máire always found time to show her love and support for everyone else.
Something clicked between Máire and me, and we built a strong bond. Her Irish wit kept me up at night listening to her stories. Somehow Máire saw through my façade. She seemed to know my secret, though she didn’t, really. She singled me out, like I was being selected from a litter of puppies.
I say this because I never felt “picked” before. I was special somehow. I never told her about my addiction, and she never asked. We had the most amazing conversations and for the first time in my life I felt unconditional love.
Máire was the first person I felt who cared for me just the way I was, no matter what. No straight A’s, no standards, no expectations, just me. She encouraged me to discover why I was here, what I would be giving to the world. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
All of a sudden my self-imposed prison gates were opened and all expectations of performance were gone. I felt a freedom I had never known before. My soul soared. I was not free of the addiction at that time, but I was free of the heavy burden of expectation and performance.
Máire’s life was a testimony and the validation behind her encouragement to find what I would give to the world. Her passion was Irish culture, music and art.
At the age of 40, after raising five children, she stepped out to complete her college degree. She authored and published five books about traditional Irish music, its history, tunes and dance, winning a prestigious award from Ireland’s President.
Her joyful fiddle playing delighted everyone. Even into her final days, her personal mission was to preserve the spirit of Ireland’s past and ensure it would spill over into the next century and not be lost…and to continue encouraging others to share their “music” with the world.
Máire’s wisdom and ability to see into my soul, and her embracing love and encouragement changed my life completely and shifted my entire world view. There was such joy, acceptance and unconditional love in that home. Her alcoholic husband never got sober, but she loved him still. She found and lived her passion and encouraged others to do the same.
Máire’s life was not about perfection. It was about passion, unconditional loving, encouragement and giving to others. She awakened my potential, and the ability to measure myself not on the outside, but on the inside.
I continue to live with Máire’s words of encouragement, in the shadow of her acceptance and knowledge that I would give to the world in unique ways. I can honestly say she completely changed me and freed me to embrace the personal freedom to just be me. Máire McDonnell-Garvey was my “great emancipator.”
Complete personal freedom came in stages for me, but Máire opened the cell door. And with a grateful heart I now celebrate 32 years of being free of my addiction, and I make the choice to be free every day.
Over the years, with her words still ringing in my ears, I have discovered my passion, purpose and my faith in a loving God. Through it all, one of my greatest discoveries is that I also have the power and opportunity to free others.
I have been blessed to experience that joy many times in my work and my personal life. It takes a lot less than we think.
Someone you know, or someone you may meet very soon, is just like I was, enslaved by expectations, standards, “have-to’s,” and comparisons. You may hold the key that unlocks those chains. Your interest, your encouragement, your acceptance can change a life.
Who can you set free today? Tomorrow?
Disasters and catastrophes are part of life, and we have certainly had our share of these recently. Whether man-made, corporate, acts of nature, or acts of evil, we can’t change the fact that we will experience them.
Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. They can be man-made debacles at the corporate level. They can be tragic events in personal lives. They can be natural events that devastate individuals and entire communities. Life is full of these things, and as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” The disasters of life interrupt us, and sometimes even stop us dead in our tracks.
Regardless of the nature and causes of any kind of catastrophic event, in any place, the road to victory is the same. Leadership is the same, and requires the same skills, attitudes and actions. The questions are always the same. What do I do now? Can I survive this? Can we survive this? Can we ever know victory again, or are we consigned to being mere victims?
On The Yellow Brick road to Oz, Dorothy fearfully and famously uttered, “lions, and tigers and bears, oh my!” as she linked arms with the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion. The road to Oz was full of hidden dangers, obstacles, unknown evils, and unexpected surprises – even flying monkeys. The yellow brick road is life itself. It leads not to Oz, but to a large mountain —and a life altering choice.
Question: If you could stand up and defend anything, what would it be?
I was asked this question recently in an interview with Women With Know How Magazine, and wanted to share my response. As you read what I will stand up and defend, I hope it inspires you to consider your own answer to this question.
We all need to be heard and understood through our stories.
Did you know that by the year 2050, 97% of the 438 million people who join the workforce will be from emerging economies? I read this in an article by Michael Taylor titled “Emerging Markets, Emerging Talent.” An emerging economy can be defined as one of “foreign” origin, growing, yet possibly volatile, promising huge potential growth but also posing significant political, financial and social risks.
This statistic, while impossible to imagine, certainly is predictive of what the business world might look like, especially for those of us who work and live in the United States. Closing the gap between where we are today and where we need to be in order to survive and thrive in this new place, should not be left to futurists while we pretend and promote “business as usual.” Change is hard, so we practice good ostrich posture.
If we are ready to call ourselves citizens of the world, not just of our national allegiance, we need to get moving now. But what does that mean? For one thing, we definitely cannot be in true community until we feel connected. Connections are formed in sharing life stories, knowing where we and others have been and are going. Only in knowing someone’s “story” can we truly know them, be connected to them, and hope to have any kind of working relationship with them.
For the last four years, I have had the privilege of visiting and working in Central and East Africa as an executive coach and organizational development consultant. Africa is often viewed as an exciting Safari adventure, or the chance of discovering hidden ancient treasures. The reality is what we don't see on travel brochures or in blockbuster movies. It is a reality of devastation, hunger, genocide, disease and orphaned children.
In the course of these four years, I have had two profound experiences. One happened in Uganda, where I was an American woman somehow responsible for providing a week-long leadership summit for fifty African leaders from eight different countries. For months, we designed and planned and designed again. Yet the same question surfaced over and over. Will what we do be relevant to their world? Will our ideas about leadership and how organizations change be viewed more like the colonials who have historically responded with power grabs among perceived weaker peoples?
The leadership retreat gave me the gift of knowing the essential ingredient, the “secret sauce,” in facilitating this and any future transformational leadership experience – including doing business with “emerging economies.” I’ve already stated it: You can't truly know someone until you know his or her story. This is it. This is the way. This is the only way. People make up those emerging economies, and people have stories. And, until they are known, and you are known through our stories, no one can even begin to trust a newly combined community when change is happening quickly and the whole future is at stake. And without mutual trust, there is no long-term endurance to any community.
At this leadership retreat in Uganda, each night after dinner, we listened, laughed, cried and learned to know the pain and joy of becoming victorious over the most challenging survival stories. We listened as one story led to another. We listened until there was only shared silence. Fifty African leaders shared their personal and communal stories of transformation from victims of circumstance into victors of hope and change. And, then they listened to ours. How powerful it was to be known by my own story. Now all fifty leaders, and the four of us who supported this week, are knitted together through our life stories. Real trust began those nights. Our focus was not just internal, it was external, larger than any one of us separately and greater even than all of us combined. Individual stories became shared stories. Individual lives became a community. We found shared strength in each other’s stories.
Yet, less than two years later, I almost abandoned what I found and declared to be true. This was my other profound, life-changing experience in Africa. After nine months of serious training to attempt a climb of Africa’s awesome Mt. Kilimanjaro, and a successful effort to raise awareness and money to help multiple initiatives in East Africa, the day to start our climb brought me to my knees, to my own ego-driven struggles. It wasn’t about anyone else’s story at that moment. It was only about mine.
With the known odds of less than 50% of people making it to the summit, I was quickly sobered into an ego-centric fear. What would I tell my family, friends and colleagues if I did not finish? I journaled about my anxieties, and shamefully had to honestly acknowledge that what I once billed as a “Climb for A Purpose,” became only a me-centered solo potential for failure. I had forgotten my climbing community, and was only focused on my personal fears. What would it mean to me if I did not make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro? At that moment I didn’t care much about anyone else. Just thinking about what might lay ahead, climbing 19,341 feet (and the very real potential of altitude sickness), through five different climates, six days of living in tents, and summit temperatures of 15 degrees below zero, consumed me.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a team challenge. There were six of us, including the guide, yet my personal ego, pride and real fear kicked in, and my judgment about others included having quick and unfounded opinions of them. Thankfully, during the trek, the same ritual of sharing life stories emerged. One by one, I was able to know each of my fellow climbers through their stories and they came to know me through mine. Bonds and trust grew, and fears subsided because I came out of my personal space into a community place. And when it really counted, each of us had opportunity to be our best for one another during the climb. And, the end result? The sweet victory of all six of us standing atop Uhuru Peak.
While not everyone has an appetite to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or to travel halfway around the world to work, the realities of our global world require that we embrace others different from ourselves. We must reconcile our differences and suspend our judgments by hearing each other’s stories. People are people, not matter where they are from. We all have our stories. Whether it is an emerging economy or a new seemingly strange community, success is found in shared story.
My work experiences in Africa and on other continents have transformed me. The global community is growing, and I will be ready. Will you? I have been touched by the lyrics from Brooke Fraser’s song, “Albertine.” It speaks of the stories of Rwanda, and the horrors experienced there. Once we know the stories, we cannot resume ostrich status. Fraser sings:
“...now that I have seen, I am responsible
Faith without deeds is dead
now that I have held you in my own arms, I cannot let go till you are.”
I will never let go of the people I have swapped stories with in Africa and other places. Their stories are now mine, and mine theirs. I will not let go – I will embrace. This is the only way we will succeed globally, the only way we will achieve peace of any kind.
Are you an ostrich, or a story teller? Do you hear the stories of others different than you, and embrace them? Something to think about as we ponder our future together.
September 16, 2012
Anticipation has us all about to pop! Sharing three reflections of the day. Final briefing meeting in just an hour, dinner, bedtime, the last of the showers for six days and then time to "get it done".
1. Climb your own mountain- wise leaders always know that when facing challenges or new territories, seeking good counsel is a success differentiator. However, there is a time to "let's roll" and wise leaders act on what they know. A group arrived last night just finishing their climb and I noticed myself going into investigative reporter mode. How cold was it at the top, how painful were your hands and feet. Did you get sick? And how sick was that? Did you get any sleep? None of their responses gave me new information. I reminded myself I am on purposes, I have prepared and it is time to let go. All of this additional and redundant info was the wrong place to focus. When I woke up this morning, I made a conscious choice to Climb My Own Mountain. And, in that, I will have the peace that I have gotten good counsel and will act on what I know a day at a time, step by step.
2. Dance with the date you brought- A good golf teaching professional will talk about this phrase when their student is playing competitive golf. Once you are warmed up and begin, whatever game you brought to the course is the game you must play. We never gain a performance edge trying to change our swing or try new tips on the golf course. Today when I lay out on the hotel bed all of my clothes, my gear, equipment, fun snacks, etc another emotion kicked up. We will be in five different climates starting at 95 degrees at base camp with the Summit temperatures dipping below zero. While I spent days packing judiciously, the "I wish I had brought..." crept in. That Patagonia blue gortex jacket didn't make it into the duffle and now that was on my mind. We counted out at home the number of hand and feet warmers and now it seemed that there would never be enough of them. Then the phrase, dance with the date you brought settled me down. We had arrived in Moshi, Tanzania, Africa and our climbing expedition had begun when we arrived. Focus on dancing with the date I brought to the dance!
3. Expect the unexpected- how would I personally handle myself if I traveled halfway around the world and my two duffles packed with essential clothing, equipment, diamox for altitude sickness and personal comfort "stuff" was lost as I was about to attempt Mount Kilimanjaro. Would my attitude plummet? Would I call it quits? Well this father/daughter team has given us infectious inspiration as this exact thing that happened to them. And, it has been a real gift to me. I have been able to deepen my appreciation for the two above lessons and see how we as a climbing team could share and help secure resources to back fill their equipment needs. Additionally, the grace and courage they have demonstrated is fuel for my heart. I will expect the unexpected in the days to come with two role models for personal leadership.
Today's African Phrase Hakuna Matata- there are no worries
-Joan O. Wright, MSW, Master Certified Coach
"The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
Philippians 4:2- I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
We are four days away from the start of our Mount Kilimanjaro climb, a mere 19,341 feet high. I am experiencing a range of emotions and not proud of two - anxiety and fear.
Since January we have trained diligently, raised a significant amount of money, studied our route, built a team, and let countless family, friends and colleagues know about our dream of Summiting. I have known our purpose deeply - we are doing this to raise money, resources and awareness for the neediest people in Central and East Africa.
So why am letting fear and anxiety creep in??? As a trained therapist and executive coach, I know these emotions are normal and natural. However, I need to remember that stewing on these emotions will sabotage this entire experience. Thus, feeding the mountain beast of my own making. For example, Fear -what happens if I am one of the 50% that doesn't make it to the top? Remember ABC's Wide World of Sports and the Agony of Defeat? Anxiety-with all the adrenaline pumping through my veins that I will not be able to sleep at night, not to mention knowing me, I am NOT A camper. I am a Starwood Preferred Platinum traveler and stay at the best hotels I can because of my travel miles. Expressing my anxieties about sleep, my friend Ellen said, "why are you so worried about your sleep Joan? You can sleep when you get home."
Yesterday a former client and close friend just finished his firm retreat. He talked about his role as a leader. Despite the deep fears and anxieties his team has been battling for four years due to this economic climate especially in their industry, he knows he must lead himself and his team out of the survivor mentality. As a leader, he had to create a compelling vision for their future. One that engages not their negative emotions but the passion and gifts they bring daily to their work and their ability to delight and solve the biggest problems for their clients. Ding, Ding, Ding, that's the focus I need to have. Not thinking about the next two weeks as just getting through- surviving the extreme physical, mental and emotional challenges but thriving in the experience of it. I need to raise my attitude towards the altitude I am traveling. I am reminded that this is why I signed up to do this in the first place. While being in Service to Central and East Africa- Senai Global and ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries), I am on Mount Kilimanjaro to get stronger in leadership and life.
- Joan O. Wright, MSW/Master Certified Coach
Climb for a Purpose – Journey UP to Significance
We have all heard the joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” And we all know the answer: “To get to the other side.” So when anyone asks me why I am climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, my answer is “To get to the other side.”Why? Because getting to the other side has very special meaning to me. It represents the side of Significance.
My book, UP – Pursuing Significance in Leadership and Life, uses climbing a mountain as an analogy with reaching the Summit as its ultimate reward. On the left side of the mountain is the Pursuit of Success to be “best in” what you do. And yet many who are on this side called Success feel a void. I know this void. Why? Because success can leave you still feeling empty, in spite of countless accomplishments. This is what makes getting to the other side of the mountain, the right side, so powerful and meaningful. Because the other side is focused on the Pursuit of Significance and being “best for.” Instead of emptiness, there is peace and contentment. There is excitement as you witness first-hand what being “best for” really means.
This blog is called Pursuing Significance because the pursuit is an everyday adventure into knowing ourselves and others better in order to do better and be better for others. Our willingness to be authentic in our pursuit of significance also means being honest and willing to let our vulnerabilities show.
I have a confession to make.
When I publicly committed to making this climb, I exposed an aspect of myself that was selfishly real and that I am not very proud of. My initial excitement in making the climb was in how it would be best for me. About being in better shape and losing weight while getting to eat more because of the intense training involved. As I caught myself thinking these things, I reminded myself of one of the most important characteristics it takes to get to the side of Significance. The courage to look at oneself and acknowledge when we have gone astray, and then bravely reset the course to be focused on and for others instead of ourselves.
I am excited to be making this “Climb for a Purpose” with my husband, Mot, whom I love and admire so deeply. I am humbled by the generosity and support of everyone who is cheering us on during our climb. I am scared, and yet exhilarated by what I will learn and encounter along the climb. And I am grateful for this opportunity to get to the other side.
Most of all, I look forward to sharing the climb with you through this blog. Not just the climb to the Summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but the climb we are all striving to make toward Pursuing Significance.
- Joan O. Wright, MSW, Master Certified Coach
Pursuing Significance – An Introduction
Pursuing Significance Video Blog
Introduction & Welcome – 90 Seconds
Welcome to Pursuing Significance, a blog created for you.
You have come to a place without borders or boundaries, where we can engage in community conversations about leadership, life and our natural human instinct to pursue significance. You were directed here or were drawn here because of your own beliefs that there is more that you were meant to do.
This blog will open your eyes to the possibilities that exist within you. It will challenge you … inspire you … affirm you … empower you … and support you in your journey towards Significance. Because we all have Significance in us … and it is my pleasure and passion to help you bring your Significance into being.
- Joan O. Wright, MSW / Master Certified Coach