I promise, it’s not as gross as you think. It’s a true story.
Let’s rewind to the beginning. Picture this: I am at the peak of my career, an executive, I am performing at the top of my game. I make shit happen – that’s what I’m known for. There’s nothing I can’t do. I will figure it out, we will get it done. Mission = accomplished.
Much of the time as a senior leader I worked 60-80 hours a week, easily. This particular day, I had to travel about two hours in the evening for a meeting the following morning. I was late leaving for my destination and was arriving really late, close to midnight.
I don’t remember driving there or parking my car. I do remember the kind woman who received me at the desk, gave me my hotel key card, provided directions to my room and sent me on my way. Thankful the day was finally coming to an end, I could not wait to lie down and go to sleep.
I’m not sure if it’s only me, but when I’m exhausted sometimes I will get into a hotel room, kick off my shoes and fall into the bed emphatically, my head hitting the pillow with a squishy thud. This is exactly what happened. Except this time, instead of just resting for a few minutes, I passed out. I was out cold, I slept like a dead person until my alarm jarringly woke me up the next morning. I hadn’t even changed out of my dress clothes, I was lying on top of the bed exactly as I had fallen into it.
This is one of those times when you’re really out of it, your alarm wakes you up and you’re completely disoriented: “What the hell is happening?” “Where am I?” “Is it morning?” “Is it night?” “Why am I still in my dress clothes?” “Am I late?” All raced through my mind.
I raised my hand to brush my hair out of my face and my fingers swept across something stuck to my cheek. Kind of hard, but also mushy, I scraped some of it off into my hand with my fingers. It was brown. Let’s remember that I’m disoriented, I hardly know my name, I’m in an unfamiliar room, I’m still in my dress clothes from the night before and I’m not even sure what time of day it is, except that my alarm went off.
What the hell is this? Suddenly I was fully 110% awake, my pulse rushing through me. This brown stuff – what IS this? I ran to the bathroom and took a look in the mirror. Yes, it was me looking back at me with brown goo stuck to my face.
This is about the time my heart racing, eyes bleary, I realized that it was chocolate. Yes, chocolate melted to my face; it must have been on my pillow. I returned to the bed, and saw the chocolate also ground into the pristine white pillow case, the cute little foil wrapper with it. How embarrassing. I hadn’t even realized when I landed on the pillow that there was something under my face? How did I even drive to the hotel? Nobody knows. (I left housekeeping a tip and an apology note.)
I remember sitting on the bed and saying to myself “This is not performance (a phrase we used to say when we weren’t at our best). What the hell are you doing?” And yet, in theory, I was at the top of my game, successful, at the peak of my career… or so I thought.
It’s a mystical type of insanity when you’re going all out, on the verge of burnout, you’re “so busy”, you see yourself as successful, but you wake up with brown goo stuck to your face. You give your head a shake and ask yourself: Is this really success? Are you really at the top of your game? Is this where you have really “arrived”? Is this the destination, is this all there is? This IS IT?
When I look back on this day, I can see now this is when I really began questioning myself on what matters, on what I wanted, on who I really was and how I was showing up in the world.
However, even with this questioning, things didn’t change for several years.
It took me a long time to really “get” that this success that I had achieved didn’t bring me any contentment, peace, and wasn’t really who I was. It’s so ironic as I look back at this, that I felt my invincibility, my ability to make shit happen, my super strength to save the day while appearing to have it all together as “someone to aspire to be”… was actually my great weakness. I felt fragile within me, but masked it (even to myself) with the tough exterior. [Side note: It turns out, my real strengths are much more powerful than these (this might be true for you too).]
As I write this, in the present moment I am full of judgment – “what a dumb shit I was” “what kind of example was I really setting” “how dare I” and most of all, “I hope I didn’t cause harm to the humans who were in my leadership responsibility”. It all makes my chest cave a little. But, it is what it is, and with a moment to reflect I can accept that and let it go. And breathe.
On the flip side, maybe I am one of the lucky ones that realized that this wasn’t indeed “success”, that there’s so much more to life. I see so many people now with “brown goo stuck to their faces”, but they haven’t realized it yet, just like I was – I had brown goo stuck to my face long before it was actually there.
Being “successful” like this didn’t bring me peace, contentment, happiness… it brought me burnout, tension, and on Sunday nights, dread with a drive to get it done and make it happen week in and week out. I was like a zombie getting through it, I wasn’t really successful, much less alive. That’s the brown goo that was there long before I saw it in the mirror.
Now, things are very different. I’m different. And you can be too, but it takes some work. The more you learn, the less you realize you know. And that’s a good thing.
These are some of my own lessons along the way, maybe they’ll help you find a better way:
- Be courageous: Always be in integrity with yourself. When the values at work “as really lived, not the values on the website” become too much in tension with yours, you have to go. If you don’t, you’ll die a little every day, it will erode your very soul (and body & mind).
- Be humble: You don’t have to sell your ideas or create buy-in or coerce people into stuff, let them see themselves in the positive future outcome you see and walk with them; they choose to follow, you don’t really get to choose to lead others.
- Be disciplined: Start where you are. See what you want, accept where you are, acknowledge the challenge, stretch into action anyway. Tiny steps add up to huge change – persist, practice. You can create change rapidly, exponentially this way.
- Be intentional: Don’t complain or try to “wish yourself somewhere”, you are where you are and you’re always choosing. Acknowledge this choice, no one is dragging you around. Accept, or take action to make it better. You are not a passenger, you’re driving.
- Become who you want to be: As a leader, you are “catchy” – ensure you’re a “good vibe” you want others to catch, not toxic. People reflect you, and you are a reflection of your state of being. Anais Nin – “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”
- Be actively patient: Create the environment for success to come to you. Instead of pushing for, grinding out, or driving towards, make a path for what you want to arrive.
- Be real. Being a better leader is about being a better human.
What really matters? We all get to choose. Whatever we choose, we show the world every moment of every day in how we show up.
We are always practicing something… make sure it’s who you want to become. It just takes a tiny step, rinse/repeat to get somewhere new. Tiny choices, tiny steps, 2% better. Little by little we create the future in how we show up today.