Many of us have experienced the feeling in recent years of being unmoored. Even lost at sea. At one time or another, most of us felt some degree of fear and disorientation during the once-in-a-century pandemic, which occurred at the height of a divisive political season. At the same time, decades of racial and social tension finally came to a head with the murder of George Floyd.
And that was the world in the daily headlines. Closer to home and out of the spotlight, many of us grappled with our individual struggles — whether that was personal problems, loss, or setbacks professionally.
In a world that feels continually disruptive, how do we take care of ourselves and keep going? Where do we turn for hope and wisdom?
I was honored to be joined on my podcast by one of the most extraordinary people I have met during my time with Georgetown University, Valerie Brown. Valerie is not only an author but also a Buddhist-Quaker Dharma teacher, facilitator, leadership coach, and self-described “professional pilgrim.”
She and I caught up on her new book, Hope Leans Forward – Braving Your Way Towards Simplicity, Awakening, and Peace. During a period of significant personal loss, along with the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, Valerie writes and shares an abundance of Quaker wisdom, practices to stimulate mindfulness, and inspiring stories of ordinary people showing extraordinary bravery.
We caught up on the book, why it’s so important to slow down, despite the frenzied pace of the modern workplace, and how to listen to the deep wisdom that comes from within.
Valerie quoted a poem by Mark Nepo that begins, “Brave your way on” – a phrase that encapsulates Valerie’s attitude on persevering in the face of obstacles. She has written of her own career epiphany and leaving a “high-pressure, high-stress” career as a lawyer-lobbyist. In a moment of observing the clouds moving in the sky on a hiking vacation, Valerie realized how long it had been since her eyes turned skyward. As she was in that moment she knew a change was necessary — a change to slow down. Ultimately, this led Valerie to the newfound, purpose-driven work she engages in today. It was no small task to walk away from a well-established, professional brand and embrace the vulnerability of not having every next step perfectly mapped out.
Reading her book, and talking with Valerie, made me reflect on some of my life’s darkest moments – my personal struggles that I don’t easily open up about (even when I know it helps to talk), sinking into the depths of addiction, losing a brother to suicide, and caring for my elderly mother after an accident. Each of these moments shaped me indelibly.
In time, I have learned how these harrowing experiences contained wisdom and the opportunity to grow, learn, deepen my relationships with those I care about, and transform. I realized I could use these difficult times and share them with others, both in my personal life and in my work as a coach, leader, and teacher.
Some takeaways from my conversation with Valerie:
Make time for quiet and reflection. As Valerie so wonderfully stated, “Being brave is not just plowing through and keeping going.” Many of us operate under this approach and find ourselves burning out. We may venerate stoic behavior in facing our challenges (think of the iconic British Mantra during World War II, “Keep calm and carry on”), but we should also prioritize pausing to reflect on whether our day-to-day work still aligns with our values and priorities.
I’m reminded that countless other leaders have fought the temptation to cram every minute of their schedules full; in his memoirs, President Clinton wrote of his time in office, “I worked hard to schedule my time so that I’d have a couple of hours a day alone to think, reflect, plan, or do nothing. Often, I slept less just to get the alone time.”
Bring your whole self to work. Valerie talked about virtues of what she calls “an undivided life,” in which we bring the wholeness of who we are to the workplace. While some push back on the idea of revealing too much of ourselves at work, a toll is left when we feel we must leave part of ourselves behind and at home each day. Valerie shared with me how she once felt that she couldn’t share the side of her that practiced meditation on the weekends. Practicing weekend mediation was not expected of someone with her high-powered legal identity. But over time, Valerie achieved greater equilibrium by bringing the two sides of her life closer together.
Make a deliberate attempt to find joy each day in small things. The last chapter of Valerie’s book is appropriately titled “Bravely home, boundless joy.” She stresses the importance of finding small sources of joy each day to ensure the journey is rewarding, not just the finish line. Experiencing less-than-joyful external circumstances, such as a global pandemic, one can retain their brain to actively seek out sources of rejuvenation, inspiration, and hope – whether that be a hummingbird in the garden or an afternoon of sunshine.
One of my biggest takeaways from our talk was the idea of not waiting for the perfect conditions “for everything to be joyful.” Instead, in our daily lives, we can embrace the seasons of life, accept it’s complications, and learn to find inspiration in each day as it comes.
To check out our full conversation, download the podcast today.