The Balanced and Authentic Life

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“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”  Oscar Wilde

I was recently asked to present a talk on the subjects of authentic living, and living a balanced life. As I typically do, I’ll look through articles and books I have read previously and also search for current articles on the same topics. I was quite surprised to find how seldom the word authenticity appeared in business and psychological literature. It appears that most of what we are reading is pushing us to do more, rather than be more. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of us are struggling to find balance. Or even more unfortunate, many of us are completely out of balance, having become almost entirely focused on doing, rather than being. So how do we regain our focus, and start on the journey to getting back to being authentic people who live balanced lives?

Becoming an authentic person really requires us to adopt a holistic view of ourselves. Authors Bob Rosen and Kathie RossIn have developed The Healthy Leader Model, which is an excellent framework for pursuing authentic living. As you can see from their model, there is so much more to us than we often acknowledge. We are so much kinder to ourselves and others when we look to develop ourselves holistically. As the business investor extraordinaire Warren Buffet says, “Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do”.

The Healthy Leader Model

The Healthy Leader Model

I remember the first time I heard someone say, ‘I need to be more productive.‘ The phrase may sound like a call to live responsibly, but subtly I think our performance based culture has robbed us of what it means to be authentically human. I know I’m not the first to make this observation; we are human beings, which means we cannot be defined only by what we do. It is far more important for our own well-being to find out who we are, not just what we do, and live our lives informed by that perspective. Easier said than done you say! The late Warren Bennis, University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration, University of Southern California says in his book, On Becoming A Leader, “If knowing yourself and being yourself were as easy to do as to talk about, there wouldn’t be nearly so many people walking around in borrowed postures, spouting secondhand ideas, trying desperately to fit in rather than to stand out.” My work with my clients is helping them identify what is most important to them, and to become more of who they are, so that they can make the maximum contribution in every area of their life.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience, genuinely happy individuals are few and far between. He asks us to think about how many people we know who really enjoy what they do and are reasonably satisfied with their lot, who do not regret the past, and look to the future with confidence. Probably, not very many! In Simon Sinek’s  TED-talk, Why Leaders Eat Last, I believe the following statement captures the heart of the problem for many of us business people; “In business we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so they can survive.” This truly begs the question, how can we humans be happy if at the end of the day we are hurting others and ourselves? Put another way, why are we not doing more to help ourselves and others? Sound too touchy-feely? It should, and that’s because our bodies and brains have been designed to do things that make us feel good.

Our bodies contain certain chemicals which are there for the sole purpose of our survival and making us feel good. Again I fear, that many of the activities of our lives; work and relationships, are actually depleting and do not enhance our human experience. You probably have heard of  some of these biological chemicals:

  • Endorphins – the chemical released in the body which reduces pain.
  • Dopamine – regulates movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.
  • Serotonin – the chemical that is responsible for maintaining mood balance, and that a deficit of serotonin leads to depression.
  • Oxytocin – the chemical released in our body when we feel trust, love, safety and empathy in the presence of a person whom your body senses is safe, as well as enabling feelings of  bonding.

The reason for discussing these chemicals is to remind us that we are so much more than what we do, and so much more about who we are and how we are wired biologically and neurologically. I think we have to ask ourselves on a regular basis the important question, are the activities of work, family, and friends allowing us to experience those “happy-chemicals”?

Have you ever thought about the connection between working in a healthy environment and the impact it has on your psychological and physical health? According to a recent study by Stanford Graduate School of Business, workplace stress — such as long hours, job insecurity and lack of work-life balance, contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs! According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and one of the authors of the study, “When people like their lives, and that includes work life, they will do a better job of taking care of themselves. When they don’t like their lives, they don’t.” To paraphrase, when we don’t like our jobs, our lives and our health fall apart!

Recently I had the opportunity to have lunch with a former associate I’ll call Jim, and inquired as to how he felt he was doing in his career. Sadly, I heard what many of my colleagues and friends seem to be experiencing; their bosses are either unable to talk about development and growth opportunities, or worse, their bosses show no interest in their associates careers. Author and consultant Patrick Lencioni calls this “abdication management.” The most troubling part of Jim’s situation is that he is a millennial and has only been in the workplace for a few years, and has already grown cynical towards management. I encouraged Jim to talk with others about his interests and even do a little soul-searching, and begin defining his values, purpose, and goals in life. As I said earlier, if we find ourselves going through the motions (only doing), including “punching-the-clock” at work, we are not  going to be effective in our jobs, and we will never feel those life-giving happy chemicals which are so fundamental to our human experience. We need to be in environments which support and allow us to be fully human.

My own journey to authenticity has not been easy. I can think of many occasions where people have misjudged my motives, questioned my actions, but this will always be the result of living a life where you are not thinking so much about what others think of you, but asking yourself, am I being honest and true with myself? It is in this place where our relationships with others move to a different level, and ultimately we begin to experience the kind of life that is centered on life-giving activities, rather than life-depleting activities.  Just this week over lunch with a friend, we talked at about a tragic event in this person’s life — the anniversary falling on this Mothering Sunday. Our friendship could be seen as quite unlikely, because on paper we couldn’t be more different; different ethnicity, thirty-plus age difference, different nationalities. We have become close friends because of the intentional authenticity on both our parts. As we talked about this event, my friend was moved to tears and neither one of us felt any embarrassment, but rather experienced those feelings of empathy, love and connection. As Brendon Bouchard author of The Motivation Manifesto says so eloquently, “We learn that the more we are true to ourselves, the more we can connect and contribute to the world. We find that the more free and spontaneous and authentic we become, the more our motivation and aliveness returns and the more others are attracted to us and want to be around us. I’m reminded and encouraged to embrace the words of the musical artist Sting, “Be yourself no matter what they say.”

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