These AI-bot findings will make you understand your emotions better

“Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetick.”

Samuel Johnson wrote this quote about advertising in 1759. And since right around that time(!), I’ve been using this quote to make a point to entrepreneurs, executives and marketers: that customer and employee disengagement is not a digital problem. It’s a human problem.

I believe the solution to this disengagement dilemma will also be human. Understanding and serving people’s deep, undying human needs is the only real way to connect with customers over time and get them to care about your content and products. I’ve long recommended companies deprioritize digital, big data and AI, at least for awhile, to focus on understanding the undying aspirations and real world real journeys of their customers.

tly that inspired me to change my tune a tad bit. It opened my eyes to the power of digital and AI to help us understand—not trick or manipulate—our own humanity, aspirations and the resistance that often pops up when we try to make a change.

Marketing tech firm Unbounce had their AI machine review the behavior of over 74 milllion visitors to over 64,000 landing pages published by over 2,500 brands across 10 industries. They paid particular attention to the rate at which visitors signed up to download content or connect with the brand that published the page. (Marketers call this a conversion rate.)

But from my point of view, the data on what does and doesn’t inspire people to enter their email surfaces insights into our aspirations, emotions and the actions we’re taking online as we try to get healthier, wealthier and wiser. A few takeaways you might find helpful to know about yourself, if you’re on any sort of transformational journey of your own:

  • You desire help making complex transformation topic simple. In 6 out of the 10 industries Unbounce looked at, people were much more likely to enter their email address to download something if the content on the page was at a 9th grade reading level or lower.

    By itself, that sounds like Marketing 101. What is interesting is that these 6 industries were ones in which our questions and challenges are likely to be relatively complex: real estate, business consulting, credit and lending, health and home improvement.

    Upshot: when you have a goal or want to make a life change in one of these areas, you’ll set yourself up for success if you can distill your vision down to a super simple statement or objective. And it might be to your advantage to forego even trying to understand every complex layer of the subject or set goals with lots of steps and layers to them. Think: “get to bed by 10”, “rewrite website copy” or “unclutter kitchen drawers” vs. “go Paleo” or “get organized”.

  • You know you need help with your “wealthy” goals. Out of the 10 industries covered, people were most likely to engage with pages offering content about business consulting, credit and lending and vocational studies/job training pages. (Travel was up there, too.)
  • But you believe “healthy” is something you have to do on your own. You go online to learn about what it takes to get healthy and what new knowledge or fresh approaches might be out there. You may know you need some help getting yourself to make the behavior changes involved in living a healthier life. But you’re skeptical about whether anyone else can really, truly help you make these shifts. Visitors only engaged with 12% of health pages published, one of the lowest rates of all the industries analyzed.

    There are so many products and people making wild health claims in the world, this skepticism seems wise. But this is also true: seeking help making changes you’ve tried forever to make on your own is a pro level move. So is experimenting with different approaches until you find something that works for your personal body and lifestyle and mindset.As someone who lost 60 pounds over 20 years ago, though, there’s another shift I recommend to almost anyone who has ever tried and failed to change their health habits. Here it is:

  • You can’t scare, hate or disgust yourself into action. As the former chief marketer for the world’s largest fitness app, I’ve said this sentence, over and over again: “You can’t hate yourself skinny.” It doesn’t work. If it did, America would not have an obesity epidemic, and yo-yo dieting would not be a thing.

    Fear and disgust are very low vibration, low energy emotions, and shifting your habits for the healthier, wealthier and wiser requires significant energy over a sustained period of time. You can stare at your cellulite in the mirror all you want or click on a million of those creepy belly fat ads, but feeling fear or hate or disgust will never be a powerful motivator for the lasting changes you want to make.

    This report adds a new layer of insight: fear and disgust aren’t even that effective at motivating very short term transformational behavior, like entering your email address to get more information or download a resource guide. In all but one of the ten industries examined, the Unbounce AI machine found that where even 1-2% of the words on a landing page evoked negative emotions like fear and disgust, people were significantly less likely to seek further interaction with the brand.

Just this morning, Facebook reported having “killed” two AI-powered chatbots because they developed their own untranslatable, non-human language. This was particularly salient for me, as I was still processing a talk I’d had with Carl Schmidt, Co-Founder and CEO of Unbounce, when this report came out.

As Carl talked me through this report, he explained how their “machine” focuses for the time being on copy, meaning, sentiment: the power of the word.

This is a very human thing. And so is the tendency to try to use your own inner dialogue, your own words, to scare or shame yourself into making hard changes. This data is valuable in proving what many transformation teachers have long known: it just doesn’t work.

Rewire yourself to use the power of your own words, the words you speak or think to yourself, in favor of yourself. Fear doesn’t motivate, it disengages. Love, and in particular, self-love, can spark and fuel any transformation you ever want to make, over the long run.

How to De-Chaos Your Nervous System

Awhile back, I took my team to an offsite at the Wanderlust Yoga Festival in Lake Tahoe. They had been going super hard in challenging circumstances, so it was very well-deserved. It was also an opportunity to walk my own talk about how rest can interrupt the intense demands we place ourselves, clicking us back into our natural state of flow, creativity and productivity.

How to De-Chaos Your Nervous System

We left straight from the office one afternoon, after an intense group work session. At one point during the session, I’d gone over to the white board to add my thoughts. I turned around, and realized that the rest of the team members’ eyes had grown big, and their brows had furrowed.

They had absolutely zero idea what I’d written. Except for one woman, with whom I had worked for years. She took over, erasing my scrawl and rewriting it legibly, all the while explaining to the group’s laughter that she even has a pet name for my handwriting: “Tara-glyphs”.

Har har.

We got a good laugh out of it, wrapped the session, and trucked up to Tahoe. There were only 3 rules for this offsite:

  1. We had a farm-to-table dinner as a group, and a lunch the following day.
  2. We’d all check in with each other via text throughout the weekend.
  3. The festival is your playground. Get after it.

That’s it. I was more focused on creating a no-pressure two-day cocoon of rest and recharge than on trying to get substantive work done on the trip. The teammate who wanted to do 7 hours of workshops and a hike before dinner could do that. (And she did.) And the one who wanted to lie by the pool for 7 hours before dinner could do that. (And she did, too.)

I myself went to a yoga workshop, a meditation and writing workshop one day. I stopped checking email. I sat down and just talked with my team. We talked about life and love and work and play. And we ate. Then we ate some more. And we slept the sleep of the tired tech team in Tahoe: dark, silent, deep and dreamy. The next day, I went to another two yoga and meditation workshops.

At the end of day two, something really weird happened. I went to sign up for the meditation/yoga workshop leader’s email list. And as I did so, I watched my hand move across the page, almost as though it was someone else’s. Perfectly neat, round, fluid script came off of my fingertips, with no effort to make it so. I watched in amazement. For years, I’d believed that decades of an all-typing, all-the-time lifestyle had simply destroyed my handwriting.

Apparently, I was wrong.

What I realized in that moment was that I’d been missing something, despite my best efforts to manage my body and my mind with quality food, fitness, relationships and recreation. I’d forgotten to down-regulate of my nervous system. And I’d more or less accidentally done this after just 4 or 5 hours of yoga and meditation, an evening of deliciously deep sleep in a place so beautifully dark and quiet, and the company of people I love to work and play with.

As my hand moved with precision and flow, without my conscious bidding, I realized that my ability to create, lead and innovate while living in joy and fun all depend on my nervous system. Our nervous systems need to be deeply tuned-up on occasion—not just worked and wringed out and released.

The entrepreneurial life is a delicious one. But it places intense loads on the nervous system, many beyond what we even realize consciously. We are on all the time – ruthlessly focused. Ruthlessly engaged. We have to make fast, hard decisions and engage in intense, hard conversations, all the time. We have to create, to innovate, to compete. We have to switch contexts constantly, addressing issues from accounting to research to leadership to product design to marketing, all in a day.

Sometimes all in a meeting.

I proceeded to write about 5,000 words in the following few hours. And I wrote maybe 15,000 words in the couple of days thereafter. Down-regulating your nervous system is not optional fun thing to do: it’s necessary, especially if you want to live out to the edges of your possibilities.

Here’s how you can do just that:

  • Practice taking in the good. Psychologist Rick Hanson talks about how our brains are wired to take in the bad, as a matter of evolutionary defense. This can cause us to perceive daily stresses with the same fear as we would life-threatening situations, with the result that we live on high alert. Hanson advises adopting a practice he calls “taking in the good,” intentionally stopping and encoding our bodies and brains with the pleasurable feelings of happy, calm, relaxing moments as they arise in the course of daily life. This practice of taking in the good brings down our resting levels of nervous system arousal and cultivates a mindful, fear-free experience.

To take in the good, Hanson says we must do these 3 steps:

1.  “Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences” – look for at least 6 positive facts or experiences a day, either on the fly, as they come about or during reflection, like right before bed.

2.  “Really enjoy the experience” – sit with the sensation that each of these 6 good experiences is filling up your body, for at least 20 or 30 seconds in a row.

3.  “Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you” – Hanson provides a few vivid visuals to imagine, like the feeling of the good experience is spreading through your chest like the warmth of a cup of cocoa, as you drink it.

  • Wrap the uncomfortable areas of your life in a cashmere blankie. This is my way of explaining why I invest so much of my time and money in restorative experiences. When I’m working, I go very very hard, and am constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone. So I stack my precious spare time with long walks and fun workouts, beautiful dinners with friends, cozy movie nights at home, spa days, wellness and writing retreats, and trips to gorgeous places. My home is very comfortable, and I choose clothes and shoes that are both beautiful and very comfortable. Cashmere ranks high. I need to be comfortable with productive, expansive discomfort at work. So I stack the rest of my life in comfort, where possible.
  • Create a restorative morning and evening routine. Get intentional about how you start and end your day. Learn about the practices that other creative people and great role models of productivity found helpful, and experiment with a routine that works for you. Don’t fight it because you want to stay in bed or you feel powerless against the pull of checking your Facebook feed at 2 am. Accept the reality that screen-staring is damaging to your sleep and your energy.

Personally, I wake up early, read something powerful, pray and meditate, then walk my dogs and do Morning Pages, a daily free-writing practice. It takes time, definitely. But by 9 am my most-prized tool (my brain) is primed and ready. I’ve already used my writing as an emotional windshield wiper, and I’m eager to start the day.

  • Explore therapy or coaching. We all have old emotional wounds, triggers, ancient wrongs and blocks we could stand to work through and let go of. It’s amazing how much these things collectively contribute to a high-running state of arousal, even when we’re at rest. Investing in therapy made me a better person and a better mate, but it was extraordinary the level of unintended impact it had on my work life. I’m a substantially calmer, more conscious leader, and the fun I have in every single area of my life is way up.
  • Deal with your substance abuse issues. I’m talking about caffeine. Some people can drink coffee all day and night, with no problem. I am not one of those people. At one point, my nervous system had a real-talk intervention with m. Every day, I was 6 shots of espresso in, on fire, full of ideas and in love with life, by 10 am. Then around 1 pm, I was curled in the fetal position under my standing desk.

So I stopped coffee. I lost that faux spike of energy, but now I’m good to go all day. And I do drink the easier-to-handle caffeine in green tea. I also have found adaptogens like Chaga mushroom extract and MCT oil to help support a creative, high-energy brain in a more sustainable, less crashy way.

If you have this same reaction to coffee, don’t fight it. Dare to be different. Give it up, if it’s not working for you.

  • Eliminate the frictions of unnecessary decisions and “switching costs”. This is why Steve Jobs wore a uniform: even the tiniest decisions you make “cost”, in the form of a little energy drain, a little friction on the nervous system. If you can eliminate the need to make small or inconsequential decisions, you’ll add energy back into the system. I have my own version of a work uniform: A-line dress, cashmere cardigan, metallic sandals. Period.

My friend Heather Fernandez, Founder of Solv. Health and Board Member at Atlassian, used to have a practice of asking any team member who was heading out to lunch to bring something back for her. And here’s the kicker: she was always happy, no matter what they brought back.

  • Seek out places where you can create margin, every day. In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson meticulously makes the case that most of us run on empty, most of our lives. He advises getting intentional about creating margins of un-obligated resources in our calendars and bank accounts.

No matter how impossible you think this is, it is not. It is excruciatingly powerful. I’ve gotten ‘religious’ about Sundays off for church and family, and about holding certain days meeting-free, just to allow for the nervous system unfurling and resulting creativity that happens in the margins.

What’s Your Limiting Factor? How to Unlock New Levels of Capacity in 2017

My favorite workout ever was something my trainer Bryan put together a thousand years ago. He called it the Construction and Destruction of Western Civilization. Suffice it to say that many a sandbag was hauled and many a monkey bar traversed.

What’s Your Limiting Factor? How to Unlock New Levels of Capacity in 2017

Anyhow, one of the stations involved a run from the parking lot to what we used to call the rainbow sherbet house down the street from the studio. That station was the time limiting factor for the rest of us: all of us would keep sledgehammering, flipping tires, swinging kettlebells until the person on the run would go to that house and back.

No pressure.

Anyhow, there was a woman there that day who had never worked out with us before. As she took off on the run, we swung and hauled and carried. And swung and hauled and carried. And swung and hauled and carried. At one point, Bryan actually went out to find her, and she was nowhere to be seen. He returned, and gave us permission to move on. Maybe 15 minutes later, she huffed her way back into the lot, explaining that she thought she’d known where the rainbow sherbet house was. The house she was thinking of was about a mile and a half away (easily a 20 minute run there and back for a fit non-runner). The actual rainbow sherbet house was less than a half mile away; it took most of us 5 minutes to get there and back.

That chick was the limiting factor. The surprise was that it wasn’t in fact her speed or fitness that was the ultimate limitation on the system, which was usually the case. It was her knowledge, her understanding, of where she was actually headed and when to turn back that ultimately limited our ability to move onto the next round, until Bryan intervened and broke the system.

Catch this principle guys: every system, including you and your life, has a limiting factor—one resource or trait that most limits how much the system can grow. If you want to push your life and your leadership to new levels in 2017, the single most powerful way to do that is to accurately identify what your limiting factor is, and focus every ounce of your being on deactivating it.

When you do this, you expand your capacity versus changing your conditions. This is super critical. Most of what we do when we set goals is make lists of conditions we want to change. I want to launch this business. Grow this business. Get a new job. Get a new boss. A new mate. I want my kid to stop acting up. I want to lose 15 pounds.

Here’s the truth: conditions are never the things that really limit your happiness. Think about it: millions of people already have the conditions you think would make your life better. And they’re still unhappy.

When you focus on limiting factors you grow your capacity to do two things: (1) to master the ability to change whatever conditions you want, whenever you want, and (2) to experience limitless love, joy, enthusiasm, ease and flow right now, where you’re at, regardless of conditions.

These two things will change your life. They definitely changed mine.

Writing/Feeling/Thinking Prompt: What are your top 3 limiting factors? I’ve listed some examples below, to get your mental juices flowing. As you visioncast your 2017, think about what SINGLE limiting factor you could explore releasing next year that would create the biggest change in the way you feel, think and show up in your life and your work? Which single factor would expand your capacity the most?

12 Common Limiting Factors

  1. Inconsistency
  2. Low levels of physical energy/exhaustion
  3. Shame
  4. Fearful thinking habits
  5. Overextended calendar
  6. Apologizing for taking up space
  7. Scarcity beliefs/don’t believe big things are possible
  8. Procrastination
  9. Poor boundaries
  10. Depleting relationship patterns
  11. Inability to speak up for yourself/speak your truth
  12. Inability to ask for what you need

P.S. That day, I made note of the actual address of the sherbet house. Anytime we had a new workout friend, I made sure to whisper it to them, just in case.

How to Metabolize 2016

Think about how your body metabolizes food. It chews it up and starts releasing enzymes to break it down while it’s still in your mouth. From that very moment begins the process of extracting what will nourish you. And also from that moment begins the process of eliminating the waste, discarding what doesn’t serve you, or what might even be actively harmful to you.

That’s how we can and should metabolize 2017. Keep what nourishes you. Eliminate the rest.

This approach is a powerful first step to stopping the spiral of fear and panic that has been so pervasive this year. And that is a powerful first step to walking into what you are called and put here to live and be and do—in your life and in the world—in 2017.

Here’s the prompt: Even if you think 2016 was The Worst Year Ever, list out (in writing) the things that happened, lessons you learned, experiences you experienced this year that made you healthier, happier, wiser, more clear or more tuned in to who you want to be in this life.

Our brains are wired for and alert to negative, fearful or terrible events at a rate 5x the bandwidth they devote to happy, lovely or joyful things. So you might have to devote extra intention and effort to coming up with the spiritually nutritious takeaways from the last twelve months.

And on the flip side, what did you discover this year that no longer serves you, or that you are ready to move on from or release? Relationship patterns? Thinking or emotional habits? Things? Fears?

Here, it’s helpful to keep this in mind: you do not minimize the very real issues in our world by electing to release panic and fear, get grounded in your own calling and move forward, full steam ahead. In fact, it’s kind of the only way you can really, truly help.

Adulting: Choosing What Defines Us [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 5]

I have this weird thing about eating at certain buffets, where just looking at them makes me never want to eat again. Something about big piles of food seems like a trough to me. And it triggers the reverse effect on my hunger. My strategy in these situations generally is to locate a piece of fish and make a pile of dark greens on my plate then quickly remove myself from the vicinity of All That Food. Blargh.

As I think of it, it might be an aversion I worked up during my first official job ever, as a hostess at the Sizzler: Buffet Court PTSD.

This is absurd, as I hope is obvious. But it’s a microcosm of something we do all the time, allowing a life event or experience to plant triggers in our operating systems, so that we always cringe when we see that kind of car or shut entirely down when we meet a certain kind of person.

This is very normal. It’s the extreme version of learning, but it’s a deeper sort of learning, it’s almost like a spiritual encoding that happens. And taken to great extremes, we can find ourselves defined by a single life event or something someone said to us 40 years ago. This is natural, and maybe even normal, but it can also be very painful, dysfunctional and limiting.

I know it’s normal, because when I meet new people (which I do nearly every day at work), I generally share my own story, then I ask them flat out to tell me their life story. It’s really a Rorschach of sorts, to see how people interpret that question, and where they take it, whether they go general or specific, the overall tone and whether they take a career story or personal story or combined approach. The way we tell our general story drops clues to how we define ourselves, I think. Another set of clues is in the stories we tell about our histories and our lives, over and over again.

I tell the story of my family migrating to California around 50 years ago, with some regularity. I tell it to explain why I am uninterested and uninitiated in the ways of the South and, to a lesser extent, the East Coast.

I tell the story of going from Honors Student to teen Mom and then, to college/grad school/law school, all the time. I tell it to express my gratitude for a life of miracles, and to share how I know God is real.

On the personal side, I tell the story of how I heard a Tony Robbins CD about the Power of Identity and then lost 60 pounds, twenty years ago, at least a few times a year. I share it to help people know that I’m a contrarian. That I don’t always do things the way others do. That my health has played a central role in my life for a long time. And that I am a woman of change, action, power and growth.

I tell the story of my 86-year-old grandmother and her three sisters, all Black women from Texarkana, Texas, all of whom have college or nursing school degrees, as often as I can. I tell this so they know that #blackgirlmagic is real. But I also tell this so people understand that I come from a matriarchal lineage, and to explain why I was damn near 40-years-old before I realized that other people saw being Black and a woman as a disadvantage, while I grew up with the explicit and implicit understanding that being a Black girl meant you could do anything. Literally, anything. Circumstances are irrelevant.

These things, I tell, because they define or, at the very least, depict major components of who I am.

But there are other stories I’ve allowed to define me, too, at various times in my life. Stories of repression. Stories of emotional chaos, allowed to spiral and embed for years and years. Even stories of multi-generational beliefs that were both blessing and curse. And it’s been interesting to see how, as I develop and heal out of some of these patterns, I find myself telling those stories much less frequently. But I do want to share one with you, now.

My grandmother is a force of nature and supernatural spirit. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother was a saint. After her mother died very young, my grandmother helped her three sisters get educated, then got her own degree, while raising her own four children alone. Her own alcoholic husband had long since left her for the West Coast, and my grandmother gradually migrated from the South (Texarkana), to the Midwest (Omaha), to the Southwest (Clovis, New Mexico) and finally landed in Bakersfield, California, right around fifty years ago. She and my Dad still live there, to this day.

My grandfather and grandmother had not, until that time, been officially divorced, but he had moved on to a series of other women, somehow also winding up in Bakersfield. Because their lives were so separate, my grandmother was shocked and dismayed when she went to buy a house and was advised that California was something new to her, something called a Community Property state. That meant that all the debts my grandfather had run up and reneged on actually belonged to her, too. Which meant that for her to buy the home for her children she’d worked and saved for, she’d first have to pay or make arrangements to pay all of his bad debt. She was able to figure it out, but it was heartbreaking. And she did eventually divorce him.

But the scar of that heartbreak long remained. My whole childhood, my sweet, piano-playing, hymn-singing grandmother dove joyfully into her duties to teach me How to Live a Good Life. She taught me how to love God, how to clean house, how to prioritize school above all, how to balance a checkbook, and how to churn butter (I’m not joking). She also taught me never to rely on a man to support myself or my children. Never to have children unless I was 100% certain I could support them on my own. She was remarkably free of bitterness about it, but she was exceedingly clear and insistent on this point.

And I took the message. In fact, I took it and ran with it. Somehow, her message mixed in with my perfectionism, my own ambition and my own Daddy issues, and showed up in my spirit as an extreme, dysfunctional over-self-reliance. So I attracted in people at the level of my own bullshit, as one does. I married men who had no capacity to be full partners in my life. And I created a life in which there wasn’t much room for deep partnership and interdependence, because I didn’t believe, deep in my spirit, that I could really have those things.

And at some point, after my spiritual teachers and coaches and therapists helped me see that I’d allowed this childhood message to define a whole area of my life, I couldn’t un-see it. I thanked my family for cultivating my independence and raising me to be an unlimited being, because I am that. I honor and will always be independent and impactful. But I also had to release the isolating extremes I’d taken on.

I put an end to the patterns that kept me isolated and unsupported by being extreme and dysfunctional in my over-self-reliance, slowly, slowly, slowly. I started to spend a lot of time with my friends who were in beautiful partnerships, who’d built healthy families and who had created long, loving, two-way relationships. I wanted to experience that model and what it looks like everyday, up close.  

I’ve talked with lots of people who define themselves by a thing that happened to them 30 years ago, or something their Mom used to always tell them—even a thing their Mom used to say about herself or, especially, her body. I know people who define themselves by a past failure, a family death, or a victory. I know people whose self-definition is heavily painted by their geography or profession, or the fact that no one in their family has ever been educated/happy/healthy/sober.

Often, we take on an extreme commitment to our defining family or personal history dysfunction. But it can be just as unwise to define ourselves in aversion or opposition to our long-gone experiences, like I do with the Buffet Court. Exhibit B: I wear some version of the same outfit every single day. I do it because it’s comfortable and beautiful and removes so much decision-making from my day. But it also helps that my “uniform” strategy makes my Mom a little crazy. 😀

We’re all in the process of working this stuff out, some more intentionally and effortfully than others.I’ve learned that we have a lot more choice about how we define ourselves than we think. We truly do have the power to decide and shape and rewire who we are, even though our past programming might be encoded at a level of depth that seems permanent and inescapable. It can seem like as much a part of us as the shape of our eyes or the size of our feet.

We get to pick the elements of our past that are expansive or contract us, that spark joy and pride and possibility, or that revert to the sometimes comfortable, limiting storylines we’ve always heard and by now, have started to tell ourselves.

And we also get to pick our todays and tomorrows, and we get to exercise intention about how we define ourselves every single day. “That was then, this is now” means something. And it doesn’t mean you disrespect your family’s trials and tribulations or the people who raised you, to keep what serves you and release or discard what no longer does. That’s what I call wisdom, and what the Interwebs call “adulting”.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 5 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

Demolition Woman [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 4]

My therapist once told me that it’s never too late to have a great childhood. I took her up on this, and promptly set about releasing the old traumas and outdated life operating systems I’d acquired over the course of my literal, chronological childhood. And I made it the sport of the day to dive into my not-too-late new childhood, rewiring my emotional habits and my life with a new sense of joy, play and lightness.

I redecorated my house to suit my 9-year-old self (see photo), started having a bunch of adventures around the world, and re-taught myself the curiosity, enthusiasm, wonder and trust of a well-parented kidlet.

Recently, my cousin posted a photo on Facebook that brought my not-so-great chronological childhood to mind. She currently lives on the same street I grew up on, maybe 15 houses down from my childhood home. That home was the site of great, great pain and devastating emotional wounding to me, as a young girl. It was the place where I experienced the most traumatic events of my life, the ones I had only really been able to acknowledge, integrate and release twenty years later, after years of therapy and a general commitment to healing every area of my life. 

The photo my cousin posted was a stark one. It was a photo of her current home which, until recently, stood in the midst of an upper-middle-class subdivision of similar two-story, 80’s construction homes. My childhood home was one of them. But in this photo, her home stood alone, amidst a vast expanse of well-manicured dirt. After decades of threatening to do so, the State of California had surprised nearly everyone in town, and moved forward with plans to raze the neighborhood and run a freeway through it. My cousin was one of the last people in the area to move, and so ended up living in a home that remained standing while those around it were completely erased off the face of the earth, one-by-one.

On a whim, I shot her a message on Facebook. After asking her whether my old house was still standing, and hearing that it was indeed, I asked her to go take a quick photo of it and send it to me, which she did, a couple of hours later.

I sat and considered the little square on my screen for a moment. It took me a moment to recognize it as my house. The paint job was different, the lawn was brown, the roofline was saggy in the middle. It was clearly suffering from the absence of constant grooming by my meticulous, Marine father. To be fair, I’m certain its owners had permanently deferred maintaining the place once they realized it had a date with the wrecking ball.

Maybe it was this shabbiness, or maybe just my adulthood and tons of trauma release therapy, but the place also just didn’t seem scary to me anymore. It didn’t seem loaded, at all. It seemed a little sad, actually. Like, I was sad for the house, for all that it had witness over the years, versus being sad for myself. Of course, I knew what the house, as a non-sentient ‘being’, could never know, which is that it had no more than a few weeks to exist. Demolition was unavoidable, and imminent.

The few moments after my cousin zapped the photo of my old house to me across the Webs were each coded with an emotion. Moment 1: wow, the house looks bad. Moment 2: hm, I don’t feel as bad as I thought I would. Moment 3: poor, sad house. It has no idea what’s about to happen. It’s dying and doesn’t know it.

Then in that fourth moment, it really dawned on me: the house was being demolished. The site of my deepest trauma, of the worst moments of my life, was about to be completely obliterated off the face of the planet. Gone. Fini.

Except, actually, not fini. Instead of fini, my beloved State of California was actually going to run a freeway through it. As a lifelong Californian, I have always had a strange love of freeways, those strangely gorgeous wonders of geography and engineering that allow us to traverse vast expanses of our obscenely un-walkable state in unnatural ways and at unnatural speeds. My personal Ground Zero was going to be erased, then replaced with the ultimate symbol of forward motion, freedom and activity.


So, I went on about my morning, saying a little prayer of gratitude for the lessons I’d learned from my pain, and for the person it helped create me to be. I affirmed that there was nothing more for me to glean from that stuff, and bid the pain of that part of my life, the pain that had been symbolized by that house, a final farewell. I went on about my day, getting a cup of tea and getting dressed to walk the mongrels.

As I got ready, I noticed some construction noise in front of my house. It was like heavy, heavy drilling, odd for so early in the morning. I walked out onto the front porch, and saw that the entire freeway frontage road near my house had been blocked and studded with cones overnight. A massive sign messaged that the freeway entrance was closed temporarily to repave the road and install a protected bike lane, and that traffic was being redirected to another entrance.

But that’s not where the noise was coming from. Immediately in front of my house, some guys were drilling into the sidewalk, installing a bright orange ‘Detour’ sign. They saw me and waved hello. I smiled, waved back and walked back inside, shaking my head and laughing to myself as I went.
















P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 4 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

Simple food—and people—rules [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 3]

I love simple food rules. One of my favorites comes from culinary anthropologist and author, Michael Pollan: “Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” But I have my own, too. A number of them, which now that I think of it, might actually defeat the purpose of simplicity. Anyhow, here’s one decision rule I have about food. I require the food items I eat to fit one of the following items:

  1. It must be filling
  2. It must be nutritious, or
  3. It must be truly, intensely delectable.

But no one food item needs to be all of these things. This is how I come to have a daily diet that consists 90% of hemp protein powder, avocado, eggs, kale smoothies, french fries and a collagen drink my friend Alice tasted, then immediately deemed “wet dog soup.”

My food rules work for me.

And they came to mind this morning when I met with an old friend I’ll keep nameless unless and until he tells me it’s okay to do otherwise. He and I worked together at the best company ever. He’s a super smart dude and one of those generally wonderful human beings you’re glad to know type folks.

My food rules came to mind when my friend told me how he thinks about companies. He said, when we worked together we had the complete trifecta: a product we loved, a mission we were on fire about, and a CEO and team we were devoted to. But after looking at and talking to literally dozens of companies, I’ve realized what my Most Important Criterion is: for me, if the CEO and team are smart and coachable and engaged, that’s good enough for me. I can help with or be okay with the rest.

This, I found fascinating. It was like simple food rules, but for work and leadership and, really, for people. Part of the reason I found it fascinating was that I’ve been doing a lot of work recently with my coach to rehabilitate some of my dysfunctional and, frankly, inaccurate, long-held beliefs about men and relationships. After spotting and calling me out on some of these deep-down, beliefs, we actually put together an affirmation: that there are abundant caring, capable, dependable men who are attracted to and available to me.

Three simple rules.

Sounds great, right? The problem is that I quickly corrupted this affirmation, tacking on a bunch of other criteria. I thought, hmmm, I have met and know a bunch of guys who are caring, capable and dependable, who are attracted to and available to me, but I’m not really into them. So I need to narrow this down a bit more. Be more specific. So I bolted a bunch of criteria onto this affirmation, and it became:

There are abundant sexy (to me), caring, capable, dependable, trustworthy, active men who are attracted to and available to me.

It has come to my attention that this is just too many things. It’s a little like in leadership, when you see companies try to focus on six things a year, and they end up focusing on nothing. A couple of my friends even mentioned it: hey, that’s too many things to be looking for. You’ve gotta decide which 3 things are really critical to you. That’s all you can really ask someone to be.

This required some emotional and intellectual rigor. And in the process of meeting people, trying relationships on and feeling into what I’m really attracted to, in both friends and romantic partners, I realized something: that I had been creating this laundry list of things by thinking about what I didn’t have or what didn’t work in previous relationships, then listing the opposite of those traits as what I really wanted.

Once I had that insight, it hit me like a bolt of lightning that I was doing it all wrong. not the way to create what you want, to get clear on what you don’t want and move to the opposite of that. Sometime the contrast between what you don’t want clarifies what you want, but more often, it keeps you stuck in the energy of struggle and scarcity. It keeps you stuck in a focus on what doesn’t work.

After years of practice, I’ve now (mostly) released the stressful approach of focusing on what I don’t want. I was only really able to do this after I cultivated the skills of setting good boundaries, speaking my own truth in every situation and identifying red flags that signal a person or relationship is not right for me.

But it still took some emotional discipline to listen to that still, small voice in my spirit closely enough to identify just three characteristics I consistently find attractive. These are the three things I feel so strongly about that I am willing to put a stake in the ground around them, when it comes to deciding who to partner up with, date, hang out with and share a life with. Here are the three I selected.

I want to be in relationship with people who are intentional.

I want to be in relationships with people who are caring.

And I want to be in relationships with people who are resilient.

Intentional carries a connotation of integrity to me. Intentional people are principled and purpose-driven. They are thoughtful and deep. They are active, and take actions with deliberation. They don’t let life happen to them. They move through the world with clarity, wisdom and consciousness, even if they shift the direction of that motion in different seasons of their lives.

Caring people just give a shit. They are engaged and listen, but also are willing to pour themselves into the specific people and causes and projects and work and play that trigger their personal or spiritual mental frames for “Things I care about.” They don’t act bored or like they’re too cool for school about everything. When something is important to them, they act or feel or engage with bold enthusiasm, love and even joy. With care. They think about how their actions or inactions impact others, and they factor that into their calculus of how to act and be in the world.

Resilient people carry a testimony about how they got from the deep, dark nights of the soul to the beautiful vibrance of today. Part of that testimony is the faith that they can handle what may come. I love resilient people because of the triumph of spirit they represent, and because things happen in life, so it’s really game-changing to know that the people in your life have your back and won’t flip out when shit gets real, because they’ve already been there and lived to tell the tale. Resilient people also have a glow of brilliant perspective about them. They don’t major in the minors, because ain’t nobody got time for that when you’ve been on death’s door or lived in misery and came back or got out. And they do major in the majors, like loving the people in their lives and having adventures, and making bold life decisions in the direction of their highest purpose and joy, because they count every day as the precious blessing it is.

Maybe one day I’ll get it down to one. One simple people rule I send out into the vortex and connect with people around. For now, I’ll stick with these three. And I’ll work on developing tolerance and communications skills and appreciation for the varying ways humanity shows up in the form of individual people.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 3 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

The Tao of Pugs: Life Lessons from Canine Royalty [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 2]

Psychologists say that neurons that fire together wire together. They call this neuroplasticity, a recent scientific observation that we create new neural connections based on learning and behavior and habit throughout our whole lives.

The positive psychologists have built something on top of this finding they call self-directed neuroplasticity. This means that not only do neurons that fire together wire together, but that we can actually choose which new neural circuits we create by mindfully selecting what we focus on, what behaviors we engage in and what habits we form.

There is a lot of wisdom out there in the world about how to do this. But sometimes, when your wiring is really off, or when most people around you have the same faulty or outdated wiring as you do, the most helpful thing in the world is to actually see someone in your real, everyday life model a new (to you), graceful, powerful circuit.

And sometimes, like, let’s say, if you’re me, one inspirational model of setting the bar high for life and the people you let in your life, is the model presented by your dogs.

I mean, listen. I have a high bar for myself. Always have. I’ve had an inborn spirit of excellence, which was reinforced and encoded into permanence by my dear old Dad.

In fact, my standards for myself have sometimes been too high. But I haven’t always had super high standards for the people I let into my life. And I haven’t always been good at setting boundaries for my loved ones. This took a lot of rewiring, and my dogs were my model.

“The girls,” as they’re known all over Oakland and the blogosphere, refers collectively to my dogs Aiko and Sumiko. They are ½ Pug and ½ Japanese Chin, and were intentionally bred as a so-called “designer dog” mix by a Bay Area breeder. The breeder sold all the other pups in their litter, but because Aiko and Miko each had an umbilical hernia, the breeder surrendered them at 6 weeks old to the San Francisco SPCA. Which is where I found them, and immediately changed their pound puppy names (Mugsy and Bugsy, Lord have mercy SMH so hard) to something more fitting of their station.

The rest is history.

Speaking of history, for you to understand how my dogs because my gurus, you must first understand the history of their breed. Pugs were specifically bred to be the lapdogs of the Chinese Imperial family. Tragically, they were bred not to be able to walk too far from the laps they were supposed to warm, as the palaces in which they lived were vast and easy to get lost in. So Pugs were bred to have short legs and to resemble the Lion Dogs, aka Fu Dogs, of ancient Chinese myth, which is how they come to have such very short nasal passages. (Side note: This is why most Pugs can barely breathe. Fortunately, the girls have longer legs and are leaner than the average pug, given their mixed-breeding. Side note 2: This is why mutts are great.)

Because Pugs couldn’t go far, each Pug in the palace was historically assigned their own, dedicated eunuch. When the dog wanted something, their wishes quickly became the eunuch’s command.

So, in just the same way as shepherd-breed dogs still need something to herd even if they live in Manhattan, Aiko and Miko still require an extraordinarily high level of customer service, just like their Pug ancestors would have had in the Imperial Palace. Even though Aiko and Miko live in Oakland.

And for the most part, they get it. They get it at home, where I’m trained to feed them at precisely 6 am and 6 pm. Even my son knows what to do. When he walks in for a visit, they run up, he kisses them each on both cheeks, then they walk off. When I get out of the shower, they show up, lick my knees and peace out. On College Avenue, where we walk every morning, they know which people have treats waiting for them. I’ve decided the human brain has a neuron triggered by pugs, because so many people flat-out love them, for no reason at all.

But also, these two get extraordinary customer service because they require it. When Miko wants to be picked up, she walks up to you and lies down. You know what to do. Even people who’ve never met her, somehow know exactly what she wants them to do. And when Miko gets too much attention, Aiko walks up and just nudges her out of the way, somehow ensuring that the hand you were just using to pet Miko lands neatly on her little head.

When they hear a treat bag-sounding noise, they sit on their little butts, as taught, with the expectation that you see them seated and will deliver. As you’ve been trained to do.

They are clear on what they want, in their own minds. And they clearly communicate what they want and need. But here’s the thing: they don’t freak out when they don’t get it. Nor do they get existential or destructive or irate when they don’t get it.

They will let you know. They will speak up themselves and ask for what they want and need. They will howl a little bit or paw at you if they want to be picked up. They will howl a lot if it’s time to eat. But if they don’t get what they want, and it’s not a dire need, they will either walk away and either get over it, fast, or walk away and find it elsewhere. They will find someone else willing to perform to the customer service standards to which they are accustomed.

It’s in their royal lineage. They were bred for this, to know what they deserve and are entitled to, purely by virtue of being who they are. Not because they deserve more than anyone else or are better than anyone else. Just because they are.

So, this is one of the lessons I’ve learned from these precious little mongrels of mine, one of the things they’ve modeled for me. The truth is that we all have a royal lineage. We are all children of God, the Creator of the Universe. That means everything is our inheritance: peace, joy, health, love, prosperity, enthusiasm. Everything. Not because we’re better than anyone else, and not because we deserve it more than anyone else. Because it’s our inheritance. All of ours.

But we forget this sometimes. And we take so much less from the world, from the people around us. And we think this is normal, for a few reasons.

Some of us think it’s normal, because we grew up with very human, mostly good enough parents. And they model for us that we shouldn’t make so much noise or ask for so much, or we should learn to put up with things that really, we shouldn’t. You get what you get and you don’t get upset, they tell us, sometimes about things that actually warrant upset. Our loving parents do this because they, too, were taught this. They, too, believed the lie that there’s only so much to go around, and that something bad will happen if you make too much noise.

Or our well-intentioned, perfectly flawed parents themselves modeled dysfunctional relationships. Dysfunctional relating. They didn’t show us how to set boundaries, so we didn’t see it and we didn’t learn it. This, too, they do because they had their own emotional wounds, or never saw healthy relationships modeled themselves.

But you know, they really were good enough as parents. Good enough that we now can take the opportunity to heal, to be more deliberate, and to rewire these circuits intentionally.

Or sometimes, we think it’s normal to require less of the world, and the people around us, because our culture has normalized the broken and dysfunctional. Have you ever tried to find a love song to listen to that’s not about heartbreak and betrayal or addiction and codependency? Nope. Because healthy interdependence, true partnership, mutual love and respect, careful stewardship of another’s precious soul, the hard work of building a life together? These things are boring, compared with the fireworks of lyrics like “I hate you so much right now.”

A friend once brought her little dog-traumatized boy, about 4 years old, to my house to meet the girls. She hoped the exposure to my very mellow mongrels would help him get comfortable around dogs again. It worked. Thirty minutes into the visit, he was sitting in their bed with them, hugging and squeezing them, and trying to sit on them. He crossed boundaries, for real.

And their response was brilliant and instructive. They didn’t snap at him, bite or even bark. They didn’t go through all kinds of gyrations and dramatics to try to get him to change or act right. But they didn’t take it either. They both just got up and walked away. And they kept walking away every time he tried it. He had to learn that they would only tolerate certain behavior if he wanted to hang out with them. And he did.

There’s one more big life lesson I’ve learned from these precious sugar plums of mine, and it isn’t about the standards to which they hold people, or the standard for behavior they tolerate. It’s about the standards, the conditions if you will, they put on their own happiness.

Exhibit A: The girls in their happy place


Exhibit B: The girls when they’re calm and just got treats


Exhibit C: The girls when they want something


Do you notice anything? These dogs have achieved pro-level equanamity. They feel emotion. They respond to situations, as needed. But they don’t allow the situation to determine their overall state. And they don’t allow situations to cause them to act outside of their normal, regal selves. They are nonplussed, in virtually every situation. Exceptions being squirrels and peanut butter.

They trust and know they will be provided for, and they are. They expect great things, and they get them. They require high thread-count linens and grain-free, Omega-3 fatty acid balanced dog food with raw freeze dried bits, and that’s exactly what comes to them. And if by chance circumstances aren’t precisely to their liking, they stay steady and know that things are always working out for them. And that’s exactly what happens.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 2 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

Beautiful, Living Ruins [30 Day Writing Challenge, Day 1]

I spend a lot of time in gyms and fitness studios: dance, yoga and especially spin. Some of my best friends are people I met spinning and burpee-ing. It’s not at all uncommon for me to walk into a studio and run into 7 people I know and love coming out of a class.

As we go to kiss and hug each other in greeting, unspoken protocol is for the sweaty person to issue a disclaimer: “Ugh. I smell bad!” or “I’m so sweaty!”

This is so common that I’ve practiced something like a standup comedy bit, which I say in reply. “I like my people sweaty,” I always say.

It always gets a chuckle. But real talk is: I actually do like my people sweaty. I respect the sweat. I respect the people who wear the sweat. I love them for being the type of person who come in, day and and day out, after a long day at work, and doing what it takes to make the sweat happen. So when I say, “I like my people sweaty,” what I mean is “Hey, girl. I see how hard you’re working every day. I love and respect you for it. You are my kind of person. Don’t let my diva tendencies fool you. Kissing you is more important to me than not getting sweaty.”

I’ve noticed recently that there’s another kind of person I tend to like: people who are vital and alive and happy, and who have also been through traumas and nightmares that would make your blood curdle. People who are, the psychologists would say, seriously resilient.

This is a pattern in my relationships that I’ve noticed very recently. I had met a few people over the past year with whom I really connected. And they all shared a theme. I’d sit down and talk with them on first meeting, and just get a hit that said: “Hmm. I really like this chick. She is cool. We are vibing. She’s got an energy that feels great to me.”

Then, an hour into the meeting, each of these people entrusted me with a story of something they’d gone through. Two of them had been on their deathbeds, recently. Like, the kale that is currently in my vegetable beds was in already in those vegetable beds while these people across the table from me were fighting for their lives. And as I harvest the leaves today, they sit on the spin bike, or take meetings with me, or travel the world with me.

Two more had been through intense betrayals in their marriages, followed by rejection and just plain meanness and mayhem.

Another shared with me the day-in and day-out horrors of caring for an aging husband as he leaves us, slipping into incoherence and incontinence, all while she also raises their children and working a full time job. Still another shared a mental health diagnosis from decades ago, notwithstanding which he’s built an incredibly rich, healthy, love-filled, fulfilled life.

And these people are out here, in the world, after the event they thought would do them entirely in. They are living and thriving. Loving people and loving life.

I used to think it was coincidence that I met so many people like this. Now I know the truth, which is that there are medical miracles and spiritual triumphs happening all around us all the time. Miracles that we have no idea are taking place unless and until we take a moment to connect with people, deeply.

I also know the truth that like attracts like. And that one of my special talents is helping people feel safe and uplifted as they share kind of scary stuff they’ve been through. As a result, in the same way that a biased researcher will make sure they find what they’re looking for, I tend to find these dark nights of the soul the people I meet have been through. And survived. And thrived in spite of. And been developed by.

Calling this a talent is not the right word, though. It’s more like what it says in the Bible, that deep calls unto deep.

Because I’ve been through some stuff, too. It may be all cashmere cardis, pugs, metallic sandals and acquired startups at my house now. But the foundation of that life is my soul. And this soul, my soul, was honed in the fire of my brother’s 25-year prison sentence, a gut-wrenching custody drama, two divorces, near-bankruptcy, teenaged motherhood and a series of childhood traumas and abuses.

Marianne Williamson, writing of romantic relationships, once said something that stuck with me ever since. She said that we attract people in at the level of our own bullshit. This is the truest story ever told.

So it’s been fascinating and frankly, delightful, to observe the leveling up of the people I attract into my life, over time. I see it as evidence of my own growth. It’s not that the people I used to attract in were terrible and the people in my life now are perfect. It’s more that the people I used to attract in and get and stay in very close relationship with were married to and desperately holding onto their wounds, their dysfunctions and their struggles.

My second husband flat-out broke it down for me once. He said, “Tara, the thing about you is that you’re a fixer. The problem is, that quality about you attracts people who need fixing. Including me. You have to watch out for that.”

Listen, all of God’s children have issues. And, to give myself a little credit where it’s due, I definitely meet my old type of person still, on occasion. But Wise Adult Tara makes Wise Adult Decisions about not getting involved with them. And she certainly watches for red flags that her fixing tendencies are being triggered. Wise Adult Tara has a rule and mantra about this: “I do not intervene between people and the natural consequences of their behavior.” This is a helpful, helpful rule. You are welcome to borrow it. 😀

But the people who come into my life regularly these days? I think of them as gorgeous, vital, thriving ruins. Walking phoenixes. People who should have been out for the count, for real for real, as the kids would say. And who rejected that. Who were victorious. Who have chosen to be victors, not victims.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Croatia the last couple of years. I’m sure I’ll write much more about that in future posts. It’s the most gorgeous place on earth, really. But when people ask me for the #1 reason I love it there, I tell them: it’s the living ruins.

In the coastal Croatian town of Split, 1700 years ago the Roman Emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace out of limestone, a few football fields long. And it’s still there, in roughly the same dimensions as it always was. But here’s the rub: in Split and elsewhere in Croatia, these “ruins” are vibrant and alive. Unlike anywhere else, where the ruins reek of decay and the sadness of long dead civilizations, the Croatians somehow got it into their minds that it was okay to build their downtowns right inside these ruins.

So Diocletian’s Palace is a limestone ruin that you can get a tour guide to walk you through, just like at the Coliseum in Rome. But in the Palace, you can also eat at a restaurant inside it, run your hand over the back of the 3rd century Sphinxes Diocletian left lying about, or lounge about on the steps in the evenings and sing along to old Prince songs with the locals. People live in apartments inside the Palace, work in banks in the Palace, go to the movies in the palace and worship in churches in the Palace.

These people have turned this structure, which should by all accounts and customs be a dead, destroyed ruin, into a thriving, vital center of life. A vital ruin. Just like the people I love and am proud to be attracting into my world. Just like me.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 1 (!) of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.

Souls on Deck: My Call to Action to You, Conscious Leader

I’ve just come home from one of the intense little globe-trots that have become so important to my life and my joy and my growth over the past few years. Started in Oslo, spent a week in Croatia, a week in Belgium, and then a day each in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and New York en route to Austin. I’ll tell you all about it in a bit, as I wave a few “it’s about to get real up in here” flags.

For now, the key kernel is that I spent the last few days at the Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit, in the woods outside of Austin. This was no ordinary conference. For me, it was one of those times in life where you magnetically attract into your life exactly the teachers and experiences you need at exactly the moment you need them. My deepest work lately has been around vulnerability, revealing myself, peeling back the layers of decades-old polish and soul protections to be fully who I am in every single area of my life, including work, which is challenging for me. #understatement

The whole time I was traveling, my Morning and Evening Pages had been processing this vulnerability issue, using the actual word “vulnerability”. I make sense of the world through pattern-spotting, and I’d processed some life lessons down into the a-ha that my deepest connections and most meaningful moments were forged in the fire of realness and openness. When I’m the most vulnerable with people is when I connect with them the most. And it was also dawning on me how my struggles being vulnerable in certain relationships and contexts has been the source of some of my most painful patterns, feelings of being misunderstood, and a sense of disconnection and isolation.

So, then I walked into the Summit with that emotional backdrop. And it turned out that the first session was a four-hour workshop with the world’s leading vulnerability researcher and teacher, Brené Brown. No joke.  There are only 225 attendees, btw, so four hours with Brené Brown blew my wig entirely back. (To be crystal clear, I don’t wear a wig, I just mean to say it was mind-blowing.)

We broke down into groups of 5 and started doing this work, this work of learning to value vulnerability. The work of identifying stories we tell ourselves that have created disconnection and disturbance, and the work of retelling those stories. And, heyI’ve done a lot of work with others around retelling their stories. But I have mostly done that work around how to tell the most powerful story, how to retell your fail points and messy moments as preludes to triumph ad victory.

This is something many people who get stuck in the mess need to be able to do, for themselves and for their careers. As someone once said at church, the Psalm says “Yea, though I go through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Through. It doesn’t say to pitch a tent and set up camp in the Valley. But that’s what a lot of leaders I’ve worked with do, when it comes to telling their own story, because we humans have a negativity bias that causes our brains to alert to and fixate on and enlarge our failures and painful events. So, I’ll often ask someone to tell me their life story and all I hear about is the one time they got fired, versus all the opportunities that opened up once they did, and versus all the brilliant business they led before and after the fail-ey fact.

People come to me for this, because I’m very good at helping people retell the story from a power perspective. With a tone of victory. You want a Hero’s Journey? Give me your story, and I’ll give you back a Hero’s Journey, with you as the Hero.

But Brené (note that we’re on a first name basis in my mind) took this retell-your-life-story thing to new levels of depth. In the process, she triggered two big shifts in my thoughts and feelings on the matter. 

1. Left to their own devices, our brains will oversimplify our story. When we look back on a moment in our lives or careers when we fell flat on our faces, we tend to tell that story to ourselves as: “I fucked up.” “I was lame.” “I failed.” “It was all his fault.” Etc. and so forth.

Even if we are able to tell about how we stuck the landing and recovered beautifully, we generally tell the fail-ey parts of our stories in very black and white terms, because our brains like it simple. I belief that for executive thought leaders, this can occasionally be appropriate. But when we’re taking a hard look at how we’re telling these stories to ourselves and our loved ones (including our families, colleagues, teams and sometimes even our customers), this sanitized, fast-forward past the failure version of the story also fast-forwards past the substance.

2. The messy Act 2 of the Hero’s Journey is the good part. As a marketer, I’ve studied and taught extensively about the Hero’s Journey story archetype that is so core to the human experience: Act 1 is a call to adventure, Act 2 is the part where the Hero fights the good fight, and Act 3 is the bit where Hero comes home, changed, victorious and with a bounty for her loved ones. (This is a vast oversimplification, fyi.) In fact, my new book is built on this narrative arc, so when Brené brought it up, I was 100000% sure I’d be the teacher’s pet on this point.

But she took this in a very different direction than I’d expected her to. She said that the whole part that’s the most interesting to our brains and spirits about the Hero’s Journey is Act 2, while I’ve always focused getting to Act 3. She said the messiness of the Act 2, the valiant efforts and battles and failures, the part where it looks like the Hero might not make it, that’s the good stuff. That’s the part where, if we can dive deep and understand it with nuance and complexity, and then share that nuance and complexity with wisdom and boundaries, that’s the part where a vulnerable, conscious leader integrates lessons learned and creates connection and confidence with the people he or she leads.

Alors. This was a lot of a shift for me, and it was not easy to begin doing in the workshop. But it resonated. I could feel a little space open up in my chest, and I knew this was right. I knew it was right from thinking about my own journey, my own stories.

I knew what I’d learned at the moments when the struggle was really real, and I had this insight of realizing this was why I must practice vulnerability. It’s bigger than just expressing myself or “personal branding.” It’s about fully integrating the lessons I’ve fought for and learned, not just for my own path so that I can present myself to my teams and clients as a perfectly honed and ready-for-action leader. But it’s about fully integrating the lessons I’ve had to learn, the nuance and complex ones, into my community, from my teammates and colleagues, to my partners and vendors, to my clients and even, in some cases, through to their customers.

And outside of work, it’s about showing my soul, which is deep and rich and imperfect, as an invitation for deep and rich and imperfect love and connection.

Conscious leadership is no joke. You’ve got to cultivate personal and life practices to stay grounded in the face of all the things that other leaders do, so you can show up in every hard conversation, make every hard decision, with grace and using a much more complex rubric for decision-making than profit-first. Conscious leaders expose their insides, reveal their deepest visions for the world, and risk ridicule, in a system that doesn’t always value their soul-level motivations for participating in it.

But we, we conscious leaders, are so needed. So necessary. Humanity needs us. To heal the world and the workplace, and to create the visions that were put in our spirits. To build the edifices of (to steal Charles Eisenstein’s phrasing) the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

So, consider this a call to action, a call to adventure. I’m issuing you a challenge to do the deep, personal work it takes to put your soul on deck and living into your boldest, most vulnerable, fullest capacity as a conscious leader. To get concrete, you can start by joining my 30 Day Writing Challenge. It will cost you nothing but a little time and care. A little exposure of the ‘ole soul.

But I’ve found that the biggest shifts it takes to go down this path are not shifts of strategy, or even shifts of story. They are shifts of state, of spirit, of mindset. It’s like in yoga or cycling or bowling (don’t hate – I’m a fantastic bowler, quiet as it’s kept!): where your eyes go, your body, or the ball, will follow. Same with your mindset and spirit and state: where they go, the rest of your life and your leadership will follow.

So, in the interest of igniting a deep spark in your spirit, creating a crack in your current state, I’ll close here with an quote from a piece by Clarissa Pinkola Estés that is intensely influential in my current daily journey, in life and as a leader:

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. A soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.