Tolstoy had imposter syndrome. At the height of his fame as one of the most celebrated authors of his time, he felt like a failure according to his diary.
I found myself musing over this at the weekend, having been tagged in an article on 6 worrying signs of a toxic workplace community in which I’m referred to as a “renowned coach and consultant in careers and leadership”. Does reading that kind of thing mean that I’ve made it? I don’t think so. But I don’t feel that I haven’t made it either.
I came back to what I know: the fewer thoughts I have on the subject of “me” and “my success/failure”, the more mental space I have for more interesting thoughts and creative insights that can solve worthwhile problems and be of service to others. That conclusion felt liberating and aligned. Truth has a taste of freedom, as the Buddha said.
Enough about success.
Let’s talk about peace in times of change, the subject of Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace. Having dusted it off this weekend for no particular reason, it then felt highly relevant since his characters experience enormous upheaval, arguably much greater than what we’re experiencing with Covid19. For one thing, the Napoleonic wars lasted more than a decade and several million people died (which won’t be the course of the pandemic hopefully, if we manage it well).
The central question the characters are grappling with is:
how can I find happiness and fulfilment in the midst of turmoil?
(If you’re interested you may want to check out Andre Kaufman’s Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom For Troubled Times.)
They’re trying to find their personal answers to what the Russians call “the cursed questions”:
1) Who am I?
2) What am I here for?
3) How should I live and make a contribution?
These happen to be the most profound questions we can ask ourselves, the answers to which give greater meaning to life and abate existential angst.
Of course, the characters don’t find intellectual answers, they find their answer in simple moments of clarity and beauty. Pierre in a moment of kind generosity when receiving food from a peasant while in prison. Andrei when knocked off his horse during battle and noticing the vastness of the sky for the first time.
Suddenly, everything makes sense beyond words and their restlessness and agitation, their doubts and fears vanish. It’s a “spiritual experience” rather than the fruit of protracted, logical reasoning.
This isn’t voodoo or woolly sentimentality. Empirically speaking, and as reported in the psychology and neuroscience research, a mind that’s aware of its own ability to experience without judgement or interpretation is much more coherent and integrated.
The body is then able to relax from the mind’s constant evaluation, optimisation, and loss-aversion. The release of tension co-emerges with a clarity of thought and a feeling of sweet bliss.
It’s when they’ve let go fully that they find what they were looking for. In the words of the singer Janis Joplin: “Freedom is just a word for nothing left to lose”.
Until we know a moment of peace amidst whatever turmoil we face, we will never be free of the “cursed questions”, the mind forever seeking and rattling about in its cage of misunderstanding.
It only takes ONE, SINGLE moment. Do not belittle its simplicity or you will miss the point. Appreciate its beauty and its significance, however fleeting.
Will you give yourself that moment?
How you might ask?
The truth is an element of randomness does exist. But you can increase the probability of a liberating moment through orientation of your actions and words to align with your deeper truth. Leadership starts with self-leadership.
In two words: Slow. Down.
Legends in the making: Last week, in Presence Power Possibility: Advance Your Leadership, we started our group coaching journey together with slowing down and relaxing. A leader must know how to drop out of automatic thoughts into deeper reflection and quiet space. It’s in the stillness that the answers come. New perspectives become available and new insights emerge, sometimes simply as better questions. In the quiet, safe space of the group we’re able to dive in. Perhaps you can’t see your next step because you’re avoiding the discomfort of it. What are you willing to take a risk for? Would you rather feel safe and bored or outside your comfort zone and alive?
So are you willing to slow down for a moment, even if it feels uncomfortable?
[Watch the video if you need some encouragement]
One of my clients who is an extremely talented and conscientious doctor leading a specialist team in one of the country’s top hospitals noticed how quickly she was able to come back to her calm, confident state in a coaching session. She asked me: how do I stay in this state? A natural and legitimate desire. I suggested thinking of it as a butterfly. You can chase it with a net or you can sit calmly and let it land on you.
As high achievers and leaders in the current culture, we know how to move and shake things. But a time comes when you know that these strengths have become a liability. They’re in the way of what’s possible. It’s time to pause, expand awareness, and discover something deeper.
Will you give yourself some space?
Have a great week,
p.s. There’s a time for grappling with the “cursed questions” and there’s a time for dealing with more immediate ones like: Can I do this? Who am I to do this? How can I have more confidence in myself? We start where we are and work our way in. If that’s you, try the:
How to Break Free from Imposter Syndrome and Toxic Work Culture micro-guide.
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