But it’s all right now, I’ve learned my lesson well
You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.
I’ve been meandering through old photographs, newspaper cuttings and various other memorabilia found in my cupboards during this forced Covid-19 lockdown period, with the inevitable consequence that many intentionally ‘forgotten’ memories have come flooding back …
One of these past early chapters is my application for a Rhodes Scholarship …
There is a window of opportunity of three years for applying for the Rhodes Scholarship, and I had left it to the last year of eligibility to apply. In the previous two years, I had been reluctant to apply and had had the weird experience of receiving phone calls from other prospective applicants wanting to know if I would be in the field that year. They had decided that I would be a certain winner, so if that were the case, they would submit their applications in a different year …
You see, I had the credentials in the things that they deemed to be the most important criteria. I was the top mathematician in my last year at school, coming first in the country in the Matric Advanced Mathematics paper. I was also an international track athlete, who would almost certainly have competed for South Africa in the Olympic Games in Mexico in the 400-metre hurdles if South Africa had not been expelled for its apartheid laws. In addition, I had recently shown my leadership credentials as Captain of the UCT Athletics Club, where membership and camaraderie had grown significantly, to the extent that the organisation had achieved the impossible by beating Stellenbosch University in the top local team competition. I was studying the enormously difficult degree of Chemical Engineering and keeping myself in the top two in the class.
So in this last year, I decided to go for it and I applied, was short-listed, interviewed and then waited … and waited…
Having been told the decision would be made within a week, I became concerned when there was nothing but silence from the school until the formal letter arrived telling me I had been unsuccessful.
I had failed!
The repercussions were enormous: most significant was that I had failed both my parents.
My mother had always been a reluctant parent and I quickly learned that I could only get her attention through success. However, there was a twist in this attention as it always demanded further success. ‘You got 95% for maths, where did you lose the 5%?’ ‘You broke the school record, so what’s the provincial record?’ (all the way up to the world record!).
So success had become a crucial ingredient for survival and scraps of love. I suspect I chose the 400-metre hurdles (the most exhausting and demanding athletics track event) as a symbolic overcoming of my limitations as an asthmatic when young. I certainly chose to study Chemical Engineering at university because people told me it was the most difficult degree that used both mathematics and science (great method for choosing one’s future career!).
My father, who had come from Cockney working-class roots, had devoted himself to making a successful life that would allow him to send his children to the best schools in his new country so that they could have a better start than he had had. He had started the process through elocution lessons and then worked his way up from junior to senior levels in the company. He consequently took enormous pride in my achievements; for him, the crowning glory would have been for his son to win a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, something he could never have aspired to himself.
It turned out that I had given an appalling interview. My total exclusive focus on success in the lecture theatre as well as on the athletics track had left me with little or no time to educate myself properly in current affairs and issues of philosophy. My answers to the panel’s questions were deemed to be very shallow: definitely not befitting a future Oxford student!
It was a bitter pill to swallow at the time, but I shrugged it off (in the same way I had let go of my Olympic ambitions the previous year) and continued my quest for perfection and success in the years that followed in my roles as a teacher, a husband and then a father.
Fast forward twenty years. I thought I had cracked the key to successful intimate relationships by observing my father’s ‘mistakes’ in handling my mother, so I married with confidence. I followed my plan and my (apocryphal) story is that over the years, I handed over more and more of my power to my wife, with increasingly diminishing returns. Somewhere in my mid-forties, I became totally tired of myself!
One evening I decided to take the plunge and begin the process of taking back my power. So without any warning or preparation, I suddenly said (as firmly as I could), ‘Tonight, I want to choose what we are going to do.’
In this version of the story, my wife took the wind out of my sails by saying, ‘Sure, darling, what do you want to do?’
I was shocked into silence by the frightening realisation that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. It had taken so much energy and focus getting the courage to stand up and say this sentence that at no stage had I given any thought as to what might come next! Even more horrifying in that moment was my realisation that I actually did know what every single person who had had some influence or power over me at some stage in my life would want me to do (whether it was through love [wife, children, parents] or through position [teacher, lecturer, coach or boss])!
The ground opened up in front of me and I realised that my whole life until then had consisted of pleasing other people.
The next day was even worse as I observed myself in action and saw that everything I did during that day had an ulterior motive of getting recognition from someone else for how clever/funny/intelligent/… I was.
This was a huge moment for me and fortunately the start of a whole new personal journey where I started with the task of pleasing myself through my own actions and choices instead of prioritising others. (Thank you,Rick Nelson)
This journey led me to explore two main paths …
The first path asked me to let go of my attempts at seeking validity and affirmation from others through the impossible and unrealisable pursuit of attempted perfectionism and continuous success. I needed to work on knowing that I was good enough. Brene Brown, in her TED talk on Vulnerability, encourages us to know that ‘I am enough’, but this was paradoxically ‘not enough’ for me. I needed to address the overwhelming demands of my past, which had turned me into a continuous self-generating KPI monster who is always setting the bar just out of reach! I had to add the word ‘good’!
My teaching experiences over the past 12 years in the field of Personal Leadership led me to make my learnings from this path accessible through a blog on being Good Enough. A year or so after writing this supposedly definitive blog, I realised that this work is actually a lifelong commitment and that there had been (at least) two more major shifts that needed to be told in follow-up blogs, Good Enough 2 and Good Enough 3.
The second path became clearer when I came across David Whyte’s concept of The Three Marriages. He speaks of the importance of the ongoing conversation and contracting that needs to happen between the Marriages to Self, Other and Work.
For him, Marriage to Self asks us to be still and seek silence so that we can go inwards and see if we can listen to our soul’s inner knowing. Marriage to Self is extremely difficult in these complex times because it places such different demands on us from the other two marriages, which call for us to be busy, doing and communicating. The problem, he believes, is that we cannot hope to have a good marriage to Other or to Work if we do not give our best attention to nourishing our marriage to Self.
These ideas find resonance for me in James Hollis‘s description of the challenges of the second half of life, where we are asked to radically consider who we are apart from our history, roles and commitments. He says that to enter this second half of life, we have to be willing to listen to ‘the voice that arises from the depths of our souls’.
I try to introduce the concept of Marriage to Self in my Personal Leadership classes. I start by asking everyone to estimate the percentage of time they devote to each of the three marriages, with all three allocated percentages adding up to 100%. Prior to Covid-19, there was a definite dominant pattern in the responses: the overwhelming majority gave answers along the lines of 80% Marriage to Work, 15% Marriage to Other and 5% Marriage to Self.
If Whyte is correct in saying that we cannot have good marriages to Work and Other without having a good marriage to Self, this is frightening data. Even more worrying is that the 5% for Self often includes time spent by the participants beating up their bodies in the noise of a gym rather than peaceful contemplative time.
I ask participants to begin a journey of reclaiming the Marriage to Self through two powerful class exercises that form the basis for intermodular homework.
I took the first exercise from something offered by the Brazilian Biocentric educator, Liliana Viotti, at a workshop in France. She asked us to divide a sheet of paper into four quadrants, as in the sketch below. We were asked to scan our lives for the various activities that we like (DIG) or don’t like doing and whether or not we do them. The instruction is to write down ideas in a free-flow way without judgement as quickly as you can. Just keep writing …
In my classes, I decide when it seems the lists are long enough, and we stop. Obviously, each item does not carry equal weight, but it is surprising how often we find that it is the two same two columns that are the longest (the ‘I Dig and I Don’t Do’ column and the ‘I Don’t Dig and I Do’ column). What is it about our lives that leads us not to do the things we like and to do many things we don’t actually like?
This exercise gives participants some insight into the choices they make along with the priority they give to their own lives and desires. They discuss their lists and insights with another person, and then select two specific items to work on before the next round of sessions starts in around two months’ time. They have to choose an item that they like and start doing it, and stop doing another item that they don’t like doing. In essence, they are being invited to prioritise themselves in making choices: a start in paying attention to the Marriage to Self.
It is interesting to hear the energy that this discussion generates and the enormity of the challenge that this homework places on some participants. I try to ease their path by referring them to the work of Charles Handy, who identified three crucial lubricants for change. One of these is a Proper Selfishness.
The second exercise comes after we have watched Shonda Rhime’s powerful TED talk.
Again, each participant discusses the impact the talk has had on them with a fellow participant, and then selects a daily activity that they plan to incorporate into their post-module life for around 15 minutes that will bring them JOY. They do not have to follow Shonda in playing with their children, although this activity is, in many ways, the most fulfilling and easiest to incorporate into the day – always assuming our children haven’t given up on us and are still prepared to play with us! Another step of proper selfishness that focuses on Marriage to Self …
These are small beginnings, but both activities seem to open up a whole new world of presence and positivity for those who are prepared to pay attention to their lives and do the necessary work.
For the past few years, I have run a six-day senior leadership programme for two different companies. The six days are split over three modules, with a one-day follow-up session six months after the third module. As part of the sixth day (the last day of the actual teaching programme), each participant makes a short videoed commitment to their colleagues on the programme in which they outline their intentions for changing their behaviour based on the insights they have garnered from the programme.
A month ago, the participants of each of the most recent of these programmes joined me in separate lockdown-enforced online Zoom follow-up days. The aim of the follow-up day is to hold each participant accountable to themselves and to their colleagues on the programme. With this in mind, the day is framed around individual presentations during which each person reports back to the team on where they have succeeded in introducing positive change into their lives in line with their previously stated intentions as well as outlining what challenges they have faced in doing so.
This year’s reports were very striking. The fact that everyone had spent at least three of the six months in coronavirus lockdown, meant that the reality of their lives and the many challenges they faced had been brought into sharp relief.
Listening to the reports, it soon become clear that the vast majority of those programme participants in the two groups (20 participants in all) who had set an intention to pay more serious attention to their Marriage to Self had made some significant progress in this regard. They reported a change in lifestyle that now saw them spending time gardening, switching off their cellphones at home, painting, playing with their children, reading, walking in nature and so on. What struck me particularly strongly was the improved strength and groundedness with which each of these people spoke. It seemed that this increased focus on Marriage to Self had made a significant difference in how they were present in the world and how they were handling the difficult challenges they were facing.
Several of them told us how this enhancement of their Marriage to Self had emboldened them in their workplace: they had been able to negotiate changes in their jobs or their relationships with their colleagues with a far stronger emphasis on boundaries. They spoke with pride and satisfaction, going on to say how this boundaried strength was now spreading to their interactions with extended family members. Several participants also reported how the work they had done to improve their Marriage to Self had helped them start drawing lines in the sand to protect themselves from being over-available to assist others, and to take on extra work and responsibilities!
It really felt as if they confirmed David Whyte’s assertion about the central importance of the Marriage to Self.
In contrast, those who had not foregrounded changes in lifestyle that would support an improved Marriage to Self or who had given up on this aspect of their previously stated intentions for change by succumbing to the many pressures that working from home had placed on them were really struggling. They had coped with this pressure by devoting more time to their Marriage to Work, and as a result giving less attention to their Marriage to Self. This had left them feeling exhausted and frustrated (seemingly bordering on hopeless at times) in many spheres.
Today I have been reading the assignments of a group of EMBA students with whom I spent two days on their first module. I am struck by the increasing demands and struggle they have faced as the effects of the various lockdown stages have made themselves felt. Their initial optimism has come under huge pressure as they try to meet all the conflicting demands on their time from home and work and their studies. The first casualty inevitably seems to have been the progress they had been making on their Marriage to Self.
I am due to see these students again in the coming week, unfortunately via Zoom and not in person. There is an intensive timetable of content lectures and new knowledge scheduled for them this week.
I have been sitting thinking about the stories I have shared in this blog from my own life (as well as the many others that I have not shared).
I know that my life only really started when I began to pay attention to the Marriage to Self. I know that it is only now that I am in my 70s that I can feel satisfaction at some of the progress I have made that has allowed me to live far more authentically with deep listening to my soul. The feedback given by participants during the follow-up days for the two senior leadership programmes confirms many of my beliefs.
I am thinking about my session in two days’ time. How can I broach this topic in a new way that allows the EMBA students to have a second bite at the topic? How can I re-enthuse those who have given up? Is this even my responsibility as an academic on the course when there is a huge amount of new ‘proper’ theoretical material to be covered? I am reminded of a few students in previous years who got impatient with the continued presence of this ‘soft’ stuff that became repetitive to them because they had ‘got’ the message and didn’t need it repeated. I weigh this against those students who have said this ‘stuff’ was the most important learning on the programme …
As I write the above, the central question becomes clearer to me.
What really matters at the context of the current chaotic and challenging time where the future has to written as it emerges?
It’s time to pay attention to my own Marriage to Self and go for a ride on my kayak and listen to my outer environment as well as my own inner voice.
I know I will be much clearer about my decisions for Tuesday once I have done this.