Yes, You Are Successful. But Are You Alive?...
I wish it would dawn upon engineers that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer.
~ José Ortega y Gasset, Spanish philosopher, in The Perils of Perfection
I asked a senior executive recently what he thought was needed to be successful in his role. He listed a number of technical and leadership skills, but then he confessed: “honestly, it's not that fun. When you get here, your level of choice changes. You can’t just do you want. You need to do what is required.”
I felt a squeeze in my heart. He was obviously brilliant and accomplished. But he sounded mournful. He reminded me of other successful people I´ve come across whose work is high quality, but feels lifeless- to themselves and others.
I’ve been there. Earlier in my career, I had a job where I was responsible for the corporate governance of a large investment portfolio. Hundreds of people all over the world were involved in making these big decisions. The problem was, the process had gained a life of its own: it was bureaucratic and slowing down innovation. I rolled up my sleeves, eager to improve things, but after various attempts it was clear that I was trying to move the Titanic with my bare hands. So I gave up. I stopped doing what I wanted, and started doing what was expected. At the end of the year, I got the highest performance review an employee could get, and a very nice bonus. I had done a great job. But I felt dead inside.
The inner death of work
According to Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician, psychoanalyst and one of the greatest scholars of infant development, we are born with a true self, our natural way of being and doing. Soon, in interaction with our caretakers, we start learning what it takes to get love and other things we need to survive. When our true self is at odds with these expectations, we develop coping strategies to get what we need. These become a protective armor of behaviors and beliefs in order to meet our caretakers’ expectations. Winnicott called this armor the false self, which we all need to function, but he warned: "only the true self can be creative, and only the true self can feel real”.
Over time, teachers, employers, and society at large continue to teach us what it takes to make it in the modern world. We learn that,
the more you know, the better
the more you can do in one day, the better (never give up, or you will die)
the more people like and admire you, the better.
As we keep building our armor to meet external demands, we run the risk of losing contact with our true self. We start "dying" inside. Like when we achieve some kind of goal but feel no real joy inside.
When we realize that we lost track of who we really are, it can lead us to making some big life changes, like quitting our jobs or moving to another country (I've done that myself). We go on a lifetime journey of therapy, meditation, and self-improvement. All these things can help. But they are also costly.
I found an easier, more natural way to feel more alive at work: you need to become an artist. Specifically, you need to have an artistic pursuit in your personal life. And then, apply the principles of that art directly to your profession.
Believe it or not, you’re already an artist
People usually associate art with being creative, and many of us don't think of ourselves as creative. I see art a little differently. In fact:
Art is something you do that makes you
feel alive and let go of fear
I first heard this definition at a lecture by Professor Paco Sainz, a relational psychoanalyst. It resonated with me because I believe that everyone is an artist.
I´ve met countless people with "real" jobs and careers who have been leading a double life as artists for years: they play an instrument, they do theater, dance, paint, or write. Or they climb mountains, cook, knit, train dogs, build motorcycles, etc. In my case, my art is dancing. I started when I was 6 years old, dabbled in different styles throughout life until I landed in flamenco some 15 years ago.
What all these hidden artists have in common is that, during these activities, we feel both relaxed and alert, and forget about the demands of life. We are enlivened by challenges, and our desire to learn more about our art drenches the work in joy ("it hurts so good!"). When we are doing our art, we feel free. As Winnicott would say, we are being our true self.
Now take a moment and ask yourself: What do I do with pure pleasure, and no pressure? That's your art.
Why being an artist makes you a better professional
During Professor Sainz’s lecture, I learned that some of the greatest contributors to the field of psychotherapy were also poets, musicians, painters, etc. They weren’t famous artists, just dedicated ones. Through art, they experienced the ups and downs of failing and trying again, they learned to express themselves in different ways, to tolerate uncertainty, to laugh at themselves, and be spontaneous. They knew well the full range of human experience. As a result, they achieved lasting breakthroughs with their patients.
The greatest mistake people with shadow artistic lives make is to compartmentalize their art from the rest of life, in particular their professional life. They’re sitting on a treasure trove of natural skills and talents that can take their work to new heights.
When you start using the words, attitudes and skills from your art in your work, you start seeing it through the lens of your true self. New possibilities open up. You experience more fun and pleasure. You become a more powerful leader, a more creative programmer, a more inspiring engineer. And the best part is, you don’t have to learn anything new. You just need to apply what you already know, in a different context.
Let me demonstrate, by going back to my governance job (the one where I felt dead inside despite being successful). I tried applying for other jobs, without success. I was stuck, and I had no idea what to do. A feeling I recognized from dancing on stage. It’s normal to draw a blank and forget your steps during a live performance because there’s so much to manage. Anxiety turns your mind and body to mush. Add the stage lights in your eyes, the audience staring at you, and musicians looking to you for guidance, and you have a nice cocktail for a breakdown. When you get lost on stage, the tendency is to start adding more stuff to fill in the empty space. But that just makes you even more overwhelmed, the musicians can´t follow you anymore, and now everyone notices your mistake. The best way to recover is to stop, and do something really simple to mark the beat. Rhythm is the heartbeat of flamenco. Whenever you get lost, you find the heartbeat. Eventually, magic happens: you either remember your steps, or new ones come out spontaneously.
What if rhythm could help me get unstuck in my job? I started by inviting a few people from different departments to get together on a regular basis and talk about problems we had in common. Trust started to emerge, and with it the willingness to cooperate. New ideas popped up, like educating employees about the governance process so that they wouldn't feel so lost. Corporate governance is not the sexiest of topics, but once again, a dancer's mindset was helpful. Dancers keep an audience engaged with stories and beauty, so we hosted learning forums to share stories of past decisions, good and bad. We launched a beautiful book and a website that featured real people doing real work that quickly went viral- and made the bureaucracy visible, too. Eventually, this swelling of energy led to a corporate-wide effort that simplified decision-making and restored the heartbeat of innovation.
How to bring your artistic self to work- without putting your career at risk
Say that your art is cooking. After years of practice, you've become masterful. You can whip up a delicious meal at a moment's notice, with whatever is available in your fridge. But when you're at work, this spontaneity doesn't come out. You are more cautious and strategic because your career, reputation or business results are at stake. If you were more spontaneous, you would have no control over what comes out, you could make a big mistake- then what?!
Three things have helped me overcome this natural fear of being exposed and failing:
Remember the "why": whenever you falter, recall your goal, ie, the desire to feel more alive at work, to experience the same kind of joy and freedom you feel when you're cooking.
Start with small experiments: try really simple moves with people you trust, who are encouraging and have your best interest in mind. These small wins build up confidence and discernment on what works vs doesn't.
Keep going: you can't really know if something works until you try it for a while. Even if the first few attempts feel awkward, keep iterating, stick with it for at least three weeks.
The more I applied dance principles to my work, the more work and art came together. Until one day, I danced flamenco at a work offsite. I tested the idea in advance with a couple of trusted colleagues: would they be interested in seeing a live demonstration of what the art of flamenco can teach us about organizational change? Their enthusiasm helped me gather the courage. On the day of the offsite, as the musicians and I walked up onto our small stage, fear welled up: "am I committing career suicide? What will they think when they see me dressed in ruffles, moving my hips? Oh god, I should have checked with HR!", and on and on. But the crowd was friendly, and eager to experience something new. Artists and businesspeople discovered they could learn a lot from each other about building teams, navigating change, and performing in stressful situations.
There are dancers, and there are spellbinding creatures for whom movement emanates from deep within the body and erupts like a volcano.
The New York Times's review of Noche Flamenca, a New York- based flamenco dance company
This is my wish for you. Transformation is about waking up parts of us that are dormant. We don’t necessarily have to change. Sometimes, we can naturally and gracefully become who we already are by tapping into our art – be it dancing, gardening, soccer, or something else. Don’t treat your art like “just a hobby”. Make it your lab, your dojo, your studio – where you rehearse, discover, uncover, and prepare for living and working as your spellbinding self.