“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”
We dedicate a large part of our lives to adding more, especially in the working environment. Bigger titles and salary. Increased responsibility, credibility, customers and profit.
More. More. More.
We do this partly because accumulation is one definition of success and because it provides security, recognition and comfort. Over the course of a career then, the accrual of objects, awards, accomplishments, totems and achievements should logically embody a fully-developed human being. So why, as an executive leadership coach, am I often faced with the imbalance between a client's career success and their sense of self that has been lost along the way?
My lifelong interest in this dilemma was initiated twenty years ago in a hotel bar in the French Alps, during a conversation with a CEO of a billion-dollar company. In his fifties and accompanied by an entourage of work colleagues, he was quite clearly the most successful person in the room, commanding awe and respect.
Mid-way through an outburst about his work and family life, I boldly challenged him on his definition of success. Instantly, the bar silenced. The entourage menacingly stared me down. But to his credit, the CEO invited me to join him for a drink. “No one has ever talked to me like that before,” he said after everyone left.
During our emotional all-night discussion, he confided through tears that he was “trapped in his job and hated his life.” Despite the appearance of success, he was confined to a cage of accumulation—a prison of his own making. Instead of awe and respect, I now felt sorry for him.
Losing Ourselves Through Subtraction
So, what would happen if we deliberately and intentionally decided to lose ourselves? Not in our work, as we are often encouraged to do, but in the art of subtraction and the process of self-discovery. What if we weren't attached to an outcome, like others’ opinions or a goal, without fearing a loss in status or security? And what if we forgot about referencing our titles, education, experience, accomplishments or personal triumphs?
Less. Less. Less.
Deliberately deciding to lose ourselves through subtraction might seem terrifying. It certainly was to me the first time that I tried!
After a three-day leadership retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I decided to take a hike to reflect on whether to launch my executive coaching business. With a mortgage and four kids to feed, it felt like another bold move. However, I’d forgotten three important things:
Woods are inhabited by black bears, one of which had been spotted the day before
It's pitch-black at 6am
“Everything you've ever wanted is on the other side of fear."
The Other Side of Fear
Embracing my fears, I stepped out onto the trails and across the bridge that led deeper into the woods, fully submitting to lose myself in the moment. Wandering in that dark and bear-inhabited forest, I lost myself literally and metaphorically. But I found something else.
With each unseeable step through the darkness, with my heart pounding at every broken twig and leaf rustle, my strength deepened. I pushed on. My title, salary, responsibility, credibility and customers didn’t matter one iota. Neither did others’ opinions or my own goals. Status and security, education, experience, accomplishments or personal triumphs held zero worth. All I knew, was that I had to push through the fear and trust everything would be okay.
The new light would reveal a sense of power, conviction and purpose that still guides me to this day. As the sun rose, my self-confidence and credibility grew. I took the above picture at the exact moment I felt courageous enough to launch my own business. Also, to remind myself of the powerful insights, liberation, strength and self-knowledge that we can gain when we deliberately choose to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves; when we have the courage to face our fears.
Little did I know back then when I stepped into the void that on the other side of fear, I’d end up with so much more.
What you discover when you intentionally lose yourself is up to you.
Jamie Ramsden is a certified executive leadership coach and founder of Adastra Consulting (www.adastraleadership.com). A former Chief Executive, Jamie has been coaching C-Suite and Senior executives around the world for over fifteen years.