My mother’s purpose in this world is to live a life of gratitude. This is not done in the abstract, but a genuine reminder to herself on a daily basis that in spite of the struggles that plague many of us: problems at work, struggles in romantic relationships, health concerns—not to mention the frustration and anxiety produced by our increasingly complex world, that life is not worth living if we cannot appreciate it. It would be an understatement to say that she has had more than her fair share of obstacles, pain, and setbacks in her life. Yet, she has never let these be a cornerstone of how she chooses to live her life.
If those closest to me were asked to pick adjectives to describe me, I would hope they might pick “determined”, “intelligent”, or “motivated”. I am also sure my snark and my tendency towards the curmudgeon would be included. However, I am not sure that that “gracious” would near the top of the list. My default is not naturally being overly jazzed about life, and it is easy for me to get trapped in focusing on the negative. Complaining comes as naturally as breathing to me. My mom challenges me on a regular basis, reminding me that a living without acknowledging blessings makes living with the challenges even more difficult.
Over the past six months, I have challenged myself to live this existence of gratitude. For me, this doesn’t mean being inauthentic; I am not trying to recreate the flower power movement. What this meant for me was that when I started to complain and focus on the negative, I needed to ask myself the following question:
- What is really the problem? It is often easy for struggles to snowball and conflate into larger issues. If I am upset about a situation, I need to delineate if I am upset about the specific issue, or if it was symptomatic of a larger issue that was causing me unhappiness.
- What has been my part in the creation of this problem? It is never easy to admit that we may have at least contributed to the current state of things. Blame is a default for many of us, but it takes more courage to recognize the role we played in its existence.
- What is my capacity to change the problem? Complaining is easy. Fixing the problem is harder. Sometimes, we have the ability to change a situation, but we don’t because we don’t understand our power to do so. Or because we expect someone else to fix it for us. Or sometimes it is just easier to play the martyr. Yet, the more we fail to take action to change the problem, the greater the impact the problem has on our ability to function.
- When is it time to walk away? Sometimes, we don’t have the ability to change the problem, or that changing the problem may be more taxing to us than just living with the issue. This then requires us to let go of things causing us negativity. One of my most used phrases is “not my pig, not my farm,” meaning there are things beyond my control that I can’t focus on, because they are not mine to deal with.
- What are the positives? When people say, “look for the silver lining,” I have a tendency to roll my eyes. I don’t ever want to downplay a problem by only looking for the positives, and honestly, I sometimes find excessive optimism annoying. Yet in reality, this is the only way we survive the challenges of life. 2017 hasn’t started off well for me: there have been many professional challenges, my dog went through a costly and frightening cancer scare, and I had to have knee surgery. These frustrations are real, and I certainly have a right to be upset about them. Yet, through these experiences, I have been able to clarify my own professional ethics, I have the opportunity to deepen my commitment to my dog, and I have never felt such love as I did when friends came out of the woodwork to help me survive post-op. These are by no means trivial. By focusing on the benefits, it makes it easier to deal with the reality of the challenges.
In learning to live a life of gratitude, I found this to be just as important in my professional role as a leader and manager. Leadership will always continue to create new challenges, frustrations, and opportunities for us to become overwhelmed. When I am faced with problems as a leader, it is easy to become consumed, lose my cool, and live in state of indignation, conflict, and division. This is selfish. It focuses on the struggles we as leaders experience and we lose sight of those we serve.
As leaders, we need to more fully embrace gratitude in order to lead people effectively. Former NBA coach Phil Jackson captured this sentiment in his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior:
“If we can accept whatever we’ve been dealt – no matter how unwelcome – the way to proceed eventually becomes clear. This is what is meant by right action: the capacity to observe what’s happening and act appropriately, without being distracted by self-centered thoughts. If we rage and resist, our angry, fearful minds have trouble quieting down sufficiently to allow us to act in the most beneficial way for ourselves and others.”
With the increasing complexity of the world, we are only going to be faced with more struggles across all industries. The only way that we are going to be able to survive is if we approach life with more grace. As someone for whom this is not always a natural state of being, this will continue to be challenging. I invite you to join in this process with me. Take my mom’s advice and learn what it means to live and lead a life of gratitude.
How do you demonstrate gratitude in your life? Tweet me @TM_Porter or comment below.