We need an executive focus on purpose, meaning and well-being to transition to a good new everyday life after the pandemic
The Covid crisis ripped us out of our everyday routines, and in the midst of all the frustrations and all the things we miss, for many of us, the crisis has also sparked a search for what actually makes us happy and provides a sense of meaning. It has given rise to new insights, experiences, priorities and dreams that we should now address together and activate as a resource in our joint effort, as employees and managers, to promote meaning, motivation and well-being in the new workday that is waiting just round the corner, past the pandemic.
Research has documented the highly adaptive nature of human cognition. We are generally quick to adapt to change. This might cause us to expect that the return to post-pandemic everyday life will be straightforward, if we just get a little time to get back into our familiar routines and procedures from before the first lockdown last year.
I don’t think that is true, though, for several reasons:
First of all, we need to be aware that the employees and managers who return to the workplace will to some degree be mentally exhausted. That alone underscores the need for a transition that focuses much more on well-being than on efficiency – and the need for managers to acknowledge that the primary focus should not be to get back up to speed as quickly as possible in order to make up for lost time, even if it might seem tempting. The Danish leadership centre CfL recently published a survey documenting that the level of well-being among Danish employees and leaders has declined during the pandemic*.
Second, I believe that we are underestimating the existential change the pandemic has initiated in many of us, if we think that we can simply pick up where we left off. When we are ripped out of our familiar routines and contexts, we are affected at an existential level. Over the past year, I have spoken with many leaders and employees who tell me that they have had new insights, priorities, aspirations and dreams for both their working life and their personal life during the pandemic. Moreover, the pandemic has given many people a more acute awareness of their own mortality, which in turn provides both a conscious and an unconscious basis for self-reflection, personal development and an adjustment of one’s value base.
The need for dialogues about meaning and purpose to promote well-being
On the outside, we may look the same, but inside, we are changed after living with Covid for more than a year, and we need to treat these changes with the utmost respect – not least from a leadership point of view, where the most important priority right now might be to meet the employees who return to the workplace with empathy and sincere curiosity.
To promote well-being, it is time for dialogues about:
- What worked well during the pandemic?
- What generated well-being? Motivation? And what did not?
- What did we miss?
- What did we discover?
- Which of our previous routines would it be helpful to leave behind or use less in the future?
In other words, there are many issues – including existential ones – for workplaces to address now, and the only way to do it is to focus on well-being, meaning and purpose.
If we fail to engage in dialogues aimed at enhancing well-being and instead focus exclusively on what the pandemic has taught us about efficiency, online work and so forth, I fear that well-being and motivation will suffer both long-term and short-term.
Well-being drives growth – not the other way round
I admit that I sometimes get a little tired and disheartened when I see in the media that some leaders seem to focus almost exclusively on how to preserve the efficient procedures that were established during the pandemic or how to bring their staff back up to speed as quickly as possible once they return to the workplace.
I am concerned when I see that well-being does not come first – even as we are in the midst of a global pandemic. It illustrates that we are still stuck in an outdated mindset that puts growth before well-being, rather than the other way round.
Of course, we might make minor cost cuts in the short term by following the dogmas of the growth paradigm, with its focus on constant efficiency drives and profit optimization, but we lose our sense of meaning and the purpose-driven, professional and intrinsic motivation that enable organizational development, well-being and sustainable growth.
In my opinion, we should use our experiences from the pandemic to cultivate these latter qualities.
A window of opportunity
If we listen to each other with an open mind and are not afraid to challenge the familiar – because it no longer makes sense – we can take advantage of this unique window of opportunity to discover new perspectives and possibilities that can transform the way workplaces maximize sustainable well-being, development and growth.
For example, we may discover new perspectives that inspire new organizational structures, including self-management, followership, interdisciplinary collaboration, facilitative leadership and much, much more. These are some of the perspectives I address in my new talk ‘The organization that took to the wing and became a murmuration’, where I take my audience of leaders and employees on an energizing, humorous and, not least, philosophical journey to a more coherent, synchronous organization.
Just imagine if the Covid crisis could lead to a sustainable culture revolution – and, perhaps, mark the decisive step on the path from a growth paradigm to a well-being paradigm.
A new chapter
That’s how many people on the planet feel about a new year, I think.
That it marks the beginning of a new chapter.
Or, at least, that gives us cause to reflect on what happened during the past year.
What are you happy about?
What would you like to leave behind you?
Are there any areas of your life that you would like to focus more on, or dreams that might be possible if focused on them?
We have probably all found ourselves in the following situation. We do our best, we feel, and we do, and we’re being honest, and yet, we don’t actually achieve what we had hoped, even though we can tell that it’s important. Not only for ourselves, but also because it might make a positive contribution to somebody else’s life.
Perhaps we think we don’t have what it takes,
that we need more training to achieve it,
or maybe somebody else can do it better,
and after all, what do we really have to offer …
Or maybe we’ve waited so long that we’re too old to make a change?
That might be a fitting description of periods in most people’s lives.
Most of us don’t believe that we’re good enough.
We do what we can to cope, make things work out anyway, after all, we have to find a way to get by.
But imagine if each of us could reach a point where we realized that we are precisely good enough, exactly the way we are?
Interestingly, this beautiful self-acceptance contains such a powerful declaration of love for ourselves and, thus, for life that once we acknowledge that we are good enough as we are, we actually become aware that in that exact constellation we have so much to give.
Each of us has so unbelievably much to give. SO much that we just have to get started.
And in that zone, where we can feel how much is really calling to be put in motion, we don’t mind supporting the people around us doing exactly the same. Living out their unique calling.
Finding one’s calling does not have to be about an elevated or religious purpose.
Really, it just means having that intuitive feel for what it is one can contribute with in the big picture. It is a way of giving while growing in a coherent universe, as I described it in my book The Fruit-Tree Strategy – Giving While Growing, back in 2000.
Sure, that’s a few years ago now, but I don’t think it is any less true now than it was then, perhaps on the contrary. The world, the planet, is calling for many things that most of us can see would really be improvements.
Imagine that it begins with us, you and me, so that with our calling and our unique contributions we can create a ripple effect that sets things in motion.
It has to start somewhere. And it could start with you. Right here. Right now. Today, this month, this year. NOW.
Have you considered what makes your life meaningful?
I ought to spend more time at the gym; spend less time on NETFLIX; eat more broccoli; go to bed earlier; focus more on my career; be a better partner, parent, colleague or leader. The growth paradigm, with its ideals of ‘faster, higher, longer’, has instilled a basic condition where we constantly strive for personal optimization and drive. Often, this makes us forget to sense ourselves and think about what is really meaningful for us, the way we are, with our unique differences. What if we are actually good enough exactly the way we are?
‘What if …’ That is one of my favourite phrases, because it inspires me to wonder. I often wonder. Especially, I wonder about the growth paradigm and whether its dogmas and ideals have pushed us away from a much more coherent understanding of our place in the world that would hold much more meaning for each of us.
The growth paradigm that we have lived under in recent decades has made it legitimate and prestigious to strive for constant personal optimization. We are constantly driven to go onwards and upwards, achieving more and more, as illustrated, for example, by the constant attention we shower on our mobile phones or computers instead of being present where we are. Under the growth paradigm, being present in the moment has become almost unthinkable. And to keep up with the people around us, we tell ourselves that we had better flash our drive and enthusiasm, reflecting society’s ideals of boundless energy and capacity.
But what if that’s not where we are supposed to search for meaning? What if our efforts to achieve the ideals of the growth paradigm are really just making us more sad and frustrated than we realize? What if it is really the discourse of the growth paradigm – with its dogmas and ideals – that has led us astray, caused us to believe in an illusion that simply goes against nature and the way our bodies and minds work. Causing us to take anti-depressants because of the constant need to self-optimize and live up to expectations that are so far removed from our true nature that they make us stressed, depressed and incapable of making sense of our lives?
Look to the fruit tree to learn about leadership, following and self-management
What if we are really supposed to find the path to meaning, well-being and wholeness somewhere else entirely? What if we could learn from our bodies and from nature? The fruit tree is one of my main sources of inspiration.
The fruit tree blooms, yields fruit, goes into hibernation, only to start all over and get even stronger the following year. It gives while it grows, it has a natural rhythm, and it needs room to breathe. Exactly the same is true of human beings; we too are incapable of ‘peaking’ all the time, as required by the growth paradigm.
With inspiration from the fruit tree, I like to view human beings as organisms in a larger, coherent cosmos, able to find meaning and unfold our potential when we are allowed to give while we grow. We need room to breathe in our everyday life and time to consider, intuitively and continually, whether what we are doing makes sense and provides meaning.
Give yourself a check-up: are you giving while growing?
So wherever we are in life, I think we need to insist on maintaining an intuitive approach to ourselves and our life. We need to preserve our ability to ask those intuitive questions that the growth paradigm has made us forget. What brings meaning to my life and makes sense to me – exactly as I am? At work,in my family, with my friends. Who said that pursuing a career is the only way to live? What if the sense of having a purpose in life, a calling, could be an equal or even greater source of meaning?
Coherence, responsible insistence and more meaning. Now.
Happy New Year! Here’s a handful of existential reflections to start off your new year
As it turned out, this blog set out on a psychological note and ends on a slightly political one. First, the psychological note:
In our Western calendar, we have just entered a new year. For many of us, this invites us to reflect on the year that went by and, perhaps, on what we would want from 2017 – the new year. Some consider new year’s resolutions – what do I want to change, do differently, quit or give up, add, take up, do better?
Whom and what, including oneself, would it be helpful to forgive? What was good for me, where did I do good? What would I like to do more of, and how? Where was I able to give while I grew? What and where do I wish to give in the new year, in ways that help me grow? Maybe in different ways, in different settings and with different people than before. Or in the same ways and in the same settings.
And you can almost hear it … our energy goes where our focus is, as the New Zealand Maoris are quoted as saying: ‘Energy goes where attention flows.’ So how are you going to use your energy and vitality – where do you wish to focus? What sort of focus contributes to meaning and spirit?
The thing about having a focus is that it can be smart, wise and helpful for all of us to reflect on our intention with our chosen focus and the things we do. Why do we do what we do, really? What is the deliberate goal or purpose guiding our actions? And do we know each other’s purpose and thus each other’s deepest motivations? It is important for all of us, as executives, employees and fellow human beings, to share exactly that with each other, as some researchers argue that our basic human nature is far more purpose-driven than career-driven. Not only does it provide a greater sense of meaning, it also brings added motivation to our working lives to have shared knowledge about the greater purpose we are all contributing to, as most people actually want to make a difference. A real difference. And they want to make sure that they are doing enough and well.
My point is that added awareness and consciousness about our intentions about who we are and what we do makes it easier for us to avoid feeling disempowered, because we are unable to assert control or influence our world. Added awareness and consciousness about our intentions can give us just a little bit more insight into what we are doing, and furthermore it gives us the big gift of being more aware of who we are, in terms of values and ethics and the purpose of our being and doing.
Maybe it would be helpful to start off this new year as well as each new month and each new day with a loving, kind, interested and constructive exploration of ourselves and each other: if we wish to achieve sustainability, in our own lives and with each other, something that will sustain us in a fundamentally natural way, it might be a good idea not only to think about but also to share, and continue to share, our thoughts about our purpose with what we do and to help ourselves and each other find that purpose, that intention. For if we are ready and able to do that, those aspects of life that provide meaning are likely to begin to trickle out from the cracks that let us glimpse our purpose. And that holds a huge potential for growth and well-being.
And gradually, we will find that in some areas, enough is enough. That we have spent long enough doing more of the same: efficiency measures, LEAN, budget cuts, dehumanization, downsizing, squeezing out every last drop, usually targeting the ones who do the actual work in society’s structures, the foot soldiers, as I call them: all the people whose work involves direct, hands-on, face-to-face contact with citizens, including nurses, orderlies, medical secretaries, school and preschool teachers, social workers, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, educators and initiators of varying calibre, character and professional background, unlike the civil servants, politicians, board members and others who make decisions and introduce reforms, often without involving those directly affected and their extensive and often hard-won experiences in the field, as they shape new laws, reforms and strategic goals.
And once we have determined that enough is enough, we arrive at a key and universally crucial factor: the importance of a shared persistent, constructive, solution-oriented insistence on real responsibility from our nation’s decision-makers. Responsibility in the sense of our shared human obligation to use our skills actively to respond to the repeated calls from, for example, highly competent professionals and scholars in our country’s hospitals and psychiatric treatment facilities about understaffing and in our country’s universities about inadequate numbers of lessons; calls from many different areas over many years to draw attention to the pointless requirements for increased registration and documentation that have led to such much red tape that the result, in many cases, is to hamper and undermine the delivery of core services.
And then we have not even touched on the climate crisis or how to deal with the EU, the refugee situation in the world and … and … and …
We have to start somewhere. And what better place to start than by making our own life sustainable in order to improve our ability to deal with the many and big decisions that concern the rest of the world, and for which we too are partly responsible. This is urgent. We cannot keep doing more of the same; and to be honest, as we must be, that is exactly what we are seeing now, over and over again. That is nothing but pretence. And we are wasting valuable time initiating completely unnecessary and useless efforts that waste economic and human resources.
We need a persistent, solution-oriented, insistent general popular uprising calling for a fundamental change in the way the system views and approaches the management of both human and economic resources – a persistent, contributing, solution-oriented insistence on sustainable structures, sustainable leadership, sustainable following and cooperation; an insistence on coherent perspectives and coherence-building social structures that offer a natural way for us to give while we grow, individually and together, in a real democracy with real participation and influence. If not for our own sake, then for those who come after us.
That would be worth insisting on, wouldn’t it? Or what do you think?
There’s something I’d like to share with you. Something that has meant a lot for me and enabled me to do a lot of things that I couldn’t have done if I hadn’t experienced and discovered it. And maybe it can play an important role in your life too. Who knows? Here it goes.
I couldn’t believe it when I woke up one morning, 34 years ago, in connection with a fasting course at Gerlev Sport College by the Danish North Sea coast to find that my asthmatic bronchitis was gone without a trace.
It was my fourth day of fasting, and I discovered it simply by noticing that I was able to breathe more freely than before. Gone was the strain associated with breathing. I was nineteen years old, and I had had trouble breathing my whole life. So this was a wild experience. So wild that I almost lost my breath thinking about how wild it was. So while the others were still asleep in the summer cottage, I threw on some clothes, and off I went into the fresh sea air. I’ll never forget that morning. There was so much more light on the waves, and the colours in the sea and the sky were unbelievably clear.
And I was able to breathe. Freely. Completely freely.
Later in the day, most of us taking part in the fasting course, which targeted very active sportspeople from various types of sports, realized that that we had far fewer infiltrations and knots in our muscles than normal. And something we found fully fascinating and spent hours talking about was that after the first tree days of fasting, when the body has used up its sugar stores and switches from metabolizing glucose to metabolizing fat, we had a huge burst of energy and also had a sense of that our thinking was much clearer.
The great thing is that now, so many years later, there is extensive scientific evidence for the full range of transformations we experienced, on a psychological as well as a physical level.
Following this experience, I have continued fasting one day a week and a least one full week a year. And of course, I wanted to share the good experience and have therefore held annual fasting courses ever since and still do. I do it because I have yet to come across an activity that has the same intense and profound ability to bring me home to myself and help me connect with the things that seem essential in life. And when I fast it is completely effortless. I typically have my best ideas while I’m fasting. And I usually do it in spring or summer, where the weather warms up slightly and lets me ‘come into full bloom’ along with nature itself.
And now it’s springtime, and yesterday I had my weekly fasting day, which gave me the energy to write this. And that is another amazing benefit that I have gained by giving my body and my mind a break from eating and digesting: a huge and fairly fascinating wealth of possibilities for becoming aware of and changing my basic assumptions about how much food I need to eat, how often, and what types in order to function well and remain a kind and caring person without becoming too irritable and impossible to tolerate for the people around me. I have found, as have my many course participants over the years, that we have learned to ‘bear’ and ‘digest’ much of the more unpleasant stuff we all experienced on our path through life by compensating with the stuff we eat. So when we have spent about five days in a safe setting doing an organized fasting process under skilful guidance where we stop eating stuff, the bad experiences gradually diminish and evaporate, and in a profoundly humane and ultimately bearable almost loving way, we are now able to observe the content as it leaves our bodies and minds, freeing us of the stuff that made us feel hurt, sad, bitter and angry.
This has a completely prosaic scientific, biological explanation, which is that virtually everything we experience is also stored as memory in our cells. And some of the most challenging experiences tend to be stored as memory in our fat tissue. So on the third day of fasting, when the body begins to metabolize fat stores, we are actually giving ourselves and our systems a chance to let go of old memories that unconsciously took up a lot of energy and caused us to be stuck in old behaviour patterns – the way we think, feel and act.
And because we can choose when we fast to ingest only herbal teas and organic soup with loads of alkaline-forming substances that help the body get rid of stored acid in the body’s cells, muscle and tissue, that too promotes the gradual physical and psychological cleansing.
No wonder, then, that fasting has been a part of the essential rituals in many ancient cultures. The interesting point is, not least, that neuroscientists can now explain that when we fast the liver produces ketones, which have a strong generative effect on the brain and on the brain’s ability to exercise its neuroplasticity – that is, its capacity to form new neural pathways and networks. This means that our cognition, our focus and our memory improve, and we help ourselves and our brains prevent Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia etc.
I just love food. And still, I look forward like a child before Christmas every time I have an opportunity to fast five days in a row. Simply because it does my soul and body good on every level. So, despite my affinity for good food and drink, every time I’m fasting I just wind up with, ‘What’s not to like – fasting is mind-blowingly great!’
Friendships, mindfulness and the speed of light
Thinking that friendships are among our most precious possesions.
A place where we can always go to find support and a warm heart to lean on. Where we know that we are accepted just the way we are. People in whose company we don’t need to change a thing about ourselves, be any different, smarter or wealthier, have better-paid jobs or have just returned from a trip to the Maldives, in order to qualify for a place at the table.
Finding that mindfulness is golden. Because it feels so immensely good simply to be present, together with others who are present too. Mindfulness can give us that sense of emotional satisfaction and wholeness.
As in completely satisfied and whole.
A strange sense of calm spreading within.
Not the sense of calm that we know might be shattered in an instant.
No; an almost existential, brilliantly luminous calm that we know is ours to keep, in our innermost core, if only we can be present in the moment or share the moment with others who do their humanly best to be focused and present.
And then sometimes, in the company of good friends, time dissolves.
And there is so much that feels brilliant and good, inside and out.
Those moments that we sometimes wish would last forever.
What the Danish philosopher Grundtvig might have called lifting up a tiny corner of eternity.
Einstein suggested that time and space may dissolve, be suspended under certain circumstances.
Or that our sense of time and space is altered when we operate at the speed of light.
Quantum physicists believe that we two-legged beings are in fact light, because we are consciousness, and consciousness is light.
At the speed of light
Oops, there goes the table where we sat, laughing our heads off and playing games for hours, just a moment ago, slipping away into the beyond
Bang, there go the chairs, where our preconceived views and notions were seated so comfortably, seconds earlier, whisked away into the galaxy.
And hey, now we see,
gazing straight through suits and silk dresses,
plaid shirts and water resistant trousers,
through running tights, bicycle shorts and wetsuits,
through lies, strategic cob webs and painstakingly constructed self-images,
through beautiful truths and mad illusions
through you, through me, through us.
Perhaps to behold something resembling light.
We hardly believe our eyes, and yet we do, because right here it seems so obvious that each of us is brilliant.
Brilliant stars in the galaxy.
Ah, seems like time just slipped away too, and space as well
So here we are now
We are now
Perhaps mindfulness, brilliant friendships and genial relationships simply act as our GPS when we aim for the speed of light and unity with everyone and everything. Who knows?
And if that is the case, I for one would like to see 2016 guided by just that. A sense of unity with everything and everyone. And sustainable actions to keep it all together.
There is so much each of us can give while we grow.
Simply by being who we are.
There is so much good that we can do for each other, if only we take the time and remain mindful enough to seize it.
And science now confirms the age-old truth that giving gives back, that making others happy makes us happy.
I wish you a happy New Year!
All the best,
THE ERIKSEN INSTITUTE
– bridging science and consciousnness
We are rich indeed
I have written many op‐eds. This is my first blog. But I’m going to pick up where my op‐eds left off: subjecting various phenomena of life to wonder, curiosity, joy and excitement.
And in these crisp, early days of spring I would like to open by reflecting on the very phenomenon of being alive. And thus on the gratitude for life and loved ones. This may seem a sentimental topic, and it is. Because when you allow life to get close, it is bound to move you, and often in profound ways, verging on turbulence.
And right now, we can feel the stirrings and the turbulence, as the change of the seasons is becoming tangible, and the transition from winter’s cold and hibernation, marked by the first flowers of spring, is so pronounced that we almost seem to shed our skin as we transition from one state to another.
Until now, spring has always come. Just as we actually woke up this morning and found ourselves alive. That has happened so many times that it’s easy to take it for granted, and in these growth‐oriented times with their never‐ending quest for higher, faster, longer and the search for eternal youth, we may try to convince ourselves and others that we are virtually immortal. And that our loved ones are virtually immortal. Because they have always been there. Such a strong presence. Perhaps our parents in particular.
I gazed deep into my parents’ eyes yesterday, accompanied by huge bear hugs and the most raging heart surge that I could muster when I said goodbye after a wonderful weekend visit. Because in their eyes and in the radiance of their vibrant beings I sense a profound acknowledgement of the changing of the seasons and the rice paper‐thin wall between life and death. When I gaze into their eyes, I always see that as strong and powerful life is, it is also fragile. In its own inimitable and beautiful way.
Life is strong. And it moves quickly. And right in the middle of that life I have deliberately adopted the profoundly naive attitude that the more present I am in my interactions with the people I love, the more strongly they are alive inside me. My personal treasure consists of the gazes, the exchanges of love, the sharing. Our bank advisors may not agree, from a spreadsheet perspective, but we are rich indeed!