I have a client working with someone who is making his job very difficult. My client’s team is located around the world, so he has to manage them remotely. Not easy.
As he’s talking about this particular individual he says, “I just have to get tougher-skin to handle this person and focus on getting past this deadline.”
His use of the words “tougher-skin” caught my attention because they were out of character for him. His management style and strength as a leader draw as much from his ability to be direct, strong and clear as they do from his compassion, understanding and self-awareness. This is not a guy who looks for short cuts.
I suspected that the term tough-skin was not going to be helpful for my client as a way to manage his employee because it didn’t really fit with who he is as a person. But I didn’t know what to suggest as an alternative. Tough-skin, thick-skinned…etc – most expressions that convey strength are associated with hardness. In other words, extremely limited. What could he focus on to help him deal with this person the way he wanted to, from his best self? I thought about individuals who exemplified strength without hardness or harshness, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh. What was their metaphor?
And it clicked – focus on what you know about your highest self, that essential quality you understand through mind and heart. That quality that you sometimes feel is both your weakness and your strength. That thing that is a part of your essence.
In my client’s case, a core value for him is compassion. So I said to him, “The world is full of leaders with tough-skin…but a lot of them are a**holes. Then there are others who may not be jerks, but who shrink before real challenges that call for a deeper kind of strength. You don’t strike me as either type. So, how can you draw even more from your compassion to be stronger?”
After a long pause he said, “You’re right, that’s what I want. To lead from who I am.”
“Exactly,” I said, “If you do that, it won’t matter whether or not your skin is tough.”
It’s 1983 and aerobics is the hot new fitness craze. Flash Dance star Jennifer Beals has transformed sweatshirts into a sexy fashion statement with strategically placed rips and tears. Women have an alternative to the male dominated gym scene with Jane Fonda’s Workout Video. Leg warmers, shiny leotards and matching headbands are the new chic. And the place to show this off is Move-It Fitness, a large exercise studio at the heart of downtown Los Gatos, just South of the burgeoning Silicon Valley.
Move-It exploded in popularity a few months after opening its doors. With packed classes and a reputation for providing the most challenging workouts in the area, it fast became the place to be. It didn’t hurt business that it also had a reputation for having good-looking instructors.
I was working in a bakery and going to school at West Valley, the local Community College, when I found out about it. I’d make a point to drive by on my way back from my early-morning bakery job just so I could get a look at the shiny-clad women as they filed into class. I envied their glamour and at the same time judged them – thinking to myself,
I’m better than that, I don’t need to follow a fad to feel OK.
But in fact, I felt crappy about myself. I was gaining weight with every cheesecake I “accidently” smashed, my boyfriend criticized me if I gained weight, and my paycheck was barely enough to cover rent let alone tuition and books. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I was anxious to do something. Anything! Fresh out of high school, I was full of energy and passion but I was also full of tons of self-doubt.
Then one morning, while lying beside my boyfriend, Sven – a gorgeous semi-pro tennis player – we had a conversation that changed everything.
“I took the hardest class last night at that new studio Move-It” he says, rolling over while pulling his arm from under where my head is resting.
“Really?” I asked, trying to sound unimpressed, “Where was this?”
“In Los Gatos, right there on Main Street,” he snaps, “Haven’t you heard of it?”
“Oh, ya, I’ve seen it…what’s the big deal, it’s just a work-out place?” I roll over and go into the bathroom before he has a chance to see my jealousy. I’m English and fair skinned and when I get upset my chest gets red blotches – and there were plenty on my chest. I splash my face with cold water, put on my robe and wrap a towel around my neck to conceal evidence that my feelings are hurt before crawling back into bed.
“You ok?” Sven asks.
“Yup,” holding in an avalanche of interrogatory questions. “So, what’s so great about this new studio anyway?”
Sven scoffs and says in his strong Swedish accent, “You have to be the best to teach there – our tennis team has been going there all summer to build endurance.”
Throwing off my robe and towel I proclaim: “I can do that job!”
With a confused look on his face, Sven says, “What job, what are you talking about?” I say nothing. He pauses for a minute then says, “Are you joking? You work at a bakery…you’re not aerobics instructor material, Robin.” he says while getting out of bed to get dressed.
Taking his response as a challenge, I proclaim, “I’ll prove to you – I can get a job there. And I can do it in one month.”
“You’re on,” he says, giving me a peck on the cheek before leaving.
The next day I take my usual detour to drive by Move-It, only this time, I park and go in.
The studio is buzzing with energy; the advanced 2-hour class is about to begin. It was packed as usual with clusters of women chatting amongst themselves, others sat adjusting their legwarmers or shoes. Then there were the serious athletic types in the front row, some focused on their own pre-class warm-up, others staring at themselves in the mirror with a Ninja Warrior intensity. The music started and with the instructor’s command to reach up with both arms, the class began. Those who were sitting stood up immediately, the athletes in the front row, now focused on the teacher, the woman at the front counter looked up and even passers by outside the studio made there way to the window from the Ferrari Dealership across the street to check out the class. Everyone wide-eyed and admiring at the instructor, who in a single motion, demonstrated her choreographed exercise, encouraged the slower students, pushed the more advanced students and did all this with the charisma of a lead singer of a rock band. Her name was Nancy, and watching her I felt equal parts inspiration and terror.
I slipped out the door, headed for my car and left without looking back.
What had I gotten myself into? Its much more than doing an exercise in front of a class – I have to be star! I’m not a star, I can barely walk into a room full of people without turning red, let alone remember a list of exercises, set to the right music, and inspire a room of people in just the right way at just the right moment. – I’m not Nancy. I’ll never be Nancy. And definitely not a star…
But a promise is a promise. Especially when pride is on the line. But more than that, a voice inside came alive when I was watching Nancy. What if I could do that?
So the next day, armed only with that what if, I returned to Move-It. I went an hour earlier to avoid the pre-class chaos and in the hopes the owner would be there. Two women were at the front desk, neither of whom I saw the day before.
“Hi, I’m Robin,” I say nervously.
“Hi Robin, is this your first time here?” one of the two asks graciously.
“No, I was here yesterday,” thinking she won’t know that I didn’t actually take the class since she wasn’t here.
“Oh really, which class?” she asks…”by the way, my name is Karen.
Nice to meet you Karen, “Um..the advanced class in the afternoon,” I say, heart pounding.
Hesitating a minute, Karen says, “That’s funny, I didn’t see you. I was in that class yesterday.”
Gulp…I collect my thoughts and before I have time to get nervous blurt, “Well actually I’m here to ask about a teaching position.”
The second women looks up from what she’s doing and interjects, “You, want to work here?” She’s broad-shouldered with penetrating blue eyes that look right through me. She adds, “Did I understand you correctly?”
“Yes, I want to work here.”
Without hesitation the second woman says, “I’m sorry but we don’t need any instructors.”
I don’t remember what I said, only that I felt completely dejected. Walking out the door, Karen said, “But we’d love to have you come back for a class sometime.”
On the way home I had one hand on the steering wheel and the other pinching a roll of fat that had accumulated from sampling one too many cheesecakes at the bakery. It’s true what Sven said – I’ll never get a job there. I’m just not star material.
But a couple of days later, driving by the studio, I see the same two women through the window and in flash of blind optimism, park my car to try again. We have a similar conversation, except that this time when they say that they don’t have a need for instructors, I counter with the question, “But what if one of your star instructors gets sick?”
“We’ve already got instructors who can substitute…but thank you anyway,” was the response.
This time when I returned to my car, I felt a little less dejected. That night I resolved to go back every day until something changed.
Many days later, something did change. Martha, the one with penetrating blue eyes, who by this time I’d learned was one of the two owners, was getting used to me coming by the studio. On this particular day before I said anything, she initiated the conversation. “You seem pretty determined to work here,” she says.
“What gave you that I idea?” I laughed. By this time, my dejection was gone and I felt comfortable and even happy to be there.
“We don’t have a need for an instructor, but we do have an early morning class that is hard to find a substitute for when we need one. Come here this Friday at 10:00am for an audition. Bring your own music and moves and we’ll let you show us what you got,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.
“Thank you so much Martha!” I’ll be here!!
I’m so excited on the drive home and can’t wait to dig into my albums and create a class that will show them how good I am. Later, faced with a tall stack of albums I’ve selected with my mission on Friday, I’m filled with anxiety. I go by the studio to get inspired and see what kinds of moves I should do, but instead leave feeling overwhelmed with self-doubt and dread for Friday’s audition. Who am I to think I can be as good as them?
A couple of days pass and the albums I gathered for my audition remain unopened. Instead, I compensate with cheesecake samples brought from work. I even crack open some truffles to drink the liqueur, then refilled them with Grand Marnier.
I’m a mess and dreading Friday’s audition.
Thursday night arrives fast and I have no choice but to choreograph something – anything! I play a few songs, get inspired and come up with some moves. I do this without checking myself in the mirror because to do so would remind me of how stupid I’ve been all week to procrastinate until now.
The next morning I pull out a powder-pink leotard and navy blue tights that are so old they have pilings. I completely forgot about what I’d wear – these are from when I took my last ballet class years ago. No time to go shopping at this point. It’s now or never. I get dressed, go through my music and choreography one more time and head to Move-It. Pulling into the parking lot it occurs to me that I can leave and never come back.
But then the words, what if enter my mind. I park and go in. Martha, her business partner, Karen, and Nancy – the star instructor, are there waiting. I make a beeline for the turntable; pull out my stack of albums. My hands were trembling so hard that it took me several tries to get the needle on the right song – White Wedding, by Billy Idol. I start my choreography focusing on the lyrics,
Hey little sister what have you done Hey little sister who’s the only one Hey little sister who’s your superman Hey little sister who’s the one you want Hey little sister shot gun!
Billy Idols voice blaring with rebel energy boosts my confidence. I look at myself – pink and navy blue as I am – and, helped by the lyrics, I own it.
It’s a nice day to start again It’s a nice day for a white wedding It’s a nice day to start again…
I get to the last song and look up at my audience of three – all of who are beaming and nodding with approval.
“Good work, Robin. You’ve got the job! Can you start next Tuesday?” Martha asks. “We need a substitute for the 6:30 am class?”
Some say politics – conservatism, liberalism, ism’s of all kinds – is the problem.
Others say its religion – too much, or not having enough – is the problem.
Most agree that those who disagree, who are different (not just in terms of race, culture, creed, but also ideology) – with me, with you, with us – are the problem.
Identification – in all its forms. What of that? Are we not, each and every one of us, caught by, or rather imprisoned by this very human characteristic one time or another and in all likelihood, most of the time?
Might that be at the root of these other, more obvious problems? But because its at the root, might it also be a tremendous opportunity?
What would it be like to see the shape and form identification takes in oneself? To be so close to its essence you can taste it, but not so close you get swallowed by it.
What would that look like?
Here is one interpretation through dance of the struggle for that rare kind of freedom.
I sat slumped over the steering wheel. “What am I afraid of?” I asked myself. The lump in my throat made it hard to swallow. Not being enough, I sighed. My year had already been filled with so much loss. Now, having to face my dear friend’s decline due to advanced Parkinson’s. It was more than I could bare.
“What do I want to give my friend?” I thought next. Climbing out of the car, I resolved to give her my full attention. I simply wanted to be there for her. Nothing else mattered.
Marguerite’s home nurse greeted me at the door, warning me that she was having a particularly bad day. Approaching her room, my anxiety returned. I ignored it.
She lay on her side, eyes closed, even though she was awake. She seemed uncomfortable. Her nurse shared that she was feeling less pain than earlier that day. Her arms, tucked neatly under her pillow, contrasted with her legs. They moved forward and out in random movements from beneath the bedsheets.
I sat beside her placing my hand on the metal bed rail. I stayed like that for some time attempting to tune into her energy and rhythm. Her eyes remained closed while the nurse let her know I was at her bedside. Reaching to move a strand of her chestnut gray hair from her forehead, she opened her eyes and managed a smile.
She asked me how I was and took my hand. There was a long pause before she gestured to her CD player and asked me to play something from Cuba. I put on Celia Cruz, one of her favorite artists. She asked me if I would dance for her. So I did.
I danced the dance of Oshun, (the goddess and archetype of love and the river according to the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria) who provided me with guidance to dance with joy and abundance.
I tried to fill her bedroom space with dance, being mindful to not get carried away by the music on the one hand, but not over-focused on Marguerite, on the other hand. She was part of the dance, not just the audience. I danced large and small – fast and slow – but mindful of staying connected.
Half way through the song, Marguerite asked her nurse to help her sit up. As she did, her toes touched the floor. I pulled up a chair and brought Oshun’s dance between us. Random leg movements became deliberate and under her control as she tapped out the song’s rhythm in perfect time. I joined her foot tapping with my own. The nurse joined too, and tapped the rhythm on her lap. We danced together.
Marguerite returned to bed for some much needed rest. Her eyes – full of life. We hugged goodbye and I promised not to wait so long before I returning
As I drove away, I realized that it’s not whether I believe I’m enough or not enough. It’s in trusting that in focusing on love, the world opens and with it, more courage, more patience, more love. Even in years full of loss.
(Update: So incredibly happy to share that as of the writing of this post, Marguerite’s strength has returned. Miracles really do happen.)
The following post is from something I wrote in 2012. Though dated, it’s still apropo for reflection today.
Eighteen years ago this month, the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis began in Rwanda. In just 3 months nearly 1 million elders, adults, children and infants were brutally slaughtered.
Earlier this month leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York City to commemorate the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated “…the only way to prevent such atrocities from occurring again is to learn from history.” http://allafrica.com/stories/201204130120.html (the post associated with this link has since been rewritten.)
While somewhat reassuring to hear a statement like this from an individual in power, I’m skeptical as to whether it can influence positive change in the future. Here is why. Of course we should learn from history so as not to repeat it. I’m sure if I surveyed 100 people outside my door on the street, most would claim they believe that. But if we want to be really honest with ourselves then the more clarifying question is: If it were 1994 again would we have done anything differently than what we did, as citizens, as a country? Would this have changed with the benefit of hindsight? And if we believe that knowing ahead of time the tragic events that were about to unfold would be enough to move us from bystander to actor, then the next question is: How do we know for certain?
I was traveling to South East Asia at the time of the Genocide. For April and June, I don’t think that I watched television or the news even once. I’m certain that I didn’t read a paper or listen to the news on the radio during this time. I was completely wrapped up in my own world. I was leaving my boyfriend of 8 years and our shared apartment. The first afternoon in my new flat in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, I got an invitation to be part of an international venture. I leapt at the chance and after a week of frenetic shopping, packing of luggage and unpacking of moving boxes, I found myself in a first class cabin bound for Singapore.
The plane took off, I reclined in the cushy first-class seat and pressed the “on” button of the mini-screen t.v. to see the news for the first time in months. That’s when I learned about what was happening in Rwanda. There were scenes of masses of people walking down dirt roads, refugees fleeing for the border. There were other scenes of streets strewn with corpses. There were headlines with quotes from government officials and there was a number, an estimated death toll.
I sat, stone silent while watching. My mind raced with what to do. I had no idea. Nor did anyone around me who had just become aware of the news as I had. I dived into my overseas assignment moving my impression and shock from the news to the back of my mind but not forgetting. In three months I was back home in San Francisco. And that’s when I let fade the news of what I’d heard in early April. Life got busy, I had more responsibilities – shock morphed into memory and nothing changed. And there was nothing to remind me of what was happening in Rwanda in my beautiful neighborhood.
I’ve felt woefully complicit ever since. Not just personally but as an American. There is no question that our country, amoung many others demonstrated a clear and intended lack of leadership and humanity. I’ve asked myself what would I have done differently, had I known? Would I have written my Congressman, and Government Representatives? Would I have started a petition and gathered signatures to try and urge action? Is there anything else I could have done? None of this is enough, of course, but is it better than nothing?
Now, every year in April I make it a point to remember, not just what happened, but also what did not, namely, any form of action by me, as well as any form of intervention on behalf of the Rwandan victims, by one of the worlds most powerful countries, the United States.
Perhaps the most humane act any of us can do is to admit that we, in fact, do not know how we would behave. What we can have is an intention and a commitment to staying awake in front of that commitment. Maybe someday more of the worlds leaders will follow suit, and in so doing, start to build a plan to respond to future threats based on co-responsibility instead of co-denial.