This semester has been a hard one. Challenging client work. Digging the foundation for a book – and that idea-earth feels like hard clay for my mental shovel. Three classes – and one especially challenging. Sometimes the coach needs a coach, so I’ve been working with a guy named Mark, and we were discussing how hard things were. As good coaches do, Mark was probing my deep assumptions about how things were so hard. He asked where or when I knew I had to work so hard. “How,” he asked, “did you learn that ‘things are hard’?
For the past year, when asked such basic questions, I’ve been surprised to hear myself describe my past in High Density. I easily told him that, “life is tough was one of my dad’s mantras.” And it was for good reason: His parents were poor immigrants and on top of that he was ushered in just as the Great Depression appeared. When he was 14 he was sent off to become a priest, then flouted his mother’s wishes and quit when he was 17. Just out of high school, he was drafted and served as a medic in Korea where he was awarded a Bronze Star and an enduring case of Post Traumatic Stress. Within 2 years of returning from Korea he was married with a child, and by the end of the next decade he had 7 kids, and in combination with them he had earned his other great heroic life decoration: a set of “golden handcuffs” that chained him to the Ford Motor Company. All of his kids worked hard and studied hard, cuz we all learned: “life is hard.”
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re surely wondering: “Mulhern, how is this about making my week EASY?” Right?
So, Mark made this profound observation: If you perceive that life is hard, pretty much all you will see is — what? what? — that life is hard. Sometimes it is. And you steel yourself and rise up to meet it. But he invited me to begin to ask, “Where is life easy?” He started, in his contemplative style, saying, “Breathing is easy. Walking is easy. Thinking is easy. So is talking.” This may seem obvious, but it actually seemed stunningly so to me, as if I was seeing this and feeling this for the first time. It was as if he asked me to pry off my “life is tough” glasses which have marvelously pointed out every challenge and wonderfully stimulated me to attempt to rise and fight. And as I put on the “life is easy” spectacles, a whole different world came into focus.
I realized that as a classroom leader, in some classes I do work with incredible ease, and as a result I see all the gifts – student insights, give-and-take, the 80-minute structure, my teaching assistants as just that — as assets, as gifts, as things that make it easy. And when, as I so often do, I bring an oppositional attitude — “this is hard, these students are resisting, I should have prepared better, I don’t know this material” – then, yep, it’s hard! And it’s not just me who sees and feels how hard I think things are. My “followers” do, too. And then it is gets even hard(er) as a result. But how much of that hardness” have I actually created, by being sure it must be there?!
So, I’m just inviting you to consider, as I am, that the world you see is not fixed, although your deep stories and assumptions will make it seem so. Instead of it being fixed, you can approach it and look for what’s there, and especially for what’s easy, for the fact that you have gotten through a thousand Mondays, have willing supporters, have the ability to step back, have the capacity to build momentum, and also the capacity to adjust when things don’t work out. And as a leader it might be great to ask your team, as well: “What’s easy for us? What are we naturally good at? What’s working for us?” What a shame it would be to miss all that great ease and opportunity that’s there when we truly
Lead with our best selves.