Embracing the Suck

I’m getting tired of hearing people say, “Just sit on your sofa.” That our grandparents fought the Nazis, but all we have to do is Netflix and chill. Or, “Find calm in the midst of crisis.” As good as that advice is, that’s hard.

This may not be World War II, but it can sure feel like it when you’re home with kids fighting underfoot, you’ve got three more Zoom meetings today, and there’s nothing for dinner because you couldn’t get a delivery slot and the grocery is out of meat anyway. Thich Nhat Hanh would have trouble finding peace in that.

But there’s a third option: “Embrace the suck.”

“Embrace the suck” is what military people say when things are bad, they’re not getting better, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve got 12 more hours without sleep when you’ve already been up 24? Embrace the suck. You thought you were going home next month but got extended another six? Embrace the suck. Your CO is a sadist who’s out to get you? Embrace the suck.

It’s shorthand for a hugely important skill: controlling your mindset.

I’ve been a serious meditation practitioner for 30 years. I meditate in the middle of Times Square. But the skill that 30 years of meditation and mindfulness has taught me that’s most useful in this pandemic is one I share with the Special Operations Forces warriors I coach: Embracing the suck.

Costco is out of toilet paper? I first went to India in 1998, when the country wasn’t the global powerhouse it is now. I studied for months across years, not at a peaceful temple in the Himalayas, or a beautiful ashram under swaying palm trees, but in the middle of Mumbai, where students stayed in a former brothel to study with a master who lived in a one-room “apartment” barely large enough to hold a twin bed and a chair, above open sewers flowing in the street, with an “Asian toilet” down the hall. Just a hole in the floor you had to squat over. No toilet paper. No warm jet from a bidet. Just a cold water tap and a plastic measuring cup. You washed yourself with your bare hands, a dozen times a day because you invariably got sick. That’s embracing the suck.

I went to India after living on staff at a retreat center in the mountains, where guests could use the outhouses, but we were encouraged to squat in the woods. After you’ve lived like that for five months, an “Asian toilet” is an upgrade.

Not everyone needs to leave the world and go live in a backpacking tent at a retreat center. But that shift in my perspective, from Wall Street Manhattanite to squatting in the woods, demonstrates how much control we have over our mindset.

One of the great teachings in many Eastern philosophies is that suffering comes from our resistance to it. Pain may be in the body, but suffering is in the mind. There’s no toilet paper? That’s annoying. But if there’s nothing you can do about the situation, there’s a lot you can do about your mindset. You can “embrace the suck.”

“Embracing the suck” is a crucial life skill. It lifts you out of being a victim of circumstance, and makes you master of your mind.

Many of us are suffering much worse than a lack of toilet paper. Tens of millions have lost their jobs, tens of thousands have lost their loved ones. Life is hard now.

But that’s the point. There’s nothing we can do about it. Things right now are tough. All the color-coded charts on Pinterest and fancy foam coffees on Instagram aren’t going to change that underlying reality. I don’t feel “an attitude of gratitude” about it. This sucks.

I can’t change the world, but I can change my mind. I can look at this as an opportunity to acquire some self-mastery and lay the foundation for a more joyous life. I can consider the pandemic a training exercise in becoming a SOF warrior of the mind.

I can embrace the suck.

So can you.

Susan Lakatos, GUAA Career Coaching PartnerMention this blog post to Susan to receive a 50% discount on all coaching services to help you navigate your professional life during these uncertain times. 

What world will we encounter when we go outside?

We are aware of the crisis we are in, and that whether the future will be better or worse than when we close our houses with us inside all depends on how we build it now.

It is an excellent time to think about a hopeful future, with confidence in our capacity as a society to build a more sustainable and inclusive world.

To envision the future, we must know how to reflect and draw lessons from the debacle that the coronavirus is causing in human and economic terms.

We must decide to give rise to a more resilient society, which lives in a healthy ecosystem with a diversified economy, equality, and capability of producing minimums.

The fragile economic system has collapsed, and the consequences fall on the poorest, therefore we have to put the fight against inequality back at the center of the economy.

When we leave our houses, we will congratulate and embrace, but it will be a true success if those who have lost their lives in this pandemic are the mobilizer to move forward on eradicating infectious diseases and become aware of improving our health systems.

The same situation applies to climate change, we acknowledge that there is an emergency, however we do not take sufficient and necessary measures.

The home-work experiment will lead us to think more broadly about the future business model, workforce, and leadership.

Who would have thought that social distancing and remote work would unite people?

The codes of remote work, until we were sent to work from home, were to avoid any signs that would reveal we were working from home. Now leaders must send the message that not only is this now acceptable, but it is also a must.

We are facing a new culture in the workplace, in which there is a desire for real connection. We work remotely; however, even when people are socially distant, there is a genuine urge to see each other. This is not surprising, given that humans are social creatures.

People everywhere want to be loved and want to belong. That is why in these uncertain times we are discovering that more and more people ask to use video in calls that were voice only a month ago. And it’s not about dressing; in fact, it’s the opposite of the Instagram era. People want to be seen for who they really are, not just how they want to be perceived. The more authentic they are, the better.

The “how are you” really means “how are you today?”: it was generally just a filler, something people say to fill a void. These days, every conversation begins with honest questions about how people and their loved ones are doing. Individuals are being genuine in their questions and answers.

We are still creatures of habit. In a time when things feel anything but ordinary, we try to preserve a sense of normalcy. People who used to eat lunch with colleagues once or twice a week eat together on Facetime. They meet at the end of the week to spend virtual happy hours, more frequently, and with many more people than when they tried to do the same face to face.

One day we will shake hands again; the social distance between us will be reduced after having been separated for an extended period of time, and we will profoundly appreciate being together.

GUAA Career Coaching Partner Leo Borello

Three Strategies for Teleworking

The Coronavirus has made its presence known, and we’re all doing our part by social distancing and teleworking to make sure we keep it under control and contained. But if you’ve never teleworked before or aren’t used to it, it can be a significant adjustment.  That being the case, here are 3 things you can do right now to make teleworking more palatable, and maybe even enjoyable for yourself!

I. Create Physical Separation

One thing most people don’t think about is where to do work. You do your work in the living room while you’re watching TV, or on the dining table where you eat dinner, or in bed. A little known fact is that creating physical separation between where you actually do work and where you live your life and spend quality alone or family time is a huge contributor to stress levels. 

Your brain associates places with stress as much as it does the actual actions that happen in them. Creating that separation tells your brain, “It’s time to work” in your working space and, “It’s time to relax” in your other space.If you can create a physical location in your home where you either do all or a significant majority of your work, you will be less stressed while spending time in other parts of the home. 

II. Schedule and Observe Breaks

When you’re working from home, it’s easy to get caught up in work and end up working longer, more continuous hours.  It’s comfortable, you may be in your pajamas, and you can make yourself tea or coffee whenever you want and eat lunch while you do your work, right? Sure, but that will add significantly to your stress levels. 

Set specific times to take breaks, whether it’s to take a walk by yourself or with your dog, or whether it’s just to step away from the computer and get a break from the screen. This will create mental breaks that your mind needs throughout the day in order to keep working. Also make sure to not eat in front of your computer because then you’re not really taking a break from work at all.

III. Create a “Mindfulness Commute”

The last suggestion is a less obvious one because most people don’t think of their commute as being “a break” from anything. Many of us deal with traffic or frustrations while we’re commuting to work, but what you may not realize is that the time you spend commuting to work is time away from work, generally.  So create a “mindfulness commute” to work. It doesn’t have to be anywhere near as long as your regular commute; it just has to be long enough for you to create separation between your home life and your work life. You can even just walk from your bedroom to your office area and say to yourself, “time to go to work” before you engage in a breathing exercise.  Even if you have a small home and your work space is just a small corner of your apartment, you can still take a few minutes to yourself to breathe and mentally prepare to begin work. When you break for lunch or when you’ve finished work for the day, take another few minutes to mentally bring yourself back down from the day to relax and be home again.

Putting It All Together

I know it can be tempting to just jump in and start working from home from wherever you normally sit at home without giving it too much thought. The problem with this is that when you get used to that, you won’t have any place to really find solace away from work.  Eventually, you will integrate work into every physical space you inhabit, and that won’t be healthy. Instead, make sure to create the physical and mental space between your home life and your work life, and you will find that the stress becomes easier to manage.

Dhru Beeharilal, GUAA Career Coaching Partner

Taking Back the Narrative

“Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

– Viktor Frankl

Our situation with COVID-19 is one that can fill the most calm and steady of us with fear and uncertainty. What will happen to me, my family, my community? My job? Those most vulnerable? Because we biologically need and feed off of connection with others, we’re also affected by the thoughts, emotions, energy and narratives of other human beings and our collective narrative. Emotional contagion is a powerful phenomena. 

We look to our communities to help make sense of world events, but at times, we can be more drawn into fear, reactivity and stress that ultimately doesn’t help us. The inverse is also true: we can be calmed down by our communities and not all fear is negative. 

And yet, in a time when we feel like we have very few choices and the world is deciding how we live, we do still have a choice in the story we tell ourselves. We can choose where and on what we put our attention; how we interpret the data and information coming in. 

Here’s a method to get centered, to reflect and begin to rewrite the story you’re in right now:

  1. First, check in with yourself. Find a place to sit and be still for a few minutes. Step outside into the natural world if you can. Take a few deep breaths. Lengthen your inhales and your exhales. Notice where you’re connected to your chair, the floor or the ground outside. Starting at the top of your head, scan down through your body. Without judging, what do you notice? Where do you notice it? You can place a hand over your heart and your gut to check in with both parts of your body. What is your body trying to tell you?
  2. Second, take a few minutes to reflect on how you are currently feeling and reacting. I feel…what (emotion)? In light of that, what is it that I need right now? Listen to the answer, whether it be a feeling, a word or phrase, or even an image that comes up. Consider writing it down so you can pull it out of your brain to more effectively process it.
  3. Third, take a step back. What’s the story you’re living in right now? If you’re having trouble imagining that, think of how you would simplify the elements to share it as a headline. What role are you playing in that narrative (victim, hero, frustrated bystander)? What’s your aspiration for changing that? What changes about your behavior if you can stand in that narrative and look at the world that way? What are some small ways that you can create that new narrative? Example: Instead of feeling obligated to respond to my phone, I can silence my notifications and take the morning off from reading texts or material that amplifies my stress. 

I’m well aware that we can’t erase the world’s events right now with a little thinking. However, we can take ownership of where we do have the most power: our freedom to tell the story our way.

GUAA Career Coaching Partner Miranda Holder

On Fear

Dear fellow Hoyas,

Over two decades ago, I was diagnosed with cancer.  I was in my 20s at the time, and I would like to share with you how I have learned to deal with uncertainty.

Uncertainty as we all know produces fear.  A common reason for this fear is the tendency we have in the absence of certainty to imagine worst-possible scenarios.  For me, fear shows up in two ways.  One is concrete, and the other is general.  Concrete fear is helpful.  I recognize it because it moves me to act productively.  Over the years, it has motivated me to eat well and keep my doctors’ appointments.  More recently, fear has moved me to stay on top of the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to prepare my family for social distancing, and if necessary, sheltering in place.

General fear, on the other hand, feels more like I’m circling the drain.  It produces lots of spinning, but no helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) moves.  When I notice it, I know now to address it using one of the following approaches.

The first is to pay attention to my thoughts.  If I am imagining worst-case scenarios, for example, I try to remind myself of all the times I have worried and nothing bad has happened.  My great-uncle used to say that people are terribly one-sided.  We suffer in anticipation of bad outcomes, yet we rarely celebrate in anticipation of good ones, even when the odds are similar.

When questioning my fears doesn’t work, I shift to acceptance.  I experience feelings as having both a mental and a physical component.  When I am afraid, for example, I get a knot in my stomach.  If I stop what I am doing and focus all of my attention on the physical sensation (rather than the subject of my fear), the sensation passes.  Typically, it grows and then fades in less than a minute as long as I don’t try to interrupt or control it.

Lastly, when these strategies don’t work, I turn to distraction.  Centuries ago, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote about our natural capacity for distraction.  We’re really good at it, and in times like these, we may as well use it to our benefit.  If you have work, then work.  If you’ve been putting off learning a hobby, use the extra time now to develop it.  If neither of these appeals to you, do something that feels more generative.  My distraction these days is to enjoy funny videos sent by my family in Spain.  They are finding ways to laugh and that is a salve.

If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is that we are all going through this together.  We don’t have to wonder why somebody is having a hard day, and instead of reacting, we can respond with understanding and care.

May you be well,

Yolanda Ruisánchez Gruendel (L’95)