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On Life’s Jungle Gym
Cosmic banana peels, fluid vs crystallised intelligence, navigating change and finding purpose
‘Whenever the world throws rose petals at you, which thrill and seduce the ego, beware. The cosmic banana peel is suddenly going to appear underfoot to make sure you don't take it all too seriously, that you don't fill up on junk food.’
The other night, I was on Zoom, as I often am on a Tuesday evening, for the last class of the year-long course in Compassion, an in-depth study I have been taking with the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science. Instead of listening to the teachers, that live session was an opportunity for students to share their capstone presentations, a formal project on the topic. One of the students, a warm and witty teacher in Nonviolent Communication, shared a moving and personal account of how her capstone morphed since announcing it to the faculty in January. As she pointed out, basically, ‘life happened’. Life got in the way. Best laid plans and all that.
You may not be so surprised given the subject matter, but many others in the group also offered stories of hardships, conflict, loss, heartbreaks and other assorted human tragedies that affected their life, their study projects or their work.
We only know a little about each other as online students, and suddenly we hear what is going on with someone else’s life, and our hearts crack open. Hearing the story, I relate, recognise the sadness, mirror neurons at work, I feel for and with the other. We are no longer strangers, our conditioning starts to fall away, and we have a new sense of connectedness. As a result, the group is forever changed because suddenly, we recognise something true, about ourselves, in the other.
Indeed, life … happens.
As one of my peers reminded me, in compassion lies the seed of action. Unlike its close cousin empathy, compassion tends to move us to do something when we encounter suffering in another. It’s true too about self-compassion — far from a pity party, connecting to our own suffering and being mindful of what hurts can be a way to connect us with one another — we recognise our shared humanity.
Surrounded as I was in this group by other coaches, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, I reflected that in exploring the topic of compassion, we were moving towards acting to alleviate suffering in others. A worthwhile pursuit, one may think. Or a fool’s errand? After all, the world’s calamities seem overwhelming in number and scale. What can one person do?
FROM CONNECTION TO CONTRIBUTION
I’ve been reflecting on the multi-hyphenate movement, also known as the portfolio career. You know, people who, like me, do more than one thing that is hard to define or box in. There are more and more of us, the writer/digital marketer/teacher/ceramicist (this isn’t anyone in particular that I know, but you get the gist).
The social scientist and author Arthur Brooks posits in his book, From Strength to Strength, that we move from one kind of intelligence to another when we age, and going from one to the other often means a reframe of our work and career. He explains:
“[...] There's a very interesting set of findings that said that success early on is based on one of two types of intelligence. The first is called fluid intelligence, which gives you the ability to solve problems, to crack the case, to innovate faster and to focus harder than pretty much all the competition early on in your career. [...] And this increases through your 20s and into your 30s.
But then it tends to decline through your 40s and 50s, meaning that you need to move to the second kind of intelligence, which is increasing in your 40s and 50s and even your 60s, and it will stay high for the rest of your life.
That's called your crystallised intelligence, which is your wisdom, your ability to compile the information that's in your vast library to teach better, to explain better, to form teams better — in other words, not to answer somebody else's questions but to form the right questions.”
Suddenly, it doesn’t feel so strange to see people pivoting to becoming coaches and teachers from their forties onwards. After all, forming the right question is precisely what coaching is all about.
I think that in our twenties and thirties, we spend our time ‘doing’ without much concern with how that makes us feel or without considering (deep down) what kind of life we want to lead. Call me silly for generalising, but it feels like we all get caught up in what’s expected of us or what gets us praise and acceptance. Which we all realise later down the line doesn’t actually make us feel that good.
After all, we can only pursue money and success for so long until we come to feel how empty those goals are. As Brooks suggests, there are ways for us to find our purpose: if we move from extrinsic goals to intrinsic ones.
The fulfilment and acceptance that we need to find is within ourselves.
For example, many of us retrain because we want to feel that we are contributing to our community, to society, or our family, in a meaningful way.
Why doesn’t this shift happen sooner? It could have something to do with what Brooks calls post-traumatic growth. As some of my student friends shared in their capstones (illustrating it beautifully): when we approach our own life and its ups and downs with compassion (and a heavy dose of self-reflection), traumatic events can turn into catalysts for positive transformation.
Yes, life happens. The more experiences we have, trauma and all, the more we’re likely to grow. The ‘cosmic banana peel!’ Anne Lamott, wise and funny that she is, has had her fair share of post-traumatic growth. No wonder she writes about life so well.
Brooks, in an interview with NPR, sums up his thoughts about this midlife transformation:
“[...] There's a different formula for succeeding in the early part of your life and career than that which is actually most appropriate for the second half.
It requires different skills and a different emphasis. And those people that we see in almost every profession that are thriving as they get older, they're the ones who've been able to make the shift.”
A QUICK HISTORY OF COACHING
The word ‘coach’ has been used in connection with academic support for a long time, the origins of the word being traced back to Oxford in the late 1800s, according to Wikipedia. Coaching then migrated to sports, then career, health, and business, and in the 1980s, life coaching became more prominent (I believe it moved in line with the ways work changed).
And work is still changing, faster and faster. We no longer study one thing, get one job or career and stick with it for 40-plus years.
Every time we experience significant change (positive or negative), we go through what my teacher Martha Beck calls a catalytic event: having children, getting fired (or hired), experiencing burnout or losing a loved one. Even getting married or coupled is a form of the cosmic banana peel. These are all profoundly life-changing experiences. Whether we fall flat on our faces or we leap forward into the new, in essence, a part of us goes back to square one. We are no longer the same “I” we were yesterday, our identity shifts. And, in case you have forgotten, human beings don’t love change. It sets the nervous system's alarm to high alert. So fresh, tender, perhaps a bit lost, we start over.
Moving through existence is at times wonderful, exhausting, heartbreaking, surprising and occasionally, well, dull and predictive.
No wonder we need help navigating life in between these identity-altering events.
Many of us try to find (or scramble for) meaning through our work, but our career's ascension is no longer as a straightforward ‘one step at a time’ ladder as it may have looked in decades past. Nowadays, it’s more like a jungle gym: unpredictable, full of ups and downs, and sideways moves. Occasionally we crawl, when we advance at all, before getting stuck, slide forward or fall back down. Sometimes it’s playful and engaging — other times, just getting back on our feet is a struggle.
We have been sold, until recently, a linear path as a life plan. Choose a career, study, work, get married, have a family, and work until you retire. Maybe play golf somewhere for a while. The End.
In the middle of all that, some of us also hear that we need to make money, be successful, age gracefully (aka don’t age, aka use Botox and other injectable ‘tweakments’ to make it look like you are forever 35 to 45).
But that’s just not everyone’s path. Some of us choose the wild twists and turns, others are thrown into them against their will, and some have a deep desire to create change and find meaning in their lives. Let me tell you that we all feel very tender around our non-linear ways, non-conformists that we are.
The analogy of the jungle gym fits me well because, in my life, nothing’s been linear. My father predicted that when he once told me, with a deep sigh, that while I always seem to get where I want, I take the most complicated path to reach my destination. That got me worried.
Decades after my dad’s comment, I found that while he was right, he was also only telling me part of my story.
When I heard this quote from James Joyce’s Ulysses, I released a deep sigh. I’d found in his words the proof I wasn’t weird. I was simply following my very own heroine's journey.
“Think you're escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”
It’s okay not to be linear. It’s more than okay, actually. We only have this one precious life. Why make it simple or square when we can make it rich in experiences, full of meaning, textured and coloured with our ups and downs?
If you feel like doing just one thing, congrats — you’ll have an easier time than me explaining to strangers what you do.
If you feel like now’s the time for you to make a shift, or you are searching for purpose and meaning, or you are launching into your portfolio career, just remember to breathe, take it easy and seek others for support.
If you fall off the ladder or the jungle gym, that’s okay; it’s that cosmic banana peel. Don’t take it too seriously; dust yourself off and try again. And look up — more often than not, you’ll find someone there (like me) extending a helping hand.
Remember, you are not alone, and ‘the longest way round is the shortest way home.’
A year ago, I too was presenting on Zoom my capstone presentation, in a similar context, except that this marked the end of the Mindfulness Year with Nalanda Institute. I’d selected a topic in January, presented it to the faculty for approval, and started working on it in March, well in advance.
The more I studied and wrote (my project was a series of essays on ‘why meditate?’), the more I started to question myself, my motivation, my purpose, and my legitimacy. It’s not that I was doubting myself; it was more like an excavation. I was digging for something that was deep below the surface of my conscious mind.
Eventually, I found ‘it.’ Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my discovery; I had a kind and thoughtful coach, Gretchen, who held me through part of the process.
My project changed. It couldn’t just be a series of essays, and I couldn’t stay removed from the topic. My original approach was a little cold or detached, perhaps. I was ready to teach from an elevated seat, somehow above life, for beginners who wanted a clean-cut, scientifically proven path to help them kickstart their meditation practice.
In my case, it’s not that life happened; no, a charged memory from childhood surfaced as necessary to include if I was to write about ‘why meditate?’ Unbeknownst to me, I was scared of going there, in my mind, to revisit the sadness, the trauma, the pain. Gretchen gently helped me navigate my fear and my questions.
The next day, I sat in my favourite chair with my morning coffee and got to work. It’s not just my story; it’s my mother’s story, my family’s story. May 17th, the fateful day that I was to present my project on Zoom, happened to be my deceased mother’s birthday. I’d opened the gate to write, and I couldn’t close it back in time, so I cried hot tears in front of the group, all friendly faces filling all the tiles on my screen. They, too, held me in compassion, as I had done for my friend the other day. I never finished my capstone in the end. However, I’m still working on the book, which emerged in its stead.
Yes. Life happens. Sigh.
I’m embracing my post-traumatic growth phase.
If you need resources to help you with personal or professional change, have a look at my all-time favourites below.
And in case you feel like getting hands-on and want some more direct support, get in touch to book your free exploratory coaching session with me.
Some of my favourite resources:
Self-Compassion: the field was developed by Kristin Neff & Chris Germer; find plenty of free resources, including guided practices on their website.
Meditation: yes, it can help. My go-to isn’t mindfulness, it’s Loving Kindness, find a mix of free practices on my podcast Out of the Clouds Waking Heart or on Insight Timer.
Coaching: I trained with Martha Beck Inc to become a certified Wayfinder Life Coach. Find me and many other fantastic coaches on her website. And yes, sign up for her newsletter to get news straight from the master (and Oprah’s coach) herself; I find she is always worth the read.
Almost like coaching: Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star has all you need to help you through transitions, but you’ve just got to do the work (aka the exercises) to get the goods. Give it a try, also worth it.
Arthur Brooks, the social scientist and author I quoted above, is writing a new book with Oprah, and if you’ve not read it, his latest, From Strength To Strength, is also a good read.
Almost Everything, Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott, is guaranteed to make you smile and put things in perspective. Yes, I love her, and I think you will too.
Often to make a shift, we need to build new habits. Totally worth the hype, I highly recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Whatever you do, like every other human on the planet, you certainly need some help to better your communication skills. Here are four titles to help you do that:
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