Why Constraints Can Be Catalysts

In the 2001 documentary of Ram Das, the author and Buddhist spiritual teacher talked about his experience of having his stroke in 1997. “I didn’t have a single spiritual thought,” he said. “It was a test. And I flunked the test.” Ram Das would have thought he was spiritual enough to hold his stroke in an enlightened state, but instead, he found himself lonely and self-pitying. “I could see I had more work to do,” he said.

I could say the same for my initial reaction to the pandemic. I’m a coach for Pete’s sake! I’ve done a lot of self-development. I work with my clients to accept what is so and to find the power in seeing what they can do, rather than moan about their circumstances. I’ve activated this in my own life as well – building my business from scratch, working out with heavy weights to make my body strong, and taking on a meditation practice to enhance my spiritual life.

But on March 13, 2020, when I realized that the pandemic was more than just a passing inconvenience, there was no other way to put it: I flunked this test. I yelled I cried, I fought against every moment.

Then, slowly, perspective took over and I was able to take stock.

Although I was off my game, to say the least, I heard one small voice in my head loud and clear: do not waste this time. So, imperfectly, I took action. Now, just about a year later, I see that the constraints of the pandemic led me to one of the most fruitful creative spurts of my life.

Commitment has power

The most significant thing I did in March was let in that little voice that told me: do not waste this time. It was tempting – very – to allow my self-pitying scared self to take over. It would have been easy to watch a lot of movies and eat a lot of carbs. And I would not have been the only one to do so.

But I didn’t. I committed myself to use this time in a way that, when looking back, I would feel proud. I thought a lot about what would make me feel that way and two clear answers emerged.

A) Take a step forward on writing the book you said you wanted to write

B) Be more deliberate in how you use your time and stop procrastinating.

Those were my commitments. Both of these were very uncomfortable for me – there’s a reason I had never worked through my block in writing a book! I procrastinated so that I wouldn’t have to feel the discomfort of uncertainty. But, I found, as did the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the 1700s: “At the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assist you.”

So a question for you to consider:  What will you commit to so that your future self will applaud you?

Set internal deadlines

So I got to work. I called a few wise friends to get their help with my internal state (what was in the way of my writing this book?) and I called up a few more to hold me accountable. I organized notecards, wrote, and then rewrote my table of contents. I sketched out the interviews I wanted to do and wrote the introduction. I eradicated moments of procrastination. I set up a clear schedule and made myself rules about what I would do instead when tempted to put things off.

I made it a game and gave myself little deadlines to accomplish certain things. To my surprise, I found myself sprinting to meet the deadlines. Ah, I see. When I create my own constraints I’m the author of my circumstances.

Not only that but as the late winter turned into spring, people began to complain about the monotony. It was “Groundhog Day,” everyone said. Not to me. I had progress to make. I knew what I had to get done by Friday and I knew what a two-week schedule looked like. It turns out that every day doesn’t feel the same when you have progressive deliverables. 

After a few months of this, I had written many more articles for Harvard Business Review, Inc, and Forbes than in all of the prior year. And, I had myself a book contract (with an external deadline, by the way.)

So here is a tactical question: What is a clear milestone that will help drive you?

Release control to give birth to creativity

I (and everyone I knew) had lived with a sense that you can count on your life being more or less the same, and changes come when you decide to make them.

No more. The pandemic robbed me of having the illusion of control. I was in deep mourning for my past life – the life I had built in NYC, the life I loved. It was also the life I had counted on. I knew where I was headed to and where I was in that process, and I knew how to keep score. But there was another side to that certainty. I had been ignoring some of the passions that would feed my spirit.

A new voice inside of me asked this: what are you waiting for? For years I had been putting off creative pursuits. Yes, I had invested in Broadway shows over the past few years, but in my heart, I wanted to be a performer. I put off exploring that until – well, until someday in the future.

For no reason except for fun, I decided to create a music video. I called up a friend for help and he talked me into doing a rap music video we created together, called “The Work Is In You.” It was super uncomfortable. It was also incredibly rewarding. I knew I needed more music in my life, and now I had this little experience. Next, I found a piano and started taking lessons.

The pandemic freed me up to do something just for myself.

So a question for you: What are you waiting for?

Vulnerability equals connection

One of the executive teams I work with had a video meeting three days after New York shut down. We were alert, solemn. The CEO started the meeting with everyone just sharing a few words about how they were. When my turn came, nobody was more surprised than myself to find myself get weepy. It took me longer than I would have thought to compose myself, which I did, and then we had our meeting.

After that session, several of the executives reached out to me to offer me comfort, which was nice and offered thanks, which was surprising. “When you teared up you gave all of us permission to not be fully ok,” the CEO emailed me. “I don’t know if you realized it but even on the video, the energy shifted. I think that was the moment we all got connected. We needed that.”

Sometimes my job as a coach is to be strong for others. But at that moment it was to model how you can be human as well as resolute.

So a good question to ask is: where do you need to take the risk to show your true self a little more?

Renew yourself

It’s been a long year. The effects of the pandemic are not going to go away overnight, and some of the ways we typically renew ourselves may not be available. I mourn the events I didn’t get to go to this year which are always so regenerating: Renaissance Weekend – a multi-generational multi-discipline gathering of incredibly interesting people where we talk about our lives and let down our guards. TED – a fascinating collection of the world’s top minds in varied fields where we discuss breakthrough ideas together.

Change of scenery is always restorative – but not this year. Seeing friends from out of town rejuvenates the soul – and that will have to wait.

It’s easy to focus on the things you can’t do, but again creative lives on the flipside: what can you do to regenerate yourself in a time that you need it more than ever? What I came up with for myself, is a set of things that I can do in combination. Now that I’m living in the suburbs, I find that a walk among the trees, grass, and birds is fairly meditative. I can combine walking with fascinating podcasts that bring the world to me, and calls with friends which let me keep connections with people. I’m creating my own regenerative curriculum to feel my soul and my mind.

So your question to ponder: What can you do to sharpen your saw?

We are emerging from the pandemic and one day this will be behind us. But what I hope for myself and for you are that you take away the value of the constraints that the pandemic forced on all of us.

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