Permanent Whitewater & The Skylight: Meet Me on the Roof?

A Western reporter once asked Gandhi, “You have been working fifteen hours a day for fifty years. Don’t you think you should take a vacation?” Flashing his typical toothless grin, Gandhi replied, “I am always on vacation.”

I could use Gandhi’s wisdom and perspective right now.

I’ve been back at my desk for a week now, plugging back in after an unplugged vacation deep in the Maine woods. Even though I love my work, I am longing to be back in my kayak, gazing at the grandeur of the rugged spruce mountains that rise westward into Canada.

I am not ready for the swift, chaotic current of business life.

Permanent Whitewater

Management consultant Peter Vaill calls the state of business now permanent whitewater. There’s no sense of an anchor or safe harbor on the shores. There’s no floating along in a kayak. We work at a constant and relentless pace requiring adrenaline, agility and astute discernment.

I’m tired just thinking about it.

And I’m not the only one struggling with re-entry. It’s startling to hear how many people have used the words horrendous, horrible even brutal when describing their first week back after vacation.

The Congruent Life and Flexibility

Something’s not right here. None of us can thrive in whitewater forever—not even Gandhi.

So I turn to one of my favorite books on the evolution of our work ethic: The Congruent Life: Following the Inward Path to Fulfilling Work and Inspired Leadership by C. Michael Thompson.

Thompson draws upon the work of many authors, including two of my favorites, Dalmar Fisher and William Torbert. They maintain that flexibility is the only way to negotiate the constant rapids without burning out or bailing out altogether.

Specifically, Fisher and Torbert observe that the most successful leaders have the ability to live symphonically as well as chaotically:

They interweave work and leisure seamlessly, and often have such a sense of lightheartedness—even playfulness—about their work that it’s hard to tell the difference between the two…..As a result, they touch things lightly, never grasping too tightly at ideas of solutions as they might be called on to re-frame at a moment’s notice in response to some changing reality.

I like that. I want to be there.

Thompson notes that religious figures would call this a state of peace or tranquility, which comes from being grounded in the larger reality where we gain perspective and let go of our “feverish and maddening attempt” to control our environment.

And to illustrate the benefits of relinquishing control, Thomson continues with a quote from poet Oliver Wendell Holmes:

There are one-story intellects, two-story intellects, and three-story intellects with skylights. All fact collectors, who have no aim beyond their facts, are one-story men. Two-story men compare, reason, generalize, using the labors of fact collectors as well as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, predict; their best illumination comes from above, through the skylight.

That’s it! We need the skylight when returning from vacation. The skylight lets us broaden our perspective and relax into creative and symphonic play.

And it’s the EQ skill of flexibility—our ability to adjust our emotions, thoughts and behaviors to ever-changing situations—that enable us to learn how to routinely rise up from the whitewater and reach for the skylight.

Flexibility is a phenomenal stress management skill. It’s a muscle we build slowly and consistently, step by step and day by day.

So what d\'ya think? Wanna join me on the roof today?

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