A research project from the 1980s, documented in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that male heart attack survivors who were socially isolated had more than four times the risk of death than men with strong social connections. And a study of more than four thousand men of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii found that social networks guarded against coronary artery disease (independent of known health hazards such as high blood pressure and cigarette smoking).
Over the past four decades, there has been a sizable body of evidence documenting that being socially isolated significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk equal to that of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Simply put, people are nourished by other people. Research suggests that belonging to a tightly knit community is a significant predictor of health and mental well-being. Living beings yearn for the proximity of other living beings. Humans are happiest and healthiest when around other people, working together and helping each other. For much of history, humans have banded together as a matter of survival.
Even with pandemic fatigue, where we are weary of social distancing and isolating for the sake of our community’s health, our need for community has not changed – we desire to be heard, to be connected, to belong. Social distancing is not the same as social disconnecting. Isolating is not the same as detaching. Working together for the good of the whole is not the same as living in fear and withdrawing from each other. In our current conditions, we are called to develop a renewed connection to ourselves, to learn to enjoy solitude, to appreciate smaller spaces, and to be creative and intentional about sustaining our relationships with each other – thus finding innovative ways of sustaining community.
Living with a propensity for depression and having walked through some very dark periods in the course of my lifetime, I can suggest five strategies for fostering community during this pandemic that have worked for me:
1) Develop self-awareness. When a Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council was asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was almost unanimous: self-awareness. But how do you develop self-awareness? Self-awareness starts with checking in on yourself in the present moment. Are you afraid? Stressed? Inspired? Exhausted? Angry? Renewed? All of the above? Self-awareness comes from introspection and feedback from others. It takes time and intention but is a journey worth taking. You can only connect with others to the degree you connect with yourself.
2) Find a confidant. A confidant is a person with whom you can be real and honest. Confidants provide a space for those who are busy holding a space for everybody else. At this point in the pandemic, as fatigue is settling in for so many of us, we all need at least one confidant who can put us back together at the end of the day. Confidants are friends, spouses, coaches, lovers, or trusted colleagues that provide support, perspective, and accountability in the midst of our frustrations and challenges.
3) Practice kindness wherever you go. We are all doing the best we can to get through these challenging times. Let’s make it a point to grant each other a little grace. Even while wearing a mask we can smile with our eyes, offer encouragement with a hand gesture, and practice patience with our tone of voice. We’ve never been more alone, but we have also never been more together, sharing this experience with eight billion people on this planet. Community is developed one kind act at a time.
4) Find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In a world preoccupied with problems, community is about discovering our gifts and finding ways to bring them into focus. Community is ultimately about being needed, belonging to something beyond yourself, being inspired with a reason to face the day. It is the task of leaders, indeed the task of every citizen, to shine a light on the gifts of those in the periphery and bring them into the centre. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, we need to find a reason to put our feet on the floor each morning.
5) Get comfortable being alone. Loneliness and being alone are distinct. A desire for solitude is a defining characteristic of an authentic person. A quest for community can be one more form of manic activity if it is not rooted in a continual practice of silence and time for reflection. If you work on creating a balance between reaching out to others and enjoying what the Finns call hiljaisuus, or solitude in one’s being, you’ll strengthen your sense of self-worth and find more meaning in your life.
Our intention, in our upcoming Authentic Leadership Masterclass is to do our part to help build communities with like-minded authentic difference makers. While we show how authentic leadership presence can be applied to the leadership practices of fostering trust, building accountability, navigating change, and engaging talent, a major part of the program is to connect leaders with each other to sustain their growth, connections, and sense of community. We work with accountability partners between sessions to support each other’s growth, help each other stay on track, and sustain the insights you glean from the class experience.
We still have a few seats available for our January and February programs for those of you committed to renewed leadership development this year in a community of incredible like-minded difference makers. I hope you will join us.
To mark the passage into the promise and hope for a safe and prosperous new year, I want to borrow from history and visualize an ancient and meaningful ritual. For 2,500 years, the Japanese have been making and drinking sake, a type of rice wine brewed from fermented rice. Throughout all that time, sake has been used to mark special occasions with the people that matter most. In most celebrations involving sake, a glass is placed inside a masu cup and the host pours sake until it overflows like a waterfall. The overflowing is an act of kindness and generosity to show appreciation for the people around them. It also works as a little act of celebration, to lift the spirits and to enjoy the present state of life. Watching the sake overflow and not knowing whether it will tip over presents a beautiful moment of suspense, when time seems to slow down. By introducing a moment of suspense, the ceremony keeps your mind in the present moment, focused only on the beautiful waterfall of sake.
As a message of appreciation to all my readers over the years, I’m taking the liberty to borrow from this little Japanese ritual and overflow some sake with you. My hope is that the image of this overflow will remind us all to bring presence and generosity into this new year. May we all experience the overflow of kindness through our actions as we build community together and navigate into 2021.
“Being considerate of others will take you and your children further in life than any college or professional degree.”
Marion Wright, American activist
It has been said that the true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
This week I received an email from an old friend, a man who was in my boy scout troop when I was a teenager. My father was our scout leader, and Alan passed along a memory to me:
“Years ago, when we were young scouts, we were hiking and stopped on the edge of a long steep embankment. Soon we were rolling large boulders down the mountain and watching them as they gathered momentum and bounced out of sight. Your dad came by and gently taught us a life lesson.
He said, “boys, while what you are doing is exciting and seems to be fun, have you ever considered those who might be on the same trail that you came up and how your actions might be putting them in danger?” Then he quietly walked away.
I thought you might like to know of the positive influence from your dad that remains in my life.
The verb consider comes from the Latin for “contemplate,” and hidden in the word is sid, the Latin root for “star.” Originally it meant to examine something very thoroughly, or carefully, as if you were staring at the night sky, contemplating its mystery. If you give something consideration, you think about it carefully, and not too quickly. Without consideration, without careful reflection and contemplation of how attitudes and actions impact others, over time, the long term consequences can be devastating: homes get broken, groups become marginalized, civility is eroded, and humanity suffers.”
Since receiving Alan’s email, I have been doing just that – contemplating carefully – the impact of my father on my life and the tree of consideration that he planted under whose shade many of us are now sitting.
Evolving my own sense of consideration is always a work in progress, but two things I do know about consideration: Being considerate inspires people around you and you earn self-respect and the respect of others. Secondly, consideration is learned. Whether or not you had adults in your life who actively worked to inculcate a sense of consideration in you during childhood, consideration is something we can all work to develop in ourselves. Like anything else, it is something we can get better at, with conscientious practice. That means you can acquire it, nurture it, and expand its influence over your life – through some simple actions.
1. Listen before you speak. We would do well to learn from Carol Gilligan’s Radical Listening Project team and notice what happens when we replace judgment with curiosity, and approach the act of listening as among the deepest manifestations of respect for persons. Notice what happens when we truly take time to understand before trying to be understood, when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes before we come up with our own conclusions, when we take the time to sincerely feel with another person.
2. Be on time. The consideration of showing up on time displays respect and earns the trust of others. It shows you thought about the obligation or meeting or appointment ahead of time and planned for it, which in turn shows you care about it. Being on time extends beyond just a meeting commitment. It involves good manners – a conscious awareness of the feelings of others and a commitment to treat others with the same degree of dignity and respect we extend to ourselves.
3. Think before you proceed. Before you speed through that playground zone, before you throw that piece of trash on the road, before you leave a mess for someone else to clean up, before you impulsively gossip or criticize someone, consider the impact of your actions on the people around you, which may include even those who were not the direct target. Create the mental space for consideration between the impulse to act and your actions.
4. Step away from the metaphorical aisle. Have you ever been boarding a plane, waiting in the aisle for someone to store their carry-on bag, thinking, if they’d only step out of the aisle to let the other passengers behind through, things would move much more efficiently? When eventually someone taps the passenger on the shoulder to point out the long line of people behind them, most of the time, the passenger moves aside, having not realized the delay they were causing. Sometimes in day to day life, we are that passenger, oblivious to the inconveniences we are causing others. Just like the passenger on the airplane not looking behind them, the answer is to practice being more aware of how our habits and actions – big or small – may be affecting others.
5. Practice patience. Patience is far from being passive. Practicing patience is about being kind – even when we don’t feel like it. It can be difficult to come by – especially when we feel stressed, overwhelmed, and surrounded by impatience. However, that is all the more reason to find compassion for people around us. Maybe that person who’s holding the line up on the plane requires a patient response. We are all doing the best we can.
6. Apologize – when it’s warranted. Promptly admit when you’ve made a mistake. But an authentic apology is not an empty confession. It’s not a Sunday school platitude. It’s one thing to continuously say “sorry” to be polite. It’s another to forgo apologies altogether. An apology is a sincere acknowledgement of a wrong-doing and a bone-deep commitment to change. Being considerate means apologizing when you made a mistake and apologizing when you think you’ve made a mistake.
These are just a handful of examples of practical ways by which we can all cultivate consideration. Learning to be considerate requires developing your ability to understand the people around you.
My father was loved by the people he spent time with – in large part because he exhibited this rare and precious human quality of consideration. It came through practice – and from taking the time. Just as the early astronomers didn’t rush their observation of the far-off stars in the night sky so they could better understand what they were observing, we too can invest time in nurturing consideration for the constellation of people in our lives, both those near and dear as well as strangers.