Becoming a Person

I don’t want to start a philosophical or theological debate about this so let me offer a caveat at the outset: when I distinguish between a human being and a person I am distinguishing between the common accident of birth all Homo sapiens share and how some turn that accident into an intentional, conscious life. In my experience there is a vast difference between the two.

In my case, I don’t think that I became a person until I was 35 years old, because up until that age, even though I had done so many wonderful, beautiful things and faced my own deeply challenging circumstances, I had not honestly confronted my lack of consciousness about my self…my person.

You could argue that what I’m getting at here is more a question of maturity than personhood but I don’t find that word satisfying since it implies that if you live long enough you’ll get to self-awareness; again, the accident argument.

To become a person then, requires a conscious choice to venture out and away from the self in order to fully and wholly return to it. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, which begins:

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –“

That bad advice?

“Don’t do it! Don’t go! Stay here in the pleasantly familiar, entirely predictable pattern of a semi-conscious life. Don’t realize how you have allowed your circumstances to rob you of your freedom to choose how you will live.”

And (even more desperately now),

“Don’t remind me of my own fear, my own shame, my own self-satisfied ‘stuckness’ by confronting your own!”

To become a person is to leave behind the relationships that hold you down – including, and perhaps especially the one with yourself – and take on the ones that build you up.

What is it, though, that gets you to the place where “you knew what you had to do, and began”?

For some, it’s tragedy; surviving an illness or a disaster, or grieving someone who did not.

For some, it’s the advent of anger that persists in unexpected, irrational ways. This can emerge in a new marriage or at the arrival of children, deep tears in the fabric of the familiar.

For others, it’s meeting a person of considerable influence who will not be bound by our rules of engagement, who hits us right between the eyes with the feedback we always knew was true but could never willingly hear.

And for others, it’s the revelation of childhood trauma, the awareness that their vulnerability was victimized by someone who knew better but still succumbed to their worst inclinations.

Whatever the source, our inner dynamics always find a way to emerge and provide us with a choice: will I remain constructed in this way (human) or will I set out to reconstruct myself into a person, by stepping into “…a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.” (again, The Journey.)

There is no path to becoming a person that is not littered with risk, real or imagined, which is why many people choose not to walk towards transformation.

Once again, I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. Rather, I am a student of the human experience, as practiced through executive coaching and organizational consulting. My domain of interest and influence is organizational life and how it can be made richer, more positive and more productive for every human, indeed, for every person who participates in it.

This is, then, a request to all leaders to take the steps necessary to become a person. Until you do, your human leadership is a roadblock to the positive, productive richness that your people both deserve and crave. For yourself, for them, please walk out into that wild night, leaving the voices behind and “save the only life you can save.”

Here’s the poem in full:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver


man walking on the empty street

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Leading From the True Self

The purpose of the true self is to keep us honest about playing as big as we can, fully living into our particular gifts. It knows that when we do so we are healthier, happier, and more energetically and generously connected to both self and others. That’s why the true self scares us so much. It keeps calling us to new edges and new possibilities, the ones that seem well beyond our reach because we are so committed to perceiving them through the lens of the false self.

And that false self, that construct we’ve busily and expertly put together through a lifetime of adaptation to everything but our own sense of purpose, it not only limits our well-being but it drags down everyone around us as well…those who stick around, anyway.

This is why it’s impossible for someone who has not identified and who does not regularly work on living into his or her true self, to be a transformational leader, a leader of real change.

People who rely on positional authority for their leadership “credibility” are leading from the false self, always trying to quiet the voice in the head that accurately names their fraudulence and their fear.

“True self” leaders are known by their humility and their freedom. No longer bound by their old constraints they remain aware of how easy it is to slip them back on again. They are vigilant and watchful, cultivating relationships of mutual commitment to the truth because they know they can’t do it alone.

“True self” leaders always start with this question: “How do I need to change before asking others to change?”


photo of person inside cave

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A tug at the sleeve

It’s an idea, maybe just an impulse.

It’s many strands or pieces, disparate at first, less so as they converge.

It’s the maturation of a point of view, the solidification of a belief system, the coming into one’s own perspective.

It’s a persistent knocking, invitational in tone. It’s the other side of the door, the side you don’t yet see but are closer to discovering than ever before.

It’s the tug at the sleeve, the nudge, the shift, the lean forward, towards what has been taking shape behind the veil of a daily life.

It’s coming into focus. Not quite yet, but soon. And that’s ok because you’re not ready. Not quite.

But the tug is there, and you notice it. And noticing, for now, is enough.


landscape mountains sunset person

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As of today…

This transitional, uncertain, ill-defined space, this space in which you find yourself as a result of a recent change, this space which has you feeling anxious, uncomfortable, longing for “normal,” this is your space, but only as of today.

There are two things to remember about this space:

  1. It is not a permanent condition. It is, in fact, a season.
  2. You get to choose how to be in it, how to feel about it.

You may feel anxious and displaced but those feelings are only a tiny fraction of those available to you, those you can choose to experiment with and explore if you are inclined to do so.

You could add feelings of curiosity or hopefulness. You could go from withdrawn to activated or even involved. You could claim your agency and decide to investigate the opportunity, share your questions with others, lead through connection, transparency and disclosure.

You could choose to find a productive energy in the unknown, to allow your vulnerability to inform your sense of possibility.

You might even decide that how you’re feeling about the change right now will simply be as of today. Tomorrow, you have another chance to expand the list of what you feel, incorporating the hard feelings into a much broader list that will serve you in this season of change and well into the next.


nature sky sunset the mountains

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A Different Kind of Darkness

These early days of December are beautifully dark and brief. I am up before dawn most mornings and enjoy the privilege of watching the sunrise from the warm comfort of the living room. It is in this quiet place, as a witness to the new day, that I find myself most at ease with the unknowns of my experience.

The deep anxiety that haunts me when I find myself awake at 2:00 a.m. is simply not present over a cup of coffee at the beginning of the day.

I wake into possibility, the pre-dawn darkness offering reassurance that does not exist in the stretch of night that comes before.

It says, “Just now, even if for a short time, let this darkness surround you with both peace and purpose; the peace of knowing that you are enough and the purpose to step out, once again, into the sacred unknown.”


lighted candle

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The Delight of Solitude

“Solitude is painful when one is young but delightful when one is more mature”
— Albert Einstein


For years now I’ve been contemplating why it is that I am increasingly comfortable with and even possessive of my time alone. It’s unknown territory for me, a long way from where I started.

Between the ages of 18 and 35, I could fairly be described as an “insecure extrovert.” I didn’t want to be around other people, I needed it in an unhealthy way.

I didn’t know how to be alone and it made me restless, anxious and uncertain when I had to be. Since this was still the pre-Smartphone era I didn’t have an easy form of escapism to dull the pain. I just had to feel it. And I hated it.

Other people served as a distraction from the unresolved questions in my heart and mind and the difficult feelings that accompanied them. In many cases I used other people to escape those feelings leading to unhealthy and short-lived relationships. It was a pattern broken by marriage but not resolved by it. In fact, had I not sought help in reconciling my inner life I’m sure my marriage would have suffered great damage, becoming an even more painful casualty.

Doing the work on myself not only made me a better friend, colleague, husband and father but it gave me the peace of mind and heart to be better with and to myself. That made it easier to be with myself and allowed me to transform from an “insecure extrovert” to a thoughtful and even loving one.

This is possible now because the time I spend in solitude refreshes me and heals me. It equips me to be more positive with and more generous to those I care about, instead of requiring them to feed my insatiable insecurity.

Increased comfort with solitude as we age makes sense because our experience of life is simplified. We’ve found our place and way in the world and the comfort of that leads to a quiet sense of security within the known certainties of change.

In my personal experience that increased comfort is also the equity earned from an investment in reconciliation; binding old wounds and enlarging my heart.

That’s something to be thankful for, today and every day.


alone autumn branch cold

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Looking Back to Look Ahead

My writing this past week began with a reflection on my path – my long and uncertain path – to vocation.

With that groundwork laid on Labor Day, I moved into a variety of explorations of the inner life: the leader’s commitment to continuous learning; the freedom that that kind of deep personal awareness creates to liberate others to their full potential; the painful truth that we too easily and too often hide the very best of ourselves from the vulnerability of exposure; and the deep and very challenging necessity to confront our pain and transform it into possibility.

With the benefit of hindsight and reflection, I see now that this week has been an exploration of my most important value: freedom.

And by freedom I mean, the earned right to be my own authority, to be released from the tyranny of the unexamined life, one that operates reactively instead of purposefully. Freedom is the transformation of pain into possibility. Freedom is equanimity under stress, where the old triggers – though always present – will not be squeezed.

As I enter into a period of profound change in my professional life, while continuing to navigate the sacred responsibilities of marriage, fatherhood and friendship, it is no wonder that this theme is surfacing so strongly. It is a time for reflection because it is a time of change.

Writing is good therapy, a form of self-coaching, that helps me to understand where I am, while casting a faint but persistent light on the path ahead.

Thank you for reading.


cold dark eerie environment

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Poem for a Sunday Morning

Journey
{Edna St. Vincent Millay}

Ah, could I lay me down in this long grass
And close my eyes, and let the quiet wind
Blow over me—I am so tired, so tired
Of passing pleasant places! All my life,
Following Care along the dusty road,
Have I looked back at loveliness and sighed;
Yet at my hand an unrelenting hand
Tugged ever, and I passed. All my life long
Over my shoulder have I looked at peace;
And now I fain would lie in this long grass
And close my eyes.
Yet onward!
Cat birds call
Through the long afternoon, and creeks at dusk
Are guttural. Whip-poor-wills wake and cry,
Drawing the twilight close about their throats.
Only my heart makes answer. Eager vines
Go up the rocks and wait; flushed apple-trees
Pause in their dance and break the ring for me;
And bayberry, that through sweet bevies thread
Of round-faced roses, pink and petulant,
Look back and beckon ere they disappear.
Only my heart, only my heart responds.
Yet, ah, my path is sweet on either side
All through the dragging day,—sharp underfoot
And hot, and like dead mist the dry dust hangs—
But far, oh, far as passionate eye can reach,
And long, ah, long as rapturous eye can cling,
The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, bright flower, and the long white road
A gateless garden, and an open path:
My feet to follow, and my heart to hold.


clouds daylight forest grass

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The Fire That Saves

CA Dead Trees

Patches of dead and dying trees near Cressman, Calif., in 2016. CreditScott Smith/Associated Press

“100 Million Dead Trees Prompt Fears of Giant Wildfires” is the headline of an article in today’s New York Times that examines how interrupting the forest’s natural state – its inherent ability to “use” fire to its advantage – has created the potential for unsurpassed devastation:

Mark A. Finney, an expert in fire behavior for the U.S. Forest Service and an author of the study, says California forests are much more vulnerable now because, paradoxically, they have been better protected. In their natural state, forests were regularly thinned by fire but the billions of dollars that the state spends aggressively fighting wildfires and restrictions on logging have allowed forests to accumulate an overload of vegetation.

“We had forests that were very resilient to weather variations and insect disturbances in the past — maintained by frequent fire on the order of every year, or every few years at the most,” Mr. Finney said. By putting out fires, “we’ve changed completely the fire component of these ecosystems,” he said.

The same is true for many people. Instead of allowing for and learning from change we protect against it in all its forms. When we open ourselves up to what is shifting in our lives – and the shift is always going on – we build a resilience that serves us well when the inevitable big changes come. The alternative is to suffer a drought of adaptability and to eventually be fully consumed by something we could have learned to contend with.

Are you over-protecting and making yourself vulnerable to a devastating fire? Or are you learning – one small burn at a time – to thin out the undergrowth of your personal ecosystem by learning to notice, accept and learn from the truth of continuous change in your life?

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.