Browsing a bookstore years ago, a title caught my eye—Please, Doctor, Do Something! I read it in two sittings. Dr. Joe Nichols, then president of the Natural Food Associates, argued that the high-fat, artificial-everything American diet was lethal. I closed the book, sat back, and realized that was me on those pages. I was twenty-five pounds overweight, frequently exhausted, and stressed out. I figured I had two choices. I could deny Nichols’s scientific conclusions or I could experiment. If nothing changed, well, I’d go back to “normal.” Following Nichols’s advice, I eliminated sugar, red meat, white bread, and fried anything. In a few months, I shed twenty-five pounds and noticed a conspicuous surge in energy and a reduction in anxiety.
A decade after changing my diet, I got a cancerous lump on my neck. Proof that fate doesn’t care a whit about healthy eating? Hardly. Cancer only sharpened my urgency. Attending a tai chi retreat, I discovered I had just scratched the surface of a healthy life. Frankly, the meditation exercise felt odd at first, and the organic vegetarian meals were bland. I still missed chicken and milk. But as the week unfolded, my taste buds woke up—and so did I. I discovered the real variety of healthful foods out there: grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The link between food, mood, and health was stronger than I thought. If a single pill can alter our physical and mental states, imagine how our bodies react to the hundreds of pounds of food we consume every year.
Born and bred in Indiana, I dribbled a basketball right out of the womb. At fifty-five, knee surgery forced me into early retirement. Fortunately, there are countless ways to raise the heart rate. Four times a week, I spend thirty minutes running on an elliptical machine and thirty on weights. Add in daily stretching, yoga, and a healthy diet and I’ve got energy—and patience, generally—to burn. Exactly what a high-performance leader needs.
Valued highest in our meritocratic, information-saturated times, intellectual passion is the urge to manifest internal vision through external invention. Expanding your intellectual capacity is important, but you can shortchange yourself, as I did in spectacular fashion, if you try to get by on raw focused wattage alone.
For years, I tried. After all, left-brain thinking was essential for meeting the challenges of my budding business. Still, it felt as if every time I lifted my head above water, another wave pounded me. Sputtering, I’d push myself to upgrade management skills like strategic planning, problem-solving, and delegation. I also raised the bar for goal setting, organization, and time competency. All indispensable. But success requires the alchemy of creative thinking to alter information from knowledge into wisdom.
Once upon a millennium, a bunch of mischievous angels hid the secret of the direct experience of God. (Stick with me for a second.) One angel suggested concealing it on a mountaintop. “Humans are always reaching higher,” another angel said. “They’d find it up there someday.” A third angel suggested burying it in a deep valley. “Nope,” another angel replied. “Humans are always digging for answers. They’d find it there, too.” Yet another angel suggested, “Let’s launch it into outer space.” “Can’t,” said a doubting angel. “Humans are never satisfied with staying on the ground. They’ll learn how to fly and track it down.” Finally, one small angel piped up. “Let’s put it inside them,” she snickered.
One evening in a restaurant, for instance, my partner, Mary, and I were waiting for a table. The couple in front of us reluctantly agreed to small table inches from a crying baby rather than wait fifteen minutes for the booth they had requested. A minute later, a booth opened up and the hostess guided us past the first couple. I had competing thoughts: Boy, did we luck out, followed by, No, this doesn’t feel right. I knew if I didn’t act on it, I wouldn’t enjoy my meal. Mary, of course, agreed when I suggested we offer the booth to the other couple, which they gladly accepted. The connection we all felt was, as the ad goes, priceless.
When I feel spirit-filled, I trust that everything is unfolding as it should— and I’m more inclined to look for and recognize the blessing in whatever occurs. Unfortunately, feeling calm, centered, and connected can be fleeting. Especially when you’re CFO abruptly resigns, a focus group trashes your new product, and employees squabble outside your office—all at once.
That’s why it’s important for me to start each day with a spiritual practice that delivers a measure of peace. Perhaps a few minutes of quiet reflection and deep breathing. A few pages from an inspirational book. Yoga. There are hundreds of ways to touch a calming chord. The office may not know you spent thirty minutes practicing tai chi before you came in. But it shows up in how you behave once you get there—you’re enthusiastic toward teammates, you respect people while disagreeing with them, and you make a fresh pot of coffee whenever you pour the last cup.
My stress builds—and connectedness wanes—when I skip meditation, yoga, or daily prayer. Wobbly days are a reminder that the cornerstone of any spiritual-wellness program is a daily ritual. Don’t expect the sublime without putting in the time.