My Greatest Lesson from 2015: The Power of Thoughts
Writing my end of the year blog is one of my favorite activities. I get to reflect on the year and all of the discoveries it has brought. 2015 was a year of highly tangible results at Highroad Global Services. We worked with several companies to save cost and build better collaboration between U.S. and India teams, coached numerous expats moving into the U.S., and brought teams together in the virtual space to improve trust and efficiency.
On the personal front, both of my bands, Overtime Crew and The Spirit of Rush played for enthusiastic audiences around Georgia, including some of my corporate clients!
All of these activities had their peaks and valleys. During one of my biggest projects, I faced a four-month long sinus infection for which I recently had surgery. My spirits soared when I saw empathy build between my client teams, and my heart fell when I saw the many examples of hatred and bigotry displayed toward the Muslim community. What a year 2015 has been.
The greatest gift I gained from this year, however, came from a quote I heard some time ago. I do not remember the source or where I read it. Its impact, however, has been immeasurable.
“It’s not the thing, it’s our thoughts about the thing that make the difference.”
When we work across cultures, across families, or across humanity, we rarely do so through direct experience. Each of us has a filter, a lens through which we view events and interactions. For example, in 2006 I took a boat tour in China through the beautiful mountains of Guilin. The tour guide had a megaphone through which she talked the entire length of the tour; it seemed she did not take a breath. By about five minutes in I was feeling annoyed. She was so loud. Why couldn’t we just enjoy the scenery?
I looked around at the Chinese tourists. They didn’t seem to mind the narration. They simply looked around interestedly and took pictures, enjoying the day with their families. I realized in that moment that it was not the thing (the tour guide speaking through the megaphone), it was my thoughts about the thing that were shaping my experience. Looked at the situation more directly, the “thing” was a woman speaking in Mandarin about the sights of Guilin. Only my thoughts about the way she spoke (too loudly, in my opinion) made me feel annoyed.
On a trip to Thailand in 1996, I stayed in a simple dormitory room to save money. As I drifted off to sleep I saw a spider the size of my hand on the wall beside me. I panicked. What should I do? Run? Scream? Ignore him? I tightened my mosquito net around me and tried to go to sleep. The next day I found out that the spider was a harmless type. He was just a spider. Only my thoughts about him made him scary.
This discovery has been my most important of 2015, and I would like to offer you a technique to try that I learned from Jon Kabat-Zinn, author and Professor of Medicine Emeritus at University of Massachusetts Medical School.
- When you are working with people who are different from you, stressful or challenging thoughts may arise. Rather than get pulled into the content of the thoughts, picture those thoughts as a stream. You can sit on the bank of the stream observing the thoughts as they go by.
- For example, you might think “Why does this team member from India say yes when he is really not sure if he can make the deadline?”
- Rather than letting that thought lead to another, then another, then another, just observe that thought. You might even label it “thinking, thinking” or “worrying, worrying.” Observe how the thought affects you physically. Watch it float by like a log in the stream. It is, after all, just a thought.
- When you take this more neutral stance toward thoughts and feelings, you take them not as fact or the truth, but as a natural part of your inner landscape. This objectivity often provides much better solutions to your issues than does spiraling into more thinking.
I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with many of you in 2015. I cannot thank you enough for walking the Highroad with me, and I wish you all the best for a prosperous, meaningful, and inspiring 2016.
All the best!
Vicki and the Highroad Team