2016 is the tenth anniversary of Bill Jensen’s seminal fourth book, What Is Your Life’s Work?, composed of legacy letters — letters from leaders and managers to their loved ones. Each letter describes a life’s work legacy they wish to leave behind. Each letter is published and attributed as it was ten years ago, with 2016 updates as postscript. The first such update was posted here.
Work: In transition
Until recently, Ariel Blair was a strategy and planning manager for Hewlett-Packard’s Imaging and Printing Group in Barcelona, Spain. She had transferred there from her home in Idaho, only to later have her job be “made redundant.” Ariel is writing to her friend Ryan, who is eight years old.
My birthday present to you is simple: Learn to access, listen to, and trust your inner voice.
Sounds simple, yet it is sometimes extremely difficult. The work world has many messages and signals to impose on us. There is always something else to do, another project that your boss needs right away, a coworker who needs your help, or an urgent request to present at a meeting for which you have had inadequate preparation time. I have learned to listen to what is viscerally true for me. This has meant constantly quieting the noise that competes for my attention so I can hear what is deep inside.
Additionally, you will experience distractions that your European-American colleagues will not. Because your skin is dark, as is mine, there are privileges we cannot assume. The richness of your skin color will lead to internal and external pressures related to bias.
Note that I did not use the word race. Race only exists as a social construct. This is critical to remember. In order to listen to yourself, you need to know who you truly are — as opposed to who you are within someone else’s social construct.
I have two ways to access my inner voice: Either spending time meditating or writing in a journal. This creates a space for my inner voice to surface.
Here’s an example: One Friday, I glanced at the management staff gathered without Peter, our boss, or me in our conference room. Earlier I had heard a rumor of a meeting and been told by Peter that he had not scheduled one. A knot formed in my stomach. Why was I excluded? Inner alarm bells went off.
Later that afternoon, I saw a member of the staff and asked about the meeting. George told me that yes, the staff had met, and he had intentionally not invited me to that meeting and others. I was so angry and frustrated, I did not know if I should cry or tell George off using words not fit for a professional.
My inner voice told me to keep quiet and not to react visibly. A lump in my throat the size of a golf ball now joined the knot in my stomach. Though appearing calm on the outside, inside I was feeling a mix of anger, frustration, sadness and fear.
Unknowingly, George triggered a range of emotions stored inside of me from so many previous subtle injustices. That weekend, I made myself miserable turning the events over and over in my head, raging and questioning why this was happening as though there were some rational explanation. Unfounded worries about being excluded because of my skin color were waves of distraction, overwhelming my ability to use my inner compass.
During our next staff meeting, I could barely speak for fear of expressing the anger lurking just below the surface. I fought with myself trying to find compassion for my colleagues. An opportunity came at the close of our meeting.
Two women from the department had just proposed a workshop on multicultural awareness. After their presentation, I spoke for the first time. “Just a moment, Peter, I have a something to add.” With a quiet and slightly shaking voice, I said, “Given the decision to exclude me from meetings about the reorganization where I have value to contribute, I find it ironic to hear workshop goal like ‘inclusion’ and ‘trust’ from this staff.”
A couple of people across the table looked startled and started to shake their heads. I looked at George, saying, “I was told I was not invited.” George responded clearly with “I did say that.”
I will never know why George excluded me from those meetings. What I do know is that by knowing what was true for me and giving voice to that truth, I had a significant impact on those who were present. Not only had I made a point of the inappropriate behavior much more powerfully than if I had succumbed to the temptation and yelled at George on Friday afternoon, I also had the opportunity to see that most of my colleagues participated in the exclusion unknowingly. I had wrongly suspected all of them of participating actively.
Listening to the voice inside that told me to be still and hold my tongue on Friday gave me the opportunity, later, to see the suffering present on those faces as their heads shook in disbelief. It gave me a way to forgive my colleagues for the ignorance of their privilege, and to forgive myself for my own deep anger and fear.
In all my everyday experiences, I am mindful of finding real meaning from moments when I am quiet and listening well. Then I can hear not only my inner voice, but also a heartfelt message from a coworker even when it is not explicitly spoken.
Ryan, these moments are the true gifts of listening to your inner voice.
2006: Ariel Blair’s mom died with many dreams unfulfilled, because something practical always came first. Ariel then vowed to live each day fully, never missing an opportunity to be happy in the moment, including launching her own firm after leaving HP.
2016: Ariel is now a Managing Partner at Thought Catalysts, a Utah-based consulting firm helping leaders with organizational effectivenss and to successfully create greater diversity within their workforces.