Become Whole to find Work-Life Balance

Posted on October 22, 2010

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6 weeks ago I, and 50 other students, started a half-term course with the descriptive, yet deceptive, title ‘15.975 Leading profound innovation for a more sustainable future.’ The title ticked all the boxes: Leadership, innovation, sustainability. Yet there was so much more to it, as we soon discovered during a journey to become ‘whole’ and find balance in our lives.

The journey

Over the first few weeks, through simple exercises like ‘empathy walks’, creating sculptures depicting our current reality and nightly reflections, our lecturer, Otto Scharmer, took us through his ‘Theory U’ and set us off on a journey of Self discovery. A journey that would lead us to profound insights and change that you otherwise would only see after a near-death experience.

Down the U

On our way ‘down the U’, we learned to overcome the voices of judgement, cynicism and fear. We learned to listen not only with an open mind and heart, but also with an open will.

For me, this part of the journey included an empathy walk where I met with a 3x cancer survivor. It was an amazing, energizing experience. We discovered that identifying and discussing experiences that we had in common allowed us to connect at a deeper level.

In a following class, we created a sculpture of our current reality. My sculpture was very simple. It consisted of a little blob, me, standing in front of a big blob, the world. My interpretation was that I was standing there waiting for the right opportunity to save the entire world. At the time I failed to realize the meaning of the sculpture and it was only at the very end it became clear what my hands were trying to tell me through the sculpture.

Connecting to the Source

We had learned to connect with others. We had let our hands describe our current reality. Now it was time to connect with our inner Self. Otto took us through a visioning exercise during which we opened the gate into our future, saw it and  came back with advice for our present self.

We were presencing, sensing the emerging future possibilities in the present.

My vision involved my wife and children looking at happy people slowly running passed us, people we had helped, who were thankful for what we had done for them.

Crystalizing the vision

My vision only slowly started to make sense to me, but I had the basis for asking the right questions. In a lecture where we were joined by two exceptional speakers, a social entrepreneur helping young people in Cambodia to learn IT skills and a ex-McKinsey consultant with years of experience in organizational and personal development, I started exploring the meaning of being ‘whole’ with the latter speaker.

Artist R. Padre Johnson

This is when things started to crystalize for me. I understood that to be a ‘whole’ person meant to be whole with not only myself, but with my family, friends and community. Separating myself breaks the whole. The future I had seen in my vision was one where rather than having achieved things on my own, I had achieved them with and from within my family and community. I had felt happy because I was whole.

Moving to action

As our visions crystalized, we began prototyping them. This took each of us in wildly different directions over the last weeks of the course.

My wife and I began baking together, something we both enjoy, as a way of becoming whole. Whilst doing this, we spoke lightheartedly about the idea of maybe starting a bakery that would sell all the great danish pastry that we both love so much. But how could we prototype that idea?

Then one night we came across the website of the movie ‘Waiting for Superman’. It linked to DonorsChoose.org, a place where school teachers can post projects they would like to undertake in their classrooms but need funding for.

We decided that we would bake some ‘chocolate kisses’ and sell them at MIT Sloan to raise money for a school in Dorchester that wanted to buy books for their empty bookshelf. A prototype that also would ‘do good.’

One Thursday morning we started baking and, together with our 2-year old, went down to the lobby of the school over lunch to sell them. Everyone was super supportive of the cause and loved the treat, so we ended up raising $116 to support the teacher’s project.

The last supper

In the final class that same night, Otto opened the floor for those willing to share their experiences and prototypes. One by one, we stood up and shared our experiences. It was a very deep, emotional event. Something fundamental had changed in each one of us. We had woken up to the fact that we create our own realities, and in just 6 weeks we had become empowered to change them. Each person’s story was one of how they were starting to do so in small but fundamental ways.

I stood up and told the class about my vision of being whole with the family, how we had started baking together and how we that morning had gone out selling cookies to raise money for books.

The picture of my sculpture flashed by as I finished up. The sculpture of me standing in front of a big blob of problems, worrying about finding a way to solve all the problems of the world at once, yet doing nothing but standing there.

Tears came to my eyes as I realized that I had finally done something. Maybe only something small, only a prototype, but definitely something inherently good.

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