I spend a chunk of time at the end of every year reflecting on the twelve months past, and thinking about my aspirations for the twelve in front of me. It’s not really about resolutions so much as it is about being intentional and paying attention. This year, I was inspired to also think about having a theme, and I landed on practical magic (notably despite the late-90s Nicole Kidman/Sandra Bullock movie).
The inspiration for the choice was my desire to find a way to visit my son in New Zealand this Spring. He will be spending a semester at the University of Auckland, and I had begun putting the word out to friends that I was looking around for an opportunity to speak or lead a workshop there that would both justify and pay for my travel. It occurred to me that it is when I take this approach to life – working hard at getting lucky, or practical magic – that I am both happiest and most successful.
Practical magic shows up in a number of different ways in my life, but there are four ways that stand out: meditation, going outside, generosity and asking for help. I think of these as intentional practices that reap unanticipated benefits. They also fall squarely into my favorite definition of play – any activity undertaken for no apparent purpose. I remain a fervent believer that the most defining moments of our lives often happen in these privileged interludes, and that building effective educational and work environments – building a meaningful life - require extended time for play and reflection. It may seem like a contradiction in terms, but being intentional about having no apparent purpose at times is one of my keys to being happy.
So a bit about each of the four; meditation to start. A while back, Jim Thompson, the founder of Positive Coaching Alliance, and I decided that we would meet every 3 months to check in and provide a sounding board for one another. We did it for a few of years, and it was a professionally and personally important experience for me. One of the things that I took away was Jim’s description of how he made time every day for quiet reflection. I had read assorted books about mindfulness and meditation over the years, but never really established a practice. Jim inspired me to really commit, and I have been sitting every morning from 20-45 minutes ever since. I attend a meditation retreat every Fall to go a little deeper, and I am convinced that the practice has helped me to stay a little more present when times are hard, kinder when people cut me off on the freeway, and grateful when good things happen.
Going outside. I have always loved being outside. Playing sports, running through the neighborhood at dusk as a child, backpacking, hiking, running, mountain biking. And when my kids were babies, I remember the revelation that the single best way to get them to settle when they were fussy was to step outside with them. Maybe it was just the change in setting, maybe it was that it made me settle and they could sense that, but I took away the insight that going outside almost always freshens up my perspective.
Generosity. I’m not necessarily talking about giving money, (though if you’re reading this and inspired to make a donation to Playworks, that’s awesome!) but intentionally doing something nice for someone else is some of the most powerful practical magic I know. A compliment, letting someone go ahead of you in the grocery store line, sharing your cookie – really, the joy that sharing affords is weirdly outsized given the magnitude of the act. Maybe it’s because it frees us from the oppressive reality of being so constantly self-absorbed. Maybe it lightens the load of wanting stuff that seems to be such a natural by-product of capitalism. In any case, I am convinced that when you are feeling the most needy, the best way to help yourself is by being actively, selflessly kind to someone else.
Last but not least, asking for help. I find this one particularly challenging. Maybe it’s extra white of me, but I internalized a fair bit of the Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myth as a kid. Turns out it’s total BS. We don’t do anything all that important all alone. You need to find great co-founders/co-workers, have great friends, collaborate, disagree, compete and share to actually make a go of it. We need each other, and asking for help is how you transform vulnerability from a liability into a super power. Hard-core, full-on practical magic.
I have some mixed feelings looking ahead to 2020. Even as Nick Kristoff points to the myriad ways the world has improved, I worry about politics and climate and our basic ability as humans to be kind to one another. So I am asking… please join me in practicing a little practical magic – however that shows up for you – in the hopes of making 2020, and the world, a little brighter.
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.