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AVM Consulting · The Mettā View - Looking Forward 050 - Thoughts On Friendships, energy and work

Thoughts on energy, friendships and work

September 2013, Monday morning. It’s my first day in the office, the sun is shining, and I pop my laptop on the temporary brushed steel desk I’ll be occupying for the next few weeks. I feel brand new. I’ve just moved to New York City - a dream since I first landed in the Big Apple, as a naive 14-year-old, with such a limited knowledge of English I couldn’t even converse with a toddler (which I did try, actually).

Being a Manhattanite is a thrill. I’m literally buzzing with excitement at seeing the name above my West Village address on my first cable bill. But then again when you think how stressful it is to move, consider the transatlantic version. While some colleagues, friends and clients I know have made the same choice, to uproot themselves, most of them only took a couple of suitcases. Oddball that I am, I chose to come to the US with all my earthly belongings, along with the cat, Fifi. Thankfully, this being an inter-company transfer, arrangements were made for me.

I digress. Here I am, in the office, to participate in a post-summer break, a ‘back to school’ HQ meeting. We’re on one of the upper floors of an old building in midtown west, known as the garment district, a stone’s throw from Times Square. The elevator ride up is anything but glamorous, and the landlord who permanently hovers on the ground floor hallway is kinda creepy.

Going up, I couldn’t help but giggle. “These Americans”, I sigh, as I notice that there is no 13th floor. The number, seen as unlucky in these parts, was simply eliminated. You can press to go up to 12th or skip to 14th. Fourteenth though, the one where I’ll be heading up global communications for a few months, is technically, actually, the building’s 13th floor.

I’m not the only newbie that morning. A bright French woman in her thirties comes over and says hi. I look at her, smile back and boom, I know it. We’re going to be friends. Oh, yeay! I can tell from her energy, she’s my kind of person. Her countenance is assured, friendly, warm and yet you can tell she’s sharp and knows her stuff. We start chatting and she comes to sit next to me. “Oh Goody!” I think to myself, bubbling up with joy. It’s like the first day of school and I’ve just made a new friend. This bodes well for my time here, I announce to myself.

In the years that follow, we develop a close relationship. M is one of ‘my people,’ she just happens to be in the same office as me. What a gift to have someone trustworthy, a peer, whose discretion I could lean on to talk about challenging times, and someone whose own work and creativity in business inspired me. On top of being a savvy fashion executive, she’s a mum of three. I’m in awe of this woman’s extra skills not just at work but as a mother, wife and friend. Perhaps the mark of true friendships is when you are your friends’ biggest fan? Or maybe it’s just my personality, you tell me.

LUCIE

Still in New York, probably around the same time, I land at a friend of a friend’s housewarming party in Brooklyn. The gathering is lovely, and the company is very nice, yet I feel bored and a little out of place. Maybe my energy is just a bit flat. I’m travelling all the time and I’m constantly feeling exhausted. This girl appeared through the door. ‘I’m sorry, I’m a bit late,’ she said, with a French lilt. Her sunny personality shines through, she enters the room, her dark hair tied back in a bun, sporting a beaming smile highlighted by bright red lipstick. She goes around to say hello to everyone and comes up to me.

We start chatting and “Oh goody” my internal voice goes again, connection! Lucie asks for my number at the end of the evening and I feel giddy, probably even more than if I’d been asked out by a super hot guy. When she calls a couple of days later, I’m on cloud nine. I made a new friend! What a joy.

Now I’ve also had the pleasure of deepening friendships over time, but I’m attuned to this energy exchange, one that comes across when you recognise a kinship with someone who should feel like a stranger but doesn’t. Beyond the conversation, something tells me that we care about the same things, that somehow we have shared values.

ETHELIYA

Fast forward a couple of years, I am chatting to Lucie over the phone. I’ve moved back to Europe and landed in Paris. Being half-French, though having grown up in Geneva, I was expecting to have a smooth transition back to the old continent and the city of lights. That is not the case, the energy feels all wrong. There are many layers to that story, which I won’t get to in detail here, but that I will sum up as my reaction to a Parisian welcome. I need help!

Lucie tells me she has a great friend for me to meet. Sure, of course, I’m going to be saying yes. I’m biased, I assume Lucie has great taste in people, after all we are friends, and on top of it, we love the same kind of music.

The exotically named Etheliya and I agree to meet in a wine bar tucked away on the left Bank. She arrives a little late. She is tall, warm, all cheekbones and friendliness. We fall into conversation with ease as if we were continuing a chat we’d had just days before. It’s as if we'd known each other for years. “Oh goody!” Here I go again. Lucky me, I’ve found my new person (not that I only have the one).

Meanwhile, M has also moved to Paris. My arrival is rough, the job feels hard, I’m not enjoying myself but I’ve got my people. They are super busy too, we don’t see each other very often. But I feel their support.

When I leave Paris, and set out on my own, first in Rome and then in Geneva, I don’t regret the life I had, the travel, the office, the politics, but what I miss is the people, especially those two people.

Similarly, when I left London, I was surprised not to miss the city at all, just my people (and British culture to be fair).

Added to that, I miss A, a wonderful, devout Catholic Sri Lankan woman, who came to clean my house, and cat-sit during my frequent absences. Her energy is like a kind, warm sun. We are not friends per se, we don’t chit chat, but we’re still in touch. There is a deep bond between us, respect, mixed in with a form of love. Lucky me. I feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it, just thinking about her.

She’s now helping Etheliya, who texted me this, just the other day:

“Funny how things connect in the world.

A is here right now, she’s become one of Sarah’s nannies (Etheliya’s new baby) and now I have a team of Sri Lankan ladies from her church who help care for Sarah and maintain the household.

Because of you! And because of Lucie… it’s neat how energy doesn’t go away, it just transforms.”

Her words moved me deeply and remind me of those shared by Jenny Sauer-Klein, my guest on the podcast just a few weeks ago, who said:

“In my experience, no energy is ever wasted or goes lost, right?

That’s one of the laws of physics in the universe that energy just transmutes from one form to another. Like ice turns into water. Water turns into vapour. Vapour turns into rain. It just transmutes forms.”

Energy doesn’t go away. It just transforms.

SOLO WORK ISN’T EASY WORK

Whether you’ve battled boredom or burnout, sometimes, the energy feels like it’s missing.

For the digital nomads among us, in particular, those in solo consulting or freelancing careers, the lack of social connection with peers is something that can come as a disadvantage on multiple levels. Despite being an introvert, I do get replenished by connecting with others, collaborating, and exchanging ideas. Perhaps that’s why the podcast…

Prior to setting up my consultancy, I was nearing the top of the company pyramid, on the board of directors. As you’ve probably heard, it can get lonely at the top. Apart from M, I felt pretty isolated.

Both situations - lack of peer support access or isolation - leave many of us without the connections we need to feel engaged and boost our morale at work, as the Harvard Business Review explains in this article 'True friends at work':

“Yale professor Marissa King explains that your social connections are a strong predictor of your cognitive functioning, resilience, and engagement.

She cites studies showing that teams of friends perform better; that people with supportive coworkers have more work/life balance and are less stressed; that strong personal ties increase information- and idea-sharing, self-confidence, and learning; and that those who have close friends at work are more efficient in and satisfied with their jobs.”

Over the years, I’ve learned two important things.

Firstly, as a consultant, it’s essential to build a support system and create a network with others who share your values. Most of us need to feel like we’re part of a team; even those who enjoy working on their own will benefit from the energy that comes from collaboration.

I’ve been blessed to have found wonderful contributors, who are I guess the ‘new’ co-workers in my life. And I always look forward to working with favourite external agencies, when I get a chance to pull them into new projects.

People make everything feel more worthwhile. Or should I say good people?

Secondly, we all need to find someone to talk to - someone who actively listens to us.

And sometimes it’s good when this person is actually paid to hold that space for you. Even the best of friends, at work or outside of work, may not be the right people to support us. It’s not their expertise after all. I had the chance to be coached by a wonderful HR and leadership consultant for a few years, who accompanied me on my journey, and held my hand metaphorically when I navigated my transitions.

This topic came up in my interview with co-founder and ex-CEO of Kickstarter Yancey Strickler. I was keen to hear from him how he had benefited from the coaching he received from Jerry Colonna, who he raved about, which he explained thus:
“The first benefit of a coach is just that you have a place to emotionally process your experiences and being able to do it there means you’re not doing it in other places. It means you’re not distracting your teammates or whatever, pulling people into your emotional tribulations, which are always there.”

Yancey, now working on a new project called Metalabel, was also coaching and advising a handful of startup CEOs at the time of our conversation. Blending coaching and consulting, his words resonated with me, or with what I’d have needed earlier in my career as well:

“The main thing I want to give people I work with is just perspective. What I always wanted was someone that could say, ‘This happens. It happens. This situation’s probably not going to work out the way you want, but it’s okay.’

Just like that voice that just lets you know you’re not uniquely broken, you’re normal broken.

And so that’s what I want [to offer].

To me, that emotional resonance did a lot.”

We need to have places and people to support us, if we want to be our best selves. Nowadays, I don’t have the opportunity to cultivate the same friendships through work, not quite like the watercooler days of yore. But I can lean on my friends, and on my coaches (I have more than one…) to hopefully show up in life and be my best self.

As writer Alison Beard concludes in her HBR piece:

“Real life happens at work: success, joy, failure, trauma. We need real friends—right there, at our side—through it all.”

NORA, OLIVIA AND KATE

On Saturday night, I walk into this place. Kind of like that first day in the office, it feels new and exciting. This young genius pianist from Chicago is playing and I have a good feeling about this event. Lucie is the one who messaged me on Instagram six months ago about this music festival that’d just taken place in Geneva. I won’t miss the next show I promised myself. Over the past two years, it’s just been me, D Nice & Club Quarantine to the rescue. My hometown isn’t New York City, if you know what I mean.

Etheliya was right, the energy of our connection didn't go away, I’m here thanks to Lucie, who's all the way in Brooklyn. I message her, thank you!

I find myself a seated spot, neatly in view of the grand piano. A girl arrives, removes her coat left as a placeholder, and claims the seat to my left, with her friend. She’s sporting a short blond bob, a patterned maxi dress, and I think to myself that I quite like her look.

Jahari Stampley steps behind the piano. He plays the first piece, magical, and the second, one merging into each other. I want to cheer, applaud. I’m not sure how: the music didn’t stop. No one else is clapping. Leaning forward, observing the artist, I whisper my question aloud: “Shouldn’t we be clapping now?” I hear my neighbour answer. “It’s always a bit weird here with the Swiss public.” I giggle. It’s not my first gig, she’s right.

The crowd warms up as the music pours out of the 22-year-old prodigy. I’m a loud supporter. I’ve been on stage before; I know this matters, that other transmission of energy. It’s his first time playing with this setup and creating live loops on stage. Awesome. I cheer him on, so do the girls to my left. My friend Amanda, later re-christed Kate (that’s a story for another time), is somewhere else, eyes full of emotion at the beauty of the music and the performance.

The gig ends, and the petite blonde next to me says: “It was fun watching this gig sitting next to you.”

“Same!” I answer. ‘You remind me of my friend Lucie actually.’

And I’m thinking: “Goody…” again.

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Essential reading on the future of work, storytelling & wellbeing

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Essential reading on the future of work, storytelling & wellbeing

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