An inquiry into personal growth, organizational culture, mindful leadership and social well-being.
By Christian Filli
Can we lead a better society? (10.2017)
I've been feeling this great impulse to pay closer attention than usual to the strong vibrations that are presently shaping - and shaking - our international political landscape, one of the hot spots being, of course, the White House. It's worth clarifying that I am not driven by partisanship nor national identity. I am, however, a lifelong student of, and an advocate for effective leadership. I work in the field of integral development and I tend to nurture a keen eye for how individuals and groups bring value to society (or do the opposite, for that matter). In this broader context, I am inevitably drawn to observe and interpret some of the power dynamics that surround us, and how we relate to them.
Ultimately, though, this goes well beyond politics. I lived most of my life in Latin America and one of the things that always alarmed me the most in countries like Brazil and Mexico was the problem of conspicuous impunity, which eventually became a key motivator for migrating north. After several years living in the U.S., it's been quite a shock to see how impunity can also run rampant in the so-called First World, especially at the highest levels of public, corporate and civic life. I was certainly never so naive as to believe in the absence of financial greed, corruption, manipulation of public opinion or the occasional "sexting" scandal. But the widespread abuse of power, unfiltered aggression, sheer recklessness, and utter disregard for human dignity exhibited by people at the very top, especially in the past several months, has been truly difficult for me to comprehend and assimilate.
The consequences of such acts cannot be overstated, yet at the same time I'm taking all of it as an opportunity to re-assess my own attitudes and behaviors. What can I learn from all this? How can I integrate and apply what I learn about myself? Can I do something differently tomorrow (big or small) to course-correct my quality of life and the welfare of others? Who do I see when I look at myself in the mirror? Do I keep the company of people who nourish my soul or simply drain my energy? How can I help create an environment where bullying and intimidation don't find a foothold?
One would imagine that in the year 2017, the topic of leadership would have little room left for further examination and enhancement. Evidently that isn't the case. In fact, the most common mistake regular citizens make is to convince themselves that they aren't supposed to lead. But guess what? It is up to all of us to figure out a way out of this "royal mess".
What is sacred to you? (08.2017)
The word sacred oftentimes carries religious connotations as it is commonly used to describe something holy or divine. But even agnostics and atheists have something in their lives that they will consider worthy of deep respect or reverence, something that’s unassailable or non-negotiable to them.
We all have rituals, memories, books, songs, objects, assets, temples, landmarks or relationships that we might consider sacred, don’t we? These may have come about through our exposure to family environments, cultural dynamics, academic institutions, professional fields and a myriad of experiences over the years. Animal spirits are sacred to Shamans, soccer is sacred to most Brazilians, punctuality is sacred to the British, Everest is a sacred mountain to the people of Tibet and Nepal.
But there is also a much more personal dimension to sacredness. If you’re a parent, you might consider your kids to be the most sacred thing in your life; if you’re an entrepreneur, you might refer to your business as your ‘baby’; if you’re a cyclist, you might worship your bike; if you’re a religious person, you might be able to recite the scriptures by heart; if you’re in love with someone, you might find few things to be more sacred than your romance.
What is sacred to me? Well, there are quite a few things and it would take an entire book to cover all. One of them is allocating enough time throughout the year to be in the wilderness. Having contact with nature helps me recharge and cultivate my capacity for insight, both into myself and the world. Susan Cain summed it up perfectly: “no wilderness, no revelation”.
Going a step further, though, I remember holding certain beliefs and opinions sacred at various moments in my life. To some extent, those beliefs and opinions served as a moral compass to guide me through stormy weather. Other times they helped me set priorities and make important choices. For the most part, they simply directed my attention to things that made me feel good, physically and emotionally. Take my relationship with sports as an example. When I was working in the fitness industry, I was convinced that I was fulfilling my destiny. My training and racing routine was the center of my life and I assumed that it represented who I am. You can imagine what happened when I lost that job and when my appetite for competition started fading.
I realized that sacred does not mean immutable. Whatever you hold sacred today might disappear, collapse or perish down the road - whether it’s your health, your work, your home, a loved one or something you take to be an absolute truth.
What happens then? Can anything be sacred at all if nothing is meant to last forever?
But let’s go even deeper. What if we detached our personal sense of self from the notion of sacredness and thought of it as a broader concept that is much larger than ourselves? What if sacredness were not something we can ever hold but only foster? What if we thought of ourselves as mere contributors to a sacred well, conceived to energize all of humanity including future generations? What if this well were a reservoir of sacred qualities such as kindness, empathy, creativity, courage, resilience, humor, joy, equanimity, assertiveness, care, openness, humility, sincerity, patience and generosity? What if we simply shared the responsibility of replenishing this reservoir, continuously nurturing common human qualities for the sake of our common human experience? What if we saw life not as a collection of items and ideas we own but a source of energy we can connect with for a very limited period of time?
What if the only truly sacred thing were LIFE itself?
Are you creative? (07.2017)
I was paying for my haircut at the barber shop when the cashier asked me if I wanted to add a tip amount, to which I replied “yes, 20%”. As he gave me the total balance, I had to gently correct him because he’d come up short a couple of dollars. What he said next really struck me: “sorry, I’m not very good with numbers, I’m an artist”.
Given his job as a cashier, his self-declared lack of proficiency with numbers seemed like an obvious issue, but what really caught my attention was his apparent logic. In his mind, the task of doing some simple arithmetic was at odds with his identity as an artist. I couldn’t help but wonder in what other ways (or domains) this belief could lead him to undermine his own abilities or disqualify himself entirely.
There is an interesting pattern of behavior here which I’ve seen repeat itself over and over throughout the years, and it basically goes like this: “I’m right-brained, so don’t ask me to perform left-brain stuff” or “I’m left-brained, so don’t ask me to perform right-brain stuff”. In my experience, though, the latter seems to be much more prevalent in our western culture.
If I had gotten a dime for every instance in which I heard someone declare “I’m not creative”, I would probably be a millionaire by now. Full disclosure: I may have said it myself at some point!
But why do so many adults say this? What do you understand by creativity?
The main problem is that we live in a society of experts, which - among other things - perpetuates the myth of creativity being required for certain occupations and not for others. If you’re a musician, cartoonist or movie producer, you must be creative. If you’re an accountant, salesperson, engineer or lawyer … well, you’re one of those left-brain people.
We have been conditioned to hold ourselves up to the highest possible standards, so we end up adopting a comparative approach in everything we do. Take the simple act of running, which is a natural form of movement for which humans evolved over millennia. If you happen to regularly go for a 3-mile run a couple of times a week and someone asks you in a social setting whether you’re ‘a runner’, chances are you might say something along the lines of ‘well, I’m not a serious runner’ - just in case anyone would follow-up with ‘what’s your personal best marathon?’.
Try suggesting to someone that they take on a new activity, whether it’s meditating, dancing, playing chess or public speaking, and they’ll immediately ponder the possibility of failure. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone carries an inherent perception of risk and none of us enjoys taking risks very much. But as Sir Ken Robinson would say, “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with something original”.
Being creative is not the privilege of a portion of the population with a particular genetic makeup, artistic trajectory or job title. Nor is it mysteriously confined to an area in our brains. In fact, we need to once and for all debunk this pervasive notion about the brain being divided into compartments.
Saying “I’m not creative” is akin to saying “I’m not a thinker” or “I don’t need to breathe”. Denying or suppressing this innate human quality cuts our oxygen supply to some of life’s most beautiful and interesting dimensions, including the expression of self. Moreover, we need to consider whether we can truly thrive as a species without cultivating our creative skills in a world that’s becoming increasingly unpredictable. The problem is that we can’t truly develop these skills if we’re staring at a computer screen all day long, brainstorming while sitting on a beanbag or frantically typing on our smartphones as we walk down the street.
So here’s the good news: all of us have the capacity to make endless mental connections as we perceive the world through sound, movement, color, texture, space and our interaction with others. Creativity is therefore embedded in our psyche as a multi-sensorial phenomenon that fuels our ability to develop new ideas, adapt to a changing landscape and shape the future.
In stark contrast to the one-right-answer system in which most of us have been indoctrinated, creativity is a process that allows us to engage divergent views and produce unconventional solutions. Just like running, it operates along a broad spectrum and it can be practiced on many levels. You don’t need to become Steven Spielberg or Lady Gaga any more than you need to win a marathon in order to openly say “yes, I am creative”.
Why do we change? (06.2017)
A self-evident reply is that we change because our circumstances change, or because we don’t like our present circumstances. We change jobs, we change neighborhoods, we change partners, we change sides, we change gadgets, we change hair stylists …
However, there is another dimension of change that I consider worth exploring … As Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself”.
The deeper we immerse ourselves into the so-called Anthropocene, the easier it seems to be for us humans to spot something that we’d like to alter in our surroundings, and then mobilize resources (and people) to do so. We certainly have more knowledge and tools than we ever had before to initiate or influence change across natural systems, urban communities, business networks, socio-political structures and cultural phenomena.
There are plenty of well-intended people seeking to make a positive impact and help solve important challenges. Entrepreneurs are overflowing with brilliant ideas to improve our lives; and tech wizards seem to intuitively know how to make even the wildest of visions accessible to anyone with a smartphone.
But in a world in which we have innovation for breakfast, disruption for lunch and revolution for dinner, we seem to rarely question whether our impetus to reshape everything around us might be outstripping - and perhaps obscuring - our ability to change our own modus operandi.
As adults, we hardly consider modifying our habits, let alone our views on things, or our way of relating to others. When we do, it’s incredibly difficult to follow through - hence 90% of new year’s resolutions tend to fade away by mid-February. We often conclude that it must be due to poor planning, lack of willpower, unrealistic expectations or busy schedules. But is it really?
And what’s the big deal anyway? Why should we bother to change something about ourselves if we can shape the world to fit our needs and desires? What is the point of examining our blind spots instead of simply capitalizing on our strengths? How are we supposed to incorporate a new practice into our routine when already faced with so many time constraints and obligations? Where’s the harm in simply applying our common sense and pushing for the results we want?
These are valid questions, especially if life seems to be sorting itself out and we’re functioning well enough. I was pondering these questions myself precisely one year ago, when I came in full contact with a near-death experience. Up until that point, I had been under the impression that I was well ‘ahead of the curve’ in welcoming change into my life and that I was deeply committed to my own personal development. But the accident shattered many of my perceptions and made me realize that I had barely scratched the surface.
I have come to understand that a narrative centered on pursuing or driving external change is insufficient when not accompanied by changes in our own perspective and behavior. Put another way, simply designing the coolest new app, even if it’s with the best of intentions, does little for the world unless you’re also redesigning at least to some extent how you show up in it. This is arguably the greatest source of the imbalances we experience in our society today.
Suppose you get promoted to a new position yet continue applying the same methods over and over; or you re-marry yet maintain the exact same expectations of your partner as you did in your previous relationship; or you describe yourself as being open-minded yet hang out with the same tribe all the time.
As we continue to age, we grow fond of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we think; and it is amazingly easy to fool ourselves into believing whatever it is that we want to believe. I find the disintegration of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to be a great analogy for this. After so many decades of shouting their slogan over the megaphone, they seemed so convinced that they were “the greatest show on Earth” that they couldn’t imagine themselves in any other way.
While you’re reading this, you’re most likely running every word through your pre-established filters to decide whether you ‘buy into’ it or not. If you come across anything that doesn’t fit your way of interpreting the world, it will automatically trigger alarm bells in your brain and possibly throughout the rest of your body.
The fact is that most of us have a love-hate relationship with change. We enjoy novelty and yet we’re attached to the familiar. At a cellular level, we are engineered for homeostasis, therefore our hyper-sensitivity to change is a built-in mechanism intended to protect us and ensure our survival. Paradoxically, we have a natural tendency to avoid change even when we’re experiencing an uncomfortable, toxic or harmful situation. As odd as it sounds, we can also become attached to our fears and anxieties, because they reassure us of who we are (or think we are). We might assume that contradicting our mental framework is an admittance of being flawed or inadequate, so it’s easy to understand how strangely counterintuitive it may seem to seek change that will bring about other forms of discomfort, even if temporary. Doing so takes guts, and may require outside help.
Until recently, it was believed that our ability to generate new mental pathways dropped off sharply around the age of 20, and then stopped permanently around the age of 40. However, recent studies have debunked this theory, showing instead that the brain has the potential to continuously rewire itself throughout life, a process known as neuroplasticity.
But “you cannot change your mind with your mind alone”, said Wendy Palmer, founder of Leadership Embodiment. And therein lies its mystery.
How lucky are you? (12.2016)
I was once at a company cocktail party chatting with a former boss of mine and at some point the conversation unexpectedly shifted to the subject of luck. He surprised me by asserting his belief in that some people are inherently lucky and they should not shy away from advertising this quality in their résumé or during a job interview. His comment left a long-lasting impression in me. You see, CEOs will usually instruct their direct reports to work hard, hire qualified people and keep expenses down. But this guy instilled two great principles in me: one is to be extremely selective about the people that you choose to work with, and the other is to harness the power of luck …
To harness the power of luck? How? Is there really such a thing as luck?
Webster’s classic definition of luck is "a purposeless, unpredictable and uncontrollable force that shapes events favorably or unfavorably for an individual, group or cause". Based on this definition, luck seems to be a completely random phenomenon that determines someone’s fortune or misfortune - winning the lottery or being struck by lightning, for example.
I have always found it entertaining to observe how people prefer dismissing luck as a contributing factor to their success, yet they love attributing negative experiences to bad luck.
Have you ever noticed that?
Most of us have been trained to rely on the notion of causality. Causality offers us a framework under which one event can be explained as a direct result of another event, thus giving us a sense of control over results. Even different religions tend to promote variations of causality. You go to heaven or hell, depending on your sins. You get good karma or bad karma, depending on your deeds.
Carl Jung argued that life is not a series of random events but rather an expression of a deeper order, or a governing dynamic that underlies the whole of human experience – social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. He referred to it as synchronicity, or “meaningful coincidences”.
Throughout my life, I have experienced plenty of moments - some of them quite remarkable - that I cannot explain through any particular logic, theory or system. However, I am convinced that our attitudes and actions have the power to attract or deflect positive energy. In other words, how we show up and relate to events has a direct impact on how lucky we perceive ourselves to be.
I constantly hear people talk about the way in which “life is treating them” or the things that “life is throwing at them”. So I’d like to suggest a simple experiment: for the next 30 days, try asking yourself these questions at least once a day: “how am I treating life?” and “what did life teach me today?” … And notice what happens.
Where is home? (10.2016)
For as long as I can remember, I have been an outsider. I’ve moved internationally seven times, and regardless of where I am in the world, people seem to feel a burning desire to ask me where I’m from as soon as I say “hello”.
I remember how difficult it was for me to adapt when I moved with my family to Switzerland in the late 70’s. Although I was born a Swiss citizen, I had only been to my “home” country on a couple of short vacation trips, unsuspecting that I would end up living there one day.
While trying to learn the language and the customs of this strange land, I also learned for the first time how to deal with hostility. A group of kids in my neighborhood and my school did not welcome my presence there, and one of their favorite insults was “Italienisch” (which basically categorized everyone who came from south of the border as inferior beings). I was confused and anxious, but unwilling to give in or hide in a corner. The hostility escalated very quickly to the point where I had to physically defend myself on a weekly basis. Fortunately, my Alpine and Sicilian genes proved to be quite an asset for street fighting and after about a year-long “initiation”, I was finally left alone.
The funny thing is that I recently had my DNA tested and it turns out that I am precisely 18.7% Italian. Those kids in Basel were partially right, although the intention behind their words was quite hurtful. Every time someone asks me “where are you from?”, it triggers mixed emotions, as I am reminded of dozens (if not hundreds) of instances in which I felt that I didn’t belong, even well into my adult life. Of course, I know that most people are simply curious and simply want to make conversation. I also know that my international experience, with all its pros and cons, has enriched my life in so many ways that I couldn’t possibly summarize it in a newsletter. And I am incredibly grateful for my mixed heritage, as I literally embody a global view of things; it’s an undeniable part of who I am. Yet that infamous question still bugs me.
Earlier this year, I had an epiphany when an Uber driver in San Francisco asked me: where is home?
Suddenly, the question that I had learned to interpret as a request to retrace my genealogical timeline became an invitation to share my story. It opened possibilities instead of boxing me in. It sparked the desire to have a fruitful conversation by connecting with memories, passions and yearnings.
“Where is home?” transcends national identity, family history or place of residence. In my case, I have felt at home in a variety of settings over time. I felt at home at my university. I felt at home in some of the companies I worked for. I currently feel at home in Austin. I feel at home when I visit my family in São Paulo. I feel at home in my body. I feel at home when immersed in a good book. I feel at home when I’m in the mountains - anywhere from the Rockies, to the Andes and even the Swiss Alps! I feel at home wherever I’m free to be myself.
I have indeed been an outsider most of my life, and I actually consider that to be an amazing privilege. The occasional hostilities that I have encountered never stood in the way of my physical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual freedom. Others may not be so lucky. In times when more than 65 million people around the world (equivalent to the entire population of France) have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and another 230 million or so live outside their country of origin, I believe one of the most pressing questions today is: how do we help make them feel more at home wherever they are?
But let’s start with: Where is home … for you?
What is character? (09.2016)
Here’s a word that I really love: character.
Sadly, it’s a word that seems to be on the brink of extinction. Why? Because I rarely hear it anymore. I do hear plenty about “power” and “success” every single day. I see thousands of tweets on “happiness”. Management gurus and marketers preach about “authenticity” all the time. But “character”? … it only surfaces every once in a while.
Sure, people will refer to “characters” in a story or describe their friend as “a character”. Oh, and there is also a beer brand that claims to have “character”. What I am talking about, though, is formation of character. You know, that thing universities, once upon a time, would strive for.
Cultural historian Warren Susman observed that at the beginning of the 20th century, people began to define and express themselves through hobbies, wardrobe and material possessions, creating a shift from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. He illustrated this shift through the changing content of self-improvement manuals, which went from emphasizing internal values such as “citizenship, duty, work, honor, reputation, morals, manners and integrity” to external perceptions such as “fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, dominant, forceful and energetic”.
When the TV series Lost aired on prime time a few years ago, I wouldn’t miss an episode. It was the story of a group of castaways learning how to work together to survive on a seemingly deserted island after their airplane had crashed. In spite of some of the show’s weirdness - like the appearance of polar bears in a tropical forest - I was captivated by the conflicts of character that each of the cast members manifested, especially during epic interpersonal disputes, like the ones between the “righteous doctor” (Jack) and the “charismatic con-man” (Sawyer).
The word character comes from the Greek kharaktēr for “stamping tool”, “symbol” or “imprint”, from where it evolved and became associated with “the sum of qualities that define a person”. My simple interpretation of character is how you define yourself once you’ve completely stripped yourself of your external image, or, for the sake of using the above analogy, once you’ve found yourself stranded on an island with all your belongings gone and little hope for rescue.
In other words, what makes you, you?
David Brooks has made the distinction between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues”, suggesting that they exist in perpetual confrontation within each of us, but “résumé virtues” tend to be vastly favored by our society. And therein lies the rub. It’s easier to spend time on the things that make us look and feel good while we’re alive than the things we’d like to be remembered for when we die, isn’t it?
But this doesn’t have to be an either/or conversation. The magic of life emerges when we embrace our multi-dimensional selves. Most of us have to cultivate some form of work identity and social identity in order to function in our communities. And there is no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy the perks of the physical and material world. But we can enjoy them much more when we understand that they don’t define who we are.
How do you build trust? (08.2016)
For as long as I can remember, the Olympic Games have inspired me deeply. I’m always amazed to watch how other human beings are capable of such incredible feats. But the Games are about so much more than physical performance, aren’t they?
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly curious about everything that athletes actually experience when they show up on stage. How are they sensing their bodies? What are they feeling? Where are they drawing their energy from? Who are they?
In this year’s Olympics, the theme that has captivated my imagination is trust. More specifically, how do the best athletes in the world build trust?
Media coverage of the event usually celebrates qualities such as power, grit, speed, agility, genes, and even personality. Take Usain Bolt, for example. The entire world seems to be drooling as he races around the track, and even more so when he does his colorful victory lap.
But trust is something you don’t hear much about, not even from the athletes themselves. So I invite you to think about it for a moment.
Gymnasts spend about one third of their time in the air. They have to learn how to trust their bodies while they’re flying, spinning and twisting at the same time. Swimmers trust the water more than they trust firm land. Dressage riders trust their horses as much as their horses trust them to dance in unison. Cyclists develop an almost irrational trust in their equipment as they descend a mountain at sixty miles per hour, to the point in which they perceive their bikes to be an extension of themselves.
The common assumption is that they can do all that because they’ve practiced endlessly. But pay close attention and you’ll notice that even all the practice in the world doesn’t mean that they’ve managed to free themselves from uncertainty and unpredictability. In fact, the number of times they get it wrong is quite remarkable. And these guys are la crème de la crème.
So how does an elite diver, for example, deal with the high probability of an imperfect jump while he or she is standing on top of the ten-meter platform?
As it happens with most things these days, you can google “building trust” and get instant access to millions of resources. You can browse through Amazon and find tens of thousands of books about the subject. But there is probably no amount of literature that could ever fully explain what trust is or how it works.
I find it particularly interesting that our culture is heavily inclined towards managing trust as if it were a form of currency that’s inherently conditional and dependent on an exchange - “I’ll trust you only if …”. In this context, trust is usually outward-driven and carries with it an expectation of return on investment.
By contrast, there is another dimension of trust that tends to get little attention, and that is the idea of trusting one’s inner guidance. This is the kind of trust that I see in some of the athletes as they set out to do the performance of their lives. It is the kind of trust that operates at a very different level because it is proactive rather than reactive. It embraces vulnerability rather than seeking security. It shows up when you throw 'plan B' out the window. More importantly, it is a renewable energy because it doesn’t rely on external factors.
Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote in his book: “Love is a verb. Love – the feeling – is the fruit of love the verb, or our loving actions.”
Trust is a verb, too. We can choose to practice trust instead of simply becoming a product of our feelings.
Why do you do what you do? (07.2016)
When I started Scyrocco™ one year ago, I had little more than a gut feeling and a restless heart. It took me some time to be able to express and articulate what I wanted my new endeavor to be about, and to start converting it into action.
But the more important thing is why. Why go through the trouble of starting something from scratch? And why does it matter?
A few weeks ago, I was very moved by something that biographer Thomas Hauser said:
“Too many people go to their grave with their music still inside them; Muhammad Ali lived the gift of life to the fullest.”
Although I’ve been involved with a great variety of sports, I’ve never really followed boxing, and the only boxer whose story I became vaguely familiar with over the years is Rocky Balboa …
Hauser’s observation, however, struck a chord with me, as it illustrates a common ailment in our fast-paced and status-oriented society. We tend to become so busy and distracted that we forget to create space for our music to come out. We often ask each other “what do you do?” but we rarely ask “why do you do what you do?”.
Not surprisingly, it is easy to confuse the "gift" with the what, when in fact it is about the why.
The degree to which people believe in the importance of this distinction may vary significantly, and one of the many symptoms of this is that we live in a digital culture where rushing to diffuse content without ever reading it has become commonplace - a behavior known as “thoughtless retweeting”.
Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and founder of logotherapy, believed that finding meaning in life, rather than power or pleasure, is the primary driving force of humanity - which is why he suggested that “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue”. This may seem counterintuitive given the cultural narrative that engulfs us all; but it merits some reflection, doesn’t it?
I am convinced that every single human being - and every company, for that matter - has a unique gift. Call it music, impetus, magic, wisdom, or whatever you prefer. Accessing and harnessing that gift, though, can prove quite difficult; it takes courage, humility and dedication. This is why I do what I do.