What Lies Within Us

“You understand so little of what is around you because you do not use what is within you.”
– Hildegard von Bingen, c. 1151 AD

I write because I am curious about the destiny and righteousness of women who have been successful and celebrated widely, but also because I am curious about those who have quietly enjoyed making a success of themselves and their lives. Whether or not they were at the helm of predetermined success, they privately acknowledged their success and their value within themselves.

I write to enquire about what they felt like; what was the nature of their contentment that all their efforts have been directed towards? Upon reaching the pinnacle of their being, what were they joyful about?

I write as a woman seeking common or differing insights into our journeys in life and work.

A few things have become apparent to me, and might ring true for you, too. I am not imposing my thoughts and ideas, I am sharing them in the hope that they spark a debate and possibly offer an invitation for us to approach life and our careers from different standpoints.

The road less traveled

I reached a point in my life and career where I decided to forge ahead on a different path. I knew enough about the way I was leading my life to conclude that I was not fulfilled by the things that filled my day. This different path was not a commonly followed one, it was more of a road less travelled. I took this path, fuelled by the desire to be true to myself and to be honest about the prospects I was facing and the level of scrutiny I had started applying to my life.  When I reached this point, I took a detour onto a gravel path: rocky and uncertain. I quit my corporate job, I walked away from a paycheck and the security that came from knowing that I could pay my bills. I trusted that feeling in the pit of my stomach – my gut – that said that I needed to move out of that zone and search for the next thing. It started with time to think, read up on and investigate my options. To know what you don’t want to do is a very good first step but it often doesn’t mean you know what you want. The search is an earnest first step.

Before that (and on a regular basis), I had been offered tools and strategies to accomplish more. As a working professional who was married with kids, I was constantly juggling between these quadrants of my life, often feeling like I wasn’t showing up in the manner I wanted or needed to. I always craved a few more hours, a bit more energy, a sprinkle of optimism, plus joy, and lastly, a sense of accomplishment, being able to give what was required, fully. I often wondered where and when I would eventually be accepted as enough, just by being me.

How we perceive ourselves

Professional women in jobs or running their own enterprises are often faced with impediments that limit how far and how fast they progress in their respective careers. Those that do progress are celebrated and always encouraged to support those still climbing up the ascent.  Investments have been made by governments, businesses and a variety of sectors, to further research and implement initiatives that seek to address gender inequalities and disparities that limit their contribution to economies and societies worldwide. I acknowledge that these efforts have resulted in women making their mark across various sectors, but we have not reached the point at which we should be satisfied that all is well. We still encounter issues and concerns about the lack of progress and the lack of meaningful representation of women across all sectors of society as a whole, and especially the economy.

While reading a friend’s MBA thesis, I found that she highlighted the need for women to deal with certain inherent belief systems or behaviours which impede their progression. This sparked my own curiosity further. She has interviewed many successful leaders who had access to coaching and had been through various executive development programmes for women.

Her conclusion made me wonder about how we perceive ourselves as women. What do we think we are capable of attaining? What beliefs do we hold about ourselves and how do these influence us?

A few things have become apparent to me now that I enjoy a certain level of comfort on this rocky gravel path, I bravely embarked on 5 years ago.

Inquiring from within

My intuition and gut feeling is the most valued asset I possess. These serve me when I deal with people and situations. Remember now, I don’t have a panel of readily accessible critical thinkers called colleagues and peers who dish out advice every second of the minute. Most often, I work alone, and alone I assess what is needed. My boss and I are interestingly the same person. I issue the instructions that I will have to implement so no one is second guessing the other. In the past, I doubted my intuition. I erred in judgment when I didn’t stick with that feeling that cries “hell no!”, especially when the boss said that we were going after that opportunity or implementing that project, both ill-conceived.  I placed emphasis on what I thought and the logic and concise arguments others put forward. If I couldn’t rationalise the facts and put forward a concise, well-articulated PowerPoint presentation that originated in a feeling, I would abandon it.

Now, many things start with a strong desire to do something. Excitement and thrill fuel me, and deep contentment sings loudly when the work is done. I am not only reliant on how crisp my arguments and reports are, I balance that with the energy that pumps directly from my soul.

I have also realised that I was always heavily reliant on what messaging I received from outside of me. The commentary about me, the perceptions that were held of me, and the reputation I had built, cordoned me off, possibly restricting me and prescribing that I am destined to succeed only if I preserved the ascent up the corporate ladder.  I dared not to see myself differently from how I was perceived. The information that circulated about me was what led me. I should have used it as a data point and not the universal truth. In reality, when people say you will cope with and manage a promotion, they are telling you to succeed. However, when they say you are not ready, they could be telling you many things, all of which can be destructive to your own imagine of yourself if they are not clarified. It’s important to know what you think and feel and what sense you make from the feedback that says that “you are not ready.” What parts of that statement ring true and what have they not experienced about you that would affirm your readiness?

Today I start my inquiry from within, and when I surface, I listen intently, not only with my ears but with my whole body. I watch even the most subtle sensation that is evoked by the discussion. I process all of this by returning within to (again) make sense of it all. If it sits well with me, I am content.  I can comprehend the expression that goes “it’s not my time”. I can live with deferred plans and I begin to focus on what is within my immediate reach. I am finding immense value in the time I spend alone, deeply contemplating what I am experiencing both from my world within and that which is outside of me. I don’t think I ever did this before.

Showcasing our essence

When I began my second career as an integral coach, wanting to coach executives, work with teams and develop programmes that will ensure wider access to coaching and related offerings to many who wouldn’t ordinarily have access, I employed many interventions that were typically recommended or advocated as winning strategies. I was passionate and showed up with earnest energy and dedication. I gave it my all and in so doing met with and engaged many who facilitated opportunities to expose me and build my experience and credentials in this space. I was living my best life and felt excited by the promise this new career offered me. In traversing this new path, as can be expected, I encountered both trials and tribulations, but what I recall distinctly is how (at a particular point) I was riddled with confusion. I struggled to accept why I had been invited to work on a project, which was an incredible opportunity, one that many would have killed to be a part of. There I was, puzzled by the question, “why me?”

It was only when a fellow beloved colleague pulled me aside and said, “clearly the Directors involved see something in you that you don’t see in yourself.” It’s there, the capability they see is present, yours is to start believing in your ability to engage and facilitate as an integral coach, but most importantly, it is to make it known to all who encounter you.

She didn’t answer my question directly, she left me wondering in an affirming way about myself and what I hadn’t begun to acknowledge. She didn’t tell me that I was successful or praise me in the way I had been accustomed to. She opened me up to the fact that I still had something to learn about myself and be proud of. I was living up to the requirements of a coach and facilitator, a path that I had chosen for myself and that no one was duty bound to tell me.

How many times have others acknowledged a quality you possess, but you are at odds to see it, or even more critically, to bring it forward each and every day?  Can the qualities we show our families, friends, and wider communities be the qualities we spew out in our work? There is no better time than the present to showcase the essence of who we are in every domain of our existence. Can the praise I receive from my neighbours be the praise my boss heaps out daily? Can I show them the nature of who I really am and not be restricted by what I think they need to see and experience?

New metrics for success

Today, I consider more intensely what I need to celebrate and the metrics that I use to measure what I have accomplished and how different they are. They are personal and often include things like a good night’s sleep, an uninterrupted yoga session, observing the look of  pure contentment spread across my children’s faces, an embrace and kiss from the one I love, a giggle or humorous moment shared between the members of the family, a meeting of minds between me and a fellow coach, acknowledgement from a client for the level of engagement I have facilitated between the team, a phone call that ends with “I love you”, making a mental note about where I could have possibly overstepped someone’s boundaries, noticing how someone or something makes me anxious… the list is endless. I am successful every single day and I celebrate it.

For me, success has become a little less about the typical indicators of it, because those were often short lived and became obsolete once the next person smashed mine. Each time I was awarded a bonus, it was taxed, and once I prioritised needs and wants, I was left wondering how long until the next. Each time I was applauded by my boss and peers, the moment was fleeting because more needed to be done. Every single breakthrough I credited to my sweat and toil paled in comparison to the lost opportunities that were swallowed up by the time it took me to get that done. It felt like the tail wagging the dog, an elusive desire to keep succeeding kept controlling my ability to savour my moments of success. There will always be someone who gives bigger, better, quicker, and I am happy for them when the spotlight shines.

For me today, success actually means that I am acknowledging that I am growing, and also that I am learning, and lastly that I know what my true value is even before others experience it. I know what I am made of and what I am ready to offer the world, my family, my friends, my community, my clients, and so on.

How do you define the success you seek today? What does it include and what does it mean for you?

I invite women today to redefine themselves in a manner that makes perfect sense to them. I invite them to seek the true value of the offering they are willingly bringing into the world. To be undoubtedly certain that where they are in life, is where they have been granted the opportunity to shine the spotlight on themselves. And while doing so, not waiting for others to acknowledge them, but for them to show the world who they essentially are.

Phetsile is a is a faculty member at Centre for Coaching, our partners in South Africa. 

Photo by Shino on Unsplash

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