Obligations Can Keep Us from Creating Our Own Lives By...
pleased with his success. This gave him an off-putting air of entitlement. He was special — and never let people forget it.
Insensitive, rarely wrong, and entitled — these weren’t career-killing flaws, just issues that came up in my 360-degree reviews with his colleagues and direct reports, which I shared with him.
He accepted the criticism with grace, however. In less than two years (through a process that is the essence of one-on-one coaching), he changed his behavior to his own satisfaction and, more important, in the opinion of his peers (you need to change a lot to get people to notice even a little).
We remained friends after he became CEO, talking at least once a month about his job and, increasingly, about his family life. He and his wife—college sweethearts—had four grown kids, all out of the house and on their own. The marriage was solid after years of tension when Mike was focused on his career while his wife, Sherry, raised the kids and built up a seemingly unshakable resentment of Mike’s self-absorption and insensitivity.
I asked him, “Is Sherry wrong?” I pointed out that, if he had been perceived as insensitive and entitled at work, he probably was the same at home.
“But I’ve changed,” he said. “She’s even admitted that. And we’re much happier. Why won’t she let it go?”
I explained the Every Breath Paradigm to him, stressing how hard it was for Westerners to conceive that we are not a unitary mass of flesh and bone and emotions and memories, but rather a steadily expanding multitude of individuals, each one time stamped in the moment of our most recent breath—and reborn with every breath.
I told Mike, “When your wife thinks about her marriage, she can’t separate the previous Mike from the man who is her husband today. They’re one character to her, a permanent persona. It’s how we all think, if we’re not careful.”
Mike struggled with the concept. I understood. I was offering him a new paradigm, not a casual suggestion. We achieve understanding at our own pace.
A couple of years ago, he called me out of the blue, excitedly announcing, “I got it!” I had no idea what he was talking about, but it soon became clear that the “it” he mentioned concerned our Every Breath talks.
Mike described a conversation with his wife, Sherry, as they were driving back from a Fourth of July reunion with the kids and their partners and friends. Mike and Sherry were reliving the high points during the drive, pleased at how the children turned out, how engaging and helpful their friends were, how the kids did most of the cooking and cleaning up. Basically, they were congratulating themselves on their good fortune and their successful parenting.
Then Sherry said, “I just wish you had contributed more when they were growing up. I was so alone most of the time.”
“I wasn’t hurt by her words, or angry,” Mike told me. “I turned to her and said very calmly, ‘You’re right about that guy ten years ago. He was clueless about many things. But that’s not the guy in this car right now. He’s a better man now. Tomorrow, he’s going to be someone else trying to be a little better. Another thing—that woman who suffered back then is not the same woman today. You’re faulting me for the actions of someone who doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not right.’ ”
The car was silent for a long ten seconds. Then Sherry apologized, “You’re right. I have to work on that.”
Mike had required years—and an emotionally heightened situation to which Buddha’s teaching applied perfectly—to understand the Every Breath Paradigm. His wife got it in ten seconds.
Everyone works at their own pace. Understanding can be immediate or eventual. I’m okay with both timetables. I am always glad to be an accomplice in other people’s epiphanies.