Monday, May 28, 2007

Field Notes on the Compassionate Life - Marc Ian Barasch

Subtitled: A Search for the Soul of Kindness. I don't know too many people who would automatically think that "compassion" and "business" go hand in hand. (Take a breath and visualize Starbucks.) It would be convenient to think we could truly compartmentalize our lives into neat boxes and sort out feelings and beliefs according which feelings are appropriate for which box. Like it's okay to be compassionate in dealing with children, the elderly and the ill. And it's equally okay to be ruthless, hard edged and self-serving in business. How many would argue with that? It's just not so simple.

There were echoes in this book of many principles set out in two other books I previously reviewed here (November 2005): Leadership and Self Deception and The Bonds That Free Us, both by the Arbinger Institute. Who we are doesn't change from one location and situation to another. Our behavior might change, and the choices we make might depend heavily on the context in which we make them, but we take who we are everywhere we go and what we give out affects what we get back - at home, at the office and in the community.

I could spend a great deal of time talking about this particular book because I found it so profoundly affecting for me. I will put it into some kind of context for you. I read the book in the cold winter month of December '06 just after Christmas. I was walking my dog for an hour every morning in the pitch dark listening to the audiobook Execution:The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan and Charles Burck and read by the authors. (More on that later.) The book was highly recommended by my brand new boss, and it was indeed a good read that touched very much on the types of challenges (and dysfunction) all large companies face - including ours. So I would listen to Larry & Ram talk about corporate alignment first thing every morning for a over a week, go to the office to deal with the very things they were addressing, and then I would come home in the evenings and read Field Notes for about an hour before going to bed. My whole day was full of changing perspectives and valuable insights.

Shortly after finishing Execution and while I was still finishing Field Notes, I went to spend a week with my mother in Georgia for New Years. She is battling lung cancer and had fallen and fractured her arm making her almost immobile. I read the book on my flight there and finished it the first morning I was with her, reading while she napped in her chair. I spent most of that first afternoon reading parts of it aloud to her. It's that kind of book - one that you want to share with other people. It is full of wisdom and hard truths about the choices we make based on how we see the world. Compassion is not something that comes easily to most people - including me. I consider myself kind, I believe that I am, but true compassion and those who practice the deepest type of giving and forgiveness are well out of my league.

The one concept from this book that I will always carry with me is this: "Hate is like drinking poison, and expecting it to kill the other guy. But it doesn't kill them, it kills us." It is one of the most profound concepts I have ever come across. And I know that it's true. Not just hate either, but all that is negative, hurtful, base and unkind. It doesn't have to be hate to be poisonous. Pay attention to the newscasts, the reality TV shows, the celebrity gossip, how people in the office talk about one another, how people in general treat one another. Increasingly, we are surrounded by so much that is negative and hurtful. And when we choose to embrace that focus on negativity - personally, professionally or culturally- we are planting the seeds of our own self destruction.

Shortly after returning from Georgia, I heard the Christina Aguilera song on the radio Hurt. The very first time I heard that song, it made me think of my father - deceased now for two years. And when I went out to to search for it, I found that the music video for Hurt was indeed about a father and daughter. My sister says it's sad that this song reminds me of him, but I don't think it's sad at all. I don't feel sad. It reminds me that hard lessons are better learned late, than never learned at all. We don't hurt other people without hurting ourselves in the process. Which is why compassion matters in all aspects of our life, which includes our business life as well.

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