A unique feature of being human is finding oneself in a contracted or open state of being.
Your flight has been delayed, you’re late for a meeting, or worried about closing a critical deal.
As a result, you’ll likely find yourself in a contracted state: clenched, tight, and with a generally negative outlook.
As a leader of any kind – running a startup, team, family, or charting your own life’s course – whether you’re open or contracted is just as important as the actions you take.
Your state of being – including mood, outlook, and quality of energy – are infectious. They create a culture that shapes your team, the quality of their decisions, job satisfaction and ultimate results.
When I’m stuck in a contracted state, rather than wait for the stars to align and feel open again, I’ve found ways to rapidly change my state in minutes, not hours or days.
The Stoics figured this out years ago and Sam Harris has beautifully summarized this in his Waking Up app – in one of the most impactful three-minute exercises on gratitude I’ve heard (or watch it online).
Here’s the gist.
Rather than focus on the things in life that aren’t the way you like them, imagine you had died yesterday.
Then imagine what you would give to be back in the very moment you are feeling so frustrated by now.
Is there anything you wouldn’t give to be back here, in this very moment? Is there any amount of money you wouldn’t give to be alive again, if only for a day?
Now remind yourself of the simple facts of our world. If you’re reading this now, that means there are over a billion people whose dreams would come true by trading places with you now.
At least a billion people suffer acute illnesses, face abject poverty, or live with the threat of imminent war or violence.
This is not to minimize how you feel – it’s clearly important to make space and acknowledge your emotions in order to let them pass.
However, as a leader (or any human being, for that matter), it’s also important to be responsible for your own inner state, rather than leaving it to chance or circumstances.
That means guiding your mental focus in a way that helps unhook you from prolonged contracted states, in order to most effectively serve the organizations and teams you lead or work with.
In my own experience, using imagined death as a teacher is one of the most powerful ways to rapidly trigger a positive state change, and by extension, everyone else you interact with.