Appreciating life’s many gifts brings you deep fulfilment.
I am very pleased that Allan has written this week’s piece. Given how powerful this message is, I am sending it a bit early so that all of us have a chance to read and reflect on this. Allan, as you know, leads our media team. He is someone who has truly cultivated a habit of being grateful. Whenever I ask him how he is doing, regardless of how tough the situation is, Allan always says “On top of the world”. He has really learnt how to unlock the magic of life and live to the fullest by being more appreciative of everything and everyone. Many of his team members are also learning to embrace gratitude and are finding greater fulfilment.
Please read on…
The choice I make to be grateful
As we start another new year, I believe that I, like all of you, have a choice to make. And we have two options to choose from:
Option 1 – I could look back at the last year (or more) and feel happy for what I have, and feel sad for what I don’t yet have. Many of my friends do this. Invariably, the list of what we don’t have seems much longer than the list of what we have. In the past (and it almost seems like another life, when I think about it now), I used to do the same.
Option 2 – I could think about all that I have and feel grateful for all that life has given me. Over the recent few years, I have started to do this. And I now find that life just seems a lot easier and happier when I choose this option. Surprisingly (or maybe not, as I have realised!) making this choice also makes life give me more and more reasons to feel grateful.
Why do I feel so strongly about this? A few years ago, I was living in London (so, not exactly the worst place in the world to live in!), earning reasonably well, performing reasonably well from a career perspective (I had the opportunity to be the CEO of the UK business before I turned 40). The business, having had its ups and downs in the past, was performing quite well with the new management team and me at the helm. But I still wasn’t happy. A new phone, more money, higher bonuses, a new and bigger house – nothing seemed to bring sustained happiness. There was always something more that I wanted. There was something always missing – an empty feeling. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the emptiness was something inside of me and not something external.
It took me a while to figure it out, and the trek I made up to Mount Kilimanjaro helped bring clear perspective on this (amongst other things). I figured out, just intellectually initially, that the emptiness was because of my constant need to compare and to meet goals that boosted my ego, in order for me to feel better. This situation was clearly unsustainable. I had practiced yoga and meditation for several years and knew that the practice of gratitude could help. But this knowledge was always something that was relevant to others, not applicable to me! When I realised that lack of practice of gratitude was an ‘affliction’ that affected me as well, it was quite a shock. But it was just the starting point. From intellectually understanding that I needed to practice it to actually start practicing it, took (and continues to take) effort.
The power of gratitude
The concept of gratitude being so very important isn’t something new. This wisdom has existed for a very long time. In fact, Cicero, a Roman philosopher, way back in 54 BC, is credited to have said “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all others”.
There are numerous videos available on the internet, on gratitude and the benefits of practicing it. One of my favourites is the TED talk by David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, who speaks about the chicken and egg of gratitude and happiness – what comes first; gratitude or happiness? And given that the topic of today’s message is gratitude, there are no prizes for guessing that it is indeed gratitude that leads to happiness! For those of you who want to watch it, here is the link: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en
My journey of gratitude
When I look back at my life, I find that there are lots of reasons for me to feel grateful.
- I was born in a country that was stable and where I had lots of opportunities. Not in a place riddled with conflict or war.
- My parents made the choice to give me a higher education, even though given our financial situation at the time, they could have easily asked me to start working after university.
- Life has been very kind in giving me a fairly healthy body with many more days of good health than those with problems.
- I have had the amazing opportunity to work across a variety of cultures – in India, in the UK, in Argentina and now in Chile. This has opened up my mind, taught me a lot and changed my perspective on life.
- I have an amazing family, who always support me. We live in two different continents and meet only once every three or four months. But we feel that we are closer to each other now, than we have ever been.
- I love the work that I do. I believe that I have the best job in the world with the opportunity to do, what I believe is my life’s mission – creating an amazing institution. And I feel incredibly grateful to Ndiema for this opportunity.
- I feel very privileged that I have amazing colleagues across geographies. Many of my colleagues are also very good friends. We work hard, but also laugh a lot. And we have done some really crazy things together!
And so on…. The list is endless.
With so many reasons to feel grateful, the choice that I make is this – to focus on being present in and living every moment of my life to the best that I can, rather than comparing it with someone else’s and thinking about what they have that I don’t. Where I used to feel entitled to many things in the past, I have realised that I deserve nothing. And so, I am just hugely grateful for all that I have. This does not however mean that I am not motivated to work or make any efforts to do better. In fact, to the contrary, I find that the sense of gratitude makes me work even harder towards my goals. What changes, is that I don’t feel entitled to or expect anything from others. When I do get something from others (which happens to all of us, all the time), my sense of gratitude deepens.
This feeling of gratefulness makes me tell ‘my story’ in a certain way, which then influences my future life as well. It is like a virtuous circle of sorts.
Here are a few things that I have learnt on my journey of gratitude, so far:
1. Make a list
When I feel down, I find that making a list of 5 things that I have in my life that I need to be grateful for, helps me look at the sunny side of life. In fact, at the start of the journey to ‘grateful living’, some people find it useful to make a daily ritual to write a list of three new things to be grateful for, for up to a month. This helps to start the process of looking at the ‘what we haves’ rather than the ‘what we don’t haves’.
2. Slow down
I have found it important to find the time to slow down, every so often, to appreciate all that life offers. David Steindl-Rast, in his video (link above), talks about a very simple technique – the stop-look-go, technique.
3. Respect differences
Our education system and societal conditioning teaches us to constantly evaluate and judge. I have found it useful to respect differences rather than to evaluate and to judge. Whilst this helps grateful living, it is also a fantastic way to integrate into new cultures.
4. Express gratitude more often
Expressing gratitude does not come easily to many of us. For example, how often do we express gratitude to our loved ones, to our colleagues, to the waiter who serves us coffee? Why don’t we express it? Is it because we are too preoccupied with our own lives and in our own thoughts? A few words of gratitude, honestly felt from the heart and expressed, is far more powerful than any gift or money that we can give to anyone. The only thing, is that it has to be authentic, which means that our feelings have to be in synch with our words. Expressing gratitude takes practice, but gets better and easier as we progress on the journey of ‘grateful living’.
5. You won’t feel grateful in 100% of the situations
When my colleagues ask me how I feel, on most days, my answer is that I feel on top of the world. Does this mean that I never feel low? And that I feel grateful in every single situation? No. That’s not true at all. I lost my father recently and it wasn’t possible to feel grateful in that situation. However, whilst that loss remains, the sense of gratitude for most other things in my life helped me recover very fast. I also find that the longer I practice gratefulness, the better I get at practicing it; just like with anything else. This is a journey and it does not have a destination, just a direction. So, I don’t believe that I can ever become perfect at practicing gratitude, there will always be something more to learn.
6. Gratitude is as important at work, as it is in your personal life
I don’t believe that we are two different people. We are the same person at work and in our personal lives. What affects us in our personal lives, also affects our work and vice versa. This being the case, my personal experience is that practicing gratitude has made me and my colleagues better professionals, and at the same time, a very nice bunch of people to work with. In fact, I believe that gratitude is one of the fundamental values of the institution that we are building in the Latin America and UK cluster. As a leader, I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity that I have to create such an institution. Equally, I believe that it is my job to make the team realise the need to feel grateful for the opportunity that they have in being part of this institution.
I hope I have made a strong enough case for gratitude. Practicing gratefulness has changed my life and made it much happier, easier and lighter. So, why not give it a shot?
A big thank you to Allan for sharing this powerful and deeply personal message with us.
I am extremely grateful to serve with such a committed leadership team. As leaders, there cannot be anything more satisfying than to see our company thrive and our team members succeed. I feel incredibly inspired that together we can foster an environment of gratitude that will enable us and our team members to deliver their very best.
Truly, we have much more to be grateful for than we acknowledge or probably even realise.
And being able to draw on the power of gratitude for all that we have can be of incredible strength to us and can channel us to be better in everything we do. Gratefulness can create a much more powerful connection between you and the team members you lead.
So, if there is one thing that you put down to do differently this year, let it be this – to start out on and enjoy your journey of grateful living.
We would love to hear your stories.