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The Greatest Gift That I Can Give

by Dr. Cody Clayton Gardner

Have you ever sat down and actually taken the time to consider what your values are? I can even feel some eyes rolling off the text right now. In our current zeitgeist, “values” has become a bad word. And why shouldn’t it? The monolith of “values” has been dropped like a gavel on recent generations. “Values” have been weaponized as a tool of shame by [some of] the religious, the close-minded, and the fearful.

But more recently, in my musings and learnings, I have been methodically turning the term over in my head. I have been challenging myself to spend time in those temporal spaces that cause me fear and discomfort. The writings of Jim Collins, noted business ecologist and researcher, have passed through my world in the past year. An idea that he poses in his New York Times Bestseller, Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0, reflects that of other prolific psychology researchers: integration—combining and demonstrating the vulnerability it takes to merge together all that you are and present that identity to the world. Contrarily, the idea that you can bring your full self to your work has been taboo for the past century of labor trends.

But Jim Collins argues that, particularly for leaders (another “bad word”), integration is not only advantageous, but is actually a prerequisite to not only a fulfilling work life, but our WHOLE life.

The more we etch the lines between the compartments of our identities, the more it perpetuates shame. Why does this happen? When we cut off a side of our identities with a certain crowd, we censor ourselves. Evolutionarily, this was a survivalist hard-wiring of our psychology. In the days where being different meant that you had no shelter or support with fending off predators, this process was advantageous. But in today’s world, where we don’t need to fend off lions, these inherited anxieties load us with undue physiologic burden. Psychologically and spiritually, yes, but also physically. It is well documented by this point that our psychological stressors manifest in physical ways that interfere with our normal physiologic processes. Look up the book, The Body Keeps the Score, for more information on this subject. (**FASCINATING**)

The end result is an abrasion of the spirit—a repetitive abrasion that eventually turns into an open wound. That inner knowing. That sitting in your identity will make others think less of your worthiness. Even the strongest person can’t endure this forever. Eventually, we associate those characteristics deemed undesirable by others with something to be hidden and scorned. Eventually, we step so far from ourselves, we then become ashamed of ourselves and hate the shame we have for ourselves. In my case, I became hateful: at first of others, but my inner work revealed it was all to mask the fact that I listened to what they said.

So what's the issue?

This proposition is easier said than done.

One of the most courageous practices we could ever undertake is showing up as ourselves. The system framework we reside in doesn’t make it any easier. After all, this is the same system that has denied hiring those with tattoos, consistently underpaid women, and regarded any Black woman articulating her ideas as threatening. By no means am I postulating that we should storm in to the workplace with an aim to stir things up (unless you’re already there, hehehe). Nor am I saying that we should accept the status quo. Rather, this is a compass that irrevocably demonstrates that the trajectory of our work culture is far cry from the direction we ought to be striving towards.

So what can we do when we drift from ourselves? Right! Get more granular and deliberate with what our values are, and pin them proudly to our souls.

There are numerous benefits with this practice.

1) It gives us focus. In fact, Jim Collins has found that the most successful and longest-lasting companies in America are those that are led from a set of core values!

2) It gives us an anchor when things get messy. An apt comparison Jim makes is that our values are our compass: pretending you have the map is presumptuous and prideful, but staying true to the direction of the next right thing always keeps us in trust with ourselves and humble.

3) When we are in our values, we open ourselves to our full heart, our full curiosity, and our full creativity.

I’ll say it again:

When we are in our values, we open ourselves to our full heart, our full curiosity, and our full creativity.

Full circle moment!! What is the greatest gift we can give? The space to sit completely in our values.

When we feel safe, we aren’t afraid to be compassionate. When we feel safe, we aren’t defensive. When we feel safe, we aren’t censoring parts of the eclectic beings we are. Jim Collins’ research confirms this. The most dysfunctional companies are the ones where there is a pervasive scarcity mindset: scarcity of money, job security, trust… The most successful ones, alternatively, are the ones that create safe spaces for the discomfort to exist. The hard conversations, the trial and failure of new ideas, the vulnerability—none of these things sprout if we don’t clear a space for them.

More than just safety—what about basic needs? When we don’t feel safe knowing there may not be food on the table, how can we possibly devote our resources towards creativity and self-betterment? I’ll get on my soapbox about universal basic income at another time, but after what I’ve said… Just think about it.

This idea makes me both so hopeful and so sad. I think of the beautiful young minds that come from our housing projects, reservations, and broken homes. I think of our political leaders. I think of our parents, grandparents, children, and friends who are hurting. Our homeless, our minorities, our addicts, our disabled, our neurodivergent. How much more could these people blow us away if they felt safe enough to bring the fullness of their beings to life?

This world has a way of making us distrustful. And I know what I and other thought leaders like Jim Collins and Brene Brown are proposing is hard. It takes a lot of courage to place faith in someone when there are no guarantees. But I truly believe that between offering the chance to rise to the challenge of being more and denying opportunities to protect ourselves, the benefits far outweigh the risks. If someone takes advantage of your kindness, then yes—if someone shows you their true colors, believe them. But I truly believe that most people will surprise you if given the chance.

The most resonant metaphor that illustrates this for me is improv theatre. I can remember the first time I did an improv scene. I was awkward, clumsy, panicked, and unintelligible. Why? Because this was new and I didn’t feel safe. I was at the mercy of my own internal critic and closed off from my creative mind. The only thing on my mind was how to escape the lion. This is why there is a strict and concrete set of expectations for every (decent) improv class. A judgement-free space where we are allowed to take risks, make mistakes, and grow is the price of admission to building this skillset. Eventually, our comfort grows, we become resilient to challenge, and we can step in front of live audiences and rough crowds. But until that mastery is attained, our innate fear of unworthiness and social death paralyzes any progress we could make to the point where we don’t even try.

I’ll close with one of my favorite developmental theories and a challenge.

The Acorn Theory (or the Theory of Natural Intelligence) says that you never have to tell an acorn to become an oak tree; all you have to do is make sure it finds fertile ground.

And I want challenge you to brainstorm about what you can you do to make people feel safe to allow them to shine their brightest?

Have thoughts? I’d love to know them!

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