If someone had told me in 2011 that meditation & self care would not only improve my mental health but also my career (and life) I would have thought, “That’s cute. I’ll make sure to schedule that for when things slow down.” But as you and I know, things never really slow down once you get to a certain level in your career (unless they are forced to but more on that later). There’s always one more email to send and one more business function to attend even though you haven’t been home before 9pm in weeks. All too often, there’s a last minute crisis that pops up, requiring your time and attention when you’re supposed to be decompressing at your summer home. And before you know it, another quarterly earnings report is due and you are back, burning the midnight oil, trying to keep your shareholders and your employees happy and maybe squeeze in a few hours of quality time with your kids, your spouse, your family, and your friends. But what about the time that you spend with yourself: the one who is responsible for keeping all the wheels in motion, without whom there would be no corner office or summer home or business class flights with free champagne? When’s the last time you put your phone down, shut your laptop and spent true quality time talking to and listening to your one and only real “day one”? When’s the last time you thanked yourself, or apologized to yourself, or just bathed yourself for longer than necessary to maintain proper hygiene? If you can’t remember or it sounds like a foreign concept altogether then this story is for you.
In 2012 I was flying high professionally. As a Hospitality Sales executive, I had recently opened a luxury hotel in Manhattan and planned major events for Beyonce and Marc Jacobs. My company had just started its massive expansion and I got to watch as the little “mom and pop” that I started with back in 2005 flourish and grow into an internationally renowned powerhouse with the financials to back it up. Sure, I was killing myself with the hours and demands of the ever-expanding role but I was determined to “make it” (whatever that meant). Some people have FOMO socially but for me, it only manifested in the professional sphere. I didn’t want to miss a moment of the action, for fear of getting left behind or not living up to my “straight A double major early graduation from Columbia” potential and so I pushed through every moment of fatigue. I ignored every episode of digestive distress and concealed every dark circle and acne flare-up. I was often referred to as a machine and though at some level I did realize I was a mere mortal human being, I would be damned to let that show. So I pushed and pushed. Caffeine and the occasional adderall scored from a coworker were my secret powers and popping Tylenol PM in the cab on the way home from work at 11pm while firing off last minute emails was my bedtime routine. I still slept, you see, but my schedule did not allow for having time to “wind down” much less decompress. Survival mode was the norm, all of the time - cortisol levels be damned. Who has time for that when you’ve only got 2 more years to make the 30 under 30 list and an empire to build?
Let me preface by saying that I started practicing yoga in 2006. I practiced ashtanga yoga almost every single morning for years. I knew it was good for me, and probably had an internal soul *knowing* that I needed this to counterbalance the crazy impact my stressful life was having on me. I also tried meditating...off and on, for years. This was before it was cool or popular, outside of yoga circles of course, but I never saw the importance of it. It was a nice-to-have as they say, not a non-negotiable. No one could “see the effects of it” and I didn’t care enough about myself (my SELF) to stick to a daily regimen that didn’t lose me pounds or win me points. I now know that willingness to commit to a daily self-care routine is inextricably tied to how much we value our Self. A value that is not quantifiable by our salary or the number of shares we hold or our net worth. No, this is the value that existed long before anyone tied a monetary value to our being. And let me tell you... if we all knew and recognized our actual intrinsic worth, we’d be behaving a lot differently (but I digress).
By the end of that year I had lost 15 lbs (due to an undiagnosable digestive issue that left me doubled over in pain if I ate a full meal), made partner in my company (the youngest person to do so and a female at that) and gotten engaged to my college sweetheart (who had somehow stuck with my crazy workaholic tendencies). On the outside I was skinny, successful and in love. If only I had had an Instagram then... my followership would have blown up (#snatched #girlboss #blingbling #blessed!). But on the inside - mentally and physically - things were starting to unravel. By Friday afternoons I was often so fried that I just couldn’t even speak to another human being. In order to have fun, I’d have to get completely wasted because otherwise I just didn’t have the energy to interact. My stomach was literally, constantly in knots. I was quick to lash out - or cry - depending on the setting - because you know I never shed a tear or showed any weakness at work. But none of this made me seriously reconsider my path or pace, until one day when a routine annual checkup at my gyno turned into anything but.
“Something is seriously wrong with your pulse,” said my gyno, “do you have a heart condition?” “It’s probably the latte I just pounded,” I said as I glanced up from by Blackberry screen. “No,” she said sounding both angry and a little afraid. “This is not normal. You need to go to the cardiologist, NOW.” “But I’ve got a crazy day today,” I protested (just give me my damn pills NOW is what I really wanted to growl). “Unless you go NOW and come back with a normal EKG I’m not writing you a birth control prescription. Figure out what is going on with you. Now.” Now, of course would mean cancelling a jam-packed afternoon of meetings and calls. Now would mean admitting I wasn’t indestructible. Now would mean the somewhat off way I had been feeling for months (years?) wasn’t just “all in my head” and a sign of weakness.
Fast forward several appointments with several different specialists and a myriad of tests: blood, urine, tilt table, bubble study, genetic testing, EKG, heart ultrasound, genetic screening, holter monitor, and more. The holter monitor - a really fun device that connects 5 electrodes to pulse points and you have to wear 24 hours a day for a week - revealed that my heart was skipping every 3rd beat. Without any hyperbole this level of “extreme arrhythmia”put me in the “high risk of sudden death” territory. It turned out that I have a rare genetic heart condition that generally has no side effects except for in extreme athletes, the morbidly obese, or those under... you guessed it: extreme stress. In order to manage the condition I was told to “minimize stress” and also schedule heart surgery... you guessed it: now. I got married in March 2015, went on my honeymoon, had surgery a month later, then took a sabbatical from work. Because how the F was I supposed to “minimize stress”? Stress was my entire life. I figured I might as well just crawl under a rock and die (or not die, if the surgery was a success).
But instead, I decided to immerse myself in the world of self care. I moved to New Orleans - the capital of taking it easy - and became determined to get a PhD in healing. I became a Certified yoga instructor and Holistic Health Coach. I did trainings in MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), Meditation, Reiki, Essential Oil Therapy, and even became an Urban Zen Integrative Therapist, planning to help other people on their healing journeys for the rest of my life. I was dedicated. I ate well, slept well, did over 2 hours of healing self-care modalities each day, and felt pretty damn good. But after about 8 months I realized that something was missing: me. I missed feeling important. I missed closing deals. I missed putting on a pair of high heels, walking into a room with a pitch in my brain and pit in my stomach, then giving a firm handshake on the way out the door - knowing I’d just landed another major client. I missed New York. I missed... me. All this time spent meditating, breathing and teaching yoga - which I thought was my new calling - only allowed me to hear that little voice inside me even stronger. I needed these tools - of that I was completely certain. However, and rather annoyingly at that point in my life, they were not enough to fulfill me.
But who was “me”, who was not a burn-the-candle-at-both-ends stressaholic? How could I be me and not work 24 hours a day? How could I be me and (literally) survive? I wasn’t sure of the answer but I knew I needed to try. So I called my old boss and he gladly and eagerly welcomed me back to the fold. We packed up our 3000 square foot home in NOLA and moved back into a 450 square foot studio in Chelsea. I got new business cards and my old email address back. I returned to my old life but I brought something back with me that I still hold onto to this day: non-negotiable self-care daily practices as well as non-negotiable boundaries.
What these daily practices and non-negotiable boundaries look like are unique to everyone but they are not unique to me. Just because I am, as I love to call myself, the “former beauty queen turned junkie with meth teeth,” horrifying example of what stress can do to you, doesn’t mean we aren’t all suffering as a result of our high-powered fast-paced lives. Now 3 years back into professional life as someone who takes exquisite care of herself, I am here to tell you that you CAN do both - especially at this juncture in your career. Not only can you perform at high levels, but you can feel amazing, and use these self-care tools as a lever to improve your optimum life experience. Survival mode is not the mode you want to be in, most of the time. Self care is the foundation of not only a life well lived, but peak career performance. Even if you weave them in slowly, your daily non-negotiables - routine and boundaries - will enrich and reinvigorate you in ways you could never imagine, until you’ve experienced it yourself.
For me, 20 minutes of meditation and 30 minutes of physical activity a day is a non-negotiable. Not looking at my phone from 9pm-7am is also, non-negotiable unless something is urgent enough for a phone call which would basically mean something is on fire or somebody died. I probably get 10-30 emails/slacks/text a night between those hours but phone calls? Maybe one a month. It seems crazy to disconnect for that long on a daily basis...until you do it. Unless you are a surgeon, no one will die and even more likely - no one will even notice. So I wake up at 6, meditate for 20 minutes using an app, and then I move. Most of the time the movement is gentle (yoga with an app, or jog-walking my dog) but it gets the right chemicals in my body flowing and therefore gets the job done. After that, it’s time to get to work and I do so with a clear head, lowered cortisol levels, and a knowing - a deep knowing - that I deserve to be cared for. Not because I’m a partner in a hospitality firm or the Vice President of a company or even an Ivy League Grad. No, I deserve to be cared for because at the end of my life when all the titles are stripped away, I want to know that I enjoyed my life. I worked hard and I achieved a lot, but I had fun - and lived life - while doing so. What is all the success in the world worth if you have to suffer to get there?
And what’s more - and more exciting - is that as a leader and a boss, you have the power to share these lessons with those who look up to or report to you, thereby having a major impact on their life outside of the workplace and potentially change their whole lives. No one was ever telling me to work myself to death but then again... no one was ever telling me not to. As we all know from Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Wouldn’t you love your legacy to not only be how successful you were, but how much of a culture-carrier you were? How much you supported the evolution of your coworkers and mentees? How you were able to achieve much but live that much more? How much of an inspiration you were to other high-achievers who also wanted to enjoy their family and their (dare I say it) free time?
What I’m here to tell you is that you do not have to choose success or self-love. You do not have to sacrifice personal success for spiritual satisfaction. You hopefully do not have to sacrifice your health and suffer greatly as I did in order to realize this. You can have both a full plate (which we all do) and a full cup. We fill our cups every time we meditate, do yoga, pray, prioritize sleep, eat well, and prioritize self care in anyway. While giving to others is necessary and admirable - both personally and professionally - it is literally impossible to pour from an empty cup. When we try, we experience fatigue, anxiety, stress, resentment and finally suffering. You were not placed on this earth to suffer. You were placed here to thrive and self care for those of us performing, achieving and giving at high levels is not a luxury: it’s a non-negotiable.
Check out Amanda's FIRE interview with me for just $7