It is easy to set life on autopilot and skim across the surface of information, daily routines and even personal relationships. Getting to the essence of anything requires effort. The disruption caused by the novel coronavirus continues to offer up lessons worth leaning into — including exploring the “essence” of things.
My son Will and I are big fans of KSL NewsRadio’s Jeff Caplan who is the host of the afternoon drive-time show. Jeff plays a unique role that is part air traffic controller for news, traffic and weather, but more importantly he is also a trusted voice who is committed to getting you home, not just safely but smartly. Jeff is a pro’s pro when it comes to radio. Our favorite thing about listening to Jeff on KSL is his daily offering of “my minute of news.” The 60-second segments contain the essence of an issue presented in a way that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
With school days shifted to online sessions and no hanging out with friends, Will has had a little extra time. I asked Jeff if he would be willing to do a call with Will about his “my minute of news.” Will listened to and took notes on about 20 different segments in preparation for his “master class” with the master communicator. It may have been the most important class my 16-year-old has ever taken.
After the session, Will and I debriefed. We discussed how at first you would think that talking about any subject for just one minute would only allow you to skim across the surface. Often this is the case. Jeff’s minute, however, transforms 60 seconds into a concentrated capsule containing the essence of an issue. I have been thinking about essence ever since.
Working from home has provided an opportunity for many individuals and organizations to realize that the majority of their meetings aren’t all that important. Most could be conducted in 15 minutes or covered in a good email. Others have discovered time wasters, stress inducers and devastating distractions that obstruct proper focus on priorities.
Some people have actually taken this COVID-19 unscheduled down time to reflect on the essence of their work, the primacy of personal relationships or the need to get back to centering themselves and their days on things that matter most.
For many years in my consulting work I dealt with executives who had become so busy that they had actually lost the essence of who they were, what they loved and what brought them joy and satisfaction. (And, in full disclosure, I have been this executive at various points of my career.)
I would engage these executives in an exercise that would lead them back to the essence of their existence. I would start by having them reflect on this quote from Buckminster Fuller: “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb …”
Next I would have them complete an essence question I first heard from a colleague, Alex Mandossian. He regularly challenged his clients to become a verb by applying “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). This philosophical statement first declared by René Descartes is one of the most foundational elements in Western philosophy. In essence, the meaning of the phrase is that if someone wonders if he or she exists, that is in and of itself proof of existence.
In short, you really should not be defined solely by your present noun. Your noun may represent a title or role you play like employee, spouse, boss, friend, president, parent, owner, etc. Your verb, however, is not only what you do; it is what you do that matters to you and stirs the essence of your soul.
It is true that what you actually do is far more important than any title or noun-type label you may have been given by others or even created yourself.
I would ask executives to follow Descartes’ formula: I, (insert your verb here), therefore I am.
For some it might read, “I share, therefore I am.” Or, “I serve, therefore I am.” Others might include, “I learn, therefore I am.” “I create, therefore I am.” “I love, therefore I am.” “I excel, therefore I am.” “I build, therefore I am.” And for some, even, “I play, therefore I am,” would be accurate.
The most important byproduct of the exercise was not to lock into a single verb, but to begin to reflect on the essence of their existence. It helped many to see that if they weren’t happy with where they were in life, they could simply change the essence and focus of their verb.
We live in a world that encourages skimming across the surface rather than digging deep to discover the essence of things. Mindlessly scrolling through social media images, scanning headlines, falling for clickbait or flitting through Twitter feeds fills our days, but often leaves us empty, unsatisfied and alone.
We live in a world that encourages skimming across the surface rather than digging deep to discover the essence of things.
Richard Foster, in his now classic book “Celebration of Discipline,” described the difference of surface and essence this way: “Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment.” It is often in the solitude that we become filled with essence.
Skimming the surface provides shallow information. Pursuing the essence is where you find deep insight and elevating inspiration.
The Christian world is celebrating Easter. Often in the rush to the promised joy of resurrection and the brilliant Easter morning, it is easy to skim across, and even skip past, the essence of Good Friday. Easter wouldn’t be Easter without the essence of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His noun includes titles like Son of God, Master Healer and Savior. Christ’s verb, the essence of all his actions, was and is love.
Jesus often reminded his followers not be distracted by riches, empty rituals or the pursuit of prominence, or the “thick of thin things.” In the New Testament, he taught Martha about the need to slow down, set aside worldly cares and discover the essence of what matters.
“And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:
“But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
In the midst of the current pandemic, a “minute of news” may prove to be the best model for discovering “what one thing is needful.” What we find to be absolutely essential in troubling times is an amazing indicator of what the essence is for all time.