When thinking of deep work, we often consider it within conventional containers like community service, non-profit work, volunteering and the like. Yet at its core, deep work is less about the work itself and more about the way we approach it. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the idea in terms of doing the dishes, noting that doing the dishes is only truly unpleasant when you’re not actually doing them. In his words, once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant.
Moving through life in this way, fully present in each moment, is critical not only for cultivating deep work but for cultivating joy. The two are inherently connected - feeling content and fulfilled in what we do brings a feeling of joy and feeling joyful helps us feel more content and fulfilled in what we do. It’s easy to get lost in the daily grind and forget to be present, letting our minds wander to any place other than the here and now. It takes real effort to pay attention to which experiences evoke feelings of joy, contentment and gratitude throughout our days, particularly if our work does not fit neatly into a conventional ‘deep work’ container. But taking the time to pause, notice, reflect and reframe, regardless of the task at hand, allows us to remain present in our work, our lives and our leadership.
Presence can be practiced anywhere in life - at the kitchen sink, on the yoga mat, in a meeting at work or along your favorite running trail. It stems from a connection with self, others and the world at large, and is a marked quality of compassionate leadership. While there is no right way to work, live or lead, we are drawn to those who move and speak with intention, conviction, humility and grace. Those who seem to vibrate at a higher frequency, who are intensely present even if they’re doing something seemingly menial, like the dishes.
Leaders are often thought of as superhumans who lead organizations, large groups of people, and even whole countries, but I often wonder how those in positions of power got there. At what point did they start thinking like a leader, speaking like one and acting like one? Each leader’s path is considerably different but leadership itself, like deep work, starts with self.
I feel most connected with self when I am working toward a goal, particularly a goal physical in nature. Triathlon training, rock climbing, and yoga asana are all driving forces in my life and serve as catalysts for practicing intense presence. Experiencing my physical body in this way allows me to cultivate deeper presence outside of these spaces. These practices, along with meditation and spending time in nature, not only strengthen my self-connection but also allow me to better connect with others.
It is impossible to lead without connection and genuine presence. To become leaders and guide the next generation, we must do so with aligned thought, speech and action. We all learn from those around us, and look to the previous generation to carry forth practices that resonate with us and forgo the ones that don’t. By remaining present and finding deep work in unconventional ways, we can lead by example and cultivate connection, gratitude and joy in the truest sense.