Inner Wildness

There may be all too lit­tle true wilder­ness left on our shrink­ing globe, but there is still plen­ty of wilder­ness within. 

The path toward lead­ing suc­cess­ful­ly is all too often mea­sured in exter­nal out­comes, but the truth we know is that it is also mea­sured in “incomes,” the degree to which a human being is will­ing to grow toward ful­fill­ment. I would argue that those lead­ers who do not grow in this way, who are hooked only on the exter­nal score­card live a life also hooked on their per­son­al com­fort and pain equa­tions. And the rest of us get what we get from them based on those equations.


But some lead­ers choose to go more deeply into the ques­tions; they fol­low mean­ing more than com­fort, and while that mean­ing may for awhile take them down a path that is emi­nent­ly uncom­fort­able, they also learn to con­vert their per­son­al pain into an under­stand­ing of suf­fer­ing and into empa­thy, and they learn to rise toward a sense of per­son­al ful­fill­ment as much or more than exter­nal accomplishment.

What is that path like, real­ly? Well, I think it often begins with a sense of rest­less­ness — the exter­nal achieve­ments, whether they have come or not come, are insuf­fi­cient to a good life. And it can also begin when a leader notices how he or she has uncon­scious­ly col­lud­ed in becom­ing a ser­vant to oth­ers (and their goals) rather than their own goals. The leader may, for exam­ple, notice how deeply flawed lead­er­ship of a cor­po­ra­tion or insti­tu­tion real­ly is, how the cur­rent lead­ers are mak­ing peo­ple crazy on behalf of their own comfort/pain choic­es. Or they may notice they are serv­ing a good cause and their orga­ni­za­tion­al lead­ers are fine, but it is not their own cause or their own real poten­tial that is being supported. 

Rest­less­ness is at the begin­ning, and a sense of empti­ness can be there, too, a “hole,” as one of my clients said to me, “that has been here for a long, long time.” To fill that hole the only path for­ward is now called “midlife learn­ing,” a required con­fronta­tion with “what’s in the way,” a con­fronta­tion in which a per­son must come back to them­selves, their con­di­tion­ing, their past choic­es, and their emo­tions. They must con­front them­selves, much as Rilke wrote in his famous poem “Archa­ic Tor­so of Apol­lo”, real­iz­ing after see­ing the beau­ty of an ancient Greek stat­ue that “you must change your life.” And this change, while not usu­al­ly very easy for it requires deal­ing with one’s own demons, also can result in insight into the mean­ing of one’s own suf­fer­ing, and by exten­sion the suf­fer­ing of the world. This is, after all, just one more way of describ­ing the hero’s jour­ney. We’re all on it in one way or anoth­er. The ques­tion is what we are doing with it. 

For awhile, in my own jour­ney, I thought the chal­lenge was the soli­tari­ness of the path. My con­di­tion­ing has been to lis­ten to every crit­i­cal voice that came out of the wood with­out exam­in­ing its valid­i­ty, and also to live in a state of con­stant com­par­i­son to oth­ers and their suc­cess­es. The great­est chal­lenge has been, in a way, to stop lis­ten­ing to these bogus inner voic­es, based in shame on one side and envy on the oth­er. These voic­es will always hold a cer­tain sway. There’s no final “win­ning,” except my own learned vig­i­lance. I have to work at it on both sides and that’s my fate. But that work, the dim, down­ward work of stop­ping inva­sive and crit­i­cal mes­sages is real­ly less than half the inner moti­va­tion to keep going. If this were the sole chal­lenge, with noth­ing much beyond it, I’d prob­a­bly be cer­ti­fi­able by now, or sim­ply hold­ing out hope for a vis­it from the angels. But it’s the oth­er side of the jour­ney, the path toward ful­fill­ment that, as it comes for­ward in stronger and stronger ways, real­ly pro­pels me. It isn’t as sim­ple as say­ing, “Believe in your­self! Fol­low your des­tiny!” but it does rely on hon­or­ing inner choice and pay­ing atten­tion to moments when mean­ing comes and old­er iner­tias change or recede.

Such moments, when they come, real­ly can take any of us into the beau­ty of the inner wild­ness. It isn’t the beau­ty of loud talk­ing and hot pro­pos­als. It isn’t the beau­ty of big ideas. It’s more like the moment when things come togeth­er among col­leagues, col­leagues who have fig­ured out they will be indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly bet­ter off to find peace rather than wage war against one anoth­er. The bat­tle is over but not because any­one has won. It is a moment of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and vision. What writer, Nick Smith, calls, “Engag­ing with life defence­less­ly and indis­crim­i­nate­ly,” if I am read­ing him correctly.


I like to imag­ine the jour­ney in the terms I first encoun­tered wilder­ness when I was young. I learned to solo back­pack and some­times went high in the local moun­tains, far above the tree line, up in the mead­ows and among the rocks. I learned to sit by my own camp­fire and eat what I’d car­ried in. I learned to clean up after myself so that no one might notice I had been there. I learned to see the order of stones along a stream, lis­ten to the hum of insects, and find a van­tage point. I try to bring that same sense of inner mean­ing to every piece of work I do, every work­shop, every email, know­ing that in true wild­ness there is no “alone” at all. The deep­est pos­si­ble sense of con­nec­tion is there. There are mul­ti­ple lay­ers to what­ev­er real­i­ty you think you might be see­ing. It is as close to infi­nite as I think I’ll get on this side of life. 

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