The Gratitude Challenge’s twenty-third topic is “Knowledge”.
As a consultant you get paid for knowledge, for providing answers. From early childhood on I was constantly encouraged to perform well in school, it was my main source of validation and for receiving compliments. Feelings were not relevant. Ignore them and just perform already. You don’t get validation or compliments for feelings.
Later I got sucked into the consultant lifestyle, spending more time at airports and in hotels than in my own home. I received a “status” with airlines, could skip waiting lines, got access to exclusive lounges. And I was surrounded by people who equally got their validation from being pampered as “special guests”.
It’s easy to feel powerful when being served with priority wherever you go, being upgraded at whatever you do. I’ve seen many people completely ignoring any social etiquette and looking down on others who earn less, have a lower or – God beware – no status at all with any airline, who are less busy and do less overtime. Hustle culture at its best.
These people are not paid for being nice. More often than not it’s the opposite: If you want to lay off people, get some external strategy consultants on board and shift responsibility to these service providers – “we really did not want to make anyone redundant, but we consulted the best and they told us it’s the only feasible way…”. More often than not you are paid for not being nice. Knowledge is power. Being nice is not.
I want to believe that I remained civil with people around me, but it is a very sad feeling to realize that once you don’t perform, once people don’t need your knowledge, you are not powerful. You become nothing. If your job makes up your whole identity, 99% of your body and soul are basically undefined. Considering that at the end of the day we are all just replaceable human resources, if our identity is defined by an employer and customers and the lifestyle that these require, we are a shallow and highly fragile construct.
As I got to know the community around Burning Man, an experimental annual festival with happenings around the world, I became very aware of this. One concept of these festivals is to spend the week without any money. Everyone just contributes whatever they are good at, whatever they feel like giving. Guess what, no one needs a security consultant in the middle of nowhere, in a space where people are encouraged to go offline.
What am I worth, if I receive all my worth from people who pay me for my knowledge? Or at least from friends and acquaintances who compliment me on my broad general knowledge? Suddenly all these highly paid consultants and managers who feel so important and don’t care about feelings, don’t get paid for “doing good”, all these frequent flyers, senators and HON circle members who tend to look down on all these lazy nobodies become worthless. One of the ten principles of Burning Man is Radical Inclusion. But how can you be included if you do not exist outside of the role that you left behind? How can nothing be included?
Obviously, I’m drawing an exaggerated black-and-white picture here, I want to believe that people prefer working with me also because I want to be genuinely friendly with them, not just because I know the answers. But when I realized that I cannot get validation anymore for knowing stuff, I felt very useless. I felt that I do not have anything else to offer. I felt ashamed for how egoistic and selfish I many times acted, thinking that I am anyway powerful enough to not depend on anyone. I have money, I have a status with hotel chains and airlines. If I want something I get it. If I want to solve something I solve it. I’m in power.
So, what do you do in an environment where you live without money? If your worth is defined by artificial systems that incentivize us to spend more money, and where in turn we need to put in more hours to remain in the seemingly exclusive circle that apparently brings us so much social status and validation.
Rather coincidentally, at a similar time as I got to know Burning Man, I started to include self-reflection and self-exploration into my life. My motto that I chose for this year stems from this decision:
I know so much about the physical form,My motto for 2023
but now I want to explore the inner being.
I realize there are many more treasures within.
I am proud of myself for seeing growth on an emotional level, of being connected better with my feelings and seeing the world from a slightly different angle, where human connection counts more than the next airline status. I also got a lot of compliments from others about my insights and my progress.
Oh, guess what? I greedily inhaled these compliments. I was hunting more insights (better gonna perform well during my next meditation!) to receive more compliments. And before I knew it, I had found a new source of external validation: Being oh so enlightened and self-reflected.
Of course, the “culprit” for depending so much on external validation is a deeply rooted insecurity – am I really ok? – paired with a very limited ability to validate myself. I do not think that I am even a particularly helpless case: Looking at people’s social media usage and how they need to document and publicly share in painstaking detail every trip, every meal, every “achievement”, makes me aware just how much most of us depend on external validation. Of course, as social beings we also simply want to communicate ourselves to others. But I think people would be lying if they said they do not care even a little bit about receiving the thumb up for what they share. I certainly enjoy the feeling when the Instagram heart shows a red dot, meaning that there’s a new Like that validates just how awesome of a person I am.
Want to depend less on external validation?`The solution is easy: Just rest in yourself, be self-sufficient, love yourself.
Well… How exactly do I do it in practice? To not just tell myself all these wonderful things, but actually feel it? I was recently asked what I’m proud of and I started to stumble… erm erm erm… Eventually I said that I’m proud about still working on myself despite so many flaws. Obviously, that’s kind of evading a specific answer (important skill for a consultant).
So now I’m working on becoming more aware of what I can be proud of, not because others complimented me for it, or because it’s a documented, tangible achievement. But because I feel it defines me as a human being, that makes me a bit different from all the other 8 billion people on this world (what I mean is that each of us is unique, not that out of 8 billion clones I’m the unique one…).
I’m grateful for all the knowledge I can rely on and the ability to gather more of it. I’m grateful for getting paid for thinking, for solving problems, for learning. But after 32 years of only knowing this kind of validation and success, in my 33rd year on this planet I’m especially grateful for becoming aware of my less tangible qualities that are just there, where I do not need to “perform”, but where I can simply open my heart (which sometimes is not so simple) and let love and compassion flow and build an environment of mutual respect, lightness, laughter and true human connection.
I’m grateful for becoming more aware and appreciative of my curiosity, my humour, the positive energy that I can genuinely share and for which I was recently told “I think 10 minutes with Fabi everyday should be a requirement for all for a world with better mental health“. I’m grateful for and proud of my ability to question and transform myself, for being brave enough to learn surfing when I’m afraid of water, to live in other countries which I had not even visited as a tourist before, to approach people and really listen to what they say instead of just waiting for the next second of silence to fill it with my own opinion. I’m grateful for having met and being surrounded by people who I can discover a new side of myself, a side that I like and that I’m eager to explore more after having shunned it for most of my life. A side far beyond tangible and measurable knowledge.