Sail the Ocean

When the romance is gone from your work, try commitment

Committing oneself in service to a corporation requires a great deal of courage. It means we bring our fullest selves, including our autonomy, to the job. Unlike the grand gesture of quitting to become an entrepreneur, or, on the opposite extreme, giving over one’s identity to office politics and corporate dogma, autonomy within a committed corporate job requires quiet strength. Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at business school INSEAD and also a trained psychiatrist, believes that this is a skill worth mastering. He points out that it often requires the most courage to maintain independence while also staying the course in business cultures. “It takes tremendous bravery to accept the loss of some control while also maintaining a sense of individuality. You have to work on that every day,” he told me.

A conversation with the architect Kay Compton taught me something profound about this kind of commitment. Compton and her husband, who are both avid sailors, made a pact to sail across the Pacific Ocean, the storied “milk run” that hits all the beautiful beaches of the South Pacific. In 2007, they sold their home in Seattle, got rid of all of their possessions, charted a course, and left for a journey that would take them off the grid for the better part of two years. For most of their journey, they encountered calm seas: beautiful sunny days and warm breezy nights.

Sailing alone, Compton and her husband alternated duties: while one served as captain of the “watch,” the other stayed below. “It was a challenge being together like that for twenty-four hours a day. You have to have the ultimate trust in the other individual. Your life is in their hands, and you have to have faith that they will keep you safe,” she told me.

Trust and faith were not merely theoretical issues in the middle of the vast, empty ocean. Their boat was headed down the coast of California when they hit their first “big weather,” fifty-five-mile-an-hour winds with twenty-five-foot waves.

“I realized that we were at the mercy of our preparation,” Compton recalled: “When you’re that far out, you can’t call anyone. It would have taken the Coast Guard days to find us. You can only rely on yourself and your partner. Once you realize that you can’t walk out, you come to terms with it. You make peace with your situation.”

That sense of commitment — confronting the given circumstances and finding strategies for working within them — ultimately brought Compton and her husband to safer shores. But she still thinks about those moments of existential fear and reckoning.

“In my daily commute, there is one stoplight where I’m facing the water, and I always think about our journey. I remind myself of what it was like to be out there, to be surrounded by the ocean with just our boat. That reminder keeps me above the fray: it helps me take the long perspective.”

When I asked Compton if the experience changed her sense of self at work, she didn’t miss a beat before answering. “Absolutely. When my husband and I were on the boat, there could only be one captain. We switched back and forth, but only one of us could lead at a time. This comes back to my work as an architect: you have to work in teams, and you have to understand your role and the roles of others. There is a clarity that needs to be in place with these roles. They can shift, but when someone is the captain, you don’t argue. You don’t start an argument in the middle of the ocean.”

Although not all of us will find ourselves working in such extreme circumstances, her words touched me deeply. How many times have I started arguments in the middle of a proverbial ocean, that is, in the middle of a strategy session or campaign? Of course there should be a place for criticism and discussion in business, but there should also be a place for putting faith and trust in the designated leader. Commitment means accepting the mandate and finding the best way to execute it. “I wish everyone could feel what I felt on that journey,” Compton told me. “If they did, the world would be a very different place; I guarantee it.”

Of course, such commitments necessitate vulnerability. Too many of us spend our careers safely hedging our bets, standing on the sidelines, waiting to see who will win the game. If we truly want to commit ourselves, we must put our skin in the game.

Romantics know this is no easy feat. In fact, earlier in my career, I did everything possible to avoid being perceived as vulnerable. Whenever I wanted to win people over for a presentation or initiative, my goal was to deliver a bulletproof case. I went into meetings overprepared, heavily scripted, armed with data and details, ready to address even the remotest concern. I bulldozed any hint of doubt with what I thought was an irresistible combination of self-explanatory benefits, obsessive due diligence, and contagious passion.

I left many of these meetings triumphant, believing I had garnered strong support. It took me a few years to realize that I was wrong. There was an important difference between “thumbs-up” and “we’re in.” I had gotten a lot of thumbs-up, but I had often fallen short of gaining real, lasting commitment. My colleagues backed my ideas, but they didn’t really invest themselves in them. They became followers of my idea instead of collectively leading ours.

I finally had an epiphany: the perfect pitch is the imperfect pitch. No one wants to just execute someone else’s perfect plan. No one wants to add to something that is already complete. We are all looking for an invitation to co-create, co-opt, and co-own; for an opportunity to make something new, no matter how small or insignificant it is in the grand scheme of things. We don’t want to answer rhetorical questions or just fill in some blanks in a flawless design. We want to interpret, tinker with, or even “hack” an idea. We want to be able to deviate from the script. We only truly commit when we are a part of the performance, too.

Today, I try to be more mindful of creating space between my idea and how I present it. When I am delivering a presentation, I rarely reveal how advanced it is in my head. I take a few steps back. I edit; I delete. I purposefully omit things. I design gaps for others to fill. I refrain from mitigating all flaws. The plans I present are incomplete by design and still fragile. They have loopholes, bruises, cracks. They are so vulnerable that others see an opportunity to protect them, to strengthen them, to make them their own. And this is the moment when commitment begins in earnest.

May this be an imperative for the Business Romantic: We are not playing to win a zero-sum game. Our scorecard is always unbalanced. There’s always something missing in our equation. “Perfection is characterlessness,” the artist and music producer Brian Eno once said. In imperfection we form our character — and find romance.

There is no love without vulnerability. In his commencement speech at Kenyon College, the writer Jonathan Franzen pointed out that our modern lives are essentially designed for “likeability,” which he views as “the commercial culture’s substitute for loving.” Liking is far more convenient than loving. All it takes to like is a quick click on Facebook; all we need to do is run out to the mall for the next best thing, and we will have achieved an act of “like.” If “like” is all about control, then love is the ultimate loss of control. We put ourselves at risk. We suffer. We open our deepest wounds and dreams to the world, and we attempt to make something beautiful with them.

Love is, perhaps, the biggest word, but any emotion at the office is a tall order. Robert Kirby, a literary agent based in London, told me that although he is comfortable using the word “love” around the office, it still feels taboo to use it in a management meeting. “In order to be taken seriously in business,” he said, “I feel I should structure my thoughts in a way that sounds more ‘serious.’ That has statistics and precision — less inspirational and more 2-D.” Indeed, as most of us would attest, show (hurt) feelings in a meeting, and your colleagues will interpret it as a weakness to exploit. Admit ignorance or mistakes, present a foolish idea born out of an impulse, and you may risk being ridiculed for “not thinking with your head.” In the corner office, at the water cooler, the board meeting, the employee town hall: embarrassment awaits those who are “romantic” about a business issue. But why are we so terrified of embarrassment? “Embarrassment is sometimes a good sign,” singer-songwriter Andrew Bird remarked about writing love songs. “It can mean you are revealing something true.”

Business Romantics have goose bumps, and, yes, they blush. “We need to move away from the idea of the ‘businessman’ or the ‘CEO,’ this Dragon’s Den, bullying atmosphere, competitive aspect of The Apprentice, the psychological threat rising out of fear,” Kirby argued.

Sometimes, in the dullest moments of dull meetings, when some of the participants rattle off their list of issues or launch a stinging ad hominem attack, a million different film clips may start rolling in the romantic’s head: “What if I suddenly started to cry? Burst into tears? Told them about my secret loves? Would it destroy me? Disarm them?” In those moments we have two options: we can disengage, or we can commit with our full hearts. When we disengage, we lock away our most private desires; we slowly kill any hope of finding the thrill again. Every time we disengage, a small part of our love dies. When we make ourselves vulnerable, however, we choose to risk it all. We bring the full range of our emotions, and we throw them out right there, right here, right now.

The next time someone makes a disparaging remark in a meeting, express that your feelings are hurt (in fact, use that exact language). When you learn that someone made a negative comment about you behind your back, confront them, but admit your own vulnerability instead of scolding them. Tell them that you are committed to making it across the ocean. Together.

Excerpted from The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself. Copyright © 2014 by Tim Leberecht. Excerpted by permission of Harper Business, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.