3 Elements Required for a Successful Ritual
You could hear the silence in the room as she nodded her head.
The seven police academy graduates stood at perfect attention. They could have been telephone poles in uniform. Perfect posture. Perfect attire. Perfect discipline.
“As I call your name, will you please step up to the stage and receive your badge.”
Some people can phrase a question as if it is not a question at all, but a command. Chief Deborah Faulkner is one of those people.
She guided the ceremony for the better part of an hour. Bagpipes had wailed when the graduates arrived. The mayor spoke for several minutes. At the conclusion, the room filled with thunderous applause. Afterwards — the rookies got pictures with the chief, tears of pride from their families, handshakes from powerful people.
“All of this,” I remember thinking. “To start a job.”
I don’t remember what your first day of work looked like, but mine went something like this:
“Hey Todd, I’m Linda… okay, let’s take a look around. There’s some coffee over there. Here is the person who hired you… yep, and here’s the microwave.
Alright. Do you have everything? Good. It’s time to listen to a 4-hour slideshow presentation on the company and it’s benefits.”
There is nothing horrid about the greeting. After all, it serves its purpose. I was oriented. I had hundreds of printed documents to refer to. Most importantly, I knew where the caffeine lived.
Still, as I watched my cousin walk across the stage to copious amounts of both pomp and circumstance, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. It wasn’t fair. Why didn’t I get this recognition when I began my job?
The level of ritual accompanying events like this is a little jarring, actually. What starts as a seemly trivial affair becomes very intense very quickly. These men and women are going out on a mission:
To Protect and Serve the Community.
Everyone knows this phrase because it is taken seriously. Those words are recited year after year. You feel the gravity of them.
Compare this to Corporateville, where we stuff our mission statements in folders and maybe put them on the wall sometimes if there is room. You’d be lucky to hear it, much less attend a ceremony around it.
Do you know your company’s stated vision?
Can you even get close?
First, the boring stuff:
“A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.”
In other words — doing the same thing the same way at the same time in the same place.
According to Scientific American, a ritual helps reduce anxiety while simultaneously inspiring confidence. From the job interview to the loss of a loved one, a ritual can help mitigate the pain of reality. They found this true even in those who claimed to believe rituals didn’t work. (Which means even if you doubt, you should still try it, you heathen.)
Let me ask — is there anything in your life you treat with the care and commitment a ritual requires? Even halfheartedly? When you wake up, is it “between 6–7” or is it “exactly 6:15?” What is your work preparation? Do you have work preparation?
I write from a place of conviction, not accusation. Starting the research on rituals, I realized I did not have a single one for myself. How could I expect an enormous corporation to have one for me?
So as a mere human I will continue to observe, to build, to improve. Here are the three elements I’ve been weaving in as I create my rituals:
Not to brag, but sometimes I can go a whole morning without feeling a single emotion. This is an improvement. It used to be days.
As our culture has become civilized, it has also become a bit… well, boring. We don’t have to feel much panic about our lives. Adrenaline is not required for knowledge work.
Rituals are odd in that they can remove emotion (such in an unexpected tragedy) or inspire it (such as your favorite football team running out of the locker room to the chosen song). The ideal ritual does both, deadening or lessening unwanted emotions in exchange for desired ones. This is done through a focus on the good stuff, often through meditation or affirmation.
My morning ritual includes very quick breaths in combination with an upbeat song. The breathing is close to the “Breath of Fire” technique practiced by yogis for years. These, combined with my imagining what I will do in the day, gives me goosebumps every time.
Emotion is innately human. However, it does not have to occur by accident. When you consciously cultivate emotion, your life and work becomes more full.
This particular habit I started long before the ritual research, completely by accident.
I found myself muttering the same phrase every morning as I walked my dog. 2 words:
I would say those two words over and over again. A kind of chant. I probably looked a little crazy.
“Thank you, rock.”
“Thank you, tree.”
“Thank you, home.”
“Thank you, shoes.”
As the months passed, I realized I was actually becoming more grateful by default.
It turns out your mother gave good advice when she said “be thankful for what you have. Someone else is much worse off.”
Various studies have shown gratitude improves your mental health, helps you sleep better, and reduces aggression. When you say “thank you” for everything, it is next to impossible to be selfish.
Grateful people are happier people, no matter their external situation. Intentional practice of gratitude may actually be one of the most powerful activities you can build into any ritual.
For some reason, this is a difficult one to embrace.
This past weekend, I accompanied my 91-year-old grandmother to her church. The same people sat in the same chairs and sang the same songs. Probably 80% of the service is planned before the preacher even begins to conceive the message.
Maybe people are leaving the church for this reason.
However, that respect and care for tradition is exactly what a ritual demands. The graduation of officers I saw looked no different than the dozens which had been performed in the past. Why was it powerful?
Because when tradition is connected to meaning, a deep well of emotions is stirred.
I am a writer. This means I walk in the tradition of Dante, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath.
Also: James Altucher, Seth Godin, Terry Pratchett, and yes — John Green and Nicholas Sparks.
These people have laid down a rich path, laying the groundwork to allow me to work. When I sit down to write, I think of them. I admire their devotion to the craft. I respect all they have done and thank them for their contribution.
First, curate a deep respect for the tradition of what you do.
Then, make your own mark.
I lied in this post…
There was actually one ritual I started in 2015.
It’s the ritual of coming up with ideas. These ideas were and are the foundation for every dollar I make today.
I’ve put the process in a book put it in a book — The Ultimate Guide to Infinite Ideas — which I’m giving away for the price of an email address.