“What have you learned about people?” asked Matt Griggs at my  Nature of Success development measure in the Maldives this year. It is one of the questions we are asked to contemplate after the daily workshops. What a question for me, with my degree in psychology, 30 years of experience as a consultant, 25 years as a coach, and 15 years of meditation, when there’s almost nothing I’d rather deal with than people.

Questions like

  • What makes us humans tick?
  • What drives us?
  • Why do we sometimes behave so inappropriately and illogically?
  • How can we learn and develop?
  • Who am I?

fascinate me. So I am a self-confessed people nerd. The nice thing is, I never get bored. Never ever. There are plenty of subjects to study, including me. What have I learned about people? A tsunami of thoughts is racing through my brain.

Learn from people who are more advanced than you

It seems like a very good question, because I don’t have an answer. So there is something for me to learn here. And that is exactly the purpose of this trip. To learn about people and understand them better, in the hope that it will improve the quality of my work. Sure, I already have a lot of knowledge about people. But what have I learned and what have I understood? What do you do if you don’t understand something? Ask someone who is more advanced than you.

So I’m curious to find out what Matt has learned about people. His experience, clarity, and ease always impress me. His insight about people: “Everybody wants to be cared about, nobody wants to be interfered.” I have to let that sink in. It seems to me that the same applies to the other course participants.

Small talk – an easy exercise

The group consists of business people from three continents, from a wide range of industries: construction, real estate, finance, film, IT security, digital advertising, etc. My experience with people is usually that they love to talk about themselves and their successes. Even in three-hour business lunches, I sometimes don’t give away a single piece of information about myself. I prefer this because I don’t like to be the center of attention. What’s more, I often have to talk a lot during my coaching sessions and workshops. So it’s good to take a break from speaking while I eat. It also makes the food intake easier. Besides, I always learn more when I listen than when I speak. I like to steer the conversation in a direction that interests me by asking questions. I’m generally curious, though I’m not overly interested in watches, racing bikes, or cars. I’m good at keeping conversations going at the table, making others feel comfortable. Asking and chewing, I am pretty good at that.  Small talk is easy for me.

A break in transmission for harmonious interaction

I learn something new on the boat. Talking is the lowest form of communication, says Matt. Here you often see people meditating or taking notes. If someone wants to be alone, that is respected. At the same time, people often ask: “How do you feel?”, “How are you doing?” My fellow travelers show genuine interest in others. They listen to answers without having to top them with their own stories or relate them to themselves. Instead, they nod, smile, and let the other person be. Alternatively, laugh, preferably at yourself. Not a bad word is said during the 10 days on board. It seems to have a positive effect that everyone takes care of themselves and their own issues in silence.  Does this make our boat the most harmonious boat on the planet? Quite possibly. When I sit on the deck of the dinghy on the rather rough surface after a surf and Alex hands me a towel without being asked, I’m almost in tears. Everybody wants to be cared about. Me too, I guess. Matt’s good, isn’t he?

In a workshop he asks: “How much more harmonious would humanity be if everyone only talked if they could contribute real added value?” Perhaps this somehow represents the formula for world peace? But you don’t have to go that far. Just wondering off the top of my head: How much more efficient would meetings be, how much shorter would our working days be, how much more harmonious would our interactions be if we weren’t all constantly transmitting?

Suffering from the performance principle

Some of you may now think – it’s easy to be harmonious and happy when you’re cruising on a boat in the Maldives, being served three delicious meals a day and surrounded by the most fantastic shades of blue that Mother Earth has to offer. But the amazing thing about us humans is that even in a picture-perfect environment we can suffer endlessly. Even when everything is good, our ego finds ways to make us feel bad. All fellow travelers seem to have been told by their egos that they are only accepted as members of the human community when they are “good” at surfing, good being the level of our instructor, the iconic professional surfer Taylor Knox. Performance principle is probably the technical term for this. Let the games begin.

My ego only wants my best – so please don’t interfere!

As a result most surfers on the boat suffer a surf crisis of varying degrees over the course of the 10 days. Mine is on day 4, when I catch a wave unfavorably and – instead of riding along the wave – slide straight into the reef. I scrape my knee and wade across the reef, balancing my board on my body. As I get wave after wave on my head, I’m unsure whether I should protect my body or my board from further damage. I mentally scold myself “I’ll never learn this,” “I’m too old for this shit.” During the next surf session, I don’t catch a single wave. My mood sinks to zero.

At the workshop in the afternoon, I feel a lump in my throat and share my thoughts. Taylor tries to show me a different perspective. “How many women do you know living in Germany, hundreds of kilometers away from the ocean, who started surfing at 47 and can do what you can now at 54? Maybe you’re being a bit hard on yourself?” Just as the words start to reach me, my ego raises the decibels in my head. “He’s only saying that out of pity. He doesn’t mean it! Don’t believe a word he says!” My ego generally rejects compliments. It wants the best for me and advice, even from iconic surf legends, is obviously not part of that. It consistently ignores information that might indicate that I can surf a little and that it brings a lot of joy into my life. When my ego is on a roll, not even video evidence can compete with it. My ego gets my full attention because of its volume. So we are both stuck in a mixture of self-pity, despair, and frustration. The lump in my throat swells up and tastes kind of salty. And don’t you dare interfere – it’s Lara’s life and suffering is part of it!

Throwing anxiety-filled baggage overboard

The next morning I meditate on deck. After years of Kelee meditation, I know that anything that doesn’t feel good is not me. After 5 minutes of meditation, I feel light and calm. The salty lump dissolves. I open my eyes. The rising sun bathes everything in a riot of color, covering the entire rainbow spectrum. I sit in the middle of it and have a 360° view of a sea of colors. I merge with nature and find myself. My ego has no other choice but to be very quiet. What was my problem again yesterday?

In the next surf session, I feel like I can do anything. I fly over the wave faster than ever before and manage a really good bottom turn. I feel: I can do this. I can surf. I’m doing as well as I can today. And maybe I’ll be even better tomorrow. Maybe. It is possible.

What have I learned about people? They are a fascinating species. They are loving and caring. They can let themselves and others get hurt and suffer beyond comprehension. This has something to do with the fact that they carry around old, anxiety-filled baggage. The fear of not being good enough is standard baggage for performance-oriented people. It gets in the way of performance for 100% of my coachees and continues to do the same for me. How nice to have thrown some of it overboard.  

photo “sunrise” by David Palmer

other photos by Andy Potts