Rafael Nadal, who just won the U.S. Open for the second time, is my hero.
His athleticism is extraordinary. His focus is awe-inspiring. His skill is, clearly, second to none. His will is unremitting. It’s a joy to watch him in competition. Yet those are not the reasons he’s my hero. In fact, it wasn’t until after he was finished playing in this year’s final that he rose to role model in my book.
So what was it?
It was that, right after winning, he fell to the ground, crying, then leapt for joy, then lay back on the tennis court, face down, sobbing. After a few moments, he got up and hugged Novak Djokovic, his opponent.
“Now that,” I told Isabelle, my eleven-year-old daughter, who was watching with me, “is what it looks like when you put your whole self into something!”
Where is that energy in our companies today? Where are the people leaping for joy, pumping their fists in the air, or weeping, either with happiness or grief?
I sometimes walk through the halls of various companies, looking at people working numbly at their desks or cubicles or nodding off in meetings, wondering, “where are the people?”
I’m not advocating for a workplace of loose cannons. I am advocating for a workplace of human beings.
Before his emotional outburst, Nadal played for hours, channeling the energy coursing through his body with controlled responses and deliberate, calculated movements. In other words, he managed his emotions.
That’s appropriate; it’s how any of us achieve any challenging objective, and we’ve become very good at it.
But after the game, where does all that energy go? Nadal’s post-game response was the natural eruption of energy pent up from the concentration of his game.
That’s appropriate too. Yet how many of us unrelentingly repress our emotions, or eat and drink them back down?
Years ago, when emotional intelligence became the next big thing, I thought that, perhaps, it would give us permission to express ourselves more authentically in our workplaces. It might teach us how to hold the emotions of others, to sit quietly, empathically, with someone who was crying, without trying to fix what was wrong. Or to celebrate our successes without losing our compassion toward others, whether they be friends or opponents.
But that never happened. For the most part, emotional intelligence is simply new jargon for discussing our emotions intellectually or codifying them in competency models. Meanwhile our feelings remain imprisoned in our heads.
That’s not the world I want to live in, and I don’t think you really want to live there either. Sure, it might keep us comfortable. Certainly it might feel safe. But only in the short run. Long term, keeping our emotions nice and presentable hurts us, hurts our relationships, leads to burn out, and makes us sick.
So why don’t we all live our lives with Nadal’s open passion, with his exposed heart?
It’s scary to be emotionally open. It makes us vulnerable. We may feel shame, and we’re likely to feel weak.
When I watched Nadal lying face down on the court, his body heaving with sobs, I was reminded of a time when I did the same, in very different circumstances. Earlier this year, a colleague of mine was very angry about something I had done. In front of several other people, she proceeded to tell me everything I was doing that was making her angry.
My job, in that situation, was to listen to her without defensiveness. I had a very hard time doing that (I kept trying to butt in to explain myself), but the other people in the group helped me; when I tried to talk, they gently reminded me to just listen and, when I did, they told me how much they appreciated it.
As I took in her criticisms, my body began to vibrate and, after a while, visibly shake. I couldn’t control it. I can’t explain it other than I felt like my body was trying to contain all of the energy that was coming at me from her, as well as all the energy brewing inside me. After a while, it was simply too much for me to contain and I just burst into sobs.
I felt exposed and ashamed. Not so much by the way my colleague was attacking me as by my physical reaction. That felt painful.
But I also felt a massive release. I felt unburdened, like there was nothing left for me to hide. I felt completely and fully myself. And that was tremendously pleasurable.
I also felt like I could finally take in what my colleague was saying, without agreeing with everything she said but also without making her wrong or judging her. That felt important.
And what I thought might lead to my rejection led to connection. The people around me supported and comforted me.
My sobbing came from failure, Nadal’s came from success. I have experienced both, and here’s what’s interesting: They feel the same. That’s because, essentially, they are. It’s all energy looking for a way out.
We are, fundamentally, emotional beings. In celebration or sadness, fear or anger or love, our emotions are very much a part of who we are.
It’s high time we openly embrace them.