The Noble Art of Wise Selfishness

RelaxBeside the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone” –  Lin Yutang

I have always been a bit of a grafter. I grew up in a typical working class family in the 70’s and 80’s. My father worked long hours, travelling around the country whilst my mother stayed at home and looked after myself and my sister. From a very young age it was installed in me, that if I wanted to achieve in life, then I had to be prepared to work hard and keep focussed.

At fifteen I had not one, but two jobs. On Saturdays I would work at my local hair and beauty salon, washing clients hair and keeping the salon tidy. On Sundays I got up even earlier and worked at a cafe at my local airport, flipping burgers and making salads. Every Sunday evening I would come home reeking of chip pan fat, and my mum would literally dunk me in the bath as soon as I stepped through the front door.  Some of my friends thought I was crazy, they were always out having fun, shopping, partying and enjoying themselves. But many of them were very fortunate in the fact their parents could afford to buy them the latest trainers or mobile phone.  They didn’t need to ask if they could be treated to a ticket for the latest party or to get ‘that’ dress.  My parents were in a very different position, money was frugal and It was apparent from my early teens,  if I really wanted something, then ‘I’ needed to work for it myself.

This work ethic has stayed with me ever since, and I believe it gave me great grounding in appreciating the value of money from a fairly young age.

In 2008 I left my very secure and well paid job in London to embark on a new business venture. I had trained as a therapist many years before and my dream had always been to have my own spa.  I had found a wonderful little beauty business in Kent, it was a little run down, and I could see it needed a lot of love and attention to bring it back to life, but I knew the potential was there, and I was prepared to work hard to achieve what was effectively my dream job.

Unfortunately soon after acquisition of the business, partly due to my naivety of the legalities and risks of buying an ongoing concern, but also partly due to my trust in others,  a series of events propelled me into two years of what I can only describe as hell on earth.

Shortly after we opened the business we discovered the previous owner had been less than honest about the accounts, the business wasn’t turning over anywhere near what she had declared and the first six months saw the bailiffs knocking on our door almost every week looking to take our equipment in lieu of the money she owed.  To add to that, the staff we had inherited were somewhat problematic, to say the least.  One was exceptionally volatile and another turned out to be a thief.  A third stayed with us for a few months, listened intently to the vision we had for our spa, only to leave to open up a new salon down the road trying to emulate everything we had planned for our own spa, from its theme, to its decor and treatments. To add insult to injury, she also helped herself to our ‘confidential’ client details before she left, and then promptly starting calling our clients offering to do our treatments at half price from her new premises.  The whole event left me feeling very hurt, angry and in truth, a little in despair. I honestly felt I had treated all my staff with fairness, kindness and compassion, and I was finding it so difficult not to take the whole experience personally.  Three months later, to add an extra element of challenge to an already very challenging situation, the worst recession the world has ever seen hit the UK.

I was suddenly working an average 80-90 hour’s per week, and I wasn’t taking a penny from the business. I suddenly had a mound of bills to pay, the salaries of my staff, plus my bills at home and I wasn’t earning a penny. I felt I had been cheated by certain people and was angry at my own naivety of giving up a well paid job, only to find myself struggling day-to-day, with the awful possibility that I could ultimately lose my house and everything else I had worked so hard for.

I honestly couldn’t see a way out. I was seeing clients every waking hour, because I felt I had no other choice and most mornings I was in the office at 5am and wasn’t leaving until gone 10pm, to ensure all the admin and behind the scenes work was being done on time.  On top of this I had a long commute from my spa back to London, plus I still had a house to keep clean and a family to care for. I was too tired to do anything, and I mean anything. Sometimes I was honestly to tired to even eat.  I couldn’t afford to go out, and even if I could I was too tired to string a sentence together. My husband lost count of the amount of times he found me asleep in my coat in various positions around the house, where I had literally walked in and collapsed in a heap of exhaustion. The sleepless nights were plenty, I was beyond stressed, and I wasn’t doing anything but spa work, house work, and sleeping. Life had suddenly become truly miserable and I felt as if I was putting everything and everyone before my own needs. In short my business was controlling my life. I felt guilty that I wasn’t seeing my friends or family and guilty if I wanted to go home early from work, as I felt my staff really needed my support and encouragement.

This continued for 2 years, the struggling economy wasn’t making things easy and finally my body started to show signs of fatigue. My back ached constantly, my asthma was more irritable than ever and I suddenly developed facial eczema like never before.  I was so exhausted, I was literally running on air. The balance of a working life and home life that I had once found so easy to maintain, had suddenly vanished into a blur of non-existence.

The fact is you don’t need to own your own business to find yourself in a similar position. We live in a society that places so much emphasis on material gain, and a successful career and family life.  So many of us often feel ‘inadequate’ if we can’t juggle our family relationships and our working life in perfect synergy. We are constantly on the go, constantly striving to achieve the next best thing, wondering if the grass is really greener on the other side. We pack out diaries full of social events, working events, our children’s events, family events…. the list is endless.  Many of us feel guilty if we don’t place the need of those around us, before the needs of ourselves.

Obviously, I couldn’t continue the way I was, and eventually, following a rather ordinary  sneeze, I found myself flat on my back with two bulging discs sticking out of my vertebrae. I literally couldn’t move an inch without an excruciating amount of pain and discomfort. My body had literally forced me to stop.

I stayed like that for 3 weeks solid, feeling immensely sorry for myself and beyond frustrated.  I felt as if I wasn’t in ‘control’ of anything. By the third week of activity ‘lock down’ something began to change.   Despite me not being at my spa, it was becoming apparent that my staff weren’t going into melt down as I had feared, and despite me not being able to do treatments, our clients did not stop coming to spend money with us.  At home, although I wasn’t physically able to whiz the Hoover frantically around the house every two minutes, or do the washing up or feed the husband (or the cat for that matter), I wasn’t finding myself living in a complete and utter mess and the RSPCA weren’t repeatedly knocking on my door asking questions about a rather skinny looking cat.  Despite me being completely bed bound and unable to control anything, the world as I knew it, still happily continued to tick along nicely around me.

What my temporary condition did, was pull my ego into check by showing me that every time I insisted I needed to be ‘doing’ something or controlling something, that this was in fact a state of mind.  I was utterly convincing myself that I needed to do everything when I wanted to or felt obliged to, because if I didn’t, in my little head life would never get better.  I felt the need to control, in order to control everything in the here and now, believing that in turn, I could in fact control the outcome.  It was ‘me’ that was in fact putting everyone’s needs before my own, not the other way round.

A few weeks later, I was fortunate enough to go and see his Holiness the Dalia Lama speak in London. The whole experience was inspiring, enlightening and even quite emotional. During his presentation he spoke of the noble art of what he called ‘wise selfishness’. The art of taking care of oneself on a physical, emotional and spiritual level as primary importance.  He advised when doing this and doing it well, you are then in a much better position to take care of others.  He spoke of many rich and powerful friends of his, that had on many occasions actually confessed to him that they were very unhappy and incredibly stressed. They had placed so much attention on material gain and financial success, that they now found themselves in a bubble of unhappiness and worry.   As I sat there and listened I honestly felt as if he was talking to me in person. With every softly spoken word, I felt a lump of emotion start to well up in my throat. I was kicking myself that I had been so stupid to have lost sight of what was really important in life. The penny had finally dropped, and it had fallen from an almighty height.

Dalai Lama quote

What it taught me was, that I needed to have structured time throughout my week, year and life for me. I needed to stop feeling guilty about wanting to have time to indulge in things that had once made me happy. I needed to stop focussing so much time on worrying about the financial success of my business, and learn to let go of the control a little.  I needed to start treating myself as I would my own best friend and honour myself with the love and compassion I actually deserved.

Three years on my life has more balance, my business is thriving and most of all I am much happier. All thanks to a set of rules I slowly implemented to help me maintain that balance in life I so desperately needed.

Don’t be available 24/7 – I now have a rule, after a certain time in the evening I don’t answer my phone, unless I am expecting a call. All my friends and family know the best times to call me, and it gives me some much-needed time to wind down after a long day at work. My staff knows not to texted or call me on my day off, unless it is really urgent. They respect I need time away from work just as they do.

Switch the Computer off by 7pm – Back then I would often find myself bleary-eyed, tapping away on my laptop until gone midnight. Now I have a rule that the laptop is switched off at 7pm. That way I’m not tempted to work for just another few minutes, which would often end up as hours. With the computer off I often find I will end up listening to music or reading a book instead. The things I used to love doing until the new age world of computers took over life.

Meditate – I now meditate every single day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes in the morning and evening. It helps me focus in the morning with a calm mind, and sets me up well for the day and in the evening it helps me let go of all the hustle and bustle or stress of the previous few hours. This alone has made a huge difference in my life and my stress levels. Meditation helps put life back into perspective.

Exercise – I try to exercise three times a week, even if it’s just for 30 mins.  I do some yoga, or take the bike out or I go for a walk. You don’t need to be a member of a gym to do this, be creative and try to get your family or partner to join you. It can be a fantastic way of relaxing together and will help you sleep better at night.

Indulge in the pleasures in life and savour the moment – I used to feel so guilty about spending money when I didn’t have any. But small pleasures in life really don’t have to cost a lot and when you are working really hard, every day, you do need to reward yourself occasionally and not feel guilty about it.  I love going to the super market and purchasing a lovely treat for dinner, or taking the train up to London and walking along the Thames in the sunshine.  Buy yourself a magazine and savour some time in the garden reading in the quiet or go to the local park and lay on the grass in bare feet and breathe in the fresh air.

Have structured time with family & friends – Life can so often get in the way of life, and many of my friends and family often say they wished had more quality time with the ones they love. Make structured time to see your friends and family, but don’t book so many social events in one week that you then feel overwhelmed. Remember, this time should be time for you, as well as those you are with to relax and rejuvenate. I have a large wall calendar in my offices at the spa and at home. This enables me to see my month ahead laid out as a whole, with all my commitments written in large red pen. This may seem a little controlled for some, but it helps me ensure I have quality time with everyone, plus my me time, rather than cramming my weeks with lots of events, to only feels exhausted by the end of it with no rejuvenation time before the next month starts all over again.

Be silent – Our life is crammed packed with noise, televisions, radios, social media, phones…. the list is endless. With these constant distractions forever interrupting our daily living, sometimes just enjoying the peace of stillness is incredibly soothing and calming to the soul.

Remember what you loved doing as a child and re-embrace it with adult eyes – As a kid I loved to draw and write, I could literally lock myself away in my bedroom and sketch for hours or write a twenty page story about something that was incredibly exciting for an 11-year-old.   As I got older, adult life and it’s responsibilities took over and sadly I lost those passions. Last year I decided to try to reignite the flame, so I started this blog and purchased a new sketch pad.  I can now again write for hours, and I find it truly relaxing and enjoyable.  My husband loved swimming as a child, and recently he joined our local pool, he readily admits he wished he had done it sooner.  So often we lose sight of the joy we found in simple things in our childhood, and making the effort to reconnect with those activities can highlight those pleasures again.

Honour your body – I learned very early on that as amazing as the human body is, it needs to be looked after.  We will often offer the advice to others that they need to ‘slow down’ or ‘take better care of themselves’ but how often do we follow that same advice ourselves?  Eat well, take some vitamins and ensure you get plenty of uninterrupted rest.  Go to bed when you are tired, don’t force yourself to stay up to watch television. When you experience tiredness your body is letting you know it needs sleep to help restore energy and renew essential cells.

Be honest with yourself or your boss – If like me you find your work is taking over your life, you really need to regain some balance and remind yourself  that no job is worth being ill over.  I of all people understand that sometimes you need to work harder than the regular 9-5pm, but you can’t sustain this for long periods of time.  Stress causes high blood pressure and places a huge amount of pressure on the bodies systems, it can even lead to strokes or heart attacks. When work starts effecting your physical or mental health, it’s time to evaluate what is more important to you, keeping your boss happy or potentially ending up in hospital very sick?  Be honest with your boss if you start to find things too over whelming, take the courage to admit you need some help. Struggling along in silence will just cause you even more stress, angst and unhappiness.

Remind yourself money isn’t the key to happiness – A recent scientific study has shown that 3-5 months after lottery winners have collected their winnings, they are on average only 5% happier than they were prior to receiving the money, despite whatever their previous circumstances were.  I find this truly fascinating, because although I don’t believe material gain is the key to happiness,  I am sure the majority of my friends and family would all agree they would envisage themselves being happier with a little more money, as this would surely take some of financial pressure of everyday ‘living’?  Which reminds me of the Dalia Lama’s tale of his financially successful friends being some of his unhappiest friends. I now invite you to re-read the previous chapter on being honest with your boss.

Don’t feel guilty about saying no – This was a biggie for me. I like to help people in any way I can, I don’t do it because I think it makes me a better person, I do it because it makes me happy. What I learned when I opened my business, is that I didn’t have the same amount of free time that I did prior to having it.  So although in the beginning I still did all the little errands and favours I had always done, those, on top of the increased hours at the spa started to take a toll on my body.   I had to learn to have the courage to be honest and admit I just couldn’t do everything any more.  I had to acknowledge, times had changed and I simply didn’t have as much time.  In short, I had to learn to say no and without feeling guilty about it. Which of course is exactly how I felt after the first ‘no’.  In time I started to realise that those that mattered understood, and those that didn’t, well they probably didn’t matter as much as I thought they had.

So the next time you are feeling unhappy, stressed, under extreme pressure or just simply exhausted, ask yourself, like I did three years ago,  is it time to evaluate where your life is at? Is it telling you, that you too need to start studying the art of wise selfishness?

2 thoughts on “The Noble Art of Wise Selfishness

  1. Pingback: Karmic Management, 6 Mindful Business Tips For Salon Owners | elizabeth Caroline

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