photo: ryan wong
It is not our abilities that show what we truly are.
It is our choices.
On a recent episode of “Live With Kelly!” (yes, I feel embarrassed writing those words} Jake Gyllenhal shared that being part of the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday In the Park With George,” has been a pure joy for him.
That’s a strong word.
It’s a word I don’t use often – or lightly.
Jake, though, got me thinking – what gives me joy?
Actually, I’ve been thinking about “joy” ever since I had my friends Eric and Betsy over for dinner. I hadn’t seen them in way too long and our conversation roamed all over the place. At one point, Eric shared how much joy he experiences with his work helping to preserve Yapese navigational traditions (hey, we met on an island in the South Pacific!). He then asked Betsy what gives her joy. I thought it was an odd question given how long they’ve been married. Then I realized how touching it was – he didn’t want to presume he knew her answer. She said hanging out with the grandkids gave her joy. Then he asked, “What gives you joy, JP?” Not – “What makes you happy, JP?” He wanted to know what gives me joy.
I’m not sure why I felt uncomfortable. Perhaps, because joy is something deeper and more intimate than mere happiness and I didn’t want to give him a cheap answer. Or maybe it’s because I don’t give joy much thought and I didn’t have a ready answer.
I considered for a bit and then told him that witnessing a coaching client have a break through gives me joy. It is why I do what I do – BUT I seldom think of what I do in terms of “joy.” I’m constantly pushing myself, seldom slowing down to experience anything near joy.
But now along come Jake and Eric each energetically and gratefully talking about joy.
They challenge me – is there a connection between joy and confidence?
My godson Finn is a sophomore in high school and is beginning to focus on college. Applying for college has become a process of presenting yourself through essays and interviews. While the GPA and the test scores are critical, a college is equally interested in knowing what makes a student light up – what gives them joy.
Over the years Finn’s father has guided him with iron-clad focus. He’s never taken time to learn what Finn would like to do – he’s only told him what he wants him to do. Finn has not been permitted to explore what gives him joy and I can already see how this is going to hamper his applications.
But I don’t think Finn is unique in this challenge. When is the last time you had a conversation with a friend or partner about joy? When is the last time you talked with a colleague or boss about what gives you joy in your work?!
Joy is a rare topic for conversation.
I’ve periodically taught at various colleges and as I reflect on those experiences I realize that teaching gives me joy. College, in its essence, is a time to discover where your deep joy intersects with the world’s deep needs. I’ve found joy in helping students make that discovery.
And yet, there’s a part of me that doesn’t trust “joy.” And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.
I think about my clients who are in the process of changing jobs or careers. Fear and anxiety nip at their heels. They crave deeper satisfaction but no one tells me that they’re looking for JOY. Few look at the intersection of joy and need.
THE question I wrestle with is this – can you be confident if you have no joy in your life?
My hunch is that wherever there is joy, there is confidence. A joyful person is a confident person (though a confident person will not be joyful in situations where the stakes are such that joy is not summoned).
Last Fall I participated in a five-day coaching leadership program led by NY Times bestselling author Peter Bregman. Peter introduced us to his protocol for executive coaching. At one point during a session, Peter shared the story of a client’s smashing break through. He was animated and then, mid-sentence, he exclaimed, “Man I fxxking love what coaching can do!” We all laughed, recognizing that we were in the presence of a man who radiated joy.
One of the program’s fellow participants, Deb, an executive coach, led us in a dance exercise. At first some of us felt self-consciously awkward, but this was part of a program she’s developed to help people align body and mind. Deb, too, felt self-conscious as she introduced the exercise – something not commonly associated with a Harvard trained professional! However, as she led us no one could resist her exuberance. Again, we were in the presence of joy.
Earlier this year my friend Anthony appeared in an off-Broadway play. A professionally trained actor, he makes his living now in the corporate world, finding various ways to nourish his passion outside “work.” I’ve seen him in many productions and as with each one, here again he emanated joy.
Each of these people was ALIVE in the doing. You could say that they each “did” joy.
There are over 87,000 titles on Amazon devoted to “joy,” which means we all want it. So why don’t we see more people embody joy? Maybe it’s because it seems safer to be a “killjoy” – to be that person who is complaining, inflexible, myopic, narcissistic, stingy or nitpicking.
I’ve struggled writing this post – I’ve wanted to start over with a safer, more authoritative topic.
And maybe therein is the insight to why we don’t talk about joy – it takes confidence to be joyful. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable.
So what about you? What gives you joy?