Nature's Lessons: How the Aegaeis Taught Me to Slow Down
Nature slows me down.
Last January, I was looking out over the Aegaeis, a series of slow days on the small, sleepy Syros island stretching behind me as I prepared to return home to Berlin, and to a new year.
The sea, like the season, was vast, powerful, and raw. There was no role for me to play, no action I could perform that would affect the water, the winter, or time passing. I sat and witnessed and was humbled.
That day, I made a commitment to slow down and do less. I knew I had a lot to figure out, and needed to get quiet and listen. Instead, the months that followed were turbulent and challenging, though not without joy. I’ve made a habit of reviewing my years (even building an Annual Review Guide with my team at Journey), and much of 2022 was no different from all the previous years, another textbook example of over-commitment.
I was coaching almost a dozen founders while running a bootstrapped startup and having a newborn baby at home. I sacrificed relationships for work. My quality bar moved from “whatever I do has to be filled with love” to “good enough is fine, as long as it does not create more work.”. Everything culminated in the uncomfortable realization that I felt both guilty to my business partner for not working enough, and at the same time to my wife and daughter for working too much. I was spread too thin and doing a disservice to everyone around me, and I was suffering myself from it.
I take full responsibility for the choice of an inhumane workload. But in doing so, I rejected the responsibility to be an outstanding dad, husband, coach and business partner.
Before I met my wife, became a coach, became a father, became an entrepreneur, I had no commitments to other people. I would just go, go, and go some more. For years, I would break down walls trying to change my life and its circumstances. I would go through waves of exertion, followed by frustration and defeat. All of these same feelings were present in 2022, with one difference: I wanted to change. I couldn’t keep going the same way as I had before, and I didn’t want to.
In June, I channeled Greece again, and recommitted to slowing down.
Gloomy Syros in January.
Change Is Not Linear
But change is not linear—not for anyone, and certainly not for me. Slowing down took a long time this year. On the surface, nothing happened for almost half a year after I had my Aegean-inspired insight. It was brewing inside of me: I couldn’t get rid of the liberating sensation that washed over me when I thought about what a slower life would feel like: running a thriving coaching practice on my terms, being able to take full responsibility for the wellbeing of my family and myself, returning to my creative practice around writing (hello, readers!) and music, and, finally, contributing my superpowers (instead of a percentage of my time) to entrepreneurial projects like Journey. This is still a lot, I know. But a slower life doesn't mean doing less, it means doing the right things better.
Even though I already had a relatively clear vision in January, I needed reality to catch up with me. And instead of forcing life’s course, I allowed the time to let things actually play out. This may sound like one big exercise of meditation, but that’s not what I am trying to say: I just accepted that I needed to work through a lot of resistance and doubt. I feared we would not find a great leader for Journey, the tech company we had built since 2020. I feared letting go would look like failure. And I feared that I would alienate family and business partners in the process. It felt like one, long, high-pressure walk on a tightrope.
It took months for me to be able to communicate my needs: In June, I had committed to an investor to go full-time on Journey while scaling back my coaching practice. It was a commitment I made because it made sense for the company, knowing right then it was against my desire to slow down. I’ve learned: things I need to tell myself “make sense” most often don’t make me happy. The following days and weeks, I tried to reconcile my uncomfortable truth rising from my subconscious—that I would not, in fact, be taking the lead on Journey—with the “sense” I was trying to make.
Ultimately, I came back in July with a firm decision to let someone else take the helm at Journey. Together with my business partner Julian, I had decided to pass Journey on to a new management team. From interviewing more than 50 applicants, we identified a handful of excellent candidates and finally confirmed our top pick well into September. The search for a new CEO and co-founder felt like piloting a way-too-fast plane into an airport with an extremely short runway. It was all very stressful and intense. Here I was, trying to do less, to slow down, and in making this a conscious part of my job, I added it to the stack of responsibilities I already had: the process of slowing down created even more work! I had to hold on to control for a long time before being able to let things go.
As I go through these cycles of expansion and contraction, I’ve discovered that paying attention is a superpower—how am I feeling, what do I want, what do I need, where are things going? Sitting and witnessing opens access to my intuition more so than running around and trying to think through a wall. The only way to get there for me is through seeing and accepting what needs to change, not forcing change or forcing status quo.
You, Too, Can Slow Down
This is not a guide to sitting idly in meditation and letting the world pass by. When I write about witnessing, I am not strictly referring to silent retreats and zen gardens. Witnessing is sense-making without “making.” Not acting, not controlling but noticing reality unfold. There is no one right way of witnessing for everyone. In fact, there may be various different ways of witnessing for you: for me, sitting with nature or my daughter Zoe work best. In these settings, I’m reminded to slow down, put distractions away, and pay close attention to what’s happening. Use whatever works to give yourself permission to slow down. I invite you to explore how witnessing looks in your life.
I’ve learned a good starting point is observing an aspect about my life that I cannot control. This is how nature works for me, and how watching Zoe works for me. I accept that these realms are largely outside my control (even though we do, in fact, take responsibility for parenting our daughter (; ). There is a difference between being responsible and being in control, and as we grow our lives, families and companies, we discover that being responsible for something and being in total control of it are two very different things. How does this relate to witnessing? Witnessing can only happen when you become comfortable accepting responsibility in the absence of control.
A Crash Landing
Heading into my parental leave, my metaphorical plane was still in a steep dive, and I was hardly breathing. Only in late October was I able to crash-land the plane and pull all the brakes. I overshot the runway. But, looking out from what I feared was the debris, I found I was finally able to settle. And, to my surprise, I noticed a reality emerging that was quite like the life vision I had looking out at the Aegaeis. I had arrived.
Soon, it will be January again.
I am enjoying a few quiet weeks in limbo between parental leave and truly getting back to work in the new year. Also, I am circling back to witnessing at multiple levels.
At the same time, I’m excited for 2023. I’m leaning into what feels juicy, alive and real in coaching for me! It is a delight to finally be building the kind of (coaching) business that feels good and resonates with my life circumstances and well-being! I’m following this irresistible pull to move from willing my coaching business to success to witnessing my coaching business evolve to success. Watching my daughter Zoe inspired me: seeing a young mind unfold draws me to work more around my clients’ transformational growth, to facilitate their unfolding. I now understand how I had to go through the trials and tribulations of 2022 to be granted the chance of an exciting, aligned and energizing 2023.
This year, I will fail—again—at not overworking, and I will fail—yet again!—at not being stressed by work. But I will have principles that guide me, standards I can try to meet. I commit to fail against a more authentic standard. While I certainly will make mistakes, all my steps and missteps will take me farther along the path I know is right.
Now, I’m strategizing how to keep things simple and spacious while still growing myself, and my practice. My first quarter will be focused on building systems that help me slow down even more, while giving my coaching practice space to unfold. I am hiring a full-time assistant in Berlin (please share with your network!). Once I have created a smooth system that enables me to be at my best as a human, father, partner and coach, I would like to explore how far I can take the system, without sacrificing slowness, simplicity, and spaciousness.
This is my first post in almost nine months, and part of me slowing down this year means I will spend more time sharing my writing with you. Writing has become an essential pillar of my craft as a coach, and as a human. I hope to contribute to a slower 2023 through my coaching practice. If you want to create a year-in-review using a set of inspiring and thought-provoking exercises and questions, try out our Journey Annual Review Guide.
A few years into practicing as a coach, I have explored mindfulness to some extent. But it is the observation to completely take my mind off anything, to not act, that seems to be my next step. I begin to understand the power of sitting quietly and witnessing life, and then understanding what I can and cannot control about it. Whether we act or not, the first step is always to witness—to be in awe, to be humbled. Then, sometimes, we get to be in awe of ourselves.