By Guest Contributor Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui
We look at the book Not Being, by Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui, where Chip Conley, Author of Wisdom at Work and Founder of the Modern Elder Academy writes a foreword about the book’s main concepts.
Toward the end of the last millennium, I lost my mind, my body and everything else that gave me a sense of separation from others.
Having suffered a couple of bitter disappointments, I traveled with a friend to my first Burning Man event in the Nevada desert — an annual utopian happening that gives one a glimpse of what life would be like if artists ruled the world. While my pilgrimage was more about repairing my heart and ego, I experienced a kind of ‘collective effervescence.’ Over the course of a few days, my sense of guarded separation evaporated, replaced by a communal joy that overcame me. During the following years, I’ve noticed the ever-presence of this feeling in my daily life and in the workshops I facilitate for others.
The epigraph to E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End comprises just two exclamatory words: “Only connect…” That is what I felt at Burning Man, and it’s also what I felt while reading this powerful treatise on what it means to be in community with the world.
NOT BEING ARRIVES AT THE PERFECT TIME
With the Covid-19 pandemic still rampant, Not Being by Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui arrives at the perfect time, promoting the power of reflection and connection when it has become most needed in my lifetime. This book is a deep, profound rumination on expansive liberation. It is an antidote to the disconnection and loneliness many of us have felt in the past year or two. It is like a rich, exquisite box of chocolates. It is something not to be read in a single sitting, but lingered over, allowing your soul to digest its wisdom.
I’ve spent my life constructing the scaffolding of my ego identity. I grew up a shy kid, with imaginary friends, and was pushed by parents to succeed and be more of an extrovert. My successes in my later adolescence ushered me onto the ‘hedonic treadmill,’ with a constant desire to one-up my last accomplishment. At 26, as one of America’s first boutique hoteliers, I started Joie de Vivre Hospitality, which grew into the world’s second-largest boutique hotel company. The fact that we weren’t the largest caused me great consternation.
MY NOT BEING EXPERIENCE
Then, I had my real ‘Not Being’ experience. While I should have been at home nursing a broken ankle and septic leg from a sporting accident, I was on a book tour and giving a speech in St. Louis, Missouri, to a large audience. I was on a strong antibiotic, and after my speech I lost consciousness while still on stage. My heart stopped multiple times during the next 90 minutes. The paramedics had to shock me back to life.
There I was: 47-years-old, with a collection of people I didn’t know, going to ‘the other side’ and coming back both disoriented and strangely feeling freer than I’d ever felt. The fact that this happened on stage, on crutches, after giving a speech, was enough divine intervention for me to realize that it was time to reinvent myself, but without the scaffolding. Ironically, the first boutique hotel I ever created, in 1987, is called The Phoenix, after the mythical bird rising from the ashes. This mythical bird was my guide to no longer be the person I had been.
This is when I started to notice that my primary operating system of living was moving from my ego to my soul. No one warned me that this shift was coming, but I felt it was time to take down the scaffolding and expose the real me to the world. I’d spent my whole adulthood comparing myself with others, donning a raft of different identities, yet feeling constrained, always in a straitjacket. Now, though, as I embraced the shift, I began to experience the tranquility of being connected to everything.
Pondering the later life stages, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson suggested, “I am what survives me.” After I turned 50, this became my mantra. What a joy it was to let go of being the ‘sage on the stage’ and to embrace being the ‘guide on the side.’
As a result, new opportunities arose that allowed me to be of service, less focused on what’s in it for me. I was asked by the young founders of Airbnb to be their in-house ‘modern elder,’ mentoring CEO Brian Chesky. This helped me appreciate that servant leadership would now be at the core of my career. After leaving a full-time role at Airbnb, I co-created the world’s first midlife wisdom school, the Modern Elder Academy, helping people regenerate themselves in service of others. To be of service gives me the greatest joy I’ve experienced in my life. I don’t think I’m the only leader who’s discovered this.
Sociologists tell us that, with the greater longevity of human life and the increasing obsolescence of many careers, midlife now starts around the age of 35 and lasts for around 40 years. Midlife, then, can feel like a marathon bereft of the rituals and rites of passage that help us strip away what no longer serves us, creating openings for something new. For many of us, midlife is a time of exhaustion from the sheer volume of the identities we inhabit, in person or online in the era of social media. If you find that you’ve been carrying too much baggage, wearing too many masks, then this book is for you.
This may be a moment of great existential importance for you, determining how you want to live your life, what you want to be and, equally vital, what you do not want to be. The poet John O’Donohue once wrote, “Soon you will be home in a new rhythm for your soul senses the world that awaits you.” This book is your dancing teacher to find that new rhythm. Enjoy your tango with life!
– Chip Conley, Author of Wisdom at Work and Founder of the Modern Elder Academy
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
STEVEN D’SOUZA is an executive educator, coach, and keynote speaker. He has authored or co-authored five books: Made in Britain, Brilliant Networking, Not Knowing, Not Doing and Not Being. Steven has been recognized by Thinkers50 on its RADAR list and was included in HR Magazine’s ‘Most Influential’ list. His work has been featured in national and international media, including Harvard Business Review, the BBC, The Independent, The Guardian, and The Sunday Times.
KHUYEN BUI is an author, speaker and sought-after facilitator who guides individuals and organizations to uncover the goodness that is already here. Graduated cum laude from Tufts University, where he studied Computer Science and Philosophy, he thrives on bringing analytical rigor into his inquiries of human messiness. Khuyen enjoys writing and storytelling and has won several awards, notably the Peter Drucker Challenge Essay Award and The Moth Boston StorySLAM Award. He can be contacted at www.khuyenbui.com.
For too long, we have bought into the myth of separation; the story that we each win or lose through the relentless purist of self-improvement, achieving personal and organizational goals and increasing consumerism. This has led us to being more lonely, exhausted, and disconnected than ever, with a devastating impact on our personal lives, families, communities, organizations, and the planet.
Not Being invites us to be curious about a different way of life, where we are interconnected, interdependent with each other and our environment; no longer fragmented but whole. It invites us to transition from a selfie culture to a selfless one that is radically inclusive of the other. We need to relinquish narrow ideas about who we are, to discover and embrace a wider identity. We are part of something much bigger than any of us.
So many people today are struggling with the increasing pace of change and the constant and excessive busyness that comes with it. Many feel stretched, overwhelmed and exhausted, besieged by the demands of complex projects and workplaces. They are engaged in a kind of “doing” that is more effort and struggle, rather than a “doing” that comes from a place of presence, openness and aliveness. This is not only ineffective and unsustainable, but ultimately ends in stress, anxiety and burnout.
This book, by the authors of the award-winning Not Knowing (Best Management Book of the Year), explores the limits and dangers of “doing”; how do they play out in our lives and workplaces; what is driving, or contributing, to our excessive activity; and what would a different kind of “doing” look like, that is less about control and struggle and more about well-being, harmony and creativity.
Knowledge and expertise are highly valued in today’s business world. These values are introduced at an early age by our education system, and at work, we are assessed based on what we know, on having the answers and solutions. Our need for certainty, to know what’s going on, to have all the answers, exerts strong pressure in our lives. This award-winning book offers an alternative, contrarian approach to dealing with such pressures – and to embrace “not knowing” rather than fearing it. The authors argue it is by “not knowing” that we in fact develop an exploratory mindset, and we discover, engage and create new ways to deal with business and management problems and issues. The book is supported by stories of individuals and the positive change they made in their lives through “not knowing”. Solving new problems with old ways of thinking are no longer useful in the new world.