Life’s Green Flags

A reflection by Allegra Jordan, MBA, PCC, This essay was modified from one distributed in 2021 to MBAs at Duke University’s business ethics course.

            When we ask about success, we are not majoring in the minors. “Why am I here?” and “What does this mean?” are two of the big questions of life. Thoughtful responses range from a simple definition (accomplishing a task) to more fulsome, complex answers. The most developed answers will show evidence of:

  • The writer (you) developing an inner voice so that one is not blown by the winds of others’ wishes
  • The human ecosystem: Identifying various areas of life one needs to pay attention to in order to be a healthy human
  • The ultimate goal (What do I get if I “win” life?)
  • The challenge: We often must leave something great on the table and that’s painful. (The solution ‘balance’ often comes up.)

Below, I offer four areas for your further consideration: 

  • “Green flags”: Attributes of a flourishing human
  • Tools to develop your inner voice
  • A substitute for the word “balance”
  • Some helpful, practical resources for thriving during a time of extreme stress.

Green Flags: Attributes of a flourishing human

Throughout history, spiritual leaders, philosophers and psychologists have cultivated a sense of the attributes of a healthy (or flourishing) human. One of my favorite titles for these traits is “green flags.” Just as red flags mark something we should pay attention to that’s negative, let’s also know what signs of a healthy human look like! Green flags for healthy humans (or, signs of flourishing) include:

  • A strong positive sense of self
  • Compelling purpose greater than self-interest
  • A circle of healthy relationships (from intimate to casual)
  • Belonging to a healthy community
  • A developed moral character (the capacity to act on moral principles)
  • Self-awareness and other-awareness (including mindfulness and empathy)
  • Full deployment of gifts in a way that is aligned with purpose and positive character
  • A sense of transcendence: appreciate mystery, wonder & play; celebrate the goods of life; a creative imagination
  • Resilience: transforming adversity into growth; optimism and growth motivation
  • A sense of joy; a capacity for fun and enjoyment

Source: Theodore Ryan, Ph.D.

Tools to develop your Inner Voice

Perhaps you have a strong, felt sense of self. If you do, this means a number of things, including something as simple as the middle of your brain is “talking” with the upper area of your brain.  (Adequate sleep, exercise and nutrition help foster stronger connections between these two brain areas.)

But most humans need a “mirror” to see themselves well, especially when they are going through transformative periods in their lives. We were once a caterpillar and we knew what we looked like. We’re becoming a butterfly. But right now we may feel like “goo” and not sure what all this is going to add up to. It’s these times – and more will come in life! – when we need what Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison described as a ‘friend of my mind.” 

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

-Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison

Sometimes that friend has to be us. Here are two ways to see yourself: 

  1. Reflection. Harvard psychologist Ron Siegal recently reported of a study where individuals spent 20 minutes a day for four days writing about, “Who I am at my best.” The individuals reported a lighter sense of being, a freshness that came from being able to take a break from the inner critic in our head. This practice also had the benefit of slowing people down, pulling them out of ruminative thought, showing them at their best, and since “neurons that fire together, wire together” making that image of themselves easier to access. 
  • Self-compassion. Another way we see ourselves is through self-compassion. According to trauma therapist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, it’s one of the few ways we can step outside of our stories and see who we are and what we were going through. The work of UT-Austin’s Kristin Neff, Ph.D. is currently some of the best in this field.  (Workbook recommendation at the end of this note.) 

Equanimity > Balance

Balance can feel like a punitive word. It can encourage perfectionism and fault-finding: You are either in balance or out-of-whack, and therefore you fall.

The balance standard is often applied to the wrong situation, especially if we’re learning a new skill or in a new relationship. Its willy-nilly application reminds me of the quote by one of the great Harvard professors who was looking at a child that was just learning to eat. The professor famously commented, “That is the most disgusting display of ineptitude I’ve ever seen.”  

I think the professor was doing this for laughs, but how often do we assume the stance of that professor with ourselves when what we’re actually doing requires encouragement and patience, and where balance is not the right standard? 

 Harvard Business School professor Debora Spar wrote in her book Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection that the idea that one can “have it all” is a set-up and we should not fall for it. In that book, my life is briefly examined (under the pseudonym of ‘Sue’) and offered up as evidence of, “Look, even her life fell apart and she juggled like she was part of the cast of Cirque de Soleil.” True! I did. And the falling apart – that too was a gift. 

A richer, kinder idea I offer is the Buddhist philosophy of equanimity. It’s non-perfectionist. It does not require the world to be perfect, but accepts the world as it is. Explore it and see how it lands for you. Equanimity is one of the four sublime states (according to that path). It’s not where we start, but a state to cultivate. Jack Kornfield describes it this way:

Equanimity is a wonderful quality, a spaciousness and balance of heart. …

Equanimity combines an understanding mind together with a compassionate heart…It is a balanced engagement with all aspects of life. It is opening to the whole of life with composure and ease of mind, accepting the beautiful and terrifying nature of all things. Equanimity embraces the loved and the unloved, the agreeable and the disagreeable, the pleasure and pain.

Wishing you healthy success!

Allegra Jordan

Practical resource for times of extreme stress:

  • The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.
  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
  • Practical, deep and kind approaches to dealing with anxiety, self-worth, anger, abandonment, trauma:

These inexpensive courses teach therapists how to work with each of these areas (non-medically) and are accessible to lay people.

Spiritual resources:

Your spiritual tradition has deep resources to guide. I encourage you to reach for them where they give your heart ease and support.  You especially want to pay attention to practices and resources that strengthen your character (the ability to act on moral impulses) – while also strengthening self-compassion

Movement Activities: Forest-bathing/Play/Enjoyable hobbies/Sports/Dance

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