The Blue Line (#867)

When I was growing up, my uncle was a huge fan of Joe Paterno, who coached the Penn State football team for nearly 60 years. While recent revelations about Coach Paterno have put a dampener on his legacy, to my uncle and many of the young men that he coached he was a heroic figure.

Each year, or so the story went, Coach Paterno would have the groundskeeper paint a blue line on the practice field. He would then explain the blue line to his players like this:

“When you cross that blue line onto the field, you leave the rest of your life behind. Your problems with your girlfriends, classes, family, and friends are all gone. On this side of the blue line, it’s all football.”

He would then go on to explain how the line worked in reverse:

“Paint a blue line around your classes, so when you go in there, you are not thinking about football. Paint a blue line around your relationships, so you are giving your all to the person you are with. When you leave the field and cross the line back into your life, football is over.”

For many years, I was able to honor one half of the power of the blue line. When I went in to a session with a client or a classroom with a group, I could leave my life behind and give my all to whoever I was with. In fact, my happiest times were when I was with clients, because my head would empty of all my own personal thinking and concerns and I was able to be fully present to whatever was happening in the moment.

But it took me much longer to see the power of the blue line in the other direction.

Because I didn’t understand that the less people have on their mind, the better their performance, I thought that thinking about my business 24/7 would give me some kind of an edge. The idea of leaving work at the office was almost comical to me – the kind of thing people who didn’t care about their business would do and then blame the world for their own lack of commitment.

Sure, my wife let me know in no uncertain terms that she liked me better when I wasn’t living up in my head, but in my mind that just meant I had to add “relationship” to the bottomless list of things I had to think about. My head was always full, and like continuing to eat on a full stomach leads to stomach aches, continuing to think about stuff with a full head led to headaches.

This fundamental flaw with continuing to think about work in the midst of my everyday life came to a head when I woke up one morning a few years back and the left side of my face was completely paralyzed. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that my first thought was not to slow down or take a break but rather to ask the television crew that I was working with at the time to be sure to film me from the right. Fortunately, the paralysis was caused by Bell’s Palsy and not a stroke, so I was ultimately able to heed the wake up call without any permanent damage done.

Because I associated “having nothing on my mind” with “being stupid”, I resisted it like crazy, but I could see that something needed to change. Here’s how I wrote about that period of waking up in The Inside-Out Revolution:

While I intuitively recognized the value of “getting stupid,’ I was also fiercely resistant to it. My mother has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Brussels, my brother started MIT at 16, and my sister started Harvard at 17. Our family valued intellect, and I was damned if I was going to put that to one side. After all, I reasoned to myself, my intellect is what’s gotten me where I am today.

So, when I hired a Principles-based practitioner named Kristen Mansheim to assist me in integrating this understanding into my work, I spent way too much time trying to persuade her of the value of intellect in general and of my intellect in particular.

What lost me the argument wasn’t anything she said, but rather something I felt: in the midst of my repeated intellectual thrusts into her annoyingly non-judgmental listening, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a deep and profound feeling of peace and quiet.

In the lingering silence, I saw two things quite clearly. The first was that this sense of peace was something I recognized as having been present in several of my most life-changing moments. The second was that even if I’d never experienced it before, I would gladly have traded a thousand intellectual victories for even five extra minutes spent resting in that world of deeper feeling.

The transformative conversation that followed unfolded over several months, and I came to refer to our sessions together as “speed bumps’ for the way in which they allowed my thinking to slow down and a deeper intelligence to flow through the cracks in my much ballyhooed intellect.

For the first 40 years of my life I’d been trained to use my mind like a buzz saw, filling it up with information and cutting through the weak points in other people’s arguments without ever noticing the scars I’d accumulated on my own psyche along the way. Now I began to see the value of listening without anything on my mind, allowing myself to become reflective and receptive to a wisdom that seemed to exist somewhere beyond the reach of my own experience.

Since that time, “the blue line” has become a much more practical concept for me. When at work, I do my best to work; when I leave, I do my best to leave my thinking on whichever side of the blue line it belongs on. To my initial surprise, my business went from strength to strength as the increasingly empty space in my head began to fill with insights and “aha’s” that allowed me to reach more people and touch their lives more deeply than ever before. And to pretty much nobody’s surprise, my family life has gotten better and better the more time I spend being present with them and enjoying their company.

Have fun, learn heaps, and may your days be full and your head be empty!

With all my love,

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