A Tiny Act Of Corporate Rebellion

These days, corporate laptops come pre-loaded with desktop images and screen savers rife with slogans, logos, and acronyms: Googlicious, Six Sigma, stuff like that.

Years ago, as I broadened my travels, and everything turned digital, I began tucking my own images into the System Folder: sunrise over the dew-kissed palms blanketing Elephant Mountain, or sunset reflected in the placid, Balinese seas.

It was a tiny act of corporate rebellion, a conscious decision to at least try to balance the company line with my own — even if that tiny act constituted a pinky’s weight on the scale.

If work kept me trapped inside most of the day, I reasoned, I’d bring the outside in — into my Apple monitor, anyway. I couldn’t climb mountains or ponder seascapes all the time, but I could in increments. And those increments felt like they added up. They felt like they mattered.

This hackneyed thesis was born of a particularly hectic Video Music Award season back at The Mighty Viacom. My colleague, Jonathan, and I had begun uttering a mantra in response to frequent and stressful meetings in which we planned to do impossible things in no time at all, with zero resources.

“Calm blue sea,” we repeated. “Calm blue sea .. calm blue sea…”

It became such a thing for us that I decided to leverage The Mighty Viacom’s corporate card on our collective behalf. I commission an artist to make us our own “Calm Blue Sea.”

It was a gargantuan illustration, full of saturated oranges and deep blues. Its aspect ratio was 16×9, one in which the artist rarely created. Still, I’d requested it specifically; I wanted the image to be cinematic, comprehensive, wrap-around.

It hangs in my office today.

And it works!

When I see it, I exhale. My pulse slows. I relax, if only just a little bit.

And I soldier on.

A few years ago, I shared this hack with an executive coach.

“Makes sense,” she chuckled. “You’re basically tricking your brain into thinking that it’s outside in nature. I’m sure it creates a similar response.”

That response, I’ve come to learn, is part of the Autonomic Nervous System.

The co-stars of the Autonomic Nervous System are the Sympathetic (Fight or Flight), and the Parasympathetic (Rest and Digest) Nervous Systems.

Sympathetic gets all the press. And I understand; Fight or Flight just might just save your life.

You see a tiger. (Or, you’re in the eleventh hour of an 80-mile an-hour death race on I-95.)

Your body floods with adrenaline. Your heartbeat races. Your senses sharpen. You react.

Parasympathetic, though, is the real star.

You approach a group from a foggy distance. A familiar face invites you in. She wraps an arm around you and beckons you to join the circle. You are warmly welcomed, and well-fed.

Now that’s the stuff.

Oxytocin and serotonin ease through your veins. Your heartbeat slows. Your muscles ease.

You feel safe. Relaxed. Like you belong.

You feel loved.

You feel like you’re watching the sunrise over the dew-kissed palms blanketing Elephant Mountain, or sunset reflected in the placid, Balinese seas.

Since last fall, I’ve been leading a series of work/life balance office hours for my colleagues. In it, we share how we’re coping with the challenges of the day: uncertainty, illness, loss.

Last week, I hacked together a workshop in which I established the power of language to change our lives and the impact of exposing ourselves to positive messages. And then, like eighth graders, we made posters.

I asked everyone to consider two or three of their current challenges, and pick one.

Then I asked them to close their eyes, visualize that challenge, and consider what forces might counter or oppose it.

And then I suggested to them that they open their mind to whatever phrases, quotations or images might arise.

And then make something.


As long as it’s 8.5 x 11.

Then print it out, and hang it on your wall, somewhere you’ll see it.

Then read it. And repeat it. Again and again, until you believe it.

Until it isn’t anymore.

Until it’s part of you, part of your toolkit, part of how you soldier on.

Yesterday, I carved out an hour between coffee, lunch, and Zoom to make my poster.

Where “Calm Blue Sea” identified the object, envisioned the end state, it gave no guidance. There was no path. No agency. No dynamism.

Yesterday, though, I touched the wishbone-shaped scar on my elbow and saw it clear as day:

A ribbon of blue sky and fall foliage reflected in a quiet mountain lake. Faintly rendered in the subtle contrast of saturation, the words — the gentle, fuzzy sometimes-reward for pausing, seeking, and noticing — “Be Still” begins to shimmer in the middle distance.

Be still.

Be Still.

Be Still.

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