Savoring in the Midst of Change

June 23, 2009 / General /

By Monica Worline

In the next few months I will be living and working in a different environment, and the uncertainty and stress of keeping things going in the midst of so many changes has prompted me to think again about the power of savAmaiaoring. Savoring is an experience of immersing ourselves fully in the sensory and mental enjoyment of the important and sometimes fleeting joys we encounter everyday, like a child’s laugh or the taste of a ripe blackberry. As the stress in my life grows, I try to remind myself to truly experience the feeling of petting my dog, Amaia, and to allow myself to recognize my connection with her through all of my senses. When we find ourselves in the discomfort of change–which Bob Quinn writes about as “walking naked in the land of uncertainty”–it turns out that savoring the good stuff is pretty powerful medicine.

In the preface to their book Savoring, scholars Bryant and Veroff write that “most people learn to cope with what life has to offer them and accept what comes their way… And yet there remains a gnawing question for many of them: What is it all about?” It turns out that savoring life experiences is one important way that we can begin to answer the ‘what is it all about’ question. Savoring is a way of controlling one’s own positive experiences and actively engaging life with enjoyment.  By deliberately and consciously experiencing and enjoying things we value, like community, love, play, truth, and beauty, we more fully control and experience positive emotion and postive dimensions of human experience. These controlled positive experiences can become transformative. The power of savoring, even in the midst of the most profound change, is illustrated by one executive’s tale of discovering the positive at the end of his life. 

Eugene O’Kelly, former Chairman and CEO of KPMG, was diagnosed in 2006 with inoperable, late-stage brain cancer and doctors told him that he had somewhere between three and six months to live. Suddenly at 53 years old, this powerful man, who told BusinessWeek that he felt “vigorous, indefatigable, and damn near immortal,” was faced with the imminent reality of his own death. His advice in the midst of such radical change? Essentially he learned how to savor: “Enjoy every sandwich,” he wrote in a memoir published just after his death.

O’Kelly’s book, entitled Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life , chronicled his last months and their impact on meaning in his life. O’Kelly’s first impulse was to use the skills that had made him so successful as a business executive to tackle his death. He made a to-do list for his final days that supposedly read like this: get legal and financial affairs in order, unwind relationships, simplify, live in the moment, create (but also be open to) great moments, begin transition to next state, plan funeral. He began to recognize, however, that savoring doesn’t work quite like that. His approach to handling the changes in his life shifted. He writes: “While I do believe that the business mindset is, in important ways, useful at the end of life, it sounds pretty weird to try to be CEO of one’s own death…. Given the profoundness of dying, and how different its quality felt from the life I led, I had to undo as least as many business habits as I tried to maintain.”

O’Kelly learned to meditate, calming his mind and focusing him on the moment to moment experiences of the present. “No more living in the future, (or the past, for that matter – a problem for many people, although a lesser one for me.) I needed to stop living two months, a week, even a few hours ahead. Even a few minutes ahead. Sixty seconds from now is, in its way, as elusive as sixty years from now, and always will be. It is-was-exhausting to live in a world that never exists. Also kind of silly, since we happen to be blessed with such a fascinating one right here, right now. I felt that if I could learn to stay in the present moment, to be fully conscious of my surroundings, I would buy myself lots of time that had never been available to me, not in all the years I was healthy.”

And then, with a newfound focus on savoring, O’Kelly engaged in a profound way of using savoring as a transformation of his last days. He planned to meet and talk with his closest friends and colleagues. He writes about savoring the thoughts of these friends, even as he was setting up these final encounters: “I stopped at each name and made myself recall, in the closest detail possible, all the moments the two of us had enjoyed together. How we met. What made us become friends in the first place. The qualities in them I particularly appreciated. The lessons I learned by knowing them. The ways in which having met him or her had made me a better person.” Of course, these were powerful, moving interactions. Savoring them added incredible richness to these relationships, and to O’Kelly’s life, even in the midst of profound change.

So isn’t it time that we began to include the notion of savoring in our organizations and perhaps especially in organizational change programs? I think Eugene O’Kelly would agree. Here are three ideas for beginning to savor in the midst of change:

1. Practice savoring for yourself.
A teacher of psychology (thanks, Chuck!) describes one way of learning to savor like this:  “As part of the topic of savoring, I give students a list of 200 simple pleasures (e.g., the taste of fresh strawberries, the smell of clean sheets, the cool tip of a puppy’s nose, the warmth of cuddling, seeing an eagle soar, feeling the smile of a baby) and ask them to pick ones they enjoy and to add other experiences they have had that are not on the list.  This exercise is very uplifting for everyone and even transformative for some.”

2. Savoring at work
As part of a change plan or off-site retreat to manage change, have groups and teams make a savoring list similar to Chuck’s assignment above. Ask people to write down things that they truly enjoy about their colleagues, their work, and the organization. Then spend a moment truly focusing on and immersing yourselves in the thoughts of these pleasurable and joyful things about work. Encourage people to transport themselves in the memory and use their senses to fully savor it. Collect these lists of things to savor and distribute them as part of your change plan, helping to guide people’s implementation of new ideas in accord with what is positive about the past.

3. Organize and lead with savoring in mind
Too often workplaces are organized solely with productivity in mind, which paradoxically can hinder true sustainable productivity. Eugene O’Kelly realized this as an executive at KPMG. He had made one of his priorities to make KPMG a more compassionate and enlivening workplace. And yet, it remains difficult not to continually focus on the future. As a leader, are you encouraging people to experience life right now, rather than putting it off for later? Are your organizational policies allowing people to enjoy their families, communities, hobbies, and loves? Eugene O’Kelly wrote that in the last few months of his life he came to realize that his thinking had been too narrow to really foster significant organizational change in relation to savoring. “Had I known then what I know now,” he wrote, “almost certainly I would have been more creative in figuring out a way to live a more balanced life, to spend more time with my family.” You have the benefit of O’Kelly’s hindsight. How can you lead in ways that break the boundaries and make your organization more creative in fostering savoring in the midst of change?