“The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.” — Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
Personal mastery is the practice of increasing our awareness, reducing our blind spots, and developing our responsiveness. Creative tension can be defined as the gap between where we are now and what we want. This creative tension might exist in many aspects of our lives — our relationships, our work, particular projects and aspirations, or creative endeavors such as writing, art, or something physical. Or it might be in answering the questions, “What is my calling?” and “Why am I here on this planet?”
Creative tension requires two important practices. The first is knowing what we want. The second is knowing where we are in relation to what we want. I’m reminded of the words of my mentor Harry Roberts, a Yurok, shaman, and PhD agronomist. He sometimes said that life is simple; we just need to answer three questions: “What do I want?” “What do I have to do to get it?” and “Can I pay the price?” He would laugh, saying that most people never even ask the first question.
The second practice, knowing where we are, means knowing our feelings, our inner voices, the stories we tell about our vision, competence, and power. It also means knowing who our supporters and allies are as well as understanding the source of our power.
Though creative tension is essential, Peter Senge points out that we often confuse creative tension with emotional tension or stress. To reduce our emotional stress, we may respond to creative tension by:
• Lowering our vision or goals
• Motivating ourselves through fear and stress
• Using sheer willpower
What to do? Spend time reflecting, unpacking, and clarifying your calling. What inspires you — really, what brings you joy? What has meaning in your life?
Spend time assessing where you are in relation to what you want. This often requires a guide, in the form of a therapist, coach, mentor, or some kind of group or community. And develop healthy routines — getting enough sleep, maintaining a regular meditation practice, having real conversations — paying attention to your physical, emotional, social, and financial life.
Marc Lesser is an executive coach, business leader, entrepreneur, and Zen teacher. He is the founder and CEO of ZBA Associates, a company that provides leadership and communication coaching to corporations, small businesses, and nonprofits. He was an undergraduate at Rutgers University when he first realized that he needed to find a way of doing less, not more. He traveled from New Jersey to California and spent the following ten years as a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center and five years living at Tassajara, the first Zen monastery in the West. He develops and leads retreats that combine contemplative and leadership practices for businesspeople. He has taught at Stanford and lectured at Google, and he teaches at the San Francisco Zen Center. He is the author of Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less and Z.B.A. Zen of Business Administration: How Zen Practice Can Transform Your Work and Your Life.