The Short Book Helping Me Navigate a Confusing and Risky Time

As I write this, it has been a month since the 2016 presidential election in the United States.  Upheaval is all but guaranteed in my work world: health care, population health and health equity. What is for-sure-guaranteed-yes-ma’am: plenty more antagonistic rhetoric, partial truths and cynicism.


In the first two weeks or so after the election, I was spinning. And not the cycling exercise class spinning. Intellectual and emotional spinning. The future in health care and the future for the social issues that are most important to me seemed like a Mobius strip, twisting and turning with no end up. National news outlets were no help: This may happen. That may happen. No, that thing can’t happen because of x, y, z factors.

Just this past week, I stopped spinning. Four things helped me the most:

1)     Talking to friends and family who share my values and are wise to the ways of politics, the economy and other related realms of life.

2)     Taking the opportunity to decide what social issues are most important to me, and making a plan to support those causes in new ways.

3)     Basic self-care including exercise and enough sleep.

4)     The book The Four Agreements.

Let me tell you about this book. Or remind you about it. The Four Agreements was trendy in the late 90s. It was written by don Miguel Ruiz, a healer-philosopher from Mexico. It carries the subtitle “A Toltec Wisdom Book.” The language of the book is unapologetically spiritual and cosmological. It is not your typical leadership book. It’s firmly in the “self-help” section of the bookstore.

I am not a self-help book person normally. But in this time of opposing visions for the future of the United States, when confrontation seems more important than problem-solving, it is important to me to practice more productive ways of working and communicating. I’m far from the perfect communicator and I do not always say things the right way (see I Was Rude to the Apple Store Guy for evidence) but I do my best. And my best has been influenced by the lessons detailed in this little book. It’s a simple but deep framework for being part of the solution. The four agreements tell you how to avoid and reduce the damage of selfish and misleading communication.

Here are the four agreements with a short description of each, quoting directly from the front flap of the book. Consider how each and all of them may be worth pondering deeply and acting on, in this wild and (for many people) troubling time:

  •  Be impeccable with your word. “Speak with integrity. … Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others.”
  • Don’t take anything personally. “Nothing others do is because of you. What others do is a projection of their own reality.”
  • Don’t make assumptions. “Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.”
  • Always do your best. “Under any circumstances, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”

Compelling, right? I encourage you to read or re-read this book. (I have no relationship to its author or publishing company. I’m just a fan.)

As woo-woo as it is, The Four Agreements is included in my one-page Improvement Leadership Reading List that I use in my leadership courses. This evolving one-page list of books helps me underscore the life-long and personal journey of leadership when I teach and coach on professional presence and management habits. It is fun to discuss with a group what made it on the list and why, and what people recommend to each other, that they think I should add to the list.

The Improvement Leadership Reading List is linked below as a free download. Check it out and let me know what you think.

If, like me, you are struggling with the future and what the new president and his administration means for issues and people you care about, it’s the perfect time to examine our habits of mind and our approach to interpersonal communication.

If you are struggling, please accept my wishes for strength and focus. I’m glad to be connected to you and your vital work, which will be even more important in the next few years. Cheers!

Improvement Leadership Reading List. pdf