The Power of Innocence in Business

What you can plan
is too small
for you to live.

What you can live
will make plans
for the vitality
hidden in your sleep.

—David Whyte, What to Remember When Waking

In 2001, I attended a workshop/retreat put on by author and poet David Whyte.  David has written two leadership/management books: The Heart Aroused and Crossing the Unknown Sea — both books addressing the challenges of finding our calling, reconciling that calling with the requirements of business/earning a living and “forgiving” ourselves for our less than perfect moments in these pursuits. David is also a poet and uses his own works as well as the works of other poets in much of his work to make his points. One of his talks centered on innocence and self compassion – not typically terms we embrace during our day-to-day corporate battles. Afterword, I asked him to sign a journal I had with me. His note read:

“Phillip, A great pleasure to spend time with you in County Clare. May you continue to explore the edges of your own robust innocence. – David Whyte”

At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. Was he referring to the naivety I displayed during the workshop? To the fact that, at 32, I was the youngest person in the room? Was it a moral assessment based on his perception of me? I dismissed it at the time as probably his standard signing comment and moved on.

I recently flipped through that old journal and considered his words. What exactly is a “robust innocence” and why is it relevant? As a father of four mostly grown children with more than a few miles behind me on the business front, it means more to me now than it did 13 years ago. Here is my take on innocence today:

  • Innocence is an openness to the new and different. Innocence is being receptive to new ideas, processes & people. It suggests a willingness to learn and continue to evolve even when you feel you are expected to already know all that you need to be competent. Innocence is accepting that you don’t know everything and rather than being burdened by your lack of knowledge, being energized by the opportunity to discover more.
  • Innocence is about self-compassion. Innocence is forgiving yourself for the countless mistakes you’ve made and will make. It is about not trying to be perfect and embracing the imperfection of your human nature. It is also about asking for forgiveness from those you’ve slighted – no matter how big, or how small. You will disappoint others – your innocence allows you to reconcile that fact with the reality that it doesn’t make you a bad person or mean that you can’t make amends. If you allow it, it will also enable you to forgive others without consideration for your ego.
  • Innocence is embracing the idealist in you. That person who sees opportunity in the world and strives to walk toward it. It is the hopeful side of your mature mind that still finds the youthful possibilities in the more static elements of our existence. Innocence is knowing that there is still much to discover and finding inspiration in that part of the journey unfolding before you.
  • A robust innocence is actively leaning-in to the softer aspects of a hard-edged business world. It is still believing in the good intentions of people and opening yourself to being disappointed and delighted.

On the surface, it is a word that does not seem to belong in a discussion about business yet, somehow, it may be more relevant now than ever. I wish you much joy, and patience, as you continue to explore the edges of your own robust innocence and what it means to have self-compassion.

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