I’ve struggled my whole life with pride. Sometimes it manifests itself outwardly in the way I treat others (like that time I decided to mute a conference call, turn on the speakerphone for the benefit of my colleague, and make a few choice remarks on the exquisitely boring qualities of the person leading the call. Pro tip – when the speakerphone turns on, the mute turns off).
But most of the time pride slips its way in through my thought life. I find myself cruising along well-trodden paths of thought, reinforcing narratives about my life that are tailor-made to fend off my greatest insecurities. I repeat these narratives often to myself, as a rosary of self-defense and self-worship.
Part of what it means to be prideful is to build ourselves false narratives that cut God out of the picture. We try our best to forget God. The old testament is full of stories about the Israelites forgetting God and then sinning as a result (Judges 3:7, Judges 8:34, Hosea 8:14). From a sinful human perspective this makes sense: why think about how you are not in control? Why remind yourself that there will be judgement, and that the true story of our life, not the narrative we’ve created for ourselves, will be told that day?
If it is in our sinful natures to forget God, what can we do to remember? How can I build patterns into my life that require us to dwell on who God is and what he has done?
I think one way to do this is to take yourself out of the race long enough to slow down and remember. To get away from everything, including those things which feed your pride. Doing this forces you to spend time in reflection.
There are many ways to “take yourself out.” John Piper stepped down from his church for 6 months to deal with issues of pride (highly recommend reading that link by the way).
I think another way is through planned times of extended reflection. Our company recently had one of these times, and I’d like to share what it was like.
Going to Big Bear Mountain
I got a taste of what that feels like “take myself out of the loop” earlier this year, when our small team of four squeezed into my suburban and drove up to Big Bear Mountain for our first company retreat. We had been working together for about a year and felt that it was time for some deep reflection and strategemagizing. We were going to be in the mountains for four days, so we brought plenty of beer, food, some more beer, and some extra beer just in case we ran out of the other beer.
Four days is a long time to be out of the loop. Especially when you’re running a business, and especially in the world of startups. Most startups don’t have time for retreats. Or for disconnecting themselves from their email. Which makes sense, since these things are pretty much antithetical to making money.
I can relate to the prevailing urge to “always be moving, reflect later” (which of course never leaves time for reflecting). Taking yourself out of the picture, even for a little while, seems to carry a great cost. But I’d argue the alternative is even more costly and dangerous (more on that below).
So here’s the first great picture:
Yep, that’s us. Deep in serious reflecting mode.
How To Reflect
During the last year, we’ve started forming the beginnings of a process for how we reflect together as a company. Our process focuses on the creation of a simple document we very creatively call “Lessons Learned.” It’s a list of the most crucial events that have taken place since the last time we reflected (in this case, 6 months). For each event we write down a brief description of the facts, and then a list of the takeaways.
There’s nothing inherently spiritual in this process. But I would argue that there is a distinct spiritual consequence to what we are doing. Ultimately, these documents are a testament to how little of the time we’ve been in control. If we’re honest, the most important things that happened were not initiated by us – the extent of our “control” was our reaction to whatever happened, and even that’s a stretch.
Believing in Your Own Myth
Why is it important to reflect? Well, the temptation for a company is to forget the past as quickly as possible and focus on the future. But something strange happens when you don’t intentionally reflect: you start forming simple cause-effect narratives that help you explain or justify the past” “Oh yeah, we’re where we are now because we did X and it led to Y and then to Z.”
While it helps the business to have a powerful story, I always get the feeling that it’s not quite the truth: you end up taking more credit for things than you deserve. You start to think that you had it planned this way all along, and that you succeeded because of your own merit.
This is especially true if you end up being successful. You begin believe in your own myth. I’m thinking specifically here of Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh and the truly frightening story of his $350 million project to build a utopian startup city that ended in the suicide of several of the community’s entrepreneurs. The project had it’s roots in the narrative Hsieh had built up about Zappos, and it’s drive to “deliver happiness.” To an outsider the phrase seems a bit cliche, but I imagine for Hsieh, repeating the phrase over and over again during meetings and conference presentations, and watching his company’s valuation skyrocket into the billions, a connection was made and a powerful narrative was formed.
Reflection is hard though. We shy away from honest reflection because it can be incredibly subversive – even dangerous – for the human ego. Reflection makes it difficult to lace our narratives with prideful illusions. It is humbling. For most people, this process of humiliation is unacceptable.
But I often forget that humble reflection can also be filled with hope. We experienced that in our company’s own process of reflection. While we were made painfully aware of our own lack of control, we also uncovered a startling truth: God has definitely been taking care of us through these last six months. When you muster up the courage to let go control, that’s definitely good news.
That leads to another great, concluding picture:
I think Jesus’s repeated decision to withdraw into the wilderness to be alone in part had something to do with reflection. We know that Satan tempted his pride when he was in the wilderness. Perhaps there is something inherent to nature that leads us to face our pride. Maybe it’s that nature has the same humbling effect as reflection: it forces you to face your own lack of control. The world is huge, and we are small and when you look out from a high place, you realize this.
One of the last things Jesus did before he allowed himself to be handed over and executed was to ask his disciples to remember him, regularly:
“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
Pride often manifests itself as the intentional forgetting of God, and by extension, forgetting the message of the the Gospel. On the other hand, reflection and remembrance remind us of God, who he is, and what he has done for us.
Remembering gives our souls time to ask God “why?” rather than leaving us scrambling to come up with our ego-centric narratives. Remembering protects us from our pride and forces us to come face-to-face with our own weakness and brokenness, and ultimately it points us to the Cross.