Five Questions with Marc

In his new book, Know Yourself, Forget Yourself: Five Truths to Transform Your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life, Marc Lesser – Zen student and SIYLI [Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute] CEO – examines five paradoxes that can help us better understand the confusing nature of life.

In honor of these five paradoxes, Marc answers five questions on his book, leading a happy and meaningful life, and how to thrive in the midst of the challenges of the work day.


What inspired the book Know Yourself, Forget Yourself?

My grand answer is that I feel this deep commitment to do whatever I can to relieve suffering in the world and to bring wisdom and compassion as much as I possibly can.

My more practical answer is: After my last book Less, my publisher asked me to write another book. And out of that came this topic of how we work with things that are contradictory and paradoxical in our lives. It led me down this path that I found myself really excited about, exploring how paradox can be transformed into insight and learning.

What is the power of the Five Paradoxes?

I started with maybe 10 or 15 paradoxical statements and whittled them down to be as efficient and focused as I could. I settled on five: Know Yourself, Forget Yourself; Be Confident, Question Everything; Fight for Change, Accept What Is; Embrace Emotion, Embody Equanimity and Benefit Others, Benefit Yourself.

I think when we pay attention to our lives, everything about it is paradoxical. How did we get here? What does it mean to be born into this world and to have consciousness? To discover our family and our life and our body, that’s all to me pretty mysterious stuff.

So it’s a way of bringing more awareness and understanding to our lives. It’s also a way to practice and expand our own worldview, perception of ourselves – who we are and what we’re doing.

How do you use these truths to cope with losses or setbacks?

Paradox is how we can embrace what our story is wherever we happen to be and how we engage with it and shape our lives. We don’t get to choose a lot about who we are, but we get to choose a lot about how we direct our attention.

I talk openly about how painful it was for me to be fired from [Brush Dance Publishing], which I started and ran for 15 years. A year before I left the company, I decided that it was time to leave. I walked in one day and felt that my heart wasn’t there and it was time for me to think about what was going to happen next.

That was a terrifying thought for me; I was very attached to the company. This was a company I had started from scratch and was really meaningful for me. We get identified with our work.

It was traumatic and painful for me to leave the company in that way – it wasn’t how I wanted to. I also felt tremendously successful as a leader and an entrepreneur. On the other hand, I learned so much from the process of leaving and it opened doors for me that allowed me to do what I’m doing now.

Eight years later, I’m back in the seat of running another organization, getting another shot at leadership and growing a company with SIYLI.

In some ways, those paradoxes come into play in the other losses in my own life: from the death of my parents to even the fact that my children grew up and moved out of the house.

What is the number one complaint you hear in your job as an executive coach?

Most of my time is spent bringing mindfulness and emotional intelligence into lots of organizations through SIYLI. I think the overarching complaint that I hear is too much to do and not enough time.

Everything else feels like a subset of that, the stress it causes, the lack of work/life balance, people feeling unconnected and a kind of loneliness even when they’re surrounded by people at work or surrounded by online communities. There seems to be a real lack of meaning and intimacy.

When I talk to people in their companies, it seems like so many companies are going through mergers or downsizing or growing quickly, and don’t know how to handle change.

What is the key to happiness in the workplace?

I wish there were a key. I think we all want these same things: we want to be healthy and happy; we want to take care of our families; we want to feel more freedom and less fear.

In some way the quickest answer is: Resilience, flexibility and seeing the good in others. I think there is a lot of unhappiness when we don’t see that people actually do have good intentions. I talk about this in the book: The goal is to become really familiar with our own story, our own worldview and to make it wider and more flexible.

Someone this morning said to me, “If you want to do something quickly, do it by yourself; if you want to do something long-lasting, do it with others.” We all work and live in the world with others, so how can we do that both effectively and passionately? It’s not enough to just be effective without compassion and it’s not enough to be compassionate without effectiveness. Another paradox to think about.