In the course of a day, we tend to chase appreciation and approval of our work, and avoid confrontation and criticism. Problem is, it’s almost impossible to feel secure and grounded when these things come from outside of our selves.
We need ways to feel more centered in the workplace. Webster’s dictionary defines being “centered” as being “emotionally stable and secure.”
What does that mean?
Alicia Graf Mack has an answer. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company dancer was recently interviewed by William C. Rhoden about the dancer as athlete (video below), and along with Gia Kourlas’s interview in TimeOut New York, we see an outline of Mack’s insight about how to be more emotionally stable and secure on the job.
Here are the dancer’s 7 secrets to center your self at work:
1. You can tolerate pain. Writes Kourlas:
[Mack] suffers from an autoimmune disorder classified as reactive arthritis, which led to swelling and pain in her joints … [She] began teaching dance… What happens when you start teaching? You start dancing again.
Alicia Graf Mack loves to dance so much, she willfully works through her physical pain to do so. Really, for what kind of work would you accept physical pain?
2. You can’t tolerate pain. And yet some pain is intolerable. Mack spoke of performing Reminiscin‘ with Jamar Roberts:
Something about that experience made me realize that this is what I’m made to do, and if my body is working properly, then I should do this… To step away from dance because of pain or discomfort — the discomfort of not doing what you’re meant to do is equally as painful.
To be centered at work is to know how much emotional pain you can, and cannot, endure. And like Mack, in each instance you’re keenly aware of why you can or can’t withstand it.
3. Pay close attention to the advice you give others. The dancer who’s touring nationally reflects on — and learns from — her experience teaching dance:
One thing I would tell [students] was, “If nothing else, come here because you love it. Don’t come here for the grade, don’t come here to prove yourself to anyone—you don’t have to prove anything to me. You just have to continue to grow every day in your own way. Set goals for yourself.” All of those things that you say to inspire someone? I was talking to myself.
Know that you’ll personally benefit if you take in your words of wisdom and apply them to your life.
4. Maturity brings valuable lessons about work. She shares what fellow dancer Matthew Rushing related about performers whose work is intangibly beautiful:
He said, “It’s funny because it’s only something maturity can give you, and it’s sad because you have to have longevity in order to understand that, but it’s nothing you can pull out. You can’t develop it; it just happens over time.”
We only disagree with his notion of the sadness related to maturity. How wonderful that after several years, your hard work can pay off in unpredictable and immeasurable ways?
5. Mindfully identify with your occupation. “The Right Way to Be Fired” in the Harvard Business Review outlines two professional mindsets. One is “the ‘tenure mind-set’—the comforting sense that an organization willingly parts with valued employees only when they formally retire.” And the second is “an ‘assignment mentality’; [individuals] see each job as a stepping-stone, a temporary career-building project.” Those with an assignment mentality are typically more nimble; they readily adapt to change.
What the article says about how we relate to organizations, the same could be said about how we relate to our occupations. As the world changes more quickly, the pace at which we must adapt in our vocation also increases. Alicia Graf Mack recounts her experience:
I had no idea I could do anything other than dancing. I was 20 or 21, living in New York by myself and I didn’t have a degree or any other way to make money. I didn’t have enough experience to teach. And I had never had an experience of injury or a life without dancing. It took me a good year or two to figure out who is Alicia who is not a dancer? That was really difficult.
Mack demonstrates that it’s productive to think about who you may be beyond your current occupation. What comes to mind could be an alternative for you, should circumstances change and impact your livelihood.
6. Feel free to express pride in your work. It’s OK to feel good about your capabilities and accomplishments; Mack certainly does. In the video below, she compares her athleticism to that of NFL athletes:
You see guys before a game laying on the floor trying to stretch, or having a trainer trying to stretch them. But if you ask them to let go, the leg will just drop. But with a dancer, you have to learn how to stretch and do extreme stretches, but at the same time you have to be able to hold them. And I don’t know any other athlete that possesses that.
We love the part where she spectacularly holds that stretch!
7. Stay open to possibilities. In this way, you may innovate and contribute something new to the world. Mack is intent on remaining open:
A dancer has no idea [what they’re going to do on stage]. A choreographer can ask them to do something that has never been done before. And you have to perfect how to do that.
To find your center, it helps to reflect on who you are deep inside. The self-awareness you derive as a result will help you navigate the push and pull, and the ups and downs of what happens on the outside, a.k.a. the workplace.
It’s no surprise that the best lessons about getting centered at work come from a dancer. As a statuesque ballerina and modern dancer — she’s nearly 6 feet tall — Alicia Graf Mack spends her working days focused on centering her self.
Watch the superstar analyze her work and remain centered, below:
Image of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Alicia Graf Mack. Photo by Andrew Eccles via