I’m fascinated with rituals. While habits are defined as “regular tendencies or practices,” rituals represent a higher level activity, “a solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” Whether or not you realize it, your rituals are part of your secret formula for getting stuff done—and doing it well. Your rituals help define you—your beliefs, your activity, your soul.
I’ve been exposed to the spectrum of Native American rituals that have defined their culture for centuries: healing ceremonies, bonding activities, tributes to the deceased, and personal quests that put one in touch with their deepest beliefs. As someone brought up with religion, and with a deep commitment to act on my curiosity, the understanding of Native American ceremonies provoked my broader exploration of the rituals of major world religions. This learning quest eventually led me to Joseph Campbell, whose magnum opus The Hero with a Thousand Faces explores mythology and the story of the life journey.
Campbell beautifully frames the power of rituals. He says, “A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being . . . put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life.” More simply put, rituals are activities that serve to remind us of our inherent wisdom.
If we observe our own rituals, we see the tips of our deep reservoirs of wisdom.
Not too long ago, I was in Washington DC with my friend Ted Leonsis, an Uptake board member, a cofounder and partner of Revolution Ventures, and a genuine Renaissance man (whose description could just as easily have been headlined by philanthropist, documentary filmmaker, author, president of AOL, or creator of a legendary bucket list). Adding to this resume, Ted is the Chairman and majority owner of the Washington Capitals NHL team and the NBA’s Washington Wizards. Which explains why Ted and I were walking in the underground tunnels of the Verizon Center, a maze of seemingly endless and silent corridors. Silent, that is, until we opened this one door and were immediately hit with blazing bright lights and loud grunts and yells (and the unmistakable odor of sweat).
As you might guess, we walked through the back door to the locker room, straight into the midst of the Caps players preparing to take the ice for a game.
Standing imposingly immediately in front of me was the Capitals goalie, a huge guy who looked even more hulking in full goalie gear. Which is why I share this story. Ted urgently whispered to me, “Don’t get close to him, don’t even look at him, and no matter what you do, don’t talk to him!” Ted then told me about this goalie’s extensive pregame rituals -- every single game, he went to the same spot, alone, in a zone of concentration, and the other players stayed far away in respect of his ritual. A ritual to help him focus and perform at a world-class level. A ritual to remind him of his inherent wisdom, his athletic excellence.
In my 25 years as an entrepreneur, I have been a founder of many companies – companies that now employ well over 15,000 people. I have deep experience of observing people, their rituals, and their related productivity. I believe that each of us, at our best, is a creator and a doer – and that those who are aware and appreciative of their rituals and routines are those who most consistently live in this zone of creation. Thus, on any team, each member has impact on the collective, and the opportunity is to operate collectively so that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts (or, in other words, to create a formula in which 1 + 1 = 3, and then magnify that formula over and over again).
So, for your reference, and perhaps your inspiration, here are some of the rituals of certain notable artists and creators. I’m struck by the fact that many creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, highly disciplined routines. (Author Mason Currey compiles a more definitive reminder of how hard creative people work in his book, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work.)
Maya Angelou: The iconic poet got up every morning at 5:30 and had coffee at 6. She then left her house for a hotel room that she rented just for writing (not for sleeping). At the end of the day, before going home to cook dinner for her family, she proofread what she wrote (meaning each day ended with a body of work that she was proud enough to share with others). And every night before going to sleep, she sat in bed with her husband and read him the day’s writing.
Twyla Tharp: The dance luminary and choreographer rises at 5:30 a.m., dresses (she has many sets of the same workout outfits), hails a taxi and goes to the gym. She has said: “The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.” She also has the same breakfast every day, and spends two hours quietly reading every night. “A dancer’s life is all about repetition,” she has said.
Stephen King: The best-selling author and master of horror fiction writes every day of the year, including his birthday and holidays, and never lets himself quit before he reaches his daily quota of 2,000 words. He starts at 8:30 a.m., and most days it takes him until 1:30 p.m. to meet his goal.
B.F. Skinner: The celebrated behavioral psychologist conditioned himself to write every morning with self-reinforcing behaviours. He used a buzzer that sounded the beginning and the end of his allocated time, and then he plotted his daily production on a graph. He also ate the same breakfast every day, alone, reading several newspapers and a book on the proper use of the English language (to prepare himself for his daily writing).
Henrik Ibsen: The Norwegian playwright (who instigated the modernist/realist wave in 19th century and early 20th century theater) would work at a desk adorned with a portrait of arch-rival playwright August Strindberg—a constant reminder to Ibsen that his biggest competitor was hard at work, and pushing him to always be at his competitive best.
Joan Miro: The Spanish artist had a rigid routine to help him to focus on his work and to avoid slipping back into depression (which plagued him before he found painting). He woke up at 6 a.m., ate the same breakfast of coffee and two slices of bread, and worked from 7 a.m. until noon, stopping for one hour of exercise. At 1p.m. he had lunch which ended with three cigarettes and a five minute nap --- then back in the studio from 3 p.m. until dinner at 8.
Benjamin Franklin: The familiar bespectacled founding father and inventor began each day by writing down his answer to the question, “What good shall I do today?” He ended every day by writing down the answer to, “What good have I done today?”
I share these interesting vignettes not to offer a specific lesson, but rather to propose a (three-part) question that’s worth considering: What are your rituals, how conscious are you of them, and how do they help you do your best work?
If you are open to learning, I suggest you share your rituals with colleagues to learn more about each other and perhaps add new options to your “ritual arsenal.” You may find yourself more aware of the “high performance zones” of the coworkers with whom you work with most closely. And, just as I did not dare interfere with the goalie’s pre-game ritual, perhaps you can help those around you respect the rituals that put you at your best.
Part of the journey in building any company culture is being alive in your consciousness—tapping into your inherent wisdom. It’s easy to believe that routine is the enemy of creativity. To me, the opposite is true: Creating a routine that allows for inspiration to flourish is the surest way to unleash your inner genius. So, take a pause every now and then, in awareness of your rituals, and reflect on how Joseph Campbell’s perspective is true: that your rituals trigger “your consciousness” to actively remind you of “the wisdom of your own life.”
Postscript: I can’t resist offering examples of athletes’ rituals, which are both fascinating and often amusing. Here are just a few:
The Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic always made sure to be the second player to get up from his chair during a changeover. Then he wouldn’t step on any of the lines while walking back onto the court. The day after a victory he did everything exactly the way he had done it the day before—which included wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, and talking to the same people.
NASCAR drivers refuse to carry $50 bills. They’re considered bad luck.
Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs ate chicken before every single game. He took exactly 150 ground balls during infield practice, and always entered the batting cage at exactly 5:17 p.m. and at exactly 7:17 p.m., he did wind sprints. And while he’s not Jewish, he traced the Hebrew symbol “Chai” in the dirt before every at bat.
Former LSU Head Football Coach Les Miles ate grass from the football field before each game, saying it “humbles him” before the competition.
And last but not least, one of my favorite sports heroes, Michael Jordan, wore his UNC Tar Heels shorts under his Chicago Bulls jersey shorts, causing him to ask the equipment manager to design larger and baggier shorts (starting a whole basketball fashion fad in the process).