A friend asked me to submit an essay to an anthology he is pulling together on a lesson I’ve learned from life, here is what I wrote:
To understand my story, you need to understand the stories of my family and of my people that I carry with me. My story is of an adventure in search of a life. As a result of this story, I have come to build a life in which my purpose is to feel alive, every day, in all that I do. To understand my commitment to my purpose, you must understand the story that swallowed me up when I was born, the duty that it brought with it, and the path that it has led me to follow.
Both my parents were born in Leningrad before the start of the Second World War. My mother was four years old, my father six, when the Nazi troops blockaded Leningrad in September 1941, as part of the Second World War. The Siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days and was one of the longest in history and resulted in the intentional genocide of the city’s civilian population. They both have memories of the terror, of the doom, of starvation, and of escape. One of my mother’s earliest memories was being loaded into a transport that would evacuate women and children out of Leningrad across a frozen Lake Ladoga, on what was known as the Road of Life. As winter cold set in on a starving Leningrad, the lake froze and became an avenue for a few lucky citizens to escape the siege of their beloved city. As they crossed the lake, my mother and grandmother watched from their transport as the other transport traveling alongside theirs fell through the ice; no one survived. The Road of Life allowed both my parents to escape a siege that led to the death of over one million citizens of Leningrad. They were the lucky ones; their luck is my luck.
After the war, the citizens of Leningrad, while healing from the collective trauma of war, stepped into the dark night of the post-war Soviet Union. In the shadows of repression and fear, people found their humanity in music, in art, in writing, in laughter. The opportunity to freely explore what makes you feel alive is a luxury, in the shadow of repression the light it brings into your life is coveted. A person has to push through the edge of the fear to find the light, and my mother did just that when she decided to leave the Soviet Union with my grandmother and brother. Again, luck was with her – Russian Jews had an opportunity to emigrate to Israel in the late 1970s, and once you were across the Iron Curtain, many families became refugees and found their way to societies that they saw as beacons of hope The United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries opened their arms to the people who were living under a totalitarian regime. My father was meant to follow within two years, but the Soviet war with Afghanistan resulted in the borders being closed, and his journey to the West took 9 more years.
My mother’s crossing took her through Vienna, where as a refugee she waited for asylum in the United States with my brother and grandmother. It was a difficult time.To move through the guilt of leaving their homeland, of leaving their family, and the uncertainty of life in the West, they had to find moments when they could truly feel alive, like purchasing a standing ticket to the Vienna Opera or a discounted entrance to the Albertina. As they were discovering freedom and a new way of being in the world, my mother found out that she was pregnant with me. People told her that she was crazy, as a 42-year-old woman, as a refugee who needed to establish a new life, as someone with very little English, to even consider having the baby. Yet, despite the odds, she gave me life, I was born in Vienna and joined my mother, brother and grandmother on their voyage to the United States.
My childhood in America allowed me to explore and follow my passions. I grew up in many cultures – Russian, Bostonian, equestrian, rock’n’roll, and more. The innate adaptability and curiosity that each of us are born with gave me the ability to merge into each of my environments, absorbing the beliefs and thoughts of those around me. I was able to witness my mother’s hunger for life as she pursued a stable home for us in Boston. My brother, who was 16 years older than me and played the role of “man of the house” in our matriarchy, was eager to make sense of the world through the lens of mathematics, and completed his PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So rich and varied was the story of the people around me, I wanted to experience it ALL, to know and understand them, see the beauty of life through their eyes. So, as you can see, the story that I was born into was one of luck, and with that came an unspoken sense of duty.
The sense of duty one feels to the legacy of their family can be both an enabler and a hindrance. In my formative years it had a constricting power over me, a power against which I rebelled. In that rebellion I pursued what brought me joy, even when I perceived it as being outside the expectations of my family: horses, music, art were my rebellion against duty. What I perceived as rebellion brought with it a lack of harmony. In my own mind and because of the spoken or unspoken messages from my family and cultural environment, I often perceived that I was not fulfilling the expectations of my parents, of the other respected voices in my life, and felt judgement and pressure, I dealt with that by pushing against those perceived boundaries even more. As I matured, I realized that sense of duty had actually enabled me. I have translated that sense of duty into my commitment to life with few boundaries. The freedom to explore and create is what feeds me, makes me feel alive, and is in turn my greatest power. I now understand that It is my duty to my legacy to truly live. I was able to see how judgement can make us hide and repress ourselves. It takes a mental tenacity and presence in every moment not to give into these doubts, and that only comes with practice. With that practice I have learned to find my greatest power and energy in the moments when I am immersed in something that fascinates me and to free myself from the expectations of others. I ground my expectations in my sense of duty to myself and my legacy.
Do What Makes You Feel Alive
What makes me feel alive? To answer this, I took a journey into my body and mind, an expedition of curiosity where I became fascinated with observing myself and the energy within me. I am a firm believer that to truly live we must each go on this journey. It will be different for each of us, but it is the path to freedom. The discoveries I have made on this journey are not permanent truths, they evolve and change over time, but they always integrate what came before them.
This is what I discovered: I am blessed with the power to go deep, and it is my duty to use it, to be present wholeheartedly in all that I do with passion and interest. I am insatiably hungry to see, feel and experience, and pass along what I’ve learned. It is my duty to feed this hunger, to bring this “aliveness” to all that I do. This aliveness can be powerful and overwhelming for others, sometimes causing strong and unintentional reactions. People are provoked when it pokes at their fears. When released in a fertile environment it can catalyze change and transformation. So, daily I recommit myself to the story I was born into: Do What Makes You Feel Alive.
From that starting point, one must truly understand what practices bring with them aliveness. For me, it is to have a healthy outlet for my strength and tenacity, to be able to push experiences to the edge without being reckless. To experience intensity without aggression. To say no to living in a disempowered state. To say yes to expressing myself the way that I want, to run at full throttle when that is my desire.
To choose anything else is repression, and as I know from my own experiences and those of my ancestors, repression brings on anxiety or depression, and a fear of feeling anything at all. To release myself I must dive beneath the surface and play in those spaces where I can trust the environment and relinquish control. As I release my need to control, my vitality comes to the surface, I allow myself to experience the full spectrum of emotions from sadness to joy and appreciate that each and every emotion is a sign that I am alive, and all of life is beautiful.
Learning about the creative and intellectual pursuits of others gives me an opportunity to experience the light of their aliveness, it is an invitation to join them in living. I always say yes to such an invitation. Yes to sharing a story, sharing a laugh, sharing a struggle, or sharing in someone else’s curiosity. They are beautiful and joyous exchanges, even when the content is not always happy. This connection brings us energy.
Giving myself to another brings me the greatest sense of aliveness. That means trusting another with my feelings, my body, and my energy –whether it is my horse, my partner, my family, my friends or my colleagues. My love of horses has been a life journey in developing my awareness of how important this trust and release of control is for me. I started to fall in love with horses from the age of eight and did everything I could to find a way to work with them. From the age of ten, I would work at the stables every weekend and all summer in exchange for opportunities to ride and be with horses. For most of my life I thought that this experience of aliveness was something I could only find on the back of a horse. To trust a 600kg animal to carry you, to feel your deepest fears and to push you to expand your whole-hearted leadership past the edge of what you thought possible is a beautiful experience. I crave it on a daily basis, and have committed myself to it fully for the past thirty-three years. Many of the decisions in my life and motivations have come as a result of my hunger for that experience. Today, that need is fulfilled with my horse, Cherry Bomb, with whom I have a beautiful trust under saddle, in the woods, over a jump, or just grooming her in her stall. But, in my deep commitment to be with horses, there used to be an underlying fear that held me back, a fear that I could not find that same experience of joy, trust and aliveness elsewhere in life.
This limiting belief was washed away when I was fortunate to have my career journey lead me to join a tribe of Curious Minds. These Curious Minds are the teams I work with at Novartis: my 100,000-plus peers and colleagues who surprise me daily with their incredible commitment to bettering the world by reimagining medicine. The people outside my organization who inspire me and are partners or thought leaders in advocating for a view that passionate exploration and unfettered curiosity are the ultimate energy source for feeling alive. In putting this work into focus, in diving deep into it, I’ve found the people with whom I could feel most alive. This was a eureka moment for me, that the same experience I had on the back of a horse could also be had in the experience of co-creating impact and exploring the world together with others. This revelation seems like such an obvious truth, but it took me almost forty years to become conscious of how important this truth is in my life.
The journey to this lesson has been a long one, it started in the story that I was born into and emerged for me only when I found my tribe of co-explorers, when I stopped repressing my energy, when I began to trust my own aliveness, and when I saw that it was my duty to my legacy to do so. I have learned the lesson that when we come together with others around a shared purpose that we can unlock our greatest potential and that it is our shared duty as humans to ensure that all people have the opportunity to Do What Makes Us Feel Alive.