Unleashed: Lessons in Self-Care and Finding Flow, Taught by a Border Collie

The hour every morning that keeps me going

Our first walk was going to be short. Just around the block, really. Because she needed to get out. Because I needed to clear my head. I cracked the front door and Skye, our 6-year-old Border collie, slipped out into the early-morning darkness.

Like most of the world, I felt shellshocked. The day prior—March 16, 2020, a date I won't soon forget—our company of 300+ people had officially started working  remotely (and still are, for the most part). Uncertainty hung in the air, a pall cast by the collective worries about our health, the economy, and the suddenly unpredictable future. Real basic Maslow kind of stuff. The weight of it was palpable.

At the end of the block, I rounded the corner. Four right turns and we'd be back home, ready (or not) to start a day full of emails, video conferences, stressful conversations and tough decisions. But Skye sat down in the middle of the street. She wouldn't budge. Tugging at her leash did nothing. She shot me a look that said: We're not done, mister. Numbly, I stopped. She stood up and trotted left. I let her lead. We zigzagged through the neighborhood. For an hour. And we've done that pre-dawn, hour-long walk every day since.

One silver lining in the pandemic is that we're all talking more openly about mental health. (Evidenced by the number of people in my immediate circle with whom I've had conversations about languishing, thanks to Adam Grant.) People are sharing their challenges—with social isolation, financial uncertainty, and lagging exercise habits. Many of us are worn thin: Our workdays have gotten more full, with rapid-fire video meetings one after another and none of the relief that comes with bumping into a colleague in the hallway or grabbing a quick coffee with your workplace BFF. We're (still) juggling a full work-from-home and at-home to-do list,  kids, colleagues, spouses, chores and more all at the same time. We're constantly giving energy and attention. There's not much time or space for to take moments to take care of ourselves, so that we can take care of others. 

Some days I talk to Skye on our walks. Some days I just think in my head. There is always music playing in my earphones. Typically, loud and kinda angry music—which somehow calms me. Skye occasionally turns to look back at me, cocking her head with that distinct inquisitive Border collie mien that suggests she was a well-paid, no-bullshit-thanks kind of therapist in some former life. She listens deeply but refrains from offering advice, leaving me to find my own answers. She has heard my every presentation, tough conversation, good conversation, concern, fear, hope and general musings before any human has.

Arriving home, I feel better. Sometimes I work things out. Sometimes I don't. Regardless, I'm a bit more prepared for the day. I now think it's because this walk puts me into flow, leaving me more clear, or at least a little more ready for the uncertainty. Increasingly, my conversations with co-workers start with the preamble, "While I was walking my dog this morning…"

Skye keeps me accountable. Getting up in the dark isn't easy. And living in Minnesota, where temperatures can sink below -20 degrees (and feel worse with windchill), I wasn't always excited to roll out of bed and embrace the day this winter. But Skye seems not to notice. She pulls ahead the entire hour. And the days are getting brighter earlier and warmer, too.

That early-morning hour has become our hour. Two minutes before the alarm, Skye paws at me to get up. If I don't stir, a whine and more pawing follows—maybe even a bark. Somewhere in this past year, our roles shifted. I used to take her on walks. Now she leads the way, knowing how much I need it.

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Marcus Fischer
Marcus Fischer is CEO of Carmichael Lynch and Carmichael Lynch Relate.

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