Kelly Robinson of ‘Where Spirit Meets Space’: “Focus is all about our ability to stay present”

Practice creating good boundaries around when you make yourself available at work. Technology today allows our work to take over our lives if we’re not careful. Getting into the habit of switching off devices to be present during meals, workouts, and bedtime rituals communicates that you honor your personal space and can not always be […]

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Practice creating good boundaries around when you make yourself available at work. Technology today allows our work to take over our lives if we’re not careful. Getting into the habit of switching off devices to be present during meals, workouts, and bedtime rituals communicates that you honor your personal space and can not always be expected to be “on.” This ultimately supports us in showing up fully when we are needed.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Robinson of Where Spirit Meets Space.

Known for building functional homes for pioneering companies like Airbnb, Headspace and Soundcloud among others, Kelly Robinson takes a spiritual approach to interior design. With a deep understanding of the importance of space and its impact on how we work, live, feel and relate, Kelly creates environments centered on improving health and wellbeing, inspiring meaningful interaction, and deepening our connection to the planet. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly turned her focus from the workplace to our homes, to help people navigate the new normal of these unprecedented times. She authored a digital design guide entitled Where Spirit Meets Space and introduced virtual1:1 design sessions as well as a 28-day design journey course to empower people with the tools to reimagine their homes as spaces that nurture their spirit, support their wellbeing and encourage productivity. Read on to hear more from this devoted spiritual seeker on how your space can be the key to creating healthy habits and optimizing your wellbeing, performance, and focus.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Thank you for having me! I was born and raised with my two brothers in the northern suburbs of Chicago, around the corner from my mother’s childhood home. My mom was one of ten children, so I have a huge family. Growing up, we were constantly hosting friends and family for meals and celebrations, so the importance of hospitality and welcoming guests into our home were pillars of my childhood.

My father loved to take us traveling and each year we would explore someplace new. Our family vacations are some of my fondest childhood memories. I remember being fascinated by all the different people, landscapes, and foods when we traveled, and I loved staying in new and different spaces.

Balance has been a key theme of my life, and I was born on the Autumn Equinox, which is a day of equal light and darkness in the natural world. As a child I was equal parts tomboy and girly girl, and I loved everything from ballet dancing to basketball to climbing trees barefoot. I also had a very deep connection to animals from a young age.

One challenge from my childhood was that I suffered from chronic stomach pains that western doctors couldn’t diagnose, which eventually sparked my interest in alternative medicine and a more holistic approach to wellness. Another pivotal moment of my childhood was that when I was 13, my mother gave birth to my baby sister. This had a profound impact on my life and eventually brought me to the path of becoming a birth doula.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Having a successful career was always a dream of mine, but after three months working a corporate sales job, I quit because I knew that finding a work environment where I could be my true self was possible. What I didn’t realize was that I would be the one shaping those environments for others.

My journey into interior design was unconventional. At 24, I took a job as a stewardess on a private yacht in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. Working on the yacht was my version of design school. It taught me how to set space according to the kind of interaction one wants to curate. I learned how to optimize for efficiency in design, free from clutter, and without wasting a single square foot. I also learned the importance of how to maintain a space, how crucial the people who manage the space are, and how to choose materials wisely and design storage systems that work.

After my time on the yacht I traveled, mostly solo, to more than 40 countries and continued to receive design inspiration from different cultures and places around the world. I collected thousands of impressions of what I saw and where I stayed, and developed a passion for the connection between our inner world and outer world. Among my travels, I journeyed to India to study yoga. It was here that I learned that true happiness is an inside job, and that being of service and living with purpose is the path to lasting contentment. So I re-entered the working world intuitively aware of a new model for healthy balance: one where spiritual wealth and material wealth are equally important.

Shortly after India, I landed a job among the first ten employees of Airbnb, and quickly took on the role of mothering the company. That included managing the design, buildout, and operations of their earliest offices. It also meant establishing their first food and waste programs, and creating special spaces to hold culturally significant rituals. My experience at Airbnb launched a career for me that has felt like an unexpected, but very fun design adventure. I have since been lucky to support many pioneering companies like Headspace and Soundcloud among others, often at the early stages as their culture is still largely being shaped. And now that workplaces are in the midst of a huge transition due to the pandemic, turning to support women working at home has felt like a very natural pivot.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

This is so true. I feel so grateful that my family and friends have been such consistent supporters of the person I am becoming. But the story that stands out most is the string of miracles and angels that helped me land that first job at Airbnb. One of the guests onboard the yacht I worked on was fatefully also an early investor in Airbnb. He appreciated how I served his family during their vacation and knowing my passion for travel, connected me with Airbnb’s CEO at a foundational moment in time. The leap from yacht stewardess, to yoga teacher, to autodidact designer was made possible by that angel investor and a lot of the early Airbnb employees who believed in me, and who are now lifelong friends.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I will never forget the day I accidentally dropped Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s birthday cake on his lap in front of the entire company! It was embarrassing but also hilarious. But on a more serious note, I learned early on that burnout is a very real thing and that the only way to prevent it is to establish clear boundaries between our work and our personal life. While I do believe that our work is an extension of who we are, I don’t think it is healthy for it to be a pillar of our identity. What I’ve since learned is that no matter how engaging or successful our work is, our health and the health of our personal relationships should always come first.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

My first advice is to seek out clients and companies who align with your values. The best creative work comes from true passion and heart, and it flows more effortlessly when you really care about who you are working for. When you become really clear about the issues you want to devote your energy to, larger forces conspire in your favor to create opportunities for you to be of service.

I also think it’s helpful to remember that no matter where you are in your career, if you simply aim to be of service, you will go far. From intern to product manager to CEO, everyone is serving someone, somehow. Be a good servant to this world. Give fully to the collective. A healthy work life is a dance between serving selflessly without expectation, and knowing your worth. I’m a believer in being generous with my time for the right opportunity, while at the same time negotiating firmly and honoring my craft.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Paulo Cuelo’s The Alchemist and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, were game changers for me. They validated travel as the beginning of my spiritual path and inspired my quest to India, which changed everything about how I see the world.More recently, I have been deeply moved by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which is oozing with indigenous wisdom and the magic of the natural world. My grandmother five generations before me was a full-blooded Native American Indian, and as I’ve grown older I’ve felt more and more called to my indigenous roots and the wisdom held by the original earth guardians.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I’ve received so many beautiful pieces of advice in my life, but the one I return to again and again is from my mother. “Follow your heart,” she has always said. It resonates because I think it is so common for us to believe that our intelligence comes from our mind, when in reality, our heart is a far more accurate and trustworthy compass.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

With the onset of the pandemic, the design brief of our homes changed overnight. We need them to support us in a completely different way. I knew people would struggle being suddenly confined inside, so I began offering free design sessions to support people in quarantine. I was surprised by how much I could help simply by seeing people’s spaces through Zoom, and working directly with women and families felt so natural. My spiritual side could really bloom on these intimate calls, and the feedback was really meaningful and positive. I was inspired to write a design guide entitled “Where Spirit Meets Space”, and then launched a 28-day program to guide groups of women through the transformation of their homes, which ultimately brought about transformation in many areas of their lives. It has been beautiful to witness how many magical things have happened to many of my clients as a result of looking more deeply at how they live in their homes.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Designing good habits into our daily life supports us in being more present. Simple things like drinking a big glass of water upon waking, making our bed right when we get up, pausing in gratitude before taking in a meal, or switching off devices and lighting a candle before bed; these habits can bring us into greater presence, greater reverence, and greater gratitude for our life.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

The habits and rituals I’ve adopted have helped keep me grounded amidst the highs and lows of life. They also help me clearly see when I’m starting to slip, and prevent me from spiraling. I’d say the habit or ritual that has most positively supported my journey and any success I’ve had along the way is prioritizing my time spent in nature. I rarely go more than a couple days without a long walk in the forest, spending time in my garden, a visit to the ocean, or a hike in the mountains. Ram Dass says that “Nature is important because it is a manifestation of love that hasn’t been run through the human mind.” This resonates so much. To me, staying close to nature has helped in ways I can’t even fully explain.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

I’m a big believer in setting up your physical space to support the development of good habits. If you want to get into the habit of drinking more water, gift yourself a beautiful bottle or a pitcher that delights you and keep it full and in sight. If you want to meditate more, intentionally create a sacred and inviting space to sit, no matter how small it is. If you want to move your body more inside your home, make more space by removing bulky furniture or stuff you don’t love. The same is true for stopping bad habits. Take a close look at the physical space where these bad habits are taking over and imagine how you can uplift it. And of course, be kind to yourself no matter what. We are all human and we all go through tough times. If you fall into an old pattern, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just lovingly choose again.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

Wellness: The last few minutes before going to sleep and the first few minutes when waking up are powerful times to establish habits for our health. Each night when I get into bed I put my phone on airplane mode, switch off all the lights, and light a candle and read or cuddle with my partner. Spending the final moments of each day with firelight feels ancient and healthy to me. Each night when I blow the candle out, I say in my mind, “Thank you for this day. Thank you for my life.” Cultivating an attitude of reverence and gratitude for the life we have been given is also a foundation of my wellness.

In the morning when I wake up in the morning, I take ten deep breaths while laying in bed, processing any dreams and just feeling my body. Then I get up and drink a big glass of water, imagining cleansing my body after a night of sleep. This very simple ritual starts the day off in full presence.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Often the most profound habits are very simple. Repeating these rituals consistently help them to become habits.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

To me, performance is connected to purpose and confidence. To stay on purpose, I’ve adopted the habit of checking in with my body’s wisdom when taking on a new client or project. I get still and take a few deep breaths, checking in with my heart to make sure there is alignment with my deeper purpose. It is important to get into the habit of saying “no” if we feel a “no.”

When it comes to confidence, I think about the habits that help me show up fully in all the roles that I play. These are the rituals around how I care for my beauty and my body. Getting enough sleep is huge. Practicing yoga has been a long time ritual for me. Reclaiming beauty rituals as sacred, not vain, also helps me feel confident, optimizing my performance.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Practice creating good boundaries around when you make yourself available at work. Technology today allows our work to take over our lives if we’re not careful. Getting into the habit of switching off devices to be present during meals, workouts, and bedtime rituals communicates that you honor your personal space and can not always be expected to be “on.” This ultimately supports us in showing up fully when we are needed.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

Focus is all about our ability to stay present. One very simple habit that helps me stay focused when I am working is to light a single candle at my desk. Not only does this remind me that my work is sacred, but it also brings me back into presence if I get stuck. Instead of starting to mindlessly scroll or heading to the fridge, simply glancing at the flame of the candle brings me back into focus.

When I’ve got a lot on my plate, I also like to make a list to help me prioritize my time, ticking them off as I go. On this list I include taking a walk, drinking water, and making a meal so I don’t abandon the needs of my body.

Meditation, even for 5 minutes a day, helps so much when it comes to maintaining focus. I love the Headspace app and Insight Timer.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Answered above. Practices become habits when repeated consistently.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

My flow state is most easily accessible when I am communing with nature. During my free time, I am almost always outside. I’ll often just observe nature really closely, listening intently and taking in the messages from non-human life. This helps me remember my connectedness to all things, which to me is the ultimate flow state. To be fully immersed in the present moment, connected to the bigger picture is to be in the flow state.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My recent venture, Where Spirit Meets Space is a movement to deepen our connection to the three foundational temples of our lives; our bodies, our homes, and our planet. This is the movement I am most passionate about. My understanding is that these three temples are all connected, and I often imagine a world where all people remember this interconnectedness. In such a world, the daily choices that people make for their bodies and within their homes honor the natural world and take inspiration from the cycles of nature.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

As a Chicago girl at heart, my lifelong dream has been to hang out with Oprah. She is such a force. But all things considered, I would choose Jane Goodall and David Attenborough. I have been so moved by both of their journeys in illuminating the wild places and incredible biodiversity of our planet. The bravery and audacity they both carried as young people, and the passion for our planet that they still embody now is deeply inspiring to me. I would love to hear their stories in person.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I share about my life on my personal Instagram account @kellyarobinson. For my work, I invite readers follow @wherespiritmeetsspace and check out my website

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

Mahalo! All the best to you too.

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