Why Nancy Koehn’s Cell Phone Sleeps In The Kitchen

How this Harvard Business School historian stays in the moment.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Nancy Koehn: Stretch; hug my two Welsh Springer Spaniels, and take a huge breath.

TG: What gives you energy?
NK: Riding and jumping my horses (including mandatory kisses to their noses before each ride); coaching leaders of all shapes and sizes on how to develop and strengthen their muscles of moral courage; glossy pink lipstick and a new fabulous pair of flats, a loving conversation with a good friend, any movie that Daniel Day Lewis is in, and moving the boulder of Goodness forward even a tiny bit.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
NK: Not responding to emails right away, that is, doing nothing in the moment, often solves the very problem the email is concerned with.

TG: Name a book that changed your life.
NK: Middlemarch by George Eliot

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
NK: My cell phone lives in the kitchen each night—across the house from my bedroom.

TG: How do you deal with email?
NK: When I am feeling strong and clear, I batch my email exchanges, doing them in three or four intervals throughout the day. When I am tired or anxious, I look at my inbox several times an hour.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
NK: If I am home, I walk outside my house and look at the open fields behind me, envisioning the dairy cows that used to live on this land. If I am away from home, way, way too often, I reach for my phone.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
NK: This weekend. Too much work, not enough recovery time and space.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
NK: Last week, when I learned that a person I thought I knew did something so unexpected, it took my breath away. It made me realize I often do not see the individuals who I care about very clearly and that I need to be more hawk-eyed about all kinds of people in my orbit.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
NK: (David Foster Wallace, “Up, Simba” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays) Courageous leaders are individuals “who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Nancy Koehn is an historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. She has coached leaders from many organizations and speaks frequently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and the World Business Forum. An accomplished author and scholar (she earned her MA and PhD degrees in history from Harvard), she spent ten years writing FORGED IN CRISIS: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, which will be published by Scribner in October and is now available for pre-order. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts, and is a dedicated equestrian. 

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