Achievement and change can be daunting undertakings, and yet we hear and see success stories all around us. What makes individuals who succeed at achievement and/or change different? Here is something to consider; is achievement true change or is it the access point to making it a sustained change? Is it where the change has taken place within us that makes the difference between integrating it into our whole selves and having it be a brief (if spectacular) period of time in our lives?
A few years ago colleague of mine became one of those people who mastered change. He underwent a transformation to move to a healthy weight - no small feat. The time was right in his life, he had the tools at his disposal and he lost a significant amount of weight. The change was transformative; he went from couch potato to distance cross-country skier in two years. Today that change has “normalized” for him, which means he has settled into a more realistic weight, one that is still healthy, but not quite the dramatic change he first achieved. When he speaks of this change now he is able to see he did it through a tremendous amount of effort and will power, but he will also tell you he did it from the wrong place within himself. He pursued it as an achievement, a box to check, and along the way made some assumptions that frustrated his ability to sustain that change for the rest of his life.
What he is looking at doing now is finding a way that is a more integrated part of everything he does, and not by setting a goal and heading straight for it. “Anyone can sustain change for a period of time when they have motive and opportunity…it is much harder to sustain that change when one or the other are no longer present”. After he achieved his weight loss goal (and gained some awesome recreational distance skiing medals) the “fun” went out of the whole process. “I had made it, I had metaphorically climbed that mountain and was at the top…but the reality of being at the top is it gets pretty lonely up there and the air is really thin”. He achieved it, but through making unmaintainable changes, not ones that were an integrated part of a whole. “I got tired of counting calories, I really couldn’t see myself in the old age home using my food calculator” which lead him to consider what he REALLY wanted through this change. “When I sat down and made a list of what was important to me, living a healthy active lifestyle was on the list, having to eat and exercise in a pattern that discouraged family time was not”. He needed to make another change that honored what he had achieved through his goal, but then integrated it into the bigger picture of what he wanted for himself and his family. “To make it last the change had to come from my heart, not just be in my head – my head lost the weight, making decisions in a whole-hearted way will keep it off for good”.
Another example comes from the myriad number of clients and colleagues who realized their dream jobs; who received the all encompassing “I MADE IT” role of their careers. Sometimes, it turned out, the new job wasn’t nearly as satisfying as they thought it would be once they were in it, and it came with some negative side effects, like working longer hours and carrying a lot more stress. Many times I have heard the lament “the money wasn’t worth it”…but often there is no way to go back. Planning to achieve something, or change something, in isolation from everything else in your life does not lead to happiness (or success). So what does this mean? It means that whatever changes you undertake need to be realistic and meaningful to all parts of your life as they are unsustainable when they are only goal oriented. Goals are fantastic things to set for ourselves, they allow us to continually reach forward (growing and learning), but goals set in isolation of what really matters and what is really important set us up for failure.
An import aspect of setting goals is to examine why the goal is important, and what it gives you in achieving it. Then ask yourself how all that fits into the whole of your life. If it requires other things in your life to move or change to enable the impacts of your goal achievement to remain, be realistic about how maintainable that is, and how reasonable is it to ask your support network to back that level of change on an on-going basis. Take some time to think about what really matters to you, look at the big “life” picture, and plan with that in mind. For my colleague who lost all the weight he is much happier now, even though he is off his original “goal” weight. “I ski and cycle with the kids now, we don’t do the distances I did when I was at my ‘peak’, but I am having a lot more fun and creating a love of activity with my boys. This is ‘win-win’ and, when I think about it, this is what I actually needed to achieve when I set my original weight loss plan in motion”. He looks incredibly happy…and fit.
What really matters to you? When you take the time to figure that out you can make any achievement or change a success for life.
I used to work in radio. Not the glamorous “on air” side of it, the other side, working in the background scheduling things so that everything ended up on the air at the right time and in the right sequence. I learned some very important things in working that rather tedious job; the first was that I had no future in radio. The second was there is nothing as precious as time. That job (as monotonous as it was) was one of the more important roles for the success of the radio station; time is not something you can get back, it is completely perishable. You have a brief opportunity to make that time on-air as effective as possible – which for me, during the short period I worked in radio, meant getting my job right (there were no “do-overs”). It also gave me a new appreciation for “live” undertakings, like radio and television, that helped to illustrate what is happening in the “here and now” of daily life is the most important “live” event we will ever be engaged in.
Fast forward to today where I am not working in radio and where the velocity of work is significantly faster than it was for the generation before us; exponentially with each cohort it’s pace seems to be doubling. It is certainly much faster then when I worked at the radio station more than two decades ago. For most of us work is a tidal force that dictates the rhythm of our lives, from when we rise to how we spend our time...to when we choose go to sleep. In dictating that rhythm for us it also affects our families and loved ones, but this was not always the case – back in the days before electricity it used to be the sun that determined these things. We have become a generation who are living in the future, sometimes in the past, but not in the present (we could blame the advent of electricity for this, but we know better). Pace is a major factor in this; today there is very little time to pay attention to the “here and now”, and yet we have to pass through the present to go anywhere. In fact the present, or the quality of our presence in the current moment, has an enormous impact on our future (just ask anyone who has ever had to recall an e-mail). It is difficult to “hear” our own needs calling when we are completely focused on “what’s next”, and often those needs assert themselves as stress, anxiety and fear. Many of us have become masters of pushing off those feelings, we bury them, ignore them or use artificial means to numb them, but they do not go away. Instead they return when we least expect them, when we are tired, ill or re-stressed and they come back with a force that can be overwhelming, like an air-filled ball held under water (let go of it and WHOOSH, it pops up twice as high as it was forced underneath the water).
There is an antidote to this, it’s something that is not new and is readily available to everyone. You do not need an app for it and it is free. But it does take time; all of ten minutes a day. You have heard of it before, it’s often referred to as mindfulness. Mindfulness (at it’s core) is the act of taking conscientiousness and applying it to oneself. It is not about making your mind blank (point of fact; that is not possible for anyone but the most dedicated life-time meditators to do); so take that pressure off yourself. This is not about being perfect, it is about listening to your thoughts, giving yourself 10 minutes of present time to change your pace, slow down and listen to what is going on in your mind. The hardest part of this is not becoming particularly attached to any of your thoughts, it is the act of allowing them to float through your mind, seeing them pass thorough like clouds moving across the sky, that has the greatest benefit. It provides you with a way to better understand what is going on for you, to see what is causing you stress and to be better able to be kind to yourself. We can’t change what happens to us during the day, but we can control how we respond to it. Mindful practice allows you to be ready to face the challenges in your day. You can do this in many ways that are discreet and supportive, going for a walk or just sitting peacefully in a comfortable place – always with the intent to allow yourself time to get to know what is going on in you, without following your thoughts and progressing into “thinking”. Just listening. But then there is that pesky draw to keep moving forward and onto “what is next”. So how do we address that in a relentless world of work? A good starting place is to become more aware of pace…because the first act of mindfulness requires you to acknowledge a present pace that is not allowing you to be your best, and then changing it (even if it is just for 5 minutes).
This can be very hard to do, but I will give you my favourite example of mindfulness in a business context to help understand how it can apply to everyone’s work life. In the distant past I had the privilege to work with a talented subject matter expert in the field of Compensation who practiced her own version of mindfulness very effectively. She had one of the most pressure filled jobs you’ll find in large corporations. Compensation experts are “it”, the one person in the one role where the responsibility for figuring our what people get paid rests - this is not a job where you get to eat comfortably in the office cafeteria (or eat lunch at all most days). The woman I worked with was (and still is) a wonderfully soft spoken and warm person who always had the wisdom to ask for time. More specifically, when faced with a difficult decision affecting the integrity of the organization’s compensation plan, she would ask if she could “run on it”. She ran every day, mostly because she loved running, but also because it allowed her to let her thoughts go and have the time to listen to herself, allowing the right answers to become apparent. And they always did.
She was stronger for it; others welcomed her integrity and approach, even when she had to give negative responses to requests from high-ranking executives. Anyone who worked with her (and who still work with her today) trusts her, they know what she says is well thought out and balanced. No one had any issues giving her the 24 business hours she asked for because they understood it would mean a well-reasoned response. She is a great example of what can happen when you take the time to consider your own requirements and ask for what you need. Effectively her requests for time changed the pace, taking it from (often) lightening speed to something much more, well, mindful. It allowed everyone involved the time to think about what was being discussed, which brought on new insights and information that only strengthened the collective decision. She is one of my mindfulness role models.
Confounded by a problem at work? Trying to maintain a professional demeanor in the face of overwhelming criticism? Feeling pressured at home? Give yourself the time needed to gain a different perspective. Pop out of the office, go for a walk or find a quiet place to sit…ask for time. To look at this in another way, take a moment to reflect on recent events that have caused you stress or anxiety. Would they have benefited from a change of pace? The truth is we always have the option to wait 24 hours to respond to an e-mail or to ask a loved one if “we can we talk about this later?”. What would have been the outcome if you had recognized “in that moment” you needed to disrupt the pace and ask for more time? Be mindful of what you need, and then ask for it. We only get to be in each moment once, make them count.
For more information on mindfulness please reference "How Mindfulness Fixes Your Brain, Reduces Stress and Boosts Performance" by Dr. Travis Bradberry on @LinkedIn.
Our voices go with us everywhere. They are ever present (in our minds, in our homes, in our workplaces). Even if you don’t blog, speak publicly or even like contributing in group settings, your voice is still a tangible part of your potential. Our voices are an instrument of our potential, the outward manifestation of it, but voice alone is not wholly potential, for potential is far more complex and nuanced then that (thankfully). The use of the word voice is also a bit misleading because when I refer to “voice” I am referencing a group of qualities, of which only a subset is audible sound. So what is meant by “voice”?
It is the way we allow ourselves to be seen, first by ourselves and then by others (intentionally and unintentionally). Whether that is through writing, what we say (what we don’t say), how we say/don’t say things, body language etc. our voice is made up of our presence, our values, our beliefs and to what degree we share these things with others. Some might call it presence; others might call it character…it’s a mix of all those things. Using our voice to (literally) broadcast our potential requires an act of vulnerability, an act of courage. To do so in a meaningful way requires awareness of what supports us when we reach for something just beyond our grasp.
In his TEDTalk “The Happy Secret To Better Work” Shawn Achor points to the fact that outwardly (the things people can see and touch) we may have everything we need to make us happy. Nice homes, cars, clothes, etc. However, it is what is unseen, what is “under the surface” that provides us with long-term happiness via support and this is because of the way our brains process happiness and success. Our level of optimism and social support are what fuel our ability to see things as challenges rather than threats and to then be able to better manage the stress that comes along with them. In fact these pieces, optimism and social support, make up 75% of job success. He supports this figure by saying that we have been going about things a bit backward, we chase success to make us happy when in fact if we concentrate on our happiness success will find us.
Given that optimism and social support are such huge factors in happiness we can build more awareness about how they impact us, how they support our voice and feed our potential. To make this more accessible, think back over your week so far. How many times did you have a negative thought pointed towards yourself? Towards another (be honest now, no one will hear the answer but you)? Now look at it again and note the positive thoughts you pointed towards yourself and others. Even though these thoughts may never have left your head, this is part of your voice and it impacts the quality of your day. How often we look for (and find) the things that are supportive in our day are key building blocks in realizing happiness and allowing us access to our potential. Another aspect to consider is to note how you handled the last compliment you received. Did you guffaw and “aw shucks” it, meanwhile telling yourself that the person was “just being nice” or did you own it and thank the person who complimented you, letting them know you appreciated it and felt their words sincerely? Did you let your social support network support you? If not, why not, and what was the impact?
Exploring what impact our voices have on our potential is just a taste. Bringing more awareness to the topic of potential is something I am invested in, as it is a deep topic that includes many important things, like our voice, character, leadership, emotional intelligence and many other qualities. It is a much wider lens that I look forward to exploring, sharing and giving a “voice” to, allowing us all to learn about (or just to remind us of) the potential that is in each of us because when we allow ourselves to be well supported (by ourselves and by others) there is no limit to our potential. Join me as I explore new ways to find and use potential, providing resources to my social network and anyone else who may benefit.
In Canada this coming weekend is Thanksgiving. It has always been a happy time of the year for me, a time to measure what I am grateful for and why. This year I have been thinking about it within the context of leadership and emotional intelligence, both within a broad context and as it applies directly to my work/life. The world can always use more gratitude, an awareness of all that is good, so I decided I wanted to share with my colleagues and clients why I am grateful for their support and how knowing them has helped me be a better person and a better coach…and then I paused. I do this with my family and friends (probably not regularly enough but it is there). Why then did I have second thoughts when I sat down to reach out to these other two very important groups of people in my life?
Not content to dismiss it as being “touchy feely” or too personal (because a bit of time and effort could ensure the effect of giving grateful thanks to professional contacts would not be mushy) I had to look more deeply for the answer. And it came down to this…offering gratitude, in a meaningful way, requires an act of vulnerability. I paused because I was feeling vulnerable about sending out even carefully crafted messages of gratitude to people in my life whom I trust and who have extended trust to me. That was a bit mind-blowing (to say the least).
A search of resources from colleagues on vulnerability brought me to re-visit a TEDTalk by Bréné Brown (The Power of Vulnerability https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en). If you have never seen or read any of her work, Bréné Brown is hilarious and very real – she “gets it”, whatever your “it” is, and I encourage you to watch the video. It was very useful in unlocking my own understanding of why I paused and why I was feeling vulnerable. For me it comes down to an internal battle between “worthiness” and “wholeheartedness”. Sitting alone in my office at 5:30 in the morning, staring at the still screen after the video had ended, I realized I needed to make a decision that had more to do with how I felt about myself then simply expressing gratitude.
As it turns out, when we feel worthy of others trust, esteem, love, etc. we are able to be wholehearted and express joy, be creative, and sit with discomfort – in particular the discomfort of not knowing. That is what had me stuck – I couldn’t predict if expressing gratitude would be welcomed by my business contacts, after all it is the professional equivalent of saying “I love you” first in a relationship; maybe not quite that emotional, but with feeling all the same, and is a departure from the usual modus operandi in business. And then something really interesting happened. I realized what was most important to me was the way I want to conduct my life and my work with wholeheartedness, vulnerability and all. How gratitude would be received became less tangential than ensuring it was expressed and it could then help others to know how they have made a real difference.
It also awoke the realization that Thanksgiving is more than a long weekend to see family or an excuse to eat really great comfort food. It is a yearly reminder to make ourselves more vulnerable, even in circumstances (or with people) we typically wouldn’t, and to express genuine gratitude. It is a chance to stretch ourselves and to do so in a meaningful way that touches others. The world could use a lot more gratitude and so I will start here, letting you know I am grateful for your time in reading my blog, especially as I appreciate blog reading is something we choose to do in what little free time we have. I am grateful that you extend your trust in me, reading what I write, and I hope it gives you much in return.
My deepest thanks and Happy Thanksgiving.
Work has changed a lot in the last 20 years. It no longer holds to the “9 to 5” office hours enjoyed by our parents (or our parent’s parents, depending on where you land demographically), nor is it offering “employment for life”. In some ways this is a good thing; we’ve seen an unprecedented level of innovation in the last 20 years, which is in part a product of more people moving around, working with multiple employers, and having more employers supporting engaging and innovative work. On the flip side, some of that innovation has contributed to accessibility, enabling people to be connected to their jobs in new ways, leading to unprecedented work hours. Depending on your industry the average hours of work can be as much as 60-80 hours per week, in some professional environments much of that is “volunteer” (unrecognized specifically by a program or pay practice). You are expected to put that time in if you want to…”fill in the blank”. That blank is always something specific to the longevity of career and job; it includes things like “move up in the organization”, “have your work be visible”. However, more and more (as employers are asking for high results with less and less) that blank is filled with “be seen as a team-player”, “be considered as a key contributor”, or (in worse case scenarios) “not end up identified for lay-off”.
We see the impact of this on North America employees. Fewer North Americans are taking their vacations, and if they do use vacation time they are using it in shorter spans (i.e. one week rather than two) or working while on their vacation. One contributor to this trend I have witnessed first-hand is the pressure of the “ticking in-box”, the one that quickly fills up in your absence with important and urgent matters needing your immediate attention. Most of us don’t want to return from a great vacation to an exploding in-box; there is a palpable sense of dread (especially when you tie it back to the effort it took to prepare to go on vacation in the first place). Some individuals are afraid that if an employer can see accomplishments move forward without their specific input it will make them redundant. We are living in a world where fear may now be playing a significant part in key decisions about our health and well-being and the balance is trending towards work rather than play. The worst part is, in North America, these things are not being asked of us by our employers (for the majority); these are things we are self-selecting to do. Where this trend is going is really unthinkable.
Vacations and hours of work are two examples, but there is another. Another area that points to “less play and more work” is the under-utilization of professional development budgets. In every organization I’ve ever worked within funds have been set aside for the development and betterment of employees and year-over-year they do not get utilized to their fullest capacity (in particular where this development is self-directed by employees). Why is this? For some people it is the difficulty in narrowing down their choices and committing to a professional development path, but anyone motivated to maximize on development opportunities can quickly overcome that hurdle. When I’ve queried employees at workplaces who have access to self-directed development funds the biggest barrier they face is time. Many employees feel they can’t commit to yet another commitment and sustain their current level of effort. Self-directed professional development is not viewed as an opportunity, but “one more thing to do” in a schedule that is already maxed out.
In some pockets of the working world employees experience an Orwellian level of dystopia, the sad thing is in North America we are creating this for ourselves. Here we have one of the most advanced and pro-active systems of employment legislation in the world. It may not be perfect, but the mechanisms exist to balance our working hours, be properly compensated for the work we do and provides for healthy work practices and environments (both physical and psychological). We have many employers who set aside budgets and are open to long-term development of staff. So why are we are wearing ourselves thin? Why are we letting the relentlessness of work erode the best parts of our lives? It is having an impact, to borrow a quote from Tolkien many people today “…feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”. Frustrated and worn out is not a great space to be in when making life decisions, and yet many people opt to invest in outside help only when they are in this circumstance, only when something has to give because the alternative is unthinkable.
This is a call to understand what really matters to you, in life and in work - and then to act on it now. Your job may not always be there (or you may not always want the job you have), but your health, family and your profession can be when you choose to nurture these important aspects of life. We all need to feel valued and supported, loved and able to make meaningful contributions; these are basic hygiene factors. When they are not present everything suffers, not just at work, but our personal well-being too. Don’t wait for the inevitable crash that takes place when you’ve eroded yourself, made yourself too thin to be able to hold on to it all. Take the time you need to think about what really matters to you, your career and those you love. Work, like the crashing of waves upon rock, can be relentless and (just like waves) will always be there. Work is not going anywhere but you and your career are. Invest in your personal development; the time it takes will re-pay itself significantly, giving you access to so much more than you can anticipate today.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.