The Phases of Our Lives

August 9, 2012

“It’s just a phase,” I would hear my mother say to her friend on the phone. As teenagers, my sister and I had no idea how much we put our mother through and while she says now we were just fabulous, I know the teen years are far from it.

With a teen of my own, I get to experience several phases at once: the remembering phase (“God, was I like that?”); the mothering phase (“Because I said so.”); the daughtering phase (“Mom, I am so sorry if I ever, ever said something like that to you.”); and the mid-life phase (“What do I want out of  life?”).

All that rolled into one makes for some interesting times.

A friend of mine once told me I could choose how to view this phase of parenting: as either a gift or a curse. I have chosen to look at it as an opportunity of self-discovery as I witness my children grow into the people they will become.

Whether you have children or not, we all go through phases in our lives. Sometimes we are up; sometimes we are down. Sometimes we are suspended on a tightrope, daring ourselves not to look down.

While work-life balance experts will tell you that equilibrium is the goal, I disagree. Alignment with your truest purpose, and all the hills and valleys, are what you are here to experience. So what if you topple off that balance beam? Maybe it’s just what you needed to get a different perspective.

When we take back our lives with clarity and vision, those valleys seem less frightening. Grab yourself some sentries in the form of friends and loved ones who will stand by you in stormy times. Reach out when you need it. We all deserve that kind of support.

Do it with love. Do it shamelessly. Hug out the pain until it slides back into the shadows.

We’ve got this life, broken down into units of time. Take it all. It’s yours.

 

Gazing at the picture of my thirty-year-old self with a baby in my arms, I had no idea what life had in store for me then. Soon after the picture was taken, I was confronted with the dilemma so many working women face today: dueling priorities of both work and home life. Having arranged a part-time position in the marketing department of a major investment firm, I managed to work a forty-hour job in thirty. There was no balance: just 5 a.m. wake-up times, baby fevers and early pick-ups at child care in the middle of the day.

It was a nightmare.

In the sage words of Vickie L. Milazzo in her 2011 release Wicked Success is Inside Every Woman, “[i]f you haven’t been reduced to your breaking point one or more times in your life, you’re either very young or probably not a woman.”

Forget what self-help gurus tell you. Work-life balance does not exist.

In my view, work-life balance is a media sound bite that tries to remedy the conflicts working parents face every day. It is a myth primarily because the image evokes the sense that work and life are on opposite spectrums of our existence. In fact, they are not.

Anyone with a smartphone will tell you work bleeds into life after hours. If you are an entrepreneur or freelancer, such as myself (I soon discovered Corporate America would not support mothers they way I needed it to), you find yourself working at odd hours. Partly, it’s because we are passionate about what we do. Partly, it’s because our global world demands it.

What is possible is aligning your life with your truest purpose. Everything else cascades from that centerpoint. If you know what you are passionate about, your focus will be laser-like and the extraneous distractions that tug at your attention will fall away.

I recently chat with CBS This Morning correspondent Lee Woodruff, who is doing the opening keynote address at the upcoming Women’s Leadership Conference in Las Vegas August 14-15, 2012. When she offered up her view of work-life balance, I sat up and listened because her priorities have really been put to the test in her life. For those of you who are familiar with her husband’s story, Bob Woodruff replaced Peter Jennings in the ABC news anchor chair. For 27 days. That is, until a bomb in Iraq struck him while reporting there in 2006. His amazing recovery has been recorded in various places. Here’s one.

For someone who has been to hell and back, Lee is a remarkably resilient personality whose sense of humor is certainly her recipe for success (just ask her about the power of flannel nightgowns). Spending a few minutes on the phone with her was enough to boost my spirits skyward. Her writing will do the same for you. She’s just penned her first novel entitled Those We Love Most, which will be released in September 2012.

According to Lee, “there isn’t a balance. It’s a myth that we’re chasing. And we’ve done women a big disservice to say they can have it all.” She referenced a recent Atlantic Monthly article by former director of policy planning at the State Department Annie-Marie Slaughter that claims the current workplace and society at large are not equipped to deal with family life as a holistic part of an employee’s existence. The personal and the professional are held separately and not valued equally. Slaughter suggests that someone who trains for a marathon and puts in the early and late hours to reach his goal is considered disciplined, committed and admirable. Someone who puts in the same hours caring for a family is not regarded the same way.

Glibly put, family life, should it interfere with work at all, is regarded as an unspeakable part of yourself, like gastrointestinal issues. In current times, it is unprofessional to mention you might have a life beyond your cubicle.

Society dictates that you are ‘less than’ when you show you have family commitments outside of work. You are somehow subpar to those who really ‘dig in’ and don’t let pesky distractions such as a sick child or school matters interfere with more noble pursuits such as the bottom line. In fact, I have been told to say I have an off-site meeting to clients when really I’m attending my child’s concert. I was instructed that it is unprofessional to speak of such matters because it would indicate my attention is not 100 percent on the client himself. No one places 100 percent of their attention anywhere. That, too, is a myth.

We need to redefine what professionalism means. We are not robots. We are social beings in a broader network with other social beings. When will family life be as hip as Facebook?

Lee admits that she cannot have it all and that, whilst on the speaking circuit, her children aren’t going to get that home-cooked meal. She says you can still be a great mother and miss a few sports games. The trick is self-forgiveness.

“We’re calibrated as working women to have an entire sense of guilt because we can’t chase it all. Once we become kinder to ourselves, the whole thing is a lot easier to manage,” she admits.

In those moments when she has her kids on the phone complaining that she’s not there for a special event, she gives herself a pep talk afterwards. She knows she is there for the big things in their lives. With twelve-year-old twins and two older children, Lee has come to realize they will survive without helicopter parenting. In fact, they will do better as a result.

“Stay the course,” Lee advises. “We are the best judge of what is going on with our children.” Mindful parenting does not mean you are a hovercraft.

It’s time to toss the balance beam out the window and get real. Alignment with self, family and work is where it’s at.

Husband shuffled lethargically from the car to the house and back again. Three hotels and 1,000 KM later, he had had enough of vacation. Admittedly, ten days is a long time of non-stop togetherness. Eager to return to my every day life myself, I predicted he would be out of the house before 8 a.m. the next morning.

He was. :)

Is there such a thing as too much time off? While I am a true advocate of frequent breaks, vacation and extended periods of rest and play, work drives meaning just as much as our playtime does. It’s undeniable. And I must admit I truly missed my life (including my dear friends, pets and even my clients!) after taking time off from it all.

And that’s a good thing.

So to answer the question: can you have too much Slow, I would say no, you cannot because slow means mindfulness in this context. Being mindful is the path to great happiness. Working mindfully is a part of that too.

For instance, are you mindful after you’ve had a vacation about how you feel when you return? Have you ever taken time off, only to dread returning to your daily grind? That’s when you know a sabbatical itself won’t solve your issues. In that case, it may be time to reevaluate your life in general.

Consider:

  • What’s working for you today?
  • What isn’t?

It is easy to get overwhelmed when reflecting on how you might make changes in your life. Maybe it isn’t your actual pace of  life that is tripping you up, but perhaps it is the content with which you fill your days. Dread, in any case, is a good indicator that something is awry.

Here’s a quick dread test (as found in The Power of Slow): when you consider doing something, does it make your heart sink or sing?

That’ll tell you a lot.

How might you move your life from dread to delight today? Hint: Do one thing that excites you. Then tell me about it. Because here’s the thing: when you share your excitement, it spreads like wildfire. And who wouldn’t want to be on fire with your special kind of enthusiasm?

Okay, so we’ve talked juicy. That’s when you have a chance meeting with someone who will rock your world. But what if you aren’t in a space to meet new people, are overloaded with work and just want to flop on the couch with a drink in your hand? Where do you go to get that mojo?

It’s not an easy question, but the truth is your mojo slumbers within you. Always. It may not be awake at present. You may just be getting by, or perhaps you are skirting on the edge of something greater than you are and it’s scaring you to death. You feel out of control. Or perhaps worse, you feel numb.

To tickle out your mojo, you need to make a change. It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering one. It can be as simple as a minimal shift in your thinking. Let’s say your work colleague does something to really annoy you. And she does it often. Do you think she’s doing it on purpose to really piss you off? I think not. In fact, most people aren’t thinking about you, or the impact they have on you, at all. They, like you, are just trying to get by.

Those are marvelous prospects for tweaking how you see things. So the next time your colleague does that thing, reframe it into something else. Such as “She really wants to be happy, just like me.” You can apply this approach to any interpersonal situation, really.

You see, now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. Your mojo resides right at the place in which you release the judgement that’s been holding you back from a deeper connection with both yourself and others. It is not the thing that makes us unhappy. It’s the judgement about the thing itself. And the great news is we can change our thinking about things by making the decision to do so.

So do this for me, will you? The next time you see your colleague, give her a hug. Or something like a warm embrace if body contact is très non-non at your workplace. Chances are it’s exactly the thing she needed. Then watch your mojo fly up a notch.

That’s more like it.

In 2009 Smith College, a quaint liberal arts women’s college nestled on the edge of the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts, recognized the need for students to understand the intersection between work and life by founding the Center for Work and Life. As an alumna of the college, I was thrilled to learn that such a renowned institution would provide guidance on such  practical subjects as how to write emails to your professor, how to cook healthy (and affordable meals) and how to change a tire (and look good doing it).

It seems the College has experienced a rebirth of sorts. It has recognized that, while building our brains, we also need to comprehend the more pragmatic sides to life. In the eyes of the Center’s director, Jessica Bacal, there is a thing called work-life balance.

Jessica invited me to chat with students about the Power of Slow in late March. I was astounded at their hunger to learn that it’s really alright not to do everything at once. I was equally amazed that they thought they had to.

When I saw their relieved faces, I realized the Slow message is necessary for everyone. Whether in China, Korea, Australia or India, people of all ages are responding to its message to slow down. We are indeed on a slippery slope. All of us. And the good news is we’re in this together, which means it will take all of us to move beyond our hectic pace to a collective understanding of what the heck we’re all doing here anyway.

We weren’t born to race. We were born to help each other. So let’s start together by sending the message that it is alright to go at your custom speed.

And that message, dear reader, starts with you. Invite someone to walk a little slower today. Then tell me about it. We can all learn from each other as we tread this road called life.

A recent Workplace Survey conducted in eleven countries by the global executive staffing firm, Robert Half International, found that your  boss can be a source of great stress. Duh? Not surprising, but the reason can often be attributed to a lack of management skills, not just to the fact that he or she may be a jerk.

Other stressors in the modern workplace include:

  • increased workload
  • too few people to handle the job
  • unpleasant work environment (colleagues and office gossip)
  • inappropriate pressure from the boss
It sounds to me as if the modern workplace could use a huge dose of slow.
First, it is no wonder that more and more people are stressed out, given the bare bones staff with which many industries are forced to operate. Then, consider placing someone ill-equipped in a position of power. Add too few resources such as time, money and personnel, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster.
Management skills are something everyone can learn. Just take a look at this beautiful performance leadership matrix, developed by Dan McCarthy,  Director of Executive Development Programs (EDP) at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire.

Courtesy of GreatLeadershipbyDan.com

According to Dan’s nifty model, if you’re forcing people to take action, but it has no impact on performance, that’s just plain nagging (note to self: remember the next time you insist that your kids brush their teeth RIGHT NOW, that maybe it could wait a minute). If you’re asking for action and it does impact performance, that’s managing (if, say, it’s been a while since they brushed). No action, no impact ~ you’re on vacation. No action, BIG IMPACT ~ you’re an osterich leader.
Some may have more inherent leadership talent than others, but giving people the tools to do their job will place everyone in a better position. I’m a big fan of guided training; that is, offer up pre-assessment, the training itself, then follow up with a post-training assessment. Life’s in the details. That goes for work too. For all you HR folks listening out there: follow up is everything to ensure your return on investment (ROI) hit the mark. Would you throw money at something just to say you did it? Of course not! The same goes for training. It’s worth seeing what stuck and what didn’t.
Imagine being led by someone who knows less than you? Perhaps you are a technical wizard, while your supervisor made a move across industries to land the job above you.
Now imagine how you might become an invaluable resource to that person because you know your stuff. Your boss will come to you in a pinch. Being a go-to person places you in your own position of power. You are indispensible. Chances are he or she won’t toss you under the bus (or the boss?), as long as you’re performing.
And that’s the clincher. Performance depends a great deal on your office environment. If you can’t stand the people you work with, you are more likely to experience low levels of motivation. That’s when it’s time for an assessment of your own. What are you willing to live with? What not?

Many thanks to Psychology Today reader Kallin, who pointed me to this mind map, courtesy of LearningFundamentals.com.au. It beautifully illustrates how we can regain control of the things we do in the time that we have.

Happy Monday Morning, All!

Simple Ways to Slow - Courtesy of LearningFundamentals.com.au

Life’s Little Surprises

September 28, 2011

You wake up an hour later than you thought.

Your job description has been turned on its head.

The weather takes a sudden turn.

Change, and the way its managed, can impact our lives more than we realize. As I recently read somewhere, long-term success is not based on what you do right, but what you do when things go wrong.

Life’s little surprises hold a nugget of wisdom we often cannot see. The day I got up a full hour later than I had intended, I managed to get to the TV studio earlier than anyone else.

How was that possible?

It’s a little secret I am about to share. If you take it on, magic will happen. Wait. Before you turn the dial (or click the mouse), hang on. It is real.

It is called time abundance, embracing time so you have more of it. I literally did what was necessary instead of fretting about what I could or could not change. And the full extra hour of sleep kept me focused as I drove down the autobahn (at the speed limit!) without any distractions. No radio. No CD. No cell phone. Nada. I simply looked at the road and assured myself that I would arrive at the exact time I needed to. And wouldn’t you know? I did!

When your job takes a new direction, see it as an opportunity to learn something new. It’s a stretch, for sure. Change is merely the cause for bringing back into our awareness that things happen just as they should. We are reminded in those moments that uncertainty lurks just beneath our consciousness at all times. We work with probabilities. This or that will probably happen. We rest in the hope that it will.

The weather is a great example of how we have tried to harness the wind with our metrics and gizmos. Can we ever really know for certain whether things will happen as we think? All we can really do is raise the likelihood that they will.

One never really knows. And that is the beauty unfolding.

Life is full of little surprises. They are treasures wrapped in mystery. When we meet them with wonder, life takes on a fullness that can mend our broken hearts and restore us to whole.

Take a moment today to reside in that wonder. I bet you’ll be surprised at what you find underneath.

Ignorance is bliss. Knowledge is power. Does being powerful make you well? Not always.

According to a new global survey whose US-based findings were released by GfK Custom Research North America, U.S. employees with PhDs were both most engaged (38 percent highly engaged) with the highest levels of stress about job security (30 percent), work-related stress (29 percent) and the teeter-tottering-est crowd when it comes to work-life balance (33 percent). The more you know, the more people come to rely on you to know it….and more.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those with master’s degrees worry more frequently about stress (39 percent) while their work-life balance seems less of a concern (25 percent) than their PhD buddies.

It appears respondents with less than a high school education were least likely to be engaged in their work, which comes as no surprise. Only one in four claimed they were highly engaged. Interestingly, age and industry played a large part in engagement levels as well. As I have written elsewhere about older workers, they tend to the most engaged crowd (35 percent were ‘highly engaged’).

The top four most engaged employees came from the following industries:

  • construction (41 percent)
  • professional & business services (34 percent)
  • information technology (33 percent)
  • public utilities (32 percent)

The least engaged came from the following industries:

  • retail (40 percent)
  • real estate (38 percent)
  • public administration (38 percent)
  • education (32 percent)
  • manufacturing (31 percent).

Managers (35 percent) showed more engagement than the managed (21 percent) while those who manage managers showed the greatest level of engagement (60 percent).

I guess we really do like telling people what to do!

Knowledge workers and the ‘creative class’ are succumbing to the pressures of today’s world. We need to rescue ourselves by injecting slow and by setting an example for everyone else. Engagement is good. So is disengaging every now and then.

Sometimes it isn’t what or who you know, but how you do things that makes all the difference in the world.

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When Reality Hits

April 7, 2010

The Power of Slow is about mindful living; When Reality Hits: What Employers Want Recent College Graduates to Know takes a good look at what it means to engage in mindful working.

The book is organized into twelve chapters that cover the gamut of corporate culture: from table manners to a firm handshake to my favorite topic, cell phone etiquette. In concise language motivational speaker and author Nancy Barry offers clear guidelines on the do’s and don’ts of work life for recent college grads.

Even for a veteran PR professional such as myself, I found her tips to be refreshing, sometimes even humorous and always respectful of the person she’s trying to help. Although some of it was repetitive (we know smiling in most cultures is an ice breaker, which she mentions a lot), what I appreciated the most was the can-do spirit she imparts to young workers.

She also offers helpful advice on how to deal with constructive criticism. She sees in everything an opportunity to learn.  “[I]f someone is trying to give you feedback, resist the urge to immediately defend yourself. Listen to what they’re saying.” And we all know that saying “I take complete responsibility” is an effective way to stop your boss’s tirade and move on.

Her largest power of slow message can be found on page 13: “Pace yourself…Work hard, but be careful about the potential stress if you work all the time…Technology has changed the way we work. Thanks to cell phones, BlackBerries and e-mail, there’s an expectation we should be available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Once you start working all the time, your colleagues and clients will come to expect it.” Later in the book she seems to offer contradictory advice by saying to ‘do what it takes to get the job done,’ but remember there is power in saying ‘no,’ which she also admits. Sometimes proper expectation management is the fastest road to success.

Be sure to take this book along for the ride. Whether a younger or more experienced worker, we can all benefit from Nancy’s message to remember to play while we work and that sometimes all it takes is a good homemade double chocolate chip cookie and a hand-written note to make all the difference in how our work lives unfold.

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