Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Meet the Power Mom Executive, Pregnant Before Marissa Mayer Made It Hip

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 11

In the last two posts we met Sebastian Tate, who throughout is career has maintained a strong identity outside of the workplace, which has in turn helped him lead a balanced life.  On the other side of the spectrum were four women that I interviewed who all independently felt like an abused spouse in relation to the company.

Most people seem like “Janet Wolf” caught between competing identities. Janet has a Ph.D. from Cal Tech in Chemical Engineering, and worked after grad school for the Boston Consulting Group.  Janet is one of the most relentlessly positive people you’ll ever meet, and I was not surprised to hear that at the end of a long engagement the president of an electronics firm recruited her to become vice president of corporate planning.

Janet was very interested in the position, but was nervous because she was four weeks pregnant, and “wanted to make a good impression.”  (And this was  ten years before Marissa Mayer made it hip to be a pregnant executive.)   When Janet told the president, she was delighted to hear his response:  “Congratulations, I don’t care.”

Janet went on to be what I think of as the “power working mom.”  At work I doubt people perceived her as a mom, yet she was able to remain involved in her kids activities.  I asked her how she manages to do both.  In her words:

“I’ve been crystal clear with each boss – I have kids.  There will be days I need to leave early, or can’t get here early.  I got the work done and it was never a problem.  I got to move around to bigger and better things.”

What impact do you think Janet’s dual identity had on her response to difficult political situations at the company?

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Are You An Insecure Overachiever At Work?

Are you an Insecure Overachiever at workAre you an insecure overachiever at work? In the last post, we met Sebastian, who definitely isn’t. He takes a professional approach to work without excess devotion.  When I talked to Sebastian, part of my mind went back to a conversation I had while a hot shot in my early thirties.  I was a camping store, and the man behind the clerk told me that he used to be in marketing.  I was polite, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I really looked down on him.  “What a loser,” I thought.  “He couldn’t cut it.”  Of course now I get it.  I’m on the other side of the fence, with some former colleagues who view me as the weirdo who left the beloved asylum.

I asked Sebastian if he thought achievement is important.  “Many people want the big job, to get ahead.  But if they get there, they realize they can’t enjoy it.  They don’t have any time, and are being pulled away from their family.  For some people, it’s just the accomplishment.  I do get satisfaction from achieving certain goals.   But in my life I try to make those personal goals outside of work, for example running ten marathons, or kayaking this river, climbing this mountain.   I am proud of my accomplishments.”

I think Sebastian is an exceptionally secure person.  One Machiavellian executive told me that he likes to hire “Insecure overachievers [because they] have to show they’re valued, wanted, needed, and work is a way of doing that.  That’s the trap – when work represents your value as a person. Work is sort of is a bald gage of success which isn’t that meaningful, but it can be perceived as aha that’s my worth.”

Sebastian does not have that vulnerability, because he gets his validation outside of work.  But thinking back to my reaction to the dude in the camping store, and my obsession with my blog traffic, I still have some work to do.

What about you? Could you be an insecure overachiever at work?

Note: This post is an excerpt from my book “Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked” which is available on Amazon.com 

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Meet a Balanced Achiever At Work

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 9

“Sebastian Tate” describes himself as an outlier in the business world, not because of his results, but because of his priorities. Meet a balanced achiever at work.

“I never had the drive to be President or VP.  I made that decision pretty early.  [For me] work needed to be interesting.  If I’m doing work I don’t find interesting, I’ll go look for another job.  I’ve always made decent money, and I’m not an extravagant person, so I never felt like I needed to make a lot more money because I needed to have more stuff.  If for whatever reason [work] gets out of balance because you get a shitty situation, I start looking for another job, to find a situation that works for me.  I may be different than a number of people that you talk to, that want to be king of the universe.  But that’s why I’m still doing product management at 50.”

Sebastian is tall and wiry, with close-cropped hair, and a slow, deliberate speaking style that can drive an East-coaster like me crazy at times.  But he has that Buddhist calm that makes you want to listen.  I asked Sebastian if he ever felt work-related guilt.

“Guilt is something that you impose upon yourself.  You either accept it or reject it.  I always found it pretty easy to reject it.  If someone comes to me with a last minute request because they did a shitty ass job planning, and then try to make me feel guilty, it isn’t going to happen. I don’t know where I was when I learned it, but I learned to try to replace guilt with responsibility.  It’s a much healthier emotion.”

Note: This post is an excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.

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A Step You Can Take Today To Relieve Chronic Overwork

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 8

If you are hoping for dramatic change in your life overnight, it isn’t going to happen unless there is a crisis.  The David model from the last few posts is a perfect example of this.  But if you’d like to change before you have a stroke or run screaming from the building hope is the best answer.  As I’ve written before, I went from working 90 hours a week to 60 hours a week in less than a year without changing jobs, and without anyone at work noticing.  Here are three steps to help you do the same.

  1. Remind yourself that you are the type of person who puts people first, and the company second.   As you make decisions, try not to think about the consequences of your actions – think only about what a person who puts people first would do.  (See this post on the Time Audit too.)
  2. Secure a goods night’s sleep every night by stopping work 1-2 hours before bed time.  When I made this change, my internal dialog went something like this.  My health is more important than work, so I will not check email after 9 PM to give me time to wind down before bed.  Keep this rule no matter what.  People at work will adjust, assuming they even notice.  And focus on the positive, the benefits of sleep.  You will feel the difference right away.
  3. Make people the priority in the moment.  For example, if it is story time, or you are having a drink after work with a friend, don’t answer your phone or listen to the message until much later. Imagine being on a date with someone, who says “It’s my boss calling, but you are more important to me, so I’ll listen to the message in the morning.”

Think about your life, and look for an easy win, the smaller the better.    All you need to do is show the elephant that change is possible, and it will start to move on its own.  Start with one change only!

What is one rule that you could put in place that would prioritize people over the company?  Post it here, to get the support of our community.

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You May Be Closer To Work-Life Balance Than You Realize

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 7

If you asked David before his stroke if it was healthy for someone to work 100 hours a week, I think he would have said “of course not.”  But I doubt if he  perceived himself at risk.  This is one of those positive illusions we discussed in Chapter 5.  People are not very good at evaluating themselves.  For example, most people think they are above average drivers, and “25% of people believe they are in the top 1% in their ability to get along with others.”[i] Larry Holmes, the former heavyweight boxing champion was asked if he was concerned about injury during a comeback in his 40s.  His answer: “You always think it will be the other guy who is hurt, not you.”

So I won’t bore you with statistics about the dangers of sleep deprivation and stress.  But I will let you know why learning the statistics have so little impact on behavior:  We are not of one mind.  While scholars like Plato and Freud have written about the different properties of the mind for thousands of years, the metaphor I like best is the Rider on an Elephant.[ii] The Rider is the rational, conscious mind, and the Elephant is the unconscious (emotional) mind.  The Rider can point the Elephant in a certain direction, but if the Elephant doesn’t want to go, it won’t.

At the end of the day, our emotions are in control.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t change them.  David’s stroke was an emotional jolt that led to rapid life change – he recognized how precious life was, and started to put people first. The moment I recognized my corporate idolatry changed me at the emotional level, which led to steady changes in my life as well.  And here’s the really good news: you don’t need to have a health crisis or a religious experience to change the elephant – a positive emotional carrot can be just as effective.

If you are reading this book, or even this post, you have already begun the process of reorienting yourself towards people first values.  There can only be one top priority, and consciously deciding that people, yourself, your friends, and your family come before the company is a critical step on the path.

What are things you have done to put people first?

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[i] Switch: How To Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.  Broadway Books (2010) p 114. Amazon

[ii] The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.  Online PDF p. 4 http://www.happinesshypothesis.com/happiness-hypothesis-ch1.pdf retrieved November 12, 2012