Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Remember the One Thing You Can Control At Work In Any Circumstance

Chapter 5: The Role of Circumstance Part 16, Conclusion

As a technical writer, Mary’s life changed dramatically for the better.  She started working normal hours, and was recognized and appreciated for her work.  Interestingly, it took her about three months to accept the new lifestyle.  “I kept asking myself when is it going to get crazy again.” Now she wishes she had made the move earlier.  “I just feel like I suffered for longer than I needed to [in my previous position].  This year has been a recovery year.  I haven’t felt guilty about the number of hours I work.  If I leave at 3 to work out and get the kids, I don’t feel guilty about it.  I was getting my work done, and was still moving the position forward.”

It sounds like more than just moving forward – Mary was recognized and complemented by the General Manager at the summer picnic, something that never would have happened in her previous position.  Moreover, Mary is still connected to the high profile project, which allows her to leverage her previous experience and contacts.

At the start of this chapter, I wrote about the illusion of control, and how it applies in the workplace.  There is so much that happens which is beyond our control, but as humans we are naturally susceptible to the illusion that we can control far more than we actually do.  And the consequence for these illusions, as Mary’s story illustrates, is unnecessary suffering.  To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, we cannot control what happens to us, we can only choose how we respond.

In the next chapter, we’ll cover the biggest thing we cannot control – the overall company culture.

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Disruptive Technology Plus Rapid Growth Equals Excess Devotion, For the Newbie

Chapter 5: The Role of Circumstance Part 11

In the last post, we met Mary, who enthusiastically embraced the corporate life after graduate school and was shocked when the first layoffs hit.  It is perfectly understandable that early in her career, Mary did not understand the business realities, especially coming from a different set of realities.

As a science graduate student, she worked independently on her project, with a large peer group of fellow grad students to commiserate with.  There was no overall institutional loyalty – a graduate student is part of a scientist’s lab, who in many cases could care less about what you think of them or the institution.  In fact, many a graduate advisor hates the institution for all the bureaucracy.  Personal identity does not become intertwined with the institution.

A corporation is a completely different environment.  It’s about making money for the company, and working with other people towards a common goal.  At work Mary was surrounded by signals that re-enforced her attachment to the company, and she was caught up in the gung-ho attitude of trying to change the world.

The customers were almost all of the top twenty pharmaceutical companies, which reinforced her perception that the company was helping to revolutionize drug discovery.  (See this post on the illusion of control.) And, these companies were a very lucrative source of revenue.  At one point, the stock price was going up 20 to 30 points a day, and everyone was talking about it.  You could literally hear people screaming out numbers and cheering from their cubes.   One of the founders, whose major contribution at the time was surfing porn sites, was once seen dancing down the hall chanting the company name.

The core of Mary’s devotion, though, came from the company President, who was energetic and visionary.

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Why Was the Vice President Crying Every Morning?

Chapter 6: The Role Of Circumstance Part 7

She was in the midst of a successful career. She was the rock holding everyone together at work.  She’d moved up through the ranks to Vice President.  And she was crying every morning, and sneaking off to the ladies room during the day to nurse horrible migraines.

It wasn’t always that way.  “Sue” arrived at the company as a senior product manager.  “It was hard but fun.  Everyone was working towards the same goals, and to this day the core group [of us] remain friends.  We made some kick-ass software.”  For five years, the company did well,  and her career prospered.  But then things changed.

“The management team fell apart, the strategy started to shift and the company wasn’t doing as well.  There was a big panic. A lot of us wanted it to be like it was.  I wanted to be the one to bring it back.  There was a nagging voice in back of the head telling me it was too far gone.  I kick myself for working myself to death, giving up my free time on weekends, perusing my hobbies, [not] spending time with my spouse.”

I asked Sue if she would have stayed if there had not been the good times first.  She laughed.  “No, I would have bailed.  [In hindsight,] I had an obligation to do a good job, but I did not have an obligation to give up all of my free time to the company.”

In Chapter 8: Build Your Community, we will visit Sue again to see how she remained in the corporate world and rebalanced her life. Read it here.

Today, a big buzzword I see is employee engagement. Was Sue an engaged employee?

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When Is “Changing the Market Landscape” Just An Illusion?

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 2

I started the chapter with a story about craps, and ended by saying that craps and the workplace have a lot in common in that in both cases we are in less control than it seems.

Funny thing about craps, the game is random, but it can seem like you have control, especially after a few of those free drinks.  And in fact, studies by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer have shown that people act as if how they throw the dice has an impact on the outcome, making soft throws for low numbers and hard throws for high numbers.  This is an example of what Langer calls the illusion of control – “the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events that they demonstrably have no control over.

According to Langer, the illusion of control arises in recurring situations when routine behaviors in the mind become correlated with a particular outcome.  A person who’s routine includes one or more of the following is particulary susceptible to the Illusion of Control: [1]

  • Choice
  • Competition
  • Familiarity with the activity
  • Involvement in decisions

Now, lets look at what “Patrick” the vice president of development has to say about managing to the big picture.  (I should add that I think Patrick is a Wolf.  From talking to him and others he works with, he is definitely not a Fox.  See this post for an explanation.)

“It’s a best practice to say that [the work will have a large impact.]  But if people can’t see reality beyond the words, it can be counter productive.  To say we are changing the landscape of the market is a stretch when our competitor has 80% market share.  The reality is that we are going to try to get market share.  It’s less exciting, but it reflects reality better.”

Do any words stand out as you read this?  He never says illusion, but he sure says reality a lot!

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How Is Going To Work Like a Craps Game?

Vintage doctors swag by woodleywonderworks via Flickr CC

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance: Hot Tables & Bad Breaks Part 1

Here is my personal story that starts Chapter 5:

Before my first trip to Atlantic City a fellow graduate student at MIT gave me advice on how to win at craps: ‘Find a hot table.  When the table stops being hot, wait for another hot table.’  I’ll be damned if it didn’t work, for the most part. I had an amazing series of rolls.  Everyone was cheering and this older guy in a brown leather jacket kept slapping me on the back every time I made a point.  I remember the feeling of pure elation like it was yesterday.  Before long the table turned, and it was really hard to stop playing.  About an hour later I walked by the table again.  It was empty.  The guy in the leather jacket was walking away, his hands in his pockets and his eyes vacant.  It was 20 years before I saw another table that hot.”

The probability experts are all over this type of thing, and they can tell you how much is luck, and which bets maximize the chance of winning.  The odds of rolling for 30 minutes without losing can in fact be calculated, and will in fact occur from time to time.  If you happen to be playing a hot table you are in for a great time because everyone is winning at that table.  Of course a hot table is very much an exception – most of the time there will be a mixture of winning and losing, where the only control you have is whether to play, and which bets to make.

In my experience, going to work is a lot like a craps game.  The day may go really well, or really badly, with most of the time somewhere in between.

And like a craps game, there are times when we feel like we are making it happen, when in reality things are beyond our control.

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