Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Do You Have What It Takes To Be the Best?

Ultra limited edition Michael Phelps Frosted Flakes by Timothy Moenk via Flickr CC

I always want to be the best.

I also want to have a happy and balanced life.

I’m not sure I can have both.

In fact I know I can’t have both.

Being the best means an inherently unbalanced life.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I caught one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes.  Jack Klugman plays Jesse Cardiff,  a man who lives for pool, and laments that he is not considered as good as the late “Fats Brown.”  This being the Twilight Zone, in walks Brown, who offers to play one game if Jesse will bet his life on the outcome.

What I love about the episode is the way it highlights what it takes to become the champion.  At one point Jesse says “I am the best.  Do you know how much of my life I’ve spent playing pool?  Do you know how many nights I slept on this table?  I made a deal with the owner so I could practice after the place closed.  I haven’t been to the movies in years.  I haven’t dated a girl, or read a book because it would take time away from the game.”

Later in the show, Fats offers a different view of being a champion.  “It pains me to see you spend your whole life in this dark, dingy room.  I may not look it, but I’ve made love, swam in the ocean, and had a life where no one had heard of a pool hall. And I’m still the best.”

As a teen, I resonated with the drive to be the best.  I saw being the best as an escape, a way to write my own ticket.  And I did – to Cornell, to MIT, to Stanford, and then to jobs at the hot biotech companies of the day.  What I noticed yesterday was another comparison -Jesse was driven by the need to “show everybody that he could be the best at something.”  All those people who made him feel badly that he wasn’t good at this or wasn’t good at that.  Jesse is adamant that now he is the best at something.  I recognized the insecure overachiever.  As talented as I was, I never felt like it was good enough.  It’s not a happy place to be.  Some of that comes with youth; well at least that has faded to some degree for me.

The price for Jesse was high – yes, he gets the fame while alive.  But in the Twilight Zone world, he takes the place of Fats, cursed to travel to cheap pool joints defending his title.

In the real world, the price of being the best is just as high.  For example, Michael Phelps is the best swimmer in history, and according to many the greatest Olympic athelete of all time.  And what did it take for him to win 8 gold medals in Beijing?  He went “five years without taking a day off” he told Baltimore Magazine.  “That included birthdays, Christmases, Sundays.”  And he needed to eat 12,000 calaries a day to fuel his workouts.

Phelps has incredible gifts – a freakish body with long arms, double jointed knees and feet that straighten 15 degrees more than normal. And he has d what his coach calls an obsessive compulsive streak that kept him in the pool at least 5 hours a day, every day.

That level of work is what it takes to be the best.  Phelps was so good in Beijing that he won a gold medal with broken goggles.

For the London Games, Phelps cut down on his training significantly.  Prior to the games, his coach Bob Bowman explained. “If we look at his preparation the past three or four years in terms of, did he do everything he possibly could do to be a better swimmer? The answer’s no, [but] he’s certainly done enough work to be competitive. Phelps “only” won 4 Gold and 2 Silver medals.  The difference came down to minutia – a little worse on the turns, a little less kick at the finish.  Had he worked those extra days, he may have won an extra gold medal.  Does anyone really care?

Phelps doesn’t seem to care.  He went into London with the attitude that he would enjoy this Olympics, something he was unable to do because of the enormity of trying for 8 Golds.  This time he achieved the elusive balance – superior performance amid a sea of calm.

There is a myth that if you don’t work all the time, you get mediocrity.  It IS a myth.

 Busting Your Corporate Idol will return Monday January 7th

Twitter NBC Olympics Flap Torches Boundaries Of Free Speech

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 4: 

At the end of the last post, I was discussing circumstances when a person has to speak in the name of the company.  This is not a problem, until that speech starts to conflict with your internal value system.  The whole issue of speech gets tricky pretty fast, because a company routinely expects an employee not to publically disclose things that would be damaging to the company.

I asked many people I interviewed if they were ever in a situation where they had to make a trade off between being straight with a customer and protecting the company.  Here is a typical answer, this one from “Matthew,” a 20-year software employee, and a Buddhist.  “I do that every day.  I deal with customer issues that are unresolvable, or 18 months in the future.  We are encouraged to be relatively straight with them and also to not bad mouth the company.  As a representative of the company, we have a certain obligation.  It’s of it is why you get the paycheck.  I have had 1 or 2 situations that had to do with directly lying to customer.  It came back and caused a huge headache.”

Matthew’s last point is worth elaboration.  Lying to customers is often a bad business strategy, but the criteria for what speech is permissible varies greatly between company cultures.  Which brings us to the Twitter Olympics flap.  Twitter first suspended and reinstated the account of Guy Adams, a news correspondent who shared the corporate email address of NBC executive Gary Zenkel.  (More details on the story available here.)  The key point for now is that, in Twitter’s own words, “there are some limitations on the type of content that can be published with Twitter.”  I love the name of this section on the website, “Content Boundaries and Use of Twitter.”  Boundaries is a wonderful word.  And what sets the boundaries of behavior?  In my opinion it is values.

What are the values of your company, and how do they impact speech by employees and executives?

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Five Lessons The Olympics Can Teach You About The Corporate World

Five Lessons From The Olympics for Your Worklife

Olympic Rings on Tower Bridge by Jon Curnow via Flickr cc

The Corporation: The Real American Idol Chapter 3 Part 2

Jordyn Wieber, after training for most of her life, and getting the fourth best score in the overall gymnastics competition, is not able to compete in the final.  I can hardly stand it.  I am a huge sports fan, and I am fascinated by the psychological aspects of the game – who can outperform under pressure, and who will choke?  So when I heard that Wieber was out, I watched the replay waiting for the choke that never came.

She made a few mistakes, but she was good.  And now she is out, because the rules say that no country can have more than two competitors in the final.  There has been a lot said about coaching and scoring decisions that may have cost her, but her coach, John Geddert, said it best.

She has trained her entire life for this day and to have it turn out anything less than she deserves is going to be devastating. She has waited her entire career for this. She is happy for her teammates and disappointed that she doesn’t get (to) move on.”

Wieber’s failure to advance has lessons for those of us navigating a career in the corporate world.

Lesson 1: There are only so many spots at the top

Weiber’s performance was great – fourth overall, but the rules allow only two from a given country.  The same holds true in the corporate world.  There are fewer and fewer positions at higher levels in the company, especially in management.  And being good is not enough.

Lesson 2: No everyone who is worthy gets to move up

There were 98 women who qualified to compete in gymnastics in London, most of whom knew ahead of time that they had little chance to make the final 24, much less compete for a medal.  But these women were the best in their respective countries, and trained hard to get where they were.  Jordyn Wieber was not the only girl who scored well enough to make the final round but was prevented because two teammates scored better.    Three others also missed the finals because they were third in their country:  Anastasia Grishina (RUS, 12th place); Jennifer Pinches (GBR, 21st place); Yao Jinnan (CHN, 22nd place).  These four women need to abide by an arbitrary set of rules.

Lesson 3: The Rules are not designed with you in mind

The olympic organizers put together a set of rules that they thought would give the best overall event. And while Americans in particular will miss Weiber, the event will go on.  But the consequences for Weiber are potentially huge, perhaps millions of dollars in lost endorsements over the next few years.  Tim Daggett said it was inconceivable that Weiber would not be in the finals, especially when she made no major errors.  In my career, it was inconceivable to some people that I would be laid off, given everything I had accomplished at the company,  But I was.  (I didn’t really mind, and had a new job within weeks, but that is a story for another day.)

Lesson 4: Sometimes small things outside your control can make a big difference

Was Wieber underscored on the floor and beam as some have suggested?  Did the coaches put her at a disadvantage by not having her go last?  Maybe, probably.  If she hadn’t made a few small mistakes, it wouldn’t have made a difference.  But this time maybe it did.  Unfortunately, that is the way things go sometimes.  Sometimes at work, a minor mistake comes at exactly the wrong time.  The corporate world can be  a “what have you don’t for me lately” place.  After years of hard work, if the mistake happens just when that rare window of opportunity opens, it can cost.

Lesson 5: Sacrifice is a certainty, victory is a rarity.

For those who choose to work extreme hours, sacrifice of family time is a certainty.   For an Olympic athlete, the sacrifice brings the opportunity for greatness. But there can be only one Olympic champion.  As I wrote earlier, the experience of being there is a victory for most.  (And with 150,000 condoms distributed in the Olympic Village, being there seems to be plenty of rewards for showing up.)

When I first started working at Affymetrix, everyone kept congratulating me for being hired, as if it was privilege to be there.  And given how hot the company was at the time, I can understand where that was coming from.  It was perceived as an opportunity for greatness.  By business standards, I certainly won the Gold a few years later when my product had a monster year.  I got big accolades  and a very big bonus.  I had sacrificed big, and won big.  But unlike the Olympics, the competition did not end.  There were more goals, more numbers to make, and a perceived need for more sacrifice.

There was a great little segment on the broadcast tonight about Missy Franklin, seventeen year old swimmer whose family did not move or hire a famous coach.  She even stayed on her high school swim team.  Sacrifice?  I’m sure there was plenty.  But it was within boundaries her family set, and not according to standards suggested by other people.

The outcome?  She won the Gold in the 100 backstroke.

You might also like Discover How I Avoided Burnout, the first post in my blog book Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values and Regain Control Of Your Life.

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How London Bested the Beijing Opening Ceremonies

2012 Olympics Opening Ceremonies

London Olympics Opening Ceremonies OMG The Tree by Shimelle via Flickr CC

The Beijing opening ceremonies were one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.  I remember seeing thousands of drummers working in synchrony, a field of men performing Tai Chi, and a wave of Chinese characters moving up and down, to remind the world that China invented typesetting.  What amazed me was that each character was human powered, and the up and down movements had to be perfectly choreographed to give the rippling patterns.  When I realized that London was set to follow Beijing, I thought “There is no way they can match or beat this.”


I was both right and wrong, and the difference highlights the differences between the two countries.

When it comes to majesty and spectacle, Beijing won hands down.  For me, the 2008 Opening Ceremony was a coming out party for China.  “We are here world – look at our rich culture and history, and see what we can accomplish.”  To have so many people working together in such artistry and synchrony was amazing to see.  But I grew uncomfortable when I learned that the 900 men under the typesetting segment had to wear diapers, because they had to stay under their props for six hours.  What was the human cost of that greatness?

China’s approach was very much in line with what we have seen in the subsequent four years.  It can move a large number of people to act together to produce great things.  Check out this video about the manufacturing of  iPads by Foxconn.  The vast majority of the work done by each individual is repetitive and boring.  But the end result is something spectacular.


A Different Focus

Danny Boyle, the oscar-winning director of Slum Dog Millionaire and the director of the London Opening Ceremony took an entirely different tack – it wasn’t about technology, and synchrony,  it was about people.  The first part of the program highlighted the transition in England’s history from an agrarian existance to the industrial revolution. Giant smokestacks rose out of the ground, and workers emerged from a hole in the ground to roll up and carry off the grass sod that covered the field.  Each smokestack in the show let off smog, and the Boyle’s magic managed to include the sulfer stink of the pollution.

The London games reminded the world that the UK has been through the pain of industrialization, and has dealt with the impact on socicety.  There were workers with picket signs as part of the show, advocating women’s sufferage among other causes.  As host Matt Lauer put it ” for all the prosperity from industrial revolution, there was also great hardship.”

The ceremony seemed to be saying “Industrial Revolution?  Been there, done that.  Now lets move on to our legacy of children’s literature, The National Health Service, and the uniquely British comic sensibility.”   I was also struck by the cultural and ethnic diversity of the performers.

From the land to factories and back to the land

Today, China is the country undergoing the transition from an agrarian to an industrial existence.  At the opening of the 2008 games in Beijing, Tijeniman Square was filled with smog for a few days until  the government-mandated shutdown of factories allowed the air to clear for the games.  At the turn of the 20th Century, the London Fog was the result of smog an industrial waste.  Now, much of that industry is gone from London, and in fact the industrial reminants on the economically depressed East End were replaced with the Olympic park.  And after the games, this region will be home to a new public park   filled with trails, wetlands, and open space.

In China and the UK, I see two countries at opposite ends of the industrialization cycle.  And the opening ceremonies?  I loved them both, but I have to give the edge to the one that put people first.