Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

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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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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Learn To Evaluate the Impact Of Your After-Hours Work

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 3 

In the last posts, I described the illusion of control as the propensity to think that one has a greater impact on the outcome of events than one actually does.

Wikipedia lists three reasons why people experience the illusion of control:

  1. As a coping mechanism to deal with chaotic situations where there is little actual control.[i] I once asked someone working crazy hours if she was having an impact.  Her answer “I couldn’t imagine working this hard if it wasn’t having an impact.”
  2. Our brain is wired to find cause and effect.  For random games like slots or dice, research has shown that people think their actions are influencing the outcome.[ii]  So at work, where the situations are more complex, it is even easier for us to think that our actions are having a bigger impact than they really are.
  3. People who see themselves in control are more likely to detect control when it isn’t really there.  Ironically, this means that people with more self-control are more susceptible to the illusion of control.

This last point applies to Patrick, who we met in the last post.  Pat was considered by his peers to be one of the most solid and capable leaders in the company.  When one of the products his team developed had technical issues post launch, Pat took charge.

“I remember working late every night.  I remember feeling a sense of my ability to help put this fire out, how key of a role my team had.  I took it upon myself to not sleep, to work too much, and I basically ended up in the hospital.”

Pat had a panic attack in the cafeteria, and was rushed to the hospital with what he thought was a heart attack.  The technical issue was resolved several months later.

Do you think those extra hours had a discernable impact on how quickly the problem was solved?

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[i] Wikipedia Fenton-O’Creevy, Mark; Nigel Nicholson, Emma Soane, Paul Willman (2003), “Trading on illusions: Unrealistic perceptions of control and trading performance”, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (British Psychological Society) Via Wikipedia

[ii] Thompson, Suzanne C. (2004), “Illusions of control”, in Pohl, Rüdiger F., Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory, Hove, UK: Psychology Press, pp. 122 Via Wikipedia


Is a Good Project As Tempting As Sex?

Chapter 5 : The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 4

If a father dresses his son in the finest clothing, places a purse of gold around his neck and then tells him to stay all day on the the steps of a brothel, is it possible in that context for the son not to enter and sample the wares? -Inspired by The Talmud. [i]

Take a smart person who wants to make a difference, and put him on the most exciting project at a small company.  Is it possible for him not to work all the time?  Here is how “Alan” describes his experience at a biotech startup.

“I loved my work.  There were stages in my job both at the plant company and at the genomics company where I loved my work.  I would get in early, I would stay late.  I thought I was making a contribution and it all felt right to me.  What made it good?  It had to do with the corporate leadership, when I was really clear in my scientific heart that we had strengths to address what we were going after.  What I knew from my training as a scientist, the company had resources and it really felt like we were aligned with the goals of the company.”

Being aligned with the goals of the company and making a difference are two of the most common answers that people gave me when describing a positive work environment.  I can relate, and Alan’s story brings back memories of the best times from my career.

Then, Alan talked about his family life.

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[i]  The Talmud is a collection of stories and commentary to supplement the Torah, the Jewish books of law (aka the Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament.)  This story is based on a passage in Tractate Berachos.


If There Isn’t Love At Home, Is It Easier To Love Your Work?

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 5

In the previous post, we met Alan who loved his work and enjoyed the long hours because he felt aligned with the company and was making a difference.  Then, Alan described his family life. “I would go home, have dinner, and then the CEO would call me to re-hash strategy.”  (This was in the pre-internet dark ages of the mid-90s.)  “The CEO later asked if my divorce was from job stress.  It wasn’t.  I was working hard, but that is not what caused marriage to crumble.”

I pressed a bit, because I was skeptical when he said “no.”  Here it was, the “work ruined my marriage” story.  But life is a bit more complicated; it was other things

And after interviewing several people who also worked long hours and then got divorced, I actually think the opposite was true.  In my opinion, he was working long hours because he was in an unhappy marriage.

Let me be clear – I am not saying that everyone who is putting long hours in at work is doing so because they are in a troubled relationship.  I used to work very long hours, and while it put a strain on my family, I don’t think it ever jeopardized the marriage.  But what I am saying is that it is worth some reflection as to why one would choose to work over spending time with your family.  Sometimes in times of stress, work can be a haven, especially when things are going well.

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Just Realize Your Job Sucks? Here’s Why It Took So Long To Notice

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 6

At the end of the last post, I suggested that excessive work hours could be a sign that someone is hiding from a bad relationship.  I would like to stress again, that being excited about your work and engaged with your company are good things.  Company engagement turns into Corporate Idolatry when work becomes the most important thing in your life at the expense of everything else.  Of course most of the time, the workplace is never all good or all bad.  As “Roger”, a VP in Silicon Valley put it

“It’s a very rare day when you look at your job and someone can say ‘this is awesome, everything is fantastic.’  No, there are lots of things in there that you’d like to change, but you have to take the whole package.The difficult part for Roger, and for many people is the change from good to bad can be very gradual.

At some point, I notice the scales have tipped.  It is not good enough and I have to move on.

But I wonder, how long does it take to notice that it is no longer good enough?  Many people who have left a negative circumstance say that the change was long overdue.  I’m sure there are many reasons for this, financial, emotional, social.  But I wonder if part of the issue is that it takes us a while to realize how bad things have gotten.  It turns out that we notice far less than we think we do.

From the book “The Invisible Gorilla” by Chabris and Simons I learned that we notice a lot less than we think we do.  Do you think you’d notice if the actor changed between two scenes of a short silent movie?  The new actor wore different clothes, different glasses and parted his hair on the opposite side. 70% of people think they would notice the change, but in reality no one did.[i]  Zip, zero.  If enough of the details are consistent, and we are not expecting a change, the discontinuity fails to register.  And when people were warned in advance, it was obvious and everyone saw it.[ii]

I think changes at work can happen in a similar way.  We don’t notice the changes as they are happening, and over time things can change pretty dramatically.  And when we are stressed and overworked, it is hard to notice anything.

In the next post, we’ll meet someone who wanted to be the one to bring the company back after both the market and the culture turned sour.

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[i] The Invisible Gorilla  And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.  (2010) Crown p55-57.  These are examples of the illusion of memory and change blindness.

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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Three Reasons Why You Might Be Staying In A Job You Don’t Like

Chapter 5: The Role Of Circumstance

In the last post, I told the story of “Sue” who stayed in a negative working environment until she became sick, both physically and mentally.  I believe that staying in an unhealthy work environment is a form of corporate idolatry because one is following a value system that prioritizes work over personal health.  Several women I interviewed went so far as to say that they felt like they were in an abusive relationship with the company.  

[The competition for jobs in the market] makes me feel stuck and dependent on the company.  The battered wife who keeps on going back and won’t leave, sometimes I feel like that. 

People I interviewed cited a number of reasons why they don’t leave negative situations.  Here are three of them.

  1. Loyalty to peers or reports: I did not have any corporate allegiance.  I had personal allegiance to people within the company.  I wanted to protect my staff.  [Not wanting to] let that team down was part of [why I didn’t leave.] I made it my mission to at least try to make their work environment better than mine was.  It was frustrating because I could only make it so good, could only fix it so much.
  2. Learning [The executives] need to find different ways to value people.  It’s arrogant. I’ve seen a lot of turnover.  The main reason I stayed was I was learning so much.  I had a lot of great friends and colleagues.  I couldn’t have asked for a better learning experience the last few years.
  3. Momentum [I was] very well compensated and it’s hard to give up a large paycheck.  [Leaving] came to mind frequently.  One [good] thing would happen – it’s never all bad.  I’d find some silver lining, and choose to think about the action plan to fix what I wasn’t liking, visualizing success of the plan. 

But of all the circumstances I heard about, the one that had the biggest impact is the time in your career.

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What Happens When The Idealist Gets That First Job ?

Chapter 5: The Role Of Circumstance Part 9

I did not get my first real job until I was over 30, thanks to the ten years I spent as scientist in the academic world, in graduate school and as a postdoctoral fellow.  My twenties were spent in the lab, and I loved it.  Well, I should be careful how I say that – lab work at the bench was a grind, often frustrating and repetitive.  I loved thinking up experiments, interpreting the data and the rush when something was working.  My first really big experimental result came in the forth year of graduate school at about ten o’clock at night.  I rushed around the floor looking for other people to share it with – I found plenty.  We were grad students in our twenties – where else would we be?

I was not the first, nor the last person to move from the academic to the corporate world.  “Mary Cassidy” could not get out of the academic world fast enough.  She went to graduate school for six long years studying oncology.  It was not a supportive environment, and the project was difficult.  The Ph.D. felt like it had been paid for in blood.  On a good project, experiments lead to a clear yes or no answer, allowing the researcher to move on to the next experiment.  Ambiguous results are a nightmare – one replicate yes, one says no and a lot of maybe.  This led to repeat after repeat – which was both demoralizing and frustrating. Moving from the snows of the Midwest back to San Diego, to work at a small but hot biotech company was exciting beyond her wildest expectations.

In the next post, we’ll see how Mary found herself thirty, single, and killing herself for the company.

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Thirty, Single, and Killing Herself For the Company

Busting Your Corporate Idol.  Chapter 5, Part 10

Mary is tall, with curly dark hair and a serious expression when you first meet her.  After a while her bubbly side emerges, a pleasant balance to her focus and determination.  She spoke to me with great sincerity and emotion, and she tells her story better than I ever could:

[At] my first job out of grad school, I was excited and wanted to do well.  The culture was a small company feel, everybody knows each other, familyish.  Everyone was trying to do the right thing to make the company successful. You wanted to go the extra mile, [because] you were working with your friends. You felt this camaraderie. I was traveling for the first time, yeah! I’ll go anywhere yeah! Just all the perks of being in a company vs. academia: the money, the bonuses, the 401k it was so exciting.  I felt so successful compared with my Ph.D. Writing email at night, fixing customer problems, writing customer requirements, it[work] fulfilled me to a certain amount. Even now, ten years later I still feel a connection to many of the people I worked with. 

So when the layoffs hit, it was such a slap in the face. It was really hard. I have very vivid images of the layoffs. I wasn’t part of it, but it was a mess.  I remember the CSO was crying. Everyone had to get in a room. I remember being up high, looking down and seeing everyone scrambling around in the corridor to see if they were on the list.  It was awful.” 

The layoffs were a wake up call for Mary.  

I was 30 and still single. I though ‘I’m killing myself for the company, and not getting anywhere in my personal life.’  You don’t realize that at first, except for Friday nights when you grab movie, Thai noodles and sit by yourself.  It started to be ‘wait a minute, I want to get married, have kids, and I’m getting older.  I have an awesome apartment downtown and no one to share it with’. I traveled a lot and gained weight, which made it hard to be single.  Even if I looked fine, I didn’t feel good about myself. 

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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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Discover the Downside To The Dream Job

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 12

In the last post, we talked Mary’s excitement in her first job out of grad school working for a small, rapidly growing company. They quickly established a dominant position in the market, and it had a “familyish” atmosphere.

Describing herself at the time, Mary laughs. “I was very green.”

For Mary and many others, the President was the embodiment of the company. He was charismatic, smart, and visionary. In monthly company meetings, he would lay out his inspiring vision for how the company was going to change the world, and when he spoke, it was almost impossible not to give him your full attention.
At a scientific conference, the President once riveted a room of top scientists with an inspirational talk about a friend of his with cancer, who was receiving the same nasty chemotherapy treatment that had been used for 30 years. “We need to make sure that 30 years from now, there are better options available.”
More importantly, he made an effort to say people’s names and say hello in the hallway. Mary describes her memory of the President.

“He was almost a father figure, an uncle. He fostered a love of the company, you felt that you belonged.”

So to recap, Mary was in her first position out of graduate school, at a small company with exciting products that were successful in the marketplace, which was led by a charismatic, visionary leader.  In many ways, it was a dream job.

This is the second draft of this post, and the question I got to the first one was: dude, what’s the problem with having   a dream job?  You make it sound like she was doing something wrong.

No, she did nothing wrong.  Anyone in that circumstance would have been very devoted to the company.  But remember a few posts ago?  Mary later described herself as “thirty, single, and killing herself for the company.”  Ultimately, she found the dream job unfulfilling because she was alone.

So can the job ever be enough?  In other words, if you have your dream job, will that bring happiness and fulfillment if it is the best thing in your life. A dream job is a wonderful thing.  But if you are not ok without the dream job, you won’t be ok with it either.  People are happy when they have connections to other people.

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Back From Maternity Leave, Mary Is Undermined By Subordinates

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 13

In the previous part of the chapter, we looked at Mary’s experience as a newbie out of grad school.  Like many people in their first corporate experience, she got totally caught up in the company mission, and as  result spent many hours working at the expense of her personal life.

Fast forward ten years. Mary was several companies down the road, and did not love, or even like, her company.  Yet she found herself once again overly devoted.

Mary has grown in seniority, and is managing an experienced team.  However, she had not yet made director, which is troubling and painful to her.  As was usually the case, Mary was working on the most high profile and high pressure project in the company.  This was no start up, but rather one of the largest in the life sciences research industry.  Once again, the product was billed as (and in fact was) a game changer in the world of cancer detection.

Challenges presented themselves right away as she came back after four months at home with the baby.  The senior managers she was managing had been reporting directly to the director in her absence, and they resented and resisted being pushed back down a level in the hierarchy.  What was particularly challenging was a culture of after-hours discussions and meetings, where decisions were often made when she wasn’t present, by either her reports or her manager who did not share her level of expertise.  “Decisions could be made where you wouldn’t know [the impact] for a few months.  You could really dig yourself in [such that customers would be livid].”


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Ever Work Till Midnight But Feel Guilty About Leaving the Office At 5?

Chapter 5: The Roll Of Circumstance Part 14

In that last post, Mary came back from maternity leave to find herself at a disadvantage because many of the key decisions were made after hours.  And moreover, her subordinates kept going directly to her boss, as they had done when she was out.

What was worse, Mary had to defend those decisions to the rest of the department.  “To sit in all hands meetings where senior managers were pointing fingers, and then I am the one who has to stand up and defend decisions I wasn’t making.  That got really old.  That and the hours.   The sheer amount of work.  I was putting the kids to bed, and [working] up to midnight every night.”

One of Mary’s team left for another role in the company, and she was quickly overwhelmed.  “I couldn’t hire quickly enough.  There were a couple of months where I was working 80+ hour weeks.  I would ask my husband to take the kids to the zoo on Saturday so I could have the whole day to catch up.”

Nowhere in this part of the conversation did Mary mention love or devotion to the company.  It was no longer about a family atmosphere, or changing the world and in fact, I don’t think she even liked the company. Mary was driven by other factors.  She worked each night until midnight, often worked a full day on Saturday, yet felt guilty about leaving work at 5.  “I think I thought I was going to get fired.  It was right after the merger, and there was all this pressure.  All these managers from Boston who wanted to know what was going on.  The pressure was crazy.”  To further compound the stress, Mary was the sole breadwinner.  “If I got fired from my job, I didn’t see the monthly bills [getting paid]; everyone was on my  [health] insurance.”


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Mary Prioritizes Family Over Work But Work Over Sleep

Chapter 5: The Role Of Circumstance Part 15

In the last few posts, we have been following the story of Mary as she was overwhelmed with work coming back from maternity leave.  Even though Mary worked till midnight on email, she felt guilty about leaving the office at five, in part because many decisions were made after hours when she was no longer in the office.

Mary had the option of staying later every night.  Her husband was unemployed and could have assumed all childcare duties.  As it was, he shouldered most of them.  “If I would have stayed at work consistently most nights till 7, I would have been able to build those relationships with R&D that you need, so they have your back.  I saw it happening, but I just couldn’t [stay].”   Mary’s top priority was the family.  She left every day at 5 to make sure she could eat with the kids and put them to bed.  “I thought I could make it work.  The baby goes to sleep at eight, and I would work till midnight.  I kept getting further and further behind, and relationships kept suffering.  If I had any free time I was trying to catch up on some project.”

While it is likely that staying until seven every night may have eased the work-related guilt and facilitated the relationships with R&D, I doubt it would have changed Mary’s overall level of happiness or health. In fact, Mary would have had little time to see her family, which would have engendered guilt of another kind.  To her credit, Mary continued to put her family first, in that she went home to be with them.  At the same time, she was prioritizing the company over her health, which was not sustainable.

Things finally came to a head when Mary tearfully told her boss that enough was enough – “I said if that is really what you want me to do, I am not sure I’m the right person for that job.   At the time you don’t expect you were going to say those words, and when you walk out you say ‘shit, I’m basically getting myself fired.’  In another way you feel good that you finally stood up for yourself.”  To his credit, Mary’s boss found her another position in the organization, one that was protected from an upcoming round of layoffs.

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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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