Priority #1: What do you dread?

I have a natural tendency to ignore stressful things until they go away. (Which they don’t.)

It’s not really a natural tendency. I think I learned it through some very tough young adult years full of confrontations and stalemates. But I want to say it’s “natural” to give myself some credit: It’s not “The New Me.” I’ve been trying to kill it for years. It’s putting up a good fight, though.

I’ll call this tendency “Avoidance.”

A breakthrough in my fight against Avoidance came a couple years back when my insightful manager started using a kind of a mantra with me: “Rip the Band-Aid off!” It was excellent advice. She helped me see things in a new way. Dealing head on with a stressful issue is always, always, always (always) less stressful. It’s like when you were a little kid wiggling at your Band-Aid, tears brimming in your eyes. It hurts less if you just rip it off–no matter how scary.

But dealing with problems is not always as quick and easy as “ripping the Band-Aid off” sounds, so I want to explore this idea a little further and in a bit of a different way.

 

Sometimes you have an extra difficult choice to make, and it’s one that looks less like a quick fix and more like a long, exhausting journey. And you can choose to avoid it.

Picture yourself at the most out-of-shape you’ve ever been. I remember gaining 75 pounds after I got back from Africa 6 years ago. A bachelor, full of emotional stress, not sleeping, and eating free burritos every day. Suddenly my body was almost 150% its former size. I felt stupid and unattractive. I felt incapable. Defeated. You know how I felt and you know how hard it is to make the change I needed to make.

I dreaded seeing myself in the mirror, putting on clothes, letting my family see who I’d become, being shirtless in front of my girlfriend. Painful feelings–fear and disgust.

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t just “rip the Band-Aid off.” When I have to tell my landlord I accidentally put a hole in the drywall–that’s a Band-Aid I can rip off. 75 pounds, on the other hand, is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. That’s a giant mountain you have to move.

 

So I’m 75 pounds heavier than I was just a couple short years before. Feeling ashamed and insecure. I want to be fit, I could be fit, but I’m just not. And I have two choices. I can start my long, hard journey back to a healthier me–or I can avoid dealing with this problem. Tell myself not to worry about it–it’s okay.

Avoiding it means I also get to avoid dealing head on with how I really feel about myself. Avoidance means a lot more time on the couch for me, a lot less time sweating and feeling insecure at the gym in front of a bunch of people who the world tells me are a hell of a lot “sexier” than me. Avoidance tastes more like pizza and less like broccoli. Avoidance is way easier.

But the stressful issue of my weight remains. It’s not going away. And the longer I avoid it, the worse it’s getting.

Dealing head on with the thing I dread is my other option. I can start the journey I know deep down inside I really want to start. I can start making healthier choices in what I eat, how much I exercise, and when I get to sleep.

So I choose to make the change. I tape up a piece of notebook paper in my closet. Every day I weigh myself and mark my new weight on the paper. Then I pull the hanging clothes back in front of my paper because I feel embarrassed and I don’t want my girlfriend to see my struggle.

I lose 5 pounds and I feel excited. Inspired. Then after the weekend I step on the scale and I’ve gained it back plus a little to spare. I feel my heart in my throat. This happens a few times and I give up.

Avoidance is easier.

After a few sad years of feeling ashamed, powerless, and out of control, my girlfriend helped me make a change–just a couple months before we got engaged. We committed with each other to be in this for the long haul. We completely restructured our day to day lives. The dreaded problem become one of our top priorities. We fought it every day. Not sadly or without a little fun and relaxation here or there. We fought it in a positive light, with excitement and ambition. We fought with consistency and dedication. With focus. It became a major priority.

It no longer was a dark cloud always in the back of my mind. It was my challenge. I felt good about how I was dealing with it. Yes, it was still hard and stressful. But I was dealing with it.

 

Work is really the same way.

Why do heart attacks occur most often on Monday mornings? (It’s true, Google it.) Because we dread going to work. Because there are big, scary, stressful, depressing issues at work. There are the things that cropped up yesterday and there are the things that have been simmering for a long, long time.

Usually when it’s a situation that came out of the blue, you can rip it off like a Band-Aid.

But then there are the underlying realities at work that make our jobs stress us to death. Unrealistic sales goals. An unfair boss. Self-centered co-workers. Irresponsible employees. Our own bad habits. There’s always a mix of these, but usually there’s the big one: When you leave work thinking “If only…”–what’s that “if only?”

Let’s say for example that this is why you dread work these days: “If only my boss would actually listen to me.”

How did we get here? The first time your boss cut you off, you didn’t immediately lose all motivation. So how did it become the big thing you dread about work? I’d argue it’s a mix of two things:

1. It’s happened a lot.

2. It’s become your “mental model.” The way your mind knows and explains how your boss functions at his core.

Sure, it’s your boss’s fault that he keeps talking over you and won’t give you the time of day.

But maybe it’s your “fault” that you’ve let it happen to the point that you think it’s just the way things are, your boss is a jerk, and it’s not going to change.

Notice that this is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. You have so much pent up frustration, and your boss is so entrenched in his habit, that it’s going to be a long, slow, painful, stressful journey to a healthier relationship. You have to retrain the mental model you’ve created for how and why your boss is who you think he is. You have to keep addressing the offense, patiently and positively.

If you start working on it today, and I mean really working on it–making it one of your very top priorities at work–it will slowly get better. More importantly, you’ll feel better–sometimes immediately.

Or you can avoid it. Avoidance is easier.

But it will get worse, and worse, and worse. And one day you’ll suddenly realize, “I hate my job! This is killing me!” And you’ll find yourself completely incapable of dealing with it anymore. And you’ll give up and walk away, battered and bruised.

And then the process will start over with the next “big thing” that goes wrong at your replacement job.

Avoidance or chasing the solution without delay. . . .

 

What if every morning you felt yourself stressing about work, you asked yourself: “What do I dread about going to work?” And then made that your #1 priority for the day?

We can make a practice–a habit–of immediately dealing head on with the things we dread, or we can let Avoidance rob us of time and happiness and continue in a cycle of failure and broken relationships.

What big thing do you dread? What can you do about it today?

 

Picture two different worlds a year from today: A world in which you started dealing head on with your big “what if” today, and a world in which you put it off a little longer.

before & after

 

 

 

Slowly but surely

Life happens slowly. Painfully slowly.

Today I feel like I’ll never have the things I want. And lots of voices tell me I should or could already have them, and make me feel even worse. (#socialmedia)

But things take time and money and hard, hard work. And patience. And perspective.

When I look back at life a year ago, I notice there are a number of big steps I’ve taken. Big, important purchases–like a new car. And other progress. Like weight lost and a more healthy lifestyle. Like becoming a serious runner. Like a new job.

When I got that new car, I felt so awesome about it for a couple weeks. And then my focus drifted back to the other important things I haven’t been able to get or do yet. And that’s where my focus stays mostly.

When I look back at life two years ago, I remember living in a cramped studio on a not-so-nice street. Made a lot less money. But then my best friend and I took each other on a dreamlike adventure to get married and honeymoon on a lake in northern Italy. Made memories and got pictures that we’ll treasure for a lifetime. We got new jobs. Raises. Took a few more steps. Got an awesome new place to live and some new furniture to go with it. Threw a wedding reception for all our friends. Helped a friend get on her feet financially.

Even just the last two years have been so full of progress, growth, gifts, and adventures. But throughout the years I’ve felt again and again like I’m not making progress. Like I’ll never have the time or money to move forward and realize some of my dreams.

And the year before. Another painfully slow year. But I bought a ring and got engaged. And won speech competitions. And got promoted.

I know I’m not the only one who feels like progress happens way too slowly. Life takes so much patience.

When you feel like you’re just running in place, look back at what you didn’t have one or two or three years ago. Look back at what you’ve gotten to experience in the last year and more.

I’ve had an incredible life. I lived in Uganda and Ethiopia and learned Amharic. I’ve spent years enjoying the company of my best friend and sharing together in adventures–with no end in sight. I’ve taken awesome road trips. Made great friends. Spent lots of money on things that make life easier and more fun. Made a home. Learned to cook like a pro and make some killer guacamole. Bought and received so many meaningful gifts. Spent endless hours pouring my heart onto the keys of piano after piano. Put many, many miles on too many pairs of running shoes to count. The list goes on.

And my life doesn’t seem to be nearly over. Which means that list really will keep growing.

But next week I’ll probably have some “I’m-not-making-progress” feelings. Some “Why-can’t-I-afford-that-yet?” frustrations. Some “Will-I-ever-get-there?” moments. And if the past couple years are any indicator, life is sure to throw a few more curve balls my way. Setbacks. Expenses. Discouragements.

This time next year, though, I’ll re-read this blog post. And I bet I’ll be amazed at how many more things will have been added to the list since today.

What about you? What’s on your list? I bet if you sit down and start writing, you’ll feel a little better about where you are and where you’re going.

pjimage

 

You vs You-with

A scientific study published in 1999 examined how we are affected by listening to others’ opinions about us: First, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the negative stereotype that women are bad at math. Later, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the positive stereotype that Asians are good at math. The subjects performed significantly better when seeing themselves as “Asians, who are good at math” than as “women, who are bad at math.”

There’s you. And then there’s you-with-_____.

You with your boss. You being watched by your in-laws. You surrounded by your employees. You feeling nervous with your date. You with the context of your work situation.

While you-with-anything is still the real you, it can be very helpful to not look at yourself only through the context of whatever is currently going on, whoever you’re with. Try looking at just you by yourself. Apart from the other thing, person, or situation.

Why is this so helpful? We have a huge tendency to define ourselves by the people around us and what they think. We tend to become the average of the people closest to us. We want to fit in, to please people. We also constantly hear their voices, even when they’re not talking out loud. What your boss thinks of you. What your parents think of you. What your buddies think of you.

When I look at a big decision I just made, while examining myself primarily in the context of the two or three employees it affects, maybe the big decision looks like a win. But when I do the mental exercise of separating myself and examining the decision in the context of simply who I have always wanted to be, what I really believe and value–maybe I find the decision wasn’t a win for me after all. Maybe it was just a people-pleasing win for somebody else.

Or vice versa. Maybe what you’re constantly feeling small about, because of how you know it looks to your parents, or what your boss thinks of you now–maybe that thing you’re regretting, feeling down about, kicking yourself over every day… maybe that’s exactly what you truly wanted and you need to give yourself some credit, encourage yourself, celebrate your growth.

If you don’t give yourself the credit of judging yourself for yourself, and instead constantly see yourself through the lens of another or in a context inseparable from others, you will say things you don’t really mean, choose things you don’t really want, and become a person you don’t actually believe in.

Of course there’s a limit to all this–if you completely stop considering what others think, you miss out on a lot of valuable feedback and you can start giving people very wrong impressions. You can stop working well as a team and you can hurt people. Being aware of others and how they feel is very important.

But there’s got to be a balance: “How will my employee take this?” must always be accompanied by, “How do I really see this?” And vice versa.

There’s a reason I encourage you mostly to focus on the independent part, though–seeing yourself distinct from the people and situations currently surrounding you. It’s because what we’ve experienced and learned throughout life has pounded an insecurity into us, leaving us constantly, endlessly agonizing over what others think, how they see us and our choices.

That’s the norm in society: Defining your life, your self assessment, and your worth through the lenses of others.

Try being fair to yourself. Give yourself some credit. What do you really think and want? Forget your boss’s opinion for just a minute. Or your parents’ expectations. What do you really, truly, deep down in your heart, believe and want out of yourself? That is immensely more important to your happiness and peace in life than what you know your co-worker is telling his friends about you.

“I am a woman, so I cannot be good at math.”

“I am an Asian, so I can be great at math.”

Or maybe… “I am me, and I love math.”

“Come See Me in My Office”

The dreaded invitation.

“Come see me in my office.”

When you’re the one inviting, here are a few truths to remember…

  • Your employee didn’t wake up this morning intending to make life miserable for you or anyone else.
  • Your employee is trying. If not, there’s a much deeper problem that’s been simmering for a long time.
  • Your employee is probably very nervous or afraid.
  • Your employee will definitely feel misunderstood and possibly bullied.
  • Your employee almost certainly will not say most of what he’s really thinking.
  • Your employee really wants some encouragement after a tough conversation.

And here are a few things to try…

  • Start things off with a less scary invitation: “Do you have a few minutes? I’d like to go over some stuff with you.”
  • Visit your employee in their own office where they’re comfortable.
  • If you need to close the door, tell them it’s because you want both of you to be able to speak freely with each other without having to worry about what anyone else thinks.
  • Show your employee honor by genuinely allowing that their motivations could be very good. Honestly try to understand your employee (they’ll know).
  • Make it a two way conversation. Ask them what their take on the issue is, what factors are causing it, and how you can help.
  • Tell them how much you appreciate them.
  • Ask them for feedback.
  • End on a positive note. Smile. Be truly excited to help each other make things even better!

Unless, of course, you really are just trying to kick them rudely out the door. In which case, you may be the problem…

“How is everything going for you?”

“Is there anything else I can help you with?”

This question has been hammered into the DNA of everyone who’s ever worked with customers and clients. Why? So that the company can make sure its customers are satisfied. And uncover more opportunities to sell.

But that phrase has become essentially as ineffective at ensuring customer satisfaction as the phrase “How are you?” is at learning anything meaningful about your friend.

When someone asks how you are, you say “Fine, thanks!” In order to get the real answer you have to dig deeper. Something along the lines of, “Everything been going okay for you lately at work/with the family, etc?”

Similarly, when a customer service representative says “Is there anything else I can help you with?” we automatically say “No.” Unless we were already planning on speaking up about something else. That question has become very bad at actually getting useful information out of customers or uncovering other areas in which clients can be helped.

Here also, we should be digging a little deeper. “Can you tell me how everything has been going with your relationship with us?” “Is there anything we can be doing differently that would help you?” “How’s your experience been with us in the last year?”

Customer surveys are a decent shortcut. But they’re just that–a shortcut–and your customer knows it. Having that conversation yourself with your customer builds more rapport and trust. Your customer feels valued, heard, and genuinely cared for.

Imagine you have a large client who regularly depends on your company for a vital service. Let’s say the client has become frustrated with a lack of promptness from your team, and it has become a big enough problem that they’ve started considering other companies to use. Finally, with no warning, they make the phone call to close out their account. You’re shocked and insist you’ll do anything to help them. But it’s too late. They wouldn’t be ending their relationship if they hadn’t already set up a new relationship with a different company to take your place. And since they’ve got that up and running, you don’t have much going for you. It doesn’t mean the relationship absolutely can’t be salvaged, but you are at a serious disadvantage.

This scenario applies to almost any business. If someone needs a bank account, they don’t close their accounts until they’ve found a replacement. If someone needs an equipment supplier, they don’t end their relationship until they’ve found a supplier they think will serve them better. If someone needs a Human Resources management system, they won’t deactivate their current system until they’ve got the replacement set up and ready to go.

That means waiting till customers bring up their concerns can put you at a huge disadvantage.

What if you and your whole team were always proactive to check in with your clients? Not “Anything else?” or “How are you?” Instead, legitimately checking in–like “What have we been doing well for you lately, and what has been causing problems for you?” or “How can we serve you even better?”

Some customers wear their hearts on their sleeves. But others don’t. And if you want to keep those customers, you have to get them to open up to you before it’s too late.

I do this and and I’ve seen my own team members try it, and I can tell you it’s a game changer for sure.