Seeking work-life balance led me on a fruitless path. I made a huge breakthrough when I threw this quest away. This very popular phrase pits “life” and “work” against each other like they are opposing forces. The phrase implies work is against life, and therefore work is bad. I love work, and so I needed a new paradigm. Ultimately I discovered work is life and life is work, and teasing these apart is a fool’s game.
Work-life balance is ultimately about priority. Its quest is to solve how too much work does not destroy the rest of your life. Or a way to continue your work even when other pieces of life need more attention.
When I transitioned from finding work-life balance into finding priority, I ended up with 5 Big Trees. But before visiting the trees, I need to talk about the rocks in which they grow on top.
Stephen Covey teaches about “big rocks” in the following video: https://youtu.be/zV3gMTOEWt8.
When my life is growing, each of my Big Trees is healthy. When my life is stuck, one of these trees is sick.
The big rock concept was a game-changer for me. Discovering, exploring, and tracking my “big rocks” helped me tremendously. The metaphor stopped working as life shifted and grew. Rocks are static, and they are independent of each other. My priorities are always growing and going through cycles, and my priorities are dependent on each other.
So I discovered trees are a more accurate metaphor. If my life is a forest, then there are 5 Big Trees that the rest of the forest depends on to give nourishment, protection, and shape. Trees in a forest compete for sunlight and space, just like our priorities compete for time and energy. When I nurture my Big 5 trees, the rest of my life flourishes.
5 Big Trees
- Health: The most critical tree. My life is built on my physical, mental, and spiritual health. When any of these areas of health fail me, life falls apart. Ultimately this is the tree that matters.
- Home: The tree that gives protection. This tree is about caring for myself and the people I live with. It includes shared resources of food gathering and preparation, shelter, and security that we share. It also includes nurturing the relationships of my immediate family. I’ve learned managing shared resources is a big part of supporting our relationships.
- Career: The tree that gives resources. This tree is the symbiotic relationship of doing something useful and getting paid in return. It can make a positive impact on the world. More importantly, it provides the resources needed for the other trees. This tree includes the education that will allow for career growth. The most important part of this tree is that it gives resources.
- Life energy: The tree that manages time and money. This tree includes managing calendars and budgets. More importantly, it is the financial planning and life goals planning. It is mapping how I want to spend my time and the resources needed to accomplish these goals.
- Purpose: This is the impact I make in the universe. This is the work that lights the energy inside me. This tree is the discovery and creation that excites me when I wake up and brings satisfaction when I go to bed. Creating cubicleMonks is a big piece of my purpose. Finding the distinction between the Purpose tree and the Career tree was a powerful discovery in my life.
The trees are in priority order meaning the higher the priority, the more it will block my life if the tree needs attention. For example, if I’m sick and have poor health, the rest of the trees will also suffer. It makes no sense to focus on the Life Energy Tree if my Career Tree needs more attention since my work funds my investments.
While there is a priority order of importance, all trees need to be healthy to achieve a thriving life. If my purpose tree is dying and not getting attention, it doesn’t matter how well the other trees are doing. I will be dissatisfied with life.
When I plan my day, week, month, year, I review these trees in this order, which can quickly bring to light what needs the most attention.
The trees depend on each other.
This metaphor’s fruitful gift is discovering how the trees support each other. Finding the ways the trees support each other is where I get the big wins and move beyond work vs. family’s false dilemma. Good health provides the energy to do the work of the other trees. Working with family on shared dreams will support the Home Tree, Life Energy Tree, and Purpose Tree. Taking a non-violent communication class nurtures the Family Tree, the Career Tree, and the Purpose Tree. Taking a walk in nature at lunchtime while talking to a friend about investments can water each of the trees at once. When I decide where to invest my focus, I take a critical assessment of which trees need attention. When life is inflow, I’m very strategic in finding ways to nurture multiple trees at once. When life hits me hard, it is one of these trees that is sick and needs critical attention. Until I can bring that tree back to health, the entire forest will be suffering.
Trees support the squirrels and flowers.
If I give all my attention to just these five areas of life, what about the other important things like friends and extended family, hobbies, travel, etc. I call these areas of life the bushes, flowers, and wildlife. There are many squirrels to chase and berries to pick in a healthy forest. Healthy trees create a habitat for an abundant life. The beauty of focusing on my 5 Big Trees is that I have more time and energy for the other beautiful pieces of life.
When life is in flow, I have extra energy for doing the other things in life that bring comfort and joy. Listening to music with a friend brings me a lot of joy. But this activity isn’t available to me if one of the trees in my forest is sick. Or worse, it is destructive to listen to music with a friend if my Home Tree needs attention. Learning this distinction between the Big Trees versus the squirrels and flowers brought a significant life shift. Even if joyful and nurturing, chasing shiny things turned healthy activities into harmful distractions if a Big Tree was sick.
Discovering your Big Trees.
It took many years to get specific on my 5 Big Trees. Ultimately, it was following wisdom from other sources that brought me to these trees—also, a lot of mistakes. For example, I invested too much focus in the Career Tree, and I became a workaholic that poisoned the other trees.
My biggest mistakes always came from putting trees at a higher priority than my Health Tree. I believe everyone needs to have the Health Tree as their most important focus. At the end of the day, all we have is our health.
Because the tree discovery takes a long time, I recommend starting with my 5 Big Trees. These trees cover health, relationship, work, time, money, purpose, which are some of the most likely struggles we all face. The critical piece here is not the trees but the reflection on the trees. You can do your daily, weekly, monthly, annual reviews by starting with these trees. Is your life growing? Is your forest healthy? Studying your forest’s health considering these trees will help you discover your Big Trees.
When all of my Big Trees are nourished, my forest is alive and joyful. Giving focus to nurturing a forest can be overwhelming. Instead, I focus on these Big Trees, and everything else falls in place. I can look back and giggle at my past attempts to find a “work-life balance.”
I was huddled together with a group of men who were surrounded by women. I was confused. The silence was deafening.
I was attending corporate training on diversity, the instructor asked, “What is it like to be a man working at our company?” Like all of the activities this week, I knew this exercise would also be powerful, but I wasn’t getting it. For the first time all week, we guys didn’t have words. None of the men could answer what it is like to be a man at our company.
Next was the women’s turn. They huddled in the middle, surrounded by the men with the question, “What is it like being a woman in your company.”
Oh my, the dialog was rich. I can’t remember the actual discussion topics. But I will never forget the stark difference in the conversation. Especially the silence. Before that moment, I had never considered my gender at work.
The gender bias in the technology world is deep and wide and destructive.
I recently watched the movie, The Social Network about the founding of Facebook, with my son. I was hoping to inspire him on the possibility of creation in technology. I didn’t remember how awful the portrayal of the sexes was in the film. The boys were smart and powerful, and the girls were there to give them pleasure. Gross! Even more disgusting, the movie portrayed the boys’ motivation to create powerful technology so that women would like them. Barf! I’m glad we watched the movie together. A great teaching moment.
I only have the experience of being a cis-gendered male. I’m not going to write about what it is like to be a woman in the workplace because I don’t know.
But I do know some things:
- Companies pay men more than their women teammates.
- There are a lot more men in technology.
- Men disproportionately hold more management positions.
- Our society and culture require more family responsibilities for women than men.
- Men are groomed for competition from a very early age.
- It is easier for men to take personal credit for group work.
More than unfair.
I read an article that explained, “Men build technology to replace their Moms. Women create technology to save the world.”
Gender bias goes deeper than just being unfair to women. This bias is hurting everyone. For me, it’s about creating the best products possible. I am responsible for designing and building medical equipment. My company tasks me with creating medical equipment that is easy to use. I have the personal responsibility to build a system that best meets the clinical need.
The team of engineers creating this technology is mostly men. Women operate our systems on lots of women patients. How can a bunch of men possibly create the best system possible? I don’t think we can. Gender imbalance is personal as it prevents me from meeting my highest goals of making the best medical systems possible.
Technology has an opportunity to solve many of the world’s problems. Instead, we are unknowingly building destructive technology because it doesn’t represent the people it will serve. Gender bias is a significant cause.
cubicleMonks can bring me shame
The word monk is not gender-neutral. Monk has male connotations.
Am I perpetuating this gender bias with the name of this website? Can a woman call herself a cubicleMonk? Are there women who could be served by cubicleMonks in this community who would stay away because of the name?
So far, I have gotten tremendous positive feedback for this site from many women. I haven’t heard of a woman being blocked. So I don’t see the name as a barrier yet. Please let me know if you see an obstacle.
Instead, I am using this struggle over the site’s name to give thought and voice to the gender inequality found in cubicles. I am exploring if this flawed name can be leveraged to voice the travesty of gender bias.
It’s not just about fairness. It’s ok if you are a man and don’t see the inequality. I’m blind to most of it, and I’m writing this article. But if you believe all humans have the same potential regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, then you are obligated to look around the office and see who isn’t there. Look at the management or executive team and see who isn’t there.
It’s not binary
The corporate training I discussed above was almost 20 years ago. Sometimes when I look around the office and especially the management meetings, things don’t look much different. But, I can see progress around gender not being binary, which was not a topic I heard discussed 20 years ago. I now know there is no “male” and “female.” Our biology is much more interesting than this and another area of growth and exploration for me. It is so ingrained in my being that “I am man” that it is challenging for me to understand fully. But exploring this rainbow both internally and externally is critical for society and me.
What should I do?
If you self identify as a man and are inspired or curious by reading this article, please don’t jump into action. Instead, next week in all of your meetings, try to be silent. Instead, just listen and observe the conversations. Who is speaking and who isn’t. Who is speaking and not heard? This exercise has provided me with tremendous discovery.
Everyone, please do me a favor. Please speak up and reach out to me if you ever observe my words or actions that could be more inclusive.
Why in the hell did I take even take a vacation? It’s going to take months to catch up!
Why do I even work? I was happy hiking through the forest, and this meeting is making me miserable!
Why is everyone so rushed and rude?
Look at all of the things going wrong. I suck at work.
I hate my job!
These are voices I often hear in my head the first day back to work.
Until recently, these were more than voices. They dictated my choices and brought me down. They caused my energy to deplete, and I would quickly lose the benefits of the rest I had received on vacation.
Now, these voices are more just an amusement. I know I will get a cold bucket of water dumped over my head. I also know that most likely tomorrow, I will be back to loving work again.
The key to this transformation is to accept today is going to be hard. Tomorrow will be better.
The first day back from vacation can bring some golden insights if I pay careful attention. Working day in and day out, we often have become immune to parts of the job that don’t serve me.
If I pay careful attention, the shock can help highlight ways to improve my work.
On the first day back:
- I see people treating simple things as emergencies. With a fresh perspective, I realize that most things are not “fires.” This realization prevents me from not getting caught in the frenzy.
- I get run over by the faster pace. While away from work, I tend to slow down. Getting back up to speed and handling the rapid pace just takes some time. But it is also a reminder to help slow things down. This fast pace doesn’t always help.
- I hear more aggressive speech. I’m not used to the raw directness and urgency in which everyone speaks. A reminder to use more gentle communication is another way to help bring more calm to the office.
- It is more clear the parts of my job I most dislike. When I realize these activities, I can find ways to do less of these activities. For example, pointless meetings are excruciating on the first day back. This is an opportunity and reminder to get out of these meetings.
My strategy for the day is to focus on completing productive tasks. The first day back is not the time to figure everything out or develop strategies to fix everything. I can’t really go too wrong if I just start getting things done. It is easier than trying to figure out the reasoning behind the madness. Finding productive tasks is quite easy as the important stuff has a way of getting in your face as soon as you turn on the computer. Focusing on productive tasks allows me to ease back into the madness that I will end up loving the next day.
On the first day back from vacation, I’m never ready for the shock of the cold bucket of water, but I know it is coming. It is almost comical as I observe when the moment of terror happens. Then I look forward to the moment when I realize I enjoy my work. These realizations now prevent me from throwing away the relaxation from vacation as soon as I return to work.
It’s 3 am. I’m huddled under the covers staring at glowing images of my addiction. I know I’ve hit rock bottom when I’m in on my phone in bed studying the latest political polls.
There is a correlation between my happiness and my knowledge of the current political world. It might seem like paying attention to political news might lead me to unhappiness, but following politics is my escape. Somehow knowing what is going on in the outside world will give me some kind of control in my daily life.
I recently hit that rock bottom. I can tell you the polling trends of the top 10 swing states. But for the first time, I hit rock bottom and didn’t feel like I was a bad person. I kept hope in my heart.
Of course, I don’t like how I felt. Laying in bed on my phone makes me feel like crap. I’m disappointed that I’m not practicing the habits that serve me. I feel shame that I’m not accomplishing my goals.
For the most part, I dropped all of my nine healthy habits. I was eating junk food before bed. I barely had the energy for work and basic family chores.
Despite all of the above ugliest, I kept joy in my heart and didn’t feel like a bad person.
Here are some tips on how I didn’t hate myself during a very dark time.
- I stayed aware of what is going on: wildfires keeping me inside AND the pandemic that creates suffering and fear for everyone either directly or indirectly.
- I acknowledged that these things were not going to go away.
- I accepted that I was responsible for what I did and didn’t do despite these external events.
- I asked my family for help.
- I enjoyed the escapes of political news, tv, food, and just relaxing.
By staying present in all of the ugly feelings, I avoided the self-criticism that turns darkness into suffering.
By staying present and joyful during this crash, I learned some things.
First, I realized what was truly going on. I’m burnt out. The day we started the shelter in place, I committed to being a leader at home and work. I realized that being there for so many people had worn me down. The breaking of habits and just letting things go was a beautiful response to being burned out. The burnout snuck up on me. It slowly piled up week after week, and I didn’t realize how heavy it got.
When I realized the burnt out, I learned two great pieces of advice for handling this:
Vagueness is prohibitive to health. In other words, to make healthy changes, you need to be precise about what you will do. What, when, and how are you going to exercise or change what you eat.
The only discipline needed to care for yourself is merely putting your oxygen mask on first. In other words, commit to doing the small healthy habits that will prevent burn-out. Do these ahead of any other task you might do for other people, including family and work.
It seems silly that I fall apart because of burning out and didn’t realize what was going on. But it is sad how many times I have beat myself up for being “bad” and also being blind to what was really going on.
I am walking away from this latest crash relatively uninjured and some new tools to get very sharp on bringing back those habits that serve me well.
Are you in a job that prevents you from living your dream? Can you see where you want to go, but your current life makes it seem impossible to start?
I have good news. I was blocked, and now I’m living my dream life. Here is my formula for how to start.
The hard way
Does someone need to go through tragedy to start on the path of their dreams? Waiting for the piercing boost of pain to inspire change works excellent for motivation. This is the traditional way we watch in the movies. But it is hard to put this inspiration into action. Healing myself and pursuing dreams at the same time, turned messy.
The day after my son died, I started meditating, journaling, writing, learning, and pursuing a life of meaning. The trauma of his short and painful life gave me the inspiration to live my life. The growth out of the ashes is always inspiring. Heck, I’m using that growth to help tell the story right now.
It took me eight painful years of suffering and healing from the trauma and grief to get to me to a life of meaning.
A life of meaning requires personal growth. I can not create a new powerful thing without learning new skills and also new ways of being. A life of meaning requires exploration into new areas of discomfort that allow for discovery.
Doing this exploration while also healing the raw wounds of trauma is painful. Growing pushes us into new places, and when these new places hit raw nerves, it hurts. For me, learning meditation while also having spouts of anger brought me to high levels of shame. This shame continuously sent me backward.
It didn’t seem wise to jump into a life of meaning when I had so much healing work. I still have shame that I didn’t fully focus on a meaningful life before Finn’s death. Had I learned the tools of a better way of living before this trauma, I would have caused a lot less suffering for myself and others that I love.
Meaning from a place of peace:
The movie I want to watch is the hero walking through a meadow. Seeing a soft spot in a sea of wildflowers, they take a seat. A pause gives a reflection of peace. In this place of peace, their dreams unfold before them. As the dreams turn real in their imagination, they leap up and start building their dream. To come from a place of peace, and finding the action to start the dream sounds magical.
This story is total BS. There is a reason the above movie isn’t playing. No one would believe it.
The reality is that we are all living with our daily traumas. Our health, family, and continuous crisis in our workplace block us. Before my son died, I was also living in everyday chaos. At that time, I was too consumed by life to consider following a dream. Growing my career for more money to save for retirement was the pursuit of my life’s dream.
Waiting until the sun started shining never created anything. Rainbows need rain.
Your life is hard, and you want more. That is why you are reading this article.
My formula is straightforward. Do a small act of kindness for myself. This small step brings the energy and growth for another step, and these small steps put me on the path of a life of meaning. Living in this way connects my dreams to reality.
The trap I fell into was taking on audacious goals that didn’t serve me in the beginning. Saying I’m going to start training for a marathon tomorrow sets me up for a painful failure. Walking around the block today is a more impactful act.
The day after my son died, I committed myself to a life of meaning. This audacious pursuit led to a brutal and disruptive eight years. I don’t think it would have been so hard if the day my son died, I did one small loving act for myself and accepted this was living a life of meaning.
Doing small loving acts for ourselves every day is what I call a life of meaning. These small acts add up and create openings. These openings create space to build our dreams.
The hardest part is starting:
Everyone knows the first step is the hardest. But for me, every step is the first step.
I currently track 9 acts of self-kindness that I do every day:
- Morning: breathing, yoga, and meditation
- Day time: meditation, learning, body movement
- Night time: play, stretching, meditation
These acts give me the focus and energy to take on my commitments of health, family, work, and cubicleMonks. These steady habits are the bedrock of my daily life. But, the reality is that I don’t do each one of these every day.
Doing each habit is a start. Every time I sit to meditate, I am starting. A missed stretching session in the evening is not a failure. Instead, each stretch is a start to my life of meaning. When each action is a “start,” the missed “goals” are no longer failures. They turn into golden pieces of information. The misses illuminate a disruption in life that may need attention.
You don’t need to take any action. Reading a blog article is an act of self-love. Congratulations, you have started.
For your next action, find an act of kindness for your mind or body that you can spend 10 minutes a day doing. After a month, you will see a shift. I guarantee you will have the energy and focus needed to start seeing your dreams unfold.
Next, find a guide. There is someone in your life who you admire who would be happy to work with you through a struggle or growth opportunity. I’m always here for you: http://cubiclemonks.com/mentoring/.
Are you burnt out AND struggling to complete your work on time? These are dangerous problems that seem opposing. They are both solved with one easy solution. I close my laptop at 5 pm every day.
The COVID-19 lockdown brings time management traps to light. With most of daily life shut down, it is easy to work any hour of any day. This sounds amazing, but it is a false gift that leads to the scary place of burnout without accomplishment.
First trap, if we work most hours, we will burn out. Our brains are muscles, and they will tire, which leads to mistakes and losing the motivation for work.
Second trap, if you know you can work all day long, it is too easy to work on low priority tasks before high priority tasks. You falsely think you have plenty of time to get to the important stuff. Sometimes we subconsciously put off the crucial work because it is harder than the trivial tasks. Completing something easy gives a false sense of accomplishment when doing a critical job is what is needed.
These two dangers breed into severe problems when we spend 12 hours working on low priority junk, and get burnt out before we got the critical work done.
Elixir out of poison:
This article isn’t just a manager’s motivational speech. I learned this skill through a painful and scary year, where I almost had to give up work permanently.
I was poisoned last year during a medical procedure. This attack on my health severely limited my ability to work for months. A year later, I’m thankful for all of I learned and grew from the experience. One of the most valuable lessons was how to prioritize my work.
During the worst of the sickness on any given day, I had no idea if I could work and, if so, for how long. I was fortunate that my company and boss were flexible and that I had lots of PTO.
Every morning, I woke up with the worst feeling hangover I can imagine. My brain was buzzing in total fog with sharp pain. I never knew if my brain would wake up. Could I go to work, or would I be stuck on the couch all day? My wife and I figured out a morning sobriety test. I would take my medicine and sit and have coffee and sometimes even play video games to stimulate my brain. After an hour or two, my wife would make the call if I were safe to drive. We knew if I could drive, then by the time I made it work, I would be able to be productive. But I never knew how long. I usually had about 6 hours until fatigue set in, and I would need to jump in the car and get home.
These limited and unpredictable working hours gave me an advanced degree in priority management. I didn’t know how long my workday would last, and I never knew when I next would be in the office. This uncertainty forced me to only work on the most critical tasks.
I quickly learned how to find critical tasks. Jumping on the first shiny object could lead to something essential, not getting done. If I spend 3 hours in email and 3 hours in stupid meetings, my entire working day is wasted without providing value.
I quickly learned to drop all non-productive work and useless conversations. I had no choice but to learn to work efficiently and effectively. Being productive at work turned into a tremendous medicine. It reminded me that I had value, and it motivated me to get better. I needed to keep working and find ways to be productive, given limited time and energy.
Handling email was a critical lesson. It turns out browsing my email looking for the 20% that must be read and the 10% that need responses takes almost no time. Quickly scanning my email for something important takes seconds. Most of the emails that require attention could be addressed in less than 2 minutes. I learned the discipline to immediately take care of something that takes less than 5 minutes to complete.
Training, expense reports, and timesheets are tasks I hate, but it turns out they are easy and require almost no energy. Even though they don’t seem valuable, they are necessary – no reason to delay. I didn’t have time to wait since I didn’t know the next time I would be back in the office. I no longer waste time writing these tasks on todo lists or carrying the emotional burden of leaving them incomplete. Now, I just do them.
Efficiently getting through the useless pieces of work, allows the time and energy to accomplish meaningful results without having to overextend.
Another more subtle learning was that I didn’t need to spend much time on strategy, planning, or todo lists. Most of the time, it is quite apparent the three most critical tasks. There is no need to spend time strategizing when it is obvious what needs to get done. Cutting out the planing saves mental energy. Do the most important thing first and do the minimal but necessary work to drive it to a conclusion — this harsh but straightforward way of working allowed me to thrive during these three months of uncertainty.
I discovered I enjoyed my work a lot more during this poisoning. I only took-on the highest value and highest impact tasks, and I made sure I completed them. Dropping the non-value tasks and energy-sucking meetings gave the space for making progress despite my limited availability. Hyper focused priority management makes me feel more productive and valuable.
I was within days of needing to go on disability. I was within one day of no more PTO. But just in time, I found the treatments I needed. I was eventually able to get back to full speed.
This extreme training ground showed me how to complete 45 hours of work during an unpredictable 30 hours. I kept these new skills and mindsets of being a lot more productive. Now I have the extra time and energy to do even more in-depth and impactful work during reasonable working hours.
I learned that intentionally limiting your work hours will force priorities, better decisions, more focus, and bring more fun to work since you are working on what truly matters.
For one week, boot-up and shut-down your computer at the same time every day. What does it feel like to end your day with tasks undone? Do these feelings help prioritize the next day? After one week, observe how, with the limited time, you naturally migrate to the essential work.
Does your anger frighten you? Do you run away and hide from it?
There was a time when I verbally attacked people when angry. Or I would injure me with beer or ice cream.
I learned not to attack when angry, but avoiding, ignoring, or stuffing anger is not useful either. It could cause a build-up, bringing an eruption, or just make me waste energy “stewing.”
Even if I can handle anger without being destructive, I am wasting a powerful and useful emotion.
Anger gives me energy, purpose, and opportunity for discovery.
The energy I gained from a drained battery.
I slammed the car door, DAMN IT. My wife had forgotten to charge the electric car. At first, I was pissed. Then I allowed myself to get angry. My blood was boiling, and I just let it flow. I slammed another door, even LOUDER, with even more colorful vocabulary.
This was the first time I intentionally allowed myself to be angry. It felt amazing. Slamming a door felt incredible as my heart was beating faster and faster. It was like the excitement on the top of a roller coaster just before plunging. I stayed with this feeling.
I asked myself, “Why are you angry?” My first thought was there was no way I was angry at my wife. I had zero ill will. She had taken the car to do something useful for the family and forgot to plug in the car, and this was understandable and not even frustrating.
I realized I was angry because I would have to drive the gasoline car. It is loud, and I hate burning fossil fuels. Then I was hit with even more compassion. Every other day of the week, my wife drives the “noisy” car. I felt even more love for her. My anger was real, but the cause wasn’t really a big deal.
I started getting scared. I knew she heard me. I didn’t know if she connected the dots of why I was angry. We have craters in our relationship because of my anger.
Did I make a mistake letting my anger out? I went back inside to get the other keys, and she wondered what was wrong. When I said, I was going to drive her car. She gasped with, “Oh no, I forgot to charge the car.” I gave her a huge hug. During the embrace, I could feel that my anger did not pass on to her. I knew she was disappointed for me, but I could tell she wasn’t feeling shame. Avoiding stupid fights like these save enormous amounts of time and energy.
The real gold is being able to transfer the energy gained by anger into something useful. It was an energetic drive to work. I’m sure I solved all of the world’s problems during the commute. I was in shock and awe that I could be so angry, and this energy didn’t fall on my wife. I could harness anger and not run away from it or hide or, more importantly, throw it at someone else.
I don’t remember what I accomplished that day at work, but it must have been a lot. I remember bouncing into the gasoline car at the end of the day, singing the praises of the drained battery and the energy and power I gained from the anger.
It’s not easy.
Turning anger into energy, purpose, and discovery is not easy. It’s a skill that takes a lot of practice. Learning this skill turns destruction into growth and is well worth the practice.
Here are the steps I go through when I feel anger:
- STOP: When I recognize anger, I know I need to stop and take a quick assessment of the situation. Immediate action may be required. Or, more importantly, immediate NON ACTION might be best.
- Pause and FEEL. Can I feel it in my body? I feel my chest tighten, and I can feel my blood pump in my veins. It is critical to know what anger feels like physically. This recognition will help me recognize anger in the future.
- Discover the cause of this anger. Often a perceived injustice happened. For me, often the injustice comes from fear. What am I afraid of that is bringing this anger? This discovery will lead to useful action.
- Find an ACTION that brings growth. The first action inspired by anger may be destructive. Justice towards a person who caused my anger might feel appropriate. But most of the time, trying to change another person is not that useful and could cause destruction instead of growth. Find an action that brings maximum benefit outside of the actual injustice.
- I enjoy this boost of energy. I am transforming anger into growth.
The next time you recognize your anger, welcome it like a friend, not an enemy. Don’t push it or bury it or pass it to someone else. Instead, allow the anger to be with you. Pay attention to what happens when you welcome anger. What can you learn? How can you put your boost of energy into useful action?
“You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit,” said a state politician presenting at a leadership camp. This speech brought cheers from a crowd of teenage boys.
Decades later, I hear this quote ringing even louder. My passion is serving people who are suffering in their work, and cubicleMonks is one way I’m pursuing this mission. The problem is I have no experience in creating a webpage or an online presence. My writing was never a strength.
I’m serving with crap.
What is your dream?
Do you have a passion, but you’re afraid to jump into a new arena? Is there a new position or promotion that seems too far away? Perhaps you need to create something that doesn’t exist.
Getting stuck in the self-judgment of not being, having, or knowing enough is wasted energy. Yet this is what we all do. It is tough to rewire ourselves for new opportunities.
It is critical to move past this barrier and into discovery and learning.
I’ve done this before
I’m currently in a job I love. I manage a team of software engineers building medical equipment. It wasn’t luck or formal education or innate talent that put me into this leadership position. I am a shy, introverted, analytical engineer. I realized what I loved was building life-saving medical systems. If I write the software, I know my piece of code will help patients. But it was frustrating that not all of the software could best help the patients, and I couldn’t write all of the code. So I needed to jump into leadership so that I could influence the larger product, not just my small piece.
I needed to grow new skills to take on new responsibilities.
The trick I’ve found in making these big leaps is that we can’t rely on the systems and tools that got us this far. Our formal education and training brought us to high levels, but this falls apart as we get more specialized in what we do. A class, book, or degree wasn’t enough to help me thrive in this new position.
I needed to grow my: leadership skills, communication skills, domain knowledge, relationships with the larger broader development team, and learn the culture of the company. All of these unique skills woven together are almost impossible to find in a class or a book.
As you can see from the previous list, my transition into a new leadership role required seeking mentors and connections to people who could give me advice and feedback.
Steps for jumping into a dream:
The basic formula for mastery is quite simple: Do, learn, correct.
Here is the strategy I am using for cubicleMonks, and I think it applies to the pursuit of most dreams.
- Do your first action. There is always a related task to what you ultimately want to do. Find it, jump in, and don’t be afraid to make crap.
- Find mentors. Are there people you admire doing similar things to what you want to do? Talk to them. Most everyone loves taking someone under their wings, and your first action will inspire them to help move you forward.
- Seek people who are willing to give valuable feedback. Feedback is where you truly learn.
- Go have fun turning the crap into something valuable.
If you made it this far, would you do me a favor?
Could you give me feedback at cubicleMonks@gmail.com? Do you see crap or value? Your input will help me serve you better (see step 3 above.) Thank you.
When training in discomfort, how long should you hold the emotion? The easy but very challenging answer is to hold the emotion as long as it remains an act of kindness. If it turns into torture or you become possessed by it, then you held it too long.
My practice in discomfort:
Holding discomfort as kindness or torture is an essential distinction to discover if you are a cubicleMonk. If you have survived a cubicle or earned a challenging degree, then you most likely have bulging determination muscles. We can spend all weekend in a lab in college to finish an assignment. We know how to grind endless hours to finish a project at work.
This skill of pushing oneself hard in a tortuous way does not help in practicing emotional discomfort. This blocked me for years. I tortured and abused myself during meditation, yoga, and other reflective practices. This brought negative results, harm, and prevented growth.
It took me a long time to drop the stubbornness and find the awareness to detect when the discomfort turns from an act of love to an act of cruelty. This is not easy but it brings growth.
I practice physical discomfort because this is how I learn to hold emotional discomfort.
For example, cold showers. Some mornings, my body needs a cold shower as it brings excitement and health benefits. This shock is kind. But some mornings the shock is too much. Turning on the cold water would be torture. I have learned to know when I need to step into cold or warm water.
Another example is running. Most runners don’t find enjoyment in each actual step. But they know it’s good for their health and they enjoy the sense of accomplishment and growth. With the proper amount of pushing, they can increase their running capacity. But push too hard and they will become injured.
These are both healthy physical activities and I also use them to observe and train my mind to observe my feelings. This discovery of kindness versus torture is a way I practice holding emotional discomfort. Through these physical practices, I have learned to observe my mind and feelings to know when I need to step out of the discomfort.
Real personal growth happens when I can sit with emotion. When I can recognize it, accept it, learn from it, and then take action or even better take no action, then the magic happens.
First salt and alcohol, then chocolate:
This was our evening routine after our son died.
We did many unwise things after Finn’s death. But this wasn’t one of them. The salty chips with beer or tequila followed by chocolate were acts of kindness. Our bodies were craving salt, sweetness, and comfort.
I bring this up as a positive example of when to stop holding the emotion. The trauma and grief were deep and painful. But we were doing the work. This is when I started to learn meditation. This is when I started writing. We were going to grief counseling, grief groups, and opening ourselves to this pain. I was going to work. We were raising our older son. We were even taking evening walks on most days. But by the end of the day, we had to let go. I can still taste the IPA, chips, and chocolate while watching Veronica Mars, one of our favorite tv shows.
Looking back, I have regrets about many of my actions during these times of deep grief. But when I unravel the regrets, most are because I was holding too tight. Holding the pain so tight that I would fall apart leaving a path of destruction.
I am still a kindergarten meditator. But I was stuck for a very long time in meditation pre-school because of the determination and grit I applied to myself when my mind wandered. It wasn’t until I shifted to a “hey there, welcome back to the party” attitude when I recognized my wandering mind that I was able to free myself into deeper meditation.
Find a healthy physical activity that allows you to feel discomfort. Practice staying only long enough that you don’t torture yourself. Now apply this to a feeling like anger. Feel and observe this anger until before you become possessed by it. Then let it go by a healthy action. This is challenging stuff but it will lead to tremendous growth.
Almost everyone has a bias when seeing the color of someone’s skin. The ramifications are huge and the solutions unclear.
How this applies to cubicleMonks:
We know scientifically that humans are hard-wired to make judgments about people based on what we initially see. In the cubicle, we can always spot another engineer. I don’t need to see a pocket protector to recognize an engineer across the room.
We also see a lot of cultural and ethnic diversity in the tech world. This is something I appreciate about my work. Thanks to co-workers, I have learned volumes about the world. Following the aftermath of 9/11, a work friend from Pakistan and I shared deep and impactful stories about what it meant to our worlds. I have learned first-hand cultural treats from almost all corners of the world. I love spicy food thanks to shared meals with work friends.
I would say racial and cultural diversity is appreciated in the tech world, for the most part. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have large problems around the negative effects of racial bias.
Here are some questions I have:
- Based on race, do people feel like they are supposed to be smarter than others?
- Based on race, do people feel like they need to prove they are also smart?
- Based on race, do people feel like they need to be the best because they were given the easiest path and most opportunity?
- Based on race, do people question every day if they even belong in the cubicle?
Pondering the questions above, I am shocked to realize the biased expectations I have of myself and others.
These and other biases slow us down. They require unnecessary personal energy and block us from working efficiently with each other. As a leader in my company, I am responsible for us operating at maximum efficiency. Teams can’t reach their peak performance in a racially biased environment. This hurts me and my company in addition to the individual pains brought on by the biases.
The cubicles and the larger society will not be able to run at our highest efficiency and make the biggest impact for everyone if we don’t solve the racial bias problem.
While watching a panel of experts talk about race following the murder of George Floyd, a white woman on the panel asked “What are you willing to give up to stop racism?” This made my heart heavy. The first thing that came to mind was what I was NOT willing to give up.
I am not willing to give up my physical safety or the physical safety of my family. This isn’t fair. It isn’t right. People of Color put their physical lives at risk every time they go outside. In the case of Breonna Taylor, she didn’t even need to go outside – she was just sleeping in her own bed when she was killed. Wrestling with these injustices, I went to bed with a heavy heart.
My head hurt more than usual when I woke up the next day. My energy was lower and so I just sat drinking my first cup of coffee instead of jumping straight into action. As I was filling my second cup, I received clarity on what I was willing to give up to stop racism.
Today, I am still not willing to risk my physical safety. My family and my work team need me to be healthy.
But I am willing to be vulnerable and admit that I am part of the racial bias problem. I am racist. I am not proud of this. It is quite shameful. It isn’t by choice, but recognizing it gives me responsibility and opportunity for discovery, growth, and change.
“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” – Ijeoma Oluo.
Pay attention to the skin colors you see in your life. Do you have an initial judgment of a person based on their skin color? Are there colors of skin that you see a lot? Are there colors of skin you aren’t seeing? Please don’t take action. First, just sit with the feelings that come up around skin color. Then for the next step, I don’t know what to do. The problem of racial bias is too complex for me to fully understand or proclaim answers. I need to keep listening and observing.