Work that's truly rewarding requires that we that we commit ourselves fully to the endeavor. We have "skin in the game," you might say, like an investor who's putting his own capital on the line. In this sense, coaching my clients and students isn't just (or even) a job, it's a highly personal experience in which I take real risks in the service of meaningful gains. And I suspect the same is true for you and your work, in one way or another.
But while having skin in the game allows us to do our best work, it also exposes us to risk. When we succeed it's all the more gratifying, and when we struggle, it's all the more disheartening. And I've had some challenges over the past week that have led me to reflect both on how I manage my response in the moment and on how I recover from setbacks over time. While I've written before about learning from mistakes and continue to apply those lessons, I've also found myself relying on the following simple guidelines:
1) Own Up To It
I'm not afraid of making mistakes; I've learned that perfection is damning evidence that I'm playing it safe, aiming too low and doing a disservice to my clients and students. But I still feel the sting of embarrassment and shame when I do make a mistake, and my first impulse in response to those emotions is to reject them and distract attention from their source. And yet I've also learned that I need to resist that impulse, not only to walk my talk as a coach, but also simply to grow as a person.
I've seen and experienced this dynamic over and over again: When we screw up as leaders (or in any differentiated authority role), the most important step we can take is to acknowledge reality, to admit our mistake, to own up to it. No matter what else we want to say, no matter what other factors influenced our actions, everything starts with that acknowledgment--and no real progress will be made until it occurs.
This week I became impatient during a group exercise and forcefully interrupted a student, who felt angry and hurt as a result. Thankfully, she felt enough trust in me to express those emotions, and I was able to hear her and express my embarrassment, which allowed her to hear why I had become impatient in the first place. It wasn't my most skillful moment as a coach, but it was a successful repair that allowed the two of us to move forward.
2) Ask For What You Need
I'm used to being a source of support and guidance for other people--it's probably the fundamental quality that led me into coaching. But while that role is deeply fulfilling to me, it's also a potential trap. Getting stuck in a support role can make it hard to understand internally and to communicate to others just what I need when I'm struggling myself. But this makes it all the more important to slow down, look inside, and articulate what I need.
I know I'm no exception in this regard. The best leaders and mentors I've known are people who put others' needs before their own, who make sure their troops are fed before they sit down to eat. But the very best of them are also able to step out of that pattern and to ask for help. I'm not particuarly good at this, but I'm learning.
Tonight Amy asked me if there was anything she could do to help me cope with the dark mood that had descended upon me, and initially my mind was blank. "No," I said, "I can't think of anything." But I kept at it and realized that I didn't want her to do anything--I didn't want encouragement or problem-solving. I just wanted empathy--I just wanted her to say, "I'm sorry; that sounds really shitty." I don't need to hear that often, or for long--but when I need it, I really need it, and it's really helpful.
3) Take Care of Yourself
This is deceptively easy in principle, and damn hard in practice--by definition people with skin in the game thrive on challenges, and when things get tough we get excited. That attitude helps me overcome obstacles, but it also leads me down some blind alleys. The paradox with coaching--and, I believe, with any meaningful work that's intellectually and emotionally challenging--is that it doesn't necessarily yield to sheer effort. When I'm struggling as a professional I can't just muscle through it, and sometimes I need to do just the opposite--ease up, lower my stress levels, take care of myself.
I've learned from people like Bill George, who's "meditated regularly for thirty years, not as a religious or spiritual practice, but as a personal discipline to relieve stress." I've also learned from hard experience that when I let work push exercise off the my daily schedule--once a regular response in times of struggle--I condemn myself to a cycle of overstress and underperformance. I'm also (finally) listening to recent research on the importance of sleep, not only for effective performance but also for long-term health.
The past few days I've been unusually tired, and rather than push myself beyond that limit, I've listened to my body and have gone for walks rather than hitting the gym, or have simply meditated instead. I've also prioritized sleep over work--like leaving this post undone last night and coming back to it this morning. Finally, I have allowed work to push regular sessions with my own coach off the calendar, a situation that'll be rectified this week.
I'm only half-joking--I deeply believe in the power of mindset to shape our reality and, subsequently, our performance. Having skin in the game means that we're subject to high highs and low lows, and it's important to keep those experiences in perspective. In part that ability is a function of life experience--I first read this quote from David Bradford 6 years ago, and it's stuck with me:
If you live long enough, you realize that you can fall off the horse and get back on again... Failure is inevitable, and what's important is how you handle it, not how you avoid it.
But "life experience" is in a way just shorthand for mindset--having failed, and struggled, and simply made mistakes for many years now, I'm no longer up-ended when this occurs. I may be responsible for these events, and I expect to hold myself accountable for them, but I don't view them as intrinsic character flaws.
This isn't to say I'm not subject to grey moods and feelings of frustration or even despair, and when those feelings strike I think it's healthy to acknowledge them. But where I once might have gotten stuck in those moods for longer than was useful, I now find it possible to feel them and let them go, a process that's supported by all the steps mentioned above and also by writing posts like this.
Photo by gingerpig2000. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.