Unavoidable Fact of Life #3: Your old way of coping won’t work anymore.

Posted on | March 27, 2009 | Comments Off on Unavoidable Fact of Life #3: Your old way of coping won’t work anymore.

The first two have been: Unavoidable Fact of Life #1: Your job is not safe. Unavoidable Fact of Life #2: Neither is anything else.

Now we get to Unavoidable Fact of Life #3: Your old way of coping won’t work anymore.

When things don’t go the way we want them to go, what do we human beings do? Two coping strategies have revealed themselves to me in the lives of thousands of clients and colleagues-and in my own life.
John & Joe
Coping Strategy A: Pain now lets me gain later.
At a recent Leadership Development Intensive (LDI), one of the participants, we’ll call him Antonio, a middle-aged Medical Director of an insurance company, was struggling with this issue. ‘You want to know how I make it through each day with all the crap that goes on? I just hunker down, work as hard as I can-12-14 hours a day-and remind myself that one day it’ll be better.  I’ve got a mortgage to pay, several cars to maintain, kids to put through school. I can’t stop now. I’ve got to keep running flat out, like the hamster inside the wheel. But one day I’ll retire. . . Just a few more years! Then I’ll be able to live again!’  
At this, Joe, one of the other LDI participants, became activated. He had for many years been a heroin dealer and user on the streets of Cleveland and still carried the rugged good looks and engaging street patois that had served him so well for so long in that other world. Now, clean for 12 years and a successful entrepreneur, he walked over to Antonio, fixed him with a powerful stare and said, literally in his face, ‘Man, you got da needle in your arm as bad as any friggin’ junkie lyin’ in a doorway. You think you’re gonna wait for six years and then you can get your life back? Man, you’re dyin’ right now, only you can’t see it! If you ain’t got a life now, you ain’t never gonna have a life. . .’
Ever so slowly, as he stared into Joe’s intense eyes fixing him, Antonio’s face softened slowly from the grim mask and furrowed brow that was his ‘game face’. Tears began to run silently down his cheeks. After a few moments, he said, ‘You’re right, Joe. . .  You’re right. . .  Thanks, man. . .’  Then the dam broke and he began to sob. Minutes later, as he came out of the deep emotions cleansing him, he looked at the group, “I’m a doctor, for Pete’s sake. I know what’s happening to me. My cardiologist said last month that the way things were going, I might not live to see my retirement. He said I was killing myself. I guess my strategy isn’t working. . .’  (Gentle chuckles around the room.)  
To finish the story, Antonio went back to his company, having made a commitment to find a way to take his life back-before he retired. Among the most significant things he did were these: He threw away all his (unread) medical journals, which had been hanging over his head like a sword since he had become an Administrator, not a practicing MD. (‘I’ve been feeling guilty for years about not keeping up. Now I’m admitting the truth: I’m not a practicing physician, I’m a manager with a fantastic medical background. And that’s not only OK, it’s great!’)  He started going home at 5:30 PM, instead of 7:30 or 8:00.  He began to take regular walks with his wife and ‘just hang out’ with his family. He softened-a little bit-when it came to pushing people for superhuman results. The bottom line: ‘I started actually enjoying going to work again, and my people reported they did, too.’
Antonio, like many of us, had turned his work into a life-consuming project, hoping it would turn out to be a life-giving project. And it wasn’t working. Ironically, he was sacrificing himself on the altar of his job and praying that it wouldn’t kill him.
The classic Coping Strategy A: I have to pay now to get what I want later.  If I work hard enough, the rewards that come will allow me to have security and peace of mind down the road.
This strategy is by far the most popular one we find in the workplace at every level.  Nearly everyone has a version of it going on in their heads and yet, it’s doomed to failure.  Why?  For one thing, all the hard work, all the effort is on top of something that is ‘off’ and which is usually being ignored. What’s ‘off’ is the flawed logic chain on which it’s based. It’s like the same logic I used to hear on our ship in the Navy when someone would complain about how bad things were. (Actually, as anyone who has been in the military knows, griping was just a part of the game. If someone didn’t have a gripe, the assumption was they were out of touch with reality!)  But, when ever anybody made a serious gripe, the ‘lifers’-career sailors-some of whom were trapped in the cycle we are describing here, would give this advice: “Ship for six and hope for change.”  Translation: sign up for six more years and maybe things will be different.  Yeah, right. . .  
More of the same, only different, isn’t going to get you where you want to go. The strategy, “Work harder at A (the job) and that will get me B (a sense of fulfillment and security)” is doomed to failure.  As you’ll see later, you have to bring B to A.  
Coping Strategy B: Get more ‘stuff’.
As a back-up to the strategy of working harder at our job and hoping things will change, there’s also Coping Strategy B: Accumulating ‘stuff’ to buffer ourselves from facing the possibility of  bad things happening to us. Where coping strategy A-lose yourself in your job now for a personal security and fulfillment later-is usually conscious, Strategy B-surrounding ourselves with stuff-is usually unconscious.  We don’t think of it as collecting stuff, we think of it as ‘having the necessities of life’. We are then able to busy ourselves in taking care of our stuff.  We count our stuff. We protect our stuff. We track how our stuff is doing. We polish and clean our stuff. We worry do we have enough stuff. All the while, secretly hoping having enough will bring us the sense of security we week.  
One senior executive, Stuart, a guy with a net worth of a little over $4,000,000 told me at his Intensive, ‘I just need to put a little more away, then I can relax.’  I asked him to name an exact dollar figure which, if put away, would allow him to relax. He doodled for a few minutes on a piece of paper, then looked up and said, with an amazed look, ‘John, I don’t think there is any number that will be enough.  It’ll never be enough.’ With this realization he went home resolving to find a way to enjoy what he had while he had it, rather than strain for what he didn’t have. He discovered the root meaning of the word ‘enjoy’ which is to insert or ‘put joy into something’, not hope you will find it there. The joy comes from you, not the thing or activity outside you.

How? That will be the focus of Unavoidable Fact of Life #4: You must reconnect work and the human spirit in a new way.


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