The past few weeks at work have challenged my ability to manage my own stress and maintain perspective. The number of meetings, conflicts, program changes, staff changes, and deliverables has stretched my capacity to keep a cool head. I’ve even had some physical symptoms as a result of stress and not sleeping well. Particularly frustrating has been the need to execute program directives outside of my control and my decision-making authority in the organization. My performance has been strong, but my inner composure has been rattled to the point that I’ve been questioning my career and daydreaming about a cabin in the woods. I’ve been worried about “derailing”.
I made a comment in passing to a colleague and friend who could see I was having a hard time and suggested we grab lunch. My trust of this individual was high because he has experienced similar challenges, so I opened up about how I was feeling and asked for some advice from him based on his experience. He suggested that at the moment I was looking at my current situation with tunnel vision. As I was railing on a particular nuance of policy, my friend said something that cut right through my frustration and caused me to burst out laughing. He said, “Jon, it doesn’t matter.” On the surface, that could be considered a harsh thing to say, yet it was precisely, perfectly what I needed to hear. He wasn’t suggesting that I should blow off my responsibilities, but he was giving me a powerful reminder to keep things in perspective. I was so focused on the small daily frustrations I’ve been struggling with that I lost sight of the big picture. Nor was he suggesting that I should resign myself to meaninglessness in work. On the contrary, my commitment to doing a good job and my motivation was recharged by having a broader view, a bigger perspective that allows me to focus on the meaningful areas of work that I can influence.
A similar thing happened to me years ago when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in North Africa. I was about 10 months into a 2-year assignment and was homesick and unsure of my ability to stick out the commitment. I was sharing my struggles with a fellow volunteer who said something rather shocking. He said, “Jon, it’s not gonna get any better.” Again, not the nicest thing to say, but I loved it. It was like a Zen master had struck me with a stick to wake me up! After I realized the things I was complaining about were not going to magically change, I was freed to change my mind, my perspective, my focus. I finished my Peace Corps service focusing on what I could influence and with great acceptance of what was outside of my control. What was at one moment drudgery was transformed into a great adventure.
Who will be your “Zen master,” someone to speak the unvarnished truth and wake you up to a new and big perspective?