I remember years ago, when I worked for CMP and had first one and then two kids in the company’s daycare center. I remember leaving whatever I was doing—even if we at the magazine where I worked were on deadline—to run downstairs to feed Sam and Emma lunch. My friend Rob and I would often bump into each other in the hallway, the skin on our faces plastered back, our mouths slack and open like those guys strapped into land-jets in the Bonneville Salt Flats trying to break the speed of sound, racing to meet the deadline, relieve the caregivers, and feed our kids mashed peas.
It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Talking to a client this morning, he reminded me that running faster often feels like working harder. “If I’m not panting,” he said, “I don’t think I’m working.”
It’s a lousy strategy: It feeds the anxiety of never enough; it gets in the way of thinking clearly; and it convinces you to mistake motion for meaning.
I understand where it comes from. First, the adrenaline is addictive; it’s such a rush to, well, rush from task to task. Moreover, it can also feed a sense of superiority: “Geez what I’m doing must be so important, look at how fast I’m moving. Look at how slowly you’re moving.”
More deeply, it’s also fed by the enmeshing between work and identity. I am what I do and if what I’m doing is fast and, therefore, important than I must be worthy enough to have earned your respect, your love.
While everyone—myself included—can fall prey to using work as a prop for self-meaning, I find that founder/entrepreneurs are particularly susceptible to this loss of self. This despite the fact that the ultimate expression of the trend is a narcissism that borders on socio-pathology; think of the many, many asses in business whom we admire precisely because they have a single-minded focus on execution, causing everyone around them to pant their way through the workday.
Of course we don’t put it that way. We admire them, we say, because they are successful.
Unfortunately then we never get around to debating the meaning of that word: successful. We too infrequently pause and consciously, and with all of our adult awareness, define for ourselves success.
Months ago I wrote about Disappearing into the Fire…the seductive lure of losing one’s self in work. This enmeshing, this panting, this forever chasing higher and tougher goals is yet another form of Disappearing.
But, but, but…there is a power in reaching; “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” said Browning, “or what’s a heaven for?” There’s an audacity in reaching, in dreaming of a new way to change a light blub, search for something on the internet, connect people across time and space. And we should never lose that audacious reach.
But to lose one’s footing in the reaching serves no one.
Earlier this month, I stepped on a subway at the 42nd Street station. It was the uptown No. 1 train. I felt myself shoved and looked up, angry and startled. This was no ordinary jostle.
The next thing I remember, I’m laying on my back, my head cradled in the lap of a cop, my body covered in blood. Cold-cocked. Without provocation, without warning, I’d been knocked unconscious, the soft tissue of my nose damaged, my cheek lacerated, and one tooth broken. And I couldn’t remember my name, where I was headed, or who’s the President.
Laying on a gurney at Bellevue, as my mind re-gathered itself, I considered how lucky I was to not have been pushed in front of the train or stabbed by the obviously sick and hurting guy who’d done this. In the weeks that followed, I thought often about how fortunate I was to have been able to handle taking time off from work or have the resources to see good doctors and get my body back together.
And while I’m still recuperating, still in a process of healing and pulling myself together after all this, I realized this morning that the most important thing to come from the random, senseless attack was the reminder that panting doesn’t work. That disappearing into the motions of life, losing touch with those inner worlds that define true success, is a lousy way to live.
Next month a good friend and terrific coach, Ann Mehl, and I will be running a one-day workshop on just this topic (Disappearing into the Fire—not being sucker-punched on the subway…that’s a different workshop and I think I’m particularly skilled at teaching it.). It’s a bit of an experiment. For me, it’s a chance to work through material I’ve found so powerful, so life-altering. For our clients, both current and prospective, it’s a chance to dive deep, and ideally find strategies to come home–with each other as well as with both Ann and me.