When I went to work for myself—in the privacy of my home office--I thought I had put the problem of constant interruptions behind me, but I discovered an unpleasant truth: I had gotten into the bad habit of interrupting myself.
About two years ago, a client recommended Tara Mohr’s Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead (Avery, 2015). I immediately bought the book and added it to my bottomless to-be-read pile where it resided until last week. I should have retrieved it from the pile sooner, because it’s one of the best self-help books that I’ve read in a long time.
We can invest in self-care outside work, but if our days are still overscheduled and frenzied, we’ll still suffer. That’s why I focused my workshop on ways we can better care for ourselves at work. By making our workplaces more humane for ourselves and our co-workers, by making better use of our time at work, we can create more space in our days. We can do our work at work instead of taking it home, and then we can feel less frazzled.
Not long ago a client said to me, “I’m 41 years old, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” In fact, many of my clients make some variation on that statement when we launch our work together. Some feel like they’ve had no coherent career path. As a client explained, “I’ve taken good opportunities when they came to me, and I’ve been successful, but I haven’t had a plan. Sometimes I worry that people think I’ve flitted from job to job, even though I can see what ties some of it together.” These clients often worry that there is something wrong with them, and when they do seek a career change, they struggle to articulate their skills and experience to potential employers in a way that feels like a clear and rational career path.
One of my yoga instructors often reminds her students to approach yoga practice with a beginner’s mind. What she means is that you no matter how experienced you are in practicing yoga, you always come to your mat as if you are beginner. You try never to think, “I’ve done this pose a zillion times, so I know exactly how to do it.” Instead, each time you take the pose, you pay attention to the things a beginner has to think about: how to ground yourself, where to place your feet, how to align your spine, how to breathe, and how to move. By using beginner’s mind, you continually approach your practice with an open mind and a commitment to building on a strong foundation for your pose. You are constantly refining your postures and building strength and flexibility.
One of my niches is working with clients who are navigating some form of transition.
Our lives involve alternating periods of stability and change. None of us can avoid dealing with change. But some kinds of changes shake us to our very core, challenging our sense of who we are. These kinds of changes are either the result of or the catalyst for a transition.
Just after Christmas last year, the wonderful woman who has been cleaning my house for more than ten years turned to me in astonishment and said, “Melissa, do you take every ornament off your tree every year. I’ve never seen a closet big enough for your tree.” After all these years, Karin has had occasion to be in every drawer and closet in my house, and I think the fact that I couldn’t simply cover my artificial tree with a sheet and slide it in the closet had just occurred to her. Maybe this is not so astonishing with everyone’s trees, but mine is covered with hundreds of ornaments. I assured her that I enjoyed decorating the tree and that taking it down was not such an onerous task. (I don’t think she believed me.)
I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve had an awful lot of days when I’m afraid to get out of bed. The waves of awful things happening in our country and our world just seem to come faster and faster like a hurricane building to Category 5. I’m afraid to check the news—and afraid not to. The other day at the end of savasana, the period of motionless rest at the end of every yoga practice, a period intended to be refreshing, I found my mind racing, and I thought, “I hope something new tragedy hasn’t happened in the world while I was in yoga class.” Fear has become my constant companion. And I know that I’m not alone.
As with anything else in life, it’s pretty easy for me to give my clients good guidance and pretty hard for me to apply that guidance in my own life. Take the business of saying “no.” I’ve written before about the importance of choosing commitments carefully so that we don’t become over-committed, overscheduled, overworked, and frazzled. As I put it in that earlier blog post, “saying yes to something means saying no to something else.” Yet I find the process of learning to choose my commitments wisely and say “no” more often is just that: a process of learning over and over from my mistakes.
In June, one of my favorite yoga teachers offered up a theme for the month’s classes: “life is practice, practice is life.” She was quoting one of her favorite yogis, Judith Lasater, and the statement is a reference to the fact that people who do yoga regularly refer to their ongoing “yoga practice.” But as Katy reflected on the Lasater quote in each of her June classes, she got me thinking about the many senses of the word practice, and they way it is a metaphor for our lives.
How do you get the most out of informational interviewing? Last month I had an opportunity to sit on a conference panel that explored diverse career paths for humanities Ph.D.s, and that question came up. One audience member said, “I’ve tried doing informational interviewing, and I don’t even know enough to know what questions to ask.”
Recently I was on the phone with a client, an articulate, ambitious, great-head-on-her-shoulders young woman, who confessed that after a year in her first post-collegiate job, one she felt was important work that she should be doing, she felt lost. Another young woman in my life, a college junior with a commitment to learning and to making a difference in the world, said, “I have no idea what I want to do with my life.” She felt that by this point, the end of her junior year, she “should” know which direction to go, but her internship and volunteer experiences had only shown her what she did NOT want to do.
How do you build a vital life? Over the past few months, I’ve been leading a professional development workshop series for faculty and staff at a local higher education institution, and we’ve been exploring that question. We had to start by defining what we meant by a vital life. When you are living a vital life you feel deeply engaged in your world and energized by the way you spend your time. To me, a vital life is a meaningful and purposeful existence, and that idea that we want to spend our time doing things full of meaning and purpose has been a point of consensus among the participants in our workshop.
Lately I’ve heard some version of this statement from several clients and friends:
I’m taking a break from the news.
I feel a little guilty, but I’m on a news hiatus.
I know I should be paying attention, but I just can’t look at the news right now.
I haven’t read any news in over a week, and it’s been good for my mental health.
I took a Facebook break so that I could get away from the news.
I began to see that there were real liabilities to being a PREcrastinator. Too often, I cranked out the work, but I didn’t give it enough time to incubate in my brain, so it didn’t reflect my best thinking. I’d finish it, check it off my to-do list, and never think about it again—at least not until weeks or months later when I would read it and kick myself for the things that could have been improved.
That gender wage gap has helped to create the other gender gap—the gender investing gap. According to a 2017 study by Mass Mutual Insurance Company, women are three times as likely as men to say they can’t afford to save for retirement.
Sometimes when I’m working with a client who is exploring a career change, I’ll ask her about folks in her network who might be able to give her some insight into a field she is considering. And about half the time, the client will say, “Well, I’m not very good at networking. I don’t like going to events and talking to strangers, and there’s something that feels kind of slimy about it—like I just want to get something from the people I’m meeting.” But I think that’s the wrong way to think about networking. Networking is really about building relationships.
One of my yoga teachers begins every practice by telling us that “for the next hour, tell the committee that lives inside your head to be quiet and just be present in this room, on your mat.”
I love the metaphor of the committee that lives inside my head. In all my years working in colleges and universities, I spent a lot of time on committees. For better (mostly) or worse (sometimes), most aspects of the academic operations in higher education are governed by committees of faculty and academic staff. And there are certain types of people who are usually present on committees.