Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Resilience, Part II

Winter is turning to spring. In the Midwest, we have early warming trends which lure us all outside to fling the winter from our bones. The first brave flowers peak from the leaves we left over our gardens.

Then winter returns, blustery, gray, same-old winter. We stand at our kitchen windows and worry about our tulips, daffodils and Siberian iris. How can they survive? Will we have no crocus or grape hyacinth this year?

Then the spring that had so briefly flirted with us bounces back to town--to stay this time--and the garden becomes a riot of happy color. The question is (and it is asked more easily of flowers than people), how much did the late-winter blast have to do with their current blooming? Are they hardier, as people say trauma made them stronger? If true, should we have a more positive attitude toward vicissitude?

We often say traumatic life is a reason to expect less of people (which is terrible thing to do, I believe). We should, instead, continue to have high expectations, given that they have come through and know they can. A better view of trauma might be--if not necessarily an opportunity to be welcomed--a jumping-off place from which to launch a better life; possible because worse has already happened.

The challenges you face today can be creating a better YOU. Choose challenge. Take action.

Shaping Your Resilience

My doctoral dissertation examined the question: How do people come through trauma as resilient rather than destroyed? My findings may hold answers for you in this time of tumultuous, often brutal, change. The bottom line is: Embrace what this is and get moving. You'll be better for it.

The people I studied had experienced the Holocaust, disability, head trauma, violence, loss. They told me that what got them through was:

1. Supportive others. If your world is quaking, find people who understand; connection helps. If the trauma is business-related, start or join a mastermind group, get a coach, go to therapy, be with friends who care.

2. Taking care of the self. Realize that getting through this is up to you. Don't be a misguided martyr. Look out for your interests. Guard your physical and mental health.

3. Faith. They ALL said that reliance on God made their trauma more survivable. You may find your higher power in a church or a support group. Get someone stronger on your side.

4. Taking on challenges. They did what was difficult. It gave them a better sense of self to struggle than to be a pitiable victim.

5. Moving on with their lives. Their trauma did not define them. They didn't reside in trauma's cave nor sing its plaintive theme song. They used what it was to build better existences.

Your experiences now are changing you. You can choose despair, bitterness, giving up; or you can choose to cope well with courage and determination. If you do, here's the reward, if you're like my study subjects. You will:

1. Be more empathic. You have suffered. Your heart will reach out to struggling others.

2. Get better at coping, and appreciate your abilities when the next inevitable trauma occurs.

3. Develop new capabilities, such as patience, self-reliance, determination, persistence. You will realize this will pass.

4. Take better care of yourself. You will also reach other to help others.

5. Develop a more positive outlook. You will triumphantly know, "I can handle this. Did it already."

So, how will you get through the day? How DO you cope? Take a page from Twelve-Step Programs.

1. Focus on getting through today. You can't manage this Big Awful Thing. But "a day at a time" proves to be a useful long term strategy.

2. Ask your higher power to show you "the next right thing" to do. Out of confusion often comes a helpful suggestion.

You will not be the same after this. Trauma leaves a footprint on your soul. It can make you better, however, help you discover a stronger place in you. Resilience is the outcome of your determined, hope-focused coping.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Stick a Fork in Me. . .

. . .I'm done. An exhausted hostess can say this at the end of a huge dinner party; or an actor at the end of a multi-city tour. The company dishes are put away; we've cashed the last road check. This is now a PAST experience.

It's far more complex to know whether we're done with a job or career. Are we going through a patch of bad days or creepy supervision or funky balance sheets that halt advancement? Do our down feelings merely reflect our circumstance, or do they point to a deeper DONE meaning for us? Do I weather this? Do I go?

Here are a few signs you may be ready to go:

1. You've moved out. Figuratively, that is. Your body is at work, but your spirit is not; and your behaviors show it. You don't have lunch with your colleagues. You spend too much time in the bathroom or on the phone or the Internet. You don't go out for drinks with work friends anymore, or you show up at holiday parties for the barest minute. In other words, you're physically removing yourself from the social aspects of this place. Big sign that you're done.

2. You've quit. Another biggie. You're practically R.I.P. (retired in place). Your performance has slipped. You do your job, but you're phoning it in; you barely make your goals. You volunteer for nothing. You're mute at meetings. You watch the clock. (Retireee wannabes count the days till they're OUTTA HERE!) Be mindful. Bosses look sharply these days for performance slippage.

Notice this is about your heart and mind. Both are gone. If you see this in yourself, get moving on something else. But change like this is scary, irrespective of the economy's health. Our non-fulfilling job is the devil we know. Who knows, at our age. . .? Nobody's hiring new college grads. I have a family. It's easier to stay.

How to test whether you're ready to go:

1. Tell somebody. Your coach, spouse, friend (not your boss!) How was it to put it out there? Did you pull back into NOT CHANGING or did NEXT appeal to you? Tell some more bodies. See how your thinking changes as you talk about leaving.

2. Reach for NEXT. William Bridges writes about how to manage change, and how we cling to the familiar, even when change is thrust upon us. We have to let go of where we are and what we've been and reach for NEXT, to choose something new. We hate this place of transition. We're uncertain, afraid, and NEXT isn't obvious to us. Just choose something that seems possible for you.

3. Do one thing. Get a college catalog. Review your resume. Make a list of "Musts" and "Wants" for your next iteration. Go see a career coach. Your action will do more to rocket you into NEXT than extended rumination.

At any point, you can leap back into what you already have. You're not ready. It's too dangerous. This will take time. Just be sure to re-choose your NOW. Be in it. Embrace it. Do it like you mean it. If you don't, you'll continue to slip away - heart and mind - and someone may notice and help you go.

Recommended reading: Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, William Bridges

Monday, April 5, 2010

Serve, but Use Your Oxygen Mask

You know what you have learned about selflessness: It's better to give than to receive; do for others. We all know of someone's sainted mother who scrubbed floors and took in sewing so her baby could go to college, and she without a nice dress to wear.

After a lifetime of observing people's behavior and becoming more convinced of the value of service to others, I believe we mostly get it wrong in our efforts to live up to that ideal. Who makes it past the first day in Lent when the promise is to give up candy for 40 days? What New Year's resolution gets the high-five of accomplishment at year's end? What evening reverie about helping the poor makes it past our morning coffee?

We take the road to selflessness and service in the wrong way. How do I know? The airlines teach me so. On any flight, the attendant makes the same announcement: If we lose cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop down. Place it over your nose and mouth and breathe deeply. If you're traveling with small children, place the mask over your face first, then the child's. In other words, help yourself first because if you don't, you could quickly lose consciousness, thereby hurting both you and the child.

To put it another way: Be of service to others, but help yourself first. By that I mean you must decide what's in it for you before you'll be willing to be selfless. If you ask do-gooders why they do it, they will almost always tell you they get a powerful personal return. The man who gives up beer for Lent, or the family who fasts during the month of Ramadan — they want a sense of mastery over their bodies. Mother Teresa doing her thankless tasks for the dying poor in Calcutta — she felt Jesus had commanded her. The Holocaust doctor puzzled by the honors she's receiving for saving lives in a World War II concentration camp — her motivation was to save her own life.

This isn't the prettiest side of selflessness because it has such a selfish twist. But I promise you, you'll be able to serve more, and with a gladder heart if you grab your oxygen mask first and know what's in it for you to be good.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Y R U Afraid?

Are you fearful as you approach big projects or major presentations, a dinner with company bigwigs, networking? A colleague the other day expressed surprise when I told him how fearful I used to be at leading groups because I am certainly confident NOW. I wasn't when I was in the same beginning place as he. Today I may be nervous or tensely focused; but generally not afraid.

My TV appearances as The Job Doctor, speaking and facilitating groups helped me learn the following about managing fear:

1. Know your material. To your bones. And have every word of the first two minutes down COLD. If you walk in with only HEAD knowing, with lack of solid rehearsal, without understanding exactly where everything is going, you will be fearful, scattered. If you know it in your gut, you can handle surprises that inevitably happen. With television, people roam the studio, crises crash around you, and you have to stay focused, smiling, PERFORMING. TV tip for learning those two minutes: Look at an unmoving object while you recite your first words. If your eyes stray, you're searching your brain for what to say. Recite it and stare till you don't need to look away.

2. Get as much "performing" experience as you can. Speeches, presentations, facilitations, teaching, leading meetings. All fear-producing experiences. The more you do, the less afraid you'll be. I was on television every week for 12 years. For the first five, I was so frightened when I sat on the news set I thought I'd have a heart attack. Then it went away. I used to throw up before I went on stage; after awhile, I didn't. But you have to step into fearful experiences again and again, whether it's making cold calls or conducting training or talking to your company president, to finally know you're competent - maybe an expert - at this.

3. Respect the extended learning process. You can't bring spring a day sooner. You can't evade this numbers game. The more you do it, the better you'll get. Do it a lot and the fear will fade.

4. Embrace the fear. You need its edge. Stage fright is a great performance booster. I'm worried when I DON'T have it. It's an energy your audience needs to see in you. It's your invitation to them to join you in an exciting, pumped place.

5. It's about you first, but it's really about them. If you are shivering-fearful, then you are totally self absorbed and you'd better get out of it. This is necessary YOU: Material. Beginning. Where we're going. Lookin' your best. Once you take care of that, then pay attention to what they're paying you for: the participants, the audience, the executives, the results.

This is your focus on THEM: How can I be of service? What's my job here? What are they here to achieve? How can I add value? What got my head out of my behind was The Tao of Leadership. Standing in fear before performing, I would open it to a random page, and this book of little wisdoms always made the perfect point to laser my attention on the other, not me. You need ego. You also must put it away. Both are required for doing this work.

6. Have something that anchors you. You can tell how afraid I am by how much jewelry I'm wearing. Pearls make me feel better. If you see bracelets, earrings, rings, a rope of 10 mm. oyster spit around my neck and a hot line to the Macy's pearls counter scribbled on my hand, you know I'm shakin' in my boots. In a difficult class I taught, I put a little toy bee on the podium, to remind me I had a B-HAG, a big, hairy goal with these students. Take with you something that makes you laugh or reminds you you're solid, prepared, eager to contribute.

7. This time tomorrow, it'll all be over. This mantra helps you realize the transience of even this challenging task. You may be fabulous. They may be fractious. You may take them to a higher plain. But it will be O-V-E-R. Comfort yourself with that final fear-busting thought.