Baby Steps & Easter Renewal: Lessons from a Long Holiday Weekend

"Life's a shit sandwich. Every morning you get up and take a bite." - Health Mgmt Rx Mentor

"Do you have ADD or ADHD or something?" - Another Health Mgmt Rx Mentor (comment given when I couldn't sit still during a lunch meeting and was describing all the various projects on which I'm currently working).

Long weekends offer an opportunity to take enforced downtime.

Enforced because I don't do so well on most vacations - I have a hard time ramping down. I obsessively plan and research destinations and activities and tend to work on cocktail napkins, sketch ideas on hotel stationary, and write multiple to-do lists Post-Its when my laptop and phone aren't handy.

When I'm not working, I'm thinking about working. If I don't have tons of projects in the hopper pushing my personal timeline, I'm just not satisfied.

Trying to fight that drive is a waste of time and energy I'd much rather put to productive use. So yes, my name is Jen, and I am a workaholic.

Don't get me wrong - I can be excrutiatingly and luxuriously lazy, but despite a very well-integrated 'bum it' drive which goes into full effect at least once a week for a few hours (and sometimes an entire weekend), I'm usually on the computer for hours at a time.

It's been entirely too long since I took a vacation w/out my laptop (4 years and counting?), but then I'd spend valuable time worrying about when I'd next blog, what I'd be missing by not checking email, etc.

As an analyst and consultant who conducts quite a bit of web-based research, it's just not practical to be without the computer, even if I don't keep it on 24/7.

I have cut back recently.

I did NOT bring my laptop to my sister's half day baby shower on Saturday (even though I almost rationalized bringing it so I could immediately download pics and create a slide show onsite).

Living overseas has also helped - I'm an ocean away from my network, which means I have to make more effort to stay in touch, but not necessarily literally 'plugged in.'

In Holland I have a phone that's JUST a phone.

No camera, no emails, just the occasional text message. I also disabled the email feature on my Blackberry - no sense wasting money to check emails on a device I use for a few weeks once every couple of months.

When I came back to the States for this trip (Health 2.0 in San Diego, followed by the ACHE Congress in Chicago, followed by a MEDBANK ExecComm meeting and event), I noticed most people pulled out phones/devices to check emails multiple times during our meetings.

This never bothered me before - that's just the way things are here, and definitely the way things were for me working at startup.

Then, watching a beautiful sunset over the Potomac yesterday enjoying a glass of wine and good conversation with a mentor who's meant alot at various points in my life, again I realized the most valuable thing I can give is my time.

That means setting aside devices and trying to be more fully present during conversations I later realize have much more import than I'd give them at the outset.

Because I was consciously practicing this tactic this weekend, I didn't miss a valuable lesson one mentor taught (unintentionally).

After an hour or so hashing over work, volunteer and Board stuff, he showed me some paperwork describing a startup mentoring program developed for Associated Builders and Contractors members. He agreed to participate as a mentor; the first meeting is today.

After skimming the materials, I asked if he'd prepared subjects. What would he talk about to these students? Had he looked up the primary consultant who would be providing leadership style data? Did he know who would be participating - had he read any student bios or blogs?

The answer to all three of my questions was "No."

My mentor explained his big plan - he'd show up, listen to what people wanted, ask questions, and go from there.

This was my first thought: "Wow, that is absolutely the worst approach I've ever heard. If I was a student I'd want to see an agenda and make sure this is going to be worthwhile, and that the mentors will have useful information to give."

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks - he's absolutely right on.

I'd over-prepare and bombard the class with my thoughts on leadership styles. I'd have things so planned out and over-analyzed I'd be hard-pressed to find time to really set aside MY agenda and listen to what THEY need.

Even worse, while listening, I'd 'hear' things that I'd use to validate in my own mind the efficacy of my presentation...in the back of my mind I'd be thinking "mmm hmmm, my third point addresses that scenario exactly."

I'd be so busy patting myself on the back that I wouldn't have hands free to shake someone else's.

So, if the most valuable thing I can give someone is my time, and my honest efforts to listen, I have to practice talking less.

This is a challenging spot for a consultant - we're paid to talk and write and analyze and insert our opinions and make a living based on our evaluations of topics.

The thing is - I won't be a consultant forever.

Planning or selling without implementing is like drinking diet soda - it's good and fizzy but somehow not as satisfying.

Consulting is a great gig that lets you meet a ton of people, get down and dirty with a chosen sector, experience a wide range of management challenges, and defuse potentially explosive situations on a day-to-day basis.

But it serves as an interim solution, like operating in crisis mode, entering the Peace Corps, or going into ER medicine because trauma gets you going - I've done it for the rush, which I have to admit I enjoy.

It's time to move on and challenge myself when results other than my own performance are on the line.

Probably everyone has 'baby step' moments like this - times where you realize you're 'growing up' professionally and are shocked to realize how immature you actually are.

Growing up, you develop a sense of self awareness.

You learn how your own body moves and interacts with the world at large. Then you have to learn how to play well with others and subsume ego to have positive, productive interactions.

The professional equivalent of that maturation may or may not follow your logical chronological process - I've met people that seem to be devolving professionally as they get older and their career ascent phase winds down - they revert to childish grabbing behaviors out of fear and a seemingly intractible desire to recapture a primary attention-getting position.

The thing is, we don't talk about our professional toddler moments.

Sure, it's easy to talk about phases of a career in terms of concrete accomplishments (volume sold, deals closed, awards given, books published, etc.), and we career mark achievements with all the passion of a new parent composing a baby book, but for some reason we're afraid to talk about learning how to do our jobs better in terms of growing up.

This Easter, I committed myself to paying more time and devoted attention to my professional 'growing up' process...as painful as it may be to admit it, I'm still an adolescent.

That means I need more guides along the way (friends, family, mentor, bosses from whom I'll accept and respect criticism and guidance) and I need to stop the professional equivalent of looking at myself in shiny surfaces as I pass through.

This next phase of growing is early adulthood, and that's about sticking, about consistency, about learning what I value most and using that self-knowledge to establish a stable basis for daily 'being.'

Baby steps, Jen, baby steps.

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