Taking Back Your Life
Have you ever been to a restaurant with a sushi train? It’s a revolving conveyor belt that snakes through the restaurant loaded with little plates of sushi. Diners choose directly from the sushi-go-round the nibbles that appeal to them. Like at a dim sum restaurant, the plates are color-coded by price. At the end of the meal, the waitress tallies up your bill by counting the plates.
The revolving sushi bar is fun to look at and it’s exciting when you do see something you like and grab it. However, it’s easy to get caught up in FOMO (the fear of missing out) and take more than you can eat. Sometimes I’ve watched diners even snatch one of the many less desirable items like a fried onion roll (what?) or imitation crab rolls, and even pieces of chocolate frosted yellow cake. (Seriously? Who eats yellow cake at a sushi bar?) I’ll bet they wonder why they feel overstuffed and unsatisfied when they leave.
My client Tom is trying not to lose it right now. He’s a senior investment professional at a well-respected firm. By all external markers, he’s a guy everyone else wants to be. The thing is, he’s miserable, burned out and looking to leave his firm; perhaps, even the industry.
He told me that as the days go by he’s being asked to do more and more, while he’s getting less and less done. Tom tells me that his priorities are being dictated by his boss, his clients, his wife and that he’s lost touch with why he’s even doing this work, other than the money. He’s sleep deprived, nursing an injury that won’t heal, resenting his family and generally pissed off at life. He drinks a little too much (ok, maybe a lot), rarely sees his friends, travels more than is good for him or his kids, and admittedly is underinvesting in his health, himself and his marriage. Though, as he tells himself, all this kind of goes with the job, doesn’t it?
Tom and I have been working through a process of determining what’s next for him professionally, and how to reclaim himself to boot, so he can be a better leader, as well as a better husband, father and friend. He wants to feel in charge of his destiny again.
He’s been making great progress in identifying what matters to him, so his next move will be a great one. One that will actually give him a life he can enjoy.
The challenge is this: he finds it difficult not to snatch up one of the less desirable opportunities as they are passing him by – even though he knows that his quality of life, his health, his marriage and his children will suffer if he takes one of these. He also knows that taking one of these will mean he’s likely to end up in a version of the dissatisfied life he’s trying to get out of. He’s just anxious about whether he can have the kind of life he wants while doing work he finds stimulating and financially rewarding.
He tells me he’s excited to build something new, to really impact the culture of a new place. I’m with him on that front, Tom is the kind of guy who any firm would be thrilled to have. If he stays with this process, he’s on track to create an amazing life – one he’ll enjoy staying with for the duration of his career.
When I ask him to map out what an ideal day would be like for him, what culture he would like to create, at first he dulls down his answer. I can tell he’s reciting to me what he thinks a firm will give him. So, I keep pushing – “No, not what do you think you can squeak out – what do you WANT?”
I’m not trying to make Tom dream so he can have his hopes smashed, I’m trying to get him to taste a life that will make him feel nourished, valued and satisfied, instead of taking the professional and lifestyle equivalent of imitation crab rolls off the sushi train, just because it’s what’s passing in front of him.
He told me that he can’t focus on any of that right now. He has convinced himself that the first six months to a year in any new role, he’ll need to really focus on showing his new firm that he’s committed to their goals. He’ll be building a team for them. I pointed out that he’s acting like he has no choice in how his life unfolds; he’s preparing to give his power away and head down the same tracks he’s been on since he entered this industry more than twenty years ago. He’s just changing out the scenery, but not where his life is headed.
I asked him, how will your life be different twelve months from now? How will you be getting adequate sleep? How will your wife and children see the best version of Tom? If you devote the next six to twelve months of your life to doing work the same way you’ve been doing it, how will you shift gears and suddenly do it differently then? Won’t you have trained your firm to consistently expect that from you? Why would they accept different behavior from you six or twelve months from now?
Tom tells me, I’m a downer, with all my reality-stuff! He tells me to just trust him; he’ll figure it out when the time comes. I remind him, if he wants a different life, he has to make different choices and communicate them. If he does, it really CAN be different. And, I remind him, he doesn’t necessarily have to leave the industry, he just has to get and stay clear about what he wants and make decisions that are aligned with what HE WANTS. Otherwise, he can expect to face this same dilemma, feeling like everyone and everything else runs his life, six months, two years, ten years from now.
Can it be done differently? Yes, it can. Let me tell you a story about Gary.
Gary is also a senior investment professional I worked with when he was making a transition a couple of years ago. We looked at where he was saying YES, when he really wanted to say NO, but didn’t think he could. One of the areas we decided would vastly improve his life was to draw a boundary around evening and weekend time. We decided to try an experiment, Gary would begin to tell new clients and his team that he would be fully available during business hours (8am to 6pm) Monday through Friday, but that (on all new matters) he and they were not doing after hours conference calls, emails, meetings, etc. They would find ways to take care of business during business time and free everyone up to actually enjoy their lives and be with their families.
Was he skeptical and anxious about trying this new approach? You bet! Did some clients and team members push back? Yep. But, Gary held his ground. And, let me tell you the best story about what happened…
One of Gary’s clients was grumbling about him not being available to discuss the deal on a Saturday. The client even went so far as to tell Gary he’d have to think about whether to take his business to a different firm who WOULD be available when the client needed him. Gary was, admittedly, sweating bullets about this threat – it WAS a client he didn’t want to lose – but he held his ground (partly out of dislike for being bullied, he’ll admit). The following week, this same client grumbled to Gary (on Friday) “I guess I’ll just have to blame you then if the deal goes south while you and I are both sitting at our kids’ soccer games on Saturday!” Gary didn’t like the thought of being blamed if the deal tanked, but he knew it wouldn’t be because he and his team didn’t work on Saturday. They were conscientiously handling everything that needed to happen during the workweek – including corralling lawyers and other professionals outside of their firm who were used to handling things during hours they no longer worked. Gary likes to say he kind of grinned thinking about his client’s kid benefitting from his having held his boundary. A couple of weeks went on like this, and the deal did close just fine. The client didn’t leave Gary’s firm. In fact, he recently referred Gary a client, saying his wife told him that everyone should have their priorities in order like Gary and his firm.
It’s not all sunshine and roses. Of course, Gary has lost some clients and hasn’t won others who find his limits “unreasonable.” But, Gary will tell you that he’s come to realize that those clients who think business has to extend into all of the other parts of the day are the “unreasonable” ones. Gary says that it’s like resisting the urge to take the crappy imitation crab roll off the sushi-go-round. Yes, sometimes he worries that all the good stuff will be taken, but it hasn’t actually been the case; that’s just the gremlins of fear jabbering. He has learned that the “good” clients are the ones that value the work they do AND their boundaries.
Finally, he and his team and his clients, and all the other outside professionals they work with have permission to have work they enjoy AND have a life. It took some time, but he’s developed a loyal culture that people envy – and he built it inside a firm he doesn’t own.
We talk a lot in this industry about being entrepreneurs and innovators and then do everything just like everyone else does it. We can get caught up in always doing what “the market” demands. We focus on product-market fit, completely ignoring what my friend Jonathan Fields calls “maker” fit.
I know, because I did it at one point in my life, too. I built my business, my baby, like everyone else’s and then ended up hating my own baby and wanting to put a stick in my eye rather than go to work. I convinced myself I’d just do one more deal, serve one more client, squeeze in one more meeting and THEN I’d take a break, slow down, do it differently. Here’s what I learned (and what hundreds of my clients have learned) – You Have To Choose What Matters – and that means saying Yes and saying No.
The odd part is that you are ALWAYS saying Yes and No, it’s just that you don’t always think about what you’re saying No to, when you say Yes.
When Gary says No to weekend and evening work, he’s saying Yes to a lot of different things. Can you name some of them?
As he’ll tell you, 50 hours a week is actually enough time for him and his team to get done what actually HAS to get done. He and his team are engaged, have enough time to think through problems creatively and serve the clients with whom they are aligned. He and his people get to the gym, have time to read something appealing, have dinner with their families, get to their kids’ games and can let their brains idle so that actual creative problem solving can happen, instead of just running around, their last nerve frayed, hair on fire and bodies spent.
Tom and I are still working on this part – alignment – sorting out what HE wants his life to look like and communicating that to the firm he’s considering joining. He’ll work hard, in fact, plenty hard – but they’ll get the best version of Tom they can get and so will his family. He’s learning how to say no, because it’s harder to put those unappetizing things back on the sushi belt after you’ve taken them, and they taste horrible when you realize you’re eating it because you have to.
The secret to having more control over your life is to get clear about what you really want and say no to everything else. That way your yes makes for a delicious life.