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When We Hit The Wall

Pagosa Springs, Colorado

October 18, 2020

This week’s missive from Gary Burnison. It’s about purpose. It really hit home for me. What’s my purpose? Some days I think I know the answer to that question and I feel a sense of focus. Other days it seems it is enough just to get through the day, and I forget what my purpose is. That couple that fostered those 18 boys - man, they knew and lived their purpose.

I guess I know what I’ll be thinking about today! 🤪

It was years ago, and the concert hall was packed. I had a good seat with a clear view of the stage as the pianist—the star of the show—began to play flawlessly. Then halfway through Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, he suddenly stopped. His hands froze on the keys, and he bowed his head. He turned to us and said, “I don’t want to play in public anymore.” This world-renowned performer had simply hit the wall. Whatever the reason, he could not play one…more…note. We know what this kind of fatigue feels like—it’s been building day to day, week to week, month to month—first wave, second wave. Who knows anymore? In many ways we’ve been dulled to it—our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. 

It’s just so surreal. Imagine that you were transported directly from last year to this moment in time, with no knowledge of what had happened since the beginning of 2020. Walking around you’d see people wearing face shields and masks. Restaurants have set up tables in tents and in parking lots. Hand sanitizer stations, circles and arrows of where to stand and where to go. What would you assume—a natural disaster, the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe, chemical warfare? Learning that it was actually a pandemic, you wouldn’t know quite what to make of it. It would seem unbelievable. And yet, here we are. Fatigue has no respect for boundaries or organizational level. No one is immune. A CEO confided in me recently, “I thought I had four or five years left in my career. But now I’m thinking, I’m done.”  Feeling discouraged, people often ask, “Why are we even doing this?” Indeed—why? What sounds like a complaint is actually an invitation to go deeper into the why—the meaning, the ultimate antidote to fatigue. Purpose precedes the first step of every journey, both personal and professional. To connect with purpose, we go within, asking ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” When our purpose is about others – and the gifts of time, talent and treasure that we give generously to others – it makes our “why” all the more enduring. In fact, as leadership guru Daniel Goleman points out, to reimagine tomorrow we need positive thinking, a strong foothold in reality, and a deep sense of purpose. This is how we create meaning amid uncertainty and as ambiguity abounds. Goleman cites Martin Seligman, a psychologist with the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, who describes three different kinds of happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. Of the three, a meaningful life is the most fulfilling as we devote our talents and strengths to serving others.

In the fog of fatigue, though, it’s almost impossible to have perspective. What we’re facing often feels bigger in the moment, than when we look back on it. We need to take ourselves out of this moment and focus on the horizon. Imagine, October 2022—what would we want to see? How do we see the world then? How do we see ourselves? What do we want to accomplish—and who do we want to become? These questions create an instant perspective shift. 

To be sure, people continue to face fear, anxiety, and stress—the pandemic is a humanitarian crisis, first and foremost. But even when we feel fatigued by the deepest challenges, we can find a way to elevate ourselves—above and beyond today—with the knowledge that there is a better tomorrow. Here are some thoughts:

Coming out of the shadow. Fatigue casts a long shadow. It’s dispelled by the light of resilience—and that takes energy. “Great leaders multiply energy—energizing others with direction and purpose,” says Kevin Cashman, our Global Leader of CEO & Executive Development. Resilience is sustained with energy management, which is contribution-focused. The alternative is to get caught up in time management, which is clock-focused and makes us feel time-starved. After all, time is the rarest of commodities—no one can make more time. “That kind of stress leads to fatigue,” Kevin observed. “We become unaware of our needs, including our health. Little by little, it dulls our awareness.”

The force of will. The health care company that set up a daycare center for employees within 72 hours. The insurance company that transitioned to a 100-percent virtual workforce within one week. There are countless examples of accomplishments during the early days of the pandemic, which would have been considered impossible at any other time. Mark Royal, PhD, an expert in motivation and engagement in our Advisory business, calls them “successes through force of will”—expending energy in an intensive burst, like a sprinter in a 100-meter dash. Months ago, we figured out that this crisis isn’t a sprint. It’s an Ironman Triathlon, and we’re still in the ocean in the grueling swim event. To battle fatigue, we need to tap our intrinsic motivation to marshal energy. In a conversation we had this week, Doug Charles, the President of our Americas region, picked up on this metaphor. “If you’re feeling fatigued at mile 24 of the marathon, you’re near the finish line. You tell yourself, ‘I’m almost there—I can do this.’ But if you’re only at mile 4 when you feel fatigued, you have a real problem. You are nowhere near the end. So, what do you do? One antidote to create a sense of hope is establishing incremental steps and goals along the way.” Incremental accomplishments multiply energy!

Hope and humor. My dog, Charlie, has become my best friend during these days of working at home. But during a Zoom interview I had with a candidate this week, Charlie wasn’t having it—and wanted her say. She started barking and just wouldn’t stop. “I’m sorry, I have a problem,” I told the candidate. I tried to juggle it all—hosting the candidate, keeping Charlie at bay, and calling my daughter from my cell phone (of course she didn’t answer). So I relented and texted…and waited. Finally, she stuck her head in the doorway, reminding me that she was “online right now” with her classes. I pointed to my computer screen and told her, “I’m tied up, too. Can you please see what Charlie wants?” (Charlie was hungry, as it turned out.) By this time, the candidate had gone from a polite smile to laughing out loud. “Sounds like my house. I feel right at home,” the candidate told me. Obviously, this was unscripted, but it sure was relatable. Adding a dose of authenticity and levity can alleviate even the most serious situations, according to David Dotlich, PhD, a CEO and Board advisor and a senior leader in our Consulting business. As he said, “When people can relate and feel compassion, they connect and become energized.” Where there’s humor, there’s hope.

Dog years. When I want some perspective about how quickly things can change, I only need to look down at my feet—where Charlie likes to spend most of her days. She is two years old, almost to the day. Our pictures of just how much she’s changed show me what’s possible in two years. It’s hope, on four paws.

No matter where or how we perform—on a stage, in a plant, or in a virtual work environment—we need to ask ourselves: Are we playing only for ourselves or for others? The more we do for others, the more we take ourselves out of this moment and elevate the future—we rise above the fatigue.

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