My maternal grandfather, affectionately known as Gatsby, gave me a wonderful piece of advice a few years before he passed away. He had been a successful entrepreneur, not that I ever really understood much about his various ventures when I was a child, and was also passionate about classical languages and philosophy. Not a man fit to play with little children, we only really started bonding when I took Latin at school. One evening, I remember standing with him in the garden of my family home, under my favorite tree, a lilac growing outside my childhood bedroom, after he'd come to visit us for dinner. I don't recall the specifics of our conversation but looking at me through his tortoiseshell glasses, he offered these words with what felt like much care and consideration:
‘To lead a successful life, it’s essential to know your limits, and then go as far as you can, but always within your limits.’
This advice feels timely as I’ve felt a bit rundown recently, unrelated to my second shot of the vaccine. I am close to completing a course-making course, you see. Don’t laugh; it really is a thing. As a side-gig to consulting, I am preparing to launch an online series on Lovingkindness, my core meditation practice. Like many others, I overextended myself by going on too many Zooms until well past bedtime. Driven by excitement and possibility, I am cramming all this on top of an already full schedule. That's all well and good, but it was evident by the week’s end that I was over-stretching myself.
Many courses, projects, bosses have us sprinting and creating work overload and sensory overwhelm. Mine was only a week-long, thankfully. Nevertheless, the resulting feeling was an unpleasant and powerful reminder of where I didn’t want to go back to. So I took note and decided to check in with myself.
CHECKING IN AND CHECK UP: UNDER PRESSURE
These last few days, I’ve been taking stock of my first 4.5 years of supporting companies as an external consultant. Maybe it’s because there is a feeling of renewal and change in the air, not just seasonal but the promise of a post-pandemic world; the possibility of newness is arousing.
When I first prepared myself to establish this new practice, I wanted to create a specific change in my life. I’d been stretched thin, consistently, over a long period. With the WFH consulting mode, I was ushering a new era into my life, one where I’d be more grounded, not flinging myself from one plane to the next. So I set high expectations for myself and the work I’d be doing. I now see this as another form of pressure we (read I) apply to ourselves. As Tony Robbins often says: ‘Less expectations, more appreciation.’ I'm all about exploring how to relieve pressure at the moment.
One of the values I identified early on for AVM Consulting was flexibility. It meant many things: letting myself be moved by others, not being too stiff or set in my ways, but also resilient. Like a tree, I wanted to feel grounded and yet able to flow with the times, with the needs of my clients. I also thought about the financial weight of keeping a consultant on long retainers: I always fancied myself to be the super-efficient over-delivering consultant, who could support and enhance a team or project, while not burdening the business with heavy fixed costs.
Like harmony, flexibility is a word that is present in my life at several levels. I am very limber, and the barre classes I've been taking lately with the superb and hilarious Julie Granger of The Studio are helping me cultivate this quality. But the strength practice is primordial in these classes. Flexibility without strength and stability can result in us keeling over, whether literally (I have lax ankles so that is a real thing for me) or more figuratively (overworked, overstretched, we collapse).
Like yoga, ballet barre, or practising my scales (which I haven't done much of lately), I needed to do the work first to see more clearly. I was attached to my concept, which was an elegant starting point, but just that. Thankfully, with a regular check-in, a good dose of writing and a bit of self-awareness, I get to see where to course correct.
Someone said to me the other day: " But you're good at everything!” Whilst it was meant to be a compliment, it pointed out the problem: in order to solve other’s pain points, I was taking on too much. In so doing, both I (and the client) lost sight of my true expertise, the one that drives my high hourly price tag. We (I too) forgot why they sought me out in the first place: that strategy piece, communication, business development, with a dose of mindfulness.
Mind you, before blaming myself for the mistake, I need to reframe the situation. We’ve been collectively operating in the most unusual and difficult circumstances for 15 months.
The result, though, is an overreaching that got me close to losing my balance. But, as I've learned recently, circumstances don't create the narrative, we do.
So today, rather than exercising my flexibility, I am anchoring back to my own needs.
BOUNDARIES, IT'S TIME FOR THEM
Why am I sharing this? Well, have you seen anyone do this too lately? I have.
In the past few days, I had several Zoom sessions with lovely people in different places around the world, from diverse backgrounds and companies. But, you know what I saw, across from me on the screen? Sheer exhaustion.
It’s not just me. We are, and we have been, collectively, overstretching ourselves.
In checking in, I get to ask myself and ask you this question:
What’s it all for? What are we working towards?
The truth is, we all have a different reality to attend to. Some of us have families, some are far from theirs, some have too much work and others not enough. There is not a single reason but the result is the same: we are stretched so thin, we are as brittle as the finest crackers.
What have I been feverishly working towards? I’ve been helping my clients ride the unrelenting waves of lockdowns without too much damage; without shutting down their business. I was working towards creating revenue, opportunities, and possibilities when the future was looking so bleak.
As you probably can read between the lines, that took a lot of energy. And it's not being replenished, not deeply enough, not sufficiently.
I’m not the only one pushing hard to keep the wheel moving forward. It’s both inspiring and worrying, this notion of forward motion being good. At what cost do we keep pushing though?
And what do we do when our ‘energy budget’ gets dangerously close to running out? Below a certain line, isn't that a burnout adjacent zone?
I believe that work ought to be at the service of life, not the other way around.
When putting others’ needs ahead of our own, however good the reasons or the intentions, we are bound to find ourselves out of balance.
Whether you’re serving the company, the team, the bottom line, the shareholders, the clients, your team members, your inner ego narrative (sometimes the one pushing us the hardest), your family, your children or your high expectations, maybe it’s time for a quick check in.
If I could speak to my grandfather again, I'd thank him for his advice. I wish I'd remembered it more often. Maybe you can head his words.
Let’s not push ourselves towards pain; let’s invite possibility and be creative in ways that we can serve ourselves and life first, and in so doing, serving others and finding balance.