I like to do things quickly. To find the best way from A to B and to cover that ground as fast as I can. I like to be in control, to be uninterrupted when I’m right and to execute my plan as I see fit.
These qualities have served me well in my professional life. They allow me to meet and exceed high expectations and to enjoy the satisfaction of “delivering the goods.”
They have also gotten me into some trouble. My need for speed and control has, as you can no doubt imagine, been tested and dismissed in the real world of other people with both similar and different preferences for how they want to operate.
These inevitable confrontations leave me irritated, frustrated, annoyed and upset. Think of it as an always simmering, low level and perpetual version of “road rage.” I have allowed the disruption of my needs to ruin more days and more experiences than I care to admit. Far too many.
Until one day, realizing that the price of meeting these needs was getting too high, I decided to do something about it. Among other influences I was moved to action by David Foster Wallace’s now famous commencement address, “This is Water.” In it, he invites us to a radical empathy. He invites us to imagine the possibility, however implausible, that the person in front of us in line with too much stuff and a whiny kid has had a far worse day than we have; that the person who cuts us off in traffic is actually rushing a sick friend to the hospital; or that the person who seems oblivious to our existence is actually lost in thought about their dying mother.
He invites us to wake up to the brutal, obvious truth that the people around us are not bit players in the drama that is our life but are ACTUAL people leading ACTUAL lives of their own. He invites us to a new kind of awareness.
Moved and humbled, I started to pay attention in a new way and I started to make some progress. This year, in particular, I made it a focus to slow down, to let go of control and to let myself be swept along now and then in the current and the speed of those around me, going with the flow instead of trying to direct or divert it.
It is perfect then, that on this last day of the year, a year in which I really have strived to do better, I should find myself at both the DMV and Costco, two institutions who both by design and execution make my fantasy of speed and control look absurd. On any day, the DMV is a torture chamber. On New Year’s Eve, it was a cakewalk compared to the consumptive disaster that is Costco. Needless to say, I was tested to the max. And it was the realization that I was being tested, in the ultimate way, that helped me resolve to not only survive but to thrive in my navigation through the darkness of bureaucracy and the vastness of consumerism. I “thank you-ed” and “excuse me-ed” the hell out of those places. I let people go first, I got out of the way, I wished people “Happy New Year” and I decided to see my parking space as an opportunity for exercise instead of as the death march it could easily have been. In other worlds, I saw the experience for what it was, the reality of many, many people trying to satisfy their needs, rather than as a conspiracy to make sure that mine could not be met.
I did this because I decided to pay attention to it. That’s all.
So here, in another of what will surely be a maelstrom of articles about resolutions and planning, goal setting and change, I invite you to consider one thing. Pick something and focus on it. Think about it every day and see how it creeps into your consciousness, carves out a little space and gives you a stepladder to more awareness and new action.
For my money, that one thing should come from on of three areas:
- Self-Understanding. My “needs” awareness was driven by wanting to know why I was so damn frustrated all the time. Digging into that helped me see what was in the way and gave me a chance to do something about it.
- Connection and Relationships. For sure, there is someone in your life right now who needs more attention, better communication, more love, regard, respect, trust or empathy. Maybe they just need a little more of your time. Moving towards that space, being the one who is willing to go first, is what leaders do.
- Continuous Learning and Exploration. You, your team, your organization and community will only keep growing through continuous learning. The speed and pressure of change has made that so.
Do not choose three things. Do not choose two. Please trust me on this, PLEASE! Choose one thing and get started.
Perhaps, on New Year’s Eve next year you will be standing in line at the DMV, privileged to chuckle to yourself that after 364.5 days it was worth it to pay attention, after all.
DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.