Recently, while teaching a seminar in Nashville, an old coaching client sat down with me in the Omni Hotel and demanded a no-holds barred assessment of his performance.
“I’d like to hear your perspective on my weaknesses. I think I haven’t been critical enough of my own skills, attitudes and behaviors lately. I’m getting reoriented, but your constructive and brutally honest criticism is appreciated,” he said. “I’m not concerned about my strengths. Focusing there isn’t going to help me at this point. It’s all about dissolving – or at least muting – my weaknesses.”
After much deliberation on this delicate task, I obliged. You’re probably making the same well meaning, but stress-inducing mistakes as my coaching client. When I reviewed what I’d told him, it struck me as something that would help you, too. It certainly reminded me of some behaviors I needed to add, and remove, from my life.
1) Stop Making Unnecessary Commitments
I looked at my client’s work and travel schedule. It was punishing. The weeks were jam-packed; cross-country consulting, a family trip up north, back-to-back guy’s weekends out East. He was even contemplating a consulting gig in Europe.
Something had to give. It would either be his family’s tolerance, his physical or mental health, his work performance, or his commitments.
Fortunately it was the latter. He canceled the trips with the guys and turned down the work in Europe.
Going forward, I told him to limit his travel and cut his commitments to two things: Family first, career second.
That’s it. These are his priorities. He is not allowed to make any other commitments. No signing up for adventure runs, spiritual retreats, or tee times at the Country Club. No taking on additional volunteer responsibilities at the charities he supports. Everything else can – and must – wait.
If he finds himself with free time at the last-minute and an opportunity comes up for him to go on a trip or indulge in a hobby, he can take it. While it’s a pain in the wallet to pay twice the price for last-minute airfare, it saves him anticipation anxiety and eliminates the stress and guilt that comes with canceling plans at the last minute. It also prevents disappointing others who were counting on him.
You might have other priorities. Perhaps improving your health takes precedence over advancing in your career. Or maybe you are a retired empty nester and volunteering is at that top of your list. There are seasons for everything in life. A wise ETR reader spends time in introspection and knows what those are right now. Then they don’t commit to anything else.
Take a deep dive into your priorities for the next 90 days and then re-evaluate how much time and energy you have for other things.
Until then, don’t make promises you won’t keep.
It sounds selfish, but it’s not. It’s the right decision for your right life. Everything and everyone else will be there 90 days from now. Let them be patient while you get focused.
2) Smile More, Sin Less
“I just saw a Facebook photo of you smiling ear to ear,” I said.
“It surprised me because most of the time you’re stone faced. You take life too seriously. We both do,” I admitted. “But I love seeing you with a big smile on your face, and I hope you’ll take more opportunities to make memories like that one. This will make a big difference in your life.”
Life can be stressful, frustrating, and downright ridiculous. We must learn to laugh at it more often rather than scowling at it.
To do this, we must spend more time with happy-go-lucky people and less time with those that drag us back towards our negative tendencies, whether that is cynicism, gossiping, or belittling others.
Spend more time with the people that make you smile. Mix it up with the kids at your next family event. Enjoy your weekend afternoons doing anything but work. Let go and laugh away your stress.
As you fill more of your time with the good in life you’ll also be tempted by less of the bad. But if an alcoholic walks into a bar, he’ll drink. If a busybody goes for coffee with the town gossip, tongues will wag unproductively.
Enough is enough. Temptations, obstacles, and bad behavior do not serve us. Eliminate them from your life.
Take the high road.
“You either become like your companions,” Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher said, “or you bring them over to your own ways. Great is the danger, so be circumspect on entering into personal associations, even and especially light-hearted ones. We often end up being carried along by the crowd. Choose your associations with care.”
If you gossip, change your attitude. Aim to speak of only the best about others. Commit, to speaking only of things that advance your life in some way. Don’t lower others in order to raise you up. There’s no point to that. Never was.
I encouraged my friend – while silently encouraging myself – to take this advice courtesy of my friend and mentor Dave Kekich:
“Enjoy life. Treat it as an adventure. Care passionately about the outcome, but keep it in perspective. Things are seldom as bleak as they seem when they are going wrong – or as good as they seem when they are going well. Lighten up. You’ll live longer.” – Kekich Credo #55
3) Speak Up Sooner
“You let things build up inside of yourself for too long,” I said to my friend. “And when you finally do share, it can be harsh. Not that others should be coddled, but if you could blow off a smaller amount of steam before allowing it to become a geyser, everyone would benefit, and problems would be fixed faster.”
There are many people, myself included, that would run through walls for you, if we only knew what you wanted us to do. It’s partly our fault for not asking, but there is a bit of fear and intimidation in us that stops us.
“It would be wonderful if you would take the first step and alert your team sooner” I said between sips of tea. “Earlier this year when your business suffered a setback, you gave the team a lot of helpful feedback – probably too much all at once. I imagine you had anticipated the problem. I imagine it could have been avoided if you had said something a little sooner.”
“Don’t be afraid to tell people what you are thinking or to give your opinion on what you think is right for them. You’re a leader in your organization and more people, especially the younger generation, wants to hear from you more than you might think. Just look at all of the people that come to you (or want to come to you) for advice,” I said before rattling off a long list of our peers.
At that point I was done. His weaknesses were few, but significant.
“The bottom line,” I concluded, “is that people need you, at home, at work, and in the community. We need you at your best. Commit less, smile more, destroy temptation, speak up, and give more direction.”
This advice goes for every ETR reader, too. So set yourself upon that path today.
“Begin at once a program of self-mastery,” Epictetus recommended, “Once you have determined the spiritual principles you wish to exemplify, abide by these rules as if they were laws.”
Yes, the virtuous path comes with sacrifice. Everything does. Living life the hard way demands dedication, but living life the easy way places our health, wealth, and wisdom at risk.
“We haven’t seen much of each other this year,” I said to my friend as we finished our conversation, “and if you take my advice I fear we’ll see even less of each other. But you and the people that matter the most to you will be better off.”
If this advice still hasn’t solved your problems, I encourage you seek personalized feedback from a wise friend. Have the difficult conversations. Make the hard choices. Commit to making the right decisions for your right life, no matter how tough it seems.
“When in doubt,” wrote V.S. Pritchett, “increase the difficulty.”
It is the road less traveled by, and that will make all the difference.