No matter how hard you try, there will inevitably be a time when stress in your personal life distracts you from matters of work. Whether you’re dealing with a sick child or a dying pet or a personal medical scare, you can’t always just walk away from work while you deal with your emotions. You have to soldier on somehow. In my recent interview with Fox 31 Denver’s Good Day Colorado, I offer some advice on how to focus at work when experiencing a personal crisis.
For Mother’s Day last month, I wrote a special blog post honoring the career wisdom handed down to me from my dear mom. It seems only fitting then that I do the same for my father this month, in recognition of Dad’s Day.
While being very compatible (and happily married for over 30-something years), my mother and father are also just about as different as two human beings can be. Professionally, they have nearly nothing in common. But they’ve both provided solid career advice throughout my life, and the two different perspectives have served me well.
So, without further ado, I give you the career lessons I learned from my father.
Fight your fear.
First, let me brag a little bit: My father has a pretty amazing professional background. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he spent the early part of his career in military service. Probably the most impressive fun fact is that he was in the real-life Top Gun (Navy Fighter Weapons School), meaning he’s had some pretty crazy training. But the real kicker is that he spent a portion of his career as a test pilot, which is (as I understand it) about as challenging and risky a role you can have in peacetime. Think about it: You’re role as a test pilot is to TEST AIRCRAFT. Failure is not a viable option for the pilot. You have to remain calm and levelheaded under extreme pressure. And you have to be able to face your fear head-on, over and over again.
Most of us are fortunate enough not to have a career path that could possibly endanger our lives. But we still encounter fear, don’t we? A lot of it, in fact! Here’s what I learned from my father about facing fear: You just need to do it, plain and simple. When you let fear stop you, you open the door to regret. You have to trust and believe in your own capabilities. That doesn’t mean taking stupid risks, of course. But recognize that fear is an inevitable consequence of learning and growth, and without it, you’re doomed to stand still.
Some of you may remember a blog post I wrote a while back where I spoke of a situation where fear almost got the best of me. During that time, right when I was ready to let fear hold me back from my career dreams, I got an email from my dad. It was short and straightforward. It basically said something like this: Don’t give in to fear. You’ll regret it.
I didn’t ever respond back to that email because, truth be told, I was emotional at the time and those tough words were hard to swallow. But in the end, I followed his advice and I’m glad I did. I know I can always trust my dad to tell me things I don’t necessarily want to hear, but need to hear.
My father retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after 20 years of active duty. And ya know what? That was only the beginning of his career. After that, he spent 18 years as a commercial airline pilot and retired as a Boeing 737 Captain.
And so we move on to our next lesson…
When you’re at work, be at work. When you’re at home, be at home.
Being a commercial airline pilot meant my dad was away from home a lot. However, looking back at my childhood and teenage years, I never felt deprived by his absence. We used to say that his being gone made his time at home even more special. It’s really all about being present. It’s not a matter of time on the clock; it’s what you do with the time you have. When you’re at home, are you really “there”?
My father was lucky in that his work wasn’t the kind that followed him home. Not all of us are so fortunate. But we can take a lesson from this all the same. Don’t stress about the time you have or don’t have. When you’re at work, give it everything you’ve got. Likewise, when you’re at home, really BE at home. Don’t drag your workplace worries into your family time.
Make the time you have, however much that is, matter—even in small ways. As a child, a trip to Costco with my dad was just about as good as life could get. Quality time can be found anywhere, anytime.
Create an identity for yourself outside of work.
Now, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea here. My father’s an impressive fellow but he’s also seen his fair share of struggles. This one is a lesson he learned the hard way. You see, Dad was and will always be a pilot. That’s an identity that becomes a part of you and it’s hard to let go of after so many years.
So you can imagine that retirement created a little bit of a stir for my father. He was suddenly faced with the question of, “Who am I now?” and he had some exploration to do.
We are all at risk of identifying perhaps a little too deeply with our work. Yes, work is what we do and it’s part of who we are. But it’s only one part. We are so much more than our career path. Life offers so much more and we should be taking advantage of it.
I know I’m guilty of this. My business sometimes feels like my baby—a physical extension of my being. If I’m not careful, I can dedicate every waking minute to this project. But that’s not healthy. I have to remind myself that I need to hone my “outside of work” identity too…My identity as a friend, a mentor, a girlfriend, a poet, a lover of travel, a yoga enthusiast, a dog owner, a budding fiction writer, a lover of food, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a student, an avid reader, and so much more.
My father has discovered new worlds of adventure in his retirement and, I believe, new aspects of his personality as well. He’ll always be a pilot. But these days, he doesn’t fly. He’s way too busy for that!!!
Take your work seriously and be good at it.
The last line of my father’s professional bio reads: “He has attained over 15,000 hours operating high performance jets in over 35 years of accident/incident free flying.”
Now that’s someone who takes his work seriously and is damn good at what he does. Sure, there’s an element of luck in there too. Pilots who experience accidents and incidents aren’t necessarily “bad” at what they do. But this is someone who has dedicated a significant portion of his life to becoming a master at his craft.
Author Malcolm Gladwell posits that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at something to become an expert. My father is, without a doubt, an expert at flying planes. And he taught me that there is great joy to be had in this kind of discipline and focus. Taking your work seriously doesn’t mean it can’t be fun too. But you have to put in the time and energy needed to actually become good at it. That part isn’t always fun and it certainly isn’t always easy.
No matter what your job entails, take pride in what you do and how you do it. Hone your skills. Strive for excellence. Become a master at your craft.
Make your father proud.
For me, that’s the best reward there is.
It’s easy to take work home with you…heck, with today’s technology, it basically follows you everywhere you go! In my most recent segment on Fox 31 Denver’s Good Day Colorado, I tackle this problem head on and provide simple strategies for disconnecting from work so you can focus all your mental attention on home when you’re there. Take a peek at the video below and let me know what you think!
They say work and life aren’t supposed to intermingle, but I’ve never believed that to be possible. No matter how hard you try, there will inevitably be a time when stress in your personal life distracts you from matters of work. Whether you’re dealing with a sick child or a dying pet or a personal medical scare, you can’t always just walk away from work while you deal with your emotions. You have to soldier on somehow. You have to find a way to put your personal crises aside and focus on the job, no matter how frustrating and difficult it may be. But how, exactly do you do that?
Having recently faced a personal issue that left me very upset for several weeks, I have first-hand experience with this. Here are the strategies I used to get through it. Though, for the record, it still wasn’t pretty or easy. So don’t look at this as a magic bullet. These tips are purely offered to help—not fix—the situation.
Give Yourself Space and Time
Look, there’s no reason to push yourself to get back to “normal” right away. When you’re going through a tough time, recognize it and be gentle with yourself. It does no good to pile on the pressure. You’re human. You’re allowed to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. If you’re not as chipper as usual, it’s perfectly fine. If you’re a little slower getting things done, don’t worry. It may take days to feel like your old self; it may take weeks. There’s no formula for this kind of thing. The key is not to beat yourself up. Emotions have a life cycle and they need to work their way through it. Eventually, things will ease up—that’s a promise.
Share With Others
This is a judgment call on your part but it may be helpful to share your situation with a trusted colleague and/or supervisor. This will give them some context around why you’re not acting like yourself. They may be able to help ease the load a bit as well by taking things off your plate or offering a helping hand. If you let them in on what’s happening, they’ll be more likely to give you some space. I know it may be hard to talk about what’s going on with you so don’t feel like you have to give any details or specifics if you don’t want to. In fact, in some cases, it’s best to be as vague as possible (especially if dealing with personal medical issues).
One key point here: Please recognize that people aren’t always great at knowing how to help. Most people have good intentions but they might not be sure how to best support you through this period of time. Help them out by telling them exactly what you need. For example, you may want to lighten your workload for a few weeks or, in some cases, you might want to take on more to distract yourself. Be clear about what will work best for you and ask for it directly.
When something is bothering you, it’s easy to spend all day thinking and talking about it. You may find friends or loved ones calling or emailing you at work to discuss what’s going on. They mean well, but be careful about the amount of time you let this happen. It could make things worse for you in more ways than one. You don’t want your colleagues to get the wrong idea and you also don’t want to get yourself all worked up in the office.
Ask people to refrain from contacting you at work to discuss the personal situation unless it’s an emergency, and assure them that you will still be available outside of working hours.
The same thing goes for that little voice in your head. If you find yourself thinking about your personal situation all day, set some personal limits too. Let yourself think about it for 5 minutes and then set it aside for 30. You have the power here. Don’t be a victim of your mind. Take control of your thoughts and make sure you’re not stewing in negativity and stress and sadness all day. Get up and take a walk. Listen to some music. Do what you need to do to refocus.
Treat Work as an Escape
Try to shift your perspective a bit: While home is full of so much stress at the moment, work can be a nice little escape. Sure, work can be stressful too. But it’s a different kind of stress—less personal, less emotional. Time at work can be a good way to take your mind off everything else. After all, if you sat at home all day and dwelled on your personal situation, you’d only feel worse. Consider your office space a sanctuary—a port away from the storm.
Nurture Your Support System
The only way you can be productive at work during a personal crisis is if you know you have a support system. What I mean is this: If you have a sick child, you can’t very well concentrate on work if you don’t feel confident that your child is safe and being taken care of. So make sure you have a small group of people you trust whom you know you can call on when needed. This will give you the peace of mind you need to focus on other things.
If you’re going through difficult times, I want you to know you’re not alone. We’ve all been through it and we’ll all go through it again. We’re human, after all. And the human condition isn’t always pretty. Take care of yourself and remember…this too shall pass.
Photo Credit: Jayashreee (Flickr)