There is no doubt that 2014 was a very challenging year for me and my family. I encountered many situations that would be considered “difficult” all on their own and almost overwhelming when they occurred all at once. Here is a partial list:
- We lost my step-dad
- We lost a good friend and neighbor
- My step-sister had breast cancer
- My father had open heart surgery and a quad bypass
- My mother started to experience some serious health challenges
- I had a heart attack and complicated quad bypass surgery.
- My startup business was challenged by my need for time off to recover at a time when we were facing disruptive changes in our markets that required 150% of my attention
- And many, many, many more.
I’m apparently far from alone in feeling like this because many of my friends are rating their year as challenging as well. Checking on my news feeds it sometimes seems that wherever I look in the world, be it at family, friends, my business, our local or global community, the situation is tumultuous. It’s not very uplifting and easily a bit scary as well.
I’ve caught myself saying things like “I can hardly wait for this year to be over” and “Hey 2014, don’t let the door smack your ass on the way out.”
But as I contemplated the “year that was” on New Year’s Eve I started to realize that this way of thinking was hurting me. For one, it violates one of my core tenets that says it is crucial to always move “towards something” and never “away from something”. Moving away from something that is big and frightening without a clear sense of direction can be dangerous as it can lead into even more difficulties (e.g. think of looking over your shoulder at a near accident and driving off the road). And it was starting to sound suspiciously like I was falling into a “victim mentality” for which I have little patience in others and none in myself. It also seemed like I was forgetting another of my core tenets that all challenges are gifts in disguise.
With those things in mind I set out to give myself some acknowledgement for handling the challenges, to try to discover what the gifts were, and then to figure out how I can best use them moving forward.
I think one key lesson I’ve taken from this year is that I have to finally acknowledge that I’m not a superman and that I can’t just solve any issue that comes my way by dialing up my energy and attacking a problem head on until I wear it down. This has definitely been a pattern for most of my life until now. I wasn’t a great ice dancer but I compensated by working harder than others. I had no idea how to play let alone coach lacrosse but with some extra effort I got some good results with my teams. I haven’t had the same skills, training or education as others in my career but I’ve definitely had the work ethic that helped me overcome and create some unexpected successes.
This year was different in that to overcome the challenge of my heart attack and surgery I had to do the opposite of what I’ve always done and dial my life back to let myself heal. The doctors told me that healing after heart surgery takes three to six months before you start to feel “normal” and much longer before you are “yourself again”. I heard “three months” and set out to be a “poster child” for recovering from heart surgery. Funny, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Just over five months into recovery I’m still not feeling like I can handle a full regular work day let alone the 12 hour days I was doing before my heart attack. And where I’d normally just dig a little deeper into my energy reserves to power through the issue, in this case my energy was already low with no way of getting it up without hurting myself and making the situation worse. I was stuck. Frustrating!
After thinking about it a bit, the way through this mess seemed to be to focus my efforts on what is truly most important and therefore direct my limited energy into solving the most crucial issues in my personal and business lives. After trying to do this for a little while I’ve come to the conclusion that I actually suck at focusing. I’ve always said that I’m a bit ADD but this is something more. In the past, I’ve apparently given lip service to the need to focus and then gone ahead and done way more than I should because I couldn’t figure out what were the most important things to do. Doing it all was simply the easier way to handle the situation. Now that I can no longer just power through issues this deficit in my skills has become a big problem for me. I think that without the health challenge I would have been able to keep fooling myself about my abilities in this area and would have continued to suffer the insidious failures that creates.
So one takeaway from this year may seem obvious to everyone reading this post but it is simply, at a deep level, to acknowledge that I have more work to do on the concept of “work smarter, not harder” and must proactively make changes in my life so that I don’t fall back into old habits. I’ve had the gift of seeing for the first time two major dysfunctional behaviors that hold me back in both my personal and business lives and I have been able to identify how they need to change.
Breaking habits is hard to do. We rarely change behavior via the carrot; it is most often a result of the stick. One lingering side effect of the heart surgery is that when I push too hard and try to do too much I physically hurt. This is as good a stick as any to help me change my habits and is kind of a “bonus gift” if you will.
The thought that is very encouraging in all this is that when I resolve my issue and learn to focus more effectively (I won’t say “correctly” because I may never be good at it) and when I’ve had time to heal and rebuild my energy level, I’ll be even stronger and more capable than ever.
I’m looking forward again and moving towards something new.
Look out world, here I come!