leadership, personal

Squeezing Problems

I saw and heard a great message last week in church, about the paradox when we try harder to “fix” our problems, they don’t get fixed and can get worse.

My pastor used a bar of soap as a prop. He related the soap to our problems, and the harder you try to squeeze the soap (control the problem), the harder it is to hold the soap. The problem gets worse, not better.

If you are wondering the religious connection, the message is to hold your problems loosely in the palm of your hand, hold them up to God and say, “God, I give this to you, it’s bigger than me and I trust you to work in my life.” Randomly I saw a tweet that captured the idea in the past week since I heard the message: “Try to stop stressing, overthinking, trying to control. Know that He has got this, he’s got you, release the grip and breathe.”

If you don’t prefer the religious connotation, I think you can easily relate to the idea of understanding that there is a bigger world out there than ourselves and the things we can reasonably influence, and things aren’t always in our control, so we sometimes have to let things take their course, do our best in the situation, and let come what may. We might describe either the religious or non-religious approach to this as “having perspective.”

I have always been a problem fixer, and don’t like to feel like there isn’t a plan – in other words, I prefer controlled situations. This makes me squeeze the bar of soap.

I feel lucky that I have recognized this in the past and have adapted. I have been able to move past certain constraints and issues, have been able to “let go” of certain things. But as life goes, there are always new challenges ahead that you have to overcome, new issues to address. Some examples:

  • Have you ever played golf with someone who throws their clubs, or curses themselves out when they don’t hit a good shot. That was me 20 years ago. Then I somehow realized that all that action and energy wasn’t going to fix the problem. I learned to have perspective, a view of the situation bigger than the situation itself. Putting things into perspective always seems easy when you aren’t in the situation (imagine a poker hand where two other people are playing and it seems obvious to you what both players have). But when you are in it, it becomes more difficult. In this case, I was able to realize that I would never be a professional golfer and I was missing the best parts – precious time in fresh air and precious time with my friends.
  • I recall a time several years ago when I was starting out in a new job role that had a lot of interaction with other departments. Our company culture also wasn’t as mature as it is now, and I saw folks putting other departments down to gain advantages, and I followed that behavior; demeaning other departments in public settings/meetings where they weren’t there. Once a mentor pointed the behavior out and we discussed it, I made a commitment to never do that again and I believe to this day I have not. I also made it a team effort, setting the expectation for my entire team that we would be the “bigger” person. The perspective was again obvious later – we get much more out of life (and in this case work) when we put our effort into building others up; it takes a long-term perspective, because in the near term maybe our team didn’t get as many resources or were viewed less positively by senior management. But in the long run, we built better relationships and achieved more of our objectives by building bridges.

A common theme again about having perspective. I read an article recently about Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors. Among other great leadership attributes and behaviors, Steve always tries to have a bigger perspective than the “thing” itself. He puts his job and his “industry” into a larger perspective, understanding how lucky he is by considering others’ situations and realizing that as important as some make the NBA out to be, it is infinitesimal compared to other aspects of life.

Today, I am dealing with things I haven’t dealt with before. A parent passes away unexpectedly. My other parent is losing her brain health seemingly before my eyes, and I am not sure what to do. It has affected my personal relationships – I have yelled at my wife twice in the last few months (and for petty things); something I literally hadn’t done once in our four years together. We have talked about it, and it is clear why I did it, and it is also clear the solution – don’t squeeze the soap. Be willing to accept that I can’t “fix” my mom’s brain, or bring my dad back to take care of her. Understand that life is going to take its own course. I can do the best I can but the situation is bigger than me. There is a bigger life at play (perspective) of which my wife is an absolute critical part. So let her help you and bring her closer, don’t isolate myself and push her away by reacting negatively to little things.

I haven’t been the leader I want to be at work either. Ironically, given the magnitude of personal issues one might assume that I would be much more “forgiving” and relaxed about issues at work. Phrases like “we’re not curing cancer” and “this isn’t rocket science’ come to mind. You might think I would have been able to find perspective. So a minor delay on a project should be met with a soft reaction, given how insignificant that is compared to losing a loved one. Unfortunately, human nature is difficult to fight, and if a bar of soap in your personal life squirts away, it can be common to squeeze a different bar of soap – in other words, we take out our frustrations and sorrows on others, in this case those at work.

Part of the perspective here is time – as I come to grips with the personal issues, my leadership behavior would likely modulate back to a “center.” Part of the perspective is leaning on those who want to help instead of pushing them away or hiding from them – trying to “fix my problems” on my own – see above re: wife. Part of the perspective is that those who I am hurting are going through issues of their own, and instead of taking my frustration out on them, I should embrace them and we could support each other. Then I could actually let go of the little things we all mess up sometimes, given they pale in comparison to “real” life problems.

So I am working on getting my perspective straight. I believe in myself to get the right perspective given my past examples. I believe in the last week I’ve done well in several key areas for me (supportive tone, ask questions instead of giving answers, respecting input). I want to build trust in those around me to know that I have that perspective. I want to bring them closer not push them away. If I continue to learn not to squeeze the soap, I will be more at peace with myself. Then my energy and passion can lift others up, not bring them down.

I’ve written before about talking to each other, working together on leadership development. I will be seeking a lot of guidance to accomplish the above changes and will be asking many folks for some forgiveness, some support, some straight talk, some regular feedback. This is how it gets done if you want to be a better person. It starts today, and the same thing will be true for every today to come.

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