One of my early forays into therapy was in 1997 when I became the Executive Director of GLAAD. I remember my first day in my new therapist’s office, Therapy in Mission Valley and of course she asked, “Why are you here?” My answer came quickly. “I like to solve problems for people – I’m a helper – but I’ve gone overboard. Now I feel like I have to take care of all the gay people everywhere.”
I bet many of you feel this way. Not necessarily about gay people. But about all the cats who haven’t been adopted, or the community center you know would benefit so many, or the marginalized groups you lobby for, or the communities of faith you support with your work.
It’s a lot of pressure. And as I have been known to say, a profound privilege.
I wish I had the antidote for the tremendous pressure and overwhelming responsibility.
I don’t. And I’m really sorry I don’t.
I pulled a fortune from a fortune cookie a few years back. I keep it with me. It kinda said it all. “The best advice to follow is the advice you give to others.”
My team will tell you I’m frequently overdoing it. I feel like so many people are counting on me. I remember thinking about all the gays and it would stress me out. Now staff and board leaders of 1.5 million nonprofits? OY. And that’s just here in the U.S.
It takes its toll. I work at the expense of my hobbies, my health, my relationships.
Crazy, right? People I don’t know take priority over my loved ones.
And so my wife and I (just the two of us) spent the last two weeks at a health boot camp. It wasn’t fun. And I am abundantly aware that only Type A workaholics select ‘vacations’ of this sort. Well, and also folks whose health is at risk. My wife and I check both boxes.
We reset our health. We ate without salt, sugar and oil. We were up at 6:30 am daily. An hour of cardio, an hour of strength training, an hour of yoga and then lectures about what happens to your body with age, with stress.
I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned. Few folks will have the privilege of spending two weeks as we did but I can share the lessons. Some of them are personal – most of these unflattering. Some more global – educational and hopefully helpful.
And while I write about these lessons from my own perspective (female of a certain age) they apply to all of us.
PERSONAL LESSONS FOR THE MID-CENTURY MODERN EXECUTIVE
- If you are constitutionally unable to totally stop working, then just own it. Just the thought of completely unplugging during my time away and returning to mountains of digging out from two weeks of absence was beyond overwhelming to me. So I worked during my holiday. Maybe more than I should have.
- If you love what you do, give yourself permission to do a little work while away. The work I do is rewarding and I did not resent doing it. And to her enormous credit, my wife didn’t resent my choice.
- Create boundaries and stick to them. The reason my wife didn’t resent it is that I created a daily 2.5-hour block for work. Each night I made a list of what I would do during that block so I could be as efficient with that time as possible.
- Exercise makes you clear headed. 1 hour of cardio twice daily clears your mind. I was more focused during my 2.5 hours. I believe I made better decisions. And an extra bonus: I muted the TV during the HGTV commercials and percolated. I made some decisions about my work, my priorities and the important priorities of my team. Sometimes I used Voice Memo to capture them for my relatively brief evening set up time.
- Read – but not memos or work-related books. And yes, this means you probably shouldn’t read my book while you’re on vacation. I started to read a work-related book and stopped myself. Clear-headedness allows for discipline. I read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and Another Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson. Solid books, worth reading, and not terribly long.
GLOBAL LESSONS FOR THE MID-CENTURY MODERN BODY
- Stress really does make you sick. Our boot camp included lectures about how your body works (or doesn’t) when it hits middle age. Upon arrival at the boot camp, folks on blood pressure meds get it cut in ½ by the med staff. Same with meds for any other illness that is stress related or that isn’t. Stress makes things worse. Doctors treat symptoms with pills. But far too often the root cause is stress.
- Regardless where you go, stress is in your suitcase. One of our grown kids struggled while we were away. We have learned that when you agree to be a parent, you can never resign from the gig. But it could also be an ailing parent or any number of life situations. Work with others to help you figure out how to approach it. That will reduce your stress. Let them help you determine if a rescue is warranted. And by the way, if you are taking good care of yourself, the drama decreases and you just make better and clearer choices.
- Take really good care of your feet. Your body is built around a thin pole (spine). On top of it sits a big heavy thing (head). And all the weight travels from your head through the pole and right into your feet. Pay really close attention to the shoes you buy. Have someone show you how to walk properly. The whole feet thing impacts your knees and your hips. I’d like to hold on to my own hips and feet for as long as possible. And if you think about your feet and your head and how it sits on the spine pole, guess what? You’ll have better balance. Better balance, fewer falls and fewer hip and knee injuries.
- Breathing exercises come in a close second. Try this sometime. If you have a Fitbit or something with a heart monitor function, take a look at your heart rate after a stressful meeting with a donor, board member, or staff. Then just sit down, close your eyes and try 10 minutes (or even just 5!) of an app like Headspace. Then check your heart rate again. It’s magic.
- Be ‘Type A’ like me and strategically select a sport. 5 years ago, I decided that elliptical machines were fine but kinda boring. So I created a mini-strategic plan, geek that I am. I loved sports when I was a kid but all that fell away as I got older and traded my mitt in for a laptop and a Type A career. I decided to learn a sport. My criteria: (1) year-round (2) only one other person (3) 45-minutes. Do this and you’re just a dishrag from an awesome cardio interval workout. For me, the answer was clear: racquetball or squash. I picked racquetball because I knew someone who could teach me. It’s the perfect sport for me. I can even put little faces on the ball when I smack it really hard. Recently the face has been the same every time but it does change. 🙂
So there you have it. I wrote this blog post on the plane ride home. Some combination of advice and lessons learned. And yes, some true confessions as well.
Did you get away at some point recently? I hope so. What advice do you have for other board and staff leaders who might be reading? What lessons did you pack in your suitcase and bring home with you? Are you overdoing it? Let us know in the comments below.