This Might Sting a Bit

I’m writing this while out of the country.

I say this not in a na-na na-na boo-boo way. After all, I’ll be back in a matter of days…perhaps even by the time you read this.

Instead, I say this because, just like every other time I’ve spent a few days away from my normal routine, I’m reminded of a few simple, if not slightly painful facts.

I present to you now…

Slightly painful fact #1: My world is not the center of the universe.

It sounds obvious, I know. But it’s easy to forget it.

It was even easier to lose sight of it when I was running an organization, when I was in a world filled with stress…one that was continually inundated with emails from staff and bosses and colleagues, one where the budget always seemed to be looming before me in shades of red, one where staff morale was constantly ebbing and flowing, one where I could never quite catch up, nor catch my breath.

It was a world where I was working toward a mission, and if I wavered or if I failed, it felt like everything around me would come crashing down around me.

People wouldn’t be served. Staff wouldn’t be supported. Board members and donors would be disappointed…everyone would know.

But getting away from it all – taking my mental wide angle lens, pulling out  from my particular place to see that there are thousands of people everyday doing thousands of things that have nothing to do with me or my role or my organization – always reminded me of this simple truth.

My organization was not the sun. Not everything revolved around it.

Was it important? Yes. Did people depend on me? Absolutely.

But no matter how it felt when I was knee-deep in my day-to-day, with people relying on me and needing me and watching me – the success and failure of mankind itself didn’t rely on how I handled myself at a board meeting or how a funder reacted to a proposal or if I made a good hire.

This realization on its own is important, but it’s nothing without the next step. I present to you now…

Slightly painful fact #2: The fact that my organization is not the sun is a good thing

How does it feel to hear that your organization is not the sun? Be honest.

I’ll go first.

For a long time there was a part of me that got something out of believing that my work, my challenges, my mission in life was so unique that nobody could possibly understand it, could possibly be going through the same thing, could possibly be rising to similar kinds of occasions.

It made me feels special, important. But it simply wasn’t true.

And once I swallowed hard and embraced it, once I realized that my success and failure would not cause mankind itself to flourish or despair, I didn’t just get a good dose of humility.

I got some relief.

I recognized that the world is a whole lot bigger than I was thinking, that plenty of people went about their day every day and didn’t care about what I was doing, and the pressure eased. My stress couldn’t help but ebb a bit.

That alone was worth the sting to my pride.  

And then it got even better…because it led to my third and final truth for today.

Slightly painful fact #3: There are lots of other people doing very important work, too, and they could help me

Your organization is not the sun, not unless you think of the sun as one, bright, beautiful star shining amidst many, many others doing the same thing.

When you recognize that you are important and your challenges mighty – and that there are lots of other people in the same boat – you also recognize that there are many people who can help you make it better.

When I first ran an HIV/AIDS organization I believed that only those in my exact position, in the same kind of organization could possible get me.

Then I thought bigger.

I realized we were actually a healthcare issues, an access issue, a poverty issue. The circle of people who could understand me, who could help me, grew.

Then I realized that other managers working in other areas – like the arts and the environment – also had boards and galas and staff retreats. And my circle grew even bigger.

Then I realized that those in the for-profit sector also had to do staff reviews and deal with missed budgets and tackle seemingly unfeasible goals. And it got bigger still.

And so I swallowed hard and I realized that we were more alike than different.

And I recognized that I could share my anxiety with others and they would understand me, that they could share their lessons learned and I could do the same.

Perhaps most importantly, I looked around and realized that what felt like impending insanity was really normal. I was normal. My stress was normal. My challenges were normal. 

Sometimes that’s the most important lesson of all.

And so I realized I wasn’t alone. And I learned. And the pressure eased. And I slept better.

Not tons better…but better.

I encourage you now…don’t wait for a vacation to look around you and realize that…first…there are lots of people who don’t know, nor care, about what you’re doing.

Then…don’t wait to figure out that you’re not alone, that you’re not so special that you can’t learn from others. Don’t wait to embrace what is similar between you and other leaders. And reach out, and validate, and learn.

Recognize that your organization is not the sun. Recognize it as a good thing.

Then let yourself believe it for real.

I promise you, it will make your life better.

Now, go do good…and do it well.

3 thoughts on “This Might Sting a Bit

  1. Kitty Bailey says:

    Thanks Deirdre for the great post, its worth reading twice!!!

  2. Deirdre – so glad I waited to read this in its entirety … you are spot on and this is a good “daiily reminder” to all of us.
    Am sharing with my staff at our meeting this morning!
    Hope the vacation was great –

  3. michelebart says:

    great post and so true!

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