Work and The Inconvenience of Life

I generally write about organizational and leadership challenges. Personal life events may seem a little off-topic. Yet they are not. We live whole lives, not half-lives; so personal and professional are not separate despite our best efforts to keep them that way.

The chances are extremely high that, as a leader progressing through your career you find ways to “balance” your work/life demands. Sure, there are times when work takes far too high a portion of the pie, but you learn ways to level the scales; you make up "life-time" on weekends and vacations. Sometimes you’re able to steal away early for your child’s school play or take off the afternoon before you leave on holidays.

But there is one personal event that we will all likely run up against which we can’t plan for. It is extremely inconvenient. It’s the death of a loved one.

Image: - Deniz Altindas

Image: - Deniz Altindas

Some of the best advice I received in my professional life came last summer when I was dealing with a very personal issue

A CEO with whom I’d been working for several years turned our conversation around and asked how things were going for me? To my surprise I responded, “well, my mother is pretty sick.” She immediately questioned me: “how sick is “pretty sick?”

I admitted that I thought she might be dying.

She looked at me with the gravity of someone who is practiced at getting to the bottom of things quickly: “My mother died a few years ago. The one thing I can tell you is that I will never regret the time I spent with her once we realized her illness was terminal. Particularly before she got so sick that she didn’t know I was there. For months, I woke up at 6 am every Saturday, left my sons and husband for the day. I drove for two hours to spend the day with my Mom and would then make the 2-hour trip back home late that night to have Sunday at home. It was exhausting. I was in a demanding job and my kids were young, but it was precious time and I am very glad I did it.”

I went home that afternoon with her wise words ringing in my ears. My inner chatter had so many rebuttals:

  • Mom hasn’t even received a terminal diagnosis yet. (“But you feel it in your gut, don’t you?”)
  • I have a business to run and clients to serve, I can’t just stop work for an indefinite period. (But what if this really is the end; what if you only have a few weeks/months left?)
  • What about my clients? They need me. (“Your clients are professionals, but they’re human beings. They will understand. And, if they can’t wait for you, they will find someone else to help them and you want what’s best for them anyway, don’t you?”)
  • My parents live 1600 miles away. It will cost so much money to fly back and forth. And who knows how long this could go on? (“It’s money. You can make more. What if her time is running out and you look back and realize you let money get in the way of being with her in her dying days?”)
  • What about our vacation plans? The money we’ve spent to fly our children across the continent, the rental we’ve booked, cancellation policies and more. What should I do about all of that? (“What if you had to change all of that? You would, wouldn’t you? You will deal with it.”)
  • What about my business partners? We have so many projects on the go, starting up a new company, they depend on my participation. How will they deal with me being absent for an unpredictable amount of time? (“It’s business. They will deal with it. They’re professionals.”)

I was frustrated and anxious. As I sat with those feelings, I had an insight: the real issue was that my need for control was being thwarted. I like to have things mapped out in front of me. I like to have clarity about how I’ll be using my time, energy and resources for at least the next couple of months. My driven, habitual way to operate is to create a clear pathway into the future on an ongoing basis. It provides me with a sense of security (albeit false).

My ego was being thwarted by the inconvenience of my mother’s mortality. My love for her was messing with my psychological machinery. Love was throwing a big wrench into the works, and there was a significant part of me that WAS NOT PLEASED about this.

As I continued to reflect, it became clear to me -- I was scared. That fear was driving the ego-based, psychological machinery that wanted to resist what my deeper intelligence was saying: my mother was dying and I wanted to be with her.

Once I stopped resisting, the next steps were simple.

To ask for help and support has never been my strong suit. But I was able let go of my need for control and called my business partners. They gave me their 100% support and told me to do what I had to do. I reached out to my assistant and we went through my calendar and made the necessary adjustments to scheduled calls and meetings. I reached out to clients and let them know what I was doing. Everyone fully supported my plans for an indefinite absence.

My mother died ten-weeks after her recurrence of cancer was confirmed . I was able to be with her for almost eight of those weeks. It was precious time.

I came back exhausted and grief-stricken.

But, life goes on, and I returned to work. Funnily enough, my business was still humming along. Despite going “quiet” my professional world hadn’t fallen apart in my absence.

Had I not stopped to listen to my inner-voice, work would have made it so easy for me to miss being with my mother, and my family, at that most intimate time. Like you, my job can consume me if I let it. But what does that preoccupation with professional duties and responsibilities prevent us from feeling? Does it stop us from tapping into our body’s deeper wisdom and intelligence?

In the words of John Lennon, in his song Beautiful Boy, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.

As professionals, we are rewarded for planning, preparing and doing. It dominates our time and our attention. Our sense of self-importance can blind us to what is really important and can keep us from listening to our inner truth.

I will be forever grateful to my client for her words of wisdom, to my colleagues and clients for their generosity and compassion, and to my own inner voice that guided me to trust them all.

It reminds me of something David Kyle, one of my mentors, said to me years ago: “if you are really present with someone who is dying, you can learn a lot about living”. The impact of my mother’s final journey on my own life has been profound – both personally and professionally. It has brought me back to what is real, and to what matters.

Time, love and attention: these are our most precious gifts. And how easy it is to forget.