Right, now that we’ve got the formalities out of the way, let’s get to business: Last year I took part in Juneathon, the self-proclaimed ‘annual festival festival of activities and excuses’. The rules are simple:
Click the link to join
Run or do some form of exercise every day
Blog/tweet about it within 24 hours
Visit other blogs and leave comments, giving your support to other participants.
So for 30 days last year, I lifted weights, ran, and trained martial arts – and I blogged about it on one of my other blogs. I learnt a lot during this time – mostly that I’m not 20 anymore – but also a lot about my body and how to take care of it. The main issue was recovery, getting enough sleep, and dealing with minor injuries – but I persisted, and as a first-timer, succeeded – by not giving up. Which can of course be a perfectly acceptable option.
And as there is a similar challenge in January, called Janathon, I am going for this again – and I know it’s one day longer, which slightly scares me. Sounds somehow competitive – but it’s not. Some people sometimes win prizes doing this – but that’s not what I’m interested in. As you may know I’m fairly sporty, but I’m fiercely uncompetitive and I am very sceptical of the educational value of competition. This is also not a new year’s resolution – I’ve been training to plans like this for over 25 years, and it’s just another one; albeit a slightly more prescriptive one than usual.
So why write about this here? I like a personal challenge, especially when it’s one where I have to overcome just myself. And as I wrote above – it was an educational experience last time as well, and I hope for one again.
Rest assured, I will not update my blog every day about this, but over the next 31 days, I will post my observations about my own learning during this experience. I will also tweet my daily progress (and struggles) under the hashtag #janathon. Should you want to follow, or indeed take the challenge yourself – just follow the link and go for it.
Have you ever been frustrated with your manager for being slow with implementing what you had identified as mission critical and needed to be done right now? Was he sitting there, listening, apparently attentive, maybe even looking caring – but then nothing happened, at least not … well, right now? Well, this manager is me now. This is a realisation I had when participating in an excellent session by Gill Frigerio (@gillfrigerio) at the #PlaceNet13 conference (quick note: I chaired it – but can’t claim ownership of any epiphanies): Gill was doing an exercise with the assembled placement professionals, showing us a simple self-coaching exercise – and by golly, I learnt quite the lesson. I’ve been feeling stressed recently, and it wasn’t the volume of work, but a clear inability to let decisions and actions flow as I used to. Over the last years, moving up in organisations, I’ve gained a lot of responsibilities – but hilariously not necessarily more power to take them on in a swift and uncomplicated way. No wonder managers have a reputation for being ineffective. I always worked on the magic assumption that both would somehow go together, once I’m successfully climbing the chain of command. It was always my line manager, or people higher up the chain, with whom decisions would be stuck, I felt. All they needed to do was use their powers and unstick them – they said they agreed, but why did everything take so long? Once I’d be in their role, I’d just do stuff. It turns out that gaining responsibility and power don’t go along with each other at all, or at least at the same speed – and that exerting power isn’t the answer to getting stuff done sustainably either. The higher you move and the more you know about the organisation, the more you see complexities and consequences – and that almost always a strategic approach is required to solve issues rather than merely a tactical one. There are no quick wins (I was never a fan) – most of them end being rather pyrrhic. And using power to push something through tends to work against your agenda in the longer term.
The great philosopher Peter Parker (aka Spiderman) has termed the iconic words ‘With great power comes great responsibility . I jokingly often changed that into ‘with no power comes great responsibility’ for my workplaces – not knowing how right I was all along: ‘Moving up’, does not go with more power, or the ability to move things along – it’s mostly responsibility and perspective that you gain. It merely gives you access to others who may help you move things along – but they are mostly busy with their own strategic objectives (and often you can only hope that they align). Of course this depends on the type of organisation, but the reach of a manager in academia is astonishingly narrow: not that you can’t make decisions (I’ve pretty much always had that in most my jobs), but you simply can’t push them through – as you’re surrounded by people with similar reach, but no power either.
So far so frustrating, but why does this make me feel better? Any lesson like this would be worthless if it didn’t come with a call to change the agenda, to make it happen (whatever it is). Now what’s not going to happen is that I miraculously turn into some managerial super hero (even though I just got the shiny crystal trophy of my employer’s directorate leadership & management award) – as still I have gained no additional powers. Not even the strategy (often a word for just writing down your agenda, as if it makes it suddenly more real) will change that much – what I can however change are the tactics which I apply to achieve them. And for that, I have a couple of ideas (but mostly attitude), thanks to what I’ve learnt recently. Thanks, Gill.
Yet again this week, I’ve seen and half-read some motivational blog post about how important it is ‘never to give up’. Hogwash, I say, folks. This is not a new lesson, but one I learnt about 10 years ago, when confronted with odds I could not beat – first personal, and then professional as a consequence. Yet, a couple of times a year I am reminded of one of the most powerful mantras that I’ve learnt then: ‘give up, when you can’t win; walk away, fight another day – if it’s still worth it then. If not – let go.’ Following my stoic prussian lutheran upbringing – and a diet of pop psychology and Rocky movies – giving up was never an option. There is a heroic attractiveness to the one who fights against significant resistance – in a western context to be rewarded with success in the end. In other contexts, e.g. in Japanese literature and other forms of storytelling, the heroism often lies in giving it all – and dying trying. I find both tomes problematic. Both work on the assumption that there is a prize to be won – success in one, honour in the other. But both are defined by sacrifice and a range of suffering – which is cleansing, cathartic. Yet both, I dare say, are problematic – as they imply some form of reward that will be worth the struggle. Well, life doesn’t work that way – effort does not equate success, and it shouldn’t (as most lecturers marking essays will agree with). Effort can be laudable, sacrificing something may be worth it – but in itself, ‘not giving up’ has no intrinsic value. It may even lead to harm, if not directly by incorporating failure into a self-perception which is based on never giving up until you reach success. And it can leave insecurities and scars – or worse affect your long-term wellbeing. Probably this was one of the most important lessons of my adult life so far – sometimes you can’t win, and the art is in assessing the situation realistically, and walk away from it if needed. It’s very hard to consciously give up in a society which is so defined by (short term) success. Learning to buck the trend, and walking away with more or less dignity, can not only be better for you – but may actually help you feel better about yourself. I don’t know if it’s made me a better regarded individual, but it has helped me in both my personal and professional lives. I dare you – once in a while when you think you can’t go on anymore, just don’t. Have a cup of tea, think it through, give up, and follow a different path.