I was talking to a nice chap last evening at a 50th birthday party, and found myself sharing some of the many horror stories from jobs I’ve had.
He was laughing and asked me what explains all the changes in role, sector and subject matter in my career? I said it was pretty simple really – in most of my jobs I’ve been like a cat walking on hot bricks looking for the first credible opportunity to jump!
The problem is it has often been from frying pan to fire!
Still, as we chuckled I did say the one advantage is I’m pretty much unshockable these days. Given the number and sheer variety of car crashes I’ve been part of in working life, it’s much harder to knock me out of equilibrium now.
And then I rather amazed myself, by saying I think I’ve finally lost my imposter syndrome… a previously constant companion throughout my working life! Having done a bit of almost everything, (and often having it go wrong on me) I realised I have achieved a greater balance between my expectations and my reality.
Of course the trick is to adjust your expectations – not to try to transform reality. That way madness lies.
In accepting who I am, what I have done and what I can do, I realised last night that a greater sense of equanimity has broken out. It’s not that I don’t care or don’t try – it’s just that I’m a bit more realistic about what I (or anyone) can do about all the things which go on around us.
I suppose I’ve accepted that I may not be amazing at everything that work throws at me; but I’m ok at most of it. And that’s all you really need to be. Ok is ok when you’re in your fifties, it mostly gets the job done.
After years (and especially the last year) of constant emails, texts and troubles, this week the tone has changed.
My last two jobs have been all about problems: building failures, system crashes, unhappy people, complaints, campaigns, strikes and unreasonable and unrealistic senior folk.
As a result every time I put my phone down I was expecting another electric shock to come my way – via text, WhatsApp or email. Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon pick your hour, there’d be someone who’d find something to trouble me about.
Of course 2020 takes some beating for stuff going wrong (plus a tree smashed our studio and the dog has now died) but in truth, I’ve been suffering pretty much constant electric shocks from work since 2005.
So imagine my delight this (Saturday) morning to find no new problems in my inbox. No texts. No WhatsApps…
How long it will last who knows. But not having to look after the reputation of a national institution or the operations of a multi-campus university certainly made my day today.
I’m learning – both conceptually and practically – the difference between ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ at the moment.
Here’s the lowdown from my latest ‘lockdown’ Coursera course:
Conceptually, grit is distinct from resilience, a term defined differently across authors but generally accepted to be a multidimensional construct describing successful adaptation to overwhelming adversity and stress.
While popular measures of resilience often include perseverance as a component, they tend to include other elements as well, such as equanimity and a balanced perspective on life (e.g., Wagnild & Young, 1993).
Moreover, grit entails consistency of interests and goals over time, whereas the construct of resilience is agnostic on the stability of an individual’s interests.
Claire Robertson-Kraft, Angela Lee Duckworth – University of Pennsylvania
Based on this I’d say, of the two, I’m more ‘resilient’ than ‘gritty’. As per recently: ‘consistency of interests and goals over time’ hasn’t always been my approach to life. I’ve been more opportunistic – a polymath and latterly a specialist-generalist.
Perhaps that’s a function of the jobs I’ve had. I’ve been managing people who ‘know’ more that me since I was 22; and learnt, especially in Government in my mid-thirties, that there are all sorts of perspectives on what good looks like.
And it turns out grit isn’t so much about generic leadership or conscientiousness – it’s about sticking at one thing, a metier, a life project or a single-minded goal.
Grit is different than leadership potential insofar as the arenas in which gritty individuals demonstrate their stamina need not be those that entail organizing and managing other people.
Likewise, grit can be distinguished from conscientiousness, a multidimensional family of personality traits that encompasses perseverance, but also includes tendencies toward responsibility, self-control, orderliness, and traditionalism (Roberts, Chernyshenko, Stark, & Goldberg, 2005).
While correlated with conscientiousness, grit provides incremental predictive validity for achievement outcomes, particularly in settings of high challenge (Duckworth et al., 2007).
Claire Robertson-Kraft, Angela Lee Duckworth – University of Pennsylvania
Perhaps also I’ve just not found the goal that would justify the grit – the pearl that would tickle my oyster.
But talk of grit has helped me a bit this week. I can see I have several very ‘gritty’ people who work with me – who will stick at what we have on our plates come hell or high water.
And reflecting on ‘grit’ myself has helped me to apply resilience, leadership and conscientiousness to the task at hand – not just surviving but getting tough stuff done. And this put me in mind of a quote I received a couple of weeks ago:
“Maybe one day it will be cheering to remember even these things”
Aeneid bk. 1
So I decided to look up the passage from whence this came. Here is Wikipedia’s summary:
In the manner of Homer, the story proper begins in medias res (into the middle of things), with the Trojan fleet in the eastern Mediterranean, heading in the direction of Italy. The fleet, led by Aeneas, is on a voyage to find a second home. It has been foretold that in Italy he will give rise to a race both noble and courageous, a race which will become known to all nations.
Juno is wrathful, her favorite city, Carthage, will be destroyed by Aeneas’s descendants. Juno proceeds to Aeolus, King of the Winds, and asks that he release the winds to stir up a storm in exchange for a bribe; Deiopea, the loveliest of all her sea nymphs as a wife. Aeolus agrees to carry out Juno’s orders: “My task is to fulfill your commands”. The storm then devastates the fleet.
Neptune takes notice: although he himself is no friend of the Trojans, he is infuriated by Juno’s intrusion into his domain, and stills the winds and calms the waters. The fleet takes shelter on the coast of Africa, where Aeneas rouses the spirits of his men, reassuring them that they have been through worse situations before.
The key passage is this:
‘O friends, well, we were not unknown to trouble before. O you who’ve endured worse, the god will grant an end to this too.
Remember your courage and chase away gloomy fears: perhaps one day you’ll even delight in remembering this!
Through all these misfortunes, these dangerous times, we head for Latium, where the fates hold peaceful lives for us: there Troy’s kingdom can rise again. Endure, and preserve yourselves for happier days.’
That they have ‘endured worse’ before is a reminder of resilience. The bringer of hope is the promise of ‘happier days’. But the key to grit is the ‘consistency of interests and goals over time’: “to head for Latium where Troy’s kingdom can rise again.”
Still, perhaps the most telling line is the one that follows – where Aeneas’s ‘grit’ meets the challenge of ‘leadership’…
So his voice utters; and sick with the weight of care, he pretends hope, in his look, and stifles the pain deep in his heart.
As for Aeneas, the task at work right now is to ‘pretend hope’, ‘endure’ and ‘preserve ourselves for happier days’.
Barker tells us that Snyder defined the route to hope thus:
Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes… According to the theory, people who are hopeful believe they are good at generating goal thoughts, creating effective pathways leading to goal attainment, maintaining agency thoughts to provide enough motivation for the goal pursuit, and handling barriers that arise.
After all, as Barker reminds us, right now:
You’re dealing with life and death, financial concerns, issues of justice, and the safety and sanity of those you love. We have to get all that back on track in a world where clear answers are less than forthcoming. Human nature is on our side but we have plenty of work to do. Planet ain’t gonna fix itself; grab a shovel.
We don’t need wishes. We need active hope. The kind of hope that comes from a good plan, one that you are confident you can execute.
But in the endless weekly grind of ‘lockdown’ and Covid anxieties, it’s hard to come up with a plan that feels up to task. It’s all either too wishful or too timid. So what to do?
It starts with the goals:
Goals + Agency + Pathways = Hope
When you have goals (knowing what you want) and agency (the drive to get what you want) and pathways (the ability to generate methods to achieve what you want), you get hope.
With this type of hope, you don’t wish things will work out; you know deep down in your bones they will. You never doubt it.
I’ve always rather hated setting goals… what if I fail, is this the right thing to be shooting for, will it be worth it?
After all as Barker says:
Asking yourself “What are my goals?” is an excellent way to make your mind go blank.
He advises getting specific:
List out the major areas of your life (“career”, “family”, etc.) and beside each one simply write “I want…” Then finish the sentence. Be specific…
No, even more specific…
Sorry, still not specific enough…
Don’t say, “I need to find a new job,” say “I’m going to spend one hour every morning job-hunting on LinkedIn and reaching out to contacts.”
Snyder says you want “Specific, growth-seeking, performance-based, moderately-difficult goals.”
We’ve covered the ‘specific’ part. What’s a “growth-seeking” goal?
The right goals for ‘right now’ forget hope for the applause of others, and focus on personal growth.
Snyder’s research shows:
There is evidence that people who set validation-seeking goals are more prone to depressive episodes and self-esteem loss than those who set growth-seeking goals (Dykman, 1998). Validation-seeking goals are strivings to prove one’s self-worth, competence, and likeability through attainment of a goal. In contrast, growth-seeking goals are strivings to learn, grow, and improve.
I’m pretty good at action (agency) and finding routes forward (pathways) but Barker helped me realise I could do with a clearer more positive goal right now. Not least given my first thought was the one Barker advised against – get a new job!
So instead I’ve worked on some ‘growth’ goals:
Practice forgiving myself and others for what’s happening at work,
Be curious; practice and learn new psychological techniques through conflict at work,
Take breaks several times a day to breathe, reset and be ‘mindful’,
Keep learning Italian and French, and
Keep learning more about psychology and neuroscience.
I still think I should get a new job though!
However, as chance would have it an email from Chris Croft dropped into my inbox today; reminding me to find some things to enjoy at work too… So I’ll be looking for laughter where I can find it, and for the opportunity to write and create at work this week, among all the other difficult things.
Both Barker and Chris Croft reckon you can’t be happy or hopeful without some written goals. I’ve concluded, especially when everything is going wrong, they’re probably right.
A nice piece I read this morning in Philosophy Now, contains a quote which largely summarises my endeavours at work this week:
It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.
Ascribed to William of Ockham, who lived from c1285 to 1348 – it is as true in the modern world of work as it no doubt was in a medieval monastery.
Here’sa little of whatwriter Terence Green has to say about Ockham in Philosophy Now [which at just £17 for a year’s subscription would comfortably pass Green’s excise the excess Ockham test]:
William from Ockham (or Occam), an otherwise obscure village in Surrey, England, was the greatest philosopher of the fourteenth century. Known as the Doctor Invincibilis, he didn’t care whom he offended, and with his rough and ready style of argument, he offended plenty of people – which eventually got him into big trouble.
He became a Franciscan monk, an order famous for its commitment to poverty. But this meant he was at risk of having idle hands (one of poverty’s unacknowledged benefits), and so doing the Devil’s work. To avoid this calamity, he wrote widely on logic, physics, and theology.
Today he is most often associated with ‘Ockham’s Razor’, his idea that explanations should be as simple as possible; alternative formulations of this principle include ‘Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’ and ‘It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer’. Frankly, this is a good rule of thumb whatever you’re thinking about.
Having already been condemned as a heretic in 1326 for having unorthodox views, since he argued against Aquinas’s philosophy, he didn’t help himself when in 1328 he sided with those who argued against the Pope that Jesus and his disciples didn’t own any property. This was obviously a matter of considerable importance to the Pope, who owned a lot of property.
Seeing what was coming (imprisonment and execution), William took refuge with the Holy Roman Emperor in Bavaria. Excommunicated, but feeling a bit safer, he wrote polemics against the Pope’s claim to temporal power, thus emulating Dante.
The invincible teacher was finally beaten around 1347/48, probably by the Black Death. The Pope had died earlier, in 1334, still owning lots of property.