In a good job, a good vocation, if we are sincere about our contribution, our work will always find us wanting at times. In an individual life, if we are sincere about examining our own integrity, we should, if we are really serious, at times, be existentially disappointed with ourselves. David Whyte
“Don’t think about drowning when you’re walking on water” a friend said to me recently. Why was I talking about all the things that might go wrong, when I feel in such a great place personally and professionally? Memories of the last time I had the audacity to feel like a water-walker, only to find myself gulping for air, drowning in the waves of my own self doubt?
In 2013, I was twelve weeks into a new job when I took a couple of weeks holiday. Planned before starting, I’d figured that was about the right time to regroup and switch-off. By then I expected that the weekly commute would’ve become a drag; nights living away during the week filled with work, rather than tea, bath and bed-time stories at home.
But far from feeling depleted, I was buoyed by the impact I’d made in just 3 months. I brought a different viewpoint and experience that was valued and was loving creating a sense of possibility and potential, not just with my own team, but in the thousands of people who worked in the retail stores, and therefore, by extension, the retailer’s customers and patients. I felt I was in the zone – playing to my strengths and bringing all of who I was to work.
Upon returning I found that the business environment had changed. June’s sales had been disappointing, resulting in a lukewarm quarter 1. Achieving the ambitious annual growth target now seemed challenging and it was determined that we’d look at potential areas of spend to cut. Being the holder of a revenue budget of almost £1billion, the bulk of the UK spend, I put my team to work on producing the plethora of analysis and reports such an initiative requires.
When I want to be I can be a real Excel geek and I thrive on simplifying complexity. Data visualisation is a real strength and I love writing reports. So why did I find myself floundering, flushed-faced and apologetic at the management meeting a few weeks later? Because I allowed “in control and highly responsible Vicky” to lead. This Vicky (let’s call her Victoria Jane) needs to have all the answers, and be seen to know everything – to be on top of things. I went from water-walker to drowning in just a couple of hours. I never recovered, and a few months later, the restructuring of the function resulted in my exit.
So what was going on? Being overly-identified with my status as the expert and leader I unravelled the minute I didn’t have the data to hand. Being just a few months into the company, members of my team were far better placed than I to lead the budget-cut discussions, but I didn’t take them along to the meeting. Being overly-focused on being seen as having senior executive potential I was anxious to impress. Being one who routinely feels overly-responsible I immediately apologised and exposed my vulnerabilities. In that culture, it was career suicide. Ultimately, I was afraid: not good enough / not worthy / not up to the job: fear dragged me under the waves.
I’d love to say that Victoria Jane hasn’t been allowed to be in charge since, but I recently discovered whilst she’d been sacked from my work life, I’d unwittingly re-deployed her at home. Talking to a pilates-instructor friend about some “feedback” from my husband, she asked me where my shoulders were: I was surprised to find them up near my ears – and judging by the discomfort I felt trying to shrug them back down, I think they’d been up there for a while.
There’s a reason why the phrase “feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders” exists – coach Julie Gray writes about that here. Whilst shoulder pain can be a result of poor posture, computers and driving, or simply dehydration, emotional energy arising from challenges in our lives will also manifest in the body as physical pain and tense muscles. Lots of people hold tension in their neck and shoulders – extended periods of intense anxiety can cause the muscles there to tense.
Connecting physically to the feeling of the need to be in control and highly responsible prompted me to have a bit of a heart-to-heart with Victoria Jane. She’s a useful woman to have around: on occasion. She gets things done and in a crisis – now that’s when she really comes into her own. But as Anton Chekhov said “any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out”. It’s wearing to be Victoria Jane every day.
Experiencing self-doubt might feel like a useful counter to being the Urban Dictionary definition of a water-walker, but more often, having a lack of faith prevents us from moving with purpose and flow, from doing work that matters.
“Walking on water” is the courage to believe in ourselves, whilst knowing we will be found wanting at times, because we are human. It’s having the courage to do what we care most about – in our vocation, in our family life, in our hearts and in our minds. It’s being steadfast in wholeheartedly pursuing what it means to bring our meaning to life, even if at times, we disappoint.
Also published on Medium.