Life, The Universe and Everything: Notes from a profound conversation
Every now and again I find myself in a conversation that feels truly significant: one that creates a paradigm shift in my thinking, or reaffirms a decision I’ve made in my life, or is in some other way memorable. This evening I left the office an hour and half later than my contracted hours because of one of these conversations.
A quick ‘hi’ to a colleague I’ve not seen in a few weeks unfurled into an extended dialogue about work, family, stress, uncertainty, adversity, spirituality… so many things.
Before I put my head down on the pillow tonight I felt compelled to write these things down, so I can’t forget all the ideas that are pinging around my brain. Also, I doubt I’ll sleep tonight if I don’t take a little time to decompress.
What follows are my raw and unprocessed recollections of our conversation. They’re not in any particular order, they’re just here. I figure they might be of interest to someone (or at the very least give you an insight into the state of my brain when it’s really fizzing).
- What is our purpose as humans if we’re not learning? We get a certain number of years of life, during which we are thrown all manner of personal, professional, emotional and physical challenges. If we fail to learn from these experiences, then we are not getting any benefit from those painful moments.
- Is it possible, or even desirable, to ‘do what you love’? In my experience, when you make what you love (in my case, music) your profession, the act of creating that obligation/responsibility/income dependence makes that thing less desirable.
- You have a limited quanta of emotional energy — you can’t keep expending it, eventually you have to rest. Sometimes it can feel that the world is pressurising us to move forward; to make that next career move, or take that big trip abroad, or start a family ‘before it’s too late’. But it’s not sustainable to keep throwing ourselves at these huge emotional upheavals; sometimes we have to take time to ourselves to enjoy some stability and take the pressure off. That’s not being defeatist, but looking after our long-term mental health.
- Whatever hours you are contracted to work, you won’t be ‘productive’ for all of them. There are a whole myriad of reasons that we can’t do focussed work for a full 8 hours a day — conversation, distraction, waiting for someone/something, not feeling 100% that day, reaching our concentration capacity… This is all normal: we are humans, not machines.
- Expectations on how much time is the ‘right’ amount of time to stay in a job, and how this has changed over time. Opinion almost certainly differs on this, and will vary by sector. I certainly feel pressure as a young professional to move on at appropriate intervals, lest staying in one role too long be seen to stunt my progression or indicate a lack of ambition.
- When we’re under stress, how does our team behave? Does it come together or start to turn on each other? This probably depends on a lot of different factors — how long a team have been together, whether the source of stress is internal or external, the formal or informal hierarchies that exist, the level of certainty/uncertainty about each team members’ role… It got me thinking that stressful moments are a good barometer for team health.
- The world is changing at colossal speed. Exciting or scary? Depends who you ask, probably.
- There are many things in life we can’t control, there are some that we can. We should try and focus our energies on the latter, as if we change even small things within our control that can have knock-on effects elsewhere.
- The magnetic power of London. I’ve never lived or worked in London, but am increasingly being persuaded by family and friends who have that these have been defining years in their life, and that everyone should experience a year or two in the big city.
- Finding balance among competing demands. Family, health, work, finances, friends, relationships, hobbies, pets, charity, news, technology. There are so many things that demand our attention, and it is our (difficult and continuing) role to keep these in perspective, and prioritise those most important to us.
- Recognising the difference between emotions which are fleeting, and personality traits/essence which remain relatively constant. My colleague described this as akin to the Sun and the Moon (constant) vs. clouds (fleeting, but closer to the surface). I liked this analogy a lot.
- Team health is of equal (or greater) importance to team delivery. An organisation’s most expensive and valuable asset is its people, and the way those people are treated has an enormous impact on long-term performance and the bottom line.
- The difference between working in continuous service delivery vs. projects. I was surprised as a predominantly project-based worker to hear that being in a ‘business as usual’ service can be quite demotivating, as there is no defined end date or goal to reach. It can feel like a hamster wheel which is constantly turning. This got me thinking about how we could combine the clarity of purpose/buzz of excitement of a project with the reliability/continuity/dependability of a service.
- The importance of compassion, and the surprising kindness of strangers. How extraordinary are the minds and motivations of those who work in healthcare or similar industries? Those who dedicate their lives to helping people they don’t know and have never met before… They’re amazing.
- Who is it easier to have a frank conversation with — someone you know really well and work with everyday, or someone you know less well who is detached from your day-to-day work? Depends on the subject matter at hand, but I found it really cathartic this evening to share some of the things I’ve found difficult to articulate with someone who doesn’t know the details, who won’t judge.
- The hours you work vs. the hours you think about work. My take on work-life balance: I don’t mind spending a few extra hours in the office to get the job finished; I do mind spending many hours into the evening thinking or worrying about work. I can reclaim the hours of ‘doing stuff’ and rewind once I go home; there’s no way to get back that time (some of it when I should be sleeping) when I’ve been overthinking.
- Uncertainty is a confidence killer. Something I really grappled with in 2018 was maintaining my self-confidence while in a period of uncertainty about my job contract. However many times someone tells you you’re doing a good job, the longer you wait the more doubts grow in your mind.
- Only you know when the time is right to make a significant change in your life (e.g. changing job, house move). Regardless of what ‘scientifically’ would be the best time, only you know when your circumstances/energy levels/health are ready for a big change. That’s not to say you should wait for a perfect time (that will probably never arrive), but that you don’t need to rush into a big decision because of external pressure.
- The balance of openness and frankness/candour. Many of us who blog will extol the virtues of openness, but I’m not sure openness on its own creates a positive environment. We could be open and aggressive, or open and insensitive, or open and frank to the point of bluntness. Sharing carries a responsibility to empathise with your audience, and to take care with the words you use.
- Life isn’t linear. We all have dreams, ambitions, goals in life, and often these are associated with a particular time goal. In retrospect very few things turn out just the way we planned them, and some seem downright fanciful. And hey, that’s ok. If it was as easy as making a plan and spending 70ish years seeing it through, life wouldn’t be nearly so exciting.
That’s probably enough for now… I rather enjoyed this, and I’m sure I’ll refer back to some of these thoughts/learnings at a later date. Huge thanks to my colleague SN for an amazing conversation! Looking forward to the next one :)