Don’t Believe Everything You Read As A Kid…

dont believe everything you read as a kid

I was discussing a client’s increasing frustration on those days when her staff is spending their time on busy work and not making any progress on the larger departmental goals.

“You mean you feel stuck ‘here‘” I said and pointing to where we were sitting.

“And you’re frustrated that you’re not moving fast enough to ‘there,’ right?” I reflected as I pointed to ‘over there‘ by the window.

“Exactly!” she concurred.

If you’re like my client, like me, like most of the rest of the forward-thinking US population – you know exactly that feeling. The feeling where you’re stuck in the quicksand and working hard to get out, but feeling like you’re not making enough progress.

I keep picturing that story we all heard as kids, the one about the Tortoise and the Hare. The Tortoise and the Hare challenge each other to a race. They line up on the starting line together and soon enough the Hare zooms off while the Tortoise plods along.

Along the way the Hare plays games, races around, even naps – all while the Tortoise is plugging along towards that finish line. I know you know the end, that the Hare who initially had the lead – squandered it with overconfidence – eventually losing to the Tortoise who’d made steady progress the whole time.

The moral of this story – slow and steady wins the race. Really?

There are two huge problems with this fable as our guiding light. First of all – who wants to be the Tortoise? Working, trudging along, and feeling behind until the very end? Meanwhile the Hare seems to be having a lot more fun.

Our whole childhood we’re taught that the Hare’s way is not how to win. Sure we don’t want to be braggarts, but how happy is that Tortoise during the race?

Secondly – and more importantly I would argue – WHERE IS THE FINISH LINE?

We treat our lives and our work like a marathon. We need to keep the pace, we need to keep moving forward, and we need to keep this up until we reach mile 26.2 when someone finally awards us our gold medal. It’s fine to keep sacrificing to get our end-game reward.

In honor of today, July 4th, American Independence Day – I’m providing 3 signposts to wake you up to the fact that you need to free yourself from the finish line mentality. (P.S. I was going to provide 5 but then I thought – what the hell – it’s summer, 3 is fine!)

3 Signs The Finish Line Mentality Isn’t Working For You:

1) Your Life Is Like Groundhog’s Day – In this infamous 90s movie, Bill Murray plays a newscaster who keeps waking up and living the same day repeatedly. If you roll over every morning, hit the alarm clock, and think, “I don’t know if I can keep doing this again and again,” this is a sign you are way overdue for fun. When your days stretch out before you and you are the Tortoise continually plugging along, you risk eventually burning-out or worse, giving up on what is important to you. Even Bill Murray needed to shake up his day to finally move forward to the next.

2) Your Path Seems Endless – On one hand it’s true – we usually can’t see the end of our path clearly – it’s part of the mystery of life. But if you aren’t celebrating the accomplishments and milestones you pass on your way to a bigger goal, you’re missing out on a chance to acknowledge the successes you have created. I see a lot of clients who accomplish one victory (a promotion, big contract, income goal), only to shrug off its importance and immediately fixate on a bigger goal. Don’t do that! Stop! Rest! Celebrate with fireworks! Then respect when you get the itch to move forward again.

3) You Never Do Anything “Pointless” – Can you remember the last time you filled a day with goal-free activities? For instance reading a mindless beach novel, not responding to email or even sneaking quick phone checks, bike-riding with your kids or throwing a ball not, “because they need to learn,” but “just because.” Much of the world enjoys regular hedonistic days, but here in the US, we have minimized the importance of pleasure and often even associate it with laziness. I would argue the mindful fun can too often be a missing ingredient in the fast-paced, goal-driven US lifestyle.

Thirteen years ago I ran the Portland Marathon (and finished in a record 5 hours.) And I’ve kept that finish line picture on my desk for years, alongside my PhD ceremony pic, as evidence that I could do whatever I put my mind and body to. What have I learned since then?

Keep meaningful goals! Work towards them. They are what help you to grow. But don’t mistake reaching your goals for crossing the mythical finish line. The truth is each day provides its own ending, its own finish line, and you just have to breathe to reach it. The real mission is to populate your days with moments you want to be living.

Happy Independence Day!

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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