What did you expect?! (warning: this is a bit of a rant)

24 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on howtofab.com.

Yesterday’s post on the problem with Rejecting a Thank You ended with a nod towards Expectations. To me Expectations are a fascinating (and sometimes infuriating) subject, one that really gets me going on an intellectual and emotional level. Expectations are everywhere, around us and within us, but most of them are only slightly visible (think iceberg). And many of them are a great source of pain and suffering.

In my 2016 article on burnout (see here in German and here in English) one of the points I made was that wrongly set expectations are the ultimate premise for the development of a burnout syndrome. In a nutshell: if you set yourself expectations that are too idealistic (and many of us do that), your chances for suffering and ultimately a crash are a lot higher than if you restrain yourself in the beginning and stick with more realistic expectations. I still stand by that thesis and I continue to be baffled when I speak to (young) people about their expectations – especially in relation to work.

Considering the job as something that gives meaning to my identify and life, that makes me happy, where I don’t just exist but where my inner self is truly being seen, where I can develop myself beyond my own imaginations, where somebody sees my true potential and puts me on a journey to thrive….. well, that’s just a bit too much, I’d say. And almost ironically, that’s the quickest way into an existential crisis. Expecting existential fulfilment and happiness from a job can be a recipe for disaster if you don’t understand that these things are created within and by yourself. Even worse when those expectations come with a sense of entitlement – when did this happen?!

I think very, very fondly back to my early professional years, when I was a trainee at a TV station. I worked many hours and the tasks handed to me where sometimes not the most exciting, but they allowed me to be in a place to watch and listen. It was up to me what to make of those two years and looking back, I think I did a pretty good job. Also, because never in a million years would it have occurred to me to ask for – sorry, expect to be given – a Manager title, a budget, key account responsibility, input on a strategic level or the ability to shape the organisational goals. I knew I might eventually move up and into a position with a fancier title and pay check, but at the time, I was in the right place with the right set of expectations – the company’s towards me and my own towards the company and myself. It was a time to gain practical experience, to try out a few things, to make mistakes, to watch others make mistakes, to see how organisations really function on a day-to-day basis, to see why some people are successful and others aren’t and to try and understand and appreciate (from afar) the complexities of management and leadership.

The thing is, organisations haven’t changed – but expectations have. And that’s true for both employees and employers. There is still tons of menial work to be done and there are good reasons why the less experienced people should use those tasks as a test of their abilities. And there are complex tasks that require a certain level of maturity, knowledge, experience…something more suitable to people with a few more years under their belt. That should be totally fine and ok.

The problem lies with wrong expectations that have created truly unhealthy work environments, including the growing inability to take and accept responsibility. “My manager is an idiot” – he/she may be, but there is still a lot you can do that does not actually depend on them. “My colleagues don’t understand what’s important” – if they really don’t, you need to do a better job explaining it to them. Perhaps they understand your point, but disagree – perhaps you are not listening to them.

Also, if everybody is given at least an “Executive” title – what does than then mean? What’s so wrong with being an Assistant when I have just fallen out of university, at the age of 22?! Why do job adverts even use the words “unicorns”, “angels” and “superstars” when the job in fact is customer support – a very important unit for customer-facing organisations, but why unicorns?! If employers expect young people to already be at a “superstar” level, or worse, to consider themselves at a “superstar” level despite a solid foundation, they are creating monsters.

So many organisations don’t live up to the expectations they create – starting with job ads that promise the world. Even if these organisations actually want to create something special and want to be a good company to work for – they so, so often get the basics wrong and they simply don’t deliver what they promise. Selling has always been a core business discipline. And selling has never been about facts and “the truth”. But the further you move away from the actual core of the product (and that includes organisations talking about themselves), the more vulnerable you become. You don’t necessarily need to actively start lying. But you may simply lose sight of the core, you may lose your focus and you may lose the basic understanding of what it is you are doing.

The same goes for people. Self-confidence can be a great asset in life, but in so many cases, especially when paired with inflated experiences, it’s utterly misplaced and doesn’t actually make the person stronger. There is nothing wrong with high expectations, if they come with a realistic chance of success, and few things in life are as great as meeting high expectations – but you need to understand what’s required to meet them. Whatever is in your area of influence, you can and need to take responsibility for. Whatever lies outside of your area of influence, is something you can perhaps inspire, but it may create limitations that you may not be able to break through without extra effort, not for a while or not at all. If you are ready to roll up your sleeves, if you accept that listening may be more important than talking, if you have at least some patience, good for you. If you expect it to be easy or quick, you may soon get disappointed. And while disappointment sucks, it sometimes is the best recipe for getting out of the clouds – where all the unicorns, angels and superstars hang out – and back onto your feet.

Rant over!

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Rejecting a “Thank you” – a not so humble act.

23 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on howtofab.com.

One thing I notice almost as often as people’s demand for appreciation and validation (especially in the workplace) is people rejecting Thank Yous. This may be a German thing, but countering a “Thank you” with a “Nicht dafür!” (Not for that / Never mind) seems to have become a rather common thing and I have my issues with that.

Of course helping somebody doesn’t mean you have to cut off your own leg or sell your first-born child. Even if it was something relatively small you did, you helped the other person and that had value for them. By rejecting their Thank You, even with something as inconspicuous as “Never mind“, you may think you are being humble, but you are in fact saying “I don’t value your validation of what I did“. Accepting a Thank You is accepting and honouring the other person’s gratitude, their appreciation and validation of your action and it’s also a sign of appreciation and validation towards yourself. If you can’t appreciate your own actions, you may have a hard time seeing somebody offering you sincere appreciation and validation, even if you were craving it. Some people have a hard time saying Thank You, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give yourself a little nod. And let’s be honest, helping somebody can be a great boost. So by giving you a chance to help them, they in fact did you a favour too!

So next time somebody says “Thank you”, simply respond with “You’re welcome” and see what difference that makes. If the other person has an issue with you not offering a “humble rejection”, their thanking wasn’t sincere in the first place. But that doesn’t have to be your problem. If you were expecting more than words as a sign of gratitude, that may be your problem.

More on “Expectations” tomorrow…..

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Active relaxation

22 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on howtofab.com.

During a recent conversation with a friend, she mentioned that the best way for her to relax was after super exhausting strength training. I nodded in instant approval – I discovered strength training myself a couple of years ago and have happily embraced it ever since – and then I also instantly realised that I had not actually done strength training in a while. A possible reason for my recent feeling of imbalance and sluggishness? Well, yes. If only we were all able to actually make use of the knowledge and experiences we acquire over the years! *sigh*

Anyway, this is one of the simplest and most beautiful truths in my life. The fact that the best relaxation comes from and after physical exertion. It does seem somewhat counter-intuitive – that if I want to chill, I first need to get my body moving and my muscles working. And also: to get my mind to shut up, I need to get physical and sensual.

One of my all-time favourite body meditation techniques is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR; after Jacobson). The underlying premises are:

  • Tension and relaxation can’t exist simultaneously
  • The mind and the body occupy the same house and are hence part of the same thing

Especially the second premise is one that is so self-evident and obvious to me that it still baffles me how our health system makes such a difference between physical and mental health, illnesses and therapies. We perfectly accept the fact that a toothache affects our emotions, our thinking and levels of activity. That a broken arms takes weeks or months to heal properly. And yet the fact that grief or a broken heart can make our body scream with pain is mumbo-jumbo for some people. It can be subtle, but every thought or every emotion manifests itself on a physical level. And sometimes we feel the physical symptoms without understanding what they mean and where they come from. Yes, it can take longer to find out, but it’s definitely worth asking that question and it’s definitely better than taking a pill every time we feel pain.

PMR is a relatively easy to learn technique in which you tense up individual parts of your body and then relax them again. Especially for those who have developed a problematic relationship with or even a disconnection from their body, this can be a very effective way to start feeling their own body again. It’s also commonly used in depression or insomnia treatment. Focussing on the body, the physical and the sensual impressions, takes you out of your own head. Consciously feeling the difference between a tense and a relaxed body-part can be a transformative experience and also consciously feeling the tension flow away from your body is a fantastic way to relax, as (premise 1) when your body is relaxed, your mind is too. Those who master PMR can use it as a resource during day to day life. The more you are tuned into your body and the quicker you can feel your body (and your mind) tensing up, the quicker you can use your body to respond and relax.

One of Tony Robbins’s famous quotes is “Stay in your head, you’re dead!”. This is of course dramatic for effect – but he’s not entirely wrong. To feel alive and to rejuvenate, it helps to get active. It also helps to get active (and for some people this means strength training and weight lifting) in order to relax. It also helps remembering those things in the right moments….

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Don’t let Good be the enemy of Better

21 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on howtofab.com.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” is a sentence we have all heard before. Better to do something, even if it’s not perfect, than not doing it at all. “Good Enough” is often all that’s needed, also as it can leave room for flexibility and improvement in a way that “Perfect” might not. And often our own standards for perfection are bordering the impossible, setting expectations that simply can not be reached. So far so obvious.

What about the opposite though? When is the attitude “That’ll do” actually keeping us from getting better results? I can give myself many names, but Perfectionist is not one of them. Already at a young age I was good at many different things, hobbies or at school, (I was also dreadfully bad at some), but I was never excellent at anything. I can think of a few people who are the exact opposite of that, whose range is more limited, but whose talent and expertise goes really deep. I used to be jealous of them and thought that Expert is better than Generalist, then the general narrative and my opinion changed and I considered both qualities as equally valid. And I still stand by the opinion that neither is fundamentally better or worse than the other – different situations and contexts require different skill sets. But I sometimes catch myself in situations where my thinking “This is good enough – I don’t expect this to be perfect” is actually keeping me from raising the quality of my work to a higher level. Not that I am shooting for perfection (which is a pretty vague or extremely subjective parameter anyway) but sometimes I am lazy, I take the foot off the gas pedal too soon and I know I could do better. If I just persisted a bit longer, If I paid more attention, if I ran the extra lap or if I asked for more critical feedback. In many cases I know how I could make something better, or at least I know what I can do to see if it can be improved. It’s not the lack of support channels, it’s my own feeling of “good enough” that keeps me from tapping into them. Sometimes that’s perfectly fine – good enough is still good, after all. But sometimes there are things in life that matter more than others, where investing more really pays off. And it’s in those moments where I need to create an inner perfectionist who kicks my butt and who helps me go the extra mile.

At the age of 36, it is really quite comforting to see that my skill set and my experiences are pretty broad and in some areas also quite deep. I would still not consider myself an expert in one thing, it’s the combination of skills, interests, experiences, expertise (and yes, I use the word despite what I just said) that I find appealing. But I don’t want to settle. I want to develop, grow, refine, expand and go deeper. I want to raise my own bar, I want to create better results – because I know I can. Exploring my own areas for improvement is something I find super exciting. Breaking through barriers can be tough, for sure, but the kind of satisfaction you feel when walking that extra mile has paid off, and you are yielding the results, is of a very unique and special taste. One that I intend to enjoy more often.

Picture: Pexels via Pixabay / CC0


Loving the drudgery? A debate.

20 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on howtofab.com.

“The test of a vocation is the love for the drudgery it involves”

(Logan Pearsall Smith)

I recently stumbled across this quote and it has since been going around in my head. Instinctively, I agreed with it, but then a question mark kept appearing. Do I really agree with it? Is it also applicable to other areas in life – relationships for example? Is it more true in one case than in another?

What this quote seems to imply and what I would support is the statement that it’s easy to love the good, fresh and exciting in something, and that’s it’s much harder to find love for the mundane, boring and everyday. That seems true as a general statement and also with a view to work and love. The thrill of a first day at work / first date seems much more appealing than fighting through the daily flood of emails / doing the laundry.

But what is this “test” about? Am I testing capability, suitability or lovability? Am I only really fit for something (or is something only really fit for me) if I love absolutely everything about it – also and especially the not-so-great stuff? I’d say no to that. In romantic relationships, the love factor of course plays an important role – but do I have to LOVE doing the laundry, washing the dishes, visiting unpopular in-laws or making the bed – what I would call the drudgery of a relationship? I can certainly find pleasure in some of them and I can LOVE the result, but the process? And at work, do I really have to LOVE everything or actually even anything about my job? Research tells us that we are better at things when we enjoy them and the more we enjoy, the easier we can get ourselves through the other bits. Of course, if we like the people we work with, it’s easier to get out of bed in the morning. But LOVING them…? I’d even go as far as to say if we seek to love also the bad bits, we are putting ourselves on a path to potential misery.

If Mr Smith didn’t really mean LOVE but ACCEPT or FIND SOMETHING JOYFUL instead, then I would agree with him. There always is an element of drudgery at work or at home and we can’t reframe absolutely everything into something positive. Why would we? What’s wrong with finding some things in life boring, annoying or plain stupid? If I expect to LOVE the drudgery, in the literal meaning of the word, I will either get disappointed or I will start to disconnect from my actual feelings. Some things in life are ok at best – and I think that’s ok. We love some things despite other things – and I think that’s ok. Accepting and finding something positive in things we don’t naturally enjoy, is already a big step for many people and in many situations. But I don’t think that “the test of a vocation” has failed if I don’t love the drudgery. The same with relationships – it can still be magical, wonderful and totally right even if there are a few things that drive me up the wall. And that drive the other person up the wall. Surely, the positive should overall be more prominent than the negative – but if we don’t have any negatives / mundane / boring / drudgery, we may find it a lot harder to actually find the positives and the excitement.

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Upholder, Obliger, Questioner or Rebel – how do you respond to expectations?

19 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on howtofab.com.

As mentioned before, I am a big fan of Gretchen Rubin – author of all things happiness, habits and human nature.

Her most recent study project is around the question “how do you respond to outer and inner expectations?” and to that effect she has developed a framework and free quiz for anybody to check which category they fall into. The framework only deals with this particular question and while the answer to this question usually has wider implications, it’s not meant to capture somebody’s entire personality. It’s not meant to be as broad as, for example, the Myers-Briggs test. But it can be very helpful in understand yourself, and others, better.

Rubin’s 4 tendencies are:

Four Tendencies Gretchen Rubin

The interesting part starts once you find out which tendency you (or somebody else) have/has and what to do with it. Here are some examples:

For Obligers (the biggest category), who struggle with meeting inner expectations, the aspect of External Accountability is an important one as they respond very well to that. External accountability externalises an inner expectation to the point where it becomes easier to meet. They hate letting people down, and by that, they are putting a lot of pressure onto themselves. They will prioritise other peoples’ needs over their own. It’s more “what do I have to do today” rather than “what do I want to do today”.

With Upholders, who meet both inner and outer expectations (gold star!), it’s important to understand that they can be quite inflexible and impatient with others, especially with those who don’t easily meet deadlines etc. They can be quite risk-averse or too driven to meet a goal. This can cause quite a bit of stress. Although they might not need them as a means for motivation, they love following rules and they will look for rules everywhere. If you want to get something done, ask an Upholder to do it!

To get a Rebel to do something, it’s best to not insist. Once they are told to do something, they resist or they often then want to do the exact opposite. They do what they want to do at all times and are hence motivated by their inner desire in a particular moment. They love disruption and they are usually well in touch with what they want. So it’s best to tap into that and let them find their own motivation to do something – or suggest to them to do the opposite of what you want them to do!

Questioners (my category) need to find an inner motivation, they need to be convinced something makes sense to them, before doing anything. Whether or not other people expect something from them is a lot less important than their own inner drive. If they feel there is a reason behind something, they will consider and do it. Questioners can find it hard letting go of something once it’s become routine. They may ask more questions than other people, but as a way to understand, not as hidden criticism.

This is just s short insight into this fascinating topic. Her book on that subject (“The Four Tendencies”) is coming out soon.

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A different take on a Balanced Life

18 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on howtofab.com.

“Work-Life balance”. That phrase. The holy grail. The source of much unhappiness, especially within younger (<30 year old) people. Everybody wants it, demands it, looks for it – often without much success. Because some people are looking in the wrong place. Because Work and Life are perceived as two different, opposite, separate things. Like sun and moon – life happens when work is over. Overlap is a bad thing – checking work emails at home is bad, bad, bad behaviour, we all know that. (Of course, on the other hand, we still consider checking our Facebook at work as a basic human right….)

Work is part of life – and our life is part of our work. When we adopt a holistic approach to our life and when we welcome work as being part of that, the easier we come to terms with the fact that things are interconnected and that while we may show some character traits more at work and others more at home, we are in fact one human being. And we never are really that different at home or in the office. When we are forced to separate and isolate our needs and wants, we run into trouble.

Looking for balance is not a bad thing at all, but while many people often focus on a perceived Work vs The Rest Of Our Life dichotomy, I have found other criteria more useful.

  • New / routine: how much new input can I really take before I over-load myself? how much routine is good for me, gives me a sense of security, before I perhaps get bored and seek new ideas?
  • Active / passive: do I have enough down- (=processing) time? am I spending enough time being physically active? what’s a good amount and type of exercise for me and how can I realistically fit it into my weekly schedule?
  • Me-time / Others-time: how much time do I want and need to spend with just myself? how much time am I happy to spend with others? who are these others?
  • Lead / follow: if you are primarily one or the other, of if certain areas of your life require one more than the other – do you also have enough room and time for the other one? would you like to flip it around every now and then?
  • Home / away: are you away too often / not often enough? would you like to spend more time at home, or spend the time you have available in a different way?
  • Spending / saving: not just money. time, energy, anything you can give or keep. Are you spending your resources on the things that are important to you? are you over-spending in some and perhaps under-spending in other areas?

Instead of looking at these categories in an “either / or” way, try to see how much of each you want and need and where you are most likely to get it. If you can find balance within each major area of your life (work, relationship, family, friends, time with yourself) or if the areas create balance between each other. A holistic view of your life, where all important areas are connected with each other, will make it easier to see if the things that are important to you, as an holistic human being, are being catered for or if there is a lack or an imbalance anywhere.

The categories mentioned above are just exemplary. They work for me but perhaps other categories make more sense for you.

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