As I closed our meeting and bid farewell to 25 attendees from around the country, I first looked at my teammates from The Clearing, then out a nearby window to take in the hustle and bustle of humans near the Pentagon and bridges headed into and out of Washington, D.C. I saw on my teammates’ faces something that I couldn’t quite place. Then, I felt something I couldn’t pinpoint, but that I knew I couldn’t ignore: a deep, enveloping feeling of having nothing more to give.
We’d just finished three full days of in-person meetings for one of our largest and most-trusted clients. The dialogue was rich and required the usual for large-format multi-day sessions – honoring our detailed meeting design, fielding real-time feedback from the group, and performing the mental gymnastics required to remain open to what the group gave us in real-time. And all while achieving the outcomes we’d agreed on during months of preparation.
This is one of the things we do best at The Clearing. It’s also one of my greatest strengths, so that sense of emptiness, co-mingled with pride and relief at having successfully navigated my first in-person session since COVID imposed its will on us all in March 2020, weighed on me deeply. Its internal gravity existed in my psyche for days, then weeks before I was able to give it its right name. That name was fatigue, and its counterpoint is endurance. I’d lived inside the former without knowing it for the better part of a week, and was now uniquely aware of the latter as a result.
Our ability to not just endure these sorts of interactions, but to derive energy and a newfound sense of alignment and purpose from them, has changed over the last 2.5 years. Before our world changed in the spring of 2020, I could call on a deep store of professional endurance built on a solid foundation of nearly twenty years of experience in the trenches and leading. What I learned about myself, having experienced the sea change that was our response to a global pandemic, was that my ability to endure in a professional sphere was greatly reduced. Not because I was lesser, or worse, or diminished in any way, but rather because I’d simply let this very particular muscle atrophy. That set of professional muscles might be different for you, but chances are good they’ve atrophied over the last 36 months as well.
What We Can Do About It
First, call this phenomenon by its right name. In my book For All: Democratizing Big Ideas, I call out a Confucian proverb that’s shifted my life: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.”
Words have power – names even more so. By accurately naming our fatigue, and also our ability to persist and endure, we gain a measure of power and personal agency. Sugarcoating or writing the reality off as a result of something else doesn’t serve us.
Next, listen to the signals your body sends you. Consciously or unconsciously, we’ve learned to minimize or ignore the physical in service of the intellectual. My body sent me clear signals during that three-day session: a deep and compelling desire to be alone, physical activity only further draining me (usually one of my greatest sources of energy), and a diminishing ability to positively engage with complexity. Had I tuned in to those signals earlier, I could’ve called for reinforcements, or engaged with coping strategies. Proactivity is the key here.
Finally, let go of who you were. This includes whatever levels of professional endurance you enjoyed pre-pandemic. Once I gave myself permission to stop measuring myself against a past (no longer applicable) version of me, I was more fully able to step into the rehabilitation process. One great positive of the shared experience that is the global pandemic is just that – its universal nature, and the connective tissue that’s created for all of us to tap into. As it was eloquently put in Harvard Business Review: “There’s rarely been as universal an opportunity for reinvention as this moment, and it requires each of us to reject stagnation.”
Part and parcel of this letting go of your past self is to ask for help when you need it – from your colleagues, your clients, and the organizations you’re a part of. Each, in their own way, has a responsibility to you. Respecting boundaries, raising your hand when you’re approaching the limits of your endurance, and tapping into organizational resources are three ways we must advocate for ourselves.
At The Clearing, we specialize in individual and organizational resilience. In our work in this space, we’ve learned that self-advocacy is crucial not just to positive outcomes, but also to long-term sustainability and happiness at work. You can learn more about how we think about personal and organizational resilience here.
If you have your own professional endurance or resilience story to share, or could use a helping hand navigating a lack of endurance within your organization, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line at email@example.com.