Two years of necessary, rapid adaptation has taken a toll on how I hear the world. Everything's loud, volume up, the noise screaming that this and now are it, don't look up from the immediate road ahead! There's no time!
It's not just me. Plenty of my friends and colleagues, especially those who would self-identify as high-achieving and driven, have only been able to poke their heads above the maelstrom long enough to start (but never long enough to finish) conversations about their overwhelm, their frustration, their stress, and in one case, their inability to stretch a certain muscle because, "that's where all the tension goes I guess."
Doesn't much matter if he's right (Is he? All the physios out there sound off.), what matters is that everyone, EVERYONE, is under it. And the noise all around is deafening.
It's been easily ten months since I spent significant, actual time working to really hear the signals.
You know the ones I mean. The important ones. The ones that remind you who and what you love; that tell you to chill the hell out, back off, and take stock of all that you've accomplished. The ones that remind you where the future you want actually sits, as well as the things you could be doing to get there. The ones that tell you to use a viewpoint broader than just making it through the next few projects or days or whatever.
That's what being in constant survival mode does. The low-level stress and trauma of two years of spotlighted uncertainty have quite literally re-wired our brains to put out fires instead of working to build systems that would prevent them altogether. Any meaningful conversations feel more like you're shouting to loved ones as you speed by onto the next brushfire.
In this space, burnout is inevitable. Trust erodes. Collaboration breaks down. Not because anyone is a bad person, but because the inevitable result of constant short-termism is tunnel vision. Block out the noise, focus on what's in front of you, buckle down (hate that phrase), and power through (that one's worse).
Leave the festival
Everyone's tired of this concert. Sound-check never showed up, only a quarter of the bands even know how to play their instruments, we're all in the nosebleeds, and anyone who had the wherewithal to ask for a refund discovered the ushers went home days ago to beat the traffic.
The people who've come to me for help, for insight, and for time that the noise insists I can't spare, are people who are, by every definition, astounding. They are leaders, CEOs, entrepreneurs, scientists. The kind of people who now and in the future are making massive dents in the big challenges of our time. One of them (a profoundly wise person) laughed as she recited a to do list larger than paper could record and then summed up what we're all facing pretty succinctly: "How the hell do you heal when you don't even have time to assess the wound."
We talked about solutions and how to meet the moment. But mostly, we talked about how we might leave the festival and make our way back to the parking lot if only to finally hear ourselves think.
Assess the wounds
I don't care who you are, what you do, and in what field you happen to be doing it. You're injured. You're a person living through a pandemic that also happens to include social upheaval, a lot of ugliness laid bare, war, fixed mindsets, and more besides. So much has happened in the last two years, and most of us haven't had a moment to really consider the impacts.
Some organizations handled it brilliantly, making space for the hard conversations, to plan, strategize, and set new, clear operational courses based on the actual needs of their people. Those organizations thrived. Their people are rested, healthy and smiling their way to work every day (or the zoom screen that now represents work). There are those who handled it poorly, no need to say much more about that.
The vast majority however didn't handle it at all. They simply went to work, fire after fire, doing the best they could. They buckled down (ugh, that phrase), and stayed buckled, never once stopping to assess the wounds.
More than anything else, I think that's the priority of leadership right now. To slow it all down. Be intentional about talking to our people, and helping them hear the signals over the noise. Their own signals. They need to see where they hurt, where they need to heal.
Those who are wildly driven are likely the ones we need to help the most. Because they think this is just another time where intensity will win the day. They don't see the difference between the pressure to perform and the pressure of a pandemic.
I know I didn't.
Yesterday, one of my mentors, a leader and friend, dragged me out of the venue. I can hear the signals again. They're pointing to damage I didn't know was there, and possibilities I couldn't have picked out of a line-up of dead-ends.
That's what leaders do. It's what we all need to do.