On behalf of the Mentoring Mondays’ team and the Executive Board of the MI-ACE Women’s Network, this close-out entry for 2020 is something to ponder as we look ahead to the coming year. We strive always to be a diverse and inclusive Network and it helps to remind ourselves often of the needs of our membership. Enjoy the message below and thank you for your commitment and service:
“A Message to our Leaders”
“Leaders, if you want my loyalty, interest, and best efforts as a group member, you must take into account the fact that:
- I need a sense of belonging. A feeling that no one objects to my presence. A feeling that I am sincerely welcome.
- I need to have a share in planning the group goals. My needs will be satisfied only when I feel that my ideas have had a fair hearing.
- I need to feel that the goals are within reach and that they make sense to me.
- I need to feel that what I am doing contributes to human welfare.
- I need to know what is expected of me so that I can work confidently.
- I need to have responsibilities that challenge and contribute to my growth as an emerging leader.
- I need to be confident in you as my leader and the assurance of consistent and fair treatment, of recognition when it is due, and trust that loyalty will bring increased security.
In brief, the situation in which I find myself must make sense to me regardless of how much sense it makes to you.” ~ Author Unknown
Here’s to moving forward together in 2021 . . .
Finding Peace: Just Answer 'Yes' to Two Simple Questions (Published December 13, 2020)
Marshall Goldsmith (#1 Leadership Thinker, Executive Coach, NYT Bestselling Author, Dartmouth Tuck Professor of Management Practice)
Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to facilitate eight two-day sessions with transitioning CEOs on the topic of ‘Creating a Great Rest of Your Life.’
It is not necessarily easy to go from being a CEO to being something else!
The leaders in these sessions are all amazingly successful from a socio-economic perspective. They have achieved what most people can only dream of in terms of both prestige and ability to impact the world. If they are not careful though, they can live out the rest of their lives being defined as a ‘used to be.’ They are frequently introduced as ‘the former CEO.’
As we reflect upon the topic of creating a great new life, we often end up discussing how ‘success’ can be defined at a deeper level.
Two of the factors that consistently emerge as most important for true success are happiness and meaning. No matter how much you may have achieved in the past, loving what you do and finding it to be meaningful in the present are critically important at any age. At the end of the day happiness and meaning can only be determined from the inside – not the outside. No one can tell you what can make you happy and no one can tell you what is meaningful for you.
Fortunately, many of the participants in these sessions have done a fantastic job of creating happy and meaningful lives after leaving their CEO role. Unfortunately, some have not. If I wanted to pick a former CEO who is one of my ‘poster boys’ of true success in creating a great new life, it would be Harry Kraemer!
Harry served the pharmaceutical company, Baxter, for 23 years and went on to become President, CEO and Chairman.
After leaving Baxter, Harry has succeeded in creating a new life that can be a role model for other leaders.
He is now a Clinical Professor of Leadership at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management where he has been chosen by the students as Professor of the Year. He loves teaching, loves the school, and loves the students. They feel the same way about him.
In addition to working as a major advisor in a leading private equity firm, Harry is a bestselling author and sought-after speaker. He travels around the world giving talks related to Value Based Leadership.
Harry is committed to an amazing organization called the One Acre Fund that helps small farmers in Africa. The Fund was founded by Andrew Youn, one of Harry’s former Kellogg students. In fact, Harry donates all of the money from his speeches to the Fund. Over the years, he has been able to donate millions of dollars.
Harry also loves his family and is just a happy person. I am honored that he is a member of our 100 Coaches pay-it-forward community.
After giving a talk in one of our 100 Coaches sessions, he was asked a challenging question:
“Harry, in your role as a CEO you have had to make some tough decisions. You have had to lay people off, fire people and do things that made people very sad. You seem like such a nice guy. How did make peace with this? How could you sleep at night?”
Harry’s answer was both very simple and very profound.
“I ask myself only two questions: 1) Did I do what I thought was the right thing to do at that time? And 2) Did I do my best?”
“If the answer to these two questions was ‘yes’ and ‘yes,’ I could always make peace with myself and had no trouble sleeping at night.”
In life, at any second in time, we can only do what we think is right and we can only do our best. That is all that we can do.
In hindsight, we sometimes make the wrong decisions. What we thought was the right strategy did not work. Sometimes we fail in execution. We did our best and still lost.
Whether we achieve results or fail, if we are doing what we think is right and we are doing our best, we can make peace with who we are and what we have done.
At any stage of our lives, like Harry Kraemer, we have to earn respect from others and also from ourselves.
Rather than ‘resting on our laurels’ we need to keep asking ourselves – at any point in time:
- Am I doing what I think is the right thing for me to do – now?
- Am I doing my best – now?
We cannot change our past. We cannot control the future. We can control what we are doing now.
To me, the essence of mindfulness is not just studying wise words and meditating. The essence of mindfulness is the awareness of now.
All we can do, at this second in time, is to take care of now.
By asking ourselves Harry’s simple questions, we can both help others and find peace in ourselves.
“Now professors across the country are treading water, feeling overwhelmed and undersupported, and wondering, like Rutuku, how long they can hang on.”
The Pandemic Is Dragging On. Professors Are Burning Out.
Overwhelmed and undersupported, instructors see no end in sight
By Beth McMurtrie
NOVEMBER 5, 2020
At first, she thought everything would work out if she just got up earlier. So Naomi Rutuku, an associate professor of English at Bakersfield College, began rising at 5 a.m. Her husband would make her coffee, then head out to his job as a wind-turbine technician, leaving her with a few hours of quiet before her kids, ages 2 and 4, demanded attention.
She had a lot to take care of: four composition courses, plus a literature class she took on for extra pay after the public college froze a promised raise in the wake of the pandemic. There were dozens of emails to field from colleagues, discussion posts to review, writing assignments to grade, Flipgrid videos to watch. Then she had her own videos to produce, while managing dozens of check-ins to keep track of nearly 140 students, many of whom remained dark squares on her screen.
She knew the pace was unsustainable. Legions of professors are hitting the wall in their own ways. For some, like Rutuku, the problem has been a crushing workload combined with child-care challenges. For others, it’s a feeling that their institution expects them to be counselors and ed-tech experts on top of their regular responsibilities, even if it means working seven days a week. Black and Latino professors are bearing additional burdens, supporting students of color and contributing to the national debate on racism. Meanwhile, adjuncts are barely hanging on, hoping that budget cuts don’t end their careers.
For professors of all types, their responsibilities as teachers are causing many of them to feel pressed to meet the needs of the moment. Like many instructors, Rutuku prides herself on her teaching. And she believes that her students, most of whom are lower-income and trying to get a leg up in life, need to know how to write effectively. She couldn’t cut back, she feels, or they would be shortchanged.
She has worried about shortchanging her own kids as well, as she tried to be both parent and professor. Yet day care did not seem viable because of Covid-19, and she hesitated to take them outside, where the air was hot and smoky from California wildfires. She felt stuck. Stuck with an enormous workload spawned by a pandemic with no end in sight. Stuck without the presence of coworkers, on whom she relies for camaraderie and support. Stuck trying to live up to the expectations she had set for herself.
As exhaustion sank in, the 5 a.m. rising turned into 6 a.m., to gain an extra hour of sleep. Then one morning she walked into her home office, and her brain simply wouldn’t work. She couldn’t grade. She just sat there. “To try to jam-pack everything in these three or four morning hours,” she says, “it became clear to me I couldn’t sustain that kind of work anymore.”
She started getting up at 7 a.m., but that didn’t fix anything. Even a plea for advice from fellow instructors on Facebook, following that paralyzing morning, resulted only in well-meaning suggestions that would lead to more work.
Finally, she and her husband broke down, and this week sent their kids back to day care.
“It’s terrifying and expensive,” she says, “but I was just becoming this sort of person I didn’t like or even recognize, which wasn’t healthy for anyone in the house.”
Burnout is a problem in academe even in the best of times. Shrinking budgets, growing workloads, and job insecurity in a profession where self-sufficiency is both expected and prized put many faculty members at risk before Covid-19 placed higher education on even shakier footing.
Now professors across the country are treading water, feeling overwhelmed and undersupported, and wondering, like Rutuku, how long they can hang on.
In a forthcoming survey of more than 1,100 faculty members, more than two-thirds said they had felt “very” or “extremely” stressed or fatigued in the past month. The survey was conducted in late October by The Chronicle and underwritten by Fidelity.
And a recent survey by the American Council on Education listed the mental health of faculty and staff members as the third-most-pressing concern for college presidents, behind the mental health of students and their institutions’ long-term financial viability.
Hopelessness and exhaustion are signs of burnout. But they’re also signs of what everyday life feels like now for college professors, says Rebecca Pope-Ruark, a teaching-and-learning specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who is writing a book about faculty burnout. “It’s perhaps one of the first times almost everyone had the exact same problem,” she says.
If the pandemic has stripped teaching of what makes it invigorating, it’s also exacerbated aspects of academic life that were already challenging professors’ mental health, such as the impulse to work hard to meet students’ needs, even at the cost of depleting themselves.
But professors can take a few steps to help themselves stave off burnout, Pope-Ruark says. While hopping on yet another Zoom call may not feel like the most appealing option, she has advised professors that creating virtual networks with colleagues is important.
They could be colleagues on campus, academics in your field, or people with other common interests. Pope-Ruark belongs to several groups, including one for women in academe. They hold coffee hours, talk about career and family issues, and convene writing groups. Administrators could help by creating forums for faculty members to talk freely — and without administrative oversight — about teaching during the pandemic.
“If we start talking about it, the more we don’t have the shame associated with it and the better we can get together,” she says.
Academic life can be competitive and breed perfectionism, something that Pope-Ruark encourages colleagues to keep in check. “I’m still in that mode of, it’s OK to have lower expectations than you would have in a traditional semester,” she says. “Most faculty members are overachievers in general. But it’s survival mode we’re in.”
Asking professors to simply push through the current moment isn’t sustainable, says Cate Denial, a history professor at Knox College, in Illinois, with an active Twitter presence and a blog where she writes frankly about those struggles. “There seems to be this general sense of business as usual. Like, we’ve got to put our shoulders to the wheel,” she says. “The steadfast commitment to pretending it’s not happening is really damaging.”
Without additional support, such as mental-health counseling and help for caregivers, Denial and other observers fear that some faculty members may fall ill or quit, particularly those with small children. Others could see the quality of their teaching suffer.
At a time when higher education is struggling to convince students and their families that college is worth the cost, and that high-quality teaching is possible despite the pandemic, those are troubling risks.
To Julia Becker, an art professor at the University of Providence, the pandemic has amplified and accelerated pre-existing problems in higher education. Her university, a tiny liberal-arts institution in Montana, closed 11 programs last year, scrapping the art major in the process. Her tenured position was eliminated shortly before Covid-19 hit, and she was moved to part-time status, with a significant cut in pay.
When instruction stayed largely virtual this fall, one of her two remaining art colleagues decided he would retire rather than try to figure out how to teach photography and ceramics online. She is now teaching three courses virtually, with some students in locations so remote it is hard for them to purchase art supplies. She also spent $1,400 — “money that I don’t really have” — to set up a video-friendly art studio in her home.
“Much of the work, the worry, and the expense has fallen on us low-paid professors,” she says.
At 63, Becker focuses more on helping her students get through the semester than on rebuilding her career. But she is distressed, she says, by a lack of professional and technical support from the college as she struggles to figure out how to teach her highly tactile and interactive classes from a corner of her bedroom.
“I realize the university was scrambling to help students, and I appreciate that,” she says. “But they were not considering the faculty. They just assumed we would figure it out, and we would make it work. That blanket assumption is difficult and expensive.”
In nearly a dozen interviews with faculty members across the country, many echoed the sense that administrators didn’t fully understand what it meant to be on the front lines, teaching virtually or socially distanced to students facing their own pandemic-generated crises.
“It would be nice to have someone call me or email me,” says one professor, Mary Elliott, who teaches at a small, public liberal-arts college in Nebraska. “How are you doing? How are things going? Just that simple gesture would be great.”
Elliott has been teaching for more than 30 years but has never felt so disregarded as she does now. An associate professor at Wayne State College, where she teaches fashion and merchandising, she has a six-course instructional load this semester.
Her college chose to bring students back to campus this fall, so she is in the classroom every day, she says, often with people spaced less than six feet apart. A collegewide attendance policy allows students to be absent as needed, something she endorses. Yet she also believes that some students are taking advantage of this leniency. At any given time, one-third of her students aren’t there. Some tell her they are in quarantine; others simply don’t show up.
Meanwhile, Elliott says, she arrives on campus every day by 7:30 a.m. She tries to go home by 5 but isn’t always successful. She comes in on Sunday mornings, too. When not in class, she heads to her office and shuts the door, to stay safe. She was worried at first about catching Covid-19, but now, she says, “I try not to feel because it’s too emotionally depressing.”
Many faculty members are still grappling with the fundamentals of online teaching. They say that technical problems, students’ reticence in online classes, and a host of other issues are wearing them down. While many colleges offered training over the spring and summer, that hasn’t made the experience of teaching online much easier for a lot of professors.
William Sager, a professor of geophysics at the University of Houston, took more than a half-dozen hours of instruction in teaching online over the summer, expecting that it would prepare him for a better experience than he had last spring, which he calls a disaster. He had lost touch with nearly all 250 of his students in an introduction-to-oceanography course after classes went asynchronous, in March. He also had to deal with “massive cheating” on tests.
But his training has proved of little help in his online classroom this fall. Testing software has been glitchy. He can’t seem to get effective discussions going in breakout rooms. And during class time, he sometimes ends up fruitlessly punching buttons as he tries to get the chat functions and PowerPoint displays to work properly.
“How many hours can I spend a day, trying to figure out how to do this or that?” he asks. “I want the answer now, not the thing that tells me I have to listen to an hour’s worth of stuff to find a nugget of information.”
“I needed a motor scooter,” he says, “and they gave me a 747 without an instruction manual.”
The other week he discovered his students could enter a test from Blackboard in four ways, and he wasn’t sure how to connect them from those different entry points to the lockdown browser used to prevent cheating. “I felt like I was on a tightrope,” he says, “hoping it wouldn’t wiggle.”
He has little idea whether his colleagues are facing similar problems because departmental meetings never focus on teaching. Nearly every professor interviewed agreed that little discussion occurs within their departments, or on campus generally, about teaching challenges, the struggles of their students, or their own feelings of stress and exhaustion.
Instead, as Sager found, people talk about issues like course-scheduling logistics or faculty searches, which were thrown into disarray by hiring freezes. Sager attributes part of that reluctance to speak about teaching difficulties to a sense of disconnect, since people are no longer face to face. But part of it, he believes, has to do with the faculty work ethic. “Most professors work hard, and we all feel lucky to have a job,” he says. “I feel personally like, stop whining. Just get it done.”
Many faculty members find an ally or two with whom they can commiserate or seek help. But that reliance on a small circle of people can also be limiting. As Sager describes it, when talking about the colleagues he turns to for help with teaching, “I don’t want to burden them to do the extra work to hold my hand.”
For many professors, the stresses of teaching online have been compounded by their inability to effectively continue their research. Already, women have seen a relative decline in research productivity compared with men, probably due to their increased caregiving responsibilities.
Several faculty members interviewed, male and female, said they were struggling to focus on research. For some, it is due to mental fatigue.
The pandemic has also thrown logistical barriers in their way. Sager has two labs on campus. One is in a poorly ventilated space, so bringing graduate students in with him is out of the question. In the other, his students would prefer to work from home, so he meets with them over Zoom.
Meanwhile, he finds that he’s forgetting things, like writing letters of recommendation for his graduate students. He even forgot to attend his niece’s wedding, which was live-streamed. “I am mortified,” he says, “and will spend the weekend apologizing to my sister.”
There is no workshop, no teaching video, no manual to help professors thrive during this time. Instead, social media — whether Twitter, Facebook, or blog posts — have proved to be an important release valve for people like Robin Mitchell, an associate professor of history at California State University-Channel Islands.
Early one morning in October, she was having a rough day. “Anybody else wake up feeling hopeless?” she tweeted. Her online friends, she figured, had her back. “Same,” “Totally get this,” “Hang in there!” they responded.
But Mitchell knows that it won’t be long before another wave of exhaustion washes over her. She is teaching four courses this semester, and every time she is about to flip on her camera, she gears up for another high-energy performance.
She signs on early to chat, scans students’ faces for signs of fatigue or disengagement as she speaks, and calls on them regularly so they don’t zone out. “I am a teacher that excels in face-to-face teaching,” she says. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy to be up and excited and push them the way I would do in a regular class.”
Being able to see her students is great, she says, but being invited into their homes also brings worries. Roommates, family members, messy houses — all make an appearance, intentionally or not. And what happens when she teaches fraught topics like Jim Crow? Showing a photo of Emmett Till’s beaten body in a classroom is challenging enough. In an online class she must be mindful of how it might affect students when it is coming into their home.
For many faculty members of color, the invisible labor they normally shoulder has also increased. The pandemic, says Michelle Moyd, an associate professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington, “has peeled back all of the layers of things that are in some ways masked.”
After the death of George Floyd led to nationwide protests for racial justice this past summer, the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society, where Moyd is associate director, was asked to put together a series of panels, live-streaming seven weeks of events focused on systemic racism. She took on that work on top of caring for her 7-year-old daughter, who was at home because of the pandemic.
“I ended the summer feeling a lot of anger about the way the university asked us to do these things, uses our work, and then at the same time does not seem to have resources to support what we need and want,” she says, “in terms of new faculty hires, retention efforts, funding the things that would allow us to grow the pool of marginalized folks to stay here long term.”
Similarly, for Mitchell, the pandemic, economics, and politics are intertwined in her work and her life.
Her students are mostly Latino, “working-class kids,” she says, holding down full-time jobs to put themselves through college. Her courses on European history also draw white students interested in studying European wars. As one of only four tenured or tenure-track Black professors on campus, she says, her classroom conversations can be complicated, particularly when she gets into the “deeply uncomfortable” history of Europe’s treatment of Black people in other nations. “We are living in a world right now where I’m constantly having to remind them that my life matters,” she says. “Every day.”
She was outraged by the White House’s Columbus Day Proclamation, which criticized “radical activists” who sought to “undermine” Columbus’s legacy. Mitchell decided to talk about it in class, and found strength in the lively discussion that followed. “I love my job. I wouldn’t be doing this job with this kind of pressure attached to it if I didn’t feel like it’s a noble calling,” she says. “And that’s important to say.”
But Mitchell doesn’t find much support from administrators. “I don’t believe they’re evil,” she says. “I believe they don’t know what it’s like to be in the classroom and teach eight times a week, do prep work, do administrative service work, and then do your own research.”
“We seem to be oftentimes the last people that people are thinking about,” she says. “Or what they say to us is, You guys are rock stars. We’re not rock stars; we’re exhausted.”
Beth McMurtrie is a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where she writes about the future of learning and technology’s influence on teaching.
Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful
Here’s how to pull yourself out of despair and live your life
By Tara Haelle
August 17, 2020
It was the end of the world as we knew it, and I felt fine. That’s almost exactly what I told my psychiatrist at my March 16 appointment, a few days after our children’s school district extended spring break because of the coronavirus. I said the same at my April 27 appointment, several weeks after our state’s stay-at-home order.
Yes, it was exhausting having a kindergartener and fourth-grader doing impromptu distance learning while I was barely keeping up with work. And it was frustrating to be stuck home nonstop, scrambling to get in grocery delivery orders before slots filled up, and tracking down toilet paper. But I was still doing well because I thrive in high-stress emergency situations. It’s exhilarating for my ADHD brain. As just one example, when my husband and I were stranded in Peru during an 8.0-magnitude earthquake that killed thousands, we walked around with a first aid kit helping who we could and tracking down water and food. Then I went out with my camera to document the devastation as a photojournalist and interview Peruvians in my broken Spanish for my hometown paper.
Now we were in a pandemic, and I’m a science journalist who has written about infectious disease and medical research for nearly a decade. I was on fire, cranking out stories, explaining epidemiological concepts in my social networks, trying to help everyone around me make sense of the frightening circumstances of a pandemic and the anxiety surrounding the virus.
I knew it wouldn’t last. It never does. But even knowing I would eventually crash, I didn’t appreciate how hard the crash would be, or how long it would last, or how hard it would be to try to get back up over and over again, or what getting up even looked like.
In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using “surge capacity” to operate, as Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.
“The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,” says Masten. When it’s depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?
By my May 26 psychiatrist appointment, I wasn’t doing so hot. I couldn’t get any work done. I’d grown sick of Zoom meetups. It was exhausting and impossible to think with the kids around all day. I felt trapped in a home that felt as much a prison as a haven. I tried to conjure the motivation to check email, outline a story, or review interview notes, but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t make myself do anything — work, housework, exercise, play with the kids — for that whole week.
Or the next.
Or the next.
Or the next.
I know depression, but this wasn’t quite that. It was, as I’d soon describe in an emotional post in a social media group of professional colleagues, an “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that I can’t kick,” along with a complete inability to concentrate. I spoke with my therapist, tweaked medication dosages, went outside daily for fresh air and sunlight, tried to force myself to do some physical activity, and even gave myself permission to mope for a few weeks. We were in a pandemic, after all, and I had already accepted in March that life would not be “normal” for at least a year or two. But I still couldn’t work, couldn’t focus, hadn’t adjusted. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?
“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this,” Masten told me. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”
It wasn’t until my social media post elicited similar responses from dozens of high-achieving, competent, impressive women I professionally admire that I realized I wasn’t in the minority. My experience was a universal and deeply human one.
An unprecedented disaster
While the phrase “adjusting to the new normal” has been repeated endlessly since March, it’s easier said than done. How do you adjust to an ever-changing situation where the “new normal” is indefinite uncertainty?
“This is an unprecedented disaster for most of us that is profound in its impact on our daily lives,” says Masten. But it’s different from a hurricane or tornado where you can look outside and see the damage. The destruction is, for most people, invisible and ongoing. So many systems aren’t working as they normally do right now, which means radical shifts in work, school, and home life that almost none of us have experience with. Even those who have worked in disaster recovery or served in the military are facing a different kind of uncertainty right now.
“I think we maybe underestimate how severe the adversity is and that people may be experiencing a normal reaction to a pretty severe and ongoing, unfolding, cascading disaster,” Masten says. “It’s important to recognize that it’s normal in a situation of great uncertainty and chronic stress to get exhausted and to feel ups and downs, to feel like you’re depleted or experience periods of burnout.”
Research on disaster and trauma focuses primarily on what’s helpful for people during the recovery period, but we’re not close to recovery yet. People can use their surge capacity for acute periods, but when dire circumstances drag on, Masten says, “you have to adopt a different style of coping.”
“How do you adjust to an ever-changing situation where the ‘new normal’ is indefinite uncertainty?”
Understanding ambiguous loss
It’s not surprising that, as a lifelong overachiever, I’ve felt particularly despondent and adrift as the months have dragged on, says Pauline Boss, PhD, a family therapist and professor emeritus of social sciences at the University of Minnesota who specializes in “ambiguous loss.”
“It’s harder for high achievers,” she says. “The more accustomed you are to solving problems, to getting things done, to having a routine, the harder it will be on you because none of that is possible right now. You get feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and those aren’t good.”
That’s similar to how Michael Maddaus, MD, a professor of thoracic surgery at the University of Minnesota, felt when he became addicted to prescription narcotics after undergoing several surgeries. Now recovered and a motivational speaker who promotes the idea of a “resilience bank account,” Maddaus had always been a fast-moving high achiever — until he couldn’t be.
“I realized that my personal operating system, though it had led to tremendous success, had failed me on a more personal level,” he says. “I had to figure out a different way of contending with life.”
That mindset is an especially American one, Boss says.
“Our culture is very solution-oriented, which is a good way of thinking for many things,” she says. “It’s partly responsible for getting a man on the moon and a rover on Mars and all the things we’ve done in this country that are wonderful. But it’s a very destructive way of thinking when you’re faced with a problem that has no solution, at least for a while.”
That means reckoning with what’s called ambiguous loss: any loss that’s unclear and lacks a resolution. It can be physical, such as a missing person or the loss of a limb or organ, or psychological, such as a family member with dementia or a serious addiction.
“In this case, it is a loss of a way of life, of the ability to meet up with your friends and extended family,” Boss says. “It is perhaps a loss of trust in our government. It’s the loss of our freedom to move about in our daily life as we used to.” It’s also the loss of high-quality education, or the overall educational experience we’re used to, given school closures, modified openings and virtual schooling. It’s the loss of rituals, such weddings, graduations, and funerals, and even lesser “rituals,” such as going to gym. One of the toughest losses for me to adapt to is no longer doing my research and writing in coffee shops as I’ve done for most of my life, dating back to junior high.
“These were all things we were attached to and fond of, and they’re gone right now, so the loss is ambiguous. It’s not a death, but it’s a major, major loss,” says Boss. “What we used to have has been taken away from us.”
Just as painful are losses that may result from the intersection of the pandemic and the already tense political division in the country. For many people, issues related to Covid-19 have become the last straw in ending relationships, whether it’s a family member refusing to wear a mask, a friend promoting the latest conspiracy theory, or a co-worker insisting Covid-19 deaths are exaggerated.
Ambiguous loss elicits the same experiences of grief as a more tangible loss — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — but managing it often requires a bit of creativity.
A winding, uncharted path to coping in a pandemic
While there isn’t a handbook for functioning during a pandemic, Masten, Boss, and Maddaus offered some wisdom for meandering our way through this.
Accept that life is different right now
Maddaus’ approach involves radical acceptance. “It’s a shitty time, it’s hard,” he says. “You have to accept that in your bones and be okay with this as a tough day, with ‘that’s the way it is,’ and accept that as a baseline.”
But that acceptance doesn’t mean giving up, he says. It means not resisting or fighting reality so that you can apply your energy elsewhere. “It allows you to step into a more spacious mental space that allows you to do things that are constructive instead of being mired in a state of psychological self torment.”
Expect less from yourself
Most of us have heard for most of our lives to expect more from ourselves in some way or another. Now we must give ourselves permission to do the opposite. “We have to expect less of ourselves, and we have to replenish more,” Masten says. “I think we’re in a period of a lot of self discovery: Where do I get my energy? What kind of down time do I need? That’s all shifted right now, and it may take some reflection and self discovery to find out what rhythms of life do I need right now?”
She says people are having to live their lives without the support of so many systems that have partly or fully broken down, whether it’s schools, hospitals, churches, family support, or other systems that we relied on. We need to recognize that we’re grieving multiple losses while managing the ongoing impact of trauma and uncertainty. The malaise so many of us feel, a sort of disinterested boredom, is common in research on burnout, Masten says. But other emotions accompany it: disappointment, anger, grief, sadness, exhaustion, stress, fear, anxiety — and no one can function at full capacity with all that going on.
Recognize the different aspects of grief
The familiar “stages” of grief don’t actually occur in linear stages, Boss says, but denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are all major concepts in facing loss. Plenty of people are in denial: denying the virus is real, or that the numbers of cases or deaths are as high as reported, or that masks really help reduce disease transmission.
Anger is evident everywhere: anger at those in denial, anger in the race demonstrations, anger at those not physically distancing or wearing masks, and even anger at those who wear masks or require them. The bargaining, Boss says, is mostly with scientists we hope will develop a vaccine quickly. The depression is obvious, but acceptance… “I haven’t accepted any of this,” Boss says. “I don’t know about you.”
Sometimes acceptance means “saying we’re going to have a good time in spite of this,” Boss says, such as when my family drove an hour outside the city to get far enough from light pollution to look for the comet NEOWISE. But it can also mean accepting that we cannot change the situation right now.
“We can kick and scream and be angry, or we can feel the other side of it, with no motivation, difficulty focusing, lethargy,” Boss says, “or we can take the middle way and just have a couple days where you feel like doing nothing and you embrace the losses and sadness you’re feeling right now, and then the next day, do something that has an element of achievement to it.”
“Our new normal is always feeling a little off balance, like trying to stand in a dinghy on rough seas, and not knowing when the storm will pass.”
Experiment with “both-and” thinking
This approach may not work for everyone, but Boss says there’s an alternative to binary thinking that many people find helpful in dealing with ambiguous loss. She calls it “both-and” thinking, and sometimes it means embracing a bit of the irrational.
For the families of soldiers missing in action in Vietnam that Boss studied early in her career, or the family members of victims of plane crashes where the bodies aren’t recovered, this type of thinking means thinking: “He is both living and maybe not. She is probably dead but maybe not.”
“If you stay in the rational when nothing else is rational, like right now, then you’ll just stress yourself more,” she says. “What I say with ambiguous loss is the situation is crazy, not the person. The situation is pathological, not the person.”
An analogous approach during the pandemic might be, “This is terrible and many people are dying, and this is also a time for our families to come closer together,” Boss says. On a more personal level, “I’m highly competent, and right now I’m flowing with the tide day-to-day.”
It’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s existence, but when you can’t change the situation, “the only thing you can change is your perception of it,” she says.
Of course, that doesn’t mean denying the existence of the pandemic or the coronavirus. As Maddaus says, “You have to face reality.” But how we frame that reality mentally can help us cope with it.
Look for activities, new and old, that continue to fulfill you
Lots of coping advice has focused on “self-care,” but one of the frustrating ironies of the pandemic is that so many of our self-care activities have also been taken away: pedicures, massages, coffee with friends, a visit to the amusement park, a kickboxing class, swimming in the local pool — these activities remain unsafe in much of the country. So we have to get creative with self-care when we’re least motivated to get creative.
“When we’re forced to rethink our options and broaden out what we think of as self-care, sometimes that constraint opens new ways of living and thinking,” Masten says. “We don’t have a lot of control over the global pandemic but we do over our daily lives. You can focus on plans for the future and what’s meaningful in life.”
For me, since I missed eating in restaurants and was tired of our same old dinners, I began subscribing to a meal-kit service. I hate cooking, but the meal kits were easy, and I was motivated by the chance to eat something that tasted more like what I’d order in a restaurant without having to invest energy in looking through recipes or ordering the right ingredients.
Okay, I’ve also been playing a lot of Animal Crossing , but Maddaus explains why it makes sense that creative activities like cooking, gardening, painting, house projects — or even building your own imaginary island out of pixels — can be fulfilling right now. He references the book The Molecule of More, which explores how dopamine influences our experiences and happiness, in describing the types of activities most likely to bring us joy.
“There are two ways the brain deals with the world: the future and things we need to go after, and the here and now, seeing things and touching things,” Maddaus says. “Rather than being at the mercy of what’s going on, we can use the elements of our natural reward system and construct things to do that are good no matter what.”
Those kinds of activities have a planning element and a here-and-now experience element. For Maddaus, for example, it was simply replacing all the showerheads and lightbulbs in the house. “It’s a silly thing, but it made me feel good,” he says.
Focus on maintaining and strengthening important relationships
The biggest protective factors for facing adversity and building resilience are social support and remaining connected to people, Masten says. That includes helping others, even when we’re feeling depleted ourselves.
“Helping others is one of those win-win strategies of taking action because we’re all feeling a sense of helplessness and loss of control about what’s going on with this pandemic, but when you take action with other people, you can control what you’re doing,” she says. Helping others could include checking in on family friends or buying groceries for an elderly neighbor.
Begin slowly building your resilience bank account
Maddaus’ idea of a resilience bank account is gradually building into your life regular practices that promote resilience and provide a fallback when life gets tough. Though it would obviously be nice to have a fat account already, he says it’s never too late to start. The areas he specifically advocates focusing on are sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation, self-compassion, gratitude, connection, and saying no.
“Start really small and work your way up,” he says. “If you do a little bit every day, it starts to add up and you get momentum, and even if you miss a day, then start again. We have to be gentle with ourselves and keep on, begin again.”
After spending an hour on the phone with each of these experts, I felt refreshed and inspired. I can do this! I was excited about writing this article and sharing what I’d learned.
And then it took me two weeks to start the article and another week to finish it — even though I wanted to write it. But now, I could cut myself a little more slack for taking so much longer than I might have a few months ago. I might have intellectually accepted back in March that the next two years (or more?) are going to be nothing like normal, and not even predictable in how they won’t be normal. But cognitively recognizing and accepting that fact and emotionally incorporating that reality into everyday life aren’t the same. Our new normal is always feeling a little off balance, like trying to stand in a dinghy on rough seas, and not knowing when the storm will pass. But humans can get better at anything with practice, so at least I now have some ideas for working on my sea legs.
Tara Haelle is a science journalist, public speaker, and author pf Vaccination Investigation and The Informed Parent. Follow her at @tarahaelle.
Thanksgiving may have looked and felt very different this year, but we can be thankful for family, friends . . . and networks like Michigan ACE throughout the year!
Over the past thirteen weeks, Mentoring Mondays has explored “How Women Rise : Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job” by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. If you been following this journey, your Michigan ACE Women’s Network wants to hear from you.
- Is there a habit that you’re quite certain is keeping you stuck?
- Did you come across a habit that explains a behavior you’ve struggled with, but until now were unable to describe?
- Would an ongoing discussion of “How Women Rise” be of interest to you? Might you be willing to facilitate such a discussion?
- Are there other books you would recommend we feature as part of Mentoring Mondays?
Your input is important, please let us know what you’re thinking.
With thanks . . .
For the past twelve weeks, we have examined twelve habits to break that hold women back from their next raise, promotion or job. It has been an eye-opening journey as we became aware of certain behaviors or habits that could keep us stuck in a job or even derail our careers. But the authors of “How Women Rise” did not leave us to figure out our next steps. They provided practical advice and tips in the final chapters of the book on “Changing for the Better.”
“So now you know which habit – or, let’s be honest, habits – may be playing a role in keeping you stuck. Maybe they’re habits you’ve grown attached to because they helped you in the past. It’s humbling to admit that what used to work for you has stopped working, and a little scary because familiar behaviors can feel like part of who you are. But it’s inspiring to consider how much you might benefit from letting them go.” Change is tough and sustainable, long-lasting change requires focus. Here are some tips to assist us along the way:
- Be intentional about the behavior you wish to change – know your purpose, define it, speak it, and share it.
- Identify one behavior at a time and work on it until you see progress.
- Make small changes and repeat them until they become habits.
- Change relies on “willpower” – remember that our brains are programmed to default to whatever requires the least effort.
- Break down a habit into segments if it becomes too much to handle at once.
- Enlist help – consider a coach or share with a trusted co-worker your plan to change a certain aspect of your behavior and solicit feedback. “Be careful . . . you will want to choose someone you trust and sees you on a regular basis, either in meetings or as part of a team.”
- Let go of judgement – “In our experience, judgement is the number one thing that could get in your way. Judging yourself when you fall short of your expectations.” Hang in there and keep working your plan.
These are just a few of the closing strategies from Sally and Marshall and they close out the final chapter with thoughts on “Remember What Got You Here,” with this statement: “Successful women tend to be avid self-improvers. You probably are, since you’re reading this book. One of the many reasons we enjoy working with successful women on habits and behaviors that get in their way is that they rarely react defensively on suggestions about how they could get better. On the contrary, they usually listen attentively and then get to work with enthusiasm and zest.”
As we wrap-up this review, we give a big “shout-out” to Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith for co-authoring this fabulous resource for women. If you have not already secured a copy, I encourage you to visit www.hachettebooks.com now.
Finally, we have made it to the 12th habit to examine, and according to the authors, it is one of women’s greatest strengths. Yet, it requires discipline and a few simple tools to control and break the “downside” of this habit. Since this habit deals with neurological functions of the brain, most of the information will be actual excerpts from the text.
Habit 12: Letting your Radar Distract You
“One of women’s great strengths is their capacity for broad-spectrum notice, the ability to notice a lot of things at once. In researching The Female Vision, Sally and Julie Johnson found that neuroscientists have documented this capacity using functional MRIs, which give a picture of the brain in operation. These scans show that when women process information, their brains light up in a lot of different regions, taking in a multiplicity of details. By contract, when men process information, their brain activity tends to be concentrated in one region.
“The result? Women’s attention for the most part operates like radar, scanning the environment, picking up a broad range of clues, and paying attention to context. Whereas men’s attention operates more like a laser, functioning tightly and absorbing information in sequence.” Hence, radar vs laser.
“So, if your job requires you to analyze a lot of data, your neural paths will become more laser-like over time. . . . One problem for women is that organizations still prefer laser notice – ‘just get to the bottom line’ – and view it as a leadership behavior. This is not surprising given that, until a few decades ago, organizations were led almost entirely by men. Yet a well-developed radar can be a powerful asset at work. Being highly attuned to the details of relationships and to what people are feeling enables you to excel at motivating others, inspiring morale. It helps you negotiate and communicate with sensitivity and skill. It supports collaboration and teamwork. And radar helps you build the intimate friendships that support your resilience when the going gets rough.”
There is a downside to radar: it’s called the shadow side of radar. “A well-developed radar can make it difficult for you to filter out unhelpful distractions, scattering your attention and undermining your ability to be present. . . . Radar may also be in part responsible for women’s tendency to give themselves a hard time. Being hyperaware of other people’s reactions can feed the fires of self-doubt and cause you to over-think your actions. Having an active radar may therefore be in part responsible if you have a tendency to ruminate.”
The “left-hand column” is a discussion about “right-brain vs left-brain” functions. “In your left-hand column are the random thoughts and observations that run through your brain while you’re doing something else. In your right-hand column is the task or conversation you’re supposed to be showing up for. . . . A disciplined left-hand-column awareness can be an effective aid in communication, making you sensitive to how others are responding. . . . Blocking out what you notice is not a good practice.” This may cause confusion which would make others wonder what you are trying to hide – you appear to be inauthentic.
So, there is a strategy or tool to help you manage the “left-hand vs right-hand” column thoughts: it’s called “reframing” – seeing things in shades of gray rather than in black or white.
For example, let’s examine this case study. “Taylor is a successful executive coach whose acute radar helps her intuit what her clients need. She says, I’m very confident one-on-one – you have to be as a coach. But I get self-conscious in larger groups because there is so much going on, so many reactions to read.” The story is about Taylor’s reaction during a speech that she was delivering to a large group when she noticed a guy in the front row who seemed skeptical of everything she was saying. He seemed irritated and she kept trying to figure out what was bothering him. Finally a women in the back of the room raised her hand and asked a question. It turns out that a prior notice of the session had listed a different content description. The point is, Taylor had no way of know that the seemingly irritated attendee was expecting a different presentation rather than reacting to her as a speaker.
Here’s where reframing comes in – viewing the situation in gray. Taylor could have imagined that the guy in the front row just had a fight with his wife or a coworker. Reframing the story would help Taylor focus on what she needed to say without losing her train of thought.
“Reframing is powerful because it doesn’t force you to choose between the thoughts racing through your mind and whatever it is you’re actually trying to communicate. It enables you to access all the richness of your left-hand column without getting bogged down in the trap of either/or. So, the good news is that an overactive radar is nothing more than a habit.”
Like the other eleven habits described in the book, radar is a habit you can mitigate with the help of a few simple tools.
Next week, we will wrap-up the review of “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgensen and Marshall Goldsmith, with an overview of what’s been presented and how we move toward “Changing for the Better.” To secure your copy of the book, visit www.hatchettbooks.com
We are beginning to wrap-up our review of “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgensen and Marshall Goldsmith. This has been a must read for me and I have noticed several changes in my behavior as a result -- most noticeably in my communications by avoiding the use of language that has a minimizing effect. I am, in fact, making a conscious effort to break the habits reflected in the book. This week we will look at Habit #11.
Habit 11: Ruminating
Ruminating – reliving unfortunate things that happened – spending too much time and energy thinking about and trying to rewrite events instead of accepting them for what they were – mistakes – and moving on. Both men and women derail themselves by focusing on the past. In Marshall’s original book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” he refers to this habit as “clinging to the past.” In his experience, “men who cling to the past tend to blame others for what they believe has gone wrong in their lives or careers, making excuses for themselves and turning their regret outward. The result is anger. . . . Women, by contrast, are more likely to turn regret inward, blaming themselves and dissecting their own mistakes.”
There is an interesting take on the definition of rumination that you must review in the book. Essentially, in ruminant animals such as cows, goats, sheep and deer that live exclusively on plant food, rumination is a process popularly known as “chewing the cud.” “It’s a brilliant evolutionary strategy for ruminants, but it does little for human beings.” You might view it as being reflective, but “what you’re really doing when you ruminate is berating yourself, engaging in a kind of self-talk that can border on abuse. . . . While men are more likely to say: I made a mistake. We all do. It is time to move on.”
“Rumination is counter-productive for two reasons: First, it always makes you feel worse. And second, it gets in the way of your ability to resolve your problems . . . it becomes your default mode.” When something goes wrong you tend to re-run these mental tapes: Why did I say that? Will I never learn? What the hell is wrong with me?” These self-accusatory scripts can lead to depression. You might think to yourself that this type of inward analysis will enable you to do things differently in the future. “Analysis equals paralysis” is a slogan made for ruminants.
Push back the negative thoughts when they pop up in your head. “In other words, heading down that rabbit hole can destroy you at the executive level. So, break free – move on. At the executive level you need to be confident and decisive because the men around you really know how to move on.
To secure your copy of “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgensen and Marshall Goldsmith, visit www.hatchettbooks.com.
“The too much/not enough divide is another of those ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ double binds that frequently plague women, and become more problematic as you move to a higher level.” This is yet another situation where women have to deal with balance in the workplace – juggling our emotions, words, and behaviors. Let’s look at the next habit that we, as women, are encouraged to break as we move up the leadership ladder.
Habit 10: Too Much
These two small words “too much” have the potential of derailing your career. Most likely, you are unaware that you have been categorized in such a manner. Have you ever gotten feedback that you “came on too strong or too intense” in a meeting? Women often hear these types of comments. Below are some of the “too much” categories that can be landmines for women:
Too much emotion: Marshall has observed during his work with male clients that “. . . anger is the emotion most likely to get in their way. Successful men who lash out in anger often justify doing so as a ‘useful management tool.’ They imagine it’s an effective way to motivate sluggish employees and send a strong message about the importance of whatever is at stake. Women are more likely to display strong emotion in the form of anxiety, resentment, frustration, or fear. And the expression of these painful sensations is the primary reason many women get tagged as being volatile or too emotional.” From this explanation, are we then to conclude that men are intentional and women simply react?
To be clear, what you feel is not the problem. “Speaking while in the grip of strong emotion is usually a bad practice. Your perceptions may be distorted . . . you overstate your case . . . and come across as touchy or out of control. To recap: Feeling and identifying your emotion gives you power. Reacting to what you feel squanders it.” Ideally, you want to “respond in a way that is powerful, confident, measured and authentic, explicitly rooted in emotion (passion) yet expressed in terms that appeal to logic and common sense.”
Too many words: “Research shows that women speak an average of 20,000 words a day while men typically speak around 7,000.” Typical thoughts about too many words include: takes too much time to get to the point; speaking in sentences instead of bullets; over-explaining; etc. Such wordiness can be caused by insecurity, but it is often a counter-productive habit rooted in behavior that may reflect your greatest strengths. The challenge in becoming a more effective communicator is to retain these strengths while addressing the habits that undermine you.” The suggested solution – be concise – be succinct – focus on what is most essential. This takes preparation and practice.
Referring to a case study, the authors noted this comment from one of the leaders, “The women in our company are great, but a lot of them over-communicate. . . . There’s a definite male tone in meetings here, an expectation that people will be very crisp and never say anything superfluous. It is seen as being professional and authoritative. Now I see women signaling one another when they hear phrases like, ‘let me give you a little background.’ That kind of support is really making a difference.
Too much disclosure: “Women who over-disclose usually do so for one or two reasons. Either they assume that building good relationships and finding common ground requires the sharing of personal information or they’re convinced that being authentic depends on disclosure. Women deploy personal information as the primary means of bonding with one another. By contrast, men rarely build relationships by exchanging intimacies . . . . In fact, men are most likely to bond with one another by doing things together, often in highly competitive situations. So a subtle (or not so subtle) one-upmanship often characterizes male bonding.”
“Workplace cultural standards around the world have been almost entirely set by men, especially at the leadership level. . . . Disclosure represents a landmine for many women . . . “and it’s a trap most likely to ensnare women who may feel encouraged to abandon qualities of professionalism and discretion in the pursuit of being fully authentic – being your “real self.”
Consider the benefits of “being real” vs “being professional” if there is a distinct difference between the two in your behavior. Is one behavior “too much?”
To secure your copy of “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgensen and Marshall Goldsmith, visit www.hatchettbooks.com.
Looking further into the habits that professional women need to break, this week’s focus is on body language (non-verbal) as well as the verbal messages that we are sending.
Habit 9: Minimizing
As our co-author, Sally Helgensen, observed while in a crowded meeting room at a national conference, women and men responded differently to the arrival of late-comers to the meeting. Not surprising, right? Here’s what she witnessed: “Virtually every woman acknowledged newcomers by signaling that there was sufficient room for them to get comfortable. They pointed out empty seats, scooted their chairs aside to create more space, or found new seats for themselves at the room’s periphery. They also made themselves physically smaller, pressing their legs together, holding their arms against their sides, shoving their purses under the table – even positioning their notepads more squarely in front of them. The men reacted differently. They nodded acknowledgement – or not – but made no attempt to take up less space. . . . They stayed as they were, trusting the newcomers, all accomplished adults, to figure out their own seating accommodations.”
You might interpret the women’s actions as welcoming, inclusive, and attuned to the needs of others. You might want to re-think this interpretation. “As research conducted by social scientists and neuroscientists confirms, when you draw in your arms and legs, tighten your body, hunker down, or move aside, you undermine your ability to project authority and power. . . . Your physical attempt to shrink sends a message to your brain that you really shouldn’t be occupying your space . . . so you don’t belong . . . others are more deserving than you. However, unintended or well-intended, the desire to welcome a newcomer, when you try to make yourself smaller, sends a subservient message to everyone in the room.”
Aside from body language, the actual language/words that we use have a minimizing affect. Examine the following phrases:
- I just need a quick minutes of your time;
- I just have a small observation;
- You may have already thought about this;
- I only have one tiny suggestion.
“These verbal tics are usually employed at the start of a statement, where they are calculated to do the most harm.” Minimizers convey uncertainty and can also undermine your authority.
Other examples of minimizing behaviors include: speaking in soft tones, quietly entering a room, avoid making eye contact, the use of “we” as opposed to “I” when referring to your accomplishments, and on and on. This chapter is so full of information that it almost warrants two entries, but I will leave you with the desire to read it for yourself.
To secure your copy of “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgensen and Marshall Goldsmith, visit www.hatchettbooks.com.