Staying Sane: Love Thyself

by abclarke

(5b of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the first step in doing that.

My Wife Is Flawed

I love my wife deeply; those of you who know me closely know how true that is. We started dating almost fourteen years ago, got married six and a half years ago, and I am more in love with her today than I have ever been.

But allow me to bitch for a moment: my wife isn’t perfect! Were she a diamond in a jeweler’s hand, he’d spot all sorts of inconsistencies, imperfections, and flaws(1).

I know: woe is me!

Aw Shucks…

Yet, I love those inconsistencies, and I love those imperfections. I accept and would not want to change any of those flaws, even though I’ll admit I don’t understand some of them. To me that’s the nature of love: truly accept what you cannot change.

My wife may not be perfect, but I still wouldn’t change a thing: she’s perfect for me.

Filling The Gaps

OK, hopefully you’ve finished throwing up now. Although I do mean what I wrote above, this article is still about Naked Management so let’s get back to the topic.

Let’s talk about personal growth and how most of us approach it.

Early in my career I took a look at myself, set a vision, and asked what I needed to achieve to get there. I then identified gaps to fill, imperfections in myself, and started filling them in.

  • I felt I needed sales experience? Check, I joined a sales team.
  • I felt I didn’t know how to effectively influence executives? Check, I designed a modification of my boss’s organization in my head and then influenced a reorganization.

This was the path I followed for several years until 2004: find the next flaw, the next weakness, and fix it.

Falling Into The Gap

At first I got huge returns on my investments, but gradually “filling the gaps” became harder. For example, in 2002 I got it into my head that I needed to learn more about design and pick up some skills in that area (I picked voice design because that was what was done at my employer). I started (as a sales-engineer) suggesting designs for automated phone system interactions.

Today I’ll happily admit any of my attempts (which took hours of work on my part) were easily bettered by 5-minutes of effort on the part of one of Tellme’s talented designers. Worse, my meddling efforts pissed off several designers, so not only did I fail to pick up this skill, but I did myself measurable political damage.

Talentless Hack

In retrospect the reason I never got good at design is because inherently it’s not a skill; it’s a talent. Some things are inherent talents; you either have it or you don’t. You can improve upon the talent by learning new skills(2) and someday you can become great! But if you don’t have a talent for something, you can work hard, learn all the skills you can, and at best (with a lot of work) you’ll be merely good. Only with an innate talent will you achieve greatness.

And when it comes to interface design, I have anti-talent.

Now the difference between talents and skills is well recognized, and the advice given by many people on it is quite good. I’ll summarize. To become great in your career:

  1. Invest heavily in skills that hone your core-talents; under-invest in skills that attempt to hone talents you don’t have.
  2. Avoid positions and circumstances that require talents you don’t possess; instead try to change the circumstances to rely on talents you possess.

Official management doctrine does not suggest you ignore areas you don’t have talent in; only that you invest up to the point where it is no longer a show-stopper for your career, but no further. Better yet is to avoid (or delegate away) the responsibilities that require a given talent.

But there is one thing extra you must do that I didn’t realize until 2004, and it relates back to the fact that I love my wife.

Anti-Talents

I believe I have a talent (which is not say I’m great at it, only that I have an innate passion and ability for it) that separates me from most people: I love and thrive in times of change and chaos. My adrenaline fires up when things are going wrong and I work hard to bring about change to fix a problem. But this talent(3) comes with two flaws, one of which I always realized, and one of which took me until 2004 to realize.

The first anti-talent, the one I’ve known for years, is that when things are not in chaos or the chaos is something I’ve seen and know how to solve, I get very unhappy. Once a problem is fixed, I get bored. Once the chaos is in order, I’d rather gag myself with a spoon all day than go to work. I’ve learned to work around this by hiring people who love and excel managing during good times, and then getting out of their way.

But I only realized the second flaw in 2004. I (like most people) have a large ego. OK, I have a super large ego. Sue me. And I believe given a little time and some resources, I can solve any new problem. I still believe that today.

But the flaw was I believed I could change anything about myself: I inherently believed every flaw I have was fixable. Every imperfection was smoothable. And as I continued on my path of career growth, and my ability to change some things about myself started to wane, I grew more and more frustrated and threw myself more and more into trying to fix the unfixable. It ate me up alive.

While my burn-out occurred on a spectacularly fucked-up and mismanaged project, the reality is I was headed in that direction anyway by following the personal growth path of fix all flaws.

In short, I did not love myself.

Sanity and Love

And that’s the first trick to staying sane: Accept and love yourself.

I started out this essay by pointing out that I love my wife. That means I love both her good attributes and her imperfections. And I accept those imperfections and don’t try to change them (well, except for her penchant to remind me I’m too wordy in my writing; she’s got to stop that!).

In 2004 I realized I needed to do the same for myself. I needed to accept that although there were things I didn’t like about myself, some of them were unchangeable and I had to accept them. I will never be a great designer. I will always get bored with day-to-day operational tasks.

And my fatal flaw? The one that ultimately felled me in 2004? I will always be compulsively obsessed and addicted to something. In 2004, it was my job. I had no sense of balance and was putting my job before everything else in my life: my wife, my family, and my health.

For me it took of a crisis to jar me to life, but I’ve come to accept this flaw in myself, and now I try to use it as a talent. I’ve been trying to apply my compulsiveness to building a balance of body, mind, spirit and soul, as opposed to just succeeding at a job. And since doing that, I’ve also learned how to be more effective at my jobs, and much more content at my place in the Universe.

For each of us the flaws are different, but the key step in keeping your sanity is the same:

  1. Know your talents
  2. Know your flaws
  3. And while you should always try to improve, accept that you are who you are.

If you can do that, the other steps in keeping your sanity are just details. Really.

– Art

(1) Now, I’m not the world’s smartest man but I’m also not the world’s stupidest man, so I’m not about to detail those flaws here. Suffice it to say she has flaws.

(2) As usual, I’m not the first person to realize the distinction between skills and talents. Here’s another framework recommended to me by my friends Naomi and Rich for understanding the difference, and a tool that helps some people discover their talents versus their skills.

(3) I believe all talents come at a cost, and everyone who is insanely talented in one key area is also fatally flawed in another. And nothing they can do will ever remove the fatal flaw; they just need to manage around it. It’s almost like we were given $100 to spend on talents when we were created, and some of us choose not to spend it evenly on all talents. I imagine Jimi Hendrix choosing to spend $99 of it on musical talent, leaving self-control underinvested in. But on the flip side, if we didn’t do that, how much more boring and ugly would this world be?