Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Loneliness of the Highly Motivated

I get a lot done.

I enjoy taking on responsibility (if it's appropriate to my skills and interests). If the values are right, it's a service opportunity and it gives me considerable satisfaction to be useful and productive (which are not the same thing). While it's not necessarily a slam dunk finding ways to get paid for doing what you believe in, I've even been pretty good at that (for which I thank my entrepreneurial father). Taken all together, I love my life and consider myself blessed. Yet it can also be lonely.

A. Out of Control
People look at what I take on and consider it prima facie evidence of irresponsibility. Projecting themselves into my workload, they figure they'd be overwhelmed, and therefore I must be as well.

I know that's not very sound thinking, but trust me, people do it all the time—there's a significant difference between projecting yourselves into another person's being (experiencing the world through their persona), and projecting yourself into another person's situation (where it's you in their skin). As a facilitation trainer, I encourage students to develop their capacity for the former, which leads to empathy, while discouraging the latter, which leads to judgment.

My personal work: It used to irk me that others didn't do as much as I did. Was I being taken advantage of? Why weren't people applying themselves?

Gradually, I learned the value of focusing on taking care of myself and not others (which, it turned out, no one was interested in my doing anyway). I learned to avoid the trap of martyrdom, where I did more than I felt comfortable with (perhaps to make up for others doing less; perhaps to indulge a compulsion) and then resented the extra work that no one asked me to do. As you probably already know, this doesn't go well—and it's damn hard to engender much sympathy for your anguish if it comes across as a guilt trip.

Going the other way, I ask that people let me work at the levels I enjoy. The deal is that I don't expect others to do what I do, and I expect the same in return. My work is too keep my commitments to what I can handle with equanimity. While I still might have resentment about others not doing their fair share, I work diligently to not have resentment about others not working at my level.

Mind you, this does not mean I never over commit. In fact, I mess up all the time. I belong to the school of thought that it's better to avoid lulls than overwhelm, and my boisterous optimism regularly leads to filling my plate to the point where it's a near certainty that stuff will fall off. However, I'm not focusing here on the perils of optimism; I'm examining the isolation of motivation.

B. An Unwanted Mirror
People are naturally curious and we live in a competitive culture. Often, people will subconsciously and automatically compare their life with whomever they come across. It's uncomfortable, however, when you're stacking yourself up against a highly motivated person. There's strong conditioning to define ourselves in terms of our accomplishments, and when that's in play most people are not going to enjoy comparing theirs with mine.

On a gross level, they may feel challenged by my productivity. On a subtle level, they may chose to leave me alone, or to find fault (so that they can engineer feeling better about the comparison). I'd rather that comparisons weren't happening at all, but that's not in my control.

My personal work: While I like being seen for my contributions, there's a dangerous ego trap lurking below the surface. I work constantly on trying to honor the work of others without keeping score about how much honoring I receive in return.

As a professional facilitator, I've learned to read people quickly and be able to bridge to the essence of their experiences based on a small sampling of data. Sadly, I rarely receive in return that which I am able to give others. Worse, in my instance it's a double whammy: not only are there not that many people such facilitative skills, there aren't that many people who can even imagine what it's like to keep so many balls in the air. I come across more as a circus act.

Come one, come all! In the course of 72 hours watch the amazing man teach a dozen facilitation students, while simultaneously pulling rabbits out of the hat by offering a breakthrough proposal in the last five minutes of one live meeting after another, all the while posting a pithy blog entry, keeping up with email traffic from across the continent, and still finding time to play three games of Settlers with his 14-year-old stepson! (Most people think I'm pretty weird.)

C. Work Over Relationship
This one hurts. For those who prefer a mix that's richer in social time and leaner in work time, I present as a workaholic, as someone who has an atrophied social life. While there's doubt a real and tender thing is happening here if you want more of my time than I make available, the irony is that my work, overwhelmingly, falls into one of three categories: a) helping groups successfully navigate the tensions and confusions of complex and/or volatile issues; b) administrative work for FIC, a nonprofit dedicated to offering up-to-date, accurate information about intentional communities and promoting cooperation; and c) doing what I can in support of my home, Sandhill Farm, an agriculturally based income-sharing group in northeast Missouri, where, for the most part, I try to focus on covering work others don't care for.

As I see it, all of my work is relationship based, so it's tough when I get criticized for neglecting that part of life.

My personal work: My job is to avoid the trap of defensiveness, and be available to hear the pain of those who feel left behind in the choices I make about how I apportion my time and my attention. My work is to establish a sense of my personal relationship with integrity (my moral compass) and then accept with grace that my choices may not look so good when viewed through other people's lenses.

One thing is for sure: I'm a much more attractive friend as someone who's at emotional peace with himself, than as someone who's in emotional pieces. And no one can do that work other than me.


Anutosh said...

A great article.

I admire this article because I might be too bashfull and scared to write something like this about myself.



Anonymous said...

"see me, hear me, feel me..."

We are all projection screens for one another. Being conscious of that and assuming self-responsibility is, IMHO, a more evolved form of relationship with self and others. You chose your path and walk it well my brother.

So much to be thankful for.


Mandy Creighton said...

I resonate with several of your experiences, and I appreciate your stating the difference between the empathic path of putting yourself into another's being versus their situation which leads to judgment.

So, in the case of you experiencing someone who is not doing their share, in what ways do you put yourself into their being and find an empathic way of connecting? I'm curious!

Thanks for your transparency and vulnerability in sharing your inner realm of thought and feeling.