Work can be stressful (you’ve probably noticed). Starting or growing an organization can be particularly challenging for a variety of reasons. And, as we’re all learning right now, living in a pandemic can push you to limits you never knew existed.
During the early days of starting up and being CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute one of our staff members approached me, looking particularly stressed, and said “I feel as though I’m juggling many many plates in the air.”
This image began to stress me. I pictured many beautiful and delicate plates flying above his head with many of them crashing to the ground and shattering, not because he was inept, but because there were simply so many. This was not a great image for how I wanted anyone in the organization to be working as an individual, or for the kind of culture I aspired to cultivate.
I suggested he try on another image. “Instead of juggling plates,” I said, “experiment with framing your work as planting a lot of seeds. Then, you can watch which seeds take root and grow, and which don’t. You can decide which seeds to water and which seeds to let go of.”
We both immediately felt more grounded and calm. A sense of being a bit more in control and less a victim of all of the projects, demands, or plates that we had to strenuously juggle, took over.
I was not obscuring the fact that we were all doing a lot. It feels good to do a lot and to accomplish a lot. It feels good to work with an attitude that combines a feeling of confidence, a sense of urgency, and a certain level of calm – right in the midst of initiating and responding to a variety of tasks. Changing the metaphor didn’t reduce the work load, but in some way it provided more capacity and a different approach.
Another metaphor I find myself utilizing regularly, especially for leaders, is that of an orchestra conductor. Regardless of your role, sometimes your job is to stand in the middle of activity and direct, track, coach, and mentor. Your job is to listen and watch for alignment as well as achieve results. Sometimes you might have to work directly to give feedback to an individual instrument and sometimes you may need to step back and listen to the orchestra as a whole. Again, just this image, this metaphor is powerful. Being the conductor is much more empowering and calming than being “swamped,” “busy,” “slammed,” or “biting off more than you can chew” – or whatever image arises when you feel the pressure of responding to multiple needs.
Skillful use of metaphors won’t eliminate you feeling stress. However, they might serve to widen your zone of what I think of as “engaged calm.” If we are not engaged we might feel bored or flat. If we actually do take on too much or have overscheduled ourselves, we might feel stressed and anxious. In between these two ways of being, in the middle, is being both engaged and calm. This is much like a core practice within meditation of cultivating a body that is both alert and relaxed at the same time. By shifting our metaphors, we might increase the width and depth of this place of working with engaged calm, a place where we feel our best and accomplish effectively.
- Notice the metaphors you use, especially when your work or life is difficult and challenging. Experiment with metaphors that lead more to engaged calm – such as planting many seeds or seeing yourself as an orchestra conductor.
- During meditation practice, explore aspiring to develop a body and mind that are both alert and relaxed at the same time.
- For alert – sit up with some energy in the spine. Arch your back slightly. Allow your breathing to be full and fluid.
- For relaxed – relax your shoulders and jaw. With each exhale, let go of judgments and comparisons, and your to-do lists, completely.