I love that bit at the end of the ‘Italian Job’ when the back of the coach is hanging over the precipice with Michael Caine and the gang in the back working out how to stop the gold and themselves from plunging into the valley. We never find out what happens, as the ‘self-preservation’ song kicks in and the credits roll.
So what do they do? Do they defeat imminent death by banding together and hatching a joint plan, or do some of them jump ‘bus’ leaving others to fall to their doom? There’s also the added question of the gold. What is the worth of the cargo relative to the worth of their own, and the other gang member’s lives? It’s a decision of the ‘we’ over the ‘me’, or the ‘me’ over the ‘we’. What will each decide?
So what’s this got to do with us? Well this is a metaphorical dilemma that we all could potentially face in our working lives and some of you may have already been there. We give our all in the pursuit of making life better for others, with the benefit that that usually makes our lives better too, but sometimes that balance is upset and we end up with our rear-ends hanging over the edge of a cliff.
We’re exhausted and overworked, or we’ve had some monstrously difficult decisions to make, some heart-rending issues in the life of a young person to deal with or some dreadful organisational politics to tackle. And it saps us. There is nothing left to give. Sometimes it feels like we just want to let the coach of our working lives just crash to the bottom of the valley. It’s just too much. We’re done. We want to ‘jump bus’, no matter what the ‘gold’ or collective reward might be if we stick with it. We want to choose the ‘me’ over the ‘we’.
But what about the ‘we’? What about the other people on the bus of our working lives? What about the kids or the clients, what about our colleagues? If we let the coach fall, we essentially let them fall (or so it seems anyway). And what about our core which we know really deep down wants to stay on the bus and help? If we let them fall are we in some way letting ourselves fall too? So do we stick with it, or do we quit?
It’s one hell of a dilemma, something no-one wants to face. But how to avoid it? Surely it’s inevitable? If you’re overworked, surely something will give and you end up hanging over a cliff?
Well yes, something will ‘give’, but you have to decide what that is or the circumstances of life will decide for you. The latter equates to a broken you hanging off the edge of a professional and mental health cliff, and the former to a relatively protected resilient you that carries on along the mountain side, right on track, despite the cliff-edge, making a huge difference in the lives of those around you.
I know this is no easy feat, you’re busy, you don’t have time to do what has to be done, let alone time to think about you. But I will say to you- you have no choice. You have to. If you don’t you will end up no use to yourself and no use to anyone else, hanging off the edge of a cliff.
The thing that has to ‘give’ is your prioritisation of time relating to others, to the exclusion of all else, and it has to give way to a prioritisation of some ‘me-time’. Don’t do it and it is you that will be the ‘something’ that ‘gives’ and I don’t mean that in a positive way.
Self-preservation is all about making sure you are stocked up with what you need to keep yourself ticking over nicely. No one can run on empty. A car doesn’t run on empty, an athlete doesn’t run on empty, a star can’t shoot on empty and neither can you. We all need energy to function.
So there are two main things you need to be asking yourself:
1. How do you preserve your energy? and
2. How do you top up your energy, ensuring you are as full as you can be?
The two often intermingle but both must be addressed.
You can tell a lot about a person’s self-preservation levels by what they do at lunchtime. It tells you how they are looking after themselves physically and mentally. If you skip lunch it’s usually because you are busy, hellishly busy. But is skipping lunch actually helping or hindering you in your busyness?
I went through a period where I didn’t really eat lunch. It was a rotten idea. I ended up starving later in the afternoon, unable to think straight and my propensity to catch every cold going seemed to skyrocket. Not only was I not physically refuelling properly, I was not giving myself the opportunity to mentally refuel either. The best thing I ever did for myself, even when I was drowning in casework, was to take half an hour for lunch, eat something proper, take a proper break, out of the office, mobile phone off.
I cannot even begin to tell you how much better I felt, how much more in control of my whole day I felt because of that half hour. It helped me keep my perspective, helped me cope with the lifestyle chaos of the kids I worked with and the associated fire-fighting and it helped me be a better worker. My thinking was clearer, my actions more decisive. I was preserving my energy by being in a fit physical and mental state to be able to cope with the challenges of the day.
And if you are to preserve yourself and refuel, body and mind, consider what you like to do with your spare time. What do you just love doing for its own sake, that is raw ultra-nourishing soul food for you? For me, it’s walking in the countryside, breathing fresh air, having time to think if I’m on my own or time to really connect when with others. Again, I can’t even begin to tell you how this just resets my mind like a chiropractor resets your body.
So what’s your soul food? Is it rock-climbing, is it having a spa day, is it eating out with friends, is it reading a good book, is it writing, is it painting, is it indulging in an air-guitar session? Find your soul food and I promise it will feed you.
It will nourish you in its own right, but it will also help you to switch off from work, or help you to think about it in a more positive motivating way. If you top up your energy levels then you have the energy to lift yourself out of negative thinking and the positive comes more easily. It then becomes way easier to weather the storms, which unfortunately are inevitable.
But this isn’t enough. You need to know thy enemy, you need to know yourself. Us humans are really really dumb and we let stuff get in the way of us doing things that we know will help us. Laziness is one of my enemies, ‘I can’t be bothered’. Busyness is another, ‘I’m too busy’. But you should never be too lazy or too busy to look after yourself or whatever your excuses are. So knowing your soul food isn’t enough. You need to know your enemies and know how to fight them, kung-fu style. Your life depends on it.
This might sound dramatic but it’s true. Your life does depend on it. Your health, physical and mental. Your work life and your ability to be effective. Your home life- the happiness of your partner and your kids if you have them.
If you are whole then everything else in your life has the best chance of becoming and staying whole. You feed life rather than life feeding off you. Even when there is rot around then you are a strong pillar. When you skid on that precarious cliff-top road you steer into the skid and prevent yourself from an ‘Italian Job’ moment. Your internal compass is in tip-top condition, you know your direction and it will take a hell of a lot to get you off that road.
So as the ‘Italian Job’ teaches us, we need to join the self-preservation society. Not only do people in your work life need you to do this, but so do people in your personal life. If you walk down the path of a healthier happier balanced life you will be better able to help those around you do the same. Isn’t that why we’re on the bus in the first place?
Interested in more ideas to keep you sane, focused and motivated? Then you might be interested in this post on Staying motivated: why do you do what you do?