The breaking news on TV instantly drew my attention and made me turn up the volume. Less than twenty-four hours ago a prominent local attorney had taken his life.
Bob was a man I had known casually through various professional associations. He was very competent; I remembered how detailed he was in the negotiations we had conducted. As I listened to the newscast, I learned that he had a wife and two children, now left behind in the horrific wake of his actions the day before.
Over the next few weeks, Bob’s suicide was the topic of much discussion, and through various friends and contacts, I learned the story of what happened. Bob had been working on a very large deal, one that would merge his company with a competitor, creating a dominant player in the market.
For almost a year, the merger had been his sole focus and he had worked as much as one hundred hours each week, even resorting to sleeping some nights in his office to get more done.
At the final hour, the other company decided to abort the merger. When Bob left the office that day, no one could have imagined that he would never return.
Even now, when so many are out of work, or returning to work that they dread, I wonder how fine a line separates them from the distraught, disillusioned, and hopeless emotions that overwhelmed Bob on that fateful day.
Are you silently overwhelmed?
Although we were not close friends, it was easy to see that Bob was a quiet person, even reserved, despite the pressures he faced. I never once heard him complain, even when he was sleeping on a sofa in the breakroom just to meet his deadlines.
But now, I wonder if his silence was its own cry for help.
It’s a strange paradox that in the moments when we most need support from others, we are least willing to ask for it. It’s as though the unbearable pressure we’re facing is some kind of test that can only be passed if we succeed or die in the attempt, like the ancient Spartans who were taught to come home “bearing their shield, or on it.”
And the greater tragedy is that we are almost always surrounded by people who would gladly lend a hand if only they knew it was needed. The problem isn’t a lack of resources, it’s a lack of courageous humility to admit that our commitments are greater than our capacity.
We remain silent because we worry that asking for help will make us seem weak. But needing help doesn't make you weak, it makes you human – as well as strong, smart, resourceful, and realistic.
If the business you started is now consuming your life, or the never-ending needs of your children have drained all your energy, or the promotion you worked so hard for now makes you dread showing up for work, you’re only out of options if you face it alone.
The key is to simply admit it, first to yourself, and if needed, to others. No matter what consequences you think will come from saying you feel overwhelmed, I promise they will be less catastrophic than you think.
Sometimes, all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage toward whatever you’re facing and you’re free.
Are You Secretly Afraid You’re Not Qualified?
I’ve coached hundreds of people like Bob – those whose effort has become an unreasonable obsession. And almost every time, what’s driving them is the fear that they aren’t smart enough, or talented enough, or strong enough to meet the demands they’re facing. And the moment they have this feeling, their real fear is that someone will find out.
Here’s a painfully personal example. When I first became a CEO, I started reviewing complex financial reports that I didn’t always understand. I was so embarrassed by this shortcoming that I tried to hide it. Secretly, I feared that anyone who lacked this one skill wasn’t really qualified to have my position.
For weeks, this fear almost disabled me, until I realized this one deficiency was making me forget the strengths I really had - leading and inspiring people, shaping a great culture, and forging strong relationships with customers.
What I learned from this experience is that “Impostor Syndrome” isn’t really about a skill or experience you don’t have; it’s about forgetting the ones you do. You should get better where you are weak, but you must never stop believing in the full spectrum of talent, hard work, and experience that brought you to where you are.
Have you taken down your guardrails?
In times of uncertainty, it’s easy to give everything you’ve got to your work – your energy, your passion, your time. And in peak moments, this may be what’s called for. But without limits – guardrails – it can quickly become a lifestyle.
The fastest way to understand how I’m living my life is to look at my calendar.
Like yours, mine is filled with important responsibilities, commitments, and deadlines. But if those commitments are not punctuated by moments that matter – dinner with a friend, buying a special gift for someone I love, showing up for a ball game or a gathering – then I know I’ve become too busy to have a life. I’ve driven outside my guardrails and I need to make a correction quickly.
I still wonder what might have happened if Bob had found answers to questions like these. Would he have felt that night that there were other options? I’ll never truly know.
But if he could speak to you right now, I believe he would say something like this: Don’t let your job become bigger than your life.
I hope we’re all listening