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“Life is not fair. Get used to it.” ~ Bill Gates

Something about the fact that it is Bill Gates who said this always caused me to look at this quote twice. If one of the wealthiest men in the world can say this with certainty then this is fodder for an interesting conversation.  Let’s not have that conversation now. Instead, let me ask you this? In life and career, have you ever been disappointed? Crushingly disappointed.

Disappointed because you thought you gave a killer interview and still didn’t get the job. Disappointed that you printed precious CVs to hand in at various offices and no one seemed to care or even want them. Disappointed that you worked really hard and you weren’t appreciated. Disappointed that you were going through an exceptionally difficult time and no one cared or noticed. Disappointed that you gave your soul to your employer and they trampled on it without a second thought. Disappointed at the realisation that you are going nowhere slowly. Disappointed that you didn’t get a perk, promotion, salary increase that you really were expecting and had already imagined enjoying. Disappointed that sometimes it all just gets so hard. I could go on and all of these are just the ones from my personal experience. There are many many more reasons out there that we each face in our own paradigms.

They have one thing in common.

Gosh. It hurts. It hurts the heart. It hurts the ego. It hurts the pocket.

I remember the first time I got disappointed by the way I was treated at work. It was in my first job. I cried and cried and cried and cried. I felt like quitting but I had bills to pay. I simply couldn’t afford my outrage. I was also mindful of something an older colleague there had one time randomly said. She was drinking wine and had such an intensely regretful look on her face. She said “I was on track to become a partner/director at one of the big 4 accounting firms in the country. They didn’t give it to me and I knew I had earned it. I resigned in outrage and came here. To date, it is my biggest regret. I made an ego-based decision and look at me now.” I didn’t say anything. I was too young and immature to know what to say. I wasn’t too young and immature to hear the lesson.

Despite this experience, even now,  experiencing and dealing with disappointment at work is still a struggle for me. The perils of being human.

Over the last few months, a lot has happened. Baby number 2 decided that there is no time like the present. That shock was followed by the intense distress of nearly losing the newbie. A doctor with an incredible bedside manner makes all the difference even if there is nothing they can do. We were blessed to have that. So we waited on pins and needles for almost a month to be declared officially out of danger. Each weekly checkup was agony. Meanwhile, hectic things were happening at work. I am talking top drawer implosions. An employee strike and negotiations, epic legal battles about various matters in various places and more. I was on autopilot but I did the necessary. I didn’t go above and beyond but I didn’t drop any major balls. I showed up everywhere and closed what needed to be closed. With a concerted team effort, the ship steered safely into harbor eventually.

As I got ready to draw a big sigh of relief… just a week after the the doctor cleared us, I suddenly started coughing. It wasn’t serious. Just a cough right? Besides I had no time to go to the doctor. That’s what “we busy people” say right? The cough promptly escalated into paralysing chest pain and the vague taste of blood in my mouth. Hello emergency. My GP diagnosed it as an exceptionally painful battle with pneumonia which had paralysed a lung. So I took my shockingly strong antibiotics and totally struggled through the pain. I wish I could say I was strong but it was just so hard so I cried a few times and wondered why life was unfair.

For a couple of weeks I could barely walk to the toilet without breathing like I was running a marathon. Lying down hurt. Standing up hurt. Breathing hurt. Talking hurt. After that, the pain reduced significantly but did not go away. I went back to work. I coughed at my desk and couldn’t understand why it still hurt so badly. It felt like there was an open wound in my chest and every time I coughed, I lifted the scab. The GPs I went to insisted I was getting better and no more could be done. My gut said they were wrong. I hesitated. A close friend who was a director on one of our boards suddenly passed away from a pneumonia-related cough that turned out to be cancer. I was gutted.

I was also scared. So I googled the type of specialist I needed and Google told me to find a specialist physician or a pulmonogist. I went to see one. My gut was right. The pneumonia had friends… pleurisy (inflammation of the lung lining and the source of shocking pain) and a, consequent heart irregularity. My heart wasn’t coping with the stress. There were tests and machines. Machines that went into my mouth. Machines I had to climb into. Machines that were attached to me with nodes. Tests upon tests. There were discussions about limited treatment options. There were shockingly high costs. I thoroughly tested the limits of my medical aid. Specialist doctors make rockstar money I tell you.  There was fear and there were more tears. There were treatments. We waited. I waited.

I didn’t say much beyond that I was really unwell at work but I showed up most days anyway. I didn’t go above and beyond. I couldn’t. I kept my head down. I delegated a little more. My boss is accustomed to me hitting home runs. I didn’t hit any. I just stayed in the game. A bit like cricketer playing the long game. Protect the wicket. Get single runs when you can. Let the other batsman take the big hits and support.  I remember my heart feeling like it was breaking when my boss sat me down and told me how disappointed he was in my lack of commitment. I knew I was at my most committed in that moment. It crushed me. A part of me wanted him to ask me why I had changed or slowed down. He didn’t. To be kind. He wasn’t. He read me the riot act right off the bat instead.  In fairness, this is a workplace not a support group or a friendship. I am sure he was confused and frustrated by me not doing what he was used to and probably needed.  It hurt anyway. I just explained briefly that I hadn’t been well and undertook to up my game. I couldn’t pick myself up from the resulting slump. I questioned my priorities. I felt like giving up working altogether. Was it worth it, I wondered… but I still have bills to pa and I like “things.”

In the past month or two things have slowly come back together. I am finally well. I had a whole pain free week last week. It was magical. I finally felt comfortable to disclose the full extent of my health issues to my boss. He understood. He was sympathetic and empathetic. He was disappointed that I hadn’t told him while it was happening. I understood where he was coming from. All was supposed to be well except that I couldn’t recover from my crushing disappointment. I was demotivated by the realisation of the reality. The work relationship doesn’t always give back or cut some slack or extend a humane hand when you need it to. I don’t know why it hit me like a ton of bricks but it did.

I had to find a way to get over it. I knew on an intellectual level that it’s just business but my feelings wouldn’t listen. I needed to self-start again before I burnt out for real. So I did some research. I read a book or two. I watched TED talks. Not much helped. I looked for a means to cope with the fact that some aspects of life “are not fair.” Finally, I came across an article on the Forbes website by Mike Myatt with the title “Life’s not Fair. Deal With it.” It was an interesting read. He says:

“I don’t dispute that challenges exist. I don’t even dispute that many have an uphill battle due to the severity of the challenges they face. What I vehemently dispute is attempting to regulate, adjudicate, or legislate fairness somehow solves the world’s problems. Mandates don’t create fairness, but people’s desire and determination can work around or overcome most life challenges.”

He goes on to speak on the subjectivity of fairness and to share 11 points to help one process the question of fairness”

“From a leadership perspective, it’s a leader’s obligation to do the right thing, regardless of whether or not it’s perceived as the fair thing. When leaders attempt to navigate the slippery slope of fairness, they will find themselves arbiter of public opinion and hostage to the politically correct. Fair isn’t a standard to be imposed unless a leader is attempting to impose mediocrity. Fair blends to a norm, and in doing so, it limits, inhibits, stifles, and restricts, all under the guise of balance and equality. I believe fair only exists as a rationalization or justification. The following 11 points came from a commencement speech widely attributed to Bill Gates entitled Rules for Life. While many dispute the source, whether it was proffered by Bill Gates or not, I tend to agree with the hypothesis:

Rule 1: Life is not fair — get used to it!

Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 [or R600 000] a year right out of high school [or Varsity]. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher [or lecturer] is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping — they called it opportunity. [In other words, starting small is not an insult. It is a chance]

Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault, so don’t whine about your mistakes, learn from them. [You can’t blame external factors for your choices in perpetuity]

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent’s generation, try delousing the closet in your own room [or apartment or space].

Rule 8: [Schools] may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: [I have changed Rule 11 completely. I think it should be “Be centered. Understand what rock your foundation is built on and never stray too far from it. Is it God? It is for me. I drop the ball sometimes and that is when I find it hardest to recover. Fuel your spiritual life while you work. If it’s your “why.” Understand it. Write it down. Come back to it when the struggle hits. “Being centered means that you have a reference point or a place to come back to when life’s challenges and emotions push you off balance. The center is the place you know you have to get back to.” Your center will be your anchor or homing beacon when you get crushed by disappointment. It will help you find your way back to the fire in you.

Here’s the thing – we all face challenges, and life treats us all unfairly. We all make regrettable choices, and we all suffer from things thrust upon us do to little if any fault of our own. When I suffered a debilitating stroke at an early age, I certainly asked myself “why did this happen to me?” I could have felt sorry for myself and became bitter, I could have thrown in the towel and quit on my family and myself – I didn’t. It took two years of gut-wrenching effort, but what I thought was a great injustice at the time changed my life for the better. Today, you couldn’t tell I ever had a stroke. The greatest adversity life can throw at you simply affords you an opportunity to make changes, improve, and get better.”

When I finished digesting this article, I felt a little flicker. It wasn’t a kick I promise 😀 . It was the fire starting back up. It’s alive…

2 thoughts on “Women@Work Wednesday: Sometimes Life is a Lot to Deal With But There are no Days Off

    1. Thank you Tari. Wrapping our head around the fact that noone is coming to mete out fairness to the world is the reality check that allows us to clean the lens through which we view life’s situations and puts us in the mindset to work around. If not, we will eventually find ourselves “victims” of circumstance.

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