It’s not that our current stay-at-home guidelines are comparable to a concentration camp. But the COVID-19 lockdown has inspired various commentators to provide career and life advice from Admiral Jim Stockdale, whose experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam led him to be featured in Jim Collins’ classic business book, Good to Great, and Viktor Frankl, who shared his inspirational story of surviving a Nazi concentration camp in his enduring bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning.
While we hear a lot of calls for optimism these days, Admiral Stockdale said it was the optimists who didn’t survive their imprisonment. They kept expecting to be out soon, but weren’t. He felt they “died of a broken heart.” Instead, he advised: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Admiral Stockdale never doubted he would prevail in the end and find meaning by turning the experience into the defining event of his life, which dovetails with Mr. Frankl’s prime lesson. Alex Pattakos, who runs the Global Meaning Institute with his wife Elaine Dundon from their Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., home, adapted Mr. Frankl’s ideas for the workplace in his 2005 book Prisoners of our Thoughts. It challenges us to not simply accept what is happening to us, which only locks us into a prison of our own thoughts – what Mr. Frankl called our “own inner concentration camp.” Instead create your own reality through the search for meaning.
That starts by re-examining your life, using this time to try to know yourself better. It’s probably not how you are using your time, nor particularly appetizing. Your focus is likely on simply returning to your work and continuing as closely as you can to the pre-March format. But you can’t go back to that, Mr. Pattakos insisted in an interview, quoting Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
You are not a prisoner of your thoughts – or of your boss and workplace. Mr. Frankl argued you have the ability to choose your attitude to everything that happens. “Visualize what’s possible in the situation. What will the world look like when you go back to work? Do you want the same relationship with the boss? Do you want something different?” Mr. Pattakos says.
You must accompany that self-discovery with an attitude that generates enthusiasm for the actions you need to take. There are three elements in that prescription: attitude, enthusiasm and action. You must embrace the belief you can thrive in different circumstances rather than succumbing to the same-old.
It may well be that your work is fulfilling – you find meaning in it. If so, you can cheerfully return to the workplace (or continue with what you have been doing, if the pandemic has not sidelined you). It may be that your heart sinks when you think about meaning and your job but you need the dough. That’s fine, he says, as long as you change your attitude to: “I’ll do it until I find something better.”
He begins his workshops by asking people to relate the time they experienced the most meaning in the past 90 days. Rarely did the incident occur at work. And that’s a shame. “When things return to normal, don’t just look for the quick fix – external happiness by going shopping again. Focus on deeper meaning – your core essence, and how to act on it,” he says.
- Your private Zoom chat messages may not actually be private. If the host of the meeting is saving the recording, the chat’s private as well as public messages come to him as part of the minutes. So don’t use chat to tell a colleague what a clown the boss is.
- An accountability app is a powerful productivity tool, and may be vital if working from home. If you don’t have someone to rely on, productivity coach Hillary Rettig suggests Focusmate, an app that keeps you on task by pairing you with someone else seeking an accountability partner for a live, virtual session.
- Slow and steady keeps you motivated, says blogger James Clear. Bite off more than you can chew and progress stalls.
- People rarely read online – they’re far more likely to scan than read word for word. Nielsen Norman Group says that’s been consistent in its eye-tracking studies over the past 23 years.
- If presenting to the chief executive officer, state your conclusion or request up front, advises careers adviser Scot Herrick. Use results to support your case but only give your opinion if asked.
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