If I learnt one thing as a crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line (an amazing organization for anyone feeling overwhelmed, more details are here), it's that emotional pain is absolute, not comparative. What do I mean? Maybe it's easier with an example.
We were trained to take two text message conversations at once, so at any one time counselors would be talking to two completely random people of different ages, backgrounds, and, of course, problems. I distinctly remember one evening my screen split in two: on the left, a teenager who had not been invited to her friend's end-of-school-year bonfire party, on the right, a woman who had one child with severe learning difficulties, and another with a newly diagnosed brain tumor.
Both people were in the same amount of pain. Both wanted the same thing that people in pain want - to be listened to, to be told that their feelings were valid, to know that someone was on their side as they figured out the emotions overwhelming them. That's how human emotions work. Pain, sadness, grief, they're like the air in a balloon. They swell to fit the space available. We don't have the equivalent of a hurricane scale to compare them to and say - well, this feels like a 6, but I could have an ingrowing toenail as well, so I'll downgrade it to a 5. There is no "should feel."
Why do I bother writing any of this, you might be wondering. It's because when I first sat down to write this post, I was going to call it "whatever you're worrying about probably doesn't matter." Then I remembered what I know to be true, that it does matter, it matters to you. And I don't know what you have in your life to fret over. We none of us know what goes on behind the public face that the rest of us present to the world.
What I can say is that, whatever it is you're worrying about, it boils down to the fear of the unknown. All the things that could go wrong, that might happen, that could send you off the track you have planned. Anxiety is not a trifling matter, it's enough to make you lose sleep or stop you leaving the house. It's enough to make you choose a play-it-small life, because if you don't take risks, it's less likely something will go wrong. I get it, I really do. But let me also offer this perspective.
When you've had news you never saw coming rush out from the depths and smash you in the chest, so that you literally can't breathe. When you've been doubled over, howling a primal scream that you didn't even recognize as coming from your own body. When you've stared at the words on a screen, hoping that somehow you read them wrong, but how could you have done, there's no other interpretation. All of those things happened to me in the last few days. And so I can say, with some authority, that that's when you realize that so much in life that we think matters... well, it really doesn't. That pouring the scarce resource of your energy to things that you won't even remember in a week, never mind a year, is not time well spent. And living your life playing it safe, just in case, and missing out on the things that you want but seem just too much hassle... that really is a waste of god-given opportunity.
Here are some things that DON'T matter that at some point in my own career I was diverted into thinking DO matter:
The decision on how many SkyMiles you have to earn to become a Diamond Medallion
Getting the gross margin in my $200m business case wrong because I forgot the mould depreciation
Whether or not the Dove China shampoo launch happens in September or March
The people who were too arrogant to send their investor presentations in for fact checking before being published - what if there was a mistake??
It being extremely important that I move to New Jersey for corporate tax purposes when I was vehemently against the idea
Whether or not the media agency had delivered the TRPs they committed to last week
At the time, these felt like deeply important issues, that both I and the people around me were convinced were worth heated phone calls and, no doubt, goddamned alignment meetings. I can look back now and say that of the above list, the things worth bothering about were:
....None of them
I am not the first person to come up with the insight that life is short, spend your time wisely. The Dead Poets Society were seizing the day in the 80s, and the Romans were Carpe-ing the Diem some 2,000-odd years before. In a rather more contemporary take, I very much enjoyed "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k" by Mark Manson. We're on the same page: decide what matters, divert your energy to that, don't waste it on the rest of the things queuing up for your attention.
So what does matter then? I can only talk from my own experience. But for me it's related to that news that smashed me in the chest.
Up until this week, I thought hearing the word "cancer" in relation to someone I loved was just about the worst thing that could happen. And it had already happened, more than once in fact, so that's all out of the way and dealt with. It turns out that that's not quite true. Because when you hear "cancer" AND combine it in a sentence with "metastatic", "secondary", "recurrence", "bone" and the name of a particular tumor that I won't give it the satisfaction of naming, it doesn't deserve the publicity, well, it turns out that that's a whole lot worse. Unfathomably worse, in fact.
Do you have a person that you are continually in touch with? Either in person, or on the phone, or by text message, or, I don't know, that Marco Polo thing? Someone who nothing ever happens in either of your lives without the other person knowing? Someone who is your biggest cheerleader, but also tells you when you're being a complete dick? Someone who you could wake up at 3am if you needed to? Someone you have your own language with, or send pictures to when you see something that you know they would think is funny, but would be meaningless to anyone else? Someone who is your heart walking round outside of your body? Someone who you can't begin to imagine not being in your life, because how would that even work? Someone who you've always known is going to be with you forever, why even give the idea of them not being a moment's consideration?
I'm sure you do. For me it's my sister. For you, maybe a spouse, partner, child, family member, friend. Anyone you love, I guess.
Now imagine that person has had all those heart-stopping words I mentioned above said to them, and you weren't even at their side to catch them when they crumpled. That they've been told "not to give up". That there are "still options". Yes, those are good things to hear. But you both know what matters is what you haven't heard. Which are the words "cure" or "recovery" because nothing is impossible, but it's very, VERY unlikely that they're on the table.
Even if a matter of days ago they were in a place called "remission" and were starting to feel hopeful, and talk about the future and mundane things like whether or not to get new windows in their house, because it's really very hot in a heatwave when you can't get air through. Now they are in a very different place, one where they use the word "will" and how to repurpose the plans they had for their wedding one day for their funeral, and deciding who will eventually get custody of the cat.
What would you do? I really hope you don't know from experience. I really hope you've never had the tsunami of shock and loss and devastation and anger and misery wash over you. That you've never felt such incredible sorrow for the person who got the news, but also desperately cheated of what you had taken for granted would always be there - them. I hope you haven't burst into uncontrollable tears 4 or 5 times a day. I hope that opening a kitchen cupboard to see a mug with a positive slogan hasn't made you angry to the point of tears at the person who made it. Because "the future" isn't "good". It, pardon my language, fucking sucks. Because it's uncertain and bleak and empty.
***Takes a deep breath***
I didn't write this post to pour my grief over everyone who reads it. Or for sympathy. Or to send you away depressed and wondering who would want to be coached by someone so emotionally overwrought?!
I wrote it because, especially in this high pressure work world most of us find ourselves in, it's easy to get lost. To lose track of what we actually need to focus on, and what is just the general clamor of the workplace. The time suck of the never-ending inbox of reply-alls. The must-win-battles and the non-neogtiables and the annual strategy refresh that are all heaped on top of the day job.
I talk to clients all the time who are overwhelmed by the expectations they feel weighed down by. That what is piled upon their plate seems more and more, but the plate doesn't grow to match. And we work out what they're going to do in the time available, NOT how they're going to do everything that's asked of them. A subtle difference that's a lightbulb moment for most of us.
The advice I have is, get into the habit of asking - how much does this really matter? How vital is it to the successful operation of this company? And how much does it matter in the moment because so-so has sent an angry email, so-so is presenting to the Board, or so-and-so wants us to drop everything and "jump on a call"?
When you do, I think you'll find that there's very little that really matters. Very little worth really worrying about, very little that really deserves your precious time and energy. And please spend that on the things and people who do matter. While I'm pretty sure you'll find that you won't find an ROI calculation for it, let's just call it infinity.