Stressed ≠ Important

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 30th, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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relaxing cat


Before leaving on vacation, I foolishly allowed myself to agree to working with a client on my first evening back.  But the client was most solicitous and understanding, and upon arrival asked about my vacation, even wanting to see pictures.  She asked an interesting question:  what insights did you gain?


At the time I laughed, as I rarely thought of work, but the question kept gnawing at me.  My answer began to take shape over the course of the evening—and especially the night, as I woke up at 4:00 am, still on vacation time.  The answer solidified the next morning when I heard a teaser for a story coming up on the radio asking the question of whether you were addicted to e-mail.


There was something about which I commented repeatedly, with awe and sadness, throughout our wanderings in Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, and France:  life moves at a slower pace and the world does not stop!  Since it had been quite some time since I lived in France, I’d forgotten that the world takes a breather for two hours mid-day.  You cannot run an errand on your lunch hour as the stores are all closed; you cannot return phone calls, as you won’t find anyone at the other end; you must eat lunch, you must exhale.  Nor can you use Sunday in Switzerland to pick up the dry cleaning, go to the hardware store, buy clothes, etc; as nothing is open.  Stores in Austria and Hungary—not the tourist traps, but the stores the real folks use—close at six or seven p.m. 


Looking around the cafes of these countries, regardless of the time of day, the vast majority of tables are occupied by people at leisure—not folks holding meetings, not hooked up to their laptops, etc.   And rarely are you subjected to the horror of having to hear other people’s phone conversations or being run down by someone too busy texting to watch where s/he is walking, as cell phones do not dominate as they do here.  (In fact, the biggest abuser in this arena was one of my traveling companions who is, as I learned this morning, addicted to her e-mail!  I, on the other hand, did not check my e-mail once!)


So the insight? Well, really the reminder:  we make our lives so much more intense than they need to be, and for what?  And those in the nonprofit sector have taken this practice to a whole other level!  Are you one of those executive directors who hasn’t taken a real vacation in several years? Or not taken off for more than a day—or, being “daring” two days in a row?  And you wear this as a badge of honor, when, in fact, it is really the hair shirt you have elected to put on?    You are not working effectively and efficiently, or hiring well or structuring the organization appropriately for the work at hand, etc.  It does not mean that you are irreplaceable or super important or better than everyone else.  Boards of Directors that allow this practice to occur are no better than the executive director herself.  They are not leading well-structured, well-run and equipped organizations that are doing a good job at fulfilling the mission.  They are merely perpetuating a false impression.


Why is that we equate those who work at a frenzied pace as those who are important people “making the world better?” Why do we think the more overwhelmed someone feels the more vital her/his work?  Why do we see the inability to say “I need time for me, away from work, away from pressure” as an indication of importance rather than a sign of weakness?





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