The Middle Brow - when public and private spheres collide

"Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense."  
- Sir Winston Churchill, the man who led Britain through its darkest hour.
Last night I sat on a panel of four in aid of Young Professional's Brisbane's debut event. Sitting beside me were 21-year-old federal parliamentarian Wyatt Roy (age shall not define him), Eagle Boys pizza founder Tom Potter (sold in 2007 for upwards of $35 million) and Fresh advertising founder Adam Penberthy (entrepreneur from age 13).

The overarching theme of the night was one of overcoming circumstance and personal limitations to rise to the upper echelons of one's field, profession or ambitions; of perseverance, of taking risks, of shooting for the stars; of dogged work ethic and constant innovation to avoid going stale.

One savvy tweeter in the audience, Alexandra Kerr, passed on some memorable quotes: "Being professional can just be how someone views you... but more importantly how you make them feel afterwards" (Potter); "It takes courage to get out there even in the face of adversity" (Roy); "The only thing holding you back is your ability to imagine" (Potter).  

Tom Potter, Wyatt Roy, Adam Penberthy and me at Young Professionals Brisbane
Roy conducted himself like a consummate politician, explaining that it was his father's work ethic that drove him to success and that he was the first member of his family to finish high school (and the youngest ever Australian Federal parliamentarian); Potter, who left school at 15 and was jobless at 23, described how his company's buy-out for a cool $38 million had taken him somewhat aback (read about it in his book); Penberthy told us it was a tough climate for the advertising market and growing his business was never intentional but happened organically.

We were asked about the make-or-break points in our careers. For Penberthy it was deciding to expand his business and take on more staff; for Potter it was getting his MBA (from Harvard Business School no less) which gave him the confidence and know-how to move his franchise on; for Roy it was taking the leap into politics when he was only 19 knowing full well how he might be received (notably, he has been surprised by his contemporaries). I talked about burnout and the need to get one's private house in order to operate well in the public sphere, which might mean scaling back on the career front.

In our "suck it up" culture, this is not always a welcome or popular proposition. I feared that as soon as I had said it, I had done the unmentionable, the unspeakable thing. I was the only female panelist, so wondered if I had betrayed my sex by daring to delve into the domestic, as I have often lamented the concentration on women's private lives, bodies and the "feminine mystique" at the expense of their professional achievements and opinions on matters of public interest.

It was not meant to be a gendered point. Afterward, two young women in the crowd noted, "You were the only one to talk about family." And then one of the fellas related to me how his personal life had been affected by his success and that was his regret.

I have known other men to have suffered, and their families, too, for the sake of career; men who have taken to the drink, who have led miserable lives because their careers had turned pear shaped or did not quench the thirst of a man hungry for something more than the daily grind. Affairs, alcohol, prescriptive medication are simply no replacement for getting your priorities in order... and, to this end, we have been set up and let down by the Boom Boom Business Culture.

What can we learn from the GFC?

While investors lost the value of their shares, and families have suffered as their mortgages defaulted, many businessmen have used the opportunity to take stock, and so too Generation Y observers who can see where the Boomers inside the bubble went wrong. They are aware that work/life balance is an important issue, and some are capable of drawing the line. Fast Flowers founder Jonathan Barouch, 29, the father of a three-year old with another on the way, tells BRW this week:

 "Friends and social engagements suffer because the most important thing to me is that I spend time with my son and obviously fulfill my responsibilities at work. A lot of other things do miss out... I don't think I could have put on a backpack and hiked around India with 40 staff and a multimillion dollar turnover. It wouldn't have worked."

For these Gen Ys, the zealous Mark Zuckerbergs, with their solid work ethics and fierce determination to make the most of the now and worry about the rest later, there is a risk that unbridled ambition and youthful enthusiasm will get the better of them. Successful careers in any field can lead to tunnel vision and burnout. This is amplified by the super-competitive social media environment where your public persona is always required to be "on". You might be miserable, but your brand needs to stay positive (for shareholders, employees, customers, readers...).

Women will chastise themselves because they don't want to lose the ground they've made in their careers – particularly as the desire to have children creeps in. In my experience, health, marriage and the spiritual life simply had to win, and ambition, the desire to keep up and make the most of every opportunity had to play second fiddle. No more late nights on the laptop. No more shoving media consumption into every space. Finding room to breathe, reflect, contemplate – for real friends, for community interaction, for God and me – has been my saving grace.

For men, whose experience is different to women in some respect but who have human needs nonetheless, what they do has always been inextricably connected to who they are. The respect they crave is often derived from the career. They might discourse freely on the golf course, but do they really go deep? Men are beginning to open up about the emotional turmoil, slowly but surely.

"The most recent CEO Snapshot Survey by Harvard Business Review suggests 50 per cent of chief executives experience loneliness and isolation to the point where it's hampering their performance," reports BRW's Jeanne-Vida Douglas.

"If left unchecked, this loneliness and sense of isolation can severely limit executive careers and in the worst cases it can be a precursor to depression and self-harm. Anecdotally it is widely recognised that careers can be curtailed as chief executives burn out, suffer psychological exhaustion, turn to alcohol or, in the worst cases, have a complete emotional breakdown. So why isn't it firmly on the agenda of management schools and professional development organisations?"

Indeed, it is often only when sordid or sorry details transpire (Clinton's Whitehouse affair; Tiger Woods' infidelities and sex addiction; high-profile divorces; manic depressive episodes and suicides) that such issues are brought to light without much of a look at 'How did it get to this?'. What in society, in our culture, is driving people to the point of personal catastrophe?

The director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health, Rachel Clements, tells BRW: "We're talking about very high-achieving cultures where there's a lot of fear about admitting you're not travelling so well and a huge amount of pressure to stay on the corporate treadmill."

Sean Cummins, who had a breakdown after experiencing a year of emotional abuse via his industry blog and now is a spokesperson for R U OK?, tells BRW:

"The most important thing is to be proactive, and to keep asking yourself and keep inquiring about your own sense of joy and happiness at work... This time I have seven partners. We share the load and there's a real spirit of community. The weight of the whole company is being beautifully shouldered by a talented group of people and we're growing rapidly."

While elucidating the particular isolation experienced by those who function mostly online, and invest heavily in their online presence, Cummins' story also demonstrates that the worst thing you can do is ignore the plight of your mental health and personal life for the sake of keeping your career afloat; that it's okay to admit mistakes, to say you're not coping and to take time out.

There will always be boom and bust times, difficulties and challenges to overcome, and we simply can't be in control of everything (not opinions, nor conflicting schedules nor our partner's feelings), but all of life need not feel like treading water in a desperate bid for sheer survival. There needs to be joy, contentment, fulfillment, and to that end constant nourishment, not only in a professional sense.

During my enforced sabbatical, I have pulled back significantly, finding a rhythm and pace that suits my human needs as well as my constitution in an effort to ground myself in something that is better able to meet the demands of daily life on and offline. A life stock-take can be make-or-break. This hasn't necessarily meant "signing off" completely but it has meant sacrifice (mostly of the ego).  

No matter your line of work (whether stay-at-home mum, small business owner, consultant, middle-manager or CEO), it's important that you have support from people who truly care about you and not just your career, the company's bottom line or the polling results: mentors, colleagues, friends, family who will back you and love you enough to tell you when they sense something is out of whack.

It can be hard to let go, because what we do is so intextricably linked to who we are, but if who you are is defined by your job, then you may need to stop. You need a clear vision of your priorities, values, purpose and sense of self beyond the office and the daily grind. These will give renewed purpose to everything you do, as well parameters to keep you functioning at your optimum for longer (which is different for us all: I don't do computers or iPhone on my day off).

You don't necessarily need to love the job you do, nor to be loved because of your job (which may come in accolades and invitations and connections and adoration), to have a sense that you are valuable or to contribute in some way to the greater good or the nation's GDP. I personally always enjoyed playing the second-fiddle deputy to the editor-in-the-limelight. Standing under the grand canopy of stars at night contemplating God, I am intimately and truly happy in my smallness.

Work out what it is you enjoy, what you are good at and how you can best create a space for yourself in the world where you can do that. Don't aspire to be something you are not. As Wyatt Roy said on Thursday night, if you can't hack the heat in politics, then you are perhaps in the wrong profession. That's a lot of wisdom for a Gen-Y parliamentary fledgling.

'It's lonely at the top' by Jeanne-Vida Douglas, BRW, April 19-25
'Baby-faced CEOs' by Jessica Gardner, BRW, April 19-25

Note: GWAS will be celebrating her five-year anniversary this coming week with a holiday.

Girl With a Satchel


Debbie said...

As always, wise words beautifully written...and Happy Anniversary, Erica.

Stephanie said...

Love this. This is why I read GWAS. Thanks Erica.

Scarlett Harris @ The Early Bird Catches the Worm said...

Five years, wow! Congrats!