I’ve noticed an interesting trend when coaching leaders. I’ll ask them a question about themselves, like “What impact does this challenge have on you?” or “How does this relate to who you are as a leader?” Instead of sharing what is important to them or acknowledging their own emotions, they often go straight into all the things that they need to do for other people. I’d hear them rattle off all the things being added to their to-do list, completely bypassing what they need for themselves. When they do finally stop to think of their energy, most people break down. Thinking about their energy makes them realize just how little they have left to give.
This trend reminds me of the quote “I am a human being, not a human doing,” first attributed to author Kurt Vonnegut, who began publishing in the 1950’s. I’m not exactly sure when he first said this, but here we are, at least 70 years after his publishing career began, and so many people are still trapped in the mindset that our to-do list defines who we are.
I found myself in the same boat for years. I took on as much work and responsibility as I possibly could, as if trying to earn my place in the world. It felt good to be acknowledged for being dependable and hard-working. It felt good to have people come to me for help, and entrust me with important projects, roles, and decisions. Over time, though, it all became too much. I was on the verge of burnout, but was so dependent on my to-do list to define my sense of self. Who was I if I wasn’t busy doing something?
When I realized that my self-worth was tied to an endless checklist, I was alarmed. Checking things off a list had somehow become equated to having value in the world. The more things I had to do for other people, the more I deserved a place in this world. The less I had to do for others or the more time I spent on myself…what? The more selfish I was? The less I deserved a place in this world?!
Luckily, I had coaching skills that I could use on myself, so I asked:
- What is it about having a busy schedule that makes me feel like I’m adding value to the world?
- What is it about having free time that makes me feel guilty?
- What would I say to someone I loved if they felt this way?
- How do I really feel when I see my endless to-do list?
- What do I need in order to be my best self?
Reflecting on these questions made me realize how much energy I used not just on trying to check things off my list, but also on ignoring some basic human needs. It takes effort to pretend that you’re not human.
Being human means we need to rest. It means we have a full range of emotions that are meant to be acknowledged. It means we need time to connect, laugh, play and feel alive. While leadership puts more on your plate, it doesn’t get rid of these basic needs. It may, in fact, make these needs even more important. After all, how can you be a human-centered leader if you don’t allow yourself to feel human?