A Gift from Blog Secret Santa – The Head and the Heart

This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by Simon Terry, on Santa’s list of 2014 gift posts.

I grew up in a 2-parent household, and for many years my dad was the sole breadwinner. He was a truck driver. He worked long, hard hours. And as I started to get into computers and technology, I distinctly recall my dad telling me, “Don’t do what I do. Use your brain.” My parents wanted what was best for me and I took my dad’s words very seriously.

In addition to that advice, I learned over time that using one’s heart is also instrumental in being successful. The path to this point was challenging. During my career I was the person who could do it all, the manager who made mistakes, the glue holding a team together. In each and every case I found that understanding the emotions, needs, and desires of others – and, critically, myself – was instrumental in being successful.

So let’s talk about that all for a moment.

Your co-workers

Having empathy for co-workers is a well-worn path for me. Before I dedicated time to working on myself, I found selflessness to be rather simple; I viewed my role, no matter what it was, as to be a vessel for others. This meant I would quickly and efficiently do what I was asked or told to do. But soon I started asking, “Why?” a lot – not to be a stick in the mud, but to gain greater understanding. I was in positions where I’d ask about business development or technology although I was solidly in a creative, UX, or programming role. This made some people uncomfortable but I found more and more that people really enjoyed talking about their work and having someone listen, understand, and work alongside them.

In one of my prior positions, I was tasked with the redesign of a video streaming product. It was going to involve people from teams across the company. Initially this was scary to me. I wanted to go it alone and figure it out, and be viewed as the super genius. But other parts of me knew this wasn’t the way to get the best product, and get the best support. So I scheduled 30-minute meetings, brief and to-the-point, with the stakeholders to get a sense of what they needed.

But instead of straight-up stakeholder interviews, I approached these meetings as listening sessions. We started with small talk about the project and work, but that quickly gave way to a platform for these individuals to have someone hear them. I listened critically, took notes, and genuinely participated in the conversation. That was what they needed. I learned a lot from them for this project, and was proud to have them count as true collaborators from the start.

Working on yourself

In addition to having empathy for co-workers, it is absolutely critical to have empathy and compassion for yourself. This has been a much harder path for me. For years, I had taken up habits and rituals that put myself last and others first; I saw anything else as selfish or indulgent.

Let me indulge for a moment. You’ve been flying, yes? And you know the safety instructions at the start of every flight? When they get to the point about oxygen masks, a big point is made: take care of yours first before helping others. It’s an excellent analogy. I’ve found that if you have not worked on designing yourself, on observing and understanding your words and actions, it becomes much more difficult to help and serve other people.

I’m not admitting that I’m fully realized, or fully developed. I’m learning new things about myself and the world every moment of every day. But I have a much stronger picture of who I am, what I value, and what I believe. My intentions and goals have led me to find those same beliefs in my family, friends, co-workers, and my employers.

Companies have changed, too

Something I’ve distinctly noticed over my career is a shift in company attitudes towards people. Some organizations, to this day, treat people solely as resources. They even use the word “resources” in non-business speak contexts, which is very telling. More and more, I’ve been attracted to organizations that encourage individuals to be, well, realized. They welcome people with big ideas, a personal brand, and a point of view. And they aren’t looking to quash it; they’re looking to grow on it.

I once joined an organization while I was teaching web design part-time. I loved teaching, and I was good at it. This organization, however, expected me to stop teaching and work 90-100 hours per week. All of this while I was in the planning stages of my wedding! But my work didn’t support or know this, and did not work to understand who I was. My values weren’t aligned with those of the company. I did not listen to what the company was saying, even though it was all implicit. As a result, it was a bad fit.

More recently I’ve worked with organizations that have spoken about all of this right up front: We know you love public speaking. We know you love teaching. And we know you love UX work. We want you to bring that same passion and that same drive to our work for clients and each other. We won’t stop you from doing it. Do it. It makes us stronger. That’s a very, very different perspective, and a very empathetic one.

So when I think about the future of work, I see empathy as the path forward. It’s a prelude to compassion. All of this is very powerful. It begins with ourselves, extends out to our co-workers, and can all be supported by an encouraging workplace.

I took part in Blog Secret Santa this year and this was my awesome gift.  It was great to wake up on Christmas morning and find a blog post under the tree. Thanks anonymous Blog Secret Santa. I love my post and it fits perfectly. Just what I always wanted.

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