In the third article of her series on work-life balance, Archana Raghuram talks about being passionate about your work as well as eschewing negative thinking
Marathon paradigm for your career (fourth paradigm)
I used to run regularly a few years back. Running is more than just a physical exercise. It is a spiritual experience. You learn many valuable life skills while running. Unlike a sprint, running a marathon is a long haul; you spend hours running. It is not possible to be on the top throughout the race. In fact, for the majority of people who run a marathon, the goal is to complete the race. They are not looking for a podium finish. During the race, sometimes you are running ahead of your group, and sometimes you are lagging behind. It is not possible to stay ahead for the entire duration of the race. You have to invariably slow down, and when you do that, others will overtake you. Sometimes, you have to stop to fix a muscle cramp, while othertimes, it is not possible to run at all; you can only walk. Despite these seeming setbacks, you don’t give up. If someone races ahead, you encourage them by clapping and cheering them on. You don’t think of your fellow racers as competition. When you finish the race, you are delighted that you completed the race. You stand proudly with your medal and take a picture. It does not matter to you that hundreds of people completed the race ahead of you because it takes a lot just to complete a marathon: You have to wake up early. You need to train hard. You have to develop the discipline of running regularly and pushing yourself to do better.
So, you know you deserve to feel proud when you finish a marathon.
Often, when I speak on work-life balance, I get to hear concerns about career growth from women. Before marriage, it is a level playing field for women. You don’t have big responsibilities outside of work. You are able to work long hours and take up high-pressure assignments. Once you get married, you realise you have a lot more responsibilities at home compared to men, and once you have children, the balance is completely skewed. It is not possible to take up high-pressure work which requires you to put in long hours. Many women find that their career growth takes a hit during this time. All their peers seem to be progressing much faster than them. This is heartbreaking for most women. You know that you are smart, capable, and hardworking. If it were not for all these other responsibilities, you would be ahead.
Life is a marathon
I tell them about my marathon experience. A career spanning thirty to forty years is nothing short of a marathon. It is not possible to be on the top of your game throughout the journey. If you worry about every person sprinting ahead of you and try to keep pace with them, you will never complete the race. You have got to pace yourself. Sometimes, you will be ahead of most people, othertimes, you will have to slow down. You need to understand that neither state is permanent. The important thing is to enjoy the challenge and finish the race.
There is another great lesson that I learnt from running a marathon. It is possible to keep at it only if you enjoy the process. Only if you love the challenge of waking up every day, meeting like-minded people who enjoy the outdoors, the sense of community and kinship you feel towards your fellow runners, and finally, the exhilaration of completing a marathon. If you are not passionate about it, you just cannot do it.
The same is true for a career. It is years of waking up and showing up, and a lot of hard work. If you cannot enjoy your work, if you are not passionate about it, it is hard to sustain it for long. When you make a career choice, these are the questions you have to ask yourself: Will I love doing this? Am I passionate about it? Will it give me a sense of purpose?
I worked as a software engineer for 11 years when I got this opportunity to head the volunteering program for my organisation. Most people advised against the move. But I knew it was a job I would love doing. So, I decided to take it up. Not only was it a very satisfying period of my work life, but it also turned out to be a hugely successful career move.
This has been the paradigm for my career. I have made choices based on whether I would love my work and whether I can make time for my other responsibilities. When I had to slow down, I chose to do so. It worked out very well for me.
Mental Diet Paradigm (fifth paradigm)
Sometime ago, I read this book called A Beautiful Mind, which is a biography of the brilliant mathematician John Nash, who suffered from a debilitating mental illness called acute paranoid schizophrenia. In this condition, your mind is out of sync with reality. You see people who don’t exist, and you have conversations with them. You feel profound fear and anxiety along with the loss of ability to tell what’s real and what’s not real. People with this condition have delusions: someone is trying to kidnap them, some aliens are destroying the world, or the government is spying on them. They find it hard to hold on to a job, run errands, and form friendships and relationships. Imagine how hard it would be for a mathematician to function with this disorder, whose entire work is dependent on his brain.
In this book, John Nash describes how he overcame this illness and went on to win the Nobel Prize. He came up with a method to determine if something is real or imaginary. He asks himself if what he is experiencing makes logical sense. If it does not make logical sense, he ignores it, even though it appears very real to him. He likens it to being on a ‘mental diet.’ You constantly monitor your thoughts and entertain only those which make sense and reject everything else.
Can you imagine how hard this is? Let me illustrate with an example. You are sitting in a room with friends, and you see a man holding a gun to your head. Your normal reaction would be to panic. But, instead of panicking, you stop and think. Is this real? Will all these people be sitting calmly if someone was holding a gun to my head? So, you conclude that this is just a delusion and ignore it, although it appears very real to you; you can see and touch this man and you can feel the gun touching your head. This is how John Nash overcame this terrible mental condition and went on to do some groundbreaking work in his field.
Sieve out the unwanted
This concept of a mental diet really struck a chord with me. Most of us do not have the debilitating mental disease that John Nash had, but our mind is certainly the source of many of our problems. We make mountains out of molehills: we worry about things over which we have no control and agonise over what people think and talk about us. Let me give you an example. Your mother-in-law says something, and your mind goes into a spiral of negative thoughts: If she said this, then this is what she means. How dare she imply this! Is this what she thinks of me? I have done so much and sacrificed so much, and yet, no one appreciates me. If you let this thought process continue, it becomes bigger and bigger in your head. It makes you miserable. It saps your energy. It undermines your capacity to function. This is an example of a bad mental diet.
There are things that happen in the world over which you have no control, and there are things over which you do have control. If you feed your mind with bad thoughts, negative feelings, and cynicism, it causes permanent damage to the mind, just like eating junk food constantly damages your body. It is important that you constantly feed your mind with good and healthy thoughts. Just like John Nash watched every thought to overcome his illness, you too should watch your thoughts and only entertain those which are good for you. You should entertain thoughts which make you more positive, which motivate you, and which make you a better person. If a person with acute paranoid schizophrenia can go on a mental diet, so can you.
Training the mind
How do you train your mind to do this? There is one approach which I follow that has really worked for me. Every morning, I think of all the things in my life that I am grateful for and thank God for them. I remind myself that this life is a privilege, and I should live it purposefully. I should always be grateful and never take my blessings for granted. I tell myself to be forgiving and compassionate. I pray to God that I should always be surrounded by good thoughts and good people. There is a beautiful prayer in the Rig Veda: “Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah (Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions).” I end my daily prayers with this prayer.
I try my best to carry this attitude of gratitude throughout the day. I remind myself to feel grateful for the little things that happen during the day. I consciously try to find things that I should be grateful for even while facing difficult situations. I have discovered that the natural consequence of gratitude is happiness. Developing an attitude of gratitude is a very powerful tool for mental well-being. It is the best antidote for depression, bitterness, and cynicism. It is a catalyst for positive thoughts, motivation, and high energy.
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