By Douglas LaBier
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
What are the keys to success and well-being? Being able to manage the stresses of your work and personal life, right? And to cope with the emotional conflicts you brought with you into adulthood.
In the office, that has meant being clear about your goals and working your way up a fairly predictable set of steps to achieve power, recognition and financial success.
But, like the stock market, that dependable formula has taken a nose dive. It's still important to be able to manage conflicts that could derail your career or personal life, but it's not enough anymore. And it alone won't produce success, well-being or sanity in our globalized, turbulent and interdependent world.
The traits you most need today are to be transparent, flexible, focused and collaborative.
You need to adopt the psychology of Google.
I write as a business psychologist and psychotherapist with 35 years' experience who is being confronted more and more often by men and women who are discovering, often painfully, that the attitudes and behavior they thought would lead to fulfillment suddenly leave them at a loss. They don't know how to keep up -- let alone get ahead -- in a world where the only constant is change and where it seems as if everybody has to be skilled at competing and collaborating with everyone from everywhere about almost everything.
We've all become aware of how widespread turmoil can flow from unforeseen circumstances: entirely new global business paradigms that create upstart competitors or put you out of business; social networking technologies that can confront you with other people's pain just as easily as they can broadcast your own flaws worldwide; turbulent shifts in weather patterns, apparently brought on by global warming; the ill-defined threat of terrorism. It's as if we've all, unwittingly, been given roles in the Brad Pitt movie "Babel," in which the actions of two goat-herding boys have tragic consequences for lives on three continents.
I deal with the fallout almost daily: I see people who've functioned pretty well but now feel as if they're standing on tectonic plates that are shifting beneath them.
There's the Wall Street banker who told me he'd always defined himself by "making it through the next end zone" in his career. Now, with his company -- and career -- collapsing, he finds that in addition to sacrificing time with his family, he has sacrificed his health: He has diabetes and high blood pressure. "Kind of a reverse 'deal flow,' " he lamented to me.
And the management consultant, pressured to ratchet up her travel to keep her career on track. "I'd been coping with everything, I thought," she told me, "though I don't like needing Zoloft to do it." Instead of becoming more predictable as she gained seniority, her career was taking her on an even wilder ride. "Now I don't have enough time for my daughter or my husband," she said. "What kind of life is this? . . . My husband's checked out, emotionally. And what am I teaching my daughter?"
These people were on the kinds of career paths that brought their parents' generation rewards they could rely on. But that linear upward climb has become hazardous. That's because it focuses too much on self-interest, which is an ineffective strategy in today's interconnected world and leaves you vulnerable when forces outside your control create unanticipated upheaval.
Having observed changes in the business model -- as people look for value in their work in addition to profit from it -- I've come to believe that employees today need to subordinate self-interest. Qualities we long admired but never thought absolutely necessary, such as cooperation and altruism, have become both survival skills and keys to competitiveness. A psychologically healthy life involves building those qualities into your conduct -- in a sense, learning to forget yourself.
There are specific attitudes and behaviors that will enable you to thrive and that you can use as a guide for helping children prepare for a future that will be characterized more by change than by stability.
If Google were a person, it would be the model of a psychologically healthy adult. Its corporate culture and management practices depend upon cooperation, collaboration, non-defensiveness, informality, a creative mind-set, flexibility and nimbleness, all aimed at competing aggressively for clear goals within a constantly changing environment.
A psychologically healthy adult embraces the notion that all of us are parts of an interdependent whole, like organs of the same body. He or she learns to become proactive, innovative and creative, and wants to keep growing and developing within a changing environment. She values positive connection and is flexible in situations of conflict.
One couple whom I see revamped their relationship by reviewing what they wanted their "life footprint" to be. They realized they wanted a greater sense of connection between themselves and greater satisfaction from what they did. One began a business that had been a longtime dream; the other moved to a company that provided more opportunity for creative expression but less money.
"Sure, there are trade-offs," one of them said. "But the bottom line is better for our lives."
It's human to have self-serving tendencies; it's healthy to keep them at bay. Here's how:
· Focus on what you have in common with others rather than on the surface differences between you. Research shows that you can train your brain to do this, starting by visualizing the world from another's perspective without abandoning your own views.
· Reduce the gaps between your public image and private life. Politicians aren't the only people who risk being tarnished in a very public online forum by their private actions.
· Don't react emotionally to changes that are not about you even if they affect you. Focus your energies instead on creating a realistic strategy for either improving your situation or changing it.
Google, of course, is not only a technological achievement and business model. It's also a creative process. So think for a moment what your life would look like if it were a work of art. When it's finished, what will the picture look like? What purpose will it reveal for your having been here? Do you want to make any changes?
Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Adult Development in Washington. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.