Workplace Lessons from the Freeway and Beyond

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. –Robert Frost

I just returned home from a road-trip speaking engagement in the Ottawa Valley–helping the fine nursing professionals of Renfrew County celebrate Nurses’ Week. Wow! What a terrific group…and what a fabulous journey, too! Since reaching this location was a bit arduous by air, I decided to drive the 5 hours instead–solo. That’s a nice chunk of time (2 times over and within 24 hours!) to sit alone, moving through time and space, to contemplate life and just see what springs to mind. Here’s what I observed, learned and realized…that can so easily be applied to one’s daily work life experience, too:

1. Space Encourages Grace: People along North America’s busiest highway–Ontario’s MacDonald-Cartier Freeway (a.k.a. the 401)–are a lot more gracious, respectful and well mannered to one another when granted some space. Once I got beyond the frenetic-paced, jam-packed congestion of Toronto (and its outer reaches, too), it was amazing to see how well we all abided by the written and unwritten rules of the road (well, all accept for a good clip of speed beyond the limit that most demonstrated). People truly understood that the passing lane was for passing. People willingly and without offense moved aside for those who wanted to go faster and all left a decent amount of space between vehicles. Isn’t this just like work? When we’re jam-packed in our physical and/or emotional workplace environments we’re much more likely to aggress and snipe…and generally play it thoughtlessly and unsafely…and that’s not in anyone’s best interest, clients/customers or otherwise. A little extra workplace “space” could go a long way in intuitively inspiring employees to demonstrate the grace and manners employers wish their staff would always exhibit to both their colleagues and external clients. And by “space” I don’t just mean physical space, but autonomy-type space, too…the freedom to work independently, with management’s trust (in cases where employees are more than ready to perform their daily workplace tasks without someone breathing down their necks and over-managing their days).

* Every moment of one’s existence, one is growing into more
or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit. –Norman Mailer

2. Go Slower to Succeed: On my way out, I had “all the time in the world” (as my mother used to say). And so I took it. Did the speed limit most of the way (so that worrying about radar traps became one less thing upon which to focus). Plunked myself in the “slow” lane and received this enlightenment: sometimes/often times the “slow” lane moves the fastest! Yup, some of those cars that sped by me at breakneck speed often ended up being immediately in front of me further along the way. Isn’t that just like work, too? Some colleagues are in such a frantic hurry to, eg. complete on tasks, climb the ladder of success, advance their careers, etc., that they miss the finer workplace details along the way and don’t really end up “arriving” any (or much) earlier than the other guy who took the time to work within the employer’s suggested “speed limits”. Sometimes, some people/some employees want it all…and they want it now…without putting in the proper time or paying the proper dues. So they bulldoze down the “road”–perhaps leaving a few “dead bodies” here and there–to get their prize or reach their destination faster, never realizing that they could have probably achieved that same result going a bit slower. Did you know that there’s actually a Slow Movement gaining speed (pardon the pun) around the world? The Slow Movement is a cultural shift towards slowing down life’s pace. The Slow Movement proposes consciously seizing control of time rather than being dictated by it and finding a balance between using time-saving technology and taking the time to enjoy a walk or a meal with others,etc. Proponents believe that while technology can speed up working, eating, dating, etc. the most important things in life should not be rushed. Visit http://www.slowmovement.com to learn more. Ultimately, if you slow down–even a little –you may just end up with more control over your own “vehicle”…your own day-to-day workplace experience. Slow and steady still can win the race, as Aesop’s’ Fable about the Tortoise and the Hare taught us oh so long ago.

* We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. — Anais Nin

3. Once in a While Be Last, By Design: In a similar vein, for years I’ve been one of those drivers who, while on rural single-laned roads, wants to be the leader of the pack Sometimes I’m still like this, I confess. On this trip, however, once I turned off the 401 and headed northbound into that huge, breathtaking geographical feature known as the Canadian Shield (full of stunning rock blasted sections, early spring forests, glistening lakes and wetlands, and panoramic vistas), I decided I wanted to be last…without anyone invading my space and impatiently riding my back bumper (remember, I had all the time in the world!). And so once again I pretty much stuck to my speed-limit-guns and watched as, one-by-one, those behind me pulled out and passed. I “ate their dust” many times over and swore I could hear them all say, “So long grandma!” as they zoomed by me. Before I knew it, I got the same wish that I long for when I desire to be the head car…I was all alone on the wide-open road without any upfront visual interference. And then my patience was rewarded. Without the worry of someone pressing me to move along, I took the time to glance to the left and right…to actually see the beauty of my surroundings…including two deer, a beaver, and even a moose I encountered along the way! Can you believe my good fortune? Now that’s a beautiful site for a city slicker to see. I surely wouldn’t have noticed all of this glory presented only yards away from my windshield had I been focusing on the guy behind me or the one I was trying to pass! And the same goes for workplace experience…great enjoyment and pleasure–and even lifelong wisdom–can be gleaned from any position if one is fully present in it, rather than worrying about who’s goading from behind or who’s moving along at a faster pace. There are all kinds of ways to measure one’s professional success, when one gets to end of their workplace “journey”. Remember, “One never truly know how glorious the day has been until the sun sets”.

* If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. — Ray Kroc

4. Cruise Control Works…So Does Feeling the Road: A road trip is the perfect time for cruise control. With all that wide open space and less traffic, go ahead, put yourself on cruise once in a while as you travel along. The same philosophy applies to work. Yeah, it can be exhilarating, financially lucrative and otherwise rewarding to fast track your career, but when this is your primary, non-stop workplace focus, the learning curve is always steep and there’s no safe resting place to take a breath. An over-heated “engine” can surely result. “Cruise-controlling” your work life, at least once in a while, is like finding a placid plateau upon which to relax a moment from that steep incline…to pace yourself for the next climb/the next promotion or challenging job assignment (and give back to the job at hand for a while, rather than always operating from “taker” mode).

On the other hand, when on cruise control too long–on the literal road or the metaphoric–one may be inclined to get a bit lazy about the activity of actual hands-on driving…which is really what it’s all about. Sometimes relying on cruise control for too long a haul can delude one into thinking they’re a passenger in, rather than driver of, their own vehicle and destiny. Every now and then during my long travel there and back, I disengaged my auto-pilot quite on purpose, and went manual. It felt good to feel the sensation of the road, via the gas pedal, under my foot…more connected…more in control. And so it is with work. Too much cruise control can make you lazy, sloppy and disconnected from the job. Too much manual drive–without plateaus or points at which to rest or coast–can burn you out and cause excessive, sickening stress…and that can cause a serious crash or worse for both you and your employer.

* Rests are part of the music. — Robert Marchand (my old piano teacher!)

5. Take the Rough with the Paved: Endless miles of smooth straight roads are great for gas mileage, making good time, minimizing stress, etc. Rough patches, potholes, washboard surfaces, and dusty, stony detours, on the other hand (whether on the road or in the workplace), can muck up your gleaming exterior, challenge your suspension and rattle the nerve out of you! No one really wants to experience any rough patches and tough times on-the-job; yet come they do. So what’s to be done? What’s to be thought when these times present themselves? How about remembering that, “All sunshine makes a desert”. That’s the way it is with the weather, and that’s the way it is with your job, too. If it was always great at work–never any challenges or problems–how would you know or appreciate the good days when you saw them/experienced them? It helps to remember this also: out of order comes chaos, and out of chaos order will surely come again. And so it goes. Each stretch of the “road” passes sooner or later. Your job is to keep on driving.

* Arrange whatever pieces come your way. –Virginia Wolfe

6. Keep Your Focus and Distractions Won’t Exist: On the day I delivered my closing keynote (during this out-of-town experience), the whole country was reporting record breaking springtime temperatures. Of course this is always the day thousands of people discover that their air conditioning has gone on the fritz! And that’s exactly what happened at the conference venue. It was a little stuffy in that room, to be sure but, hey, the show must go on, right? And so did I. When a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise? When air conditioning repairmen are moving around behind an actively presenting speaker, are they in the room? The answer (at least in this speaker’s experience) is, “No!” Although a little “glowing”, once I began my presentation my focus was 100% on my audience and remained so for the duration. Afterwards–when the “party” was over–my client expressed, ‘I’m so sorry about the air conditioning men buzzing around behind you during your keynote. I hope it wasn’t too distracting.” To which I replied, “What men???” Didn’t even know they were there! We were both astonished with that. But I should have realized that these “cool” heros had arrived, for I did vaguely notice that the room was cooling down as my presentation progressed. There you go…not a lesson from the r-o-a-d, but, rather, one from the r-o-o-m! And the lesson is this: obstacles are what you experience (at work or elsewhere) when you take your eyes off your vision…your goals. Keep your focus and hold your conscious intention–come what may–and chances are you won’t even notice most of your job’s annoying little sidebar distractions.

* You’ll never get to the end of the journey if you stop to throw rocks at every dog that barks. –Winston Churchill

So there you have it…my springtime Working Wisdom from the road. Think I’m reaching a little too hard for all these workplace/work life metaphors? Maybe. After all, I did have, “too much time on my hands”, as the saying goes…10 hours worth, to be exact; but I found a way, through this contemplation, to make my travel time learning time…to garner extra working wisdom value and extra enjoyment out of the necessity of the journey.

May all your travels this spring and summer provide you with lessons by which you can work…and may that applied wisdom make all the difference; remember:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. –Robert Frost

* Quotations cherry picked from my new book,
Getting Passion Out of Your Profession:
How to keep loving your living…come what may

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