The Top of the Hill Is in Sight
Don’t say this out loud, because we don’t want to jinx it, but it looks like we might be starting to, maybe, sort of, in a subtle way, approach the outer edge of the zone that’s right before the stage that leads eventually, circuitously, to the end of the tunnel. Notice I didn’t say anything about seeing a light? And also notice that I didn’t describe this status in any definitive or affirmative way? Hey – I’m an engineer, after all. They train us to manage expectations.
So, at the backs of our minds somewhere, behind the piles of toilet paper and the new recipes for sourdough bread, we’re toying with the idea that someday before the turn of the next century we might be emerging from our houses and apartments and barns or wherever we have been sequestered for the past 632 weeks. Not all at once. Certainly not. If you think there will be a day on the calendar where all of a sudden everything will go back to normal, I’m afraid your biscuit isn’t quite done in the middle. No, our release back into the wild will be slow and controlled and fraught with danger. We know that we’ll never, ever, ever be touching other human beings again, but we might actually get to see some.
The question here is: can we make some hay out of this possibility of sunshine? As proactive professional women, we’re always looking for chances to get ahead, to make life better. Are there any opportunities here?
When I was running cross-country, I had a coach who liked to run us through “check out” drills. He theorized that the average runner would experience a slight moment of relief right when she would get to the top of a hill. This slight pause, however small, would give a competitor a chance to capitalize on the situation and make up ground by doing the opposite and accelerating. We spent endless hours running to the tops of hills and accelerating right as we got over the crest.
I give my old coach a lot of credit – the technique worked every time. If I had runners in front of me or near me, I usually could pick off at least a couple of people as we all reached the top of a hill.
There is no doubt the world will be breathing a sigh of relief in staggered phases as countries reach conditions where some parts of society can be restarted. Similarly, your co-workers, clients, and competition will be happily settling back into their (child free!) offices and jobsites. A short “honeymoon” period of a few weeks is to be expected while people see each other again and luxuriate in the routines they didn’t know they loved.
This is the top of the hill. It doesn’t matter that we’re not physically there yet. If you can see it, or even envision it, you need to be thinking about checking out.
So what does that mean for you? It can mean a lot of different things, depending on your position.
If you are an employee, particularly an entry-level person, you need to do some investigating and observing to figure out what avenues you might have for advancement. Your employer most probably has been tap dancing on an unfamiliar dance floor for the past six weeks, trying to figure out how to keep work going, keep paying employees, and keep clients happy. What have been the biggest needs? Not your biggest needs – your employer’s. What has been the biggest stumbling block internally? Has it been communication? Have you had trouble getting feedback from clients who are also navigating seas inhabited by heretofore unknown monsters? What can you do to help with this? Remember, your goal is not to figure out how to make your life better. Your goal is to figure out how you can be a valuable employee at a time when your employer likely is tearing out her hair. Volunteer to do something you’ve never done before. Offer to brainstorm about ways to solve problems. As my dad used to say to us when something needed to be done around the house, make yourself useful.
A very smart lady once told me that you don’t understand someone’s character when life is good. You get a sense for who someone really is when things are bad. She was absolutely right, and the same philosophy applies to employees. Don’t be the person whining about how the project you were excited about just got postponed and now you’re going to have to work on something boring. Be the person who volunteers to call clients and ask what your company can do for them in this tough time. Be the star who formulates a revolutionary new way to facilitate in-house communication and actually has the nerve to submit it to her boss.
The same can be said for people who own their own businesses. This is the time to call clients and offer help…or a shoulder to commiserate on (socially distant, of course)…or just some time to listen to how completely screwed up their project has become during the pandemic. Put yourself in front of people and let them know that your problems aren’t getting in the way of being an indispensable resource. Check out.
I hope a number of you are getting excited as you read this. We’ve had a lot of darkness for quite some time, and this might be a little bit of light in your life. On the other hand, it’s critical that we acknowledge that another sector of our group might be reading this with the exact opposite reaction. “Seriously? Are you kidding me? I am barely surviving right now, and you want me to be ambitious and proactive? I just did three conference calls with a toddler on my lap, and I have to feed five people in the next hour AND I’M EXHAUSTED. Do you really want me to do more?”
Actually, I don’t. Let’s be honest – everyone has lived through this nightmare in different circumstances. If you have been working at home while homeschooling your kids and taking groceries to at-risk relatives, you’re a hero. Take a nap when this is done and think about your colleagues who are checking out as you drift off to sleep. If you are exhausted from riding the subway with a mask on while trying to stay distant from idiots on your way to your jobsite every day, you need to appreciate the fact that you made it through this without getting sick and without killing anyone. Applaud your friends who live in wide open spaces who are going to strategize on how to use this situation to take a step forward. Despite the fact that some of us want to optimize every possible opportunity and participate in everything all the time, that’s not real life. You are human. It’s time to take a break. Don’t check out.
If you are sheltering in place with a bunch of little ones (or even medium ones), you have had the honor and sacred responsibility of keeping them safe during a disaster. And you did it. That’s as good as crushing a micropile design, trust me. You might not see it that way from your perspective on the ground now, but 20 years in the future you’ll appreciate what you did. (And you’ll be sure to tell your kids how easy they have it as parents). In the meantime, you can cheer on your fellow female professionals who will be making progress for all of us.
So think about checking out, if circumstances apply. If they don’t, please support those who can. Sometimes we have to pass up opportunities, but we can be happy knowing that our sisters are out there, making phenomenal strides in our places.