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54. How To Do More Things Well

A number of years ago I worked for a woman in a very senior position. Like many people who find themselves in senior positions, her arrival there had been something of a surprise to her. She was not one of those people who take out a pair of binoculars early in their career, take a good look at the summit of their particular mountain and resolve, by hook or by crook, to get there. She was more somebody who put one foot in front of the other, climbing gradually up the career ladder until, one day, somebody suggested that applying for this very senior post was her next logical next step. Once there, she struggled. This was not surprising as it was a tough job and tough decisions needed to be made on an almost daily basis. Anyone would have felt challenged. One day she came to see me in my office and she said, 'Frankly, Anita, I don't think women have the skills for this kind of job.' There is nothing more satisfying than doing a job to the very best of your ability, whether it is a senior job like this woman's, or cleaning the kitchen floor, and few things more demoralising than doing a job in a mediocre way. This week's tip is about the kinds of thoughts and actions that prevent us from doing our best, and how we might overcome them. I recently had a client, Stephanie, who was in the process of buying a flat. It was not the first time she had bought a flat so she was familiar with the process. 'And yet,' she said, 'I somehow feel like a child with these people that I have to deal with, the solicitors, mortgage lenders and so on. I dread their emails and usually put off opening them.' I asked her to take time to notice how she felt in relation to the purchase process and after a few moments she told me that her brain felt foggy and she couldn't see any of the detail. There was just a sense of confusion and of not knowing what she was doing. This seemed surprising as at work Stephanie ran a large department and had substantial responsibilities that she managed perfectly effectively. 'But at work I know what I'm doing,' she said, 'I've been doing it for years. With buying the flat I feel as if the professionals I deal with know far more about it than me, and it makes me feel so small and incompetent. So I just assume that I can't get my head round it all, and let them get on with it. The only problem is, they do make mistakes. When I bought my last flat there was all sorts of mess to clear up afterwards, because I hadn't kept an eye on them'. 'It's interesting now I come to think about it,' she went on, 'I realise that I feel this way in quite a few areas of my life.' She went on to say that felt as if she was play-acting in many of her roles, pretending she could do them while knowing deep down that she was really an amateur. Cooking, for example (her mother was a fantastic cook, and she could never be), running (she ran three times a week, but never felt like one of the people she saw in the park, with their stop watches and running gear), taking care of her elderly parents (I don't know how to deal with social services, doctors etc, they intimidate me). She realised that even at work there were certain areas, for example IT, that she felt unable to get her head around and so depended on others to do it for her. It is precisely this feeling of inadequacy, and we all have it in some areas of our lives, that makes it very unlikely that we will do our best. It generates a low-lying fear, it clouds our brain, it drives us to cut corners, let other people take control, and it tempts us to avoid the problem altogether if at all possible. And it can apply whether you are running the country, or running your bedroom. There are two common ways that people respond to feeling inadequate, Stephanie's is one, avoidance; another is to go to the opposite extreme and try to control everything. The first results in jobs poorly done, the second results in jobs done, but at great personal cost to both the individual and the people around them. This is, unfortunately, the method often used by frightened bosses. There is a third way, which is to realise that when we feel inadequate it doesn't necessarily mean we are. Like so many negative feelings, it originates in childhood when there is so much evidence of our inadequacy, and it tends to hang around unless we take the trouble to bring it up to date. Once you do, though, you can tackle those daunting tasks with a very different attitude. I asked Stephanie about the areas in her life where she felt competent. 'Managing staff,' she said. 'I know everybody in my department, I know exactly where their files are, I could tell you when their next appraisal is due, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what their home situation is, even when their birthday is!' She laughed. 'And it makes me feel great. I feel really on top of the situation, even when staff are coming and going, it's so satisfying. And it all feels very smooth as well, challenging but not difficult.' The following weekend she set aside two hours to get to grips with her flat purchase. She read through the surveyor's report, the lease agreement and the information she'd received about the management service charges. She also reviewed the email correspondence she had had and she wrote down a number of questions that arose. On Monday morning she rang the surveyor, her solicitor and the management company. They were very pleased to answer her queries and she was able to point out a couple of anomalies which they were able either to explain or correct. She felt a surge of satisfaction and self-respect. She's going to tackle IT next... Try this: 1. Think of an occasion or period of time when you were doing something to the best of your ability. How do you feel when you're engaged in doing something well? What kinds of things to you do? How do you feel about yourself? 2. In what areas of your life are you half-hearted? When are you tempted to cut corners, what jobs can't you be bothered to do, what messy cupboards (real or metaphorical) are there in your life? How do you feel when you think about them? How do you feel when you attempt to tackle these jobs? And how do you feel when you know you're doing a half-hearted job? 3. Take one of those murky areas and imagine what it would be like to do it really well. How would you approach it and what would you do? 4. Make a start. Have a brilliant week!