This article was featured in the Sunday, June 16 issue of The New York Times.
No Glory in Stress
As the writer Eve Ewing once told me, “There is no glory in a grind that grinds you down.” I learned the hard way that there’s a thin line between being a hard worker and a workaholic: someone who buries herself in work and inadvertently avoids participating in her own life. Ambition is by no means a flaw, but we all need to develop healthier habits in order to be truly successful.
Prioritize what matters. In “girl-boss” culture, we often wear harried lifestyles as a badge of honor, as if stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness are prerequisites for success. But we do ourselves no favors by normalizing unhealthy habits. Who are we performing all this stress for, anyway? You can be successful without sacrificing your sanity. Beware of the lies we tell ourselves about busyness. If your calendar stays packed with meetings and social obligations, consider scheduling quarterly check-ins with yourself. Are you O.K.? Are you prioritizing what matters most? Are you neglecting aspects of your life that bring you joy? If so, why?
Listen to your body. At various points in my career, I was so tightly wound that my body would visibly tremble. Colleagues began to notice, reminding me to go to the bathroom. My mom would occasionally call my office to badger me to go home. To eat. To slow down. “If you don’t take care of your body, it won’t take care of you,” she’d say. I’d blow off her concerns. It wasn’t until the frequent urge to urinate and extreme loss of appetite landed me in a doctor’s office that I realized these weren’t just quirks—they were red flags. So if you notice abnormal symptoms—thinning hair, insomnia or just generally feeling out of whack—take my mother’s advice. Listen to your body. Sometimes it kows you better than you do.
Early in my career, I was asked what my work mantra was. I answered by paraphrasing ‘Crocodile Dundee’: ‘Bite off more than you can chew, and chew as fast as you can.’ I stuck by that motto for years—except when it came to actual food. I told myself I was too busy to eat, sleep, and, T.M.I.—I often put off going to the restroom. The truth is, I had been running myself ragged my whole life. I had built an identity around being a high achiever and—particularly as a young black woman in mostly white spaces—working twice as hard for respect.
As women, we are taught to please, but some of the same qualities that help us climb the ladder will not sustain us at the top. Once we are the ones in charge, a fundamental rewiring is in order.
Prioritize self-care. I had become so engulfed in work—and in constantly proving myself—that taking care of myself never even made it onto the to-do list. When my stress began affecting my health, I knew something had to give. I began a guided meditation class once a week, and treated these weekly appointments with myself like any other important standing meeting on my calendar. If meditation’s not your thing, find something that gets you out of your head and into your body—painting, reading, a workout class, dancing. Then dedicate yourself to doing more of it—even if it’s just 30 minutes a day.
Learn to delegate. Establishing boundaries and making unpopular decisions are important leadership skills, but the stigma associated with women saying no can come at a cost. It is one reason that women too often end up doing more than their share of the work—in both our professional and personal lives. It is not only O.K. to set boundaries, it is necessary. Getting into the practice of saying no saves space for smarter yeses. Your time is your most valuable asset. Don’t spend it doing someone else’s job.
I wish I could go back now and revise that “Crocodile Dundee” career motto. Better advice I’d give would be: “Bite off only what you can chew. Breathe. Chew thoroughly. Put your phone down. Make room for the next bite. Laugh. It’s better for your digestion and cheaper than therapy. I promise.” Not as pithy, I know. But this is the mindset of a marathoner who knows how to pace herself. You can sprint toward short-term wins, but you need stamina for long-term success. There is hustle and there is flow, and you cannot sustain one without the other. Here’s how to achieve the balance:
Find your “zone of genius.” The goal of a great leaders should be to spend more time operating from what a call your “zone of genius”—which means focusing energy on what only you can do, and delegating the rest. How do you find your zone of genius? Consider culling clues from your childhood. As a kid, I labored over meticulously thought-out photo albums, which in retrospect were my first makeshift magazines. During bath time, I would conduct imaginary interviews with luminaries as if I were an aspiring baby Oprah. It sounds silly, but the archives of our childhood playtime memories can serve as bread crumbs that lead us onto the path where our passion lies.
Plot your next move. Speaking of childhood, most of us are asked as kids what we want to “be” when we grow up—as if one title, one career track, one dream can define you for a lifetime. The truth is, job titles are temporary, but purpose is eternal. If you find yourself in a rut, start investing energy in considering what you want rather than spending time on what you don’t like about your life. Sometimes that means preparing to walk away from whatever no longer serves you.
Continue following more of Elaine Weltroth’s advice on Twitter @ElaineWelteroth.