A Personal Story of Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Last year around this time, I had no idea what was in store for me or the world. My educated guess is that neither did you. As an avid headline scanner if not a regular news watcher, I registered rumblings of a virus somewhere far away. I felt some unease in the pit of my stomach as my father’s health grew ever more fragile as he approached 90 years of age. And as a new business owner, I felt the normal insecurities of whether I had made the right decision to step away from my career and follow my dream of starting my own business. I kept most of my worries in check and focused on my routine.
Then suddenly this virus wasn’t a distant rumbling but a roar much too close by to ignore. As the pandemic and the year progressed, my world got smaller and smaller—infinitesimally small in the weeks leading up to my sweet father’s passing under the loving care of his family.
Lessons for Living
There is a quote attributed to a variety of people from Robin Williams to Plato. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
These words are the greatest lesson I will take with me from the pandemic. It’s not a lesson most who know me would say I was lacking. I’m not known as an unkind person, and I’m well-liked by children and dogs at the very least.
But as I was moving rawly through the hardest period in my lifetime, I was equally aware of the kindness that was carrying me through. There were friends who tended to my flowers and garden when we abandoned our home to dive totally unprepared into home hospice care and friends and acquaintances who traveled out of their way to bring my family meals to lighten our load. There was the unexpectedly kind receptionist at my mother’s doctor’s office who told me I was beautiful even though I knew my mask placed an unfortunate emphasis on my red tear-swollen eyes. And there was the doorbell ring that I almost mistook for a delivery person. It was an old friend delivering a small bouquet as a housewarming/welcoming gift to my mother when she moved in with us. She couldn’t tell you his name, but I will remember that kindness forever.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting battles you know nothing about. I found myself treating telemarketers much more kindly, moving from a simple “No, thank you” to “I know you have a very hard job but, no, thank you.” If anyone I have an appointment with is running late and they apologize, I reassure them that it’s ok, and it is. And after 20 years in my home, I’ve met and chatted outside with a neighbor across the street who has lived here equally as long. She sheepishly explained that her kitchen window faces our house whereas our rarely used living room faces hers. She knew more about us than we did about her, including that we hadn’t been home for long stretches over the summer and young families were watering our flowers. We exchanged phone numbers.
Lessons as a Leader
Now, as I work alone in my home office, I think back on the times I managed teams of employees, and I sincerely hope I never missed an opportunity to offer a kind word or a compliment when someone was fighting a battle I knew nothing about. There were plenty of battles several of them shared with me, and I have some solace in knowing they felt comfortable enough to share. Yet I still wonder.
And then I think of the times I was treated rudely or unfairly in my job, and my perspective has completely shifted there as well. I wonder if some of those individuals were fighting battles of their own.
And sadly 2020, taught me something else. I see where some of that rudeness and disrespect was likely discrimination, racism and intolerance, and I wonder what would’ve happened if I had handled those situations more vocally and/or simply left those jobs or situations sooner.
Lessons on Leaving
Therein lies another lesson the pandemic has taught all too many of us. Life is short. Don’t stay in a job or anywhere where you are treated disrespectfully or where your core values don’t match up with the actual company culture. I say actual because I know that most organizations have much to gain reputationally and financially by slapping a values statement up on their careers page and touting their commitment to diversity and inclusion (although less often equity).
I also realize how easy it is to simply say, “Don’t stay in a job…” as if other jobs were so easy to come by. Believe me, I am painfully aware of how hard finding work has become in this climate. The point is not to accept poor treatment of any sort without taking steps to resolve it. Shifting roles within an organization, addressing situations when you aren’t being treated appropriately, taking concerns through proper channels as needed and looking for other employment are all good steps to take. Remaining silent can speak volumes in some cases, but 2020 taught us this is a time to speak up.
If nothing else, I recommend pointing how you’ve noticed the person is short with you, seems distracted, is interrupting you, or is overly critical of you and asking if there is a reason for those observable behaviors. Explain that you’d like to improve things or are wondering if everything is ok with the individual (if these behaviors are new).
For help on how to decide if it’s time to move on, I recommend this podcast episode, “How to Know If It’s Time to Move On,” from New York Times best-selling author and motivational speaker, Chalene Johnson. She asks many questions you should be asking yourself to guide your decision.
Lessons on Being
And my final lesson I’ll share here today, came to me as I was pounding out a workout I’ve done a million times before. My body was on autopilot, but my mind was racing with all the things. “Be here now.” Those words came to me as I was chastising myself for overthinking and allowing my worries to overtake me. Be here now! And I listened. I focused on my movements, my form, and my breath. I heard the instructions of the trainer on the TV, and I felt the solidness of my feet on the concrete floor of my cold basement. Be here now. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We can only be here now. And that can be a great comfort.
I learned those words not so long ago from my former company’s head of company culture. The words were meant to encourage leaders to eliminate distractions to improve communications with employees, engage more in productive meetings, and, by extension, improve the company culture. It became a fun game to needle peers in meetings who became distracted by their laptops or devices and less fun when employees rightly pointed out when supervisors couldn’t resist the urge to peek at their screens during one-on-one meetings.
The greater lesson for me now is not just to focus on the present moment but also to really listen to whomever I’m interacting with. A friend texted me to check in during a difficult time, and not wanting to bring her down, I deflected her inquiry of how are you doing with a short answer and a “How are you”? Her instant reply made me feel my unspoken words had been heard. “I’m picking up on what you’re putting down.”
Having said all of this, I’ll leave you with this recap of my greatest lessons of the past year. Live in the present moment. Be here now for yourself. Be here now for your friends. Listen even to what they’re not saying. And be kind to everyone you encounter each day…for everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
Nelida Ruiz is a marketing and business development consultant and coach helping business owners maximize thought leadership with blogs, articles, and social media. For more of her work visit www.nelidaruiz.com