Learning from the Big Push


“No pain, no gain,” is the way the saying goes.  Indeed, there is wisdom in the aphorism.  It is true in our workouts, true in our personal lives, and true at work.  Sustained effort that stretches us helps us to grow in a myriad of ways.  But do we actively recognize and manage these benefits?

As IT professionals, we have all had those projects where hard work, crazy hours, and intense focus over a long period of time were required.  We rise early and work from the hotel room or our home office.  Then we spend the day in a cube or meeting room.  After a bite of supper we’re back at it.  Frequently we are solving some new set of problems or having to incorporate new skills.  The harder we work, the more tired we get.  Mistakes begin to creep in.  As the deadline for deployment looms, we push even more, stealing hours from our families and our sleep.  Finally the project ends and we experience the inevitable letdown.  All too soon, the cycle begins again.  Sound familiar?

What did we gain from it besides a paycheck?  Allow me to expand the discussion to include all big pushes, not just those projects that occur at work.  This brings balance to the inquiry because personal pushes inform the professional ones and vice versa.  Over the past three years, I have had a succession of such projects that have stretched me in essential ways. Looking back, I see how the challenges of each have enabled the success of subsequent ones.  They came in a variety of sizes – from two weeks to more than a year in scope – and each was intense and exhausting.  Each overlapped with other projects.  Here are the five key endeavors.

  • Major client project away from home (14 months)
  • Relocate family from California to Washington (13 months)
  • Major client project away from home (6 weeks)
  • Building project at new home (2 weeks)
  • Clean out and prepare for sale the home of ailing relative who “collects” things (in process)

The first project taught me a number of new professional skills that I have employed since.  Most important, though, it taught me patience.  This was not just because of its longevity but also because of inherent people challenges.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not by nature a patient person.  I am easily frustrated and quick to snap.  These are not productive behaviors anywhere, but on this project they could not be in evidence at all.  I must confess that I was not 100% successful, but the stretch paid off.

Patience was essential for the moving project.  Over the course of thirteen months we had to refinance the old house, find and buy the new house, divest ourselves of 60% of our belongings, pack and move the remainder (including two full-sized grand pianos), prepare and sell the old house, and settle in the new one.  I thought we would never get here.  In the course of that time we had to deal with bankers, real estate agents, buyers, contractors, movers, and a host of other personalities.  In addition to the stamina gained from the sheer physicality of packing and carrying all this stuff (we moved everything but the pianos ourselves), I learned to play the doglegs.  In golf, that is where the fairway angles away in the middle. In life, that is when you are presented with direction-changing setbacks.  Playing the doglegs will be the topic of a subsequent article.

The next client project was rife with doglegs in spite of a compressed time line.  I could not have coped as well with the stress of so many setbacks if I had not already learned that another way would be found, and that it would probably be a better way in the long run.  I learned several new skills on that gig, not the least of which was how to delegate effort.  Maybe sometime soon I will learn to manage effectively what I have delegated. That is what we call an “opportunity.”

My home building project (the construction of a pair of large compost bins) drew upon both patience and the physical benefits of the move.  I constructed them in a corner of the property where everything had been completely overgrown with weeds and ivy.  Not only did this have to be cleared, the roots removed, and the ground flattened, the supports had to be both plumb and level for the design to work.  This part took more time than the actual construction, and of course it was the least fun.  But patience served me well and the results exemplified the lesson.  The project also brought me back to a state of a Zen with my tools that had been absent for some time.

The current project seems to be drawing on most of the strengths I have acquired in the past three years.  Patience – both for the enormity of the task and the personality challenges – tops the list.  I draw on the ability to play the doglegs almost daily.  I am tapping the physicality of the move and the compost bin projects.  I am delegating key aspects of the project in a way I would not have been able to a year ago.  The project is in process now, and its conclusion is not even on the horizon.  Consequently, I am not yet ready to assess what benefits I might take away from this one.

I am convinced that success in life is based on self-awareness.  I am not a big believer in (nor do I necessarily discount either) fate, karma, or divine plan. But when we take on challenges that stretch us and the resultant paybacks occur, do we stop to take stock of them?  What did I gain from the pain that I just endured?  What new tools have I added to my life toolbox?  How do I apply them to the next big challenge?  How has the experience sharpened my game?  Here are my thoughts on how to take advantage of the big push projects.

  • While engaged in a big push project, take note of what is working and what is not.  For me, it is more of a mental note than an entry in a diary, but either is fine.  If you are not getting the results you expect, can you draw on something from a past project to change the game?
  • When you get to the end of the project and before the post project letdown sets in, make a list of those areas where you learned something new, gained a specific skill, or improved on some personal or spiritual level.
  • Over time, see if you can connect the dots from project to project.  If you are being aware and honest, you should begin to see how the personal capital is accumulating.  But beware; this will also reveal your shortcomings.  Those are your opportunities.

This form of self-awareness is new to me.  At least, I think it is.  I first noticed it during that initial client project.  It surfaced again during the move and while I had not begun to connect the dots yet, I became aware of how the doglegs were working.  It was not until the compost bin project that I saw the picture emerging.  Since then, it has been enormously helpful to me both in looking for and also accepting new challenges.  More important, it helps me to retain both perspective and balance between my professional and personal lives, in spite of the fact that the line between them is no longer distinct.

In the end, it is this perspective that changes our big push projects from the labors of Sisyphus to that of Hercules at the Augean Stables.  In the end, of course, the stable gig didn’t count as one of his “labors,” but he did get paid for it.  And boy oh boy was old Hercules good at playing the doglegs.  As for us mortals, it makes us better employees, consultants, spouses, parents, people.  Coffee break is over.  Get back to work.

Do you have a big push payoff to share?  How do you manage that line between your personal and professional lives?