How I Learned to Let Go
For close to a decade, I felt like I was carrying the professional curse of Cassandra—a Trojan princess from Agamemnon. In the Greek myth, she is a seer who can foretell the future but is cursed never to be believed. (It does not end well.)
After college, I worked a job in luxury retail. I loved my job. It was fun, and I was good at it. I was the company’s No. 1 salesperson, and I had a lot of great ideas for how things could be better. But despite my accomplishments, I couldn’t get anyone in the corporate office—or sometimes even in the store—to listen to me. I felt helpless.
So I left for a position at the corporate office of a major fashion brand. I would have a voice! I could facilitate change! Except I soon learned that wherever you go, the challenges of navigating interpersonal dynamics follow. My job was connected to other people’s work—I could do my work to the best of my ability, but others’ procrastination could still affect my performance.
I tried my best to make it work. “If you give me your sample orders by next week, then we won’t be scrambling on the day of the buy meeting. Please respond by [date], so that I can take the appropriate action,” I would tell my bosses. Or, “While that solution is a temporary fix, it ignores X, Y and Z and will cause [future problem].”
Within six months, though, I was exhausted.
Within three months of starting that position, I had set the bar high. Within six months, though, I was exhausted. I could see everything, but as the lowest rung on the ladder, I couldn’t usually do anything to stop it, despite my best efforts. Once again, I felt helpless. My professional life was a series of frustrations; I would bring a potential problem to my bosses’ attention, and they would blithely ignore it. Chaos would ensue, and I was responsible for managing it.
“Don’t borrow trouble,” my boss would tell me when I pulled him aside. It was the worst response he could have given me. I was frustrated. I cried. Little did I know that it would turn out to be the best advice I’d ever receive about managing conflict—and, specifically, my reactions in the workplace.
This time I left both my job and New York City and headed home to Chicago.
I took a job working for my dad—and having a combined DadBoss was great, until suddenly it wasn’t. I still had to contend with the fact that there were things about my workplace I couldn’t change, except now it also meant accepting that there were things I couldn’t change about my dad, either.
Something had to give. I heard Tim’s voice in my head: Don’t borrow trouble.
Yes, 100 slides was too many for a presentation, but my dad was married to the idea. In the end, it was his call to make. I stepped back. I relented. I stopped trying to reinvent the wheel. If the sales department had better CRM tools, they’d be more effective, and it would make my job in marketing easier. This was still true. It also wasn’t within my power to make it happen.
I realized I’d been wasting hours doing labor—emotional labor—that no one had asked of me. I felt burnt out because I spent so much time agonizing about things that were not within my control. I had to let go. The answer, for me, was to put my head down and focus on the things within my control. I might not agree with the boss’s decision, but that wasn’t my place to change.
When I gave up on trying to correct everything, I learned that not every problem needs to be fixed.
At first, it felt like I was slacking. Slowly, I started to see that, for years, I’d been running a dead sprint in a hamster wheel, and that’s why I was going nowhere. When I gave up on trying to correct everything, I learned that not every problem needs to be fixed. Different people are more sensitive to different things, so what was bothering me might not be bothering those around me.
I might be more perceptive to redundancy, while others are more perceptive to mess. I don’t care if there are stacks of paper on my desk (and on the floor). My co-workers don’t mind if they have to import a number more than once. By repeatedly trying to fix problems that didn’t bother other people (and so they weren’t really motivated to change), the only person I was hurting was myself (because I felt frustrated and impotent).
This was why, no matter how good I was at a job—and I made it a point to always be the best—I got burnt out and had to leave within 18 months. In learning to let go, I was figuring out how to be good at a job and how to like that job for longer than a year and a half.
The truth is that the workday is long. We spend a lot of our waking hours in an office with people we might not choose as friends, if it were up to us. People like to complain. Sometimes it means there’s a problem. Other times, they’re just bored or they just want to complain because it feels good. I learned that someone complaining about a task was not tantamount to them asking me to fix it.
I let my dad rework things that I didn’t agree with, and when I was micromanaged, I let it happen—OK, not all the time. When I stopped fighting 1,000 tiny battles a day, I had more energy to fight for the big things that really mattered.
In the end, it didn’t work out for me to continue working for my dad—man, that is a tough situation for both parties—but I’ll never forget what I gained while I was employed there. I finally learned to let go, which in turn made me happier. Now, I’m willing to give up a couple of fights and to sacrifice the title of “best person we’ve ever had at this job” if it means I’ll be less exhausted. After all, if I’m in it for the long haul, I might eventually get a chance to make all the changes I want to make.