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- Family Matters
I was 28 years old when I told my dad I never wanted to speak to him again.
I wasn’t trying to hurt him. I was just defending myself from someone I was absolutely certain was ruining my life.
Growing up, things were pretty tense in our house. One minute my dad would entertain me by reciting poems from Longfellow and the next he’d complain my birth had ruined his marriage. He also had the weird habit of hiding under trees every time a plane flew over the house.
It only got worse when my mother passed away. I realized he wasn’t just moody and a little “off.” He was clinically depressed, highly paranoid, and quickly becoming unpredictable.
Like the time he made me cancel a bike ride with Sheila Widnall (then Secretary of the Air Force) because he felt I was abandoning him. Or the time he sent my aunt a paper bag full of excrement after a disagreement.
One day, I’d had enough. I picked up the phone and ended our relationship forever.
And you know what?
It was the best career move I ever made.
Success is not just who you are, but who you surround yourself with
People who come from dysfunctional families are already at a disadvantage in the workplace. A longitudinal study found an increase in family arguments from age 5 to 15 led to long-term impacts on career functioning.
This may be because the patterns we learned as children are the first models of behavior we take into the workplace. If your dad was a jerk and your sister a bully, you’ll likely have a hard time with team projects. You’ll either yell to get your way or be afraid to stick up for your ideas.
Extensive research performed by the Gallup organization and reported by Tom Rath in his book How Full Is Your Bucket, demonstrates professional success isn’t just about your innate talents or whether you graduated magna cum laude, but the relationships you surrounded yourself with.
Friends and family either fill our emotional bucket or drain it. Rath shows that the fullness of your bucket influences everything from your productivity and creativity to your confidence.
Rath says the biggest benefit to your career comes from having friends at work. This is why it may make sense to end relations with a bucket draining family member, while still cultivating a friendly relationship with an annoying colleague.
Perform a cost-benefit analysis on everyone you interact with
It sounds harsh. But performing a cost-benefit analysis on everyone, including friends, family, co-workers and customers, is the only way to assure your own needs stay in the equation instead of allowing genetics or social mores to dominate the decision.
Ask yourself, what does this person provide: security, happiness, inspiration, a sense of tradition? But also, what does this person take away? Be honest. Then decide if you want to nurture, maintain, minimize, or eliminate the relationship.
Your birth certificate is not a binding contract
An article in CNN-Money described the benefit of a work-spouse relationship as having the “intimacy [of marriage] without the sex or commitment.” A recent survey showed roughly 65 per cent of married couples have a work-spouse, discussing everything from health and money to sex. A work-spouse can even increase your chances for a promotion or raise.
It’s odd that it’s okay to divorce or supplement your spouse, the one you vowed to honor and cherish, but you’re stuck with the family you were born to. When I ended my relationship with my father, I “adopted” my mom’s best friend, who didn’t have any children of her own. This is a decision that keeps paying dividends. Not only do I get a more stable life, but my daughter gets grandparents who aren’t depressed or weird.
Your co-workers can feel like extended family as well. In addition to those work-spouses, you can find work-fathers and work-cousins (the ones you go to the bars with). When you honestly feel grateful to be attending the Thanksgiving potluck, you know you’ve found a great place to work, as well as a support system you can rely on when your family fails.
It takes guts to take responsibility … and succeed in business
It’s easy to be a martyr, to say you have to keep up a tortured relationship because you feel obligated or loyal or responsible. Some people wear their DNA like a ball and chain, hoping one day their mom will be proud, or their dad will be sober, or their sibling will stop obsessively competing. They hire a therapist to get through the holidays.
It takes courage to put yourself first.
I don’t mean you should use people as stepping stones for your career aspirations. If you want to nurture or maintain the useful relationships in your life, you’ll need to give as much or more than you receive.
But you only get one bucket. You have to prioritize who you spend your emotional capital on. Most managers waste their time dealing with angry customers and poor performers because they lack the courage to just let go.
Tackling your personal relationships will give you confidence to do the right things in your career as well. Firing a poor performer in a recession wasn’t nearly as hard as telling my dad I didn’t want to talk to him—ever.
Seven years after that conversation, I learned my dad died alone. It was months before the neighbors noticed his absence. I was sorry he never found the help he needed, but I didn’t feel responsible for it.
Eventually you realize you can only help those willing to help themselves.
And that begins with helping yourself.
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