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From the Inside

tao-yingyangThose who know me know that I am a student of the martial arts.  I have been studying and practicing Chinese Martial Arts (Neijia and Wushu) for the past 10 years.  Ever since I was a kid I had wanted to be part of that world in some way but growing up in a small town and not having the resources to do so meant that it remained a dream until my adult years. When I was 36 I found myself looking for an activity for my own kids and I thought that they might take to martial arts if given the opportunity.  I started to look around at schools in my city and was quite excited to find one that offered to let parents study with their kids.  This was perfect… for me.  My daughter had no real interest, it just wasn’t her thing.  My son tried it and he stuck with it for a couple of years but I was hooked.  Even after my kids decided to give it up I continued with the classes but soon relaized that Wushu was a very athletic undertaking and for a guy pushing 40 was probably a bit more than my body was able to handle.  Luckily for me I had a coach who knew what I needed and he introduced me to the world of Internal Martial Arts (Neijia).

The Internal Martial Arts include Tai Chi, Xingyi and Bagua.  Most of you will be most familiar with Tai Chi.  I’m sure at some point you’ve all seen someone in the park moving slowly in an almost medatative way or seen someone practicing Tai Chi in a movie or on a TV show in the background… or maybe not.  Tai Chi is not something that really jumps out at you and grabs your attention the way a Jet Li or Jackie Chan fight scene might but it is probably more worthy of our attention than most realize. Sometimes the quiet and unassuming things in life are the things that we sould be paying the most attention to.  I have probably learned more about life and living life from Tai Chi that I ever thought possible so I thought it fitting to share some it here since this blog has kinda morphed from being focused on business philospohy to a mix of personal and professional editorials on things that I experience.

The Internal Martial Arts are so named because they focus on the things that are not necessarily visable to someone observing the person practicing them.  You might see the old man practicing Tai Chi in the park and think that it is a very calm and relaxed almost dance like movement that old people do to get some exercise.  And you would be correct but you would also be missing so much of what is going on when you watch that person practice.  People who study the Internal Martial Arts seriously are less concerned with the outward motions that can be observed and far more concerned with the things that are not so easily seen.  The shifting of weight as the motions are performed, breathing, the intention behind the motion, etc.  The Internal Martial Arts focus less on the idea of an opponent and more on the concept of self.  It’s a philosophical nugget that we’ve heard so many times from different people and cultures and teachings: look inside yourself for the answers.  Like any other martial art, Tai Chi is a system of fighting (even though that’s only part of what it is).  The techniques and movements all have a practical combat or self defense application and even though they are practiced slowly, when executed in a real world situation, are just as effective as the flashy movements of External Martial Arts.  The biggest difference is that Tai Chi takes the focus away from an external opponent and instead turns the focus inward and asks us to be aware of ourselves with the belief that understanding yourself and shifting that focus inward with naturally allow us to interact with the world around us in a more organic way that it true to who we are.

We’ve all been in situations where we feel like we’re out of control.  Something bad happens or someone does something to us that we don’t like and we find that we struggle to correct, counteract or find a way out of the situation by trying to control an event or another person.  Sometimes that’s within the scope of our abilities and sometimes it’s not so our success in dealing with these situations varies wildly.  One of the most important and life changing things I have learned from Tai Chi is that I have no control over anything outside of myself.  The world around me will do what it will and if I try to control the world around me I will often find myself frustrated and disappointed in the outcome.  Shifting the focus inward, I realize that the only the thing I have full control over is myself and my own actions in response to the world around me and making that change in my way of thinking has made all the difference in my ability to cope with all the things that life has thrown at me.  When you hear this idea spoken outloud the initial feeling is, “Of course, that’s just common sense.” but actually internalizing the idea and making it part of who you are is the real challenge.  A challenge that I’ve found rewarding and life changing.

Grief in the Workplace

workgriefWhen I was moving up through the ranks of the tiny IT world in Saskatchewan I had the opportunity to work for some heavy hitters in the industry at that time: EDS, CGI and IBM to name a few.  Working for the big dogs there was always a common mantra: Always be professional.  Three simple words that are so very complex because “being professional” doesn’t always come naturally and it’s not always common sense.  Professionalism is truly a skill that needs to be learned and I see very few University graduates that come into the industry with any hint that they understand what it means to be professional.  That’s OK because no matter what your degree tells you, when you enter the work place for the first time you really don’t know anything at all… but that’s a topic for a different post.

Part of being a professional, especially as a consultant, you had to have a separation of your personal life and your professional life.  If you’ve got problems outside of the office, they stay outside of the office.  Your clients pay a lot of money for your services and they should get every penny’s worth while you are working.  That’s what I was told and it did make sense.  When I pay for something I expect it to work as advertised all the time otherwise I feel a bit cheated.  That certainly applies to things like electronics or computing hardware but this can never apply to people.

As some of you know, I recently lost my wife and it has been devastating for me.  It’s one of those things that you don’t think about and can’t possibly comprehend until you go through it yourself.  I work for a great company and they were incredibly supportive.  My clients were also very understanding and supportive and as a result I am still employed today.  Other people are not always so lucky.  I had a lot of time away from the office after my wife died and after about a month of not working I started to work a few hours each day from home but I think it was almost two months before I could put in a full work day.  Even then it wasn’t a typical 8 hour day.  I would be awake at 4:00 AM and I would work for an hour or two, then something would distract me and I would be away from the keyboard for a few hours… sometime around midnight I would have had a full 8 hours of work and this cycle would repeat each day slowly getting better as time went on.

I’ve heard tales of companies that allow employees one or two weeks of bereavement leave and anything beyond that they need to apply for short or long term disability.  I can tell you first hand that this practice will do nothing but exacerbate the problem and create even more stress for employees.  Imagine a situation like mine where you have lost the love of your life and you are having to deal with funeral arrangements, life insurance, medical people (organ donor program, the coroner, various doctors and administrators), federal pension paperwork, three separate tax returns, emotionally supporting your children, etc… then your employer tells you, “Hey I know you feel like like you’ve lost pretty much everything and we feel really bad.  We know you have no idea how you’re going to pay all the expenses but we just wanted to let you know that if you’re not back at work in a full capacity by next week you’re not getting paid.”  Really?  In what twisted world does this make any sense at all?  Well, it’s the same world that tells us we need to be professional at all times.

As I said, this is not my situation at all.  I am incredibly fortunate to be associated with a group of people who are not only professional but they are human and compassionate.  They understand the value that I bring to the organization and our clients and even though they may not be able to comprehend what I’m going through they do all that they can to help me get back to full working capacity.  Well over a year and half after my wife’s passing I still struggle every day to focus and be productive.  Some days it’s easier than others but I’m still working to find a new normal in my life.  It isn’t be easy to sort things out and it will take time but with the support of my employer, co-workers and understanding from my clients I have found a way to be productive again while still coping with grief and regaining a life.

Here are a few tips for employers in dealing with employees who are coping with grief:

  • Remember that your employees are a valuable part of your organization but don’t treat them like inventory.  They are people with feelings and even if you can’t understand you need to be aware of that fact.
  • A show of support will earn a respect and loyalty that the can never be matched by a pay increase.  People will have a tendency to remember those who go above and beyond what is expected expecially when their life has been turned upside down.  When your world crashes down around you the people who help you get the pieces back together really stand out.