This morning I was running late, so I grabbed the bundle of mail in my letterbox on my way out the door and just shoved it into my bag without a glance. Now I sat in my office and opened the top envelope. I felt a brief pang of anxiety as I unfolded the letter. It was the final invoice from the funeral home.
My grandmother was an amazing woman. Her energy was infectious. She was sweet but could also be a bit manipulative, though not in a bad way. She just always knew how to get her way, and even into her eighties nothing got past her. A life well lived had come full circle with this acknowledgement from the funeral home. A strange final step in a life that would live on now only in our memories.
My favourite memory of her was how she loved to dance, and she was really good at it. I was always jealous about that. I’ve never really felt comfortable cutting loose on the dance floor. I imagine that being able to dance really well must be the best feeling in the world.
Thoughts of my grandmother cutting up the dance floor were interrupted by a rap on my office door. It was our receptionist telling me that my 9 o’clock appointment had arrived.
Her name was Georgia and I was to interview her for a job as an external consultant to help us improve our productivity. Honestly, with family and funeral still uppermost in my mind, I really wasn’t prepared for this meeting. I planned just to question her around what she did and how she thought she could help us. I guess I was winging it.
Georgia, wearing a tailored wool navy suit over a bright white shirt, exuded a sense of calm confidence. Her warm smile quickly melted the awkwardness that usually accompanies meetings between strangers. She seemed comfortable in herself, conveying a sense of knowing without a hint of arrogance. It was good.
I began to tell her about our organisation, and she listened intently. She asked if she could take a few notes and was soon writing furiously, then she stopped abruptly. I was making a point about the distractions our people were exposed to. It was something I often thought about. I tried hard to keep everyone away from office politics, game playing and general distractions. I was concerned that all this noise reduced their focus and attention.
‘Tell me about the noise in your organisation. What is it exactly that distracts your people?’ she asked.
I thought about it for a beat. I didn’t mean it in a critical way, necessarily. It just struck me that people were often a bit scattered. There is so much to pay attention to today. The truth was I too often felt distracted, by my phone, relentless email pop-up alerts, text messages, social media — all competing to send me off target. As I thought about it, I realised how easy it is to feel like you are ‘missing out’ if you are not always connected. Missing out on what I’m not sure, but definitely missing out.
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I suppose I think there’s simply so much going on that sometimes it’s overwhelming for everyone. It’s not that the team have bad intent. Most of them show up every day set on doing a great job. I just worry that they lose focus on what is really important.’
As I heard myself speak, it struck home how bothered I was by this lack of focus. Personally, I often wasn’t nearly as focused as I should be. For my team, I know they are distracted. Recently politics in the organisation had reared its ugly head and taken a lot of people off their game.
‘I understand,’ she said, and somehow I felt she did. ‘That’s really what I’m here for. What I do is help organisations work out the stumbling blocks that undermine their productivity.’
I looked at her and was convinced at that moment that she was going to know exactly what she was talking about. But I wasn’t quite ready to think about my own lack of productivity this morning, and I thought a change of scenery might help me focus on this conversation.
‘Look, I haven’t had a coffee this morning. What say we get out of this office and head downstairs? There’s a great café on the corner and we can talk about distraction, stumbling blocks and how we might do things better around here.’
She smiled and agreed. I grabbed my bag and my wallet and we walked towards the elevator.
‘I’m sorry, Georgia. I actually am a bit distracted this morning,’ I said wryly, all too aware of the irony given our conversation. ‘My grandmother died last week. Her funeral was on the weekend and I was literally looking at the paperwork when you arrived. So I have to admit that I haven’t done my homework on you. Maybe we could sort of start this meeting again?’
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry about your grandmother.’
‘Well, you know, it’s not generally something that arouses a lot of sympathy. I mean, she was old, right? There’s nothing surprising about an old person passing away. She had a spark, though, you know? A real spark. And it’s like a light has been put out. It’s probably not always like that with old people. Sometimes maybe the light goes out long before the end, but it was different with her. The light was still lit; it was on, right to the end. So when it did go out, well, there was a loss there.’
As the elevator reached the ground floor I realised I was sharing a lot with this person I had only just met. I felt a twinge of embarrassment, but then I made eye contact with her. She seemed okay with it, and it came to me in that moment that I had no one to talk to about this stuff.
‘She sounds like an amazing woman. It doesn’t matter what age people are when they leave our lives. It still hurts. We love them.’
We walked out into the buzzing Melbourne CBD, pulling our jackets close as the cold wind whipped around the building. In the café we chose a table near the window, perfect for people watching. The trendy café was loaded with character, and with ‘characters’. The sun streamed in, just clipping our table and lighting Georgia’s face as she smiled again.
‘So, Will,’ she began. ‘Thanks for seeing me. It’s clear you had a tough weekend and you were thrown this 9 o’clock meeting to start your week. I’d be happy to reschedule if you want.’
‘No, not at all. Look, Georgia, you come highly recommended. So now we are here, tell me about yourself. What is your story?’
‘Ha!’ she replied. ‘My story? Well, let’s see. You’ve opened up to me this morning, Will, so I’m going to do something I wouldn’t normally do in an initial business meeting. I’ll give you some background on why I do what I do.’
‘Great,’ I said. ‘This is my style. Let’s lay it out on the table!’
‘Okay. Well, I was always someone who wanted to be there for other people. As a young girl, I was the one my parents relied on, and my friends too. I was probably a bit of a people pleaser, not that that’s such a bad thing. I liked to make sure other people were okay and happy.’
‘Sounds good to me.’
‘Yes and no. As a young adult, this same need to be there for everyone else showed up in my work. I have always been a perfectionist too, and I’d get a little obsessed about everything having to be just so. I would work hard to make sure everything was right and everyone was happy with my work. Mostly, this was a good thing. It meant I did good work, met deadlines and mostly got along with everyone.’
‘A perfect employee,’ I declared.
She smiled. ‘Maybe, but I also spent a lot of time focusing on things that, in the grand scheme of things, were really not that important. I became so obsessed with the little things in certain situations that I sometimes missed what was really important.’
‘Right. It’s easy to do. I think we all do it at times.’
‘It is. The problem was I often felt guilty when I couldn’t get everything done perfectly. I’d get distracted over some detail that really shouldn’t have been my focus, then I’d feel frustrated when the big picture wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to.’
As Georgia was speaking, I couldn’t help but think of all the parts of my life that I might be managing better. I knew I wasn’t handling things perfectly and I definitely felt guilty about not being in better control.
‘I wanted to eliminate this feeling of guilt when I couldn’t be perfect,’ she continued. ‘That’s what it came down to. And I learned the valuable lesson that trying to be perfect holds us all back from having an outstanding life.
‘I mean, I did all the things that society told me I was supposed to do. I was a very lucky woman. I had a good job, met a great man, got married and had two wonderful children. I was juggling all of those things and was busier than I had ever been. I was trying to manage work, a home life, personal time, friends and trying to keep healthy and fit.’
‘I don’t think I’m doing any of those things as well as I could be. This really strikes a chord with me, Georgia. I sometimes feel guilty about not making the most of all of those situations.’
‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘So one day I was listening to some of my co-workers talking. One was feeling guilty because she was working late and not spending enough time with her kids. Another said she felt bad because she didn’t have enough time to go to the gym. Yet another said she felt conscience-stricken because she had not been following her diet. Then it hit me. No more guilt!’
‘How do you mean?’ I asked, unable to imagine how that could be possible.
She pulled in her chair, centred herself and began. ‘I became really fascinated with the concept of guilt. I learned that most people feel guilty about most aspects of their lives. Working with a lot of women, I was shocked by how many were struggling to be a corporate hotshot, the perfect mother, a wonderful partner, and a fit, healthy and attractive woman, while still finding time for themselves. It doesn’t work.
‘I mean, we live in a world in which women are expected to be all things to all people. So many women I knew were working late and feeling guilty about not being home. Feeling like they weren’t doing a good enough job for their kids. Yet when they left work early to pick up the kids, they felt guilty for not spending extra time at work.
‘Of course,’ she went on, ‘most working women also feel guilty about not being a good enoug...