I just started a job at a new company for the first time in nearly a dozen years – and the last one was because of an acquisition. The most common piece of advice I got – aside from going to make hay in the new role – was to take some time off in between. The point, presumably, was to let myself decompress from the stress leading up to getting a job and resigning before undertaking the stress of fitting in and learning from a firehose. Any other time I’d made a change, it was stop on a Friday and start on Monday. I ended up taking a couple weeks. I’d been waking up in the middle of the night a lot before turning in my notice. The day my corporate email cut off led to the first solid sleep I’d had in a while. I don’t think I’d realized how much it had taken a toll on me. I hung out with my family, I had friends over, I cooked a lot, I bought a new mountain bike and rode, I took my wife on a getaway weekend for her birthday. I also met a soon-to-be coworker for coffee and did a couple video calls with my soon-to-be boss (and her daughter who always showed up). I relaxed a lot and started dipping my toe in towards the end of my time off.
Right around this time, I had a couple other big moments. It was the anniversary of my father’s passing and I dropped my oldest son at Georgia Tech. Both are times of reflection.
I think back to my last job change which was an internal transfer. I’d interviewed outside the company and rather than leaving, decided to maneuver my way to a new team offering more opportunity and chances to learn. There was an amazing amount of politics to manage and I didn’t know many people in the organization I’d moved to. Compounding it, this was when I had to help my mom get an emergency guardianship over my father who had dementia and was potentially violent. The weekend before the first big organizational meeting, my dad was delusional and bought a gun. We had to have him taken into custody against his will and then I decided to go to my meetings and spend a week out of town. I remember walking around between sessions while talking to my mom on the phone as she secured care for him. This was the antithesis of my recent change and was easily the most stressful time of my life.
A couple years later, my father passed away. There were a few years before the events above where we knew he was getting ill. The times I visited him in the assisted living home were isolated chunks of stress spread out over time. When he finally died, I’d managed to digest the whole relationship. I blogged about it through his entire descent and realized that this form of macro self-therapy got me through it. I was certainly sad when he was finally gone, but I was more reflective of what he meant than traumatized by an abrupt end. Giving a talk about him at his funeral was easier by far than writing about having him picked up by the police in a life-threatening situation. Our ability to digest change over time is different than the coping mechanisms we deploy when we have things thrust upon us abruptly.
Lastly, there’s the experience of dropping my son at college. Georgia Tech is a highly competitive school to get into and he didn’t get accepted out of high school. He did get a conditional acceptance which meant he could go to another school in the state and transfer if he did well enough. He commuted to a school near us for a year, got great grades, and made it easy for GT to accept him under the terms given. I could tell that he was stressed during parts of the year because of the changes he was going through and the pressure he put on himself to meet his goal. He got his between-job-break after ending his school year and having his paperwork for Tech clear. I knew it was time for him to move on, but we got to spend some extra time together as a family. I should have been more weepy when I dropped him at school and helped him get his dorm set up. I wasn’t. I’d seen him grow and know he’s ready. He was thankful for the time and we really enjoyed ourselves while unpacking all his stuff.
Come to think of it, I’ve got two points in my life which I consistently describe the same way. My own degree at Georgia Tech is “the smartest dumb thing or the dumbest smart thing I’ve ever done.” I didn’t know what I’d gotten myself into in deciding to do a master’s degree in engineering in one year. I did very well… but wow! The other, of course, is “easily the most stressful time of my life” above. I’ve built coping mechanisms to handle the challenges. Time itself is a one of the key elements when you weigh dipping your toe into change versus jumping – or being pushed – in. Somehow we have to make it all work given our own ability to cope, the severity of upheaval, and how we adapt to it.
For more of my thoughts on stress, give this a read on my LinkedIn profile.