It happened again last week. There I was in a normal business conversation talking about how we were going to take a project to the next level when my colleague looked at me with both admiration and dismay. She paused, as if wondering how best to proceed and then let the words slide out, “I don’t know how you do it.” I burbled a response and tried to get out of the conversation quickly. Because as I’ve heard versions of that comment over the last couple of years I have one request:
Not to sound ungrateful, but please, stop.
Each time I hear those words I feel a series of strong and generally negative reactions, including:
- Guilt. Thinking of all of the things that have been sacrificed to do what I have done
- Humility. Knowing that I have only done what was required and what I am capable of doing
- Worry. For the work that remains undone and at risk of failure
The woman who said this to me never intended to make me feel bad. Neither did my brother when he asked the same question a couple months ago or my sister when I connected with her online on Friday. Each and every time the words come up they are in the context of thoughtful inquiry; coming from individuals who respect me expressing sincere appreciation. Strangely, I think that makes it even harder for me to respond the right way.
Because the truth is I don’t know how I do it. And worse yet I don’t know if I should.
More and more I am coming to the conclusion that it really isn’t a choice. As long as I can remember I’ve been wired to have a unique combination of never-ending energy, compulsion to achieve and ridiculous positivity. So much so that a colleague once described me as ‘a six pack of Jolt.’ I’ve used the description recently, but now I tend to talk in terms of Red Bull — it makes more sense to Millennials.
But the problem is that those characteristics are not something I’ve worked on or cultivated; it’s not like I read a self-help book to learn techniques or gain capabilities. In fact, I don’t even make a conscious decision to act on or embrace the tendencies. My husband calls me “a machine” and does his best to pull my plug or get me to shut down for periods of time worried that I will run myself right into the ground. But, to quote someone richer and more famous than me, “Baby I was born this way.” I can no more explain how it works than a bird could explain its ability to fly.
I don’t know how I do it, I just do.
Worse yet, every reminder about what has been done instantly brings to mind what hasn’t been done. With only 24 hours in a day, a choice to deliver for someone leaves someone else wanting. My family, my health, my hobbies they have all fallen behind at points in time. I haven’t cooked a decent meal for my family in a month. It’s been three weeks since I managed to prioritize the time and quiet mental energy to complete a new blog post. Three weeks during which other things got top billing in my life; three weeks of aborted attempts and distracted thoughts. No one can actually do it all and being reminded of it just brings that into stark reality. There they are like suspects in a lineup: Mr. Undone, Mr. Poorly Done, and Mr. Not Yet Done.
I don’t do it all, not even close.
Regardless, maybe it isn’t fair to make my discomfort the world’s issue. Next time I will take a deep breath, say thank-you and remind whoever asks that whatever I did, I didn’t do it alone. I have a talented team at work, a network filled with friends ready to step up and a family that is there no matter the cost. And if that isn’t gift enough, I have a true partner on my journey who lifts me up every day, running beside me to pick up what he can and to catch me when I fall. Recently I had an issue at work that required me to go in late at night — he drove me. The next morning I was exhausted from too little sleep and I forgot my laptop — he brought it to me. No critique, no condescending comments, just support in the moment so I could do what needed to be done.
And maybe that’s why I struggle so much with the words, “I don’t know how you do it.” I don’t do it, not really.
We do it.
(Special thanks to Idealist Mom — I snagged her graphic. And, if you want more on this topic, check out her great blog on the same topic with a mom twist here.)