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What smoking on planes and our careers have in common?

Image Credit: SAS

For decades, smoking on planes was as normal as normal can be. 

Can you imagine it now? Boarding a 9 hour BA flight from London to New York, and finding a heavy smoker in the seat next to you. By the time you start your descent, they have gone through half of their packet. And you have enjoyed all that second hand.

Unthinkable today, but it used to be perfectly accepted.

So think about this...

Today, being consumed by a pressured job that leaves little space for anything else is also considered normal. The demanding jobs may be paying good money, but the quality of life can be bismal if we can't even enjoy the freedom that a high salary is supposed to create.

This is a bitter-sweet problem: in a recent study by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, it was found that one out of five employees operates in the state of high engagement and high burnout. You are in this engaged-exhausted group if you are passionate about your work, motivated, climbing up the ranks quickly, but the long term effects of this pressure are catching up with you.

Taking work home every night is normal. Being always on and psychologically unavailable to our loved ones is part of the routine. Falling ill on holidays as soon as we start releasing the mammoth tension we've been under doesn't surprise us anymore either.

Yet, in the world where sending work emails at midnight is still a badge of honour for many, challenging the norm is not easy.

I experienced this too when I decided to leave my job in the City to start my own business. It raised many eyebrows. It was outright suspicious to some. I got every reaction imaginable: 'Did you get fired?' 'Is it because of Brexit?' 'What if you're making a big mistake?' Despite all the positives that came with it, my move was definitely not considered normal.

While a major career change was the right path for me, it isn't the case for most of my clients. You can create a balanced life in many ways. So much can be achieved with small, but impactful changes, often to our mindset first.

Yet even seemingly smaller scale changes clash against this inertia. Things like setting boundaries at work, prioritising our rest, putting family first.

Why is it so hard?

One part of it has to do with the boiling of the proverbial frog. We don't set out to find ourselves consumed by work this way, but the temperature rises and we stay in the water. And before we know it, it becomes the unhealthy norm.

Going against it is surprisingly hard. This is our herd mentality at play - staying part of a pack is supposed to keep us safe, but what about the situation when we're all in that boiling pot together?

But there is the other part too, which has to do with our need for certainty.

Our brain, in all its wonderful sophistication, is hardwired to associate uncertainty with danger. As humans, we prefer to be certain that something bad will happen, rather than not know what will happen. Puzzling, isn't it? To put it in the context of our careers, for many this means choosing the illusion of stability in a wrong job than the risk that comes with making exciting changes.

There is a lot of research to back it up, including a study where participants preferred to know for certain that they’re going to get an electric shock than to not be able to predict it. [Side note - what a fun study for the involved!]

To challenge this instinct the reptile part of our brain is responsible for, think about the rest of your life if things stay exactly as they are.

How worthwhile does it make it to challenge the norms you're under?

Great leaders are expected to challenge the status quo of their organisations to make sure it stays successful. They challenge the destination, challenge the operating model, challenge the core beliefs.

Yet when it comes to the enterprise of our own life, our most important project, we rarely do.

If you'd like to reflect on this, a few questions to help you get started:

- Are there aspects of your life that you are unhappy about, but think of as "normal" because your family, industry, social circle considers them so?

- What aspects of your life, if unchanged, is likely to harm your health or your relationships in 10 years time?

- If you take away the long hours of work, the flurry of 'to dos', the constant busyness, what is left in your life and is it enough?

I like to think that the generations that come after us will think of our working model as an unhealthy relict from the past.

Just like the quality of air travel before smoking was banned.



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