Saturday, March 21, 2009


With each additional piece of news about foreclosures, layoffs, and organizations declaring bankruptcy and going out of business, our individual and collective anxiety rises. The stories we hear and tell about losing jobs and houses or shrinking retirement funds, are frequently met with sighs of recognition and resignation, which only serves to reinforce and amplify our sense of fear and helplessness.
It would only seem natural, then, that during times like these, a sense of gloom might overpower the desire to create meaning in our work and lives. We tell ourselves that meaning is a luxury, and can well be put on hold until the crisis passes or at least until things begin to get better. That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw. What if, however, we are in a very long cycle (think Japan in the 1990’s) of economic stress? Do you want to spend all that time feeling anxious and waiting until things are settled before you begin to build meaning into your work and life?
I recognize the depth of this anxiety, and at the same time, believe that this is a good time to begin building meaning into one’s work life. There are two reasons for this. First of all, times of transition create openings for new awareness and learning. This can be a time for exploring areas and ideas that have been previously ignored or put on hold. Secondly, when there is much stress and disruption around us, there are opportunities for seeing and creating new possibilities. During times of high anxiety, however, keeping these in mind may be a real challenge.
So, if one wanted to work toward meaning during this time, how would the process begin? At a minimum, there are three things one can do right now. First of all, you can take time for reflection to clarify your purpose. I recommend a daily routine of quiet where you can sit and ask yourself: “What is most important to me and what am I here to achieve?” Secondly, you can commit to building your sense of purpose into the stories you tell yourself and others. That is, you can make sure that even the most anxiety-inducing stories are connected to your long-range vision. And finally, when you hear the anxious stories of friends and colleagues, you can share with them your renewed sense of purpose and commitment to same, while offering them a “reframing,” or a new way of looking at and thinking about their circumstances.
This growing sense of anxiety, just as with our on-going need for meaning, is as much about outlook and mindset as it is about our actual circumstances. Each of us has choice about how to see and interpret our work and lives and we believe that many of us have “defaulted” into our anxiety. We’d like to suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way; that we can also focus on creating meaning. In making that choice we reverse the equation: Meaning Up; Anxiety Down.
Best wishes.

Mark Guterman

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pulling Back from the Edge

Have you found yourself recently feeling so stressed and anxious, that when you stop and look at it honestly, you would say you are near or at the edge? The bad news is that more and more people are answering “yes” to that question and to make matters worse, it looks as though circumstances may not improve any time in the near future. Many people are seeing their bank accounts and retirement funds shrink, watching as their current and future career/job prospects continue to remain bleak, and all the while their general sense of confidence and optimism continues to decline. As bad as this looks and feels, it is important to remember that you are not along and more importantly, there are things you can do to pull back from the edge.

First of all, whatever your current situation and stress levels are, you must accept and own the situation. You need to, as they say, get real and deal with where you are. Secondly, you need to resolve to move forward in a smart and disciplined way. This means you must develop a compelling goal, or clear line of site. Even if you don’t know any or all of the steps needed to achieve the goal, you can begin moving forward by taking one step at a time. The movement not only leads to learning that which will help you to know subsequent steps, but as you move toward your goal, your stress level will lighten and allow you to pull back from the edge.

As these action steps are underway, it is advisable to build daily stress management practices into your routine. This should include: Regular and vigorous physical activity; daily time for quiet, reflection, meditation, or prayer; fun and pleasant activities; time with friends and family, where you converse about things for which you are grateful and appreciative. Whatever stress management activities you take on, the more you integrate them into how you live and work each day, the more likely you’ll be able to keep yourself from getting too close to the edge.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, is to examine your attitude about your life and work. There is ample data to show that optimists handle stress and anxiety better than pessimists. By keeping a positive outlook and recognizing that you will survive the current, dire circumstances, you might actually come through this period wiser for having gone through it. Though these are painful times for many of us, this is also a great opportunity to build your resilience, while at the same time strengthening your capacity to work at or near an edge without succumbing to being overwhelmed.

Best wishes.

Mark Guterman