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Managing your relationship with yourself

[The First Year Director: Strategies for Success, 7 of 8]

The last, and crucial, relationship to manage in order to be a successful director is the one with yourself.

Directors, like the board, like the staff, like the building, like the collection, are an institutional asset, worthy of time and attention. But even more fundamental than business success is personal integrity and a sense of worth, by which I mean the simple ability to get out of bed in the morning, the belief that there's a point to it.

We seek purpose and meaning. In theory, doing work that we believe in and are good at, making a difference in people's lives, should be enough to keep us going. In practice, sometimes we falter or fall.

Some things are obvious. To stay effective, to stay well, we should exercise, get enough sleep, eat foods that are good for us, have a supportive network of friends and family, and know when we need some downtime. But it's more likely that we regulate ourselves poorly: avoiding exercise, staying up late, bingeing on all the wrong things, isolating ourselves (or losing ourselves in social swirls or the illusory connections of social media), and disregarding all the signs that we're running out of steam.

And then there's illness. A little over two years ago, I was diagnosed with the same cancer my father had, at the same age he had been. (He was dead 9 years later.) At about the same time, I had a series of dental woes: four root canals, a splintered molar, broken (and on several occasions, swallowed) caps. I suspect that the root cause (no pun intended) was that I was fiercely grinding my teeth as I slept--a sign of stress I failed to recognize, or didn't know then how to address. That introduced me to the "pain level" of 9. Ten, I think, has to be when you just pass out. I was living alone, and keeping to myself more than was probably good for me. I loved my work, and was energized by it. But there came a day, at about the end of my treatment, when I reached into myself for an armful of energy, and came up empty. For the first time in my life, I was completely tapped out. The reserves were gone. Only a radical stepping back from almost every obligation I had allowed me to recover, and it took many months.

Since then, I've known many directors who burned out, leading to both institutional and personal tragedy. The issue is frequent enough that it deserves a strategy.

I think there are two key elements to self-management. The first is mindfulness, taking the time to notice the presence or absence of those energy reserves. Some people keep a daily journal. Others have regular get-togethers with a perceptive friend or friends (or family) to take stock and compare notes. Still others find insightful professional counselors.

The second is enough self-knowledge to start doing things that charge you back up. People have different rejuvenation solutions. But very broadly, they fall into something like the following:
  • Intellectual stimulus. It's a continuum. At one end might be boredom, a sign that we need more on our minds. (Or as I noted in my article about managing your relationship with the profession, sometimes we just need to change the channel by investing in a different set of issues. Hobbies might work, too, like art, music, or crafts.) More often, the issue is overwhelm: a never-ending flood of emails and news stories, too many complex topics and priorities coming at a pace that results in perpetual agitation. At that point, the need is for peace and meditation, a way to still the mind.
  • Emotional connection. Too often, in the attempt to spare others, we bottle things up, creating distance just at the moment when intimacy is the cure for what ails us. In other cases, the problem might be too much drama, frustrating or toxic relationships that keep intruding into the sanctuary of our souls. In either case, open communication and setting boundaries are essential to emotional health.
  • Physical movement and space. This could be walking, dancing, biking, hiking, yoga. It might be more about motion through nature than through a gym. But ultimately, it's about a reconnection with our physical selves in a volume of space.
  • Spiritual activity. For some, religious ritual assuages the thirst for transcendence, for exaltation and awe. Others may find that the urge is best satisfied by simple service to others. The common denominator is getting outside oneself, to see oneself as part of something larger.
  • Idleness. It's not doing nothing. It's power lounging. As a friend of mine says, "At a molecular level, I'm very busy."
As I also noted in my piece about the profession, travel can be profoundly restorative. It embraces intellectual stimulus, physical movement, and more. It lifts you out of whatever situation is wearing you down, and puts you somewhere outside all the typical patterns. That opens the door to change, plugging you into an outlet that powers you up again.


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