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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Aug 2019

On striving

Striving: Trying hard; making one’s way with effort; straining; exerting yourself. What’s your relationship with striving?

I see striving as neither good nor bad in itself, only in its consequences in a particular context for a particular person. Striving helps us overcome challenges, find answers, make things happen. It makes and saves lives. We are more likely to strive when our future is uncertain and needs to be secured. We are also more likely to strive if our jobs give us meaning and identity. Most leaders wouldn’t be without a well-honed ability to strive but in a tech-fuelled, always-on, hard work culture, we had better know a bit about our personal relationship with it.

What’s your family’s relationship with striving? As a child of the 70s, I’ve grown up in an era of capitalist growth, Tory, New Labour, then Tory rule with no direct memories of the 4-day week or a socialist government. I spent my early years in a suburb of industrial Birmingham with the car industry to thank for the bread on the table. I am the granddaughter of survivors of two World Wars. On one side of the family is a history of immigration and social mobility from working to middle class. On another side, a story of professional classes falling on hard times. My grandparents taught my parents the value of keeping calm, being frugal and striving on both the home and work front. Doing practical jobs for each other is one of the important ways we show each other love.

The culture of which I am a product has been shaped by the Protestant work ethic of the Reformation and the social changes of the Industrial Revolution. Striving and working hard is almost universally seen as a good thing. In the UK we are also heavily influenced by the American Dream. The idea of the ‘self-made man/woman’ embodying qualities of self-reliance, determination and hard work in the face of hardship is retold in films and stories as a heroic tale. Of course, also in this culture, we have a backlash against this story. Books such as Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle and songs such as the Kings of Leon’s ‘Take some time to waste a moment‘, Dolly Parton’s ‘Working 9 to 5‘ and John Lennon’s lyric ‘Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.’ have shaped a generation who don’t swallow the striving ethic – at least not without chewing on it first.

Our attitude to striving is not necessarily something we chose. It is in our culture, encoded in our relationship with others. It is also in our psyches and in the way we relate to ourselves. Think of what striving does for your sense of self. If we ask our inner striver the question ‘Why do you strive?’, what would it say?  Alfred Adler, the psychologist who coined the phrase Inferiority Complex talks about two different types of striving. One is useful hard work to achieve a task or solve a problem. Another, less healthy, is a striving for a sense of personal superiority to compensate for a feeling of inferiority. If we are honest with ourselves about the roots of our striving, would we find that some of it is anxiety-driven not purpose-driven?

Another useful question to ask ourselves is ‘What do I do when I’m not striving?”. The evidence from trials of a 4-day week is that people spend more time with their friends, families and giving attention to children. They spend time maintaining their home, taking part in the community and, in some studies, making more babies! The benefits of 4-day week trials have included better gender equality at home and work, better customer care and productivity during working hours, better health and well-being and ability to attract millennials into the workforce. Of course the studies also have their costs and not all trials  become a permanent arrangement.

What some studies have also reported as a result of the 4-day week trial is increased boredom and an agitation to get back to work. This is certainly familiar to me, for example, during my maternity leaves. A recent client, between jobs for several weeks, found himself confronted with a huge sense of agitation and uselessness without a packed work agenda for each day. It was almost as if he had forgotten what do to when he wasn’t at work. This was a long period of time off work, but I also see this phenomenon in smaller moments. When we sit in a traffic jam, how able are we to switch off the striver that can gets increasingly enraged by their progress being blocked, and click into another mode that serves our health better? During a 5 second pause in a conversation, how easy do we find it not to fill that space; to sit in silence long enough for the next thing to emerge?

If we are to be choiceful, emotionally intelligent, effective leaders we need to know how to strive and also how NOT to strive. Knowing our own relationship with striving is a good place to start.

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