Hey, monkey! Let go of the salt

The hardest thing to do is be true to yourself, especially when everybody is watching - Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle was riding high; comedy cult hero, the world's most popular cable show and a $50 million contract for his fourth season. But, in 2006, Dave walked away. Away from the money, the fame and the life he had constructed. Dave needed to escape. He went to South Africa and spent 10 years in anonymity, only resurfacing professionally late last year. Why did Dave do it? He had reached a point where he wasn't happy. Something felt terribly wrong to him and the fame and trappings he had chased became a burden.

Can you imagine walking away from $50 million that you've worked your whole life to make?! Dave was recently interviewed and asked about why he walked. He used the analogy of a Bushman capturing a baboon to illustrate his situation. He recounted how a Bushman puts a lump of salt in a hole and waits for a baboon to come along. A baboon comes and sticks his hand in the hole, grabs the lump of salt, and the salt makes his hand bigger. He’s trapped and can’t get his hand out. In Chappelle's words, “If he’s smart, he’d just let go of the salt.” But he’s not. The Bushman comes along and grabs the baboon, puts him in a cage and gives him all the salt he wants. When the baboon gets thirsty, the bushman lets the baboon out and follows him to water. Dave told the interviewer, “I felt like the baboon.”

For all of us, no matter who we are, there's a price for making change. There's even a price in the little things that free us our time, so we can do more of what we love. Sometimes, just like the monkey, we have to let go of the salt.

It's not only about the big changes either. Finding time to do the stuff I love is hard enough. It's something I have to work at every day and something I don't quite live up to at times (just ask my wife!). It is, however, a concept that has become easier to incorporate into my life than trying to find that elusive “balance” - or the myriad of other things people have told me to do. “Don't work so hard Mike.” “Don't worry so much.” None of that seemed to work for me. But, giving myself small chances to incorporate the things I enjoy into my work and my life has made a big difference.

Finding “balance” is a process. For those of us entrenched in living and working in certain ways, it can take a long time to shift our behaviour. I'm no fast learner; many of the lessons I mention took years to sink into my thick skull and some are still fighting their way in.

Mid-way through 2016, I decided that I didn't want the overwhelming stress of contingent recruitment anymore. As much as I liked the money (“the salt”), I hated how making it made me feel. I didn't want that anxiety in my life. I faced situations where law firms, some of whom I'd worked with for over a decade, screwed us out of fees they should have paid us. Some people lied to me for no good reason. I'd had enough. I'd had enough of the late nights, the way the process and communication had deteriorated, and how hard it was to communicate a different level of service. I felt that the process no longer valued people and that the cowboy recruiters just kept making it worse for everyone.

I realised that the anxiety of closing the deal and doing a perfect job every time wasn't making me fulfilled, only stressed. I liked helping people but I struggled with the way the recruitment process operated.

But, I have a family. I am the primary income earner and I have a mortgage. I made good money but I had invested a lot of it into my business; a business that I no longer enjoyed. I had to make changes in my life. I had to find time to do more of the stuff I loved and find work that I could enjoy again. I knew it was going to take a lot of effort to get there - and a lot of money, time and opportunity cost if I made the choice of pursuing the idea of Beyond Billables. So, I thought about it. And then I thought some more. Maciek and I thought about it for about a year.

We made the decision to pursue Beyond Billables, knowing there would be a cost, but realising it was not as high as what we'd have to pay if nothing changed. I'm not Dave Chappelle; I haven't walked away from $50 million. So far, I've invested about a year full-time, a chunk of money and the opportunity cost of income forgone, to create Beyond Billables. Oh, and my precious ego in the possibility of it failing spectacularly as I write articles like this! I was the monkey holding onto the salt - and I had to let it go.

So, what does this have to do with you? Well, sometimes we know we need to change, but we are scared of the price. Don't beat yourself up. You can't pretend that there is no price to pay; you need to work through what you want to do and give yourself the mental space to make smart decisions. Now, that may mean deciding on a very different path - or it could mean just saying “stuff it” to that extra hour of work every day and going to the gym instead. Every decision that creates change makes waves, but they're all manageable.

Lower the price

One way to lower the price for yourself is to change the way you think about the problem. For instance, say you want to take the pressure off work by not pursuing a promotion this year. You can probably have a better time of it without the pressure, with a bit of patience. If you are willing to spend two years working towards your promotion instead of one, you can get there and still have a life. If you get the promotion, in a couple of years' time, will that extra year matter? Of course not. But, it might mean you aren't burned out and hating life.

The take-home

Maybe you've realised that you're the monkey holding the salt. Luckily enough, you can let go and not get caught and locked away. So, do it for a day; try something new, put something you love back into your life, or simply start the process of realigning with what you really value. Some days, that salt will be tempting and you'll go for it again. Over time, that will happen less and you'll be free from its lure. Making change, embracing the new and letting go of the things that hold us captive is manifested over time. So, monkey, give yourself a break and go for the banana instead.

Feeling a bit stuck in your career?