If You’re Unhappy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands

By: Joe Burton

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I recently had dinner with a global C-level advertising executive friend. Let’s call her Diva, because no one’s real name is Diva. During dinner, her energy went from bad to worse. She was complaining about clients, her staff, colleagues, having to wear multiple hats in a public company, you name it… and it was all “killing” her. I’ve had similar conversations with friends in Silicon Valley, financial services, travel, healthcare, you name it.

We live in stressful times and the “always on” mentality that Diva described may be a great tagline for companies, but it sucks for human beings.

Diva is usually one of the most fun people I know. Smart, energetic. Historically, things don’t get her down. I pointed out that she was showing up as pure anger and she became seriously pissed (Exhibit A, your honor) until she realized it was true. And I’m sure Diva will laugh when she reads this.

I shared a conversation with Diva that I had with one of my closest friends a few years ago. Let’s call him Karl, because his name is Karl. I was going full steam in a similar b*tch session (we all do it sooner or later) and he cut me short. “Please stop. You used to be the most fun person I know. I always looked forward to spending time with you. Now you’re usually in a dark place. Nothing is good enough. You’re obsessed with your public company crap and it’s getting harder to hang out with you.” Ouch. That was a brick to the head. It was also a much-needed wake-up call.

When you’re building a career, it’s easy to get caught up in the corporate game.

Each industry and company has its own flavor and politics, but they usually align around a few key themes like 1) always win (even better when someone else has to lose) 2) never show weakness and 3) make sure you get credit (or as 2Pac put it so many times, “I gotta get mine. You gotta get yours.”). It’s exhausting.

Following my conversation with Karl, I discovered a small mindful trick to stay grounded. I shared it with Diva and it goes like this. First, pick three words that define who you are — I mean at your core. What drives you and how do you want to show up to consistently in your life? The words don’t have to relate solely to business. They can relate to life, especially if you believe there is no work life and home life … there’s just life.

For me those three words were fun, encouraging, leader. That’s how I wanted to show up for my colleagues, friends, and family. That became my anchor.

Next, compare these three words to who you’ve become. If you’re like me, once you’ve been playing in the professional world long enough, you’ll end up slowly changing into someone else without ever realizing it. For example, after my chat with Karl (call it an intervention), I started to notice that people stopped using the word “fun” to describe me in both work and personal settings. In fact, when I asked close friends and colleagues the three words that they would use to describe me, they centered around driven, unstoppable, and direct. I guess that’s better than “prick”, but it didn’t align with who I want to be personally.

Worse yet, when I was honest with myself, the three words that really best described me at that time in my life were impatient, angry, and competitive. That’s a far cry from fun, encouraging, leader.

Unless you have some touchstone to measure yourself against, it’s hard to compare who you want to be to the person you’ve become.

The migration to a foreign, more angry Joe wasn’t evident to me. To the contrary, I had tremendous success while being impatient, angry, and competitive. I racked up promotions, stock, bonuses and plenty of congratulatory steak dinners.

So long as you’re winning, the corporate world offers great reinforcement for peeps that show up impatient, angry, and competitive. I had countless confirmations that being that way was a great way to be rewarded. And that works, until it catches up with you. Diva and I had similar experiences. When you start to wear your anger and impatience, it’s time to take a different approach.

My advice was simple. Diva spends countless hours putting complex measurement and delivery systems in place for her global clients (campaigns, consumer feedback, marketing spend and staff optimization, etc.). But she spent zero time creating checkpoints for herself; no personal optimization. And she needed someone to tell her that she was turning into an angry, unhappy version of the person I care about.

Creating a mindful anchor is a powerful trigger. And it’s a daily practice: Am I showing up as the person that I want to be? You can start your day with it. You can use the three words to check in with yourself during a meeting, employee review, or dinner with your honey. Within our company, my partner and head of People & Culture even incorporated “Three Words” into our onboarding process for new hires. It’s created an invitation for team members to both be themselves and to be direct, but supportive with other team members when someone veers out of bounds (and we all do).

As a self-identified perfectionist, I’m always looking to get sh*t done. I can’t help myself. I struggle with my anchors constantly, especially the “encouraging” part. That’s why they call it practice. But I’ve found this small practice helps me to continue to drive events while striving to be more happy and collaborative.

If you have a friend that’s moving right into the anger zone (queue Top Gun theme song), they may need your help. Ask them two simple questions. What three words define the person you want to be? What three words describe the person you’ve actually become? And ask them to be honest. In my experience, a lot of people have a Grand Canyon between the two answers.

If you have a colleague you wouldn’t dare try this with in person, leave a stealth Post-It note on their desk and add, “I’m asking because I care about you.” Do it with kind intentions and you never know what can happen.

And now I’m asking you, what three words define the person you want to be? What three words describe the person you’ve actually become? Be honest.

Here’s a bonus mindful trick: If you’re unhappy and you know it, clap your hands. That can be another trigger to get yourself back to a happier, more focused you.

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