Finding your soul at the bottom of a well*

Sometimes you lose your way in the midst of a prolonged testing period. You get depressed because help doesn’t arrive when it should, things are spiralling out of control, and you’re confronted with problems that shouldn’t be yours but are because no one else is attending to them. I’ve been in a deep pit that had no visible light at the end. In the darkness, you want to lash out, cry, snap back in frustration, give up. You wonder what’s happening to yourself. This isn’t you. The relentless setbacks eat you up–your personality, your joy, your soul. You become a drifter, a monster, an empty shell.

We had a postmortem of Project Ebola just now. I had been thinking about it for weeks, trying to decide how I would respond. I was afraid that if I said what was really in my heart (more useful in moving forward), my water faucet might start leaking, or my fuse might blow, and I would be looking at career suicide. Not exactly wise, Lennie. Alternatively, I could just stick to politically correct issues with only bad luck to blame: safer but of no real benefit.

As I looked at my notes scribbled an hour before the meeting, I turned the page and found a list of things I had written down during my darkest hours in the pit. It was a Saturday afternoon–yet another weekend at work. I was exceedingly tired, lost and burnt out. An ex-colleague was online, someone I deeply respect. I knew I needed principles to keep me anchored because I felt I was losing sight of myself and could combust at any minute. My reality then only consisted of this project: it was sucking up my weekends, my holidays, my nights, my sleep, my health, my humour, my social life, my creativity, my soul. I didn’t know who I was any longer.

So I asked: in such a situation, what do you do? What guiding principles keep you in check, how do you keep sane and not take it out on those around you?

She answered with the first two points below. The rest came as I searched my soul for answers. Here then, are the real lessons I learnt from this project:

  1. Try to do the best you can. No one can ever blame you for caring enough.
  2. You can’t care for other people when they don’t care about themselves.
  3. Do not act/react when you’re angry. Wait to cool down, then only think and act.
  4. Do not do or say things that will make people lose respect of you.
  5. You can do better than you think. There is always a more noble, gracious, uplifting way to respond to people. Choose this way even though you may not feel they deserve it.
  6. Do not act/react in the same shoddy way you criticise your enemies of acting, otherwise you’ll just be the same as them.
  7. Don’t overlook the details and make sure others don’t as well.
  8. Recognise the people who want to do good work and stick around them. If they are stressed and bite back sometimes, give them slack. Remind each other of the end goal and believe in them.
  9. It’s tiring, and you’ll feel discouraged, but most problems can be strategised out of. Take time to think, consider your game play, and act. Patience will reward you.
  10. Most important is to keep your relationships with all your teammates good. Help each other out, be kind and understanding because it’s easier to get things done this way.
  11. Don’t get political. Stick to your principles and focus on getting work done right.

When it came my turn to speak up, I am relieved to say that I managed to talk about certain things without losing my cool, thanks to the reminder above. This was by far the most demanding project I’d ever encountered: physically, mentally, emotionally. If you ever lose your way because you’re confronted with a problem bigger than you, remember to cling on to who you are and have faith that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

*In Haruki Murakami’s excellent “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”, the protagonist is told by an ex-soldier of how he had a near-death experience in a deep dry well. When his life takes a turn for the worse and he finds a well in his own neighbourhood, he climbs down into the inky darkness and discovers new things about himself.
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