Year ago I was writing a technical book with two business partners. It was a beast – 737 pages of dense and technical content. We divided up the chapters that each of us was going to write. I agreed to do more than the others because I’d written a technical book before. But it was still a pretty equitable split until one of my partners said he couldn’t do it. He said something to me like, “It’s so easy for you to do. You should take my chapters.” I was shocked. It wasn’t easy for me at all — I’d been sitting at my desk 12 hours a day, 6 days a week to get my portion done. I’d simply been too busy to sit around talking about how hard it was!
Which has always made me wonder, is there any benefit to bitching about life or bemoaning our fate?
This question makes me think of the tennis player John McEnroe. Given his reputation as someone who would contest a line call, did he get better calls from judges who wanted to make sure they were solid when they called a ball he hit out? And even if there was an advantage to his tantrums, the fact remained that he had to be a person who could throw them.
It’s actually being a referee (aka a parent) that has taught me that there are two components to whether or not expressing our hardships in life makes a difference: authentic expression and boundaries.
The other day my 2-year-old son wanted to play with water in the sink. It was almost time to go somewhere and I didn’t want him soaked so I told him “no.” He said for the very first time, “I fustated!” I told him how incredibly proud I was of him for recognizing that he was frustrated. “Good for you for knowing that! But you still can’t play in the sink.”
Which leads me to my conclusion about whether or not life is easier if we expound on the pains of life to others. We have to express our life conditions authentically and that expression will improve our own ability to cope. There is always a need to speak to our honest experiences and when we do that, others understand us in a deeper way that supersedes whether or not it is superficially beneficial.
And the second part is that we all need to set and hold our personal boundaries of what we can or cannot do. Expressing ourselves probably won’t change how other people defer to us one way or the other. But it will change the one thing that matters – how we feel about the work we do.
As I parent, I know I change a little based on how my kids might react. I’m likely to soft pedal something that I know is going to start a fit, especially if I know my kids are tired. But even though I’ll change the delivery, I don’t change my decisions based on how it’ll be received because I have to hold the boundaries. In the case of my toddler playing in the water, I didn’t have the time or patience to change his clothes one more time before we left the house. I appreciated his ability to express to me that he was frustrated. The answer was still “no.”
John McEnroe wrote a book (co-authored with James Kaplan) published in 2002. The title, You Cannot Be Serious, was derived from his most often used phrase during the fantastic fits he used to throw when he disagreed with a line call. YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!!
In the book, he’s pretty reflective of his emotions and maturity between age 18 when he started winning on the tour and age 43 when he wrote the book. He recounts a time he went off during a match the summer when he was 18, “I ended up winning the match, but I was incredibly embarrassed – as I should have been. I was totally spent, and showing the strain.”
Then near the end of the book, John McEnroe talked about his life as a father of eight kids and provided a telling reflection about maturity:
“I loved being a father. It was also the hardest work, by far, that I’d ever done. When your children range in age from the teens down to the teeny, it feels as though you’re in charge or a laboratory conducting multiple experiments, all of them dangerous and combustible, but just possibly life-saving. Every day seemed to bring situations that would try the patience of a saint – let alone John McEnroe. Of course there were times I lost it (there still are), but when you’re responsible to other people, and especially very young people, you quickly learn that you have to find ways to control yourself. However much you may feel the need to let off steam, the needs of people who depend on you for everything come first.”
In other words, we have the right to express our feelings about our experience. That expression will change as we mature and become more responsible to others. And if we lose it in as public of a forum as John McEnroe, we may have to write a book to apologize.
And then as we mature, we hold the boundaries of what we can or cannot do. Because at the end of the day, the only human who will likely think in great depth about our life is ourselves. And the only person who knows what we can handle is ourselves. It’s integrity of the self.
When I took on the chapters that my business partner was not able to write, I did tell him that writing was hard for me too. (And I know there are many writers, especially technical writers who read this blog and can attest to the difficulty). But I didn’t belabor the point. It isn’t my personality. Writing more chapters was within my boundaries of what I could do. In the end, I was proud of the book we wrote, non-equitable distribution of work and all.
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(featured photo from Pexels)