Using your professional skills, personally
I had started this career journal because I wanted to document and share my learnings and work insights. However, I feel the need to write about my father. Because my father is very ill. And in a really perverse way I have had to draw upon my professional skills, experiences and even relationships to deal with him. People don’t often think about the translation of how they approach work, and the skills they learn in the workplace into their personal lives. Perhaps because we often divorce the two – professional and personal. But I have in recent years really seen my capabilities and resilience tested, and I hadn’t given credit to just how much the challenges thrown at you at work might prepare you for those in the personal realm.
My father was diagnosed a number of years ago with an extremely rare, degenerative, neurological disease called MERRF (Myoclonic Epilepsy with Ragged Red Fibres). It is a genetic disease that means his muscles will gradually weaken and deteriorate over time. Also symptomatic of MERRF are hearing loss and dementia. All of which my father is currently experiencing. He also has a life-long history of depression, and this has been exacerbated by the disease. However most problematic are the associated behavioural issues my father is going through – his irrational and rigid thinking, paranoia and irritability.
I will give a very simple illustration of this. My father no longer believes he is ill. He thinks that it is the cold weather which is causing his discomfort and inability to walk without a frame, and that if he simply moves to a hot climate he will be cured. Our family has said moving is just not possible because he needs almost around the clock care. My mother is his full-time carer, whilst my sister and I are the supporting acts. So what does my resourceful father do? He develops a theory that the whole family is conspiring against him and hires a lawyer to help him get what he wants.
And just like that we are embroiled in a legal proceeding; my sister, mother and I versus my dad. And just like at work, I have prepared and briefed lawyers, attended a hearing sitting opposite the opponent, and waited for a decision to be handed down. Just like at work, I was responsible for managing the legal proceeding and explaining to my internal stakeholders what they would need to do and say at the hearing. Only the opponent was my dad, my stakeholders were my sister and mother, and while I waited for a decision I was having an anxiety attack inside.
I can say with 100% certainty when answering the usual “tell us about the biggest challenge you have faced and how you overcame it” question, that managing my father’s illness and my family trumps everything. Looking after him is in itself one big major project, with various work streams, budgets, milestones, risks and key deliverables. We won the previous legal proceeding. But they don’t stop. Just like at work, once you’ve finished dealing with one issue another one comes along to keep you busy. So now, legal actions initiated by my father are just another regular work stream in us managing his health.
Because my father is truly resourceful. And persistent – even in his ill-health. Even when he has been medically declared incapable of making his own decisions. Before he became sick, he was the guy that all our friends and family in the community would come to for help and advice on just about anything. From constructing a garden shed to helping someone get a refund for a faulty product they bought. And this is the challenge. Even when he is so unwell and mentally incapacitated, he isn’t what we all picture a dementia patient to be. He communicates well and can articulate himself clearly – it’s just that all the facts he gives are untruths. To anyone who doesn’t know what is going on and hears the stories my father constructs, they think he is being mistreated by an evil and conniving family. Which brings me to the management of reputational risk and damage. My mother is regularly spoken to rudely and sometimes aggressively, because the other person who has interacted with my father and is not familiar with our family, assumes she is the carer who is abusing him. I have over time coached my mother into providing a template basic explanation of the circumstances, to ensure she is not accused of abuse.
Running such a significant project has both tested and developed my skills, strengthened my mental resilience and taught me so much. I have learnt from first-hand experience, that our Australian healthcare system is truly first class, through having to project manage all the in-home and external care services for my parents – social support and physiotherapy for my dad, respite support for my iron-strong mother (all government funded!). I can’t even begin to explain the complexity in the funding for these services and how to navigate access to the funding and services themselves. This has been an enormous driver for my interest in healthcare and service design. If a literate and English-speaking individual like me finds it difficult to understand, how many people fall through the cracks of the system designed to help them, simply because they don’t know how to access help? Certainly all the legal research skills they taught us in university have given me a great foundation for weaving through healthcare websites to find what my parents need!
I have also really applied myself in effectively prioritising, multitasking and using every second of time effectively. That 5 minute walk to an external meeting means making an appointment for my father to see his neurologist. Or that drive to an offsite board meeting can be spent on the phone with care workers, planning what kind of therapy we can try to help my father’s mood.
A key take away from this experience has been realising not only that your professional skills are so useful in a personal context, but that there is also merit in approaching work challenges in a similar fashion to how you would a personal one. For example, I describe myself as a pragmatist at work, very outcomes focused. And being a lawyer by training I am good at objectively giving key rationalisations as to why something has to be done. Unless someone can provide equally objective and compelling reasons for why not, I am unlikely to be convinced. However at home I would be more willing to compromise without a detailed debate on the merits of why. How come? Because I am more mindful of and sensitive to personal relationships. If I applied this greater willingness to compromise, really, for the sake of compromising then I am likely to build better relationships at work. Because whilst you can get a point across, you don’t necessarily achieve the emotional “buy in” from someone by being completely facts based and winning an argument – no matter how politely you do it.
In those times of real challenge in your personal life, think about any of your professional skills and tools that you could utilise. And as I say, vice versa. You might find it is of remarkable help to approach things with this mindset, and also saves you some sanity.
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