Be Passionate but Pragmatic… Never Forget That “IT’S JUST SOAP”

tombstone time at work

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine and his family stopped and visited our home in Cincinnati after a long weekend in Boston. They were heading home after the Boston Marathon. He is an amazing runner and had finished the race well before the tragic bombing that ultimately killed and injured far too many racers and bystanders. And although he had crossed the finish line with an outstanding time, he actually walked away somewhat disappointed because he hadn’t quite met his ultimate goal… narrowly missing a personal best time. He and his family were already in their car heading back to the hotel with the race behind them, when the text messages he was receiving changed from “Congratulations!” to “Are you OK?” In that moment, suddenly all of the past preparation, the mix of excitement and disappointment of finishing, and the future planning for the next race went from critically important to utterly trivial. The result of the race no longer mattered as the now meaningless matter of “Win or Lose” was replaced with the sobering realities of “Life or Death”.

I often think about the runners who were on the verge of finishing when the bombing took place. Months if not years of training, the labor of 26 miles behind them, and suddenly they are quite literally knocked off their feet. What do you do? Do you get up and finish the race? Do you stop right away and help those around you? Do you realize that it ultimately doesn’t truly matter whether you cross the finish line or not?

Our projects and our jobs are often like training for a marathon. We invest countless hours as well as blood, sweat, and tears in trying to make an impact for consumers, for our organizations, and on our personal careers. We take pride in our work and are passionate about what we do… and this passion is often a key driver in our ultimate success and satisfaction. But even if we are driven by this passion and highly invested in our missions at work, we have to remain pragmatic. No matter how important, urgent, or intense we believe our jobs to be, we have to remember that it is just work… and that there are far more important things in life (that if we are not careful, might knock us off our feet).

1) It is Just Soap! For a personal example… my teams over the years have been tasked with developing breakthrough “Beauty Care” products, such as deodorants, body washes, and shampoos. It never fails to amaze me how much insight, creativity, and technical depth goes into innovating, improving, and inventing products such as these that virtually everyone uses but largely takes for granted. While I know that my teams are making a difference for the business and for consumers around the world, I encourage each individual to always keep everything in perspective. While it is important and amazing to have passion for the job, it is critical to remember… It is Just Soap! That is not to say that our careers should not be an important focus in our lives… they absolutely should be. We spend 40+ hours each and every week working, so we should strive to find something rewarding and fulfilling. The problem arises if our careers actually become our lives. If this happens, we will not only see our our personal lives suffer, but will see our job performance negatively impacted as well.

2) You are not your project. Passion is an important element in innovation, and, in almost every case, a person who feels a personal connection to his project will experience greater success. Passion yields commitment, commitment yields investment, and investment yields results. However, like most strengths, if taken too far a weakness will emerge. An extreme passion can lead to a case where the project goes beyond being the product of one’s efforts to being an extension of one’s self. Essentially, the person goes past taking pride in the fruits of his labors and begins measuring his own worth by the results of the work. Net, we must invest ourselves in delivering a product of worth, but not define our worth by the product that we deliver. You work is what you do… it is not who you are.

3) Whatever the issue, it is not literally “life or death”. How often at work are you faced with a problem presented as some form of “This presentation must go well because the fate of mankind is at stake!”? Now unless you are a heart surgeon, police officer, or Jack Bauer, whatever challenge you face in concept is likely nowhere near as intense in reality. As human beings, I believe that we have an innate desire to feel important, to accomplish something meaningful, and to be a “hero”. And with that desire, we (or those around us) can amplify a molehill-sized issue into a mountain of a problem to fulfill that unconscious desire. Essentially, we can take a simple “go or no go” decision and make it seem like “life or death”. This is not to say that we should not treat issues seriously… just not too seriously.

4) Emotion can overwhelm judgment. An over-investment in the work can not only have a detrimental impact on the individual, but also on the work itself. An excess emotional involvement to a program can lead to an over-reaction toward a conflicting management decision, a confrontational approach to opposing points of views, or an irrational fear of bad results or even the “death” of the project. It also can taint the lens through which we study and evaluate data, and we might see only information that supports our point of view while avoiding that which is contradictory. When passion makes pragmatism difficult, it is important to set clear success criteria to force data-based decisions and to partner with a trusted team, peer, or mentor that you can trust to keep you honest and to check your “blind spots”.

5) Consider the “5 Year Rule”. When presented with a stressful situation, I like to ask myself, “Will I remember this 5 years from now?” For the vast majority of the time, the answer to this question is a resounding “No”. At the very least, answering this question helps to keep things in perspective and to dial the stress level down a few notches. Often, this helps to make decisions about how best to invest my time. Do I invest my discretionary time in putting out a series of small fires, or in building the foundation for something amazing? Do I spend my afternoon answering the constant barrage of emails or investing in supporting and growing my team? Am I consistently prioritizing the urgent and trivial activities over the programs and relationships truly imprtant in the long-term? Am I confusing the urgent for the important? Clearly it is impossible to apply this rule on each and every occasion as life is full of “small stuff” that we inevitably need to “sweat”. But we do need to be deliberate and decisive in managing our calendars and our choices to insure that we are not consumed by the forgettable daily grind and that we invest time each and every day in building programs and relationships that will be memorable into the future.

6) Never forget “Rule Number 6”. One of my favorite speakers is Benjamin Zander, Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, Teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music, and Author of “The Art of Possibility“. Zander tells a story of two prime ministers sitting in a room, when suddenly the door bursts open. A man rushes in, extremely upset, shouting, and carrying on. The resident prime minister says, “Peter, Peter, please remember Rule #6.” Immediately Peter was restored to complete calm. Soon thereafter, a young woman comes in, hysterical, shouting, and out of control. The resident prime minister again said, “Please remember Rule #6!” Immediately Maria said, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” and she apologized and walked out. This same thing happened a third time and this time the visiting prime minister said, “My dear colleague, I’ve seen three people come into the room in a state of uncontrollable fury, and they walked out completely calmly. Would you be willing to share this Rule #6?” The resident prime minister smiled and said, “Oh yes, Rule #6 is very simple. Don’t take yourself so damned seriously.” And so the other man said, “Oh, that’s a wonderful rule. May I ask what the other rules are?” And the first man says… “There aren’t any other rules.” I love this story and the reminder to not take our jobs and our lives too seriously. (And the irony is not lost on me that I am taking myself too seriously by having 5 other rules…)

Again, this is not to say that passion for a career is bad. In fact I think it is a critical element not only to job satisfaction but to overall life fulfillment as well. The key is to find balance and to keep it all in perspective, especially knowing that at any moment we might get knocked off our feet. There is a great quote by Rabbi Harold Kushner that states, “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’.” We need to find the right balance of passion and pragmatism and always remember that we are working to live and not living to work.


Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on

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