In my corporate consulting days, I used to teach a class called “Charm School.”
No, it wasn’t a course in manners exactly. It was designed to smooth out the rougher edges of newer consultants, giving them strategies, tips, and concepts to help them operate with more grace and professionalism than the average consultant (or average person, really.)
One of my teaching partners for this course was Matt Padula. Like me, Matt’s a former partner at a large HR consulting firm, taking on leadership roles all over the world. Also like me, Matt took a broader look at his life a few years back and had the courage to make a big change. He’s now influencing young minds as a teacher at the prestigious Atlanta International School.
As Matt and I caught up recently, he shared some seeds of wisdom he’s been planting with his classes in addition to the Economics curriculum he teaches. So instead of going back to school yourself, I invited him to share some ideas here. Enjoy!
How Life is Like Tetherball
Have you ever played tetherball? You know, the amazingly simple game that includes a pole, a piece of rope, and a ball that never stops moving?
You and your opponent engage in a frantic battle to grab, smack, and throw the “tethered” ball in opposite directions. The outcome seems uncertain right up until the end, since to win, you have to get the ball to wrap itself tightly around the pole, nestled up against it, with no more tether left to coil.
What kind of person wins at tetherball? The bigger and the stronger player? Sometimes, yes. But most often the quicker player—the one who can think on his or her feet—wins the game.
In my experience as a successful consultant, and now as a teacher, it’s clear to me that life and work are a lot like tetherball.
Some days, everything is going your way. Your client enthusiastically renews its contract, your investors put up another $10 million for your start-up, and your flag football team makes the playoffs. It’s like that big white ball keeps spinning the right way, and you’re barely even trying.
Other days, that same ball is swinging right at your face, no matter what you do.
You’re working around the clock, but you still find another bug in the software. Brandy (your dog, not your girlfriend) is sick, and then your mom calls—she wants to visit for the weekend.
It all seems to be spinning in the wrong direction.
Yes, life is like tetherball. Some days, momentum propels you forward; the next day it’s a fierce headwind.
So what can you do to keep from getting smacked in the face?
Rather than complain, it’s time to prepare yourself for the game.
And the secrets to your career success are the same as the secrets to winning at tetherball.
Secret #1: Be Prepared for Ups & Downs (And Back & Forths)
It wouldn’t be much of a game if the ball didn’t go back and forth a little, would it?
Embrace the changes in direction, rather than let them throw you off your game.
Remember, your goal is to move the ball forward, but you know there will be many (hopefully temporary) steps backward along the way.
Secret #2: Expect to Confront a Wall of Resistance
No matter how well you play, you will at some point see the ball coming back at you.
Uh oh. You keep trying to hit it, but with every spin, the rope is shorter so it changes position each time around—and those revolutions get faster and quicker.
It feels like every force you learned about in high school physics—gravity, momentum, centripetal force, angular momentum, you name it—is working against you.
When this happens, it’s time to gather your strength and stop the ball before it gathers momentum.
You don’t have to fix all of your problems today. Just fix one.
Bug in the software? Maybe you’re too close to it—find an outside resource to focus on this one problem. Brandy sick, and mom’s in town? Ask mom to take Brandy to the vet for you.
Secret #3: Harness Momentum Whenever You Can
In tetherball, it’s so easy to keep the ball moving forward when it is already moving that way. When you have the upper hand, when you have momentum at your back, keep going.
In the same way that every guy in history suddenly becomes more attractive to women when he has a girlfriend (oh, the cruel irony!), success follows those who are “on a roll.” Every salesperson knows that the best time to sell something is right after you just sold something.
Confidence attracts opportunity. Just like in tetherball, success begets success.
Just gave an employee some informal feedback that really lifted his spirits? Go down the hall and find another colleague who could use some positive reinforcement. Client agreed to bundle in extra services to the contract? Set up a meeting to talk about extending the term a couple of years. Mom is taking Brandy to the vet? See if she can pick up your dry cleaning too.
When you achieve a moment of success, don’t take a break because you’ve “earned it.” Harness the momentum.
Secret # 4: Stay Focused (or Expect to Get Hit in the Face)
Tetherball requires one skill more than any other—focus.
Those who can concentrate on the task at hand will be successful.
Those who can eliminate distractions will win.
Could you imagine taking your eye off the ball during a game of tetherball? Would you ever look away to check your phone, glance at the clock, or wonder what’s for lunch?
Of course not. You’d get pummeled in the face (literally—and I’ll tell you from personal experience, that sucker stings.)
Do you think your boss would be thrilled to see you checking your phone, glancing at the clock, or asking ‘what’s for lunch?’ in the middle of a client meeting? Of course not. You’d get pummeled in the face (figuratively, with a brutal performance review or being overlooked for new opportunities).
The next time you are tempted to allow distractions to overwhelm you, ask yourself, “If I did this during a game of tetherball, would I get hit in the face?”
YOUR TURN: How do you keep the ball moving in the right direction in your life at work? Tell us in the Comments below, or share your ideas on Facebook or LinkedIn.
After 25 years in consulting, sales, and business leadership, Matt Padula now teaches IB Economics at Atlanta International School. In this role, he enjoys applying lessons learned in his career to bridge the gap between the young adult mind and the soon-to-be-reality of the working world. You can follow Matt at @mdpadula or on LinkedIn.