Looking Back Over 2015: The Highs, The Lows, The Lessons

What I have experienced. And What I have learned over 2015.

If you subscribe to this blog then you may have noticed that I have shared little or nothing for most of this year.  What’s been going on? What game have I been playing?  What demands has life been making upon me?  What opportunities have presented themselves? What insights do I have to share with you?

We Like Life To Be Neat And Tidy

It is our tendency to put stuff into neat-tidy boxes. To distinguish, to classify, to categorise, to label stuff.  Once we have given something a label we feel safer, we can go about ‘investigating’ it, and then coming up with ways of dealing with stuff.  It is also our tendency to think in contrasts: long/short, good/bad, right/wrong, blessing/curse, success/failure, rich/poor, kind/mean, playing BIG/playing small… You get the idea. Yet life has a certain fullness, boundlessness, messiness, that means it cannot be easily categorised. And any / every categorisation is incomplete.

This Year Has Been An Interesting (Full) Year

It occurs this year has been like the seasons – especially the kind of seasons we have been experiencing lately in the Southern part of England – where multiple seasons present themselves in what should be a single season.

January. Everything was great: health, family, work… The future looked bright and I had plans – plans for playing BIG in life and inspiring others to play BIG in their lives. I even turned out an incredibly well paid (six figures) consulting role with a well known large consultancy. Why? Because, I was happy doing what I was doing.

February. I found that if I sat down I could not get up. I could not get up! I found that I could not put on my shorts, trousers, socks, shoes or take them off. I found that I could not turn from one side to another when in bed. Ordinary living came to a halt. And with this lack of power (self-sufficiency) the demons came out and played: feelings of helplessness, feeling of being a burden, feelings of fear… If you have lived you know what I am talking about.

Yet in the midst of this I sought to turn lemons into lemonade. So I studied often lying down or standing up. By the end of the month I became a Salesforce certified Pardot Consultant.  Wasn’t easy but brought me both distraction and great satisfaction.

March. By the middle of March I was well enough to get back to normal living. And just as I had gotten off my knees, I found myself floored. My source of income dried up – no more work. Folks whom I considered colleagues even friends treated me in ways that left me confused, puzzled, and deeply hurt.  Illness happens, I can deal with that and in fact have been dealing with it since I was a child. The kind of stuff that I experienced by friends and colleagues – that I had not experienced. And struggled to find my ground, my footing. I was in a kind of a daze for some weeks.

April, May, June. Busy, busy, busy. Busy looking for opportunities for consulting work, for Salesforce work, for project and programme management work. Plenty of conversations with all kinds of people. Even got three verbal offers of employment. None of them worked out.

Also experienced what occurred to me as the second largest (most important) betrayal of my life. That is too personal to go into. But I can tell you it hurt – really hurt.  It brought forth genuine sorrow – of the deepest kind.  The first person who showed up as betraying me was my mother when I was a child. That had a deep impact on me – I made it a rule never to trust what people say for I had seen the dramatic difference between words and deeds. It took some being to accept and deal with this betrayal.  Yet, it was easier to deal with because this time around I was an adult able to step into the shoes of the other, rather than a child of six or seven. Time does make a difference.

At the same time, I learnt to code in HTML and CSS. I even learnt to write some Javascript.  Some wondered why a strategy guy like me was doing this deep tech stuff. I was clear: in troubled times it is necessary to give myself challenges – so that misery and self-pity has no space to show up. Further, one of the ‘dark arts’ of digital was no longer dark. And, I enjoyed the achievement of building a replica of the BBC home page. Further, it became clear that whilst I could do this work, it was not work for me. I need work that provides interaction with people.  With ideas. With helping folks effect change with a view to causing a better world in some dimension.

July and August. I was busy with various ‘projects’. Some of these projects were great in that they allowed me to do what I do well: help folks think through and grapple with challenges.  Other projects were not great: dealing with difficult folks- folks who lacked knowledge/expertise, folks who talked big but did not keep their promises. These were also months of uncertainty as the work wasn’t generating the kind of income that I needed to generate. And I was keenly aware that I was burning through the family’s safety net.

Whilst the family was holidaying in various parts of France, I was busy studying for a Salesforce certification. When I got my Salesforce Sales Cloud certification – well it is day I remember well. I had taken that same exam a year ago and failed. It was the first exam I had failed in my life. But this time around I learned from the past, did the work (over and over), and I passed!  Further, I used up some of the time to dive deeper into the whole User Experience Design thing. I found that I enjoyed learning about it. And that I already knew quite a bit – but by no means all of it or anywhere near.  Further, I learned that I enjoyed the UX design thing given that it is a useful tool for creating better digital interactions and interfaces.

Oh and I made my decision. I Gave up freelance project management type of work that I had been doing (because it was so easy to do). And accepted an offer of employment with a large consultancy / systems integrator.

September. I found myself back to the kind of lifestyle that I had chosen to leave behind five or so years ago.  Why go back?  Despite the ‘new age’ stuff my life has not always worked out the way I have wanted it to work out. It has just worked out the way it worked out.  And given my experiences between March and September – including working with folks that showed up as ‘idiots’ – I was grateful to be back to proper consulting work with folks that had showed up as pleasant, helpful, interesting during the interview process.

Yet, this month was a kind of shock to the system. New organisation, new people, new ways of doing things, regular travel, waking up at four in the morning, catching the 6:30 aeroplane to a foreign country, working away from home – from several days at a time, to the whole week. Yet, amidst that I got to re-experience Copenhagen – a city that I had lived in for three months some 10+years ago. The city still showed up as beautiful. And the Danish people seemed to be the same kind of people. Only this time, I realised how fortunate I had been 10+years ago. The last time I stayed-worked in Copenhagen I had stayed in one of the very best (most expensive, beautiful) parts of the city. Sometimes you can only appreciate what you had long after you had it.

October and November. I find myself in the hell I had experienced back in February. I felt my back go on a return flight from Copenhagen to London. This time I did not behave as foolishly as I did back in February. I learnt from that experience and started taking measures immediately – like standing up to work, like taking medicines, like going for walks….  Yet, that did not make it easy. My lower back and legs were in constant pain. I got through the days with the maximum dose of painkillers.

Just when it looked like things could not get worse they did. My neck, shoulders and left arm started playing up – might have had something to do with the fall that I took on the stairs due to being drugged up!  Despite expensive visits to the Chiropractor, the neck, shoulders, and arm did not improve. It got worse. I had constant pain in my left arm, I lost fine motor control (could not button up my shirt or insert cufflinks into my shirt sleeves), and I lost power in that arm. Due to all this I didn’t sleep much – an hour here, two hours there. Yet, despite all of this I kept working full or pretty full days.

I worked from home. I worked at a client site. One day I was walking just outside the client site in November, my right lower leg lost power, and I found myself flat on the pavement.  Luckily my hands broke the fall.  Because my left arm/hand was inoperative (could not type for example, or hold a flip-chart market), I ended up doing almost all of my writing up on flip charts.  I illustrated, I explained, I recorded decisions, next steps, strategies… on the flipchart. And then gave these charts to helpful folks at the client to write-up.

December. Finally got round to seeing the neurosurgeon. My chiropractor and the emergency doctor (that I had to see at the weekend after a very difficult Friday) brought home to me the serious of the situation toward the middle to end of November.  After that it took a while to get the necessary appointments: my predicament occurred as urgent to me, the world of insurance companies, secretaries, consultants, and hospitals was rather indifferent to the needs of one single being.  Life kind of works like that: we want so much to be given special treatment, all seven billion of us….

This week, finally got the MRI scans done. One shows that I have a pretty impressive bulging disc pressing into my spinal cord in my lower back. Hence the sore lower back, inability to sit for long, pain down my legs, loss of power in my right lower leg. The other MRI scans show I have a bulging disc in my lower neck which is also pressing against my spinal cord. Hence the loss of function in my left arm…

What to do?  Do I take the surgery knowing that there is two out of hundred people who have that surgery end up paralysed: two out of 100 for the back, two out of hundred for the neck.  Or do, I cling to the possibility that my body will heal itself (enough to live a normal life) given time and the right type of activity?  The neurosurgeon advised the latter and I find myself in agreement with him.  Surgery as a last resort.

So What Is It That I Have Taken Away From This Year And All That Has Come With It?

It occurs to me that sometimes playing BIG is simply handling life as best as one can. There have been periods in this year that I was in so much pain that when I noticed I was about to go to sleep, a part of my wished that I would never wake up. Yet, I did wake up, and with that waking up life made its demands on me.  Further, when I did wake up I felt bad that I wished the night before that I would not wake up. Why? Because of my wife and children – they count on me in so many ways.  They want me around – for a long time. To leave them just to avoid some physical pain (even a lot of physical pain) occurs as selfish.  As weak.

If I have played BIG this year then what I acknowledge myself for is modelling the way I hope that my children will deal with the demands (unexpected surprises, difficulties) that life will throw at them:

  • My children have seen/heard me cry, shout with pain, walk across the kitchen in the middle of the night – night after night, drugged out at the end of the day, fallen-helpless-bleeding at the bottom of the stairs yet unbeaten, ask for help in putting on my socks and shoes….
  • They have seen me work every day – every day as best as I can, as creatively as I can, to meet my obligations to my clients, my colleagues, my employer, and my family.
  • They have seen me accept the pain, accept the demands of life, and deal with them with stoicism. Sometimes even with laughter.
  • Most of all, I hope that I have shown my wife and children how important they are to me, and how much I love them.

And finally, the blessing amidst all the difficulties? I know that I will die. And yet the most important part of me (that which I value, how I aspire to conduct myself) lives in my children. I experienced the most amazing kindness, generosity, love, helpfulness, encouragement emerge from my children.  They have left me feeling loved in a way that is beyond words.  And I have witnessed and experienced the same from my wife.  

How extraordinarily fortunate I have been this year!  How often does one get to really experience the beauty of ordinary everyday living?  How often does one get to experience how much one matters in the lives of others? How often does one get to feel so grateful, so proud of one’s children, of one’s partner/wife?  How often does one get to experience the triumph of the human will over the difficulties and surprises that come intrinsically with life and living?  I got to experience ALL of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

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