Being a Venter … Lessons about self-care from a trailer

Anél Jacobs
I was sitting in a senior management meeting after a particularly gruelling month of traveling and stressful responsibilities, when my CEO raised the topic of an important (and complex) project he needed done. He asked who would be willing to take it on.

All my fellow senior management team members around the table were looking down or away – too scared that if they made eye contact, it would become their job! As no-one offered and the silence was killing me, I felt obliged to raise my hand and offer to take it on. I did not know how and when I was going to be able to do it, as I was already struggling to cope with a tremendous (and unrealistic) workload … but someone had to do it and I felt it was my responsibility to step up and get it done. My CEO said “thank you” and asked to see me after the meeting.

I thought he wanted to see me to discuss the project, but he had a different conversation in mind! He looked at me and said, “Anel, I’m going to start calling you ‘Venter’ from here onwards”. I was confused (to say the least) and responded, “My surname is ‘Jacobs’ though …” But what followed was a conversation that I’ll never forget and that had a profound impact on my life …

“Anel, we can all be seen as cars, journeying through life. You have a nice little car – it may look compact, but you have an enormously strong engine and big boot space. You’re even one of those cars where all the seats can be adjusted whichever way to make space for more luggage. I’m also fully aware that my business is benefitting from the fact that you have no husband or children, and you’ve decided to use their seats as additional packing space for work luggage. And I’ve watched you pack your car completely full. You’ve packed it up to the roof, and then you’ll still find space to squeeze in smaller pieces of luggage, or parcels that others have asked you to take with you ‘as you are driving that way in any case’. I admired it. But then, when you could not pack in a single additional item, I saw you hook up one of those Venter trailers to your car …”

By now the penny dropped and the ‘Venter’ started making sense!

“And you filled it to the brim. I thought to myself, ‘This is surely it, surely she will stop now’, but alas! And just as I thought I’ve seen it all, when you had no more space in your trailer, I saw you add a roof-rack to it and pack every inch of it full!I know you take on as much as you do with the best of intentions, but I need to be honest with you: You have become a danger to my business!”

Hearing this last sentence was totally unexpected … was I not being loyal, and hardworking, and dependable? Surely these are GOOD characteristics! His words were like a knife being thrust into my gut – it actually caused me physical pain! But he went on to explain …

“Anel, our business journey is an uphill one currently, with very steep stretches ahead of us. I need everybody’s cars to be as strong as they can possibly be to get us to the other side. My problem is this: Your engine is going to fail at some point in the near future, because you’ve overloaded it with a completely unrealistic load. The way I see it … You’ve made a chain of irresponsible decisions in doing this. If your engine fails at any point in this journey, I do not merely lose the load that was your car’s responsibility to transport. I also lose everything that you’ve added to it – which should have been travelling with some of the other cars available on this journey. And that is a risk that I can no longer take. You need to do something about this, as you pose a danger to my business that I am no longer willing to assume or allow.”He instructed me to choose one of my fellow senior management members who should take on the project, to which I responded, “No, YOU need to give them the instruction, it cannot come from me.” His answer was, “No, YOU assumed that responsibility when you raised your hand. So YOU need to see it out.”

So, I chose someone and had the conversation … I don’t need to explain how unpopular I was and how uncomfortable it was for me!

But looking back at this conversation (which happened almost five years ago), this is what I’ve learnt:

  • Self-care is not self-indulgence – it is self-responsibility and self-control.
  • I am not only an individual, I am also an important business resource – which should be used to its maximum capacity, yes, but that also needs to undergo preventative maintenance if it is to last for the required number of years.
  • Looking after myself is not merely a personal responsibility – it is a business priority and is mission-critical.
  • By allowing an unequal workload in my team, I am not doing the business any favours – I am, in fact, disguising flaws in the system and allowing it to exist.
  • By allowing an unequal workload in my team, I am also not doing the individuals any favours in the long term – I am disempowering them, I am blocking them from growing and reaching their potential.
  • By taking responsibility for transporting an unrealistic amount of luggage, I am making my own portion of the journey uncomfortable, stressful, rushed and distasteful. I remove my own opportunity to “enjoy the ride”, to explore the scenery and to connect with my fellow travelling companions. Is it any wonder that I then reach points in my journey where I want to abandon it, where I lose all pleasure in the journey and where my engine starts to make the ugliest of noises? If I assume the responsibility for the extra luggage, I also need to assume the responsibility for the consequences, and cannot blame anyone else for it.
  • I need to reframe what I say to myself (and others) from “It’s so busy at work right now, I can’t afford to take care of myself!” to “It’s so busy at work right now, I can’t afford NOT to take care of myself!”
  • And, the most important lesson of all: Whatever I’m not changing, I am choosing!

Remember: “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” (Ovid)