Dead calm – How I’ve lost the wind beneath my sails.

For the last four months, I’ve been stuck in a dead calm. It’s as if I’m in in a yacht, rudderless, with no waves or wind to carry me forward. There’s no island in the distance, beckoning me. I keep waiting for a gust of wind to propel me ahead to the next ‘big thing’: my new and shiny goal or professional destination. But it isn’t happening. I haven’t been here before and if I’m honest, it’s uncomfortable.

There are probably very solid and explainable reasons for this aimless drifting at sea. Covid and the subsequent lockdown. The natural ‘coming down’ after writing and publishing my book Beyond Burnout, which was itself a behemoth journey. A midlife ‘down in the doldrums’ funk, perhaps? Knowing the potential causes for this dead calm has brought some relief, but not much.

I really am all at sea.

I find myself impatient with how long this dead calm is lasting. I’ve never been this aimless for this long. Sure, I’ve had short bursts of feeling unmotivated before in my professional life. But usually, the next big thing or exciting project emerges quickly – and I’m off again, catching the wind and the exhilaration it brings, propelled towards the next intoxicating professional destination.

Not this time.

So, this week’s blog for The Leader’s Digest is just me, sitting in my boat with the slap slap slap of the water hitting the hull, reflecting on this peculiar situation I find myself in. I don’t have witty answers or ditty leadership tidbits. All I can do is unpick this situation and sort through what it is to feel agitated about not going anywhere – but wanting to go somewhere.

Maybe you’re in your own version of dead calm and might find something useful here too. So I’m going to dive into those calm waters and look at what I can focus on right now:

1: My wise friend Sarah said to me, “Don’t force this”. She’s right of course. It’s arrogant for me to think I can create the wind or manufacture my next big destination through sheer effort. All the flapping in the world won’t make the boat go faster. I’m learning to stop this effort at pushing the boat forward and instead, take a look around at this stillness. Lie back in my boat and just enjoy the sun on my face. This comes in the form of finding joy in where I am now – a podcast interview with interesting people, a coaching session where I help someone, the tuis singing outside my window, my daughter’s laugh.  

One thing’s for sure, the more I’ve tried to force or manufacture my next season or goal, the worse I’ve felt. Each new destination I grasp at with my mind seems more like a ‘should’ rather than an exciting journey I can’t stop myself from embarking on. I know the difference. Writing Beyond Burnout was a journey I just had to make, no matter how scary it felt.  Instead, I’m trying to enjoy this aimless drifting for a little while longer. I can pause my pushing and pay attention to this perfectly flat sea with no waves for a while, knowing the winds will pick up eventually.

2: While I wait for those winds of change to come, I can tune a bit more into what I do enjoy professionally. Knowing what lights me up, and conversely – what I want to give a wide berth to – has always been a useful exercise in deepening my self-awareness. It may also offer useful insights for when my next big professional adventure begins. I’ve been thinking about photography and picking up my camera for the first time in a long time. This thought nudges me quietly but persistently. Even though it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with leadership, maybe I should just follow this urge to pick up my camera and see where it takes me.

3: Take comfort that I am making progress, even if it feels like I’m not going anywhere. Even in a dead calm, a boat moves; it’s physically impossible to have a total absence of wind while out there on the water. I’ve been making a mental list of what I have achieved each day – those little actions that propel me forward. Doing this helps counter this feeling of non-accomplishment. This list is often longer than I initially think. It reminds me I’m still moving, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

4: Metaphor and exploring my situation through writing has always helped me make sense of my experiences in life. Even the act of using the metaphor of a dead calm in this blog post has helped me better understand and navigate this season in my professional life.

5: Finally, don’t go it alone, Suzi. I forget I’ve got my crew alongside me on my waka – my friends, whānau, and coach, who I can talk things over with. I need to remember that I’m not all alone in my funk. Just on Friday, sharing this with my wonderful partners, Verity and Christina at Intelligent Ink, helped.  

Have you ever had your own version of a dead calm in your life?  What was it like? What helped you? Don’t hold back if you have some advice for me.

In the meantime, I’ll be here in my boat, bobbing up and down, tiding it over, floating with the tides, waiting for the wind to return.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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