Buddhists call it the “Hungry Ghost.” With its expansive belly and its tiny mouth, it’s an almost comical character. But what it represents is no laughing matter. “The hungry ghost can never get enough inside,” explains Elizabeth Gibson-Meier. “It is always wanting. Many people today experience the same sensation. Nothing that they do feels like it’s enough.”
Gibson-Meier, 48, a senior consultant at RHR International Co., one of the oldest management-psychology firms in the nation, is a student of Buddhist philosophy. And she works with lots of hungry ghosts. Her home base is near Silicon Valley, capital of the Internet economy — a place where hundreds of thousands of people are racing to work hard, to beat the competition, and to make the Big Score. Almost all of her clients are high-powered executives — from billionaire entrepreneurs to the CEOs of public companies. In case after case, Gibson-Meier says, whether the challenge on the table is building teams or managing change, the real issue for those clients is sustainability: How much is enough?
That question has resounded throughout Gibson-Meier’s own life. Her first job after earning a PhD in psychology from Stanford University was at Teknowledge Corp., a Silicon Valley software company that builds expert systems. “I really liked the faster pace,” she says. “And I liked the people I worked with. They were bright; they made things happen.” It helped that the majority of her colleagues were also Stanford grads. “It was like Camelot,” she says. “The camaraderie was wonderful. It was exciting. These were some of the most interesting people I had ever been around.”
Then, around 1987, Teknowledge hit a wall. Gibson-Meier was recruited by a company called Parc Place, a maker of object-oriented development systems. If anything, the pace there was even more frantic than it had been at Teknowledge: “You weren’t thought to be working unless you were just about killing yourself,” she says. Gibson-Meier had no trouble keeping up with the work. In her spare time, she even managed to write articles on object-oriented systems analysis for the legendary Byte magazine.
Without really planning it, she was living out a Silicon Valley success story. She had topflight academic training, work experience at two high-profile startups, and a growing reputation as a thinker in the field of object-oriented systems. She could have named her price at any of a dozen of the Valley’s hottest companies. Instead, she walked away from it all.
“I was trying to fill a hole that had no bottom,” she says. “So I decided to go in another direction — to apply to other organizations everything that I had learned from my academic training and from the years that I spent inside companies. Making that decision was very fulfilling. I had found out what I wanted to do when I grew up.” That’s what brought Gibson-Meier to RHR International. In an interview with Fast Company, she offered advice on how people can appease their hungry ghosts.
Fall into the Gap
I don’t believe in “balance.” Too many people act as if designing a sustainable life were about allocating time and resources. What we are really talking about is solving an equation with lots of variables. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Different people have different life equations. Your own equation changes throughout your life. Answering the question “How much is enough?” is not something that you do just once. It stays with you forever.
I use various techniques to help people solve their personal equation. One technique involves pie charts. I ask people to draw a circle and then to divide it into pieces, using the question “What things are most important to you?” as a guide. Maybe “family” gets a huge slice — or maybe, if you’re young, it doesn’t. I try to keep the categories open-ended, because I want to see how people express their priorities. Then I ask them to create a pie chart around the question “How do you spend your time?” What I usually find is a big gap between what people say is important to them and what they actually do with their time. That gap sets up the equation that we then have to solve: What are you happy with? What are you unhappy with? What can we do to close that gap?
You’d be surprised by how much of an eye-opener this exercise can be for people. One of my clients was the top female executive at a major bank. I started working with her at a time when she had a huge job responsibility and when she also had two young sons. And every time I talked to her, she was crying. She was really in pain. So we went through this exercise. What her pie chart showed was that she wasn’t just spending too much time at work; she was also spending more and more time at work on activities that were less and less productive — doing things that she really didn’t enjoy, getting into detailed work even though she wasn’t a very detail-oriented person. And she couldn’t work any harder than she was already working: People were getting voice mails from her at 4 a.m.!
That’s when the egg finally cracked. It was really liberating for her to recognize that because of what her organization was going through, and because of where she was in that organization, she would be doing more and more of the kind of stuff that she found draining. And this wasn’t the kind of stuff that she excelled at. So she was haunted by a sense of failure: “I’m not doing well enough.” Eventually she recognized that the fit was wrong. If this were a play, we would say that she had been miscast.
I went on a vacation, and on the flight back, I was thinking about her. I thought about suggesting that she take her two sons to some remote island for six weeks. But I figured that she would never do it. Then, when I got back, she told me that she had decided to retire: She had enough money, and there were some nonprofit boards that she wanted to sit on. I never expected her to take action so quickly. But I knew that she had made an extremely healthy choice.
Making Progress Means Making Choices
I don’t go in and “fix” people. My job is to help people see alternatives when they feel that they don’t have any — when they feel boxed in. You hear the same words from so many different people: “I feel like I’m always behind. I’m barely treading water.” But people have more choices than they think they do.
One question I like to pose to clients is this: “What are some examples of situations in which you said no to a work request: no to a project assignment, no to a business trip?” Then I ask, “What are some examples of situations in which you said no to requests outside of work? What prompted you to say no? What did it feel like to say no?” That’s when most people are forced to make choices — when their backs are against a wall.
An even bigger challenge, of course, involves helping people to face choices that require more than just saying no — choices that require taking really disruptive steps. Here’s a classic example, one that I see all the time: People have a boss who tells them, “You need to spend more time at home. You need to get away from the office.” Yet everything else that the boss communicates sends a different message: “Don’t you dare act on that statement.” These people are in a situation that requires a choice. If they choose to stay with their company, then they have to come to terms with what the boss is demanding — no matter what the boss may be saying. If they choose to act on their priorities, to live a life that’s more in sync with their values, then they may have to leave that company. Of course, most people never make either choice. They suffer in silence, they hope that change is just around the corner — but change never arrives.
Sometimes you work through one of these kinds of problems and find out that it’s a paper tiger. But sometimes you discover that the tiger has real teeth. One of my clients was a new manager at a Silicon Valley company. He felt ineffective there, and he was very unhappy. This was a company where people worked incredibly long hours, and on nights and weekends — not necessarily because they had to, but because there was a strong “face time” culture. The measure of your value and commitment at this company was how long you stayed at the office. He had the very sane idea that the best managers are those who organize work so that people don’t have to be at the office on nights and weekends. Of course, he was right — but at that company, his being right didn’t matter. Now, there are plenty of other companies in Silicon Valley with cultures that value output rather than input — that care more about what you do than about how long you work. He chose to leave and to join a company that welcomed his way of working. These are not easy choices to make, especially for people who haven’t worked in very many companies or who have worked in only one genre of company — such as the Silicon Valley startup.
Small Steps, Big Change
You can make a big change without making an immediate, radical break with the past. There’s nothing harder than changing established behaviors. So don’t try to change everything at once. Focus on one or two significant behaviors, make progress, and move on.
One woman whom I worked with had gotten caught up in a cycle of compulsive spending. She would put herself in high-stress situations for one reason: to make a lot of money. Then, to relieve the pressure and to treat herself (she didn’t have a life outside the office; she was working all the time), she would go out and spend money — on clothes, trips, stuff for her house, stuff for her parents.
So I told her, “You’re a smart person, you can see the cycle, you know how it works. If you decide to stop it, you’re going to go through withdrawal. You’re going to be changing behaviors that have become ingrained and reinforced. And that’s not easy to do. So let’s look at your choices. How much is on the debit side of your balance sheet, and how much do you have to bring in? Could you slow down your payments? If you did that, you could back off on your work right now, but then you wouldn’t have any more cash to blow. Instead of coming to a complete halt, start throttling back.”
That approach makes sense. Break change into small steps. Then act on the steps that are both meaningful and doable.
Eric Ransdell (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in San Francisco. You can contact Elizabeth Gibson-Meier by email (email@example.com).