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  • Judy Sims

When to Be Patient in Your Career. And When to Be Impatient.

Patient career woman

When I was little, my kindergarten class took a field trip to a dairy farm where each of us took turns milking a real live cow. Rather than clamoring for my turn as my classmates did, I stood back, politely waiting to be called on. By the time I got to the cow (I was last), there was no milk left.

I was not happy. So much so, I now believe those few minutes in a cold, smelly barn kicked off a lifetime of almost pathological impatience.

Do it now. Say it now. If it can’t happen now, when can it happen? Now, now, now. That’s me.

Sometimes my impatience is a good thing. I move quickly, I rarely procrastinate and I get stuff done. But sometimes, it’s a very bad thing. When making decisions, rather than considering different options, I tend to run with the first idea that comes to me. I can get very agitated when things don’t happen as soon as I’d like them to. And, I have a tendency to set myself up for failure and disappointment due to unrealistic expectations about how fast I can achieve things.

Impatience causes us to say the thing we regret, or to send the email without knowing all the facts, or to push the launch button when the product just isn’t ready, or to quit the job we love because things at this moment aren’t going the way we want them to.

And then there’s patience, which often is a very good thing. It is, after all, a virtue for a reason. It keeps us from doing all the stupid things that impatience can drive us to do. But it too has some very serious drawbacks.

Too much patience causes us to sit and wait when we should be acting, or to accept a situation when we should be change-making. It can cause us to stay in a job that doesn’t fulfill us for years and years as we grow increasingly bitter and disillusioned. Or to miss the moment when our words, our ideas, our action would have changed everything. Or to keep a poorly performing employee around long enough to cause pain and irritation to not just ourselves, but the people who have to work with them.

It’s all about fear.

In the case of both too much patience and too little, fear is always at play. Something happens, or doesn’t happen and suddenly, we’re emotionally hooked.

Our brains have two ways of handling stressful and unwanted situations:

We enter fight or flight mode. Stress rises in our bodies. Perhaps we feel adrenaline shooting outward to our extremities. Our sympathetic nervous system kicks into action and stress hormones are released. We become cognitively, perceptually and emotionally impaired. Learning becomes impossible. In other words, we become very, very impatient.

Or we enter freeze mode, and we feel nothing. We’re numb and disconnected. Our Parasympathetic nervous system is activated, and we dissociate from the situation. We don’t see what needs to be seen. We don’t hear what needs to be heard. We don’t decide to take action or not to take action. We don’t even process that action is possible. We’re a deer in headlights.

In both cases, we’re reacting rather than responding. We’re in what I call a contractive state. And this is a terrible place to live from and to lead from.

It's hard to know when to be patient in your career and when you should push for more. Here are some guidelines:

When to be patient in your career.

When you feel anger, annoyance, or irritation rising. Don’t fire back that email response right away. Don’t pull the trigger on that launch. Don’t send that proposal just yet. Take a moment.

When to be impatient in your career.

When you feel yourself shutting down, when you don’t want to know, or think about the issue at hand. Again, take a moment. Acknowledge the fear. Then, take action. Say the thing that needs to be said. Push the button. Launch the thing. Terminate the employee.

That’s all well and good, but how is it supposed to work in real life?

Here’s the short-term fix:

The first thing to do is notice what’s going on. Are you feeling reactive, defensive, and/or judgemental? Where in your physicality are these emotions arising? Is your heart pounding? Is your stomach churning? Are there butterflies of excitement? Do you feel tension in your jaw? Are your fists clenched? Is there tightness in your chest? Is there a twinge in your back? Are you twiddling your thumbs? Are there sensations of heat or cold anywhere? Or do you feel nothing at all?

Next, get grounded. Feel your feet on the floor. Take a single thoughtless breath. Allow all thoughts and emotions to dissolve away for one breath. From here, prepare for conscious action or inaction. You can learn more about managing your state of being here.

And here’s the long-term solution:

The best way to avoid the perils of too much or too little patience is know who you are and what you stand for. This allows us to stay open. When you’re grounded in solid core values and purpose, yet open to new ideas, people and situations, you’re in what I call an Expansive State. You can read more about that, here.

Now you’re ready to act, or not act, from a place of spacious consciousness. And that’s a terrific place to live and lead from.

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