Leave A Little in Reserve

"I'm never going to be a star," she says, "but it's nice to be pushing 60 with more to do than I've ever had before. And my life is a manageable size. So if someone gets sick or someone gets happy or a baby is born, I can be there."

—Actress Kathleen Chalfant 

And my life is a manageable size. While manageable is certainly in the eyes of the beholder, isn't having a manageable life a worthwhile goal for just about everyone? 

One of my first mentors, Dr. Sara Boatman, told me that people who do good work will always have more opportunities available to them than they should realistically consider pursuing. One of the things I'm beginning to realize about so many aspects of life is that it often comes down to self-restraint, choosing to pass when it is so tempting to say yes.

It isn't always an easy thing to do, particularly if the opportunity being presented is a second helping of your favorite dessert, the chance to work with a favorite colleague, or an opportunity that has the possibility of opening some doors down the road. But just as two helpings of turtle cheesecake (now you know) will make ME an unmanageable size, so might pursuing an additional project that my schedule really won't sustain.

So how is it then that our lives become unmanageable? For me it is when I simply act without even a smidgeon of thought about how the choice I am making might affect other aspects of what's going on in my life. It is the downside of the otherwise positive "living in the moment." It parallels eating a meal so quickly that your stomach doesn't have time to signal your brain that you were full about halfway through.

Another way I find I get myself into awkward situations is letting the voice inside my head stress all the positives of the choice I am making and minimizing the real consequences of what may be about to occur. "Oh this won't take that much time. You might never get the chance to work on something like this again."

When I reflected more on Chalfant's comment I was left with the sense that a manageable life is one leaving something in reserve. It isn't going full speed all the time. It has capacity to expand, to shift gears when a particularly desirable moment (like a new baby) occurs or when a more challenging situation (like a loved one becoming ill) demands your involvement.

So cleaning our plates isn't the best approach at the dinner table or in life. Leaving with a little room for more is key even though that runs counter to our conspicuous consumption society. As I learned from Sara Boatman long ago, "too much of a good thing is still too much." 

This topic is one I am increasingly addressing in conference keynotes, building on this 5-minute IGNITE talk. 

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