artfully overwhelmed


Your heart is racing. A knot has formed in your stomach.  Panic sets-in as you weigh your options and try to prioritize your actions.  So much to do.  Too many deadlines.  Nothing seems clear.  Customers, vendors, employees, family.  No good answers.  Time is running out…

Does the paragraph above sound overwhelming?  When was the last time you were there?  What did you do?  Was it effective?

I recently watched a basketball game in which the head coach became overwhelmed.  How could I tell?

  • Frequent substitutions and indecision as he tried to adjust to a changing situation.
  • An inability to make tactical changes in the moment.
  • Angry yelling at players – on and off the floor.
    Mixed messages.  “Do this”, “don’t do this”, “why didn’t you do this”, “drive”, “don’t drive”, “shoot”, “don’t shoot”.  All frantic.  All after the fact.  All ineffective.
  • Micro management of every move.
  • A loss of self control and composure.

The result?  A one-point game became a 20 point game in less than 10 minutes.  Players became frustrated.  The other team fed off of the chaos.  The home-team fans fed off of the frustration.  Ultimately, his team lost.  I suspect he blames his players for not executing.  I suspect he feels that momentum shifted away from him for no apparent reason.  I suspect he doesn’t recognize that he fed it.

We’ve all been there.  Those moments when all hell has broken loose and we are hanging on by a thread.  If you haven’t been there, well, we’ll discuss that in a moment. A finite basketball game makes it easy to see.  It has all of the elements: intense pressure, time constraints, a small field of play that allows us to see everything, direct competition, a gritty physicality.  We see this in most sports and it enthralls us.

The Infinite Game

What about your day-to-day?  Getting products built and shipped.  Competitors maneuvering around you in the market.  Employees making mistakes.  Regulators disrupting your day.  It is all happening, all the time.  And that is the point.  It is all happening, all the time.  Seth Godin calls this the “Infinite Game.”  There is no end.  The goal is to play well enough to be allowed to continue to play.  For us as leaders, the state of feeling overwhelmed occurs when we FEEL that we’ve lost a handle on it all.  We FEEL that we’re not being effective because we don’t have enough time, enough information, enough money, enough people…enough.

The beauty of viewing your job, career, company, season, as an infinite game is that you give yourself permission to take a longer perspective.  In the infinite game, your objective is something more profound because it focuses on the playing, not each result.  This doesn’t mean you don’t set objectives or have goals.  It simply means that if one thing doesn’t work, you show up again and try something else.  If you lose one game, you learn, make adjustments and do better the next time.  If you don’t get a product shipped on time, you look at it as a learning opportunity and make the necessary improvements.

In the case of a coach who is held accountable for winning and losing, the focus still needs to be on the bigger picture.  Losing yourself to the moment and allowing yourself to be overwhelmed does not help you in a single game, or the infinite game: the season or your career.   This is where the leadership lessons really happen.  In the moment.

In the Moment

How do we manage our feelings in the moment so we can do our best, be our best, and help our team be its best?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Recognize the signs of panic.  The knot in your gut, the adrenaline, anger, emotion, and tension are all signs that your feelings are taking over.  It is natural.  We are built for fight or flight and these feelings are self protective.  However, they can be self-destructive as well.
  • Step back from the moment.  When panic sets-in.  When the feelings swell to fever pitch, find a way to step back.  It’s pretty tough in a basketball game but great leadership requires it.  In our day-to-day, we’ve got to be able to retreat for a few minutes to get our bearings. We have to do a reset and not give-in to the frustration and panic of feeling overwhelmed.  Give yourself some room to think.
  • Embrace the tension.  Really?  Yes.  Because in this moment, you are truly alive.  You are playing the infinite game.  If you are feeling it, it means you are in the game and pushing yourself.  This is an exercise in attitude and it is not easy.  The tension indicates a problem to be solved or pushed past.  It does not indicate the end, doom, or worst case scenario.  The worst case scenario is that you give up and quit playing.  Seize it and tell yourself: I can do this.
  • Focus on others.  Often, we become self-absorbed when overwhelmed. We want the tension to go away and we focus on our feelings.  An effective way to distance yourself from your self-absorption is to focus on individual members of your team.  For a basketball coach, it should be easy.  What can I do to help ______ be more effective?  Perhaps a word of encouragement.  Maybe a challenge.  Maybe, just maybe, you give that person permission to fail.  What would happen if each of your team members knew the world wouldn’t end with their next mistake?  What might they attempt?  What might they accomplish?
  • Look at the bigger picture.  This is only a moment.  A quarter. A game. A day.  A week. A year.  What is the bigger picture?  Where are you going?  HOW do you want to get there?  “How” is the journey.  In the infinite game, you are building a life.  You are building experiences.  The overwhelming nature of today will pass.  “How” you do it matters; for you and for those around you.
  • Have faith.  Trust yourself.  Relax knowing that you’ve got this.  You are capable.  You will survive.  You will make mistakes.  You will win.  You will lose.  It will be OK.  Perhaps giving yourself permission to fail is the greatest gift of all.

Beyond Your Comfort Zone

If you have reached the end of this post and are feeling that your life is wonderfully free of any feelings of being overwhelmed, then I am very sorry for you.  Why?  Because that tells me you are not pushing yourself.  You are living safely within your comfort zone and are likely not being all that you can be.  We are overwhelmed at the edge.  And at the edge is where we grow into something more; we get a little closer to our potential.