A Project Manager’s Game Plan for Dealing with Incurable Cancer

Congratulations!  You’re being recognized for…something.  Whether it’s a Facebook accolade, a bit of work acknowledgment, or a bit of organizational recognition, you get appreciated.  Over time, as you become better at your craft, you amass more and more acknowledgment and recognition.  And over time, it can drive you to two places.  You are now at the intersection of Craving and Guilt. 

I had the weird experience the other day of becoming the “poster child” for my cancer treatment and the success I’ve had with it.  At a conference of oncology professionals, I was the ten-minute segment on “Patient Perspective.”  When my oncologist asked if I would consider it, I didn’t hesitate.  He had been one of two professionals I credit with saving my life, so any time I could return even the smallest favor, I was on board.  When I shared the news with a fellow cancer patient, however, I could see he was distracted by the notion that I had been declared a success story by the oncology community.  Believe me, if there’s a group in which I want to succeed, my cancer crowd is it. 

The image associated with this particular discussion is a collection of awards and challenge coins and other recognition I’ve received at various moments in my career.  I could also post dozens and dozens of student reviews and evaluations that touch my professional heart, affirming my career choice as a corporate trainer.  There’s a problem with this pursuit, however.  It’s that the accolades have a nasty habit of putting me in a position to want more accolades.  I confess.  I’m a praise junkie. 

This leads to two things: self-flagellation and succeeder’s guilt.  You’ve likely heard of survivor’s guilt, and succeeder’s guilt is its close cousin. 

Self-flagellation – This is a cousin to “imposter’s syndrome,” in that you beat yourself up for not living up to your own personal ideals.  I recently taught a class that, while the ratings were above par, I didn’t feel like it achieved the standards I set for myself.  When I got home, I spoke to my lovely wife about it, who reassured me I was just not seeing what my students were seeing.  But for the next 24 hours, I continued to beat myself up.  I know that many of my peers have sought me out through the years to find out how to improve their professional posture.  I know I manage my craft well.  But I actually believe that those of us who set insanely high personal standards do ourselves and our clients a favor.  We don’t have to receive the beat-down we believe we merit.  We do a phenomenal job of taking care of it ourselves.  I guarantee that the next time I go before the client where I felt my performance was “meh,” I’ll go loaded for bear with a higher performance level.

Succeeder’s guilt – In most of our professional endeavors, we succeed.  We don’t just succeed; we excel.  We go forth and provide our clients with the best possible performance they could expect, stepping above and beyond what others might provide (in a quest for adequacy).  And most of the time, we do succeed.  When I was invited to speak before the cancer research group for a patient perspective, I was wowed.  I was being acknowledged by professionals in the field as an articulate representative of the radiation oncology community.  (Insert trumpet fanfare here).  And yet, in sharing this with a patient peer, I realized that I felt genuinely guilty.  My peer had not been so recognized.  He was not having the positive outcomes I’ve experienced.  He was continuing the daunting fight against a disease that neither of us will likely ultimately win. 

His fight continues.  Mine is postponed on account of temporary success. 

I am the first to recognize that my success is temporary.  But every extra day I am granted on this planet is a blessing. 

Lesson Learned: Even if you know that a “win” is temporary, it’s still time to acknowledge and celebrate it.  To wallow in survivor’s or succeeder’s guilt is a disservice to the powers that put you in a positive position in the first place.  Whatever drove you to your success is worthy of acknowledgment and appreciation.  Any time someone takes the time to acknowledge your winning position, there’s a simple response—“Thank you.”

So where do we go from here?  I plan to do everything in my power to keep winning.  I’m teaching PMP® prep again, and I know what a win looks like.  Every student of mine that passes the exam is a huge success.  I will not damn them with faint praise (acknowledgment to Alexander Pope, 1734).  I will laud their success, and my own.  Too often we damn ourselves with faint praise—our inability to celebrate—and that’s nigh criminal.  We can overcome this trait very simply.  Be proud, but be proud in earnest.  When we have a win, we should not “hide our light under a bushel”, as the book of Matthew admonishes.  You have received gifts in such moments. Be grateful to the giver.

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Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP is grateful for the stories he gets to share and the successes of a life well-lived.  Take a look at Volume One of this experience in his book, The Stage Four Project, available on Amazon.  (https://www.amazon.com/Stage-Four-Project-Managers-Dealing/dp/B0CSV5N8D4)   He welcomes your e-mails with questions or comments at carl@carlpritchard.com