How to drop the ball in your life without letting anyone down (including you)
Aug 2, 2021 / Tiffany Dufu
I used to be a person who was terrified of ever dropping the ball. In the US, the term “drop the ball” has very negative connotations. It means you’ve failed to take action or failed to do something you were supposed to do. And by dropping the ball, you often end up disappointing the other people in your life. I used to feel it was very important to keep all of my balls constantly in the air, whether those balls were my job, my family or the responsibilities in the rest of my life. Plus, as a Black woman, I felt like my dropping the ball had bigger implications especially at work. I worried, “If I mess this up, they’re never going to hire another Black person again.” What happened to me was I came to a life-changing moment where I wasn’t able to keep all of my balls in the air and I wasn’t able to do everything beautifully and perfectly. For me, it was the birth of my first child, but for other people, it could be almost anything else — a diagnosis; you finally get the promotion of your dreams and realize it’s harder to be the boss than you thought; or a pandemic that’s hit the entire globe. No one called to tell me they didn’t love me anymore, I didn’t lose my job, and no one came to arrest me because I had unpaid parking tickets. After I dropped my balls, I had an epiphany. Which was this: Even though my balls were rolling all over the floor, the world didn’t end. No one called to tell me they didn’t love me anymore, I didn’t lose my job, and no one came to arrest me because I had unpaid parking tickets. So I started to question why so many of us feel so much pressure to deliver constantly and at a very high level all of the time. Maybe what we really need to do is drop the unrealistic expectations about how we always need to have it all together. I decided to reappropriate the term “dropping the ball” and now it means “doing less and achieving more”. Dropping the ball in this way involves three steps: 1. Getting clear about what matters most to you; 2. Figuring out what you hope to achieve and how your highest and best use can help you get there; 3. Engaging other people in your journey. Let me break them down for you. At your funeral, what would you want a friend, a family member or a coworker to say about you? The first and most effective step requires you to get clear about what matters most to you and your life. One of the most powerful exercises I like to do was made popular by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. For the exercise, you imagine the end of your life and your eulogy. I know this seems sad or depressing, but given that a lot of people around the globe are losing their lives to this virus, it’s actually a prescient thing to do. So at your funeral, what would you want a friend, a family member or a coworker to say about you? You probably wouldn’t want them to stand up and say: “She got a lot of things done on her to-do list every day.” Instead, you probably want them to say something about the impact you had on the world. Ask 10 people to tell you about a time when they’ve experienced you at your best, what are the things you do well with little effort, and what are the things that only you can do. The second step involves focusing on what you hope to achieve in the important areas of your life — and how your highest and best use can help you get there. While my career is important to me, what really matters in that sphere is that I’m working to advance women and girls in the world. My marriage is important, but what really matters is that I’m nurturing a healthy partnership. My kids are obviously important, but what really matters is that I’m raising conscious global citizens. After that, you can move on to what you should be doing and how you put your particular abilities and skills — what I call your highest and best use — to work to accomplish those goals. If you’re thinking “I don’t know what my highest and best use is”, one great exercise to identify it is to talk to the people in your life. Ask 10 people who’ve known you in different parts of your time on this planet to tell you about a time when they’ve experienced you at your best, what are the things you do well with little effort, and what are the things that only you can do. Then listen to what they say. If you can transcribe their responses — amazing! After you have them down on paper, circle words, phrases and themes that keep coming up or that really resonate for you. You can’t just drop the ball and not let anyone know — I’ve tried this and it doesn’t work. The third step involves enlisting other people in your journey. You need to get the people in your life on board with you dropping the ball. You can’t just drop the ball and not let anyone know — I’ve tried this and it doesn’t work. Let’s start with your boss, because that’s usually the person for which people push back and tell me, “There’s no way I can drop the ball with her.” But you can. When you talk to her, use a strategy that I call “leading with the forest and then getting into the trees”. This means appealing to what really matters to someone else. For bosses, what matters most are usually the outcomes and results that they want their team members to achieve in a given period of time. When you consciously drop the ball at home, I think you’ll discover that the expectations you hold for yourself are so much higher than those held by the people who love you. Let’s say you’ve decided your highest use in your career is establishing meaningful collaborations and you want to spend more time doing this. You could frame your request to your boss by saying something like “I feel like if I spent more time with the clients and a little bit less time on the administrative side, I could get our company to its strategic goal. Are you open to a conversation about how I might be able to reprioritize things and potentially give some opportunities to someone else on the team so we can hit the mark?” Then if a colleague is going to feel the impact of you deciding to drop the ball, you need to be proactive and go to them and say, “Hey, I just want to let you know I’m playing with an idea. I know it sounds scary, but I actually think it’s going to increase my productivity and the productivity of the team. I want to tell you in advance about what I’m going to be doing, so we can have a conversation about how it might impact you and make sure you’re not feeling any negative effects.” Proactive communication like this is critical. In terms of dropping the ball at home, what’s really important is to come to any family conversations with grace and humility. Admit what they’ve already experienced — they’ve probably had to deal with you being overwhelmed and you being stressed and the repercussions of this pressure. A conversation with your kids might go like this: “I know this seems like a strange conversation I’m having with you, but I really want to be a good mom. I’ve been feeling extremely overwhelmed and stressed, and I feel like there’s all these things I have on my list I need to do to be a good mom. Because I can’t do them, it’s making me have a short temper. Sometimes I know I yell at you guys when I don’t mean to. I feel like it would be better if I could focus on what you feel is most important for me to be a good mom. Could we talk about what those top three things are? I was also hoping I might be able to engage you guys to do a couple of things around the house — this would really help me be my best self.” Every time you stop doing the things that don’t align with your highest purpose, you’re modeling this behavior — and humility and vulnerability — for others. Those of us who are perfectionists will want to continue doing everything to the best of our abilities — even when it makes us crazy or exhausted. But when you consciously drop the ball at home, I think you’ll discover that the expectations you hold for yourself are so much higher than those held by the people who love you and are around you. You can minimize your to-do list simply by asking your loved ones what’s most important to them. Keep this in mind: When you drop the ball openly and thoughtfully in the different areas of your life, you won’t only be benefiting yourself. You’ll be helping everyone around you too. Every time you show your limitations, focus on using your unique gifts and stop doing the things that don’t align with your highest purpose, you’re modeling this behavior — and humility and vulnerability — for others. And that’s something we need more of in this world.