This time of year my mind wanders to gratitude. I’m grateful for the incredibly talented colleagues who have made this year’s relentless stream of work border on enjoyable. And I’m thankful for friends who have made life’s normal burdens lighter through their kindness and support. A garden of friends and colleagues has made this terrifically challenging year much more pleasant for me. But, like all gardens, it occasionally needs weeding.
Many years ago when I was exiting physics graduate school, and sad to be leaving friends behind, one of my professors advised me to let go of relationships that had passed their time, and not to grieve for their loss. While many relationships grow more satisfying over the years, he cautioned that clinging indiscriminately to all past relationships can burden a person – like accumulating too much baggage on an around-the-world tour. This was a man whose life’s ambition was to get all of his worldly belongings into no more than 2 suitcases. I must say, now I see his point.
At the risk of seeming a bit harsh, over the years I’ve come to understand that relationships have a lifecycle as much as products do. Every once in a while I’ve found it helpful to step back and ask myself which relationships are contributing to a healthy and productive life, and which have gone a bit past the “best if enjoyed by” date on the package. And so, every once in a while, I weed my life.
You probably know at least one person, either personal or professional, whose relationship sucks your will to live. This person is the perfect candidate for weeding. Now mind you there’s a good chance that your “weed” is a delightful human being, and loved by many, but just not a great match for you, your team, or the current incarnation of your life. Don’t selfishly cling to them! Release them to other relationships that are mutually beneficial and enjoyable. The cruelest thing you can do is stay entwined with them out of a sense of obligation. Set them free to their next fabulous opportunity to connect meaningfully.
Ideal candidates for weeding:
- Collaborators who take, but never give.
- Team members who don’t deliver as promised.
- Employees who aren’t a good fit for their job.
- Colleagues who provide a steady stream of negativity.
- Friends who are magnets for bad luck, and intent on spreading their misfortune to you.
Stop associating with these people! Don’t be mean to them, just void them like the plague. And do it before you’re driven to an uncontrollable tirade about how they annoy you. Extract them from your life in the kindest way possible. (One piece of advice based on personal experience – don’t wait until your annoyance builds to an uncontrollable frenzy that makes you seem like a vitriol-spewing lunatic.)
Unfortunately certain categories of people don’t lend themselves to weeding, for instance:
- Your boss, and management chain in general – unless you are willing to quit.
- Employees you can’t transfer or fire, for whatever reason.
- Close family members.
- Neighbors – unless you are willing to move.
In these cases isolation, or at least minimizing contact, works well. (In one case our team considered locking a highly talented and irreplaceable – but irascible – colleague in his lab with plans to slide a pizza under the door every week or so.)
While you might think that the people you weed from your life will mourn the loss of your company, there is at least a chance they’ll be relieved not to have to interact with you further. I’ve found that both parties are aware that the relationship is no longer a healthy one.
Oh, and keep in mind that YOU may be the weed in someone else’s life. I’ve been “weeded” from other people’s lives from time to time (laid off twice, for example). Initially it’s a painful personal blow, but eventually I came to understand that our lives were moving in different directions, and they noticed it first. Try not to take it personally.