Swinging for the Fence to Slow Productivity

We swung for the fences and came up short…
Yeah, you win some, you lose some, it ain’t always home runs
And that’s just the way life plays…
Morgan Wallen

A few years ago, I was facilitating a DiSC training session with one of my colleagues. We use a motivation checklist tied to the DiSC Personality Model to emphasize that different things motivate different people.

We always encourage people to ask a peer what they think motivates them. Based on the behaviors you observe in another person, “What do you think makes them tick?” is the question we ask. I asked my colleague during the session to comment on what she thought my top two are. 

She immediately said, “Well one is, ‘Taking on new challenges.’” 

It wasn’t one of the top two I had marked.  Actually, in going through the checklist, it really wasn’t one I had even considered. 

But as I reflected, I realized how off my self awareness might be.  She was spot on. I’m always swinging for the fence. On top of that, I very rarely wait patiently for the next pitch. I take on as much as I can, always ready for the challenge of knocking it all out of the park. 

Too Many Balls 

Following my sabbatical almost three years ago where I said no to everything for almost eight weeks, I came out refreshed and ready to swing for the fence again. I slowly but surely started picking up balls. One at a time, we added client after client, one of which is sucking the ever living life out of me right now. I picked up volunteer board seat balls. Thinking that the flexibility my husband now had given his change in careers would allow him to help out with the softballs of three kids, I said yes to more. Yes to travel, both personal and professional, yes to training for a marathon. Yes to a 17 year old from Costa Rica living with us

Not only is my disposition to always swing for the fence, I am also always juggling a lot of balls trying to hit them all out of the park. Balls I’m trying to help others hit out of the park. I realized on one random Tuesday in April, I had dealt with ten different people calling me in crisis- or perceived crisis- needing my help. None of them were family, all balls I had picked up doing apparently what I’m good at.  As my husband has said, “I swear you have a sign on your forehead that reads, ‘Please spill your guts to me. I am here to help!’”

But then a curveball invariably gets thrown. And two softball sized ones- one professional and one personal- hit me like a ton of bricks this spring.

As I told my team, “I can juggle 18 balls at a time, but throw me 19 with a curve, and I want to drop them all.  It makes me realize maybe 15 balls is where I should have stopped.  I never should have picked up 16, 17, or 18 to begin with.  

If I had never picked up those three, I could have handled the softballs, but by not stopping before it got to be too much, I seemed to be ill equipped to function given the big two.  

I immediately went to, ok, sabbatical time again!  I need eight weeks of nothing! 

Grand Slams

For our second quarter planning meeting, you better believe “Sabbaticals” was on the agenda.  Unlike last time, everyone saw it and everyone brought it up before it was even time to discuss it. Everyone on the team has been in the business of picking up lots of balls too. We love to play the game, leaning into our mission, but it can get exhausting. 

At our yearly planning meeting three months prior, we had worked hard to see where everyone was with current projects and what people wanted to grow in and what people wanted to divest in. I had named these things for myself too, already knowing in January that there were some balls that I wanted and needed to throw out.  But sometimes divesting in things takes time.  And I am trying to exit on some of them gracefully.  And I really wanted to equip my team to lead on some things they were capable of doing even better than I could, but there was inevitably some training involved in that

We’d made plans for transitions. I communicated to boards I served on that I would not be serving another term- find a replacement! I’d be done with my bucket list marathon at the end of April. My so-stressful-I-can’t-sleep-at-night looming client issue would come to a peak at the same time and then be easier (or so I thought). 

But by April, I was ready to say, “Forget gracefully!”  Every ball I’ve got is being thrown to the curb!”  

“And that’s just the way life plays….”

Right after this, I find myself heading to Oxford, Mississippi for a Morgan Wallen concert. You see, he is my daughter’s favorite musician. For Christmas, we had surprised her with tickets to his concert at Ole Miss in April. At the time, I wasn’t aware of how difficult the time between Christmas and April would be. The last ball I really wanted to have to juggle over that weekend was to be away from home again. 

But she was ecstatic, and we weren’t going to miss it. After four hours in the rain listening to not one, not two, but three opening acts, he finally came on stage. A few songs in, he transitioned to my daughter’s favorite song, ‘98 Braves.  

I felt the slow creep of the lyrics speaking to me:

We swung for the fences and came up short…
Yeah, you win some, you lose some, it ain’t always home runs
And that’s just the way life plays…

The personal issue got even more pronounced while I was gone.  The client issue came to a head right after I got back, and it was shared with me that it would get even more intense over the summer and into the fall. 

Again, the thought, just throw the balls away. All of them. Quit swinging.

Then, as I was unwinding the evening after my client engagement, I got a call from my husband. “He’s hit a grand slam! Cortez hit a grand slam!!” Drew was almost in tears. Our brown eyed boy who after seven years of baseball with us, had finally hit one over, and a grand slam at that!  His mother was in tears, I was in tears.  

Seasons of Life 

It takes some time for me to moderate the pendulum swings in my life. I preach moderation, but I often don’t practice it. And when I’m swinging for the fence all the time with too many balls, I get to a breaking point. I want to quit. 

But, as I reflected I realized, I think I’m entering a season in my life where I can begin to honor the seasons of the game.  

As Emily Freeman says so aptly, “Just because things change doesn’t mean you chose wrong in the first place. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it forever.”  

I’ve realized I’m in the season now where I would rather see someone else hit home runs. I get more joy and satisfaction from the win a teammate gets than I do experiencing it for myself. Like the speaking gig they are invited to instead of me. Like the colleagues who are about to land a very big fish or two that could substantially change their income (we pay a commission on business anyone lands) at a season in life where income is being sucked out like a vacuum. Kids in college ain’t cheap. For someone else to serve in that board role and learn.  

It used to be that if our brown eyed boy was going to make it to a game or a practice or anything for that matter, we were going to have to take him.  After almost seven years, his mom takes him to most things now. She has stepped up to the plate and she is helping him knock it over the fence. It is a joy to see the evolution of their journey. 

Most importantly, there is no greater joy than to see my kids well and excelling. Although Cortez isn’t our biological child, his successes and my three biological kids’ successes are more important to me than almost anything. Faith’s- our Costa Rica 17 year old- successes are important to me. The wonderful team I get to work with everyday at HPC are all so important to me.  And when I say successes, hitting a real grand slam isn’t what I mean, although the hard work and commitment that goes into hitting them is. 

I’m ready to throw the balls for others to hit, not hit them myself. And I’m ready to be happy with a single, especially if it knocks in another run.  I’m not ready to stop stepping up to the plate or step up to the mound, I just need to modify my game plan. 

And maybe you do too. 

“When we want to give up, maybe what we need to do is open the door to doing things differently, not doing something different all together. “

Mary Ila Ward

“Slow Productivity” 

For me, doing things differently is looking like a shift from choosing an all or nothing pace. A pace defined by what Cal Newport describes in his book titled the same as “Slow Productivity”.  His key pillars include: 

  • Focus on fewer things
  • Work at a natural pace
  • Obsess over quality

Maybe I’ll take a sabbatical before 2024 is over, maybe I won’t (everyone else on the HPC team will be taking one in 2024-2025). I will be taking the summer to practice slow productivity, where I focus on the fewer balls that matter, namely, helping others succeed at the game, working at a pace that is more reasonable by saying no to the things that aren’t for me in this season, and by obsessing over the quality of relationships that are most important to me. 

What Really Matters?

In that same DiSC training, where I realized my self-awareness was totally off the mark in the challenges I take on, I also realized maybe I wasn’t totally self-aware illiterate. 

The second motivator my colleague picked for me was, “Helping other people succeed.”  I had picked this one too. 

I think my swinging for the fence can get in the way of me helping other people succeed sometimes. Especially people closest to me. It comes from a motivation to take on new challenges coupled with a desire to fix things. I’m looking forward to watching others hit it out of the park- by throwing the ball well, taking the bunt to advance the runner in front of me, or simply cheering from the stands- realizing that taking on challenging situations may just come in the form of helping others put in the work and patiently waiting seven years or more for the dividends to come. 


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Mary Ila Ward