What’s the deal with “all in” anyway?

I used to think being “all in” was my best professional quality. I used to never leave the office until the last email was answered, all issues of the day solved and everything arranged for the next day. I still remember times when, having woken up at 3 AM because my anxiety had better things to do than let me sleep, I would conclude that it is in fact a good thing I am up because I can catch up on emails from other hemispheres and go into work at 7 AM with an empty inbox, ready to take on more. Is this the “all in” that is needed when we talk about being truly dedicated to our professional life?

The first surprising negative answer I received to this question was over five years ago, from one of my leaders and mentors. I remember it as if it was today, we were sitting in his office and talking about ongoing projects when he said “oh, I never give 100% to my work. What would there be left of me for my life beyond?” He might as well have said it in Chinese. I was looking at him, smiling and nodding as if I had gotten it but in my head these words were unexplicable. What do you mean to not give 100%? Not be all in?

This stayed with me for a while and when we no longer worked together I went back to what I knew best: stretching myself thin and giving it all I got. Sure, of course, things had gotten a bit better at home and then the pandemic hit and we were all at home but the improvements in my investment in what I did were too mild to be noticed.

Having recently left my job of twenty-one years, one where I had a routine, I knew what I needed to do and had established my reputation as a chronic overachiever, I moved into a completely different way of working. I now work with three entities on paid jobs and with two pro-bono. I started five to do lists and set aside time in my calendar for each, I instituted three different notebooks to jot down ideas that came for a project while I was working on another. And … I went crazy! Because I was trying to … you guessed it … give it my all. Except that I did not have five alls to give. I didn’t have one all to give! After all, the purpose of this change was finding meaning, peace, harmony, wasn’t it?

So I found myself in turmoil once again. Oh, this story is getting old, enough already with the stirring! Can’t change just be smooth and straightforward? How can I do a good job in each of these projects if I cannot be all in for any? How can I be a good partner, a good parent, a good daughter, a good friend if I am not all in? And after all the planning and the going around in circles, it finally dawned on me: it was not about giving all of my time, not all of my energy, not all of me.

I understand now that being all in means being focused when I do sit down to work, offering my best ideas and effort when I am involved, my best intentions when I speak and presuming the best positive intentions when I listen. Being all in does not mean consuming myself completely, day after day, in any job or endeavor. It means bringing my best version to the table, aligning with my values and being honest. With myself before anything else. And sometimes, being all in means saying no or stop or not now or not this. Because I am committed enough to my values and to doing a good job to not do things superficially and not take more than I can do well.

As long as what I do matches my beliefs, values and ideas and I am the truest expression of me in that moment, I can breathe and kiss the knot in my gut goodbye: it is enough, I am all in.

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