Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Surviving the Challenges of Personal and Professional Volunteering

I volunteer for a few organizations, one of which allows me to get into the mountains on a regular basis. I am a weekend host at a mountain lodge. Absolutely lovely and worth the occasional hassle. This past weekend I had hassle in larger numbers than usual. Dead mice played a part as did several people who felt they did not have to pay to use the facilities. We are not talking big bucks here. In fact, "extremely inexpensive" would be most accurate.

Spending several days in the woods, even when unexpectedly called upon to become a plumber, electrician, random trouble shooter or occasional Tough Guy (Gal), leads to regular introspection. This weekend I found myself thinking about the process we use to choose to take on "extra" activities, and how we decide when we have achieved a good balance. Taking on innovative professional projects often starts off as "volunteer service". We come up with an idea we just can't put down and we run with it. Eventually, if all goes well, the project blossoms, and becomes part of our portfolio of acknowledged and rewarded activities.

Many of the interesting interdisciplinary computing projects I come across start off as an idea that pops into someone's head and they run with it. The projects I hear about are usually the successful ones - difficult people were dealt with, project goals were achieved, peers, subordinates and supervisors are enthusiastically on board, and academic or business objectives are aligned.

But there are great projects that never gain traction.  In several recent cases I heard about, a critical reason for failure was "volunteer overload and burnout".  You have probably noticed that some of the most creative people take on more than their share of projects - because they have the ideas and energy. There is a delicate balance needed between taking on many exciting projects and not being driven to pull your hair out all at once.

Successful entrepreneurial and adventuresome types know their personal limitations: physical and emotional. They know when enough is enough and how to say "no more".  They know how to deal with annoying people who want to suck the lifeblood out of them. They have patience and are able to emotionally let go of the annoying lifeblood sucking people. They know when to ask for help: we can't simultaneously be spontaneous plumbers, electricians, maintenance personnel, stackers of wood, and gatherers of litter. We know when to call in reinforcements, or at least someone who knows how to stop the mystery leak.

Sometimes we have to catch mice. I had to remove 4 dead mice upon my arrival in the mountains this weekend, and do it before the guests arrived. Then I had to listen to the "snap" in the middle of the night as the mousetraps caught more mice - which I had to get rid of before everyone got up in the morning. I'm not a big fan of killing mice. In fact I'd rather not. This weekend, with the large number of dead rodents to deal with, and the couple of people who were determined to take advantage of my being a "volunteer", I thought about the importance of setting scope, fixing boundaries, goal setting and knowing when to let go of what is not really that important for the sake of the bigger picture. Just like my professional projects. No different.

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