How to succeed, stay sane, and have fun at work: a survival guide for the road weary

David Rabiner, CSP
Partner, Rabiner Resources
Portland, Oregon
Speaker, 2008 APWA Snow Conference

Editor's Note: David Rabiner is the Closing General Session Speaker at the 2008 APWA North American Snow Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. His session takes place at 3:00 p.m. Tuesday, April 15 at the Kentucky International Convention Center. For more information on the Snow Conference see pages 13-16 or visit our website at

I am excited about the opportunity to speak to you at the North American Snow Conference this April in Louisville. I promise that my program, How to Succeed, Stay Sane, and Have Fun at Work: A Survival Guide for the Road Weary, will be fun, informative, and thought-provoking. This article provides a quick lead-in to my keynote, using the best real-life story I can think of that illustrates how to achieve success, maintain sanity, and have some fun in the workplace.

Are you familiar with the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton? Long story short, in 1914, Shackleton and a crew of 27 men set sail from the island of South Georgia in the Southern Ocean. Their goal was to reach Antarctica and complete its first overland crossing.

Shackleton's ship became trapped and eventually crushed in ice just off the coast of Antarctica. (Now that's a bad day at the office!) After two years of agonizing cold, fatigue and hunger, Shackleton and his entire crew were rescued. But by all accounts, recorded in the men's journals, the crew responded to the hellish conditions with teamwork, self-sacrifice and amazing good cheer.

Many books have been written and movies made about Shackelton's journey and the factors that enabled him and his crew to survive. These factors can be condensed to a set of principles common to many other stories of resiliency, stamina and achievement. The principles include:

  • Keep a firm, clear vision of the future you want, and focus today's efforts on short-term objectives.
  • Be optimistic and confident, and protect yourself from negativity.
  • Find ways to have fun.
  • Take care of your physical self.
  • Set an example for others to follow.

It's not rocket science, is it? While the Shackleton crew's astonishing story points to these simple principles, we could have guessed them from our own experiences and using common sense.

As simple as these principles seem, why is it so hard then for most of us to live them consistently? If we know that long-term goals and short-term objectives are a key to achieving what we want in life, then why do the majority of us not set them? Is it so tough to be optimistic and confident? Are we that resistant to having fun, taking good care of our physical selves, and setting examples for others to follow? Not at all—we're just human.

When it comes to being the kinds of people we want to be, we humans face two big challenges: (1) accurately assessing our current strengths and weaknesses; and (2) being able to translate positive qualities into behaviors.

Accurate Assessment
In order for us to improve, it seems reasonable that we need to know what needs improving. But because we are the worst at assessing our own strengths and weaknesses, we must turn to others for help. That help usually comes from our spousal equivalents. We get lots of feedback from them—more feedback than we are actually looking for—and the better portion of it is, uh, critical.

At work, we're lucky if we get an annual performance evaluation once a year and those usually are not that helpful, as bosses tend to generalize strengths and sugarcoat weaknesses.

In fact, most of us surround ourselves with people who validate our strengths, and we confuse the validation with assessment.

If we genuinely want an accurate assessment, we need to find someone in our life who:

  1. Has enough experience with us to provide useful feedback;
  2. Has the communication skills to give us the feedback constructively; and
  3. Is committed enough to our success that he or she is willing to take on the difficult task of giving feedback.

If you are lucky enough to have someone who fills that bill, then getting an assessment requires more than just asking for it. It requires creating an environment in which assessing you feels good for them.

All in all, getting an accurate assessment is difficult. On balance, it is easier to identify and strive for the qualities you admire than to spend time figuring out whether or not you have them.

Translating Qualities to Behaviors
Getting back to Shackleton, let's turn the five principles for resiliency, stamina and achievement into personal qualities. Shackleton was a goal-setter, optimistic and confident, fun, in good shape physically, and a role model for his crew. Assuming these five qualities would help anyone succeed, stay sane and have fun at work, what specifically would you do to personally demonstrate these qualities?

Being able to translate qualities into behaviors is a critical step for personal and professional growth, but it is not without its challenges. Let's say, for example, that we want to be more optimistic and confident. That might translate into standing straighter with shoulders back and chin up, smiling more, and using phrases like "we can do it" and "no problem."

Inspired to change, we go to work and try out our new behaviors. Naturally, we feel uncomfortable at first, but we try out our new optimism and confidence anyway. What is the reaction of others to our new and improved selves? Our fear is that the people close to us will view the change with skepticism and apprehension. In the face of this potential reaction and the level of discomfort we already feel just from trying something new, we are likely to abandon our efforts to change.

If this experience sounds familiar, then you understand the challenges of translating qualities to behaviors successfully. There is hope, however, and it is found in The Principle of Principles.

Rely on Principles...and the Rest Will Follow
Ernest Shackleton is a real-life example of someone who steadfastly relied on The Principle of Principles and trusted they would lead to his unflagging vision of rescue. If you are interested in learning more about his unbelievable struggle for survival, Alfred Lansing's book, ENDURANCE: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, is a great read.

In my April program, I will explain The Principle of Principles and lead you through a three-step process that will help you turn desired qualities into personal virtues, generate internal energy, and fortify personal resilience. And, we'll have fun in the process. I look forward to seeing you in Louisville.

David Rabiner is a trainer and speaker living in Portland, Oregon. He has worked with more than 1,600 groups in 12 countries and 44 states. A dynamic speaker, David earned the coveted Certified Speaking Professional award in 2003, a designation currently held by fewer than 500 speakers worldwide. His content-rich presentations help people see how they can have greater influence with others and more control of business and life outcomes. He can be reached at (888) 768-3916 or