Overcoming obstacles: Or, what I learned from a cactus

Workplace lessons can be learned anywhere, even in the Arizona desert.

 Watch out for the prickly parts of work ... and life

Watch out for the prickly parts of work ... and life

I was climbing a gorgeous rock formation in Arizona the other day, holding my 6-year-old's hand, when my foot slipped and my butt made acquaintance with a cactus.

This was not one of those tame, domestic cactuses. It was an ornery, feral succulent that saw my incoming posterior as a delightful opportunity to hone its human-puncturing skills.

So as not to terrify my son, I silently recited every profanity I know, tried hyphenating a few and then created some new ones that I won't repeat. I ran my hand across the affected area and found I had been skewered by roughly 590,000 needles that varied in size from "toothpick" to "so small you'll need butt tweezers."

My son looked up at me, concerned. My wife and other son, who had scurried ahead to a small ledge, yelled at us to hurry up.

It was at that point that I stopped thinking about vacation and started thinking about work.

The simple way to explain that would be to say that work, like the cactus I met, is a pain in the butt. But I didn't become America's most-beloved workplace advice columnist through simple thinking.

Standing atop a time-worn, red sandstone formation known as Cathedral Rock, slowly pulling needles from my sitting region, I gained perspective on work and the way it intertwines with our lives. I turned pain into parable, and smiled through a grimace at the thought of writing a column about my tush.

Let me explain.

Cathedral Rock is in Sedona, Ariz., an area that over millions of years has been an ocean bed and coastal plain and now spreads out like a rocky, arid field broken up by stunning reddish monuments, testaments to the delicate craftsmanship of erosion.

Between two of Cathedral Rock's sheer spires is a narrow saddle believed to be a vortex of positive energy, a place where a person can find peace and spiritual awakening.

I can't say I felt the vortex's energy. Maybe because we weren't on the saddle long before my saddle was perforated, and I had to hide behind a juniper to de-needle.

But embarrassed and uncomfortable, I did have an awakening of sorts. It dawned on me that this misfortune took nothing away from the experience. It was, truly, a pain, but I was happy: I was with my family and an unfortunate run-in was not going to ruin the day.

I had gained something that's crucial in our working lives: perspective. We began our descent and I noticed prickly pear cactuses around every turn, each presumably laughing at me in that irritating way cactuses do.

And I thought, "That's work life, isn't it?" A path we follow punctuated by nuisance after nuisance.

We tend to keep our eyes on the cactuses, to let the brush against something prickly distract us from the positive parts of the journey.

Maybe you don't like your job — but you trudge up the slope regardless. You're doing that for your family, perhaps, or to reach a better place. Don't forget that greater purpose next time a cactus comes along.

Or maybe you love what you do most of the time, but let negative situations needle you, causing you to miss the good moments or lose sight that they far outweigh the bad.

That's where perspective comes in. We must keep our journeys at work in the right context, because the pains in our behinds aren't going away.

Coming down from that rock, I thought more than once about stomping an innocent cactus, fulfilling some visceral desire for justice. But for every prickly pear I vanquished, there would be five more around the next bend.

So it is in the workplace. Every pernicious boss or co-worker, every frustrating moment, is followed by another. We can't stomp them all.

But we can reckon with the needles in our butts. We can enjoy the view and still believe we're hiking toward something better. And we can recognize that workplace cactuses — like those atop a southwestern energy vortex — are best quickly forgotten. Even if they make us wince.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

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