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  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

Surviving Your Career: How to Run with the Bulls

Marisa Guerin, PhD – July 2, 2018

My mother was born in Pamplona, Spain, the city that is famous for the running of the bulls – the encierro - for the fiesta of San Fermin on July 7 each year. It’s a multi-day city-wide party that is centuries old in this part of Navarra.

Something my uncle Ignacio once said to me about his experiences running with the bulls comes often to my mind when I hear colleagues talk about the intensity of their daily work lives, or the pressure they experience in their career, or their musings about when to change jobs or when to retire. Their voices and faces convey how deeply these realities press upon their psyches, how they eat into the energy and time they’d rather be spending with family or with other pursuits. I’m not talking so much about hard work, but rather work that is inherently filled with urgency and anxiety because of the responsibilities involved. As far back as 2006, Harvard Business Review was documenting the rise of “extreme jobs.”

“Our data reveal an enormous increase in work pressure for high-caliber professionals across ages, genders, sectors, and continents. Extreme jobs, we’ve found, are distributed across the economy—in large manufacturing companies as well as on Wall Street, in entertainment and media, in medicine and law, in consulting and accounting.”

Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce; Harvard Business Review, December 2006.

All of those circumstances seem to me to be the workplace equivalent of the stress and adrenaline that must be mobilized when people run with the bulls in Pamplona. (Ok, the truth is it’s almost always young men who are the ones who do this dangerous thing). The corrida might be only 950 or so yards in length, but it’s a run for your life. Every year around this time, you read about an unfortunate person who fell and got trampled or gored by a bull. It’s not unusual that it would be an American, or some non-Spaniard.

Now, why would that be?

According to my late uncles Ignacio, Javier, and Miguel – veterans and survivors of the encierros – the problem is in how the adventure is understood by the runner from the outset. In words more or less as follows, this is the story as I heard it from them:

“Americans, they think this is a contest between you and the bulls, one that you must cover from start to finish for it to count. Not so! That’s not a smart bet. Your average guy from Pamplona gives some careful thought to the course of the run through the city’s narrow, twisting streets. He makes sure he knows where his girlfriend will be watching. Then he chooses a spot in which to jump into the run, and a spot in which to jump out – running heroically for all he’s worth in-between, past the admiring eyes of his lady and his friends. Once he’s out, he catches his breath, dusts himself off, has some wine and joins in the general partying.”

I have often thought that this might be a metaphor for how to manage the most demanding aspects of a career, if you discover that you are not one of the people who thrive where there is chronic stress, excitement, challenge, crisis, and pressure. Many of us have only so much in the tank for that kind of life. If that’s you, the intensive nature of some jobs might be best considered not so much a marathon as an intentional sprint of running with the bulls, with a no-fault attitude towards getting out while your body and soul are still in one piece. I did that myself with my corporate career -- but that will be the story for another blog someday.

If we’re lucky, life is long. And there may well be seasons of one’s career when there is nothing to be done except lace up those shoes and run like a hero. But it might also be wise to keep an eye out for the spot where one can jump to a safer, saner part of the race.

Take a lesson from Spaniards. They are romantic, passionate, fierce and brave …but they are both savvy and prudent when it comes to respecting the power of the bulls!

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