How to Help Revive an Automaton

How to Help Revive an Automaton

“I’m going through a transitional period.” I had repeated this line so often, it came out automatically.

At the time, I was emotionally bankrupt. I was freshly out of a bad relationship and didn’t know where my company was headed. Like a ship caught in a tempest, I felt tossed about and unsteady. I couldn’t tell if I should keep crawling forward or try sailing in a new direction. It was all very disconcerting.

Still, I didn’t want to bother others with my problems. When a person is struggling, people don’t always know what to say. It can be very uncomfortable, so I started giving this rote “transitional period” response. It allowed me to reply without going into detail. It worked most of the time, for friends and strangers alike. But not with Molly.

Molly was my Airbnb host. As a former lawyer but current restaurateur and yogi, Molly is a well-rounded and incredibly insightful woman. She listened to my situation and then told me something I desperately needed to hear: “I think you’re going through a period of gestation.”

I was taken aback by what she said. Everyone else had just accepted my statement at face value. Whether they didn’t want to pry or have to endure an awkward exchange, they let it drop. Molly dared to offer something back, and I heard the truth in her words. I found myself mulling it over the next several weeks.

I was aware of the word “gestation” from childhood visits to my uncle’s dairy farm. He told us about the gestation period as my siblings and I fawned over the newborn calves, but I still wasn’t familiar with the whole meaning. Sure enough, the first definition from old Webster was “the process of carrying or being carried in the womb between conception and birth.” But it was followed by: “the development of something over a period of time.” As Molly had guessed, the second definition was a perfect description of that stage in my life.

As a person with an entrepreneurial spirit, I often branched out and attempted new ventures. Each new experience was a rocky start. They were voyages into unknown territories, where the necessary knowledge and skills were often foreign. They always required tremendous effort and dedication.

Many times, after a few hours, days, or weeks, I’d realize this endeavor wasn’t a good fit for me or my business. I would need to abandon it and move on to another idea. When this occurred repeatedly, it was discouraging. In the past, I only considered a process successful once I’d achieved my goal. Until there were results, it felt like an exercise in futility.

Molly’s words forced me to reconsider. She didn’t care if I came up with the next great idea or created a million-dollar business plan. She saw me playing with fresh ideas; failing and learning; but most importantly, trying and discovering. No superficial external results were required to validate this process. She championed the self-edification for its own sake.

My conversation with Molly had both an immediate and a lasting impact on me. Although it’s been six months since she was my Airbnb host, her words still resonate with me daily.

It also became a challenge for me. I realized that, like Molly, I could witness others’ struggle and honor their effort.

It’s often said life is about the journey, not the destination. How many of us live like that’s true? Just as important, how many of us really try to appreciate others’ determination and strength in the face of new challenges?

To help others’ whose behavior has become mechanical and emotionally distant, here are some things to consider:

Timing is Important, But It’s Not the Only Factor

Let’s acknowledge we won’t always be able to pull off a Molly. Sometimes we can’t come up with the words the very moment that we witness a friend or colleague struggling. More critical than having an immediate response is doing something. Be proactive and reach out!

Show Support in a Tangible Way

Whether it’s grabbing a cup of coffee to hear about their ideas or watching their kids so that they can work on the project, these are non-verbal ways of saying, “I see that you’re trying, and that’s important.”

Realize Your Effort Won’t Always Hit the Mark

Even when you say the right thing, it won’t always resonate. The other person may not be in a place to hear it. Recognize that is outside your realm of influence and move forward. You are responsible for your genuine efforts to show empathy and support, not for their reaction.


Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here.

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