The Feline Approach: Three Lessons About Life on the Job I Learned From My Cat

Pandora the CatEver since I read Lindsay Bacher’s blog post about what her dog Sam had to teach her about work, I’ve wondered about what lessons there might be for those of us on the other side of the great pet divide, the cat-owners. And I’ll be honest, I can’t claim to have ever learned anything from a cat about empathy or playing nicely with others.

But you know what? I think cats do still have plenty to teach us while they mercilessly bend us to their will. Here are some life lessons I’ve picked up from my cat Pandora, pictured above. (You can also call her Panda for short, for obvious reasons.)

Don’t Settle for Second Best

panda2.jpgWe have a common routine that goes like this: Pandora gives a few plaintive meows to be fed. “I already fed you tonight, and I can see there’s still food left in the bowl; go away,” I say either out loud or telepathically. She declines to listen and usually escalates to knocking things off my desk until I give in and sprinkle some new food into the bowl. Stale hour-old cat food just isn’t good enough, you see. Fresh food that someone has to get up and make an effort to give to you is where it’s at.

How many of us are (metaphorically) munching discontentedly on that hour-old cat food at work every day? Going through the motions on a laborious process we know we could improve, constricted by outdated HR policies, or feeling underpaid but uncomfortable advocating for ourselves in asking for more?

Being the newest and youngest staff member in a nonprofit can make it intimidating to challenge the way others accept how things are done. But every once in a while, we need to stand up, knock some papers off our desk, and refuse to settle. That might mean breaking the salary silence, or asking to simply try a new approach for a while and see the results.

(Bonus lesson: water from a glass tastes better than from your water bowl.)

Take the Leap

Pandora is certainly not always fearless. Her biggest fear is probably the vacuum cleaner, which makes a lot of sense: it makes a lot of noise and could run over her paw if she gets in the way. But you know what she’s not afraid of? Failure. She’ll make a big heroic leap from the floor to the arm of the couch, and sometimes she’ll come up a little short or not get the right leverage and fall right back down. That’ll be the end of couch-jumping adventures for the day, but come tomorrow, will she let yesterday’s results stop her? Heck no. And the next day she’ll scale that upholstered wall just fine.

I think one reason we do settle so often is anxiety around what might happen if things don’t go our way. We know what will happen if we don’t take a leap: things tomorrow will be a lot like they were yesterday, and while we’re not in love with that thought, we can deal with it. But if we try and it doesn’t work out? Who knows!

The reality of that “who knows” is often that we’re a little miffed or shaken that day but just fine again the next, while if things do work out we’ve found a permanently better perch. And as the experience of someone like Trista Harris shows when she first applied to lead the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, a time of turmoil or big shake-up is often the perfect opportunity for new voices to be heard and respected. We may not get everything we want on day one, but we set ourselves up for future success.

Find Your Sweet Spot

panda1.jpgPandora has some cat furniture that is her daytime go-to spot. It offers the chance to take the high ground for anything from having a snooze to peering out the window and meowing at passing birds. She owns that space and will never be afraid to let you know it.

I’m a little envious of that feeling of mastery over your surroundings sometimes, but it’s recently occurred to me that I can try to create a space of my own like that while on the job. By knocking out a series of easy wins at the start of every day (clean inbox, social media posts scheduled out, and one outstanding task marked complete), I can make that feeling of accomplishment kick in early and last longer throughout the day when it’s time to tackle the longer-term more challenging goals.

So there you have it — even the most narcissistic and mysterious of our animal companions have a lot to teach us. What’s your favorite pet, and what can you learn from it? It might be more than you think.

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