ideas

Is it time to play Kill the Company?

20160227_152827.png

I just finished up Adam Grant’s book Originals (see his website at adamgrant.net) and really like one of the examples he shared for for generating more, original ideas with your team: Kill the Company.

In short, if you want to generate some excitement and energetic thinking, don’t ask your team to envision the future from within, ask them to imagine what your competitor would do, with unlimited funds and opportunity, to kill your company.

There are a lot of factors in play here, and it’s worth reading the book if you want a more complete understanding. It’s an interesting twist though, because it engages our imagination in a different way. It’s hard to imagine the future from what you already know. If you own a car company, and you want to do better, your default is to start with a car. If you want to kill the car company, you begin thinking differently: Driverless? Subscription service instead of ownership? Drone delivery? Bike pods?

How are you going to defeat those competitors who’re out to kill your company?

Take a moment to imagine this from within your organization.

How would someone pinpoint your weaknesses? Overcome them? Do things differently and better?

Now, counter.

I’d love to hear if you’ve tried this in your organization and whether it was successful?

Advertisements

Do you think “Because” when you should ask “Why?”

wpid-20151111_065526.png

I talked to a friend of mine who is in the construction phase of her dream life. Literally. She’s building a farm from the ground up and it’s full of space for start-up farmers, heritage animals, and other yet-to-be-imagined ventures.

She then went on to talk about the challenges of beginning this new venture. Coming from the corporate world, where petty cash is accounted for and everyone gets “the rules,” she was stunned to realize that people would steal tools, that cash would go missing, and that the rules weren’t as black and white as before.

Her father was a general contractor and she was marveling at his ability to come home day after day with love and respect for his family.

“I had no idea what he was dealing with at work, he was just there for us,” she said.

She asked her dad how he did it and he said “it’s not about you. These people have their own lives, they’re not trying to hurt you. They’re trying to take care of their families. They’re trying to get by. Just put your systems in place and don’t take it personally.”

She said it was a turning point. She’s never been so nonjudgmental about the people around her before.

It’s easy to make assumptions.

We think we know why people do or say things in a certain way, but if we ask them, we are often surprised.

Yet we resist.

Someone asked me why I thought a particular individual was asking for information.

  • Was he trying to make this person look bad?
  • Was he being nosy?
  • Was he trying to second guess this person’s decision?

With this story fresh on my mind, a thousand (or at least a few) other, alternate, explanations sprang to mind while they were talking.

We don’t know.

We’re quick to assume it’s about us. Something we said, something we fear, something we did.

In this case, what we did know was easy to state. And we could ask a question  – “Is there something else you’d like to know that I can help you with?”

When we let go of our stories about why we think people are doing things, we’re able to ask the Why question. And often, it turns out, it’s not all about us.

I think this home-grown lesson will stick with me for quite a while.

Why face-to-face is still relevant in a digital world

cropped-office-hall-doodle.jpg

I had the privilege of speaking at the national American Planning Association conference this past week about creating concurrence from conflict. Planners? They’re the folks in your community who are grappling with complex questions: how should we grow? do we have enough affordable housing? traffic? sustainability and resiliency as the global climate changes?

The buzz was about technology, apps for managing community input, mapping, and social media and yet, when I headed down the stairs to our session, the hallway was overflowing with people who wanted to talk about how to deal with people face-to-face.

In this age of digital interface, personal interactions are still where it’s at.

Digital can be loud, it can be very effective, and it can rouse us from our apathy to take part in the workings of our local government. On the receiving end,  digital makes the world move faster and faster, comments come in on a tidal wave, and well-orchestrated campaigns can entirely shift the tenor of a conversation.

A friend of mine shared an experience she had working in a well-to-do college community:

After two years of putting together a thoughtful plan with a great amount of public input and consensus, a small, well-organized and well-funded group entered the discussion. They funded some slick advertisements, ran them on the local TV channels, and completely changed the tenor of the conversation. Two years of careful consensus-building was voted down in one meeting.

That happens. It’s democracy in action.

Why should we bother with the face-to-face when it might all go down the tubes?

Because we are human beings. We need to connect. When we do, our relationships flourish and our understanding of each others’ perspectives can broaden our own point of view. We learn from each other.

In an informal survey of planners, the top three ways in which they interacted with stakeholders was in formal meetings (public hearings, advisory boards) and in face-to-face meetings.

threetypesofmeetings

We have to know how to interact in person. This is not always easy.

It’s hard to meet someone halfway when they’re angry. In fact, you usually have to go more than half way. If you’re a local government employee today, you are probably overworked in an environment with a low level of trust and satisfaction in government. This is a shame because just about everyone I know who works in local government does so by choice. There is a deep satisfaction in going home at night knowing that you’ve spent your day working for the betterment of your community. Whether you repair pot-holes, recycle waste, design streets, or try to help your town figure out how to grow in an enduring way, you’ve bought in to the future.

Yet you’re often met with distrust, demands you can’t meet, and a level of anger and negativity that can be daunting and discouraging.

What to do?

Get to know the people you work for. Sit down with them. Talk it out. Almost without exception, when you can help get past the us-them dynamic to a conversation about what we all have in common, you knit the fabric together, tighter. After all, most of us want the same things from our communities: A safe place to live, meaningful work, education for our children, choices about how we spend our time, and places to interact with each other.

It’s often as easy as asking: can we talk?

You may be surprised by how often the answer is: yes!

 

 

 

Seven things that actually mattered

wpid-2015-01-30-07.20.05.jpg.jpeg

Pick a Puddle.

At my freshman orientation for college (year omitted!) the university’s president said “Don’t be like ducks, with opportunity rolling off your backs like raindrops. Take advantage.” I thought I got it. I wasn’t going to be that duck. I chased a lot of rain, which was great. For a while.

Looking back, I realized he forgot a key point: Don’t forget to pick a puddle.

If you find your puddle and fill it with the things you care about most, you get the good out of it. Puddles don’t have to be small and limiting. They should have room for the things you’re focused on – family, key career ambitions, personal growth – and they should’t overflow with things that distract you from your integral purpose.

Picking a puddle brings focus. It also means saying “no” to the distractions. The nice-to-have resume builder that you don’t really care about? No, thank you. The I-really-should obligation? Maybe there’s someone out there who actually wants to do that one.

This idea really hit home for me when my kids were little. There were other moms in their preschools who volunteered in the mornings and put together events. I worked. I scrabbled time off to go to the early-afternoon cupcake party or the holiday parade, but every time I passed on the sign-up list I felt like I was letting my kids down or somehow being a second-rate mom. I realized that I had to make peace with this situation or drive myself batty.

So I focused on what I could do. I took good care of my kids. I provided supplies. I attended the events the other parents organized. And I let got of feeling like I wasn’t doing enough to pitch in. Much  of my work has been community-focused, taking time and energy during evenings and weekends. That’s my puddle. My kids’ well-being is my puddle. They didn’t care whether I was being a super-mom in everyone else’s eyes. They just wanted to know that I came to their event and that I cared about them. That was enough.

Be purposeful in your career.

Purposeful is not the same as ambitious. Ambition is great. Positive ambition moves us forward, gives us direction, and helps make the world a better place. Ambition alone can be directionless. It can propel us through choices, through jobs, through decisions yet still leave us hunting for the next gold star or seal of approval.

Purpose depends on understanding what’s important to you and making your decisions with both your short-term satisfaction and your long-term interests in mind.

Purpose helps you shape decisions, see opportunities, and follow a path that may not always be direct or clear, but brings you meaning along the way.

I’ve had friends who went for the higher salary and better title with each promotion only to find themselves making a lot of money, living in a nice house, and wondering how they’d ended up there. They could tell their story – they’d been ambitious and collected all the prizes – but they ended up saying things like “I never thought I’d work in a company that doesn’t really do anything.” or “I just make lots of money for other people and they let me keep some.”

Other people I’ve known have been deliberate about taking only opportunities that delighted them at the moment and are left wondering where all the time and money went.

I’ve done both. Taken jobs because they were safe or necessary. Taken risks because I felt cornered. It wasn’t until I started to develop a better sense of my puddle and my purpose that I could begin to make decisions with some long-term meaning.

For some people, this appears to be easy. They seem to know their purpose and pursue it with great intention. When I listen to my friends, co-workers and family though, I believe that most of us don’t have this kind of singular drive. In a world of endless opportunities and choices, this part of career management is a learned art.

Learning yourself is a good place to start.

Don’t stay in bad relationships.

We’ve all gossiped about someone in a bad relationship. Why doesn’t she leave him? Can’t he see what’s wrong with this situation? Most of us know that it’s really hard to see from the inside what we clearly see (or think we see) from the outside.

We stay for many reasons. We fear failure and loss. We rationalize, we make excuses, we don’t question our story about how we arrived here and why we stay. But our story is just that. It’s a story we tell ourselves about the path we’ve followed, the choices we’ve made, and how they all hang together. The thing to remember is that we are writing that story all the time. When you find yourself stuck, wondering where the love went, it’s time to put on your best-friend-perspective and try to see your situation from the outside.

If a co-worker is consistently egging you into situations you’re not comfortable with, maybe it’s time for a new relationship.

If you’re not feeling fulfilled by the choices you’re making about your time, maybe it’s time to choose differently.

Sometimes we stay because we “owe it to them.” Loyalty is good. But be sure you’re being honest. Loyalty that’s a cover for fear, insecurity, or failure to reflect is not good. It’s fine – admirable – to be loyal, and, like with any good relationship, you will change, you will grow, and you can participate in the relationship to make sure you’re getting what you need out of it. That’s when everybody comes out stronger.

Focus on your strengths and fill in your gaps

There are a lot of people out there who are willing to tell you what your weaknesses are and how to fix them. It’s easy to get sidetracked into a self-bending case of triple-i: Insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority. Don’t go there.

You’re not perfect.

But you already knew that.

I remember a favorite teacher telling our class that her job was to help us learn to think. “You need to know how to think and how to find information. You don’t need to memorize the dictionary.”

Find out what you’re really good at and focus on that first. Great with numbers? Master everything you can about budgets, financing, and software. Good at people? Get some experience mediating, leading discussions, and public speaking. Shine.

When you realize you’re not good at something, don’t obsess, just fill in the gaps

You’re the numbers guru but not great at public speaking? Offer to make a budget presentation to your group. Take your strength and use it to support your attempts to fill in your gaps.

Great at leading teams but terrible at meeting deadlines? Get your best performing team together and poll them for suggestions. Then put them in play.

Any change requires discipline, doubling up something that’s easy for you to do with something you need to improve gives you more energy to pull through the tough parts.

Fix. Don’t obsess.

Learn to have difficult conversations

Here’s the exception to “don’t obsess.” If there’s one thing I think we should all obsess over, it’s learning how to have difficult conversations.

Figure out what you fear (confrontation, anger, being wrong, being vulnerable) and find out how to get better at it. There are resources out there. Read them. Learn them. Practice.

This is one skill that you can, and should, master.

It will make you better at everything.

Stuff happens. To everyone.

It’ll happen to you. The thing you didn’t expect that knocks you off your track. It may be temporary, it may be life-altering. It will happen. Probably more than once.

It’s never over.

Keep going.

Ask for help.

It’s probably happening to someone you work with right now.

Give help.

We’re all in this together.

Have a heart

Take a moment to say hello. Notice something. Ask a question. Those people you work with? The ones who annoy you, don’t meet your deadlines, and can’t see what’s completely obvious to anyone who would stop to think for two seconds? There’s probably something good about each and every one of them.

Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been with people I didn’t particularly like at the time. But if you’re willing to set that aside and listen, you may find that they’re only human. They have lives, problems, and people who drive them crazy.

You may be one of them.

You never know when somebody is trying to manage a sick parent in another state, dealing with a rocky marriage, or worried about a kid in trouble.

All you can do is respect them as fellow human beings and try to do your best.

I’ve had the good fortune to know what it’s like to work with people of integrity, to work with a sense of purpose, and to feel compassion and care for the people around me.

I’ve also known what it’s like to be a nameless cog, to be looked down upon, and to feel under-appreciated and unfulfilled. In those circumstances, it’s difficult to bring our best to the table. When I found myself babysitting the monster of all copiers for days on end, shuffling different colored papers in and out of trays and tugging torn bits of confetti from the guts of that toner-laden beast, I was not bringing what I had to offer to the picture.

When I left that job, not knowing what was next, one woman took me aside and said “I’m glad you’re leaving. You’re going to do so much more and when you need a reference, just ask.”

Her confidence gave me hope at a time when I really needed it.

Those are the people we remember.

Maybe if someone had handed me this list years ago, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me, but eventually enough experiences run together and there you have it – your puddle.

Are the many messages of perfection preventing you from achieving one thing?

wpid-2014-11-25-07.12.17.jpg.jpeg

It happens every year. December comes immediately after Thanksgiving and bam! 

Holidays.

You’d think I’d know this by now. After all, the holiday season apparently begins sometime in early October with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannauka and everything else tossed in a potentially stress-inducing fiesta.

Leading this ever-advancing tide of pressure are the many perfection messages:

Have a hassle-free holiday

Make the perfect holiday meal

Decorations you can do on a dime

In that moment when I realize the year is almost over, I typically react in one of two ways. Sometimes the barrage is a challenge – I’m going to take this season by storm! – and out come the notepads, smartphones, and the determination to micromanage the heck out of the next few weeks.

At other times, it’s all the reason I need to crawl back under the covers and pretend none of it’s happening.

Either way, the idea that there’s some perfect person out there floating through the stress in a cloud of peppermint-scented-calm is enough to make me throw up my hands.

I can’t do a perfect holiday.

I can’t do a perfect work-place, either.

Thinking about seasonal stress got me to thinking about how we tend to see stress as an absolute (stress vs. calm) year-round. This mindset can cause conflict because it focuses us on a given solution (no stress) without letting us consider where our focus belongs.

Those perfection messages reinforce this notion that it’s an all-or-nothing situation. Either you’re a stressed out mess or not. And there are so many opportunities to feel behind or lacking.

Either you’re a stressed-out mess or you’re calm, organized, filing those emails as they pop up, managing your time to the maximum, and networking after hours. Then you’ll set some new year goals and you’ll be on your way. But really, no matter how on-top of things you are, the pendulum swings back and forth because life happens.

 

We are surrounded by the many. Many ways to improve, many ways to succeed. We are told everyone has the potential to be President, run a start-up, make a million (over and over), and be happy. And it’s all supposed to be easy a la “ten simple steps and you can be the leader” or “want to succeed? just do this”

This season, I’m looking for a way to reduce the many mindset and be open to focusing on one area at a time.

For instance, there are three events that all have holiday significance to me and- the calendar gods must be crazy – this year they’re all on the same weekend. I began trying to figure out which one we could do on Friday – Saturday – Sunday – all in the name of holiday spirit. Then a little voice in my head said just pick one.

One is a realistic goal.

With one, I can still do some of the normal things that make a weekend work for me. Like buy milk.

One got me thinking.

When I have a head full of to-do’s, it’s helps to dump them all down on one piece of paper and then choose one place to start.

When my day is overloaded, it helps to pick one think to accomplish that day and do it first.

When I need to have a difficult conversation with someone, it helps to pick one point of focus instead of trying to address all the problems in a single conversation.

One is about focus.

As someone who tends towards the page of goals, I don’t think this will be easy for me, but I’ve experimented in small ways and the Holidays provide another sanity-saving opportunity to experiment with one.

Are you a one or many person? What have you learned and what would you share?

 

Lost is a good place to start

wpid-2014-11-10-20.27.22.jpg.jpeg

If you don’t know where you are, or you’re not sure where you’re going, your navigation software isn’t going to get you there.

Most of us have something we’re supposed to be figuring out. Maybe it’s a career path or a difficult family situation. The searching can be frustrating and sometimes lead to shoving the whole project into our mental closet for sometime later when I have more time to deal with this.

It feels safe to know exactly where we’re going next, but when the path isn’t clear, the not-knowing can stop us from even taking the first step.

The Adjacent Possible

The adjacent possible is an idea borrowed from the work of theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman and it is, basically, the concept that evolution happens at the edges of what is already happening. We can’t see ten or twelve steps down the evolutionary path, but we often can see around the edges of what we already know.

The idea is similar to what we do when we want to achieve a reach goal. If you’ve never been a runner but you decide to run a marathon, you probably won’t start by heading out for a 20-mile run. The first step is probably a jog around the block. With that first outing, you’ve stepped into the adjacent possible. With each step outward, you’re expanding your possibilities. 5K? 10K? Half-marathon? Marathon? Triathlon?

A lot of our work is more complicated than laying out a marathon training program because the variables are unpredictable. The Economy. Our co-workers. Changing work-place environments. Changing family situations. In many cases, we leap to a possibility’s fully-formed future and it seems unattainable (I could never do that) or we get overwhelmed by the things that could happen along the way (There’s no way to figure this out) and we stop.

Using the adjacent possible as a guide, and a mind-map as your guidebook, we can break a stretch into attainable possibilities. Notice I didn’t say “break it into steps.” More on that in a moment.

The Unattainable Goal

A single-celled organism didn’t become a Zebra overnight so if you want to be a Zebra, it helps to think backward. What’s in the world around your zebra?

Maybe you want a top-ranking position but you feel like your qualifications aren’t there yet and your experience isn’t sufficient. What would be close to your goal?

This is where a mind-map can come in handy. Jotting down all the experiences and skills that might be hovering around your goal gives you a world from which to map back to where you are now. Take a few of those next-to-your-goal ideas and map them out. You’re essentially after a treasure map, in reverse, leading to where you are today. When your backward mapping begins to contain experiences and skills you already have, you’ve have a map of pathways from today to your future goal.

Once done, it could look something like this:

wpid-2014-11-10-20.18.33.jpg.jpeg

The interesting thing about this map is that it will not show you a single path but a web of ways in which you might get to your goal. And the interesting thing about working towards our long-range goals is that both the path and the goal tend to change with time. So hanging onto that map and revisiting it to add new ideas and possibilities is a good idea. After all, each time you change your world, the adjacent possible changes with it.

The Unpredictable Goal

All goals are unpredictable but some are more wild and hairy than others. Our culture tends to reinforce the idea that success and progress are linear, measurable, and easy to map out. We want to list a series of steps, take them one-by-one and- voila! -results achieved. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded by info graphics, predictive models, and performance measures. They can be very helpful but they can also create a sense of risk-aversion if you want to work towards something less numeric and harder to see. Something out there in the soup of future possibilities.

Let’s imagine a hurricane. When meteorologist are predicting where a hurricane will land, they use the cone of uncertainty.

As the storm moves closer, their prediction is more accurate until we have landfall in real time. When you’re working toward an unpredictable goal, you’re pretty far off shore, and your cone is wide. The same exercise above, mapping out the adjacent possibilities, can help. In this case, however, you may be after a particular result – better customer service – and the path you establish could bring in new information that causes your target (your landfall) to shift. If you’ve mapped out a wide range of possibilities for your program, you can keep your eye on the main goal (landfall: improved customer feedback) and be flexible along the way (implementing new ideas that come from your feedback loop).

Your new cone/map of uncertainty might look like this:

wpid-2014-11-10-20.17.23.jpg.jpeg

The Missing Ingredient

All these exercises require the one thing that seems to be in shortest supply for everyone I talk with. Time.

We all rush around, checking email and feeling hounded by deadlines and the list of things you didn’t get don yesterday or the day before. Shoving our ideas into the corner is easier than setting aside the time to actually deal with them.

In order to do this, you have to find a way that works for you. (check out Gretchen Rubin’s video on forming habits by being true to your nature – it’s liberating)

Maybe this mind-mapping exercise doesn’t sound like fun in which case it might be your “frog” and you could try doing it first today.

Or maybe you relish the opportunity to daydream and doodle a little and you wouldn’t mind getting up early or spending your lunch hour alone someplace, undisturbed.

If you’re feeling like you don’t have the time at all, think for a moment about all the minutes you’ve already spent thinking about the fact that you’re not dealing with this nagging thing, and maybe the ultimate cost-savings will help you find the motivation to pull out your pen and get busy mapping.

You might find a treasure somewhere along the way.

Why you might want to do that really embarrassing, terrifying, or otherwise crazy thing you’ve been avoiding.

wpid-2014-10-14-22.15.08.jpg.jpeg

This evening, I did something terrifying and embarrassing. It was something I swore I would never do. Especially in public, where people would know. Wasn’t gonna do it. Nope. Not ever.

Then I did.

I sang. Out loud.

I know some of you are thinking “whaaaaa?? What’s the big whooping deal?”

Rewind the tape 30 years (ahem, maybe go back a few more) and you’d see me singing my little heart out about two rows back in the choir. Then, I got some coaching: “Why don’t you just mouth the words, honey?”

I was a pretty obedient kid, so I did. I got the message loud and clear. Until tonight.

If you’re still reading, and Hollywood and the internet have primed you for a late-in-life-rises-to-sing-on-stage ending, I’ll let you know right now that it’s not coming.

But here’s what I did figure out tonight, standing on the cool, grey stones outside, feeling the orange heat of an outdoor fire at my back and the early fall breeze stirring the paper in my hands.

Sometimes, you just have to let that old stuff go. The can’t, not good enough, don’t know how, never should’s. Really, who cares?

Do you even care anymore?

If you want to know how to do something, ask a teacher. We had an excellent instructor talk to us about the mechanics of singing. He reminded us that we all have the machinery, it’s a matter of learning to use it.

That’s a very powerful thought. We can probably each list a number of things we know we’re not good at. But if you’ve never learned how to do something, how can you be expected to do it well? Nobody every took the time to try to teach me to sing. They just told me I couldn’t. And the shame of it is I believed them. For a very long time.

We get second opinions on all kinds of things, we research our endless options on the internet, choosing just the right pair of shoes.

Then an offhand opinion pops up, and we take it as gospel. That makes no sense.

How much time did that tired choir director spend on her comment to me? Probably less than a second. But I’ve considered it truth since then.

Take that list of things you’re not good at and examine it closely. There are probably some things you really can’t do. I’m pretty short – there’s a reason I never made the basketball team. Several, actually, but that’s okay because I don’t really care.

Knowing what you care about is key. It lets you choose.

Once you figure out what you want to do, do it. A lot. We tend to live in the have-it-all-now-you-deserve-it world, but that doesn’t really work well. You have to find your passion then put your heart and soul into it, like this:

(TED talk) BLACK: My journey to yo-yo mastery

Maybe it’s no yo-yo mastery for you, yet once you have an area of focus, you can begin to say no to the distractions. We can’t do it all, or at least we can’t do it all well, in spite of what messages are out there.

One of my least favorite questions is “how do you balance it all?” because of the underlying assumption that we can or even should strive to balance it all. That’s not very humane, nor is it possible, in my opinion. So we have to make choices and when we choose the things we care about, when we build on a foundation of our strengths, we bring our best self forward.

Once you’ve made a choice, make the time.

I’ll be honest, I love to sing and I’ll keep doing it, perhaps to my family’s chagrin, but I’m not going to join a choir or take voice lessons, it’s not at the top of my list. Getting good at the top of the things on my list – some personal, some professional – is where I’ll be spending my time.

People say they can’t find the time to do something.

It’s not a matter of finding it, it’s a matter of making it. Making it yours, for a specific purpose, then respecting that choice enough to keep it.

That’s the hardest part of all, even harder than finding the right note.

A change takes courage.

I am still stunned that I opened my mouth and let the sounds come out. In public. But what shocks me even more is this: Nothing changed.

The world did not stop.

People did not clamp their hands over their ears and run screaming from the patio.

They just sang.

Suddenly, anything is possible.

Some really good singing and further discussion: Claron McFadden: Singing the primal mystery (TED Video)

 

 

 

Are you ready to take it to the next level?

wpid-2014-09-01-13.53.49.jpg.jpeg

There are three killer hills at the end of my favorite bike ride and each one is bigger and steeper than the previous one. There comes a point, about two-thirds of the way up, when this phrase runs through my head.

You gotta put something into it to get something out of it….

It’s what gets me up the hills. I’ve talked to other people who ride bikes, and most cyclists have some version of this trick. It’s whatever gets you over the hard parts or up the last piece of the climb. Some people count strokes (“I’ll look up when I’ve pedaled 100 times”) some people go through the lyrics of a song before they look up. Whatever it is, it’s a way of marking the intervals in a difficult ascent.

I’m a strong proponent of having a life outside of work. It’s hard to do these days, when you carry your email around in your pocket and everyone’s sense of urgency is easy to absorb. Bicycling is a way for me to be out of touch for a while.

Interestingly, it’s often on a relatively flat stretch of road, while I’m watching the wind bend the grasses into rustling waves, smelling the cows and goats, and hearing the metallic ping of roof repairs on the nearby barn, that the answers to difficult questions appear most clearly.

I enjoy that feeling of calm, being out in the world, and working through things one wheel-turn at a time. With such emphasis on fast answers and immediate information, it’s easy to feel like success should also come in a click – like that good idea that pops out of nowhere. However, like a long bike ride,  we lay the groundwork for our larger ambitions and accomplishments in a million small ways. We have to put something into it.

How?

It helps to have some focus. I have a friend at work who said to me in jest, “my hobby is hobbies.” I knew exactly what she meant. I have a million interests and a million-and-one things on my to-do list at any given moment. It’s been difficult for me to learn to pare back to a more manageable inventory of “projects.” Instead of swearing off all projects, I instituted a simple rule: finish what you started. Or call it over and move on. I was overwhelmed by the number of projects and things I wanted to get to, as well as the things I’d started and didn’t really want to finish. Throw something off your to-do list. It’s liberating. I was not going to be a knitter. It bored me. No matter how many cute projects other people did. And just because I could knit didn’t mean I had to knit. So I donated my yarn and moved on.

Ask yourself: What old ambitions are you holding on to, even though they’re out of date? What do you really want to focus on now?

It helps to develop some habits to support your focus. I used to rush in the mornings to pull together lunches. I was pretty good at talking to my kids over the counter while they ate breakfast, but they weren’t getting my full attention and sometimes I’d forget to bring my own lunch (or wouldn’t have anything to bring.) So I’d plan to just deal with it sometime during the day. Of course, my days weren’t exactly conducive to pulling together impromptu lunches. In a pretty basic switch-up, we now make lunches during or after we make dinner. Note that I didn’t say I, I said we. Which brings me to the third, and most life-changing step for me.

What could you do to open some time for the thing you want to focus on? Can you stop doing something? Designate a time most days for your focus?

Ask for help. My kids are fully capable of making a sandwich, I just wasn’t asking them to. Once it became part of our evening routine, we were enjoying breakfast together and rushing less in the morning. It took more discipline on my part, at first, to ask for help and make sure it became a routine. Once the habit was established, we had an easier time of it. Having that routine set helped me focus on a more personal goal. My favorite time of day to write is first thing in the morning. In order to make that happen, I had to go to bed earlier, set my clock, and ask for help. My husband brings the coffee and gets up with me. His support of the habits I wanted to maintain has been the best motivator when I feel less than energetic (and that’s basically me, pre-coffee.). Find someone who has your back, wants to help you put something into it, and you’ll have double the oomph.

What are you assuming someone won’t help you with? Have you asked? What do you assume you cannot do? Why?

Changing something in your life can feel an awful lot like those last few hills of the bike ride. They’re big, they’re steep, and you’re tired. But each stroke of the pedal brings us closer. When I’m on the hill, the only thing I have to focus on at that moment is putting one foot down, then the other. All those movements together bring us over the top.

What gets you over the hills?

 

 

 

What do whitewater rafting, the beach, and conflict have in common?

2014-07-04 14.51.22

Nothing, right? One takes place on a river, one at the ocean, and the other could be anywhere, but not while we’re having fun.

I was at the ocean with my children and my daughter was showing me her “techniques” for managing the rather sizable waves. She crossed her arm behind her head, grabbed her nose with her other hand, and yelled “whitewater!”

This was a new one. “That’s what you do if you fall out of the boat,” she explained. She’d been whitewater rafting a couple of weeks earlier and made a logical leap from protecting your head from rocks to protecting your head from the breaking waves. It worked, too.

In a stressful situation, we can easily rely on our learned behaviors instead of reaching out into other experiences to refresh and replenish our tool box.

Moments of conflict, with their intense emotion, can shut us down. This isn’t just something you’re imagining, either. Research shows all sorts of negative effects on our bodies and our ability to make decisions when we’re under stress. A quick online search turns up scholarly articles about our tendency to consider fewer options to solve problems when we’re under stress. And the media is flooded with the ill effects of stress on our health and our interpersonal relationships.

Insight can come in a flash, but the mind has to be able to adapt and see it.

How can we cultivate these types of moments?

We can boil a lot of this down to two main ideas.

Give yourself something to work with ahead of time

Go on vacation – even a saturday afternoon doing something different in a nearby town can help. Take a break from your “usual” and do something different. Drive a different way. Read a different type of book, different newspaper, check out an industry journal that has nothing to do with your field. These activities can expose you to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and give you a flash of connection. Take care of your health.

Prepare yourself to be open in the moment

Before your afternoon of meetings, go for a walk. Breathe. Stand up and stretch, look out a window. Make a point of going to the gym. Make a list of your key thoughts. Dump the “to-do” list you’re carrying around in your head on paper so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it. Whatever it is that can calm you, make you feel more receptive and more open to the situation you’re going into, take a moment to fit that in.

When you’ve been fortunate enough to have one of those flashes of insight or cross-pollination, share it with someone else, or let us know here what you think helped it happen.

 

 

Mastery requires time. Where are you spending yours? And what are you mastering?

image

“Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.”
― John GardnerThe Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

I recently found this quote in a  book I’ve had on my bookshelf since the 5th grade. I underlined it sometime in the past ten or fifteen years, but it resonated in a new way.

We gather mastery over time, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by default.

We gather habits, reactions to conflict, ways of thinking, and behaviors along our way. In certain moments, we feel the satisfaction of getting good at something. Maybe it’s the thing people seek you out for, a talent you share, a way of listening. In other situations we wonder “why do I find myself here again?”

Either way, the gathering power is strong.

Gardner’s quote made me think differently this week. Where do I spend my time? What kind of mastery am I developing with my time?

It’s a great question when thinking about conflict. After all, conflict can be random, but there’s usually a storm behind the thunderbolt. It’s often brewing and gathering on the horizon and we can feel it coming. What are we doing along the way to manage it? Resorting to our usual, well-practiced reactions? Or can we try something different?

It helps to break the storm down and see if we can identify a point or two where we can practice a new technique.

  • If your style is to avoid conflict, it could be intentionally asking the person you’re avoiding a question.
  • If you hate answering phone calls and the weight of the “to-do” is robbing you of your peace of mind during the day, maybe you can answer them first thing in the morning.
  • If you’re hiding from a particular trouble, maybe you can find someone to air your anxieties with and brainstorm next steps.
  • Maybe it’s as simple as making a few minutes a day for an overwhelming and unmanageable (seeming) project?

It can be small because that’s the way mastery begins, as Gardner emphasizes.

I’m curious what kind of changes you’ve made in your approach in dealing with conflict. Were they small or storm-sized?