achievement

Seven things that actually mattered

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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.

Lost is a good place to start

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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:

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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:

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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.

Are you ready to take it to the next level?

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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?