Clues

Always be sniffing for clues that you are doing real and important work.

A nice cocktail to look out for is the mixture of fear that “this might be a total waste of time” mingling with moments (minutes, maybe hours) flying by because you are totally engrossed in something.

This fear you’re feeling comes because there aren’t clear external markers for what you’re working on, or because some people you trust are telling you that this won’t work, or because you can sense that you’re further out on a limb than you ever have been before.

When this sort of nagging doubt comes together with a project that completely engrosses you, one that sometimes grabs you and won’t let go because you’re so in sync with the work…that’s a great time to keep going for it.

That kind of synchronicity doesn’t come along often, and the fear and doubt you’re feeling is the worry that you might do something big and important.

You might. Which means that when you pull it off, you won’t be able to walk away from it.

That’s scary too. But it’s just this kind of work that we need from you.

The Kick

I’ve started swimming again.

To be more accurate, I started a year ago, dipping into the pool because the tendinitis in my right arm was so bad that it hurt to hold a coffee cup, let alone a racquet.

I’d avoided swimming for decades. As a child, for reasons I can’t explain, swimming terrified me. I was the kid who cried before every swimming lesson, tears streaming down my face while I stood waiting to be picked up each summer Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.

No surprise, then, that 30 years later, despite being physically active, 25 meters of freestyle left me clutching the side of the pool, panting for breath. Something about having my head in the water and needing to breathe to one side brought me back to Beginner Swimming lessons and the dreaded 25 meters of freestyle I had to swim to pass the test.

Nothing like an injury to get me to face my fears. Swimming was the only activity that eased the shooting pain in my injured right arm, relaxing the muscles and stretching out the tendons. That was motivation enough.

Over the course of last summer, I willed myself into the water, swimming 50 meters, then 100, then further. While I did eventually push through to being able to swim a few hundred yards, that old underlying panic still lurked. It was a feeling that at any moment I could devolve into a terrified kid gasping for breath.

(By way of contrast, my wife loves the water. She would describe her Zen-like experience swimming laps, and I’d listen, perplexed. To me, “ease” and swimming mixed like oil and water.)

At the start of this summer, I realized that, despite the progress I made last year, much of my effort and willpower had been taking me in the wrong direction: if I’m trying to work through a fear, then more effort and strain aren’t the right tools to use. This summer, I’ve been trying to figure out where that old panic comes from, and how it’s affecting what I do in the water.

What I’ve recently discovered is that my fear of not being able to breathe is manifesting in every stroke I take. Each stroke, I do a frantic flutter kick and I tense up my whole body in a misguided attempt to lift my full head (and half my torso, it seems) out of the water. That kick, that tensing up, it’s that 30-year-old terror resurfacing to sabotage my stroke and leave me exhausted.

I find it so tempting to muscle my way through these sorts of situations – not just in the water. Wouldn’t it be nice if fear were something we could overpower and wrestle to the ground?

I can’t, directly, beat back the fear, but I can change what I do in the water. I can focus on the behavior that the fear has created – in this case, the kick. So, as I swim laps, I focus on kicking less, on tensing up less, on straining less, and as I change what I’m doing with my body, over time, a bit of ease begins to seep in.

We discover this same pattern so often if we’re willing to look for it. We waste energy on things that feed on the energy we give them: the energy we put into stalling before sitting down to work; the energy we put into maintaining an image of strength and confidence for those around us; the energy we put into protecting someone who can stand on their own two feet; the energy we put into the decades-old stories someone put into our heads that we’ve never let go.

Most of the time, this energy comes from a place of fear or self-preservation. These fears lace themselves through our days and through our relationships. If left unexamined and unaddressed, they exhaust us, draining our mental and physical faculties and insulating us from what our experience could be.

We don’t overcome fear with more effort or by straining more.

We overcome fear by looking back to the source, seeing it clearly and, from a place of calm and clarity, discovering that we can behave differently and that, when we do, those old fears no longer have the power to hold us.

Terrified of success

It’s worth reflecting why we systematically under-prepare for things: big speeches, job interviews, presentations to the Board of Directors, asking for a raise.

We’ve heard all the talk about not losing spontaneity, about being in the moment.  Phooey.  All the best jazz musicians – professional improvisers – practice like crazy.

If there is foundational work that you (systematically) don’t do when the stakes are high, that is fear speaking.  Fear of spending time today looking the thing that scares you right in the eye.  Fear of putting in the time now, because when we put in that time we’re making an emotional commitment to a successful outcome.  Fear that if we try our hardest and then fail, we have no excuse – whereas if we wing it, we always have an out.

It’s surprising, ironic and a little sad: we under-invest in our own success not because we’re afraid of failing, but because we’re terrified that we might succeed.

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POSTSCRIPT to yesterday’s post: I was half right (or, if you prefer, half wrong), as Dean Karlan posted the results of his experiment on the Freakanomics blog.  The results are that prior donors who’d given less than $100 to Freedom from Hunger gave 0.9 percentage points LESS when presented with more facts/data; those who’d given  $100 or more gave 3.54 percentage points more.  So more facts made some donors give more, and some give less.  Dean shares an interesting observation in the post: “Freedom from Hunger is known amongst its supporters and those in the microfinance world as being more focused on using evidence and research to guide their programs.”  So these donors might be some of the most likely to be interested in evidence, and it still was a coin flip on whether more data resulted in more or fewer donations.

A better list

Lists are great – a systematized, orderly way to keep yourself on task and keep track of tasks.

Except of course that lists are usually an excuse – an excuse to do everything but the real work we have to do.

Some lists, full of seemingly important stuff, actually just say:

  1. Stall
  2. Stall
  3. Procrastinate
  4. Put stuff off
  5. Stall some more
  6. Look busy
  7. Have a meeting that looks busy
  8. Etc.

(By the way, your inbox is just a fancy list.  And don’t get me started on your Facebook / Twitter feed).

So how about this: keep the list, work the list, but act based on the knowledge that you’ll never get to the end of the list.  Knowing that, why not commit, once a day, to add one thing to the list (just one!!) that’s hard or scary, and commit to getting that thing done today.

Hard and scary is, it turns out, a pretty great proxy for “worthwhile.”

One item, once a day, every day, that terrifies you.

What should I do, boss?

A typical email:

Dear Boss,

Here are all the things going on with this project.   And also this.  Plus there’s this other thing we need to keep in mind.  This too, which is really important.  And I’m worried about this.

What should we do?

Employee

When you’re about to ask your boss to make a call on something, it’s worth stopping for a moment and asking what you’re doing and why.  You have the most information, usually, so the questions you might ask yourself are:

1.       Am I actually worse at making decisions than my boss?

2.       Do I not have the authority to make decisions?

3.       Or is neither of the above true and am I just avoiding responsibility for making a call?

The kicker is, the more you go ahead and decide stuff for yourself, the better you get at making decisions and the more authority you get (if this doesn’t happen, go work for someone else.)

Yes, sometimes you don’t know and/or you really need a thought partner, but I’d guess that happens 1 out of 5 times, maybe 1 out of 10 times, not most of the time.

The best birthday card ever?

A few years ago a good friend of mine started a greeting card business with all sorts of quirky cards for very specific events – buying a new Xbox; embarrassing faux-pas at the office holiday party; most sleepless nights in a row with a new baby….  When he took the cards to buyers, they all told him that the cards were great, but what they needed to see were more birthday cards, anniversary cards, and Valentine ’s Day cards.

The question he asked and we all need to ask today is: do I want to be in the business of trying to create the best birthday card ever?  Do I want to toil away and hope beyond hope that I’ll rise to the top – using the same tools and tactics as everyone else, but doing it just a little bit better?

You know:

Sure everyone does email campaigns, but ours is going to stand out a bit more because we’re going to tweak the headlines and up our open rates…

Sure everyone creates annual reports, but ours will be snappier, crisper, more memorable…

Sure everyone writes a quarterly email that no one reads, but this is what everyone expects, so we have to do it too…

Really?  You actually don’t need to do those things that everyone else does, and you certainly, certainly don’t need to do them in the WAY everyone does them (please!).

You don’t need to spend your organizational energy on things that “people expect.” Who are these “people” anyway?  What exactly do they expect?  Why?

Maybe these expectations are out there, and maybe they’re right, but I’d pressure test that a lot before spending organizational energy on creating another me-too thing that’s fighting for its life to be just-a-bit-above-average.

The chance that you write the world’s best, most memorable birthday card are pretty slim.  But creating the funniest “office party holiday gift card” ever – and getting that card in front of the people who buy and sell holiday gifts…well that sounds a lot more possible and a lot more fun.

WWYD?

It’s so, so easy to look all around for advice – to ask people who have done this before, who have more experience, who appear more qualified.

And you should get this advice. You should research.  You should dive deep into all of the tacks you can take.

But don’t forget to ask – and give credence to – the most important person of all: you.  YOU are the person gathering the information, you are the person on the front lines, you  are the one seeing the whole picture, you are the one whose opinion matters the most.

There’s a fine line between asking what others think and being too concerned about making them happy – to your/your work’s determent. Remember, getting where you need to get isn’t the same thing as making your superiors/peers happy every step of the way.

So, WWYD – What would YOU do?

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