Birthdays come around once a year. They are a repeating milestone. This year I have a small gift for myself – an absence of expectations. Instead I am focusing on what I am and what I do.
There is much discussion these days on the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves. Every day’s to do list is a reminder to me that I fall easily for creating these expectations. Much of my life’s experience has taught me that most of the time we are neither quite as bad or as good as we think.
So this birthday, I am changing my expectations. I am.
On previous birthdays I have reflected on what I wanted to be. I set myself all kinds of milestones. I challenged myself to do more. Some I achieved but far too many became part of the overhang of what might have been. That overhang was mine alone, an unreal fiction and entirely unconstructive. Nothing more gets done because I once thought that I would have done more by now.
The last two years of working for myself has been a wonderful lesson in the importance of being & doing. I wondered what I might become when I began this process. I didn’t become anything. I am and I do. However, along the way I discovered:
I am helping people & organisations with collaboration, leadership, learning and the future of work, because it interests me and I work at improving my capabilities & connections every day
I am a baker because I bake whenever I can and I learn new techniques and approaches
I am a writer because I write whenever I have something important to say and I seek to get better with feedback.
I am enjoying a different life, because every day I am making new and better choices
I am happy. I just am. If I wasn’t, I would do something about it.
When other people want to hire your expertise, it is a solid reminder you are growing more every day. When people admire your baking, or your writing or some other activity, it is a reminder that those skills are growing too. If nobody else notices, then you still know you are growing. When you ask yourself what made you happy today and there is always an answer, you are happy.
What you are now doesn’t matter. It just is.
What you want to be doesn’t matter now. What matters is what you do today.
In life and in work, we need to aim high and we need to work hard to these goals. Even the best disappoint others occasionally. Failures and missteps are part of the process of learning. Others will forgive in time. However on any journey to a big goal, the toughest critic is most likely you. Don’t disappoint yourself. Be fierce in your own interests instead.
Dreaming big is important. We have more potential than we know. However, the latter part of that advice is well considered. Fierce pursuit of your goals is required for any form of success. Too many disappoint themselves by partial effort.
Stop Being Your Own Critic
Fierce pursuit of your dreams also demands that you stop the inner voices holding you back. Don’t let your own high expectations be a source of disappointment. You will be far more aware of your failings than others. Hold this in balance. Too many disappoint themselves by accepting the imposter syndrome that makes achievement feel unworthy.
Success comes from being real in the world and improving every day. Big dreams aren’t achieved by dream boats. They are achieved by fierce agents of change.
Being real does not mean embracing others’ views of what are ‘realistic expectations’. Fierce pursuit of your dreams means you must be real and engaged in the world. That means you need to have a real view of your status, your relationships and your capabilities. The need to understand these clearly is not because these are limits but because you must know what you need to change. Being real is the first step to learning, growing and getting where you want to go.
Being really also extends to accepting that there will be mistakes and challenges on your fierce journey to your goals. Embrace these mistakes too as part of a real journey. Forgive yourself a lot and learn a little.
Stick to your values
The mistakes you will struggle to forgive are those where you don’t live up to your own expectations on how to behave. We all need a fierce focus on living to our values, especially when it is easy, attractive or convenient to take another path. Our influence comes from our actions and our integrity and we must fight to defend that against paths of convenience.
Making the right decisions and saying the right things isn’t easy. Most of us aren’t perfect, but we need to have a fierce dedication to the values that make us who we are. Big dreams are achieved through integrity.
Wherever your success journey is going, Miranda Tapsell’s advice is more succinctly and more elegantly than this explanation so as you go forward remember her words and share them with others:
Every career choice is a hypothesis. Test yourself on your proposition and be prepared to pivot and adapt.
When I left my corporate role, my initial plans were a little vague. I knew I wanted better balance in my life. I knew I wanted to have a bigger impact on my personal purpose and I was prepared to make changes. I was deliberately taking time off to reflect but I wasn’t yet sure of whether I wanted another job or to start a business.
Because I had been involved in a startup, I had followed the development of Lean Startup thinking with keen interest. I also had ongoing conversations, with founders using the approach. As I pondered what to do with my career, I realised I had a chance to do the lean startup of me.
Expand Your Hypotheses
I had a few ideas of what I wanted to be involved in as I searched for new work and roles. These were my initial hypotheses. Some of these have proved to be valuable. Many were ruled out quickly because nobody else was interested in my offer or because the circumstances didn’t deliver the returns or impact on purpose that I wanted.
A simple example was that I initially thought I had an opportunity to work with startups or medium sized businesses. Firstly, these proved to be two completely different hypotheses with little overlap. In both cases, I found when there was money to pay mostly they didn’t want advice, they wanted outsourced management, access to my networks or some other proposition.
Also, I quickly discovered my initial hypotheses were too narrow and limited. People also started to offer me opportunities to do things that I had never considered before. Some of those opportunities, like the chance to join Change Agents Worldwide, to go to Do Lectures Australia, or the opportunity to work on development of a corporate university helped me expand my sense of what was possible.
Working through the hypotheses and pushing myself to consider the widest possible impact on purpose changed the work I do and the organisations that I chose to target dramatically. Along the journey I stopped looking for a job and became a consultant actively working in the future of work, customer experience and leadership (and starting up the business of me).
Relentlessly Test Hypotheses
You don’t know until you do. The only way to determine whether a proposition you have offers value is if someone is prepared to pay you enough and consistently enough to do it. There’s two points there:
You need to do stuff
People need to pay you consistently
When you are starting yourself up, there is a phase of networking and building profile. The danger is that networking and profile can be all consuming. Coffee and conferences can become your job. Growing networks can become your only return.
Get in and do things. Think like a startup and push yourself to do work every day. If you need to create a project to work on it, then do so. I found the best sales tool was when I was suddenly unavailable due to the volume of work. People started calling with work because I didn’t have time for coffee.
It surprised me how many people expected me to do work without being paid for it. I have done a few of those activities, not for the much offered ‘exposure’ but to prove to myself & others the value I can bring in an activity. However, once that is proved once it is time to make money or move on. Continued offers to work for free is a failed test of a hypothesis. Some times people will only pay when you’ve said no several times first.
Invest small and widely. There will be lots of temptations to put all your eggs in one basket, but remember each opportunity is a hypothesis to be tested. You don’t want to over invest in a proposition that won’t continue. I have turned down investment opportunities, jobs and partnership opportunities for this reason. I ended up deciding the best current scale for my business is me supported by amazing networks of the best talent from around the world, Change Agents Worldwide.
When someone asks me to go all in, I work with them to start with a small test instead. That way we both get to work out what is working and how much we want to invest together.
Remember time is the commodity that you have in greatest scarcity. Allocate your time to investments in your future with care. When people are wasting your time or don’t value it, allocate your time elsewhere.
The power of a platform, channels or a consistent community is the ability to run many tests at once. Startups use platforms to learn faster. You can do the same.
Your network is a platform. Strengthen it (remembering your network is not your job). Your thought leadership activities are another platform (remembering it rarely pays the bills). Work with people who have platforms to run better and faster tests on your propositions.
International Working Out Loud week was born out of some casual conversations and unmet needs. It was a fun experiment. As we work to develop the idea further, it offers a platform for additional experiments in the potential of working out loud as a proposition to help others.
Pivot or Persevere
Every day as you test your hypotheses you are going to adapt what you do. You will make small and large pivots. When things work you will persevere and work to scale them like mad.
Recognise also that somethings that work don’t scale. For example, I have put on hold plans to work with a range of startups in favour of working on a few businesses like Sidekicker where we share a view of what it will take to realise a big potential.
I don’t see my pivots as failures. They are just opportunities to wait for better timing, a better understanding of a client segment or a better proposition. I know I will do work with more organisations in healthcare or more medium sized businesses. It is just a matter of finding the right proposition. While I wait I work still, building capabilities that will help in that eventual proposition.
Be Uniquely You
When I started my work, I wanted to be like all the other successful people. Over time, I realised my unfair advantage was being me.
My skills and experiences are relatively unique at least in the markets that I am working in. That is a very good thing. Trying to make myself more like others dilutes my unique value.
Some people won’t like your uniqueness. You also won’t enjoy working for them. If being you is not good enough for some, that is a failed test and it is time to move on and find someone who wants you for you.
The Lean Startup of You
You don’t need to quit your job, start a business or to become an independent consultant to apply lean startup thinking to your career. Start asking yourself how you create the most value, how you can do more of that and experiment to make it possible. You might find it requires a change of job over time but a lot can be accomplished right where you are now.
The power of a lean startup mindset is accelerated learning. Make sure you are putting what you learn into new actions.
Inconsistency is the norm. The extraordinary is the ordinary consistently applied.
I attribute all the success that I have had in my career comes down to one point. My successes came about because I tried harder for longer at some simple thing.
I became a CEO because I tested myself with the little acts of change leadership every day for over a decade that built my skills and understanding of how to influence, to set a strategy and to lead a business
was invited to join Change Agents Worldwide because of my change advocacy and the thought leadership on this blog and I had been working on change every day for years and building my thoughts and writing daily for more than 4 years
my current consulting work in change leadership, collaboration and customer experience is not the outcome of any single insight. It is the consequence of learning more every day.
Whatever talents I might have were much less significant to my success than the willingness to put in the daily effort over a time span of years. After all, there are a mighty lot of talented people out there. It is far easier to outstay them than out perform them. If you put in the effort, you will discover, many extraordinarily talented people never start or give up at the first, second or tenth setback.
My actions aren’t extraordinary. I am a generalist, not a specialist. It is rare when I have the capabilities to make a unique difference. In our complex networked collaborative world, it is increasingly rare someone delivers on their unique capabilities alone. The generalist knows to leverage a network and is more likely to attend to all the disciplines needed for success.
I have also discovered that luck is the outcome of effort, opportunity and preparation. Luck rewards those prepared and still trying. Working and learning consistently means when a new opportunity arises you have a better chance of success.
Just as talent rises from a community, extraordinary performance rises from consistency of effort. If you read biographies and history the theme recurs; Overnight success is an outcome of years of effort.
So don’t despair at the lack of an obvious way to be extraordinary. Remember inconsistency is the norm. Your path to the extraordinary is the ordinary consistently applied.
Yesterday I asked a room of managers of Yammer networks in a Masterclass to work out loud. I asked them to share their biggest challenge and their biggest success. The challenges came out quickly. Successes were slower.
This experience is very common. Everyone has some form of success to report. However many need help to focus on what they have achieved.
We work so hard on shifting the sand in front of us. We know exactly how hard moving that sand will be. We know we lack the resources and time. Knowing our challenges is easy.
When we look back at the sand we have already shifted, we realise it is always this way. Work is tough but we get the job done. The obstacles are the work worth doing. Small wins accumulate. However we spend less time appreciating our achievements. We always gave forwards to the new sand.
Working out loud makes the work we are doing visible. It enables other to help us to appreciate what we have done. Importantly it gives us a record to review to appreciate our own achievements.
Take time each day to note one thing going well. Share that work. You will compile a better picture of the sand piling up behind you as you work
I’m late. Fog has closed in on my destination and the plane won’t take off for a few hours. I hate being late because I believe timeliness is a sign of respect. Timeliness contributes to better productivity of all.
I hate being late but now I am not stressed about the long delay.
I feel stress about being late up until I begin my journey. That is constructive stress. Stress makes sure I am doing all I can to start on time. Good stress is a motivator to make change, to act and to get going.
However, once I begin a journey I know it will take the time it takes, especially if it involves planes, trains or automobiles beyond my control. Sitting at an airport waiting for a flight, stress is not a constructive experience. Nothing I can do will change how soon I arrive. Once I mitigate the consequences of my lateness, I can rest in peace. For the next few hours I will get some work done instead of worrying about travel.
Bearing stress you can do nothing about is terrible for your health. It is deviating for motivation and performance too. If you experience this, change your circumstances, mindset or find a way to do something constructive.
Remember stress is a consequence of your own thoughts. You are anticipating future bad outcomes. Choose your stress wisely. Be stressed when it matters to your ability to act.
How often in life to you achieve an outcome by trying to avoid it?
I am a poor golfer. Quite often during a round, I will be well off the fairway and there will be a tree in the immediate vicinity of my ball. I have learned one truth about these experiences:
If I line up to play a shot thinking about ‘not hitting the tree’, I will drive my shot straight into it
Stop Trying to Avoid Something
Fear of failure is pervasive in many organisations. Because of our industrial management model and natural human psychological biases we often manage to avoid the downside. Just like on the golf course, the direct result is that we achieve that downside:
If you fear losing revenue and won’t play in innovation that might change the composition of revenue, you will be disrupted by someone who is prepared to work on a different model and takes your revenue away.
If you worry of the dangers of giving employees too much information, you should consider that poorly informed employees likely end drive your organisation to the same dangers
If you don’t trust decision making in your organisation and impose lots of controls on accountability, the exercise of decision making and the accountability in the organisation will be degraded
If you micromanage your employees because they might slack off, they will definitely slack off when every you blink or are distracted.
We could go on with the formula of “if [avoidance of X], then [unintended outcome of X]”
Success is not the avoidance of failure. Mediocrity is the avoidance of failure. Mediocrity is the place where you get stuck, unable to learn and grow. Mediocrity is the place where you wait to be impacted by forces beyond your control.
Worry less. Worry and stress is just a present expectation of negative outcomes in future. All you are doing is ruining the present moment by bringing forward a chance. You are also ruining your confidence and ability to execute.
Focus on the positive elements. Define what success looks like. Be realistic, but inspire yourself with what can be.
Avoidance of failure also leads to avoidance of action. There is a temptation to play safe, to wait and to be sure.
Just Do. The only way to learn is to do. The only way to move forward is to do. Take your definition of success and make the next best move forward to it. Now.
Risk=Reward. You have to start swinging for something. The best time is now.
Follow an unusual career paths and you will pick up a diverse set of skills. Later in life it will be that unusual skillset that enables you to make a mark when others get stuck in the pack.
In a rapidly changing world, diversity of personal skills is as important as the diversity of the teams that you join. Nobody is tied to a job. Everyone can learn something new. Make it your challenge to learn another skill every year at a minimum. Pursue opportunities that broaden your skills, knowledge and experience. We are all increasingly working in portfolio careers. The challenge is to be prepared.
Here are some skills & capabilities that I’ve found critical:
Persist: life throws challenges. The obstacles are the work and the reward. Learn how to push on to your goals and sustain the journey. Knowing why and understanding your own needs is critical here.
Listen: a completely underrated skill. Learn to listen between the lines. Learn to listen to what is not said. Listen actively questioning for understanding and learning. Don’t compose your reply. Listen deeply for insight.
Learn a new language: Jargon is everywhere. Learn the new language quickly. The faster you speak the lingo the better you build rapport. Plus understanding the grammar of the new business language tells you what matters in a business.
Tell a story: a story is not a list of events. A story engages with challenges, conflict and drama. You need to be able to share your passion for the story. The ability to tell a genuinely engaging story with passion is an art. Practice it every day.
Influence: before you can lead, you must influence others. Study and practice the art. Understand how to find the alignment of others’ agendas and your own. Learn how to hustle and to sell. Remember listening is more important than talking in influence.
Construct an argument: understanding how to communicate an argument quickly and effectively to an audience is key. Whether you are writing an email, preparing a PowerPoint or having a debate in a meeting know how to argue to influence. That’s different to arguing to win.
Negotiate: everything is negotiable. Learn how to negotiate effectively.
Learn to say no: Often and early. Priorities and values are a key to success. You will need a polite no to preserve them.
Use visual images: visuals work. The better your visual grammar the better you will understand how to engage others.
Run a project: the basics of project management help get stuff done. Most failed projects break simple rules. Learn how to manage simple project to delivery.
Risk everything (aka swim in the deep end): you are not learning if you are doing something you can already do. Risk=Reward.
Patience: no matter how young and brilliant you are you will have to wait at some point. Timing is everything in life and a career. Some times things just need to line up first. Make sure you have patience for when it is needed.
Speak to any generalist and you hear the same frustrating cry “Everyone wants to know my speciality”. A generalist needs to see the diversity of their experience as a source of differentiation, not the core proposition. Begin by meeting the specific needs of a situation.
The Challenge of Generalists
With more changes of role, career, technology and capability demanded of individuals, there are more and more people who have chosen to follow the diverse career path of the generalist. For many individuals the diversity itself is an attraction.
However, with diversity of experience and opportunity comes a challenge. How do you sell yourself in a job search or other work opportunity? When you can do many things, how do you answer the common question “What do you want to do?” An attempt to explain your general capabilities and many future paths usually results in a confused repeat of the question.
A generalist needs to position their capabilities as a flying wedge, a specific capability supported by a wedge of general capabilities.
Problems are Specific
Whenever someone is looking to engage you, wether you are talking to a hiring manager or a client, that individual will focus on a specific problem or opportunity that needs to be addressed. They want to know first of all that you can solve that specific problem. Start by explaining how your capabilities address that need.
The leading point of the proposition of a generalist must be focused to compete with specialists to solve a specific need. Sell the most relevant pointy end of the flying wedge first, because it earns the right to further attention.
Meet the Situation then Differentiate
Meeting the need of the buyer is only a ticket to the next stage of the conversation. Everyone who is shortlisted can meet the needs. The challenge to win the job or work is to differentiate.
At this point, the diversity of the generalist becomes an advantage because you can follow through on your focused point by sharing your broader capabilities. Differentiating on the breadth of capabilities enables you to highlight your unique ability to:
better meet related challenges
apply innovative solutions using other capabilities
deliver a better overall outcome
Specialists will need to compete on who has the most expertise. Instead you can use the flying wedge of your capabilities to widen the conversation to better sell the need for your generalist experience.