Words are Branches, Thoughts are Roots

My face has always been pretty easy to read. Indeed, my wife occasionally tells me that she doesn’t like how I’ve reacted to something, to which I’ll reply, “but I didn’t even say anything!”

“Ah, but you were thinking it.”


We all have versions of this, the non-verbal cues that we communicate irrespective of what we do or don’t say.

The question then arises: when we discover that we’re not showing up how we’d like to the people around us, when we learn that their experience of our non-verbal, energetic responses to them aren’t what we thought they were, what do we do?

Maybe, we think, we should change the words that we say.

Do we feel timid? We can say something confident.

Are we often quick to contradict? We can stay quiet for longer.

Have we been finding a colleague frustrating? We can complement him.

Do we secretly know that we’re not up to this new stretch assignment? We can talk the talk.

All of that is a start, certainly. In fact, often it works to behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

But we can also fall into a root/branch trap here, and never claw our way out. When this happens, we let ourselves off the hook of digging into the underlying thoughts that are what’s really going on.

Where that fear comes from.

That judgement.

The avoidance of a courageous conversation with that colleague.

The skills you believe you don’t have that you so desperately need.

To create real and lasting change in how others experience us, we must begin by observing, with intent and curiosity, where our root thoughts come from. We must bravely drag them out into daylight and see them for what they are.

Then, slowly, slowly, we start chopping away at the roots of our habitual responses.

Without doing this work, we end up hand-waving in defense of the words we said (or the micro-expression that flashed across our face), instead of acknowledging the work we still have to do on the underlying thoughts racing through our minds.

Speaking of which, we’re turning the page to yet another low point in American politics. It seems like soon we will all be discussing whether the President of the United States said the n-word, and then surely, if he did, watching smokescreen discussions of why “it’s just a word” and how we are all overreacting.

Let’s not forget that the real conversation isn’t about the word, it’s about the thoughts that lead to it.

The real conversation is the unspoken truth of the ugly, hateful, dehumanizing root thoughts that give rise to those words, roots that are indefensible and immoral.


The Walk-Talk Gap

“Change is hard.”

“You’ve got to show up every day.”

“To learn new skills, you must to push through a period of incompetence.”

“Self-knowledge is hard-won.”

“True acts of leadership are rarely praised.”

“We only grow when we’re willing to let go of some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

“Sometimes you just have to compromise.”

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, and my going-in expectations about learning Bahasa Indonesia, the fifth language I had studied.

“I’m good at languages,” I thought, “so this shouldn’t be so hard.”

And then I remember the blindingly obvious observation I made about a week in: how, to speak this new language, I’d have to learn a new word for nearly every single thing on the planet: types of food, trees, animals, verbs, possessive…the list was endless.

As if there was going to be some way to skip those steps.

Just because we possess hard-won knowledge of what the path looks like from here to there, just because we’ve walked that path a few times before, does not mean it will be a breeze to walk the path this time. Far from it. It just means that we might walk it with a bit more perspective and perseverance, a dash more courage and determination.

Being in the trough, though, that valley in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an important compromise, feedback that cuts deep, or the recognition that, this time, the person who is set in his ways is us…

The question we’re faced with at that moment is the only one that matters: this time, are we going to be willing to do the hard work?

Vision, Strategies, Tactics, and Results

We each have a natural set point, a place we feel most comfortable.

We might be seers who can imagine, out of whole cloth, a future.

We might be doers who need to be neck-deep in the work to come to conclusions that mean anything to us.

We might be analyzers who see the whole field of play and can visualize which pieces need to be moved in what ways to tilt the field.

We might be movers who just need to make something happen to feel any sense of accomplishment.

The point is, each of us starts somewhere, and like any good journey the first step is to figure out where that “where” is.

For example, I remember back in college the terror of each paper I had to write.

Inevitably, days before a paper was due I’d stumble across one classmate or another whose answer to a perfunctory “so…what are you writing about?” came back in fully-formed, immaculate, intimidating paragraphs. I’d nod, mutter something in response, and walk away, even more stressed that I was still just reading, and reading, and reading some more, taking tons of notes but struggling to come up with any sort of well-formed ideas of my own.

Over time I discovered that my own process required me to read and sit and write and struggle and read some more until, finally, my perspective would emerge. Not an easy process, but once I’d done it enough times I noticed that I like starting from the middle and working my way up (big picture) and down (specific proof points or tactics). No coincidence, then, that having a daily practice of capturing and developing ideas—in this blog and in my daily work—is part of how I structure my time. It’s a system that allows me to produce my best ideas.

So, if, irrespective of where we like to start, we must eventually build out everything from vision to tactics and all that lies in between, we must ask ourselves questions like:

How do I process information?

Where do I feel most comfortable along the chain?

More often than not, what are the moments, contexts, or situations in which my new ideas arise?

Once I’ve got a new perspective, or insight, or even just an inkling, what steps do I then need to take to fill out the other pieces of the puzzle?

And, finally, given all of this, how can I structure my day, my time, my conversations (or lack thereof) to give myself more opportunity both to develop the nuggets that come most easily to me, and to then turn these into flushed-out ideas that I’m ready to start putting out into the world?

Your questions grow up with you

Do I want to be a superhero or drive a firetruck?

Do I want to be a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer or a veterinarian?

Do I want to be a salesperson, an entrepreneur, an investment banker or a professor?

Goldman or Morgan? TFA or Robin Hood? Charter school or public school? Facebook or Google?

Until, eventually:

What kinds of problems do I want to solve?

How much direction do I need?

And how much do I want those around me to need?

What kind of approval do I seek?

Do I like creating new things or polishing others’ great ideas?

Do I work best with people who are highly structured or more free form?

Do I thrive or crack under pressure?

Do I want a workspace that is quiet or loud?  Open or closed?

What happens when I’m in the spotlight? What should?

How do I manage my time to be most effective?

How hard can I work in a sustained way?

Am I a starter or a finisher?

Do I process information best alone or in groups?   In conversation or in writing?

How important is culture to me?   Values?

What does leadership mean to me?

How do I make others shine?

When I grow up

It wasn’t until three or four years ago that I figured out what I wanted to be when I grow up. Not what specific job, not each twist and turn of my career. The characteristics of a job that is right for me: my strengths, where I shine, where and how I can deliver value to an organization.

While I’d feigned clarity and direction in countless prior job interviews and graduate school applications, I felt like I didn’t know in any real way where I was headed. I knew I’d been good at school, and since graduating college I’d managed to figure out a lot of things I didn’t like. But I still had a pretty limited affirmative understanding of what I was put on this earth to do.

No doubt our educational institutions are a huge part of the problem. Even in graduate schools, which are meant to prepare students for the next stage in their careers and to help them get there, I spent 99% of my time “learning stuff” and 1% of my time trying to figure out who I was and what made me tick. That can’t possibly be the right balance, yet that’s how nearly all of these programs are structured. (Sure, part of this is on me. I made the mistake of thinking Business School was school when it didn’t need to be.)

I can’t overstate how many incredible people I meet who have no idea what they’re supposed to do with their lives.

So, first and foremost: it’s OK that you don’t know. It takes time.

Second, this notion of figuring out exactly what you want to be when you grow up is an anachronism. It’s time to dispense with the preschoolers’ notion of careers (doctor, lawyer, footballer, firefighter) which is pretty much the only mental model we all have. Instead, the work begins with exploring questions like: what am I best at? What things seem really easy for me that are difficult for others? When do I shine? What kinds of problems do I like solving? How much uncertainty makes me comfortable/uncomfortable? How much recognition do I need? From whom? Why? How much do I like risk? Am I more conceptual or concrete? Do I love ideas or execution? How am I at building relationships? Am I creative? Do I like to teach others?

I think we knew all this stuff once, and we forgot it.

A short story: weekends in my house are a juggling act bouncing between three kids. Yet last weekend I managed to get a few uninterrupted hours with my 8-year-old son, and I’d told him we could do anything he wanted. While all the kids in his class would likely use that time to play soccer or baseball (and yes if I’d let him we’d have played video games), his idea of a perfect afternoon was to go to a craft store, buy a box of popsicle sticks, a package of pipe-cleaners, a piece of green foam, a piece of Styrofoam, some Elmer’s gel glue, and, as a bonus, a packet of fake moss, and then spend a few house building a model playground from scratch in our basement. Voila:

I have no idea what my son is going to be when he grows up, and I don’t suspect that he’ll know that for a while. But I know that he gets joy out of creating things and out of using his imagination. It engages him fully. In some way and in some form, he’s going to have to make stuff if he’s going to be really happy.

That’s the only level at which I’ve been able to figure out what I’m meant to do in the world. It’s not a shingle I can hang on the door or a defined career in any traditional sense of the word. What it is is a first-time understanding of who I am, of what the organizations I’m part of seem to need from me, of roles I continually find myself playing whether I choose to or not.

Slowly, the outline started to form, and once I saw that initial outline, my job was to keep trying to get the picture into sharper focus. Still lots of work to do – a lifetime of work – but it feels a lot easier than groping around pretending that I’m supposed to fit myself and my career into some little box I first heard about when I was a little kid.

There are fewer and fewer boxes out there, and you probably don’t want to fit into any of them anyhow.

What’s sacred about you?

Here’s the one thing I can’t stop thinking about after writing yesterday’s post: what’s sacred about me?

Meaning, Jonathan Haidt’s research tells us that to understand people and how they make decisions, you have to understand what they hold sacred.  Around these sacred beliefs, there’s a halo of willful ignorance, one that few facts can penetrate and, if they do, these facts fail to dislodge the core belief.

It must be the case that this applies to self-image, that there are things I fundamentally believe about myself (that you believe about yourself) that blind me (you) to the facts.

The capacity for change comes from the willingness to observe the things that are most dear in my self-image and expose them.  Most obviously, Jonathan challenges me to look at the notion that I’m an open-minded person by asking me how much I understand the perspective of people whose core beliefs differ fundamentally from my own.  More broadly, we all walk around with notions of who we are, namely…

I am:

[   ] good

[   ] bad

at public speaking; writing; analysis; closing a sale; inspiring others; leading a team; coming up with new ideas; getting things over the finish line; fundraising; meeting new people; taking risks.

For example if you’d asked me when I was 23 what job I would never, ever want to or be able to do successfully I would have said “any kind of sales job.”  Whoops.

There are only two ways to break this cycle.  The best way is to decide not to listen to the stories you tell yourself and to start doing things that contradict your most sacred beliefs about who you are and what you’re best and worst at.  Then supercharge your efforts by creating a culture of honest and open feedback (a la Open 360) – a work environment in which people who know you and who deeply care about your success and that of your organization actually sit down and tell you what we’re best at.

I promise, you’re your worst critic.   In the act of trying, buttressed by feedback from invested and caring colleagues, you’ll show this critic who’s boss.

What do you do in the face of a “no”?

A “no” can mean a lot of things.

It can mean that you’re wrong or that you’re right.

It can mean you’re way off course or completely on track.

It can mean that you’re threatening or that you’re misguided.

It can mean that you need to try harder and it can mean that it’s time to give up.

It can mean that you asked too soon or too late, that your story had no mojo or that you happened to ask on the wrong day.

A “no” by virtue of being a “no” tells you very little.  A “no” is deeply subject to interpretation.  Its “no-ness” is not inherently meaningful.

But knowing what a “no” does to you – now that could be valuable.  If no’s makes you slow down, shy away, and question yourself, that’s something you want to know.  If no’s save you from wasting time but you often forget to listen, you want to know that too.  If no’s cause you to push harder and to want to prove others wrong…yup, knowing that is important too.

Does a “no” attract you or repel you?  Does it have gravitational force or refractive powers?  Does it stop you in your tracks or add fuel to the fire?

What do you know about how you react to a “no”?

Our most important job

Schools teach two sets of lessons, one useful, one problematic.

The (generally) useful lessons are the ones that teach us the things that schools are meant to teach – reading, writing and arithmetic, progressing to critical thinking and deep domain expertise.

The second, silent, unspoken lesson is that schools are in the business of teaching us (defining for us) what we’re supposed to learn and master (they give out the grades after all).  And then more silently still they hand over this role to our employers who define the rules of the game with evaluation matrices that tell us if we “did not meet” “met” or “exceeded” expectations.

Whose expectations, exactly?

It takes a while (sometimes forever) to figure out that the most powerful levers for one’s personal development aren’t the skeleton keys that teach us how to be great __________  (speakers / analysts / bloggers / designers / teachers / coders / investors / whatever). That’s just skill mastery.

The most powerful lever is is figuring out what configuration of skills matter the most to what we hope to accomplish.  This is why we can’t outsource this process of discovery (it is discovery, it’s not a set playbook) to our teachers and employers and parents and friends.

Our job, first and foremost, is to figure out what it takes to be great, and then to have the courage and conviction to go out and do those things that will get us there.

The figuring out part is the messy, quiet bit that people mostly don’t talk about, even though it’s really the most important thing.

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