Maybe we’re in a relationship, romantic or otherwise, that has become highly dysfunctional but we’re too afraid to leave for fear of being alone or hurting the other person’s feelings.
Maybe we’re in a job where personal growth has long since ceased or our contributions are not well appreciated, yet the thought of making a major career shift virtually paralyzes us.
Maybe we’re a long-time member of a group that has drifted from its original purpose or lost its ability to make things happen, but we feel an obligation to try to fix it even when we know it’s neither possible, nor the best use of our scarce time and energy.
Maybe we get behind a leader “for the good of the cause” but come to see that the behaviors that rub us the wrong way–or we feel compelled to disavow completely–are revealed to be his deeply held beliefs and character defects.
Our heart usually tell us it’s time to get out way before our brain does its more careful and deliberate work.
When we let go of the past, the need to be right, the worry about what others might think and the pathological urge to fix everything, our burden is lightened and our path becomes far more clear.
The exits are clearly marked. The challenge is to muster up the courage to walk out the door.
Our challenge is not to stay busy. Frenzied, unrelenting activity is far from a guarantee of utility, productivity, purpose or meaning.
Our challenge is not to make sure that nothing on social media slips by unnoticed or without comment or an emoji. I’m fairly certain that you–and the world–are going to be just fine if you are not current on the Kardashians latest activity or fail to “like” your sister’s choice of restaurant.
Our challenge is not to continuously tweak or burnish some fantasized projection of ourselves. The internet has made it easy for us to be our own PR firm; to curate an image of who we want to be, rather than accept who we are; to passively consume rather than creatively produce.
It’s never been easier to stay busy, to buy into the illusion of progress because there is always something new or a bit shinier to capture our attention.
Our challenge, therefore, is to recognize when we fall into the seductive, often unconscious, trap of new day, same old stuff. To recognize the spinning, the distraction, the mere ego gratification.
And with that awareness we then commit to make a different choice.
The wolf that wins is the wolf we feed.
The world doesn’t exactly suffer from a shortage of oppression.
Of course there are two fundamental types: the kind that is foisted upon us and the kind we (often unconsciously) direct against ourselves. We can argue about which is worse, but it’s not hard to see which should be easier to combat.
The former has many sources–a quest for power or money, an irrational need for control, and so on. Sometimes by holding our ground, by setting boundaries, by enlisting the support of others, we can stand successfully against our oppressor.
In the latter case, we are the enemy and, most often, our fear-based perfectionism is the dragon we have to slay; it’s the demon that keeps us from putting our best thoughts, our new product, our art–or whatever it is that we ought to ship–out into the world.
I like what Anne Lamott has to say about this in her book Bird by Bird:
Perfection is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
They don’t appear anywhere on my resume but some of my most important accomplishments are things that could have happened but didn’t. And if you read my professional bio or LinkedIn profile, my many failed experiments are nowhere to be seen. That’s really too bad because they represent some of my best work.
It turns out I’m pretty good at talking people out of things. On multiple occasions, at two different retailers, the CEO I worked for was hellbent on making a major acquisition. Through a lot of analysis, much hemming and hawing and some decent persuasion skills, my team and I ultimately convinced them to drop the deals. In more recent years, as a consultant, I’ve advised multiple private equity firms, hedge funds and corporations where my ultimate contribution was convincing them not to make an investment they were originally inclined to make. I’ve also been hired by clients to help them with how to make something happen and where I ultimately recommended they shutdown or completely pivot on their project. And thankfully they listened.
Of course it’s impossible to know for sure what would have happened had these initiatives moved forward. But I have no doubt that (conservatively) hundreds of millions of dollars in value was preserved while management was freed up to pursue far more productive avenues of growth. It’s not sexy–and it doesn’t make the CV– but stopping is often the very best thing we can do.
Having been in the strategy and innovation space for awhile I’ve also had numerous occasions to champion and/or execute projects of the “this might not work” variety. And guess what? Many didn’t. At least not remotely close to the way we had originally envisioned.
Some were small and contained–like, testing and learning our way through various marketing personalization experiments. Others were far bigger and bolder, like creating and opening entirely new store concepts.
A few of the misses where evident quickly and we were smart enough to fail quickly and recalibrate. Others took more time to reveal wisdom we could leverage. And, if I’m honest, some should have been put out of their (and our) misery sooner than we were willing to pull the trigger. But in virtually all cases our failures led us down a path of far greater learning and impact.
Power and value is not merely in the idea. Nor is it in working harder and harder in the hope of batting 100%.
Quitting is underrated.
And the willingness to try stuff is not appreciated nearly enough.
There’s a tendency to think many of our important decisions are all or nothing. This or that. Black or white.
We present “go or no go” recommendations based upon a snapshot of facts and figures at a particular point in time, when often a far more sensible and flexible route would be to invest a little bit now to learn a lot more before we double down on a set strategy.
We routinely engage in budgeting processes that force commitments into an annual cycle–often generating estimates up to 18 months out from the actual point of spending–when we know full well the world just doesn’t work that way anymore.
We run discounted cash flow analyses that give a monolithic view of the future–and spit out seemingly precise ROI’s and breakevens–when, more often than not, the reality we face is a series of forks in the road, a sequence of options, decisions and antes, none of which is likely to resemble the well ordered Excel spreadsheet we crafted at all.
In our personal lives, we dislike food we’ve never tasted, give up on something or someone we’ve barely taken time to understand and don’t even try new avenues and ideas to explore because we can’t see our way clear to the very end.
Much of the time our task is not to figure out the total journey or the likely endgame. We don’t have to map out every twist and turn and each step along the path to get started.
Most of the time it’s more than enough to get to the top of the hill right in front of us to see what might be revealed on the other side.
And the journey starts anew.
If only growth–profound, meaningful growth–personal, business or otherwise, could happen without confronting our fears and was devoid of any risk, absent any real struggle or pain.
Wouldn’t it be great if the journey from a challenging present set of circumstances to a robust, inspiring future could skip over the whole vulnerable and disquieting parts? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could retain the warm comfort of doing what we’ve always done while still getting the benefits of all this new stuff we tell ourselves we need to do?
But once we get serious about change, once we are ready and committed to do the work, our struggles are akin to those of flying trapeze artists.
The trapeze artist climbs up that ladder and takes a position high above the safety of terra firma.
The trapeze artist must accept the risk that she might fall.
The trapeze artist then courageously leaps off the platform, leaving stability and security behind.
The trapeze artist then works on timing and coordination and building up the right speed.
And then she has to let go of what’s she been holding on to and have the faith that there will be something to grab hold of to support her and to propel her forward.
As Seth reminds us, there are no timid trapeze artists and you can’t get to the next rope if you’re still holding on to this one.