In the last 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of sitting in deep conversation with hundreds of people working in Corporate America. When the shields are down and the corporate façade comes off, almost everyone shares one secret in common: they fear failure, especially when operating in the pressure gap.
The pressure gap is the difference between your mental tools to handle a situation and the consequences of handling that situation poorly. When I gave a TED talk, the pressure gap was huge when I signed on. I had the skills to give a regular speech – but not the mental tools to give a TED talk. The pressure of a TED talk is MUCH more than a speech – and that pressure definitely triggered my fear of failure. It will been filmed and seen by thousands. Lots of other people have given them, so the expectations that the speech will be a really good one are much higher. If I had delivered the speech without developing my mental tools of staying grounded and present, I might have bombed. Thanks to several months of working on the speech itself and my mental tools, we closed the gap to a manageable level – I gave the speech I intended to give and didn’t faint on stage!
In my conversations with leaders, they talk about facing external pressures. But often it’s the inner dialogue that provides a window into the gap they are operating in:
When I was a kid, we used to watch the Ed Sullivan show (I’m dating myself!) These guys would come on and start spinning plates, one after the other. When the plate stopped spinning, it would fall – so they had to move quickly from plate to plate to keep it spinning.
One day many years later, I was walking in to work at the bank where I had a big and ever-growing job. I said yes to everything. One of the best “compliments” given to me was “Lynn, you’ve done everything we’ve ever asked of you.” My version of success was to prove I could handle more and more and more. So on this day, in my mind I was running through everything I had to do that day and I almost stopped in the hallway to laugh at myself. I was a plate spinner!
My entire day would consist of running from one “plate” to the other to keep it spinning. And I deeply feared the crash of one or more plates on the floor. It never dawned on me to question my approach or whether it made sense to keep this many plates spinning, or whether I should ask for help. I would like to say that I completely shifted my mindset that day, never to be a plate spinner again. But let’s be real. Not adding the additional plates would mean that I was not up to the job. And we couldn’t have that! My proving mindset would keep me playing above my head and eat me up from the inside out for a few more years.
It comes down to a fear of failure, fueled by the thought of being the only one who feels this way. It never dawned on me to question my approach or have a conversation about priorities or even grow my skills. Instead, being super busy made me feel good about myself, in a warped way. When asked how I was doing, saying “I’m so busy” really meant – “They need me! They trust me! They can’t live without me! Look at what a good person I am to be needed this much!” “I’m not failing!”
So instead of growing in my abilities, I spent all my energy on performing, proving and doing, making the pressure gap even wider. I took no time to recover, to reflect, or to improve myself. I’m lucky it didn’t kill me.
The pressures in Corporate America have gotten so much greater and more complex. (The same is true for the entrepreneurs I work with.) In my conversations, I’ve come to learn that almost everyone has some form of inner dialogue that fears failure. No one sees it in each other because we are really good at covering it up. We don’t dare let on that we are slipping. We trade time with our loved ones, sleep, recreation and personal development rather than face the reality that we need to change our approach by improving our mental tools.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned: “they” won’t fix it for you. It’s hard work to change your inner dialogue. You can’t pretend your way to closing the pressure gap without paying an enormous personal cost.
You CAN build the inner strength and skills to handle more – IF you are willing to stop spinning plates, shift to an improving mindset and start working on yourself.
What’s the inner dialogue keeping you in the plate spinning game? How big is your pressure gap? Where are you looking for resources to help you close the gap?
As always, please share this with anyone you think would find it useful. And let me know how you are using what you learn!
About 20 years ago, I had three experiences that literally changed – and maybe saved -- my life.
If you have seen my TEDx talk “From Raging Bitch to Engaging Coach”, you hear the story of how I learned to assume positive intent, and the ways that practice shifted my perspective. What I didn’t share in that talk were the three experiences that opened my mind up enough to let the light in – or how much the feeling of powerlessness fueled the way I approached my relationships in life and work.
People who know me today, who didn’t know me then, can’t picture the intense, bitchy woman who stomped through the halls of Corporate America and secretly worried about what a horrible mother she (I) was. They see the Lynn of today, who carries a very full load of coaching clients, while at the same time making the time to water ski, do art projects and walk the land at Mystic Waters. They see me as the grateful mother of my daughter AND co-worker Jen, who has become a magnificent coach in her own right. (it’s time for more people to experience her ability to bring out your best – more on that later.)
The three experiences that “let the light in” all shared one common theme: Three different coaches in three different ways helped me see that I had WAY more power to shape my life than I was owning at the time. There was a common thread in those three experiences that can be summarized like this: “I have the power to change my thinking – and when I change my thinking, I create new decisions, actions and results.”
In a way, my three experiences were serendipitous – and somewhat haphazard. It was YEARS before I put the insights together in a way that made real change happen for me. When I did, it set me on the path to leave the corporate world and become a coach.
As an executive coach, I’ve helped hundreds of clients uncover insights that create breakthrough results in their lives and careers. Many of my clients have gone on to be CEO or run their divisions. Just as many have left Corporate America to joyfully start their own businesses. ALL of my clients learn the keys to changing their thinking – which leads to them running their brain instead of their brain running them.
Are you running your brain?
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One of my favorite reads of the year was the book Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday. What made this story so gripping to me was Holiday’s weaving of three storylines together to create a narrative about the use of power, secrecy and yes, conspiracy.In the very second paragraph, Holiday says:
"There is an unpleasantness in talking about conspiracies, I’ll grant that. Yet conspiracy is a neutral word. It depends on what one does with it. Our tendency to shy away from this truth creates a profound ignorance of how things really work, and what it means to be strategic, to be powerful, and to try to shape events rather than simply be shaped by them."
If you have been reading this blog for long, you know one of my themes is power, without almost ever using that word. (Why? Because it’s a highly charged word.) Yet I am always examining who is really running my life, where is my choice, and how do I unleash who I really am in the world. So it’s no wonder I loved this book.
Last night, when I saw that Ryan Holiday had posted his interview with Peter Thiel from the day before, I did something I never do. I sat down and watched the whole hour. Thiel’s fame arises from his co-founding of PayPal and deep involvement in other Silicon Valley interests. He’s mostly famous in those circles as the guy who thinks for himself. He’s especially famous for asking people his bullshit detecting question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
Quick hint: Don’t try to answer that question by seeing what your co-workers think or going to Facebook to see what your friends are posting. Definitely don’t turn on the news and see what your favorite flavor of media is sharing today. I’m not being flippant here. Understanding your own mind – really knowing what YOU think – is incredibly difficult. We have SOOOO many inputs and we are hardwired to fit in with our social groups.
Truly thinking for yourself will likely put in you in disagreement about something with almost everyone you care about.
In the interview, they talk about thinking for yourself about 40 minutes into the interview. Holiday asks the same question of Thiel that so many of my clients ask me: How do you really cultivate the ability to think for yourself?
I’m not going to even try to paraphrase their conversation through my filters or ways of thinking. Even if you watch it for yourself (and I recommend that you do), you won’t see or hear the same things I did. We all think differently and that’s the gift we bring to the world.
This is not a question for just today’s world. Socrates who lived 470 BC said “To find yourself, think for yourself.”
Learning to think for ourselves really does require reflection and ironically, feedback. Our brains are complex, powerful and fundamentally lazy. Whether YOU like shortcuts or not, your brain is taking them all the time. Without awareness, your brain will run you instead of the other way around.
So how do we really think for ourselves? Where do we trust things at face value and when is it worth digging into? In what ways do we jump to conclusions without really considering all the evidence? How do we learn to understand our brains so that we can bring our best thinking into the world?
I’m writing this in the midst of Hurricane Florence – in Western North Carolina, now just a tropical depression. She continues to dump rain and is taking her time moving on out of here. She has changed people’s plans – and their homes - in both dramatic and subtle ways. She is everything from an inconvenience to a life changer. In thousands of ways, she is a huge pain in the ass - and what I feel and think about her is totally irrelevant.
Weather has a way of reminding me of one of my favorite sayings: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just wrong clothes.”
Growing up in tornado alley, we would have argued with that saying. Some weather just can’t be handled with a better coat. But nasty weather definitely taps into my inner control freak.
When I was a kid, we had tornado warnings regularly – and they were often backed up by actual tornados doing actual damage. We had a “tornado closet” that I got stuffed into more than once with my little sister. To this day, I hate, I mean really hate, being in tight spaces.
While in the closet, I would start inventing ways to eliminate, eradicate, obliterate or kill tornados. I was just SURE that a big enough gun could stop the havoc and get me the hell out of this closet! If a gun wouldn’t work, maybe there was something else like an airplane with special chemicals. It was magical thinking run amok.
The world is still waiting on my great inventions. The weather is still doing what the weather is going to do.
And my inner control freak is still learning what can and cannot be controlled.
Worry and fear don’t solve things – even though they appear like wolves in sheep’s clothing, telling me they have the answers. Complacency and denial don’t solve things either, while they try to “shelter” me from the truth.
The media doesn’t help. Yes, they are giving lots of facts and sharing the best guesses as to storm path, impact, etc. They are also in the business of getting ratings, so they are also going to show the worst of the devastation over and over again. If I’m not aware, my mind will run away with me, fueled by the guy yelling over the wind while people walk calmly behind him.
Parsing out what I can and cannot control takes everything I have. Making decisions about whether to stay or go and what preparations to make takes up a huge amount of mental space.
It’s also great exercise on learning to accept what cannot be changed and do what I can do AND developing the wisdom to know the difference. (This is a not-so-subtle reference to the Serenity Prayer, which is one of the most powerful lenses through which to tame the lion of control freak.)
So I sit here on Sunday morning grateful to be inside, prepared for what I can think of, and planning to enjoy the day while the rain pounds and wind howls outside my door. Will I keep worry, fear and control at bay? Stay tuned.
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We have recently finished renovating 3 old cabins on Mystic Waters. After a dramatic search for the water connection for one them (it’s a long story), the basics are mostly done. Now it’s time to make them beautiful. The walls really need to be dressed up – and seeing my old art through new eyes has unleashed a whole fresh burst of ideas and creativity. It’s also reminded me of how easy it is to forget what makes me strong.
My husband suggested I frame some of my original art and hang it. My first thought was this: “What a dumb idea. I don’t have anything that is frame-able.” My assumption was pretty simple. When a painting is “frame-worthy”, I frame it and either sell it or hang it. My stubborn desire to always be right kept me from doing anything with this for a while…and then my curiosity got the better of me.
It started with me in the studio, opening drawers looking for something else. In one of the drawers that almost never gets opened, I found a big brown envelope. When I pulled it out, I found the above picture.
I had forgotten that I could do this. The part of me that came out of hiding to produce this piece went back under-cover almost immediately all those years ago.
Finding this drawing stuffed away in a drawer reminds me that art - or any other expression of ourselves - is more about the willingness to be real and be seen and to risk not being liked than it is knowledge and technique.
When I was young, my mother -an art major in college – taught me how to sketch portraits. She helped me learn to see the proportions, and most importantly, to understand that the eyes are NOT at the top of the oval, but in the middle.
Just because I knew HOW to draw did not mean that I could bring myself to risk the critique of showing WHAT I would sketch
So 30+ years ago, I sketched this and put it away, only to find it all these years later. Now my curiosity was piqued. What else is hiding in here?
And in the next hour, it was like I had entered a whole new world. My eyes began to see differently.
In that same drawer, I found one of my earliest paintings from my “watercolor era” which started around 2002. An older, gentler version of me was able to give that painting a loving critique and then a slight makeover. By adding some depth to the trees, a “drawer painting” became frame-worthy.
Still needing MANY more paintings to fill those walls, I started pulling out more drawer discards. Having opening my mind to the possibility of bringing 16 years of experience and the courage to screw it up, I started having some serious fun.
One of my favorite reclamations started with a frame mixed with desperation and a big dose of seeing everything through the eyes of possibility. I had been storing a square frame for years and had never painted a square painting. It’s just a weird proportion. With my new found courage, I pulled out several old paintings that were too big for the frame. Then I started experimenting with finding the best part of the picture:
Just putting a frame on this made it a better painting in my eyes. Here’s the original:
Now I had a choice to make. Which part would I reclaim, knowing that the rest of the painting would be scrapped? I was feeling kind of reckless, so I made my choice and got to work. I figured the worst that could happen was that a long forgotten painting would simply move from the bottom of the drawer to the trash. It’s just paint and paper, I thought.
If only it were that easy. In reality, working with this painting was pretty uncomfortable at times. Once I decided this was going to become a “good painting”, I got more invested in the outcome. Seeing with new eyes quickly triggered the old patterns designed to keep me safe and keep me small.
I started wondering “will it be enough?”, which quickly morphs into the question “am I enough?” Dammit. It’s just an experiment with paint and paper!
I talked myself into having fun with it – and after letting go of a good outcome, I’m pretty happy with the final outcome:
The differences are mostly subtle – I just brought out the parts of the painting that were already interesting. I strengthened what was already there. I reframed what was so -so and made it frame-worthy. It is still full of “mistakes” and imperfections – and those are part of what makes it good.
The painting was enough. With new eyes and a new frame, it is now unleashed.
This experience has reminded me – once again – that we are enough too. Where do we need to find the courage to screw it up and make mistakes? What will it take to bring our true selves out of hiding? How can we learn to be real and confident in who we are at the same time? Where can we see ourselves with new eyes and a new frame? Where have you forgotten what you are truly capable of?
Your strength is already there.
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Last September, I had a one of those “well duh” epiphanies that revealed a hidden not-so-pretty secret and freed me to advance in my skiing for the first time in a couple of years. It reminded me once again how very useful it can be to understand what is REALLY driving my decisions and actions. In this case, I had been stuck because I was torn between wanting to prove myself and caring WAY too much what other people think.
Sitting at our annual Women’s Ski Week at Coble Ski School, one of the skiers I really admire was talking about her decision to ski at a slower speed than the maximum for our age group. Having been on a quest for over 10 years just to REACH that speed, I started listening with both ears.
She spoke about having been injured while striving to progress to faster speeds and shorter lines. When she decided that it made more sense for her to stay at 30 MPH and then start shortening the rope, she got unreal pressure from her mostly male ski friends. This was a kind of pressure I was very familiar with.
The pressure takes many forms, sometimes being quite direct and other times, being that subtle form that communicates that you are just not that good of a skier. Skiers know this pressure well.
The direct pressure happens live and real time in the water. You run a full pass at a given speed. If that speed is below the maximum speed for your age group, most drivers who also compete in tournaments automatically want to increase your speed before they shorten the rope. Why? Because if you want to ski in tournaments, that’s how it’s done. Rarely do you run across a tournament skier who will do it any other way – even for those skiers who never plan to ski a tournament and struggle to ski at the faster speed.
For some skiers, including me, it’s a recipe for disappointment cloaked in the intent to help you progress.
That pressure helps some and stops others . In many cases, the less experienced skier sitting in the water just does what the more experienced skier says to do. “Keep trying to go faster. This is how it’s done. You have to do it this way.” Often, the newer skier gets discouraged, wonders what’s wrong with them and maybe quits the sport all together.
Thanks to my conversation with another skier I really respected, I suddenly realized just how much power I had given to what other people had decided as best for me.
Two days after this insight, I broke through a previously impossible barrier for me.
Here’s what I had completely missed about the pressure I was feeling to go the faster speed: I was doing it because that’s what other people say I had to do. It wasn’t working for me, yet I had not been listening to my internal compass; I was too busy trying to prove myself to the “system.”
The next day, instead of trying to go faster, we shortened the rope. Every skier is aware of the “22-off” bump. It had intimidated me for years, so I rarely tried it, and when I did, I stopped after the first couple of turns and immediately went back into my comfort zone. This time it was different. I was able to tolerate the discomfort enough to make six turns down the lake and get pretty close to actually running the pass. The next day, I succeeded in running the pass.
This summer, I’ve spent more time working on shortening the rope and am having even more fun than ever, although it also means I’m spending more time in my “discomfort zone.”
Caring what other people think had kept me from achieving a win for myself. And that win has been SO MUCH more satisfying than proving myself to others.
It was months before I realized that my insight last September fell into the bucket of “caring what other people think.” I would love to say I’ve gotten past all that. Ha. Hardly.
This insight tells me it’s worth looking at all areas of my life where my actions and decisions fall into the “caring what people think” bucket. Not so that I can prove myself somehow – but instead so that I can free myself to be my best.
Where do you care what other people think – and maybe don’t want to admit it? What decisions do you make out of fear of repercussions that really don’t matter in the end? What would it take for you to operate from your internal compass?
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Do you ever think about the unwritten rules that run your life? It seems I discover a new one every day – an most of them are not of my making. I’m following someone else’s rules as if they are some kind of unbreakable law. The punishment? I never wanted to find out.
Until I started working on my personal capabilities and discovered that these rules were like a personal glass ceiling.
I could see through the barrier to the thing I wanted – but couldn’t get there with shattering those unbreakable rules. My rules about work and life calcified into a virtual dictator, governing my every move.
I spent the first half of my career “going to the office” every day. Having a defined place and time to do work was both freeing and limiting at the same time. This was an ancient era with no laptop and cell phone to keep me working, so when I was at home, it was NOT work time. When I was at work, it was work time. Easy.
Then I joined a small leadership firm with a distributed, virtual team. By now, computers and cell phones (not smart phones) were the norm and I worked from home. We converted my empty living room into an office, with a desk, computer station, file cabinets and all the things that recreated the office environment of my previous experience.
Along with the office environment came the rules.
Every day, I would sit down at 8:00 and work until lunch. After my very official lunch break, I worked in the afternoon until 5:00 or 6:00 and then be off. When I didn’t have anything pressing to do, I did a great job of looking busy and productive. After all, I wanted my boss, who lived 1500 miles and two time zones away, to see that he was getting his money worth. Could he see me working? No, although you would have thought there was a livestream camera in the corner watching my every move. What did my boss actually want? Results. As long as I delivered on the promises I made and got the outcomes we agreed to, he really, really, really did not care when I was at my desk or how “workish” I looked while working.
The rule I had invented for such circumstances was “look busy no matter what”. I’m sure it came from a previous job and it was completely irrelevant in this circumstance.
Actually, this rule was more than irrelevant. It was limiting.
Why? Much of this virtual job required me to develop insights and be creative. What I needed instead of chaining myself to a desk in an office was to set the conditions for me to deliver on my promises. For me, walking is the most powerful way I’ve found to prime my creativity and put things together in new ways.
Would I have dare take a walk in those days? Not on your life.
One day it dawned on me that my decisions were more often than not based on some stupid rule that I had been taught for different circumstances and then carried forward. Examples:
I didn’t just all of the sudden uncover these rules (and there are many, many more). They were much more invisible and embedded than that. They were more like the dirty film on the window that you don’t notice until after the window gets washed or the dirt that becomes part of the carpet until a good shampoo.
Once I started working from the inside out, I began to look at my decisions differently. What rule is driving this decision? Is it relevant for today? Is it serving me and this situation?
Some rules are easier to change than others. Working with a coach has helped me through some of the deeper work of self-awareness – these rules can turn into beliefs that seem like truth. It takes another person to challenge your mindset. In fact, that’s the best reason to have a coach.
You can’t reach new levels with the rules designed for your past. The inner tyrant is quite convincing – and will keep your glass ceiling in place until you decide to change it.
What is on the other side of your glass ceiling? What is keeping you from living over there? What rules are running you? What would serve you now, in this place and time?
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“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” Epictetus, Discourses
I ran across this quote from Epictetus the other day and reflected on how my awareness of it has grown over the years. I’ve been slower in the application of this quote – yet I’ve also come to realize that JUST following this principle dramatically increases personal freedom and contentment.
One of my major moments of truth happened on a dark and rainy night, in the parking lot of the neighborhood Harris Teeter after a LONG day of work. In my usual rush, I was storming out of the store trying to get home to make dinner, make sure homework was done and maybe, just maybe, have a minute to myself before I collapsed in bed. Rather go slightly out of my way to go down the ramp, I pushed my cart over the curb. I also tried to turn towards my car at the same time – because maybe if I cut the corners, I could save time. Right.
It was a big curb. Grocery carts are not built to be turned at full speed over a big curb. Before I knew it, my groceries were strewn all over the parking lot and I was on my knees putting groceries back into torn bags, tears streaming down my face, raining soaking my hair. And I was really, really pissed off. At the grocery store. For having a curb that big. All that time I expected to shave off with my little “let’s go straight to the car at Mach 1” turned into a huge delay and a worse mood than ever.
As I gathered up the mess – blocking traffic and making a lot of other tired people mad – I visualized the incendiary conversation I was going to have with the store manager about their damn curb. How dare they let this happen?
Then suddenly, for a moment, I was outside myself. I could see the ridiculousness of my thoughts, my actions, the whole thing. I CHOSE to go over that curb. Cleaning up my spilled groceries was a predictable consequence of MY choice.
It was a baby step in understanding that my response to what happens to me is a better source of power than blaming others.
In calling this a moment of truth, I would like to say the light bulb went off and forever more I lived in the “light”: The only person responsible for my response is ME! Nope. Wish it were so. I would have saved myself some serious headaches.
The truth of how we can learn to run our own lives is much more subtle. We have had a LOT of training in letting others run our lives. That is how we are brought into the world as children. Until adulthood, our lives are more like tubing on the water vs skiing.
This is an insight I got from a fellow skier, who is quite adamant that kids should learn to ski (or wakeboard) instead of being passive riders on a tube. Tubing is a ton of fun and doesn’t require a lot of skill. That’s why so many people make that their easy choice. In the case of tubing, the experience of the rider mostly depends on the boat driver. There is not much you can do on a tube to control what’s happening.
On the other hand, in water skiing, the boat goes straight and the skier carves their path. While there are parameters, like the length of the rope and speed of the boat, it’s the skier’s skill that determines the quality of the ride.
This subtle, yet very real difference carries through in our lives. We can either let others drive the boat (and decide our experience), or we can cooperate with others while carving our own experience. The choice is ours.
When we are kids, we don’t get many choices. In my house growing up, if Mom was cooking okra and beef tongue, that’s what I was going to eat or go to bed hungry. Most of the time the food was really good, so I’m not saying I suffered or anything. Ok, I did suffer when my parents insisted that I eat canned asparagus. That came right back up onto the table.
The point is this: we spend a good 20 years of our lives being trained and domesticated to live with others on this planet. It’s easy to forget where we have choices. We are told to always have a number 2 pencil for tests and the rest of our lives, that’s the only pencil we buy. Because it’s the “right one.”
This training turns into the rules that run my life – usually outside of my awareness.
One of these rules hit me square in the face while buying pencils in an art store. All the artsy pencils were either super hard or super soft. Art stores aren’t in the business of selling old-fashioned test-taking pencils. But those were the only ones I knew. It felt like I had a teacher standing over me, whispering in my ear saying “Get the Number 2 or I will fail you.” This stupid dilemma reflects the power of our unwritten rules. In this case, I had to say to myself “I’m a grown ass woman – I can buy whatever pencils I want!” in order to get myself to be ok with buying a different kind of pencil.
Over the years, I’ve discovered thousands of “rules” like that buried in my subconscious.
There are thousands more undiscovered. When I am present, the real Lynn shows up to deal with whatever is happening right now, in this moment. At my best, the old rules don’t have the power to determine my experience; only I have that power.
Anytime I feel stuck, I pause and ask myself if I’m getting gripped by an old rule. Often, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Where are your choices? Where are you letting the externals drive your internal experience? What rules are running your life? Where did they come from? Whose “voices from the past” come back to tell you what to do and who to be?
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When I worked in Corporate America, the harshest feedback I got was around my competitiveness. All too often people told me that I was “not a team player” and that I was “too competitive”. Along with the feedback came the promise (threat) that I would not be promoted with this approach. So I did what any ambitious person would do: I got very competitive about not being competitive. In my world, competitive became a “bad thing”. The feedback went the other way and I was seen as successful.
Then I became an athlete where competition is the name of the game. Yet I was operating under a that rule called “competition = bad”. Now what? I’ve struggled reconciling this until recently.
My “competitiveness” had an unhealthy facet to it. It was really “comparativeness”. In those days, what I was doing was saying something like “look at me – I’m better than my co-worker, right?” It many ways, it was the oldest game on the planet - sibling rivalry – in full bloom.
It has taken some deep self-awareness work to understand that my pattern of comparativeness doesn’t serve me in almost any venue. Except maybe in comparing products in the store. Do I want the red shorts or the blue shorts?
To some degree, today’s transparent world of social media helped me see my own tendency to compare. You see it every day, both blatantly and subtly on every outlet from Facebook to Instagram. We compare ourselves to others: Who’s having the best weekend? Who has the coolest pet? Took the most exotic vacation? Has the most likes?
What’s underneath the game is that age old question that every human asks in one form or another: Am I enough? With our personal window into the inner voices, doubts, and failures we carry, it’s easy to look at others and think they might have one over on us. We can’t ever know what it really going on inside someone else. So we compare apples to oranges.
The most put together person you have ever seen might have left a house that is a complete mess or just had the worst fight with a loved one ever. Yet here I am comparing her awesome presentation to my pitiful attempt at graphic design and then linking my ability to make pretty pictures to my value in the world. I leap to these crazy conclusions with the tiniest bit of data.
Comparing confuses my value as a human to my skills. It truly is apples and oranges.
Comparative asks the question: where do I as a human being measure up? Am I enough? Or at least, am I better than you? For many, it comes from that childlike question to mommy – who do you love more? In school, we ask the question of the teacher (sometimes non-verbally – but believe me we ask it): do you like me better than little Johnny over there?
Competitive tests my skills: how do my skills stack up? Am I faster? Or stronger? Or where do my skills fit in whatever the measuring stick of the competition decides?
When we operate from comparatives, it’s not for the win, although it feels like that. It’s actually for validation. Do I belong here? Am I enough? In its most evil form, comparative actions go to great lengths to put others down so that I can fare well in the comparison. “At least I’m not lazy, dumb, late, slow…fill in blank.”
Taking my comparativeness off the table while allowing my competitiveness to flourish is not easy. It will be a struggle for the rest of my life – yet one worth tackling.
Where do you confuse your value as a human to your ability to do something? Where do you put someone’s economic value above their human value? What makes you decide someone is “better than” someone else?
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Over the last two decades of sitting with leaders in Corporate America, I’ve noticed a hunger for creativity equally balanced with a belief that sounds something like this: “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” Or sometimes “I can’t draw a straight line.”
What do I then hear, especially after they have been working with me for a while? “I started taking guitar lessons.” “I am setting up an art studio in my house.” “I found the perfect place for me to practice dance.” These clients are starting to experience unobstructed self-expression.
By the way, I love these words strung together: unobstructed self-expression. I’m borrowing it from Josh Waitzkin, the author of The Art of Learning and the chess prodigy featured in Searching for Bobby Fischer.
We are born creative beings. If you doubt it, just watch children – the younger the better. After a few years in school, they start conforming and following the rules and for many, pretty soon, there is no self-expression. In his classic book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordan MacKenzie tells a story of visiting elementary schools and asking the children “Who here is an artist?” In first grade, almost all the hands raise. By sixth grade, only a few dare to slightly lift their hands.
Like a water hose that gets holes in it or bent in half, soon there is no flow and before long we forget we ever had that kind of freedom to be.
Until something triggers the memory, the long forgotten sensation of possibility, the joy of making something.
When I was a kid, my parents took us to visit my aunt in another town. Just after we arrived, my mom presented my sister and me with some felt tip pens and a blank notebook – with no lines! As a parent looking back on this moment, I’m pretty sure my mom was grasping for something, anything that would keep us contained and being good little girls.
For me though, I will always remember the velvet feeling of the felt tip on the page and the delight involved in making this the most beautiful sketchbook ever. For at least an hour, I rode the wave of elation.
And then I crashed.
The drawings on the page looked like nothing in my head. The thought “I’ve ruined it!” bounced around in my head like a pinball that would never drain. Soon the pen and journal were lost or forgotten and I’m pretty sure I became the pain in the ass my mom was trying desperately to contain.
Fast forward 25 years later and I’m a banker wearing “man-suits”, using black pens and enforcing policies when I walk into a training program to teach me to be a trainer. On the table were colored markers. As I guiltily opened them, I snuck glances at the door waiting for someone to burst in to confiscate them.
I seriously felt like a subversive revolutionary. Especially when I realized that I liked colored markers that smelled like orange and grape and blueberry! Surely this kind of joy was not allowed in the halls of Corporate America.
That tiny earthquake set me off on a creative journey that has lasted the next 25 years. As I write this, I’m drinking from a mug made with my own hands. I’m sitting under one of my paintings filled with joyful hues of orange, purple and blue. The Lynn of 25 years ago could not have dreamed that a little thing like colored felt tip markers could be the key that unlocked my creative obstructions.
I should actually say the key unlocked the first tiny door of my creative obstructions.
Flow was not restored in that momentary flash of possibility. It was more like a squirt. I certainly could not see the many obstructions I would come to face. Perhaps if I had known, I would have silently slid back into the prison of my mind and I would still be a banker with a lot of money and no joy.
Because it is a war that continues to this day. Unobstructed self-expression requires letting go of precious resources designed to keep me safe but not whole.
What happened that day back in nineteen sixty something when I crashed after my creative high? I unconsciously made a choice to keep me safe. I said to myself quietly and outside of my conscious awareness: “You are not an artist. Don’t even try.” And with that decision, I cut off a part of myself.
What happened when I opened those colored markers back in nineteen ninety something? It touched a hunger deep inside of me to express myself – my true self – and it began to whisper “You can do this.” The hunger was greater than the fear of being judged. Most days.
To my great fortune, I soon had a chance to take the HBDI Thinking Styles Assessment. My profile showed that under pressure, I was decidedly analytical, quantitative and black and white. Yet I could also see my creative possibilities right there on the page. AND – insert the sound of the hallelujah chorus here -the assessment also included exercises to develop my creativity!
The core message is simple. I have a whole brain. Learning to use it takes practice, patience and determination.
Those nonsense voices that say “Don’t even try” can be coaxed into becoming cheerleaders for a mission of developing unobstructed self-expression.
What are your obstructions to self-expression? What beliefs have you constructed to keep yourself safe? How can you cultivate your hunger for self-expression? What form does your creativity take?
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