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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By: Lynn Carnes
Can context make you blind? How about unchecked expectations? I’m coming to the conclusion that both can make you blind – or maybe that’s just my justification since my “asparagus incident”.
In February, I starting clearing the weeds along my asparagus bed in my garden. Mind you, my asparagus bed is in the middle of the garden fortress created by my husband a few years ago. It's 3/4 of an acre, surrounded by a huge deer fence and plumbed for irrigation. In past years, Russ would get in there every spring with the tractor and plow the whole thing. Following that, he would leave it to others to plan, plant, fertilize, water, weed and harvest some sort of food. This is all very important context (or like I said, maybe it's just my justification for the point of this story.) For the spring of 2018, other projects kept him from doing any plowing. Plus, we didn’t have anybody ready to come plant. So it was just me and all that land.
Here's the first critical piece of context. I'm a beginner when I comes to working the land. Especially 3/4 of an acre of hard land. We claimed this spot with dirt taken out of our lake, which is theoretically full of yummy nutrients for plants. In reality, it's full of stones and sand. It's hard to imagine anything growing in this barren desert. Except weeds. It is a haven for weeds. No matter how much care this plot gets over the growing season, by fall, it is three feet high in weeds that should only grow 5 inches. The weeds love this place! And I hate pulling weeds with a passion.
So it was hours of work for me to clear the row where I planted the asparagus. Oh fun! Not. I used the tomato stakes from the last year to hone in on the middle of the asparagus row and raked and hoed and cleared, anticipating the best harvest to date. In the end, you could only tell where I had worked by finding the area where the weeds were at ground level. Early on, it was clear to me that I would never get all the weeds out - but at least I could set it up to see when the asparagus started breaking its delicious tops through the soil.
Now for the second bit of context. Or justification. You decide. March was exceptionally cold this year. It was more like February. When I went down to check about once a week starting in mid March, I didn't expect to see anything. I would wade through the tall weeds and grasses and look for those little green bits of deliciousness. Nothing. I was getting exactly what I expected. Cold spring must equal no asparagus, right?
In early April, I started getting the ground ready for planting my tomatoes (about the only thing I can grow worth a damn) and a few other vegetables I would decide to grow but probably not eat. Not only am I not a strong gardener, I'm not much of an eater of garden vegetables. Still no asparagus.
A couple of weeks went by and now I'm starting to wonder if the cold winter had killed my babies. I remembered having had a LOT of asparagus by mid-April in the previous year. This is a four year old crop - it should be booming. As I'm on my hands and knees, planting some seeds and baby broccoli (one of the things I probably won't eat) I sadly concluded that there would be no asparagus this year.
My daughter came in to help me and started wandering around. She was standing on my empty asparagus bed when she said "Check this out!" She was pointing out a 3 and a half foot "weed" and marveling at how pretty it was. You already know, right? If you grow asparagus, you are probably spitting in your tea or banning me from the gardening hall of fame. That "weed" was one of thirty shoots that had clearly been growing for weeks.
All this time, I was looking in the wrong place. Just 10 INCHES away from my cleared area, there sat my asparagus bed. I had missed the mark. The asparagus was healthy and growing and in my face. Because I was so used to dealing with monster weeds right next to me, I never bothered to look at what was virtually under my nose. (I really have learned to ignore the forest that grows in the rest of the garden.)
Suddenly it all made sense. My tomato stakes were the correct marker - but because I had let the weeds over grow it, I lost sight that they were in the MIDDLE of the row, not on the edge. Furthermore, I was looking so often, I was sure I would see the asparagus stalks before they started flowering out. I was so late to the party - and the stalks were coming up in an uncleared area - that the asparagus reached full wispiness before I could see them. Oh, and I might have stayed blind to it if someone else hadn't pointed it out.
All sorts of things blinded me to this outcome. My expectations, conclusions, context, you name it. I simply did not see what was right in front of my face.
Bad decisions get made with this kind of blindness. Because I thought I knew what was going on, I didn't look for other possibilities. I was caught up in the swirl of my own mind with my own limited thinking. It took someone else to break me out of it with the simple comment "Hey, look at this."
The moral of this story? What you are looking for may be right under your nose. You just need help seeing it.
We all need that kind of support. It is so easy to get caught up in thinking that we need to have the answers, that we SHOULD know this, or that we don't want anyone else to know how much we need help. In the case of my garden, it was abject embarrassment for anyone to see the wilderness that I called a "garden." It would never have dawned on me to ask someone to help.
As an executive coach, I've had similar moments with so many of my clients. They tentatively invite me into their world, and my questions are often some version of, "Have you looked at this?" They will see a problem from a completely different angle and the solution appears, almost as if by magic.
Where are you getting exactly what you expect, even though it's not what you want? In what ways have you created situational blindness because you are tired of seeing the mess around you? Where has the context of a situation caused you to draw incorrect conclusions? Who do you turn to for another point of view or to ask those “have you thought of it this way?” questions?
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Choice is a good thing, right? I’ve built my entire life around keeping my options open, in the name of “freedom.” Recently I’ve been reminded that too many options can be as bad – maybe worse – as no choices. So what brought this insight into sharp awareness? Mahjong. So how the heck did an ancient game remind me to recognize that too much choice has some serious limitations?
The point of the game of Mahjong is to build a winning hand with tiles. What constitutes a winning hand is governed by a prescriptive set of cards (which are difficult to decode - don’t get me started!) Early in the game, you start deciding which of several hands you want to play. This is where the prison bars start closing around you. The more hands you try to play, the more paralyzing it becomes to sustain those options in order to win. In fact, I’ve lost more hands that I can count (and seen others do the same) by keeping my options open too long. Every time I have won, it was because I committed early to a specific direction –even when it seemed like a long shot.
Optionality diffuses commitment – and commitment is what wins the game.
When I first started my business, I had many, many options for the types of clients I would serve and the work I could do. All were very attractive to me. So how did I choose which path to follow? I had one client that had a specific set of needs, and built from that. All the other options fell by the wayside as I became fully committed to meeting this client’s needs. When I further developed my business to broaden my client base, it was from this initial seed. I’m incredibly grateful for the way it unfolded – it allowed me to commit to a specific direction early in the game and that commitment harnessed my energy and attention.
When faced with too many choices, you have to recognize when it’s time to fish and when it’s time to cut bait. (An oldie but goodie from my home state of Texas.) Several times in the course of my business, I’ve found myself at choice points. More than once, I’ve been paralyzed.
What I’ve learned to do is start seeing the choices as the starting point of clarity, not the end goal.
Once the choices are in front of me, it’s time to go inside and decide. And by inside, I mean get quiet. Breathe. Feel. Be grateful. Breathe some more. Feel some more. What do I really want? What is more important to me? Breathe. Feel. Decide. Commit.
Clarity is an inside job. Clarity brings the freedom of focus.
So here’s a question for you. Where have you given yourself choices? Hurrah! Choice is a good thing. And where have you found that your choices are keeping you from fully committing to one path or another? Where are you putting “should” into equation based on someone else’s logic?
Do you have a story about having too much choice? How did you decide – or how are you going to decide? How has choosing a specific path helped you? Share it on our Facebook page or Twitter.
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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