Originally Posted: September 11, 2016
“I’m going to do it all – and I’m going to do it perfectly.” While few say that out loud, their actions say it for them.
Know anyone who thinks (and acts) that way? I see it all the time, whether in a small business - where doing it all seems a necessity - to teams in giant corporations. The very same people who treat money as a scarce resource are willing to spend their energy doing tasks that provide a low business payoff.
Trying to do too much and trying to do it perfectly will lead you to mediocrity and drain your energy faster than it drains your bank account.
Many years ago, when I was working with Norm Smallwood of Results Based Leadership, he introduced me to the “anti-perfectionism/strategic clarity” model he called “Types of Work.” It changed my life, the way I approach work and how I make trade offs. And in that timeframe, this new awareness guided me to say no to some very exciting global work with – you guessed it – Norm Smallwood.
Norm’s point of view on strategy could be boiled down to this: What you say “no” to defines you more than what you say “yes” to. In other words, being opportunistic causes you to say yes to more things than you can do well. Being strategic means saying no to anything that doesn’t fit your distinctive core business.
Having the backbone to have a strong portfolio of “no’s” develops a stronger business than saying yes just because you can do it.
This is a simple concept that is extraordinarily difficult to actually do. Walking away from work that might be lucrative because it isn’t your core value proposition seems crazy – but let me make the case for why you should do just that. After all, everyone has more to do than they can possibly do well. How great would it be to have a logical way to say “no” when you have more than you can handle?
The logic starts with this premise:
Not all work is created equal.
The work that distinguishes you (and that you get paid for) deserves a different kind of priority and attention than your basic business work.
Trying to do everything well means you do nothing well.
Watch this very short animation to understand the basic idea, and I will see you on the other side:
Here’s the thing: striving for best-in-class-performance is worthwhile only in about 10-20% of the work you do – your distinctive and enabling work. The other 80% or so needs to be good enough. This doesn’t mean you buy a house in “slackerville.” It’s just that extreme excellence in Business Essential work just brings you more work than you should handle – and it’s work you don’t get paid for. Just remember: do worse than par and it can cost you your reputation and maybe your business.
Here’s how Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 Hour Work Week said it: “I’m not against hard work. I’m against hard work on stupid things.”
Distinctive work is what makes you special. You want to be unique and distinctive work forms the core of your business or reputation. Why didn’t I do global work with Norm Smallwood all those years ago? It would have impacted my ability to be effective with my clients AFTER the trips. I need my sleep. Jet lag impacts my ability to be a clear and present coach and facilitator. I was very aware that while doing the global work might look good on my bio, it would negatively impact my ability to perform and would ultimately hurt my goals. So I said no.
Distinctive work is why people choose you or your company. It is worth your time and effort to be crystal clear on what makes you special in the eyes of your clients, customers or employers.
How do you decide where your time, attention and energy go? What are your guardrails for making sharp trade-offs? Are you clear on the work that makes you distinctive? Where are you tempted to take on customers or work because of the money instead of it being a fit for your business? What kind of non-strategic projects are you doing?
Next time you are feeling overwhelmed, thinking you can’t do it all, or find yourself agonizing over a simple detail, re-prioritize your work into the three buckets: Distinctive, Enabling, or Business Essential.
Struggling to say no even though you know you should? Wondering what’s the difference between Distinctive and Enabling work? Connect via Social or here.
As always, please share this with anyone you think would find it useful. And let me know how you are using what you learn!
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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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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Note: Today I am once again waiting on the kiln to be cool enough to open and discover the magic – and perhaps the disappointments. In the last three years, I’ve made great progress in my skills – simply showing me that there is another level to now aspire to. I’m republishing this blog from February 2015 to remind me to keep learning.
Pots from Spring 2018
Originally Published February 24, 2015 | By Lynn Carnes
Kiln opening day is always filled with anticipation. First, the big question is, “When will it be cool enough to open?” Then the bigger questions are, “What will I find?” “Did the magic occur or was it a disappointment?” and “Will I get the same results as before?”
Today’s opening was filled with a few great successes, some pretty bad glaze runs and yes, some disappointments. I always hate those. The very thing that offers proof that I am learning deflates me. The disappointments make me want to run and hide in doing the safe thing. They make me want to narrow my repertoire and do only what I know how to do instead of being expansive and experimental. They are so…disappointing.
It’s just clay and glaze, and yet it’s so easy to get attached to a beautifully shaped bowl or cup only to have it fail in the final step. With perspective, I remember that this is the artist’s journey. If I made it before, I can make it again. Each step informs the next and you have to get through some bad stuff to get to the good stuff. Still, I wish there had been more successes.
This batch was about ½ reclaimed pots. These were mostly bowls that were previous experiments yielding bland colors or less than even results. I just put a new coat or two of glaze on them figuring there was nothing to lose. And most of them turned out ok. Here’s my favorite with a before and after:
Then there were the mugs. Of the 17 that went in the kiln, only about half finished to my satisfaction. One was ruined by a severe glaze run. (Okay, remember this: When dipping, I can’t leave the mug in too long, or it will get too thick and run.) Several mugs ran either a bit or a lot. The Mystic Waters logo in several doesn’t show up the way I envisioned it. Here’s an example of a good one.
Ok breathe. There is another load just waiting to be glazed.###
Lynn of 2018 back here again.
Looking at the last three and a half years of working with clay, I’ve discovered that my willingness to make mistakes is directly correlated to my growth as a potter.
Where I once measured my success by how many keepers came out of a throwing session, I’ve realized that a better yardstick might be how many failures I’m willing to tolerate.
This winter, I gave myself permission to really go for throwing tall pots (thanks to a story I will tell another day). In attempting to throw ever taller pots, so many collapsed on me that I lost count. It was hard to feel good about my skills when they appeared so lacking over and over again. Why did I keep going? Because I REALLY want to build a tall pitcher. So I continued, sometimes puzzled by why something wasn’t working, occasionally surprised when I had a tiny breakthrough and mostly toughing it out because the end goal was worth the extreme discomfort.
While I’ve made some progress, so far, I’ve not reached the heights I was shooting for. However, something very interesting happened when I went back to make bowls and mugs “inside my comfort zone.” Subtle improvements happened in every aspect of my throwing. Everything was more even, more centered and more uniform.
The discomfort paid off in better all-around skills. Plus I’ve achieved things I never would have without tolerating mistakes.
Could it be that toleration of mistakes is a key to growth? I think so.
Where are you stuck in the same place because you don’t want to make a mistake? What is your tolerance level for failure? In what ways has it held you back? Have you held onto work that others should be doing because you fear them screwing it up and making you look bad?
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By: Jennifer Maneely
Do you ever fear being judged harshly? Or do you work hard to be liked or respected? These are just a couple of lessons I learned from my experience as a Unit Manager of Waffle House. There is no doubt that the restaurant business is a hard business and Waffle House can push anyone to their limits of capabilities. After all, it’s a 24 hour management job with full P&L responsibility with high expectations for good food, great service and a workforce that is often temporary. In terms of experience and development of skills, it was the best job I could have asked for fresh out of college. It gave me a rich exchange of life lessons I continue to carry with me. Here are just a few principles that apply in many situations.
Don’t be afraid to let the food go.
We used to say this to the new grill operators in training. What it means is this: when the food is done, put it on the plate as quickly as you can and be confident enough in your abilities to let it go. What happens to some cooks is that they would get stuck on worrying about mistakes to the point they would burn the food. Or, they had a hard time putting all the pieces of the orders together, because they would worry if they had put all the pieces together correctly. Next thing you know, there is a jam up on the line and no food is coming out, or coming out a lot more slowly than Waffle House would like It to. After all, their saying is “good food fast”. Life after Waffle House is not that much different. I see clients and people being afraid to “let the food go.” Often it comes from a place of lacking confidence in yourself and your abilities. When the food is done, let it be done, put it on the plate, and go on with your life knowing that you got it out correctly.
It’s not about being perfect, it’s about knowing how to recover from mistakes quickly.
To add on to the “Let the food go” principle, many cooks would often stare at their masterpieces checking things two, three, four times before they would call their servers to come get the food. Yes, mistakes can jam up the line but so can worrying about mistakes. Worrying about potential mistakes can be just as harmful and costly as actually making the mistakes. When I trained cooks, I spent considerable time teaching the cooks to come back from mistakes quickly. In the beginning, they would make a mistake, look around for someone to blame or just stare at the mistake and would lose focus. Some cooks never seemed to get over their fear of making mistakes and never could reach the next level in their skills. How many of us get caught in the mistake cycle and can’t seem to reach the next level in our skills? I’m less afraid of making mistakes now, because I know I am going to bounce back from them quickly and that gives me the confidence to just go with it. I am not afraid to “let the food go” mistakes and all.
It doesn’t matter who’s fault it is.
When I first started training on the grill, when a mistake happened, there would be this long blame game of whose fault it was. Talk about a jam up. We spent more time arguing over who to blame than it would take to fix the mistake and get the food out. And, on top of that, we all got mad at each other over some stupid bacon and hash browns. When I started letting my ego go on whose fault it was, I started taking responsibility for everything. A funny and unexpected thing happened when I started taking ownership for things that weren’t my fault: other people took ownership quicker. People who started out arguing over whose fault it was when I chimed it “It was me, it was my fault, sorry I will fix it.” Next thing I know, the same people arguing stopped arguing and told me it was actually their fault. The reason they took ownership is because they felt safe to take the ownership, they knew I wasn’t mad at them. Mistakes happen.
I will add in, I'm not addressing the big mistakes that cost people their jobs and lives. It's the insignificant ones I'm addressing. If someone else accidently killed someone, don't take the blame, that's not a good idea.
People are not good or bad, they are strengths and weaknesses
All too often, we go around and label people good or bad at their job. If people are bad at one aspect of their job, we label them as bad at their job. As a manager, it was my job to try to put people in the right spots. Some cooks for example were not so good at making eggs, but they were great at marking plates. If I wanted to have a good, smooth day, I’m not going to put the person that’s not good at making eggs on eggs. It seems so simple, right? But how many times do we put people in the wrong jobs and then label them as incompetent, even when they say that is not a strong suit of theirs? Part of my job as a manager was seeing people for what they were good at and not labeling them as bad or good at their job. I saw them as humans with strengths and weaknesses. I had servers and cooks that would consistently show up a few minutes late. They were horrible time keepers, but they were great servers or cooks. I had one server who was bad about bringing their personal stuff to work. She was constantly whining and complaining to whoever would listen. Most of the staff didn’t like her and wanted me to get rid of her. I didn’t because despite her “Debbie Downer” vibe, she was a great server and the customers loved her and she did her job really well. So we worked on her weaknesses instead. My point is, my management abilities got a lot better when I started viewing people as strengths and weaknesses and not good or bad. I had the chance to work with their weaknesses and put them is spots where they excelled.
Caring Too Much About What People Think Will Set You Back
I have to be honest about this one, becoming confident from the inside-out is a lesson that came from Waffle House, but learned after I left. I wish I had been better at this while I was still working there. I may still be there if I had been. With reflection, I have gained an understanding that I don’t owe everyone an explanation. As a manager, I am privy to the whole picture while my staff is not. I always made the best decision I could make given the situation that I was in, but not everyone agreed with all my decisions. Hell, I didn’t even agree with all of my decisions. I was confident in the fact that I was a good manager and that I was making the best decisions possible with the facts I had. I was not confident in the fact that everyone else viewed me as a good manager because some people didn’t. And I cared way too much about people seeing me as a good manager. Because I cared too much about what other people thought about my decision making, I put too much energy into explaining myself. This principle folded into a host of issues for me that tied me up in knots and gained me very little. I wanted people to like me and I worked way too hard both physically and energetically getting people to be on my side. It worked for the most part. I earned a lot of respect from most of my staff, but, in the end, it caused me to be burned out to the point I could no longer sustain myself and had to leave for my own well-being. The way I chose to operate was not sustainable. Learning to do things for the right reason instead of popularity will be a lifetime journey and I am making daily strides.
To sum things up in a nice little bow, don't be afraid to let things go, be confident enough to make mistakes because it doesn't matter who's fault it is. You and everyone else are merely full of strengths and weaknesses, so are you putting people or yourself in the best spot to succeed in? And most importantly stop caring so much about what people think about you...it's not a sustainable model for your life.
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Over the last week, I finally transitioned to a new computer. I had been putting it off because I knew I had some old software that might not work on the new machine. Plus changing computers is hard, even when Apple does their best to make it easy.
Well, it was NOT easy and that’s how things got charged. Yet what could have been a miserable experience turned out ok, because I decided to let the charging cable just be a charging cable. Let me explain.
When I opened the box, I immediately realized that none of the cables I owned would fit in this machine. Not. One. Single. Cable. That would have been handy to know during the purchase process. Score a -1 for Apple.
Then the one cord they did send seemed to be half a cord. The charging cable itself was missing the extension I count on to get to the plug across my office. At first glance, I was thinking my office would have to be rearranged, or I would have to get an extension cord. Quickly I realized that I could use the one I already have. Score a 0 for Apple.
I got on the phone with Apple and figured out which adapters to order (done in 5 minutes) and get some help making the transition. That’s when I learned that the operating system on the brand-new computer in the box was already outdated, and that my old computer was more up to date. It was just a TWO HOUR install. Score a -1 for Apple. (And that’s factoring in superb service on the phone.)
After hanging up with the Apple support guy, I could feel myself getting more and more worked up over this nonsense. Looking at the installation bar on the computer that said “1.5 hours left” didn’t help!
It was during the interminable install that I had my moment of truth. I was getting very charged up about all of this being a royal PITA. Little things were starting to snowball into big things -- in my mind.
\I went from “I’m getting a new computer – yay!” to “I’m getting the worst computer ever made, this is a disaster, what the hell was I thinking, who needs this s#$t – crap!”
Now remember, all this “mind-craziness” was mostly over a charging cable problem that had been solved hours ago. Every problem I was facing was easily solvable. The question for me was “Am I going to frame this thing as a freak out or something else?” In that state of mind, transitioning to the new computer felt like an insurmountable task. In that state of mind, I had a miserable weekend in store for me. Who needs that?
So I pivoted. I chose to think about it differently: “It is what it is. What will it take to make it work?”
I thought through the steps and it really wasn’t that bad. Yes, I had to dedicate some time and focus. No, freaking out was not going to help,
So I just started doing the steps. No freak out. No more bitching. Just working methodically, I did step A, then B, then C. Before I knew it, I was on the new computer. The old software I thought would never work? Easily updated. My Outlook file I feared would get lost? Handled in a matter of minutes. In the end, it was No. Big. Deal.
It makes me wonder how many times I’ve let my mind make me miserable over something that was No. Big. Deal. And how cool is it that I can CHOOSE to see something differently and it actually, really becomes different?
Where are you framing something as a freak out? Where are you making things harder than they have to be? How much of your life experience is dictated by getting charged up over something that is already solved? How can you pivot your thinking to frame it differently?
As always, I love to hear from you. Please comment – and if this helped you, share it with your friends!
Photo Credit: Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_merzavka'>merzavka / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
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My theme for this week seems to be adrenaline. Let me start by saying that there is a joke in our house about who is the real adrenaline junkie around here. I contend that it’s me. And I got a lot of adrenaline this week. It’s left me pondering how to use this involuntary pulse of fight, flight or freeze energy pulsing through my veins. What would happen if I actually channeled it instead of running away or curling up in a ball of “make it go away?” What is the best choice to make between that moment of stimulus and response? And how do I continue to build the inner fortitude to tolerate discomfort and get comfortable with being uncomfortable?
From the outside looking in, almost no one would see me as the daring one. So if I’m the one who is such a chicken, how can I be the adrenaline junkie?
It’s all a matter of perspective. I’m married to a “mountain dew” man who does everything from extreme scuba diving to sky diving to horse endurance racing to doing back flips off of giant boathouses. By all accounts, he looks like the adrenaline junkie in our household. He has spent his whole life doing brave and daring things. Most activities don’t even touch his fear system. So while he is considered an adrenaline junkie, he has to work VERY hard to get a hit of adrenaline.
Me on the other hand? I was raised in a “don’t go near the edge” household and I didn’t. As a result, I was generally a careful child who turned into a fearful adult. (I hate admitting this.) My fear system gets jacked with the slightest hint of danger. Because my threshold is so low, I get hits of adrenaline all the time. That’s why I say I’m the true junkie in our house. I’m the one getting regular doses of it
So what happened this week to fill me with adrenaline? Oh let me count the ways. It started with the spider on the boat platform. No, I’m not scared of spiders. (I used to be but that’s another story.) When I saw him as I was stepping on the platform to ski, I moved my boot so as not to step on him and the boot suddenly slipped out from under me. Imagine the feeling of hitting wet ice, add a boat with jagged edges to fall on and you will get an idea of the next move. I managed to sit back into the boat without doing the splits or crashing onto my knees.
Once I recovered my “poise” I realized that I had taken one of the biggest hits of adrenaline in my recent memory. My heart was racing, my stomach was flipping and I generally felt incapacitated. I looked at Jen, my driver/daughter who knows my tendencies and me so well and said “I can’t ski like this.” I sat on the boat and said “Give me a minute.” Of course, adrenaline takes awhile to drain from your system and I said as much. She offered to ski and let me get calmed down. That was certainly an option.
And then it hit me. (The perspective, that is – not more adrenaline.) My body had just inadvertently created tournament conditions for me. The feeling I was having was no different than the feeling I have before skiing in a tournament. Being able to perform with that kind of energetic surge in the body is a hugely valuable skill, and one that I have not mastered. This was my chance to practice with the inner feeling of true tournament conditions.
So I looked at Jen and said, “Let’s see if I can use this. I’m gonna ski.”
The first pass proved why tournament conditions are so difficult. I overshot every buoy. Even though I had anticipated being stronger than normal, it was difficult to corral all the energy surging through my body. Had I been in a tournament, my performance would have been short lived.
It was on the next few passes that I started understanding how to channel the energy in a productive way. When my mind caught up with my body’s enhanced capabilities, I skied my best of the summer to that point. By far. In fact, the next day, I was missing that surge when I skied.
I came to see the adrenaline as enhancing my capabilities rather than debilitating me.
Over the past few years, I’ve been “rewiring” my brain to make it less sensitive to those fear hits. For example, the first time I drove a boat through a ski course, my heart was pounding and the boat guides seemed to scream past me at mach 4. Now I drive said course every day at faster speeds with advanced shortline skiers – deliberate practice and familiarity have made the once scary now the norm.
But of course, you know my lessons on managing fear and adrenaline were not yet over. I’m sure you have heard the old saying “If you fall off the horse, you gotta get back on.” I got to test that one as well.
A friend invited me over to ride her horse, which was one of my very favorite things to do as a young woman. Almost all of my riding had been on the very calm, nose to tail riding horses typical of public riding stables. Yes, I had been on “real horses” – but not that often. And all of my riding has been “western” riding. The difference between “western” and English are much more than a different saddle.
We started with catching and grooming my mount, which gave the horse and me a chance to know each other and build trust. Smart move. Then we mounted up in the ring and I started learning how to ride all over again. Different saddle, different reins, real horse. And unlike my ski, the horse could feel my every emotion. Just knowing that made it a little harder for me to settle in at first.
After a while, I did begin to get comfortable and we started speeding up. Just like in snow skiing, it’s important to learn the basics of how to slow down before you get too much momentum. In this case, it’s with a live animal who understands specific signals. The first couple of times were ok – I was able to get him going and stop without too much trouble.
Then while the horse was moving in a quick gait, I inadvertently gave a “go” signal when my deepest desire was to stop. Before I knew it, we were running. This was certainly not what I expected! You can imagine what happened inside of me. My body was now in full flight or fight mode. I was literally in flight mode – and I would have loved to be able to fly off that horse and land on my two feet.
My friend was calmly giving me instructions on what to do. I’m not sure how she could be so calm while I felt like I was on a runaway train. Damn, why won’t this horse stop? Needless to say, when we got stopped, my first instinct was to get off that horse!
She knew better and I knew better. That horse would never respect me again. First we debriefed in those few minutes while I was still astride him. We realized my western riding style conflicted with his training. My stop signal was confusing to him and my adrenaline sense of flight came through as the stronger signal.
So I went back to walking for a few minutes to regain my composure and reconnect with the horse - while my system was pulsing with the huge hit of adrenaline. In this case, I intentionally channeled that feeling into deep focus, connection and gratitude with the horse. He did eventually slow down and he was simply doing his best to please me. And I had managed to stay on through the whole thing. Whew!
You may be wondering what all this talk about adrenaline has to do with business. At work, we rarely talk about it in these terms. We don’t say “Wow, when you called my idea stupid, I got a hit of adrenaline.” Or “Dang, I get super-scared when I see you and your boss talking because half the time, it means I’m getting in trouble for something I’ve done.” We are mature, powerful business people – so we frame those adrenaline hits as “just business” or we don’t even realize that we are in a reactive mode.
That lack of awareness can cost us.
Here’s the problem with adrenaline. We don’t really have a choice about when it hits us. It’s based on our history, our personal fears, our experiences with parents, teachers or bosses. When that stimulus hits us, we start operating in fight or flight mode when the conditions actually call for us to be calm and reasonable. We are more likely to escalate a conflict, to take something personally, to get hurt or defensive, or just pick a fight.
All that energy surging through our system tells us to DO SOMETHING and we do.
It’s just that we then do something that is probably an overreach for the situation.
You may be thinking “Ok, I get it. I don’t want to overreact and I don’t want to damage relationships. So I will quit having adrenaline.” If it were only so simple. Our inner nervous system decides when we get adrenaline. Our conscious mind has little or nothing to do with it. Unless we do serious self-awareness training, we will get hit when we get hit.
So we first have to learn to deal with the adrenaline hits we get. Start by being aware. Recognize that when you have that pit in your stomach or the leap in the heart, there is a chance that you are surging with more energy than usual. That signal designed to keep you alive and when it hits us in a business environment, it drives behavior that does not match the situation. Learn when your tendency is to fight, flee or freeze.
You may also want to consider doing some inner work to rewire your system to tolerate and normalize those situations that trigger you. You can desensitize yourself if you deliberately practice doing so.
What are your tricks for not letting your fear system override your good judgment? How do you make yourself aware of that choice point between stimulus and response?
Please let me know in the comments – I love learning from you!
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Missing an appointment with an IBM Selectric Typewriter most likely changed the whole trajectory of my life. It’s truly mind-boggling to realize that such a small thing made such a huge difference.
I was in high school, and my teacher had signed up me and several other students for a typing contest in a town a couple of hours away. Thanks to the vintage Royal typewriter at my grandparent’s house growing up, followed by my very own typewriter when I was about 8 years old, I came into the class already proficient on the classic QWERTY keyboard.
Quickly I became one of the fastest typists in the school – and accuracy counted in those days. We did not have a “back” button on the typewriter, nor were we allowed to use Liquid Paper. My teacher was quite sure that I would have won the typing contest that day – I was really good.
On the morning of the contest, I slept through the alarm clock. For the first time ever in my life. My mom came rushing into my room about the time the bus was due to leave the parking lot of the school 20 minutes away, prepared to whisk me out of bed and to doors of what might have been the gateway to heaven--or hell. (From today’s vantage point, I pretty sure it would have been hell.)
We had no cell phones at the time and I decided to miss the bus, rather than go into the OMG-we-gotta-get-out-of-here rush. It seemed like an unmitigated disaster at the time. My parents were so upset with me for being irresponsible, and I was puzzled myself. It wasn’t like me to sleep through the clock – in fact, I have always been a pretty early riser.
Yet I am quite sure that my life would have gone in a much WORSE direction had I made it to the school bus that morning.
See, my serious typing skills had me looking for careers that needed fast, accurate typists. In the mid-70’s, guidance counselors were still offering young women traditional women’s roles. We called them “pink collar” jobs back then.
All roads were pointing towards “legal assistant”, something I embraced because – I don’t remember why. It just sounded good because I was a screaming fast typist. Of course I would want to leverage that skill.
Then on the day of the contest, I slept through the clock and did not make the bus. It was an event soon forgotten as just one of those tiny disappointments in a normal life. Until I had a reason to remember it 30 years later.
Someone asked me why I started my career in accounting. I had all these reasons, like being good with numbers, understanding basic bookkeeping and so forth. But then I remembered my screaming fast fingers. The 10-key adding machine was the gateway. I was as fast at adding a column of numbers as I was typing a document.
When I didn’t go win the typing contest, I started winning in adding up numbers. My career choices started leaning towards accounting because my flying fingers were also good at the adding machine. What a way to choose a career, right?
A seemingly innocuous disappointment pivoted my career from a “pink collar” job in a typing pool to a “white collar” role in the backbone of business. Who knows where I would be today had I gone down the other path. While I have long been a recovering accountant, that career laid a strong foundation for the leadership work I do today.
Disappointment can be like that. And it’s so much deeper than “one door closes, another opens”. The paths we don’t take, for whatever reason, shape us as much as the ones we do. I am always trying to sort the difference between a test and a signal. Sometimes, disappointments test our resolve. Sometimes disappointments signal our lack of commitment. They show us that the path we think we want will actually leave us flat.
Knowing the difference between a test and a signal is priceless.
In my typing story, I made two choices, mostly unconscious, that revealed typing to be the flat road. I decided not to try to make it to the bus that morning when my alarm failed, and more importantly, I never pursued another chance at winning a typing contest. No commitment there. I heeded the signal and moved on.
It other situations, disappointment has led me to double down on my efforts. I spent the better part of year paralyzed with writer’s block a few years ago. The easy answer would have been to quit writing. Clearly in my paralyzed mind, I had nothing to say. If there was something in there worth saying, it would be coming out already.
Writer’s block tested my resolve. It made me realize that artistic expression was something worth fighting for. I had to dig deep to restore the flow and face the debilitating fears under the frozen fingers on the keyboard. It was painful, illuminating, ravaging and freeing all at the same time.
Disappointment paved the path, as it has for so many of the pivotal moments of my life.
As our community was building a charter school, I watched the people rally around the idea, only to be disappointed by a variety of setbacks and challenges. More than once, these setbacks could have been seen as a signal but instead were seen as a test of resolve. I called this resolve “Grit” in a post by the same name. Many, many children in our community are benefiting because the founders of the school saw tests instead of signals.
Where do your disappointments test your resolve? What signals are you getting that what you think you want will not give you what you really want? How do you know the difference?
Photo Credit: Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_suljo'>suljo / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
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You started with a spark, shooting a small column of smoke surrounded by the driest forest. Right on the edge of a cliff, you danced and waved as the calls started pouring in. The helicopter was upon you within hours, yet you carried on. Boats lined up for the show, filled with people wondering how anyone could stop you. Little did we know that you were just beginning your march across the mountain.
And little did we know that you would burn so much into – and out of -- the heart of this community.
As you raged across the mountain, we witnessed your beautiful, frightening flames in stark contrast to the dark night. We could envision the aftermath to come, the scorched earth and blackened timbers. Smoke filled days reminded us that you were so near and yet so far. We began to grow slightly used to you, like you were the sleeping dog in the corner of the room.
Then your sister the wind arrived to feed the beast and suddenly all hell broke loose. Your fury threatened to consume everything in your path and you engorged your bottomless appetite for air and fuel. As you jumped every containment line, home was no longer a haven but a trap. Hours turned to minutes and abruptly the only thing that mattered was getting out.
For every one who left their home, another arrived to face your ferocity. Bravery showed up with trucks, hoses and deep resolve. The air was filled with helicopters and planes. Your power would be met with courage and cunning.
And those here to fight you would be met with open hearts and active hands.
As the forest fed your insatiable appetite, we began to feed our heroes. Our plans were immediately set aside to bring the warriors water, lip balm, socks, and essentials.
You are fire; we are love. We matched your fury with the gratitude and caring that fueled our hearts.
We took care of each other and hoped for the best for our mountains. As the firefighters saved every structure, we let go of our grudges, our pettiness and our stuff. We only cared that no one was hurt, not one life lost.
And in return, you cared for our mountain. As if by magic, you burned mostly underbrush. You cleared the way for new growth and life. You left us with incomprehensible beauty.
You showed us things don’t matter and that people do. You fueled courage, caring and passion in the firefighters who came to face you. You burned the underbrush of our hearts and made us one.
As we feed and care for the remaining firefighters and sit down to our Thanksgiving dinners in our still-standing homes, may we be forever grateful for your cleansing power and ever mindful that love is the only thing that matters.
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers.
Given that Waterski Magazine recently ran a story titled “Why Don’t More Women Ski?”, the topic naturally came up at Coble Women’s Week. I would like to report that we have that question figured out – however, for this particular group of skiers, we are stumped. Every single woman in this week’s camp has in some way arranged her life so that skiing is possible. And not one of us is a tournament skier. We just spend, train and obsess like anyone else who is passionate about the sport.
So after much conversation (and maybe a glass of wine or two), we turned the question on its head: “Why DO Women Ski?” and the answers came pouring out. This is the kind of thing we heard:
It uplifts us as we go around that next buoy, speed up the boat or run the full course for the first time. We learn to trust and try new things – including movements previously deemed impossible for our bodies and brains. We learn about life from observing our thoughts and actions on the water.
We have also pondered what makes this week so special. There is no competition, only support. We are all cheering for each other to do better, to get back up after the scary fall and to cross those wakes with confidence. As one of the women said on the last day “I’ve never been with a less judgmental group of women." Every one is enough, whether she goes around the “big buoys” or the mini course. We are learning to separate how we perform on the ski course from who we are. And just the feeling of skiing makes us feel strong (there’s that word again), empowered and confident.
Perhaps the most profound thing about this week: when one of us succeeds, we all feel the same sense of elation as the woman getting off the water with that giant smile.
As we close out the week, we are already planning our next times to ski together and promise to follow each other’s exploits through the year. We are lamenting the end of another summer and we know we will be back next year. A huge thank you to April Coble Eller and Coble Ski School for creating a special place where every level of skier can learn and grow.
This is a business blog, so I have to say something about the business that April Coble Eller and her family have built. It has been said that a true business has been built when the founder is absent and the business still runs like a top. So was the case this week as Shirley Coble, Chris Eller and April Coble Eller were all in Spain competing in the Over 35 World Championships. The staff was highly professional and extremely motivated, living up the high standards April has set over the years. They more than delivered on the brand promise of Coble Ski School, which can be boiled down to this: Safety first, focus on what’s working, celebrate your achievements while shaking off the disappointments, have fun and enjoy the family atmosphere. Perhaps that’s why over 90% of her customers return, and why Coble Ski School is ground zero for bringing new water skiers to the sport.
Many thanks to Coble Ski School for creating a place for such a magical week to unfold! Know someone who would love this article? Email or share below!
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 email@example.com.
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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