Quietly Desperate

 

 

It must have been in high school where I first heard the famous Thoreau quote:

“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”group of people waiting in line, back view

At fifteen or sixteen, I’m sure I had no clue what Thoreau was getting at. For one, I was not a man, and, for me, “desperation” meant calling that cute boy from third period and hanging up in a fluster the moment he answered the phone.

Today, although I am still not a man, I have a better sense of Thoreau’s sentiment.

And I see it quite often in people who come to me for coaching. They will tell me that things are stuck, or stale. That they can’t seem to make progress, can’t get a break, can’t overcome the forces aligned against them.

So, they stay where they are, hung up and quietly (or not so quietly) desperate.

When you think about the last hundred years in the developed world, there’s been such a seismic shift in the way most of us live our lives. Then, so many of us were union members who worked in factories at the mercy of time clocks and management bullies. The average worker learned to report, do his or her job and keep out of the cross hairs of the suits with their time-wasting “improvements”.

Today, with the shift to a more service-based economy, fewer and fewer people are making their living using their muscles and brawn. Jobs today are about knowledge, customer service and adaptability.

Yet, if you grew up the child or grandchild of a working person, you might just hold onto some of the working people vs. suits sentiment.

What’s harder today is that you’re probably more like ”them” than your grandparents ever were.

But the us vs. them dynamic lingers. So often I see people who still wait for permission from “them” to come up with a new idea. Who won’t dare act without approval. Who need to have a supervisor to blame when they’re stuck.

These are the truly desperate people.

And they don’t have to be.

Now, more than ever, you have to be the architect of your own career. Those who wait for an authority figure to step forward and bestow blessings and permissions will miss opportunities.

This, my friends, is guaranteed.

The other day I heard a story about a young woman who’s in her first job right out of college. She’s utterly entry-level, yet heard about a new project the brass was excited about. She did some thinking and came up with an idea, based on what she could gather about it. She wrote it up and sent it to the big boss. Who kindly wrote back to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

So, she thought some more. Brought in a friend who was also lower level and together they brainstormed another approach.

She submitted again.

And her concept is the one the very large, innovative organization is going to implement.

I told this story to someone recently who said, rather bitterly, “Millennials! They don’t know their place!”

But that’s not it at all.

No, that 23-year old woman knows that she’s not going to live a life of quiet desperation. Not her.

She’s in charge of her career, not anyone else. And to get where she knows she wants to go – she’s going to get herself there.

It’s an important lesson whether you’re twenty and just starting out, or sixty and feeling very stuck.

And the lesson is this: quiet desperation is a choice you can certainly make. But you can also choose something else.

You can choose to stop waiting for permission and start creating opportunities.

Because you don’t need anyone’s else’s permission to do that.

 

Tell Me Something Good

 

There are times in any of our lives when we feel off step, out of sorts, maybe even stuck. For some of us, these moments come when we find ourselves at a moment of change.

Maybe that change is something you’ve invited. Maybe it’s univited. Maybe you don’t even realize there’s been change until it’s done.

Regardless.

You find yourself completely at sea and there is no breeze to fill your sails.

What do you do?

Will you stay stationary? Or move?

Will  you stagnate? Or grow?

(In case you’re taking notes, “movement” and “growth” are always preferable to “stationary” and/or “stagnate”, just FYI.)

But how do you do it? How do you start moving when you’ve been in the doldrums for so long?

Good thing I know the answer.

There’s one thing to do that’s guaranteed to move you.

One thing to ask yourself. One thing to get clear on. One thing to own and implement.

Here it is – you ask yourself: “Where in my life, right now, can I do something good?”

Sounds kind of simple, doesn’t it? But it’s really kind of hard to do when you’re locked in a box and can’t seem to find a way out.

And you owe it to yourself to find a way out.

You know, I’ve long held that all of us humans have the same purpose in life – to be a force for good in the world, in our own way. And meaning comes from however we decide to do good.

So when you’re stuck in place and can’t seem to find a way out, look for something good to do.

Look for some way you can contribute.

Maybe you focus on customer service at your job.

Maybe you mentor someone.

Maybe  you volunteer.

Maybe you buy coffee for the person in line behind you.

Maybe you figure out what’s missing in terms of creating good in the world… and you do it.

Regardless.

There is a ton of research that shows that finding the way to matter in the world – in ways large and small – is more impactful on your life than even being happy.

So work on finding meaning in your life. Do something good.

One thing. You can choose.

Then drop me a line and tell me how it goes so we can sing one of my favorite songs together.

 

 

On A Tightrope Over A Chasm of Failure

 

 

I wonder about you.Own It!

I know things are stressful, and you’re unsure.

Every day you question. Every day you worry that you don’t know where you stand, and if what you’re doing is appreciated.

Or even seen as important by anyone. At all.

I know it’s not fun to be so uncertain. Not one bit.

So, I wonder if –  for just one day – you could shift it.

That for one day, as a test, you could own that…you actually do know what you’re doing.

That you’re not making it up as you go along. That you’re not walking on a tightrope over a chasm of failure, one error away from falling.

What if – for one day – you could ignore the tightrope and come at your day from a place of calm? Generated from a deep understanding of your own expertise?

Not in a boastful or bullying way, but with a centered sureness.

Sure in your bones that you haven’t gotten to where you are by luck, chance or happenstance.

Because, you, my darling friend, are not a fluke or a mistake.

No, you’ve gotten where you are by showing up, doing what needs to get done and honing your practice.

Whatever your practice might be.

I know it’s easier in some ways to say that it’s all luck. Or chance.

Because then you don’t have to claim anything. You’re sort of off the hook.

And no one can say you’re too big for your britches.

Or that you’re calculating.

Or trying too hard.

Or not nice.

If you shrug off your expertise, you’ll probably continue to fit in with the crowd. You know, the Whac-A-Mole herd-like people who are only happy when no one sticks their head up?

Those people.

There is comfort in a crowd, for sure. But you might also feel anxious. And as if everything could change in a moment.

Unsure.

Unsteady.

Stressed.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Does it keep you up at night?

It doesn’t have to.

You can have calm, steadiness and success. You can have great days.

But to get there you have to own who you are and what you’ve got.

So, for one day – just one – give it a try and see what happens.

Stop pretending you don’t know what you’re doing and start owning everything you do know.

Of course, be open to learning. Be open to the perspectives of others. That’s what people who center in their strengths do.

It’s what the best leaders do.

It’s what you can do.

Step away from the crowd. Dip into your expertise. Feel it. Own it. Live it.

For just one day.

Just one.

I wonder what that will be like.

I wonder if this week holds the day you’ll give it a try.

And as one day leads into another, maybe you’ll happily find that you’re permanently off the tightrope and walking your own, broad path of success.

 

How The Really Successful Get That Way

 

The pendulum certainly does swing.Pendulum Of Foucault In Pantheon Of Paris

Seems to me like we are in the widest part of the arc these days with…analytics. Maybe the better word is “metrics”. Or maybe “algorithms”.

Oh, shoot – let’s just say “math”, shall we?

I continually hear stories about how organizations are driving accountability by taskifying every single function of every single employee and then measuring them according to an allegedly quantifiable “goal”, though if you ask me there are so many things at work which just cannot be quantified.

Such as creating strong relationships with customers.

Such as mentoring the next generation.

Such as being a genuinely nice person.

I have railed against the Tyranny of the Bean Counters for some time. But in some ways I get it, I really do.

I realize that there are some people for whom nothing is real unless they can see it, touch it, taste it – and make a little check mark signifying that it’s been documented.

And I know there are some people who are deeply suspicious and are certain that everyone would take advantage of lax supervision and become total slackers if given half a chance. [because, perhaps, they fear that this is what they would do in that circumstance. Just sayin'.]

And then there are those who have worked for large consulting firms, which take bean counting to a whole new, quite expensive level.

These folks represent the far part of the pendulum’s arc and have created a unrelenting emphasis on quantification and numbers. But it’s my fervent hope that at some point the pendulum swings back and rests at the middle point, where there are good goals – but also where the unmeasurable is valued and appreciated.

Because, in the end, success is not driven by numbers but by meaning.

Doubt me?

A recent study led by Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski and Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz looked at motivation using a group of 11,320 West Point cadets. They wanted to learn if the most successful people are driven by an internal motive, or by what they call an “instrumental” or external motive, or a combination of the two.

One might think that successful people have a perfect balance of internal and instrumental motives. They care about their work, and they care about getting the corner office – doesn’t that sound like the right mix?

But, guess what? The study showed something…different.

People who are motivated solely by what others will think, or how much money they will make - instrumental motives - tend to be unsuccessful over time than those who are internally driven.

Interesting, huh?

So, what if you have a blend of both internal and instrumental motives?

“Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military,” say the study authors.

Now, back to the bean counters.

This study clearly shows that they’ve got it all wrong. Giving people better job titles, more money, the corner office as a prod for increased performance? Not going to work.

OK, maybe you get some short-term results – and you can certainly check a box off a list – but over the long-term your organization won’t really be successful because you’ve transformed internal motives into instrumental ones, which are ultimately much, much weaker.

The researchers say, “Rendering an activity more attractive by emphasizing both internal and instrumental motives to engage in it is completely understandable, but it may have the unintended effect of weakening the internal motives so essential to success.”

Meaning. Purpose. Learning. Growth. This is what we all need to be successful.

So, if you want success, transform your focus. Shift your own personal internal motives – the Big Why of why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing – toward what it means, how it helps, what you learn, how you grow.

And if by chance you have the power to transform an entire organization, get cracking on amping up theses collective senses in your people – starting from the top right on down.

Because, “Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.”

And so the pendulum begins to swing back.

 

 

 

You Have Spinach In Your Teeth

Spinach Leaf Isolated On White Background

 

Let’s say there are some things you just won’t do. Or you think you can’t possibly do.

For instance, here’s a big one: You can’t tell your boss what you really think because you’ll get fired.

At least you tell yourself she won’t like it and you’ll get fired.

Let’s explore that for a minute, shall we?

Just so happens that I was talking with a boss the other day. Let’s call him Dave just because that’s a fun first name.

Dave was worried about one of his key employees – let’s call her Ginny because that’s also a fun name.

Ginny respects Dave so much that she does whatever Dave says to do.

Dave says, “Let’s make all the widgets purple!”

And Ginny runs around like a crazy person organizing the production of purple widgets.

The next day Dave, who is a self-admitted idea guy with a bad memory, has a blue sky moment where he idly says, “What if we made some yellow widgets?”

Ginny nods and says, “Okie doke, yellow” and moves heaven and earth – and spends quite a lot of money – to build ‘em yellow.

The next week, when all the yellow widgets are finished and Dave sees a report about their move to the market, he says, “Yellow widgets? What the hell?”

See, Ginny never once asked Dave for clarification, like: “What about yesterday’s purple widgets? Is yellow in addition to purple, or instead of purple?”

When I asked her why she didn’t speak up and at least clarify what Dave wanted, she was shocked at my suggestion and said, “That’s not my place. He’s the boss and I’m just here to deliver whatever he wants.”

But I talked with Dave, he said, “I need her to tell me when I’m being an jerk, and when I’m costing the company time and money. I’ve got too much on my plate to remember everything and I count on her to keep me in line.”

Well now, people, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. 

When I talked with Ginny further, I asked, “If you noticed that Dave had spinach in his teeth just before he was supposed to be on the Today show, would you say anything or would you say nothing because he’s your boss?”

“Oh, I’d say something because I want him to look good,” she said.

“So what if whenever you saw him contradicting himself or not remembering accurately, you simply thought of it as if he had spinach in his teeth and said something?” I asked. She laughed and said she’d never thought of it that way, but then she pulled herself up short.

“Wait. Who am I to tell the boss he has spinach in his teeth?” She started to get anxious. “I’ve just never thought of myself as a person with that much power.”

As we coached around her concern, Ginny realized that she kept hearing her father’s voice telling her not to be too big, not to get too big for her britches, to go along and get along at work. She heard her mother’s voice telling her to be a good girl and make everything easier for everyone else. It really had nothing to do with Dave.

It had everything to do with how she saw herself and what she thought was possible.

This was a pretty big moment for Ginny, I have to tell you.

And it was pretty inspiring to see her as she realized that if she could expand herself in this one way – in essence, to ask Dave if he wanted to know he had spinach in his teeth, and then do him the favor of pointing it out – then she could really grow. She could dare to be more of herself. And maybe lower her stress level a little bit.

Today, Dave and Ginny have a strong and true partnership. The organization is stronger, more efficient and clearer – for everyone. Even the folks on the floor who are making the widgets.

And Ginny? Feels pretty strong, efficient and clear, too.

Finally.