The More Things Change

This weekend I found myself on my hands and knees struggling around in my crawlspace. I’m short but it turns out not short enough to avoid the crossbeams of a space designed more for utility access and rarely used bric-a-brac than for human movement. The smart plan would have been to get in and get out focusing on the Christmas decorations that had sent me there in the first place.

But no, not me.

Instead, I navigated in the darkness looking for the box of books I was sure was there. Somehow in our last move I lost track of a stash of books I had from college and while I don’t have an inventory, I know that I wouldn’t have jettisoned my copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or the Marketing textbook I researched a case for in graduate school. I didn’t find them, but instead I found a milk crate of my own history.

Nestled in a back corner I found it, filled with small remnants from my 20’s. I found the theatre portfolio I submitted to get placed into the right lighting design class, the binder that contained the artifacts of my journey to grad school (application, acceptance letter and letters from the Dean for grades) and a hodgepodge of stuff from my final desk cleaning when I left my first real job, starting the zig zag of my career.

At the top of that last pile, tossed carelessly in amongst the other miscellaneous desk contents, was a simple printed document. Titled “360 Development Feedback Report” and dated 2006, it contained anonymous comments on my strengths and opportunities for improvement from my direct reports and peers. I scanned the pages, eager to see how much I had changed since then.

My team then, both subordinates and peers, commented on my confidence, clarity of vision, willingness to share technical knowledge, ability to create team and support of my team’s work-life balance. And they noted that I needed to work on my delegation, communication, defensiveness when challenged and ability to manage my own work-life balance. When I finished reviewing the pages I flipped back to the beginning to make sure I was looking at the right thing. I was confused because, to be honest, those comments could have been written about me this week as easily as 10 years ago.

Maybe you’re not surprised. After all, it was in the 19th century that author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phased “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Maybe it’s not that surprising that someone who was described in 2006 as “one of the most relentless and energetic persons I have ever worked with” is still high-energy. Or that someone who “should sometimes put more faith in her employees, not only by delegating more, but also by trusting the work of the employee and not changing/altering everything that has to go up to senior management” still has a tendency to own the final version of a presentation before it hits prime time. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that at my core I’m the same person now that I was then. And, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised except for one basic thing:

I believe, in my heart, I have been living a growth mindset.

Our beliefs are tricky things and no beliefs are trickier to manage then those about ourselves. I just finished a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and while Mark Manson’s shocking title (and prolific use of a word frowned upon in polite circles) might put people off, one of the key points of the book is that being open to being wrong, especially about deeply held beliefs, is a key to happiness. He notes that questioning your own values and whether you are living them is critical to determining what you care about (what you should give a f*ck about) and living a life of purpose.

For as long as I can remember, a huge part of my personal identity has been wrapped up in the value that every day is an opportunity to gain insight and develop new and better capabilities. And yet, faced with the fact of the 360 feedback I was given long ago, I can’t help but wonder if I truly value growth as much as I espouse. Ten years, two organizations and a handful of job titles later I appear to still be strong where I have been strong and weak where I have been weak. The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Normally, I like to end these posts with some witty closing, some quip or quote or answer that will pull the whole thing together. I like to note what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown or what big question I’ve answered. I don’t have that tonight. Instead, I’ve got some more thinking to do, some more staring the facts in the eye and wondering what it means for my beliefs and my way of going after life. So, this one will have to be a cliffhanger, a two-parter that ends with more questions than answers.

When I know what I think, I’ll write it here.

My Why

Late last year, I caught a video on my Facebook feed called Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace. I rarely click video links because I tend to browse social media when I am around other people and the audio can be distracting and frankly I just prefer to read and add my own audio track. But, this video was posted by someone I respect and so I clicked.

Over the course of 15 minutes I listened as Mr. Sinek shared his point of view on the 75 million individuals born after 1984, including stating that they were troubled and hard to manage, mostly due to bad parenting and technology. It was interesting and thought-provoking; I recommend you watch it. But my biggest take away was not some new enlightenment around Millennials, it was something much simpler.

I decided I wouldn’t want to have a beer with Simon.

As someone who enjoys both interesting people and ideas that’s weird, right? There was a smart, articulate person — someone who I was certain could get an audience with nearly anyone and whose videos have generated millions of views — and my first thought was that I would turn down the chance to sit down with him one-on-one. To be honest it made me feel a bit awkward, but I couldn’t get past the fact that while I liked his ideas I didn’t much like his attitude. Listening to his words and watching his mannerism I came away thinking that he was the kind of person who thought he had everything figured out. And, frankly, I prefer to talk with people who believe they are still learning.

And that’s why I was bemused when, a few months later, I found myself on treadmill watching TED videos and there he was again. This time his name was attached to a talk called How great leaders inspire action and faced with three words that I love (leader, inspire and action) I clicked. I may not want to chat with the guy, I reasoned, but that was no reason to say no to good content.

I’m glad I clicked.

At the center of his talk was the idea that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” In his version of the golden circle you start with a clear why, and then the how and what follow authentically and lead to great results. I loved it and immediately started articulating the importance of why with my team. As an idea, it fit nicely into my mental model of leadership and eventually I found the time to listen to Start with Why, the 2009 book he wrote around this idea. Perhaps not surprisingly, as I’ve listened to the book I found myself wondering, “What’s my why?”

(Note: It’s harder than you might imagine to answer that question without sounding like a self-important blowhard.)

But I managed to push that feeling aside and I’ve decided that my why is simple. I believe in the unique human possibility to grow and — through that growth — create something of value. I see it as my “why” to seek out and support that opportunity for growth in every aspect of my life. Nothing is more exciting for me that finding someone (myself included!) at a growth cross-roads and being able to give them a nudge of support to make it to the next level. Talking to someone days or even years later and hearing their growth story can put a smile on my face for hours — finding out that something I did helped them get there can last for days. My why comes through authentically in every part of my what — my fervor for academics, my approach to marriage and mothering, my non-linear career, my blog and my love of mentoring. I regularly get asked why I’m not a teacher; I answer that I teach every day, anyone who is willing to learn.

 

It may be one of my life’s ultimate ironies that someone who struck me as having nothing to learn gave me a framework to articulate my why — a why framed in the power of growth. But, I think it just reinforces the fact there is something to be learned from everyone and every situation if you can get past one small challenge.

You have to be willing to click the link — and listen long enough to hear it.