2022: A year to dare

It’s been years since I set New Year’s resolutions. But for several years now, I’ve picked a word to serve as a focal point or mantra for the year. I try to pick a word that serves many facets of my life—professional, physical, social, etc. It goes on a post-it above my desk, so I see it regularly and can keep being drawn back to it.

In 2021, the word was center. It was about establishing practices that would ground me. That would help me show up as the best version of myself I could be each day. That would help keep me from falling hard when inevitable challenges hit. In 2021, I tried some new things (some stuck, others didn’t) and re-established consistency in others. Centering work, of course, is an ongoing practice, so the focus was on taking the actions and creating the rituals that make it easier to weave these threads into my daily life.

Now it’s time for another word. I have some big personal goals for the year already—ultra-endurance events, mountain adventures with the spouse. Professionally, I’m continuing to shape the future of my team’s work. I spent some time in 2021 reflecting on core values and crafted a purpose that I’m excited to explore in the coming months and years. Thinking about a potential theme for the year ahead, I rolled around some different ideas. What do I want it to capture? What do I want to set as a guidepost for the next 12 months? How do I want to grow in the next year?

I did something in 2021 that surprised me. I was supposed to originally do a 50-mile race in September, and I was just thinking about beating cutoffs. That event was canceled due to a storm with potential wintry conditions. We made the most of the weekend anyway and had a lot of fun. I found another 50 miler a couple of months later. My strength and pace on trails has improved significantly in the past year, and as race day approached, I found myself thinking not just about finishing but actually pushing a little for a time. I set an ambitious goal. I missed it by 10 minutes. But there was no disappointment in missing the goal, because I’d just done something I hadn’t thought possible a few months before.

To imagine a stretch goal and then to really go for it… that was something powerful, even if I didn’t quite make it. I recognized the progress I’d made and allowed myself the confidence that came from the work I was doing and the results I was seeing. From some recent reading, I’ve also been thinking more about where I set the bar. Some folks think that, if you’re making every goal you set, you’re not taking enough risks. Now, I think there’s something to be said for setting realistic targets, but I’ve also started to wonder: Do I hold myself back? Could I reach another level, do something that surprises me, if allow myself to set audacious goals?

I realized that my word this year needs to be big enough not only to wrap around the goals I’ve already set for myself. It needs to be big enough to challenge me to reach further. Big enough to give me space to try and maybe fail. Big enough to explore all of who I am, what I can do, and where I want to be.

After sifting through a few options, I finally arrived at the one word for 2022:

Dare. Dare to be ambitious. Dare to set audacious goals that may or may not come to be. Dare to deepen the relationships and shape the spaces to try different ways. Dare to reframe or work through the fear and anxiety and other feelings that keep me from fully chasing some things I really want to do. Dare to find my voice and make it heard when it matters. Dare to dream big, not just for this year but for the years to come.

I know, at this point, it all likely sounds very vague. Some parts I’ve shared with others in different circles, and I expect to write more about different parts in time. To be honest, it feels a little scary put this out there for the world to see (or for the couple of dozen who will read this post). But that’s part of daring too—daring to take an idea that’s in my head and make it known to others, to put myself on the hook to show up and try. Maybe I’ll fall on my face (and that could be quite literally in some of these endeavors), but my hope—and honestly an abiding belief—is that, if I dare to put share my journey with others, my community will be there to help me tend the wounds as necessary, dust off, and get back on the path toward who I am becoming.

Past theme/word of the year posts

2021 – Center

2020 – Grow

2019 – Thrive

2018 – Build

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Time & effort & value

Recently I received a time-sensitive request. My specific role was not spelled out, but the objective was clear. I inferred what I should/could do. I spent maybe 45 minutes reviewing some data in a report and drafting a suggested plan of action.

The recipients agreed with the plan and praised the “detailed” analysis.

I felt vaguely uncomfortable. I hadn’t spent that much time on it. Yet spending hours on analysis wouldn’t have changed the recommendations, and timely response was the priority. Given the nature of the plan, small errors in precision wouldn’t be harmful.

The discomfort wasn’t about a lack of due diligence or confidence in the plan. It about being praised for work that felt easy to me.

This realization dawned as I was relaying the experience to my partner—and I recalled the times that he’s expressed to me the dissonance between his perceived effort and what he’s paid to do and lauded for. And then my mind summoned an excerpt from a podcast I’d listened several days before:

I once had a business coach who was working with women entrepreneurs and working with us on pricing. And she was looking at how we were charging for different parts of our services, and all types of entrepreneurs. And she looked at our prices, and she kept on saying, “Why is that number so low?” And different people, myself included, would say, “Well, I can do that in my sleep.” Or, “That’s really easy for me.” And she said, “If that’s really easy for you, that is your gift, and you should be charging the most for that.”

Priya Parker on the Dare to Lead podcast

The penny dropped. I’d been holding an assumption, unwittingly, that I should perceive the effort as difficult for my work to be praiseworthy, to be valuable and valued by others. I had apparently established a construct where time and perceived effort yield value. And of course, this is often true. My gains in running are dependent on consistent training (time). Major parts of my work—ideating, conceptualizing, writing, editing, integrating all the elements—also require time and often feelings of struggle. Frankly sometimes the challenge motivative me.

But I also need to understand and internalize that the level of difficulty itself doesn’t determine the value of an output. I emphasize the “my” because I was applying this model to my own work but not to that of others. I might marvel at the ease if we were talking about someone else’s work, but I would never discount the value of the work that was (or at least seemed to me) effortless. What I consider easy might be daunting to someone else, and vice versa. Value is not defined by the effort but the outcome.

Ease is a gift. Embrace it. Put it to use in the world.


Postscript

June 1, 2021

The latest The Growth Equation newsletter included a short blog post by Steve Magness on the illusion of ease. He writes, “… this illusion of ease… makes us forget about all the work it takes to make that illusion come true.”

Although Magness is referring to external judgements of others’ efforts (and particularly of apparent effort to achieve objectively incredible feats), I think this may have some relevance to our internal narratives as well. What’s easy to us today was not necessarily easy for us months or years ago. We grow our skills through training and experience. When we first attempt or complete a new achievement, we are likely keenly aware of how hard it is. But our perception of effort may change as more time passes and as we do the thing again and again. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined running 13 miles on mountain trails or comfortably delivering seminars, but now mountain miles are my usual long run and public speaking is a regular part of my professional life. On good days, there is a sense of ease, but it’s taken a lot of practice to get there.

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Letting go to go forward

Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Anxious. Busy.

Each of us knows these feelings. They have become (near) constant companions. They were there before the pandemic and lockdowns, and they did not stay behind in our places of employment as work moved into our homes. Too much to do and too little time, and add figuring out new ways of doing our every day. For many the already too much expanding and the too little time compressing as their entire family’s lives converged in a confined space.

In the US, we’re rapidly approaching the 12-month mark of life disrupted by pandemic and marked with crescendos of broader recognition (if not yet reckoning) around racial injustice, white supremacy, and autocratic threats. The past year yielded countless articles about burnout, compassion, resilience, mental health; about finding grounding and direction in uncertain times; about exploring new approaches to working and being in an anxiety-provoking world. Ink spilled, pixels blazed, sound waves carried to tell employees and managers and executives that we can’t keep doing—or expect others to keep doing—all the same things in the same ways in this moment.

A glimmer of hope on the horizon grows brighter. Already some leaders are shifting their focus and mindset of planning the return to so-called normalcy, the way things were. But if the normal of the beforetimes was leaving so many stretched, should that be our goal? What practices were (or even still are) carrying that simply don’t serve us well—or maybe at all? How might the quality of our work, our experience, and even our organizations change if we shift our lens from past to progress?

I tend to say there’s no going back to work. I call it going forward to work.

Martin Lindstrom 1

I think the first step is (re-)examining purpose. We have a tendency to focus on tasks and activities. After all, it’s easier to articulate what we do, and culturally there is an emphasis on accounting for our work time in measurable ways—tangible outputs, presence in meetings, outcomes that are quantifiable (and preferably within a short period). We can fall into the trap of saying “yes” to everything—and continuing to hold fast to old ways— because we’re concerned we’ll miss something important. The trap is set in part by failing to understand or define the why, what effect we’re trying to have on our organization/community/world.

…what is important doesn’t necessarily get our attention; what gets our attention becomes important.

Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness 2

So we need to consider: What’s consuming our attention and energy, and how do those practices and activities align with our purpose? How many times do we end up in meetings questioning why we’re needed there? What tasks do we crank through while wondering how they ended up in our pile? Sometimes the answer is simply, this must get done to keep the organization running, and the job at hand most closely fits within our role and responsibilities. Sometimes we have to accept that—after all, what good is it to have a strong sense of purpose within the organization if the organization disintegrates? On the other hand, we can find ourselves holding space for work that does not serve our goals, intention, or role.

Examine assumptions. What story are you telling yourself about the work that you’re doing?

Jen Davison 3

In challenging assumptions, we force ourselves to re-examine facts, to consider how an activity links to purpose in this moment. Perhaps it made perfect sense when we started, but as the project or organization have changed, it’s filling an amorphous void rather than a need. In the wake of disruption and change, there can be a strong compulsion to reach for our old customs or to grab something new, anything to fill the silence with chatter, the stillness with motion.

Or we can stand, at least for a moment, in the stillness, breathe, and reconnect that time, attention, emotion, and thinking to our purpose. We can reclaim some space for rest, rejuvenation, creativity, creation. Letting go of those things that no longer serve us can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it makes space to explore and experiment and discover new ways of being with ourselves and our communities—and shaping a culture that invites others to do the same.

Stop focusing on what is behind you. It’s growing smaller and smaller, miniaturizing in the distance; stop squinting at it, as if it has the answers. Today, keep your eyes on where you are going, not where you have been.

Maggie Smith 4

Quote sources

  1. HBR IdeaCast Goodbye Bureaucracy, Hello Common Sense
  2. Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness – The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life (book)
  3. Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement – Community Call, Jan 2021 – (Personal) resilience and community (management)
  4. Maggie Smith – Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change (book)
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Showing up

This month I’m doing a 30-day guided yoga “journey”, trying to establish a daily practice. At one point, the instructor stated, “Showing up is the hardest part.” For this process, showing up is the linchpin. Once you’ve stepped on the mat, you’ve made your commitment for the day. The practice will be different each day, but showing up is the singular requirement for establishing the practice.

I know, this feels obvious. Of course we have to show up to participate. It’s step zero. It’s often been so routine that the process barely enters our consciousness. The past year has forced many to rethink and reconfigure. As I reflect on this idea that showing up is the hard part, one question stands out:

What do we do to make it easier for people to show up?

We could ask this question for friends, family, fitness, any number of things. Here I want to talk about what we do to make it easier for people to show up for work.

Some things are very personal, decisions or rituals that help get ourselves out the door—or these days, for many of us, to the table or desk in our home. For me, adjusting to work from home involved creating a specific space for work and rituals to get my brain into the work frame of mind.

But showing up isn’t just a matter of personal responsibility and ritual. It’s intertwined with what we do, or perhaps more accurately the alignment between expectations and reality of what we do. Have we found the job and organization that meets our needs and interests? Do we have the skills and experience we need to get the work done? If not, are we getting support to get there or to move certain responsibilities off our plate? Are we even doing the work we expected to be doing, that was written into our job description? These are not things employees can or should necessarily sort out on their own. These are issues that supervisors and colleagues have a role in as well.

Work environment and culture come into play as well. Do we have a space that’s amenable to our activities? Do we have the resources we need or feel we can ask for them? How do the people work together? Are norms and expectations needlessly rigid or flexible? Does the group value autonomy or indulge in micromanaging? Does the mission and leadership inspire? Is there accountability and compassion, clarity and care? For many of these things, there’s no single right or wrong way, but again it’s a question of whether they’re aligned with our expectations. Are we managing others based on our assumptions and preferences, or can we adapt our approach to their style and needs?

This extends beyond general team dynamics though. We also need to look at the structural issues within our organizations. This is the work of creating an inclusive environment, with varying degrees of commitment and results. What can we do within our own spheres of influence to create a more welcoming place for those from marginalized backgrounds? What can we do to push our organizations towards critical systemic change?

Between a global pandemic, lockdowns disrupting work and education, amplified disparities in who’s bearing the brunt of health and economic impacts, a renewed focus on racism and white supremacy, an attempted coup in US… this is a moment when we’ve ceased taking things for granted. This is a moment, more than ever, when those of us in the position to help should be asking what we can do to make it easier for people to show up. And I deeply hope that we won’t stop asking.

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A word for 2021: Center

This blog has been drifting a while, but now it’s been a year since I last posted—to share my theme for 2020. The absence here was reflective of the intensity in (work) life, which was only amplified by working from home during global crises. But I’m not really here to rehash the year that was, rather to set the touchstone for the year ahead, carrying forward an approach I picked up a few years back. Instead of setting resolutions—which seem even more elusive than ever with all the unpredictability—I’ve settled into picking a word or theme for the year:

For 2018 it was build. In 2019 it was thrive. Last year it was grow.

In 2020, we certainly achieved the stress part of growth. For me, the rest was harder to come by as the year dragged on and the intensity of my work built. Once the massive grant I was coordinating was submitted, I checked out and leaned into the rest. I stopped checking work email, took Outlook off my phone, and have spent the last almost 3 weeks just doing… whatever, within the confines of staying close to home and COVID safe. It’s involved a lot of cooking and reading, some running and hiking, streaming shows and TV.

Now as my break approaches its close, I find my thoughts turning to what my focus will be for 2021.

What do we do after a year that brought so stress, confusion, upheaval, uncertainty, disruption? What do we do when realize how fragile our plans are, how much is beyond our control? What do we do as we see some hope on the horizon but remain unsure of how long it will take to get there and what things may change along the way?

Heading into 2020, I took on a new role at work, became a manager, (remotely) hired and onboarded my first direct report. We had a clear and enormous project that easily filled the time for the year. Now that it’s done, it’s time to translate our broader roles on paper into practice.

Last year, I also took on a big running goal. I ticked off 50 miles (and 16,000 ft of elevation gain) on a local mountain. I lost some momentum late in the year as stress mounted, but I’m building back. I’ve shown myself I’m capable of something huge, and now I get to think about how I push my boundaries from here.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of building something, in the expectation (even of my own making) to prove my skill or worth. What I take on in the midst of that excitement and expectation can create imbalance, if I’m not mindful. Intense focus on one thing while another also needs care and attention. Picking up too much of the work myself. Tending to issues that could be returned others. Losing the intention or purpose. Ignoring the signs of fatigue, injury, stress.

I’m terribly inconsistent in maintaining a yoga practice, but a concept that strikes me is finding the center. There’s nothing passive about it. Even as I am by outward appearances (mostly) still, I’m grounding the corners of your feet or drawing your spine long or tightening core muscles. Poses start with one of a few foundations, and I can add features to increase the complexity or difficulty depending on where I am physically and mentally that day. When I begin to feel the imbalance, to tip out of the pose, I adjust those small tensions—and if I can’t recover, I just return to the center, ground myself, and try again, perhaps with a different modification.

And so, I will try to carry this word with me through 2021: Center. I will seek out those core ideas and practices that serve as the foundation for my work, my relationships, my health. I will learn better and commit to those things that ground me. And as strain and tension builds, threatening to topple me, I will strive to bring myself back to that center and make adjustments to strengthen my approach going forward.

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