Wired to be rebels

One of the first questions I can remember asking myself as a young child was, “why am I the way I am?” It’s a question I never stopped asking myself, because this nagging feeling of I don’t fit in here chased me through all my moves as a military brat, and all my jobs as an adult.

I became obsessed with personality tests in my 20s. Myers-Briggs* was a revelation to me; as an off-the-charts N (Intuitive, 20% of the population), it explained why I had such a difficult time communicating with Sensors who seemed to think in a more literal, linear way. While my abstract thinking style bounced from A to W to D to M, making intuitive leaps based on absorbing multiple data points simultaneously, my Sensor bosses bashed me for “being unstrategic.” At the time, I assumed this meant I was defective.

Much later in life, I stumbled upon how high-functioning autism shows up in women, and I now consider myself neurodiverse despite a low likelihood of being formally diagnosed. Being exceptionally good with language (I was reading at a fourth-grade level in kindergarten) and a social and identity chameleon, I’d never be picked up on the radar of diagnostic tests designed for boys. I’ve worked hard to adapt to the “normal” world… which means that the autism community is simply one more place where I sort of fit in, but still an outlier.

Gifted adults, or rebels with a cause?

But in the past week, I stumbled onto the literature about gifted adults: those with above-average intelligence and/or an exceptional talent. Ding ding ding!! Now we’re onto something. The below chart takes a more visual view of common gifted characteristics. Or, check out this helpful article on how gifted shows up in the workplace.

In the past few years I’ve come to accept and embrace my quirks that come with being so-called “gifted,” which I’ve defined as a rebel with a cause: breaking rules that don’t make sense, constantly asking why something is the way it is, and obsessing over fairness and justice. I work faster than most. I can consume vast amounts of data, metabolize it and find the patterns. Instead of being broken and dysfunctional, I’ve realized that these are my superpowers I share with other gifted adults. I’ve found my tribe.

But original minds carry some baggage. We can have a fear of failure thanks to high expectations of ourselves… get caught in a perfectionist trap… get overwhelmed by all the possibilities we see… have difficulty focusing on one thing… feel alone and misunderstood. And it’s also hard for us to work in traditional and hierarchical environments where we’re expected to hunker down in our box and color inside the lines.

Gifted is also frequently misdiagnosed as ADHD or high-functioning autism (HFA); the similarities are remarkable. And it’s also common for all these traits to coexist in some people (including me.)

rebel brains are wired differently.

Gifted adults make up anywhere from 2 – 20% of the population depending on whatever arbitrary cut-off point you choose. Meaning we’re minorities, different on the inside, based on how our brains are wired… which is why I advocate for a broader definition of neurodiversity in the workplace. Traditional ways of coaching and supervising aren’t usually effective with us.

We might drive managers crazy with our constant challenging of the status quo, or insistence on doing meaningful work, or emotional or environmental sensitivity, or oblivious disregard for arbitrary departmental or hierarchical boundaries. But put us in the right environment, allowing us the autonomy to solve wicked problems, and we become prized assets. You just need to understand how we’re wired; different can be inconvenient, but it doesn’t mean we’re wrong.

Here are four ways that we’re neurologically unique, along with coaching implications. Our brains take in more information, think laterally through greater connectivity, think at lightning speed, and process more intuitively.

We take in more information

Crazy or creative? Both can be linked to the degree of “latent inhibition in the brain: “the capacity of an animal to unconsciously screen out stimuli perceived as irrelevant to its needs.” That means that a mind with low levels of latent inhibition is bombarded with more details than the typical mind. All those details can lead either to madness (think John Forbes Nash in A Beautiful Mind) or simply a greater creative capacity. Or both.

A study among Harvard undergrads found that high lifetime creative achievers had significantly less latent inhibition than low creative achievers. Additionally, creative thinkers within a single domain (think math or music) proved seven times more likely to have low latent inhibition scores than high ones. Higher IQ and working memory seems to protect these minds from the severe psychological downsides of taking in too much information.

But psychological downsides still exist. Gifted kids and adults often are sensitive and easily overwhelmed, either by the sensory environment, emotions, or simply too many ideas rattling around in our brains. It can be helpful to create very quiet working environments (or use noise-canceling headphones). If I’m drinking from an information firehose I find that a 20 minute nap resets my brain from an overwhelm-induced freeze. Lastly, we need different approaches to goal-setting: ways to take options off the table and keep moving in the same direction without stifling our diverse interests or forcing us into a linear mode of working. I’ve created a process called Intent+Improv to solve for this.

Our brains are more connected

Gifted children and adults are known to be exceptional associative thinkers. We’re able to connect the dots across all that stimulus we absorb, likely because we have more connections in our brains.

Connectivity across brain regions is akin to the roads on which you travel to get from place to place. In the brain, these roads are made up of tracts of white matter which serve as higher speed freeways. The gifted brain has more of these tracts,2 allowing for the possibility of more “traffic movement.”

Neuroscience of Giftedness: Greater Connectivity Across Brain Regions

We rebels need to learn how to translate our lateral ideas in a linear context to be understood by most people; we need to show how we arrived at our conclusions, which are usually evident in hindsight. Conversely, linear thinkers need to appreciate that divergent minds are simply taking a different route. Not better or worse, just different.

The other major coaching opportunity for rebels is taking the time to think through other options; intuitive, associative thinkers can easily get married to the patterns that we see so clearly and quickly. A top-down, logical approach is necessary to pressure-test our ideas and identify what’s missing… before our bosses and clients point it out! My favorite coaching question: what’s the third way here?

We think and iterate at lightning speed

Because we’re processing more information using more connections, we think faster. As kids, we may have entertained ourselves in class, bored, waiting for others to catch up.

“When you say someone is quick-thinking, it’s genuinely true. The impulses are going faster and they are just more efficient at processing information, and then making a decision based on it.”

Paul Thomson, PhD, professor of neurology at UCLA School of Medicine

We’re still doing the same thing as adults, only now, we’re not waiting. And we end up leaving behind the very people we need to bring on board to make our visions a reality. Shannon Lucas and Tracey Lovejoy’s new book delves into the nature of catalysts — essentially gifted adults with a drive for action — and how we need to slow down with intentionality to bring others along and avoid burnout.

“What you see and do in a proverbial flash is what entire teams take years to map out. And the only way to remove the blind spots, protect yourself, and value your strengths is to make your movements visible—first to yourself, then to everyone you’re bringing along with you.”

Move Fast. Break Shit. Burn Out. The Catalyst’s Guide to Working Well
We process information more intuitively

While the left/right brain dominance theory has been debunked (replaced by dual-processing theory popularized by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow), there are two areas of hemispheric specialization that are interesting and relevant to this topic: Intuition likely happens in the right half, but language is processed in the left.

“…a more distributed intuitive network may feed into a predominately right hemispheric insight-based functional neuronal architecture.”

“…The right hemisphere lacks the capacity to generate productive language in over 95% of the population…”

Intuition, insight, and the right hemisphere: Emergence of higher sociocognitive functions

I’ve noticed that the rebels I coach have difficulty translating what they intuit into words. Because we mostly process abstractly, holistically and visually in the right brain, we need to “port” these ideas into the language center located in the left hemisphere. It’s a challenge shared by those on the autism spectrum as well; as articulated by a member of an Aspie Women Facebook group:

“If my brain takes in and organises so much information at once, is that caused or helped by the fact it seems to bypass my brain’s language centres? It’s incredibly hard work to describe what I know… I always feel at a loss for words to convey the largeness and complexity of my understanding. So much is lost in translation.”

 This can lead to an obsessive need to “talk things out” in order to capture the essence of abstract ideas, or it can lead to “freezing” or introversion. To managers, it looks like a jumble of poorly thought-through ideas, or interpreted as socially challenged behavior. I had a manager override my gut-level intuition because I couldn’t quickly articulate why I felt so strongly about a contradictory solution.

Coaching opportunities exist on both sides here. For the rebel, you’ll need to go through the extra step of translating gut-level insights into logical arguments; since you think and work faster than normal, it’s a matter of slowing down and giving extra time. This will feel excruciating, but worth it to streamline communication and understanding.

Managers: instead of disregarding an employee’s intuition, honor it and use this as a learning opportunity for both of you. Say, “we recognize you have an intuitive thinking style; why don’t you take a day to sort through your thoughts and lay out your argument in a way we can understand.”

When we reframe neurodiversity beyond its narrow disability-oriented definition to encompass the unique wiring of gifted adults — aka rebels with a cause — everyone wins.

Sound familiar?

If you’re a self-identified rebel with a cause, or you’re a manager with a high-potential rebel on your hands, I’d love to talk with you. Book a call here.

Footnote:

*Re: Myers-Briggs, people can’t be put into boxes, labeled and categorized like widgets. I have taken this test many times over the years, getting different scores based on my context at the time. I still find it very helpful as a directional guide for understanding self and others. As a consistent INxx (INTJ, INFP, INTP) my personality and thinking style is a very small percent of the general population. If you’d like a free test, click here.

Coming out of the neurodiversity closet

Celebrating the unsung superpowers of the neurodiverse brain, and why the gender-biased, one-dimensional view of neurodiversity is holding back innovation.

I fumbled my way through life and work for over 40 years before I was informed by my then-girlfriend (a brilliant MD/PhD in biotech) that she was on the autism spectrum… then she gently added, “and I’m pretty sure you are too.” You’ve got to be kidding me, right? We both seemed normal to me.  

Thing is, I knew nothing about autism beyond the stereotypes like poor social skills and repetitive behavior, neither of which fit me. Diagnostic tests are exclusively based on boys; widespread gender bias abounds, like this article from HBR that presents a male-centric, one-dimensional view of autism in the business world.

Yet autism presents quite differently in women (working screeners here and here). Unlike boys, girls are more motivated to fit in and make friends; highly intelligent girls learn social rules through careful observation, trial and error. We develop the skills of masking and camouflage, even from ourselves.  We can be empathetic, read voraciously, have friends and jobs… in other words, we can come across as normal, until those moments when we’re not.

It’s nearly impossible to hide who we are; our differences eventually reveal themselves. No matter how good I think I am at social interaction, like many other HFA women, I’ve lost jobs, friends and relationships without understanding why. I often feel awkward and misunderstood around neurotypicals, like I’m speaking a totally different language.

Learning about how autism presents in women was an incredible revelation – finally, my life makes sense! – but when I shared with my dad, he quickly advised, “don’t tell anyone.” Because that’s what that generation did, right?  Sweep uncomfortable things under the rug. Act like everything is normal.

But what is normal?  We need to start normalizing something that’s an unrecognized and under-valued part of our humanity. So I’ll start writing about my experience in hopes that more people start to understand and appreciate the superpowers that diverse humans – and especially diverse women — bring to the party.  We’re the rebels with a cause, and we have a lot to offer.

The pattern-matching perks of neurodiversity

It’s called a spectrum for a reason – divergent traits can be radically different from person to person, which is why it can be so hard to identify or diagnose. It’s also not black and white; there are many shades of grey. The benefits can also vary by individual: the right side of this list fits the conventional view of autism, but my strengths are on the left:

Creativity
Lateral thinking
Pattern recognition
Strategic analysis
Processing data quickly.  
Sustained concentration
Error detection
Consistency in tasks once mastered
Grasp of complicated mathematics
Attention to detail.  

Let’s dig into the lesser-known benefits, shall we? A core theory about the neurodivergent (ND) brain is that it’s more connected than that of an average person (aka neurotypical, or NT.) This connectivity helps them “perceive and process more at any point in time than a non-autistic person.” It’s also linked to the bottoms-up thinking style that powers the creative and strategic traits.

Bottoms up!

Bottoms-up thinking is considered a neurodivergent trait. It’s not exclusively autistic, nor exclusively male or female. However, since women mask so many other ND traits, this way of processing information is often a tell-tale sign of a differently wired brain, leading to feelings of not fitting in or misunderstood.

Most people take in the concept before the details; they start with a theory or idea, then find details to support it. But bottoms-up thinkers take in the details before the concept. Our ND brains are constantly taking in information, consciously and subconsciously, and then finding patterns across it all.

  • “Most people have to have a theory first, and then they try to make the data conform to it. My mind works the opposite way. I put lots of little pieces of data together to form a new theory.
  • “I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then picking out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all this resource down into one short paragraph… I’m a bottom-up thinker – I take the details and put them together.”

This is, by the way, aligned with “first principles” thinking popularized by Elon Musk. As James Clear writes, “it’s a cycle of breaking a situation down into the core pieces and then putting them all back together in a more effective way. Deconstruct then reconstruct.” But Aspies don’t even need to deconstruct; we live in a deconstructed world, endlessly seeing possibilities for how it can be constructed better.

(UPDATE: Just discovered that this could also be a function of low “latent inhibition,” which I’ll write about in another post.)

The pattern-matching superpower 

In many NDs, this detail-first approach means they’re great at getting down in the weeds to deeply understand the way things work… and we can do that a lot faster than most people. It also means we can get bogged down and easily feel overwhelmed; if I take in too much information too fast, my brain freezes up and I need a nap to “reboot.” I also need a lot of silence and intentional downtime.

But I and others (usually those who also fall in the “gifted adult” camp) have also honed our natural pattern-matching abilities into a superpower. I’m compelled to find the central organizing principle that can create coherence, simplicity and wholeness where an NT would see only chaos.  I’m compelled because it helps quiet my brain, and I love solving an infinite puzzle.

You might say my special interest is coherence – seeing how to orchestrate individual parts into a powerful whole system – whether that system is an individual human, a highly complex global organization, or a large-scale system with “unsatisfactory equilibrium points” resulting in homelessness, deforestation, climate change and other challenges.

As I’ve been exposed to all aspects of organizations through various roles, I’ve made it my mission to find practical tools and approaches that are effective at the intersections, knitting together what’s been artificially separated for no apparent reason I can see.

Think Different

This pattern-matching superpower should theoretically be valued by leadership. I believe it was Steve Jobs’ secret sauce; very likely on the spectrum, Jobs was an absolute master at creating simplicity and coherence across a complex global ecosystem.

Could this be why the most successful companies today are tech companies? Their advantage isn’t the technology; it’s their minds. Many of these leaders literally see the world differently, crafting innovations and coherent business strategies that are radically different from the status quo.

While full-blown Asperger’s Syndrome or autism hold back careers, a smaller dose of associated traits appears critical to hatching innovations that change the world.

“A typical child might just accept, ‘Okay this is just the way it’s done, this is how we do things in our culture or family,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center in Cambridge. “Someone with autism or Asperger’s, they kind of ask those ‘why’ questions. They want more logical answers. Just saying ‘Well we do this just because everybody else does,’ that doesn’t meet their test of logic.”

Why Shades of Asperger’s are the Secret to Building a Great Tech Company

But these superpowers don’t seem to be valued outside the tech world. And frankly, the way it manifests in women is so unique that I don’t think they’re recognized and valued in tech either. I’ve lost or left jobs precisely because I’m a rebel who thinks different. I’ll tell those stories in later posts, but suffice it to say, it’s taken me a long time to realize that I simply can’t work with companies (as an employee, a consultant or a coach) who won’t even try to see the world through my eyes. This is why I now exclusively work with “rebels with a cause” or those who appreciate us.

A call to be taken seriously

All the women I coach happen to be bottoms-up thinkers, even if they don’t resonate with other spectrum traits. They’re brilliant, intuitive, and can get lost in all the possibilities they see. Traditional, linear goal-setting usually doesn’t work. Different brains need different tools and support… but more than anything, they need to be recognized.

These women aren’t going to fit in according to traditional standards. They aren’t good at working their way up a career ladder. They’re divergent.

Leaders, it’s time to identify, value and nurture the incredible pattern-matching brains that see possibilities that no one else can. Every organization needs Connectors: the people who play at the intersections and see how things could be integrated. And many of these connectors are women: the so-called lost girls who have incredibly intuitive insights, yet  aren’t taken seriously… or their social quirks get them ostracized or fired.  

“They are very often incredibly creative individuals, almost like Renaissance people who are extremely bright… On the other hand, the anxiety can be completely crippling for them, especially when they are misunderstood. People see a verbal, bright woman, and the expectations for that person are way, way high.” says Dania Jekel, Executive Director, Asperger/Autism Network

“Invisible women, lost girls: being female on the autism spectrum”

If you’re a leader or manager who’d like more insight for yourself or your employees, or you’d like an Aspie brain to review your strategy if you’re trapped in complexity, let’s talk.

What questions do you have? I’d love to hear from you.

 “While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs

Side note: If you suspect you’re a bottoms-up thinker, it doesn’t mean you’re autistic; this information-processing style is simply one of many traits that diverge from the norm. You might simply be what my dear friend Shannon Lucas calls a catalyst. It’s the number and magnitude of traits that together contribute to a diagnosis.

Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash

Authenticity, transparency and vulnerability: What’s the difference?

I’m having a hard time writing about this topic. must admit, the last presidential debate was pretty horrifying. We all watched the leader of the US of A, ranting and interrupting and bullying in a tragic example of authenticity.

According to Vanity Fair, “Trump doesn’t accept the consensus that the debate was a disaster because, sources said, he was unabashedly himself.

In other words, he was authentic. The genuine Trump. The real deal.

He was also completely transparent: he wasn’t trying to hide behind convention or be someone he’s not, which is often why his supporters say they like him.

But vulnerable? No way. Vulnerability requires self-awareness in the context of other human beings. It’s the feeling we get when we’ve perhaps revealed too much of ourselves, or we’re afraid to reveal out of fear of being judged.

Authenticity is the truth of who we are, whereas transparency is the degree to which we reveal that truth. From opaque to translucent to transparent, we make judgement calls on how much we can reveal, to whom, and when.

Alone on a desert island, we’d all be authentic and fully transparent. We could run around naked, shout expletives at the sky, and be as weird as we wanted without any sense of vulnerability. I suppose that can describe narcissists as well.

But of course none of us live on desert islands.

It’s not all or nothing

We all yearn to bring our whole selves to work, because the energy required for mask upkeep is exhausting. All eyes are on the leaders to model the level of transparency that’s acceptable within the culture.

Historically there’s been too little transparency, where everyone’s walking on eggshells trying to guess at people’s real identities, emotions and intentions behind the armor and masks.

In an over-correction, the trend now is to let it all hang out. But too much self-transparency can scare the crap out of people and potentially cause you to lose credibility; there’s such a thing as authentically inappropriate. When a plane hits turbulence and everyone’s watching the crew, it’s wise to keep imposter syndrome under wraps.

I’m not so sure about this vulnerability trend; vulnerability is intimate; it can’t be forced. It’s a guide, not a goal. Instead of being caught in duality of all or nothing, perhaps there’s a third way.

The third way: Translucent

Being mindfully transparent is about revealing our humanity without pointing out the hair growing out of the wart. Transparency is potent stuff: we need to know the right dosage, the right degree of “see-through-ness” or translucency for the situation. What’s the right degree? That depends on an awareness and understanding of both ourselves and our listeners. 

It requires an exploration of the intersection between ME and THEY… which, of course, is WE. It’s about balancing relatability and truth with confidence.

  • ME: What is the most genuine version of me? What am I feeling right now? What do I need? This self-listening and self-validating step helps ground us in our truth. It’s about being vulnerable with ourselves first, so that it can be transmuted into strength.
  • THEY: Who are my (peers, team, partner, etc.) as human beings, not titles? How do they feel now? How do they want to feel? How comfortable are they with emotion? What do they need from me? These answers come from empathy and deep listening. 
  • WE: Within the context of our shared humanity, what’s my role as a leader in moving us towards our collective desired state? What’s one story I can tell that establishes a human connection? What do I say (or how do I say it) to earn both relatability and trust?

Start with who.

This is all part of the process I call Start With WHO. So much business discussion is focused on why (purpose), what we do and how we do it. But so few start with who: Who am I as a leader? Who are my peers and colleagues and customers, and what shared identity bonds us together?

A leader doesn’t build a product or a department or a company: he or she builds a sense of belonging by magnetizing a tribe of diverse individuals who come together because they’re wired similarly. The similarities may be purpose, or it may be identity, values, or needs. Rebels, travelers, change-makers, connectors, security-seekers, DIYers, catalysts… when we start with an authentic who, beginning with leadership, everything else falls into place.

Within this tribe, we can safely drop the masks. We can model a greater degree of transparency, showing our genuine selves, because we’ve created a safe space for people just like us. The uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability are diminished; we know we won’t be judged. This still doesn’t mean we can let it all hang out in a vulnerability-induced verbal vomit that shakes people’s confidence, but it sure simplifies where to draw the line.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

I wish I hadn’t said that.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with last week’s article. 

I fully believe in what I wrote about flowing versus striving, BUT… when I pushed send, the contraction in my body told me that the way I said it wasn’t exactly right somehow. Too long, too business-y, too cerebral. Too blah blah blah.

The voice in my head punched me around a little bit. Told me that I should have waited to start my newsletter until I had planned it all out perfectly… waited until I’d fully practiced and perfected the new writing style that feels more authentic to me now. 

Do you get that perfectionist voice in your head too? The one that delights in pointing out you didn’t get something right? That you should have done it differently? 

That voice has good intentions, for sure. It wants to keep us safe, but instead it keeps us trapped in a corner feeling bad about ourselves. It prevents us from experimenting with what feels aligned and what doesn’t — those somatic signals of YES and NO in our bodies that tell us when we’re on or off our path.

A YES feels expansive and right; it’s our soul’s way of saying “do more of this.” A NO feels tight, constricting: do less of that. Simple breadcrumbs that unerringly lead us forward.  

I’m now writing a memoir about my path to authenticity. This kind of book demands of me a different writing style: a shift from head-based business insights to heart-based stories. And that requires a new way of seeing and moving through the world… one that’s based on feeling, not thinking

I’m still practicing. Sometimes I get it right; sometimes I don’t. And I’m ok with that. 

This is all part of finding our authentic voices, in writing or in life.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” 

Ernest Hemingway

What’s true for you right now? Underneath the smart thoughts, the fears, the rationalizations, the mask, the expectations — what’s your truth? Embrace it. Marinate in it.

What true sentence can you say to someone right now? I’m scared. I’m sorry. I love you. I feel like an outsider. I don’t feel safe. I screwed up. Whatever’s alive for you that you’re trying to hide… will you share it? 

Next week we’ll talk about the fine line we need to walk between authenticity and credibility as a leader. When does vulnerability become a liability? 

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Are you in flow, or on a hamster wheel?

This week’s topic is on creating both stability and flow to better roll with the changes. 

Change… gawd, it’s so commonplace now that it’s almost boring to talk about. Layoffs, working from home, COVID lockdowns… 

I’m sure that’s why this HBR article on being forever employable in this era of rapid change is striking a chord for a lot of people. Two of my coachees recently emailed it to me and asked for my perspective.

What Jeff Gothelf writes here triggered an “Absolutely!” mixed with “oooh, I’m not sure about that.” 

Yes, a thought leadership platform can create both stability and flow.

Jeff writes: “By becoming a recognized expert in your chosen domain or discipline you reverse the flow of jobs, leads and opportunities. Instead of you having to chase them down, they come to you.”

Totally agree: this flow of attraction is the sign that we are doing something right. And yes, the mindsets of entrepreneurialism and self-confidence keeps us open for spotting and pursuing new opportunities when they arise. 

So far, so good. 

But let’s try to stay off the hamster wheel, ok? 

Three of the five core concepts in this article are continuous learning, continuous improvement, and reinvention… gaaah! It’s not that it’s wrong, per se… but I feel overwhelmed just thinking about it. 

Do you feel this way too, or is it just me?

Maybe I’m extra-sensitive to this overly busy work environment we’ve managed to normalize. Sensitive after hitting burnout two years ago and escaping overseas without a plan. Since then, I’ve deliberately redesigned my life for balance. 

This idea of perpetual, ever-increasing, ever-faster hamster wheel of change is NOT NORMAL. Spinning, spinning, spinning… and we’re having a hard time holding on, let alone keeping up. 

It’s especially hard for “rebels with a cause” — we tend to be dazzled by a lot of different ideas and problems to solve; we see so many opportunities. How to focus? What to learn and improve? 

This doesn’t feel like flow.

Can we stop the endless doing and start being

There’s a balance between change and stability; we need to find that edge and surf it. The first question to ask ourselves is… what doesn’t change? Anything?

Yes… human nature doesn’t change. There’s a reason why Shakespeare is still relevant 500 years after his death: he knew how to play to people’s needs and emotions. For as long as humans have walked the earth, emotion is what drives us to do what we do. 

What lights you up? What brings you joy? As I wrote last week, these are the things that ground you in who you are. They’re what I call “motivational DNA,” unique to each person. How do you want to feel? 

Will you find new things that excite you? Sure. Will you evolve? Absolutely. But the Jen at 51 is pretty much the same as Jen was at 8, exploring, painting, writing, riding my bike with the wind in my hair. I’m a rebel with a cause; a free-bird problem solver. Always have been, always will be. 

This is NOT about endless reinvention. 

This is about excavating who you already are under the rubble of should’s, expectations and endless running on the hamster wheel. 

Your motivational DNA, combined with your skills and strengths, can help you identify your ground of power: the source of flow. This becomes your stable platform, and you’ll naturally enhance it with new skills and knowledge because you love it; it’s effortless, like breathing. 

It’s like the source of a river, high in the mountains: when we’re connected to our source, we tap a wellspring of boundless energy, creativity, security, and whatever else we need to thrive. 

Our source never moves. It never chases. It doesn’t care what other people think, what the latest technology is, or the latest job title, or the hottest unicorn in Silicon Valley. 

Instead, it magnetizes. This grounded source creates the flow. It’s both/and, not either/or. Flow and stability, simultaneously.

Questions:

Are you in flow, or on a hamster wheel? 

Are you attracting or chasing? 

Are you more focused on being who you really are, or endlessly doing more and more? 

Want to discuss? Shoot me an email, or leave a comment here on this blog post! 

Until next week!  Jen

PS. Most of my clients are navigating a transition right now, and we’re working on building their own thought-leadership platforms. If you’re interested, check out my coaching for flow page and/or book a call with me. 

What do you love?

If you haven’t seen Ethan Hawke’s video on TED’s YouTube channel, you’re missing out. It’s called Give Yourself Permission to Be Creative, but it’s really about giving yourself permission to be yourself.  

My favorite quote: “What do you love?… if you get close to what you love, who you are is revealed to you.” 

Amen. 

Too often, we try to make decisions by thinking and analyzing instead of tapping into the wisdom in our bodies and emotions. Ethan calls it love; I call it your YES — that vast, expansive, light feeling in your body that emerges when you’re in full alignment with your truth. 

This feeling reveals who you are. It reveals your path, like breadcrumbs. 

Questions: 

  • How often do you feel that sense of YES in your life and work? 
  • In what ways have you sacrificed what you love in the name of an expectation or a paycheck or…? 
  • If you could do one small thing this week to create more YES, what would it be? 

Share your answers in the comments; I’d love to hear from you!

Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash

When failure is the best possible option

“If I’m lucky, I’ll fail.” I overheard this eyebrow-raising thought while making breakfast in my rooftop nest in Tel Aviv last summer. I considered myself lucky to hear it: usually our subconscious minds hide these heresies with Cloaks of Invisibility. But I caught mine unawares this particular morning; either that, or my subconscious finally grew tired of the years of self-deception.

An idea for a new business venture had consumed me for the previous few weeks, and it was a good one on paper. I’d missed catching the start-up wave in San Francisco, yet in Tel Aviv I’d found a new wave: a smoking hot start-up community where my particular skills could be valuable. I went to meet-ups, attended a couple VC parties, and identified a compelling white space. Boom! Here it was, my next chapter. I’d figured it out.

And yet.

Just because it was a good idea didn’t make it a good idea for me. Just because I could, didn’t mean I should. My secret wish for failure came not from low self-esteem, but rather from that still small voice within me that knew without question, “this is not the way.” I’d heeded my intuition’s call to come to Tel Aviv from Morocco, and perhaps that listening encouraged me to listen again. To not assume why I was here (to start a business!) but rather to collect more clues for my journey.

I’d experienced more than my fair share of failures throughout my career; perhaps those failures were trying to tell me something. And standing in my kitchen that morning, I can’t say I knew what that something was…. but I felt a gentle breeze coming from a window of curiosity that cracked open at the idea that, just maybe, there were other options for me to explore.

It’s perilously easy for those of us with diverse skills and interests to be dazzled by good ideas. Easy to be lured down roads that are not ours to walk, slowly losing the ability to make decisions based on our truth. Confusing “I am capable of doing this” for “I was born to do this” is how we lose ourselves, or how we stay lost.

Perhaps the root of self-sabotage is precisely this tendency to set ourselves up for failure when secretly it’s not what we really want to do anyway. If we persist in the name of should’s and expectations, failure can be the best thing that happens to us; the real tragedy would be to succeed at something that will eventually suffocate our passion for life.

The real tragedy would be to succeed at something that will eventually suffocate our passion for life.

Even if we are on the right path — if there is such a thing — we’ll encounter failure. This has been written about too frequently for me to belabor the point with more than the following observation: Failure can simply be a sign that we’re simply not there yet. Maybe we’re doing the right thing, but with an unhelpful mindset. Maybe if we change a single variable – like location, or communication style, or start saying no — a whole universe opens up. It’s usually worth experimenting and tinkering to see what’s what.

It’s so easy to want an answer, or as my friend Kate eloquently wrote, rush through the breakdown without first finding the beauty in it. Tired of the lessons, we don’t want to have to try again, and again, and again in order to get it right, or to find the treasure. Often that’s the product of thinking too small, believing that what we seek is for other people, not for us. When failure is seen as a permanent life sentence that commits us to a small cell of existence, we stop persisting. Failure becomes a blockade instead of a stepping stone.

There’s another kind of failure — not the one that we encounter when we’re on the wrong path, but the one that inevitably happens when the current chapter has run its course. Perhaps the reason we fear failure so much is because it’s a lot like death. Everything in this world has a natural lifecycle… yet instead of flowing with this truth, we fight it. This struggle against inevitability saps our life force, and drains our belief that we have the capability to change or fix anything.

When we’re “moving from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm,” as Churchill once wrote, that’s one thing; the sense of possibility on the horizon pulls us forward. But when the glory days have passed, when the machine is grinding to a halt, when the chasm grows wider by the day… sometimes it’s better to let failure run its course so that something new can be born out of the ashes.

Sometimes it’s better to let failure run its course so that something new can be born out of the ashes.

“Dammit, I will make this work!” is what we say when we can’t let something go. Lord knows I said it countless times during my unsatisfying career as a consultant. “Persistence is a virtue” — except when it’s not. “Failure is not an option” — except when it is. Except when we’re choosing to keep something on life support instead of allowing failure to birth an unknown future… whether that’s a career, a relationship, a company or a country. And it takes a lot of failures to finally be able to discern the difference.

What are you keeping on life support out of fear of failure or the unknown?

What failure will you create this week in order to scratch one option off your list?

What past failure will you forgive and appreciate as a learning opportunity?

What failure of someone else can you forgive as part of their own learning journey?

Don’t start with why

Once upon a time, life didn’t change much. We all had a bit more control. We could set a goal in our lives or work, and draw a straight-line action plan to get there. This approach is a bit like making a movie: decide on the plot, write the script, hire the actors, and produce. Ta-dah! A nice linear process, like an assembly line.

Of course life no longer works like this. Maybe it never did. This linear approach helped us be a bit more efficient, but it doesn’t satisfactorily deal with the messiness of reality; the constant change; the fact that there are far more interesting opportunities than we have time to chase, with new ones are emerging all the time. How do we focus?

Instead of imposing even tighter controls, let’s play with a different analogy: improv theater. Here we choose the cast, but we don’t choose the plot and neither do the actors. The actors call out to the audience to provide constraints: Tell us a character! A place! A time period! And within these constraints provided by the audience, the show can begin. The plot emerges within the bounds of an intention.

This is the power of both/and, not either/or. It’s both intentional and emergent; top down and bottom up, planned yet agile. The path becomes clear through iteration and experimentation.

how is intent best defined?

In our default mode, we choose a “what” to aim for. What do we want to do, make, accomplish? But in an uncertain world, the what is constantly changing. Focusing on a what is a bit like the movie analogy; we’ve narrowed in a bit too much on scripting the details instead of holding space for a variety of whats to emerge.

Simon Sinek says we should start with why instead of what, because why — a sense of purpose – provides a way of orienting ourselves towards what doesn’t change. But what happens when your why and my why aren’t the same? In a business context, what if our collective why doesn’t resonate with customers and partners? Focusing on why risks being rather self-centric — what’s important to me instead of we.

While I can’t fault the logic behind why, I prefer to start with who. Who is in our unique ecosystem — including myself — and what do we all care most about? Or… back to our movie analogy, there’s not much of a plot without the who. The main characters provide the storyline; the richness and emotional depth of the actors is what makes a film (or improv) a flop or a hit.

WHO defines the WHAT and the WHY

Who defines the what and the why. It makes sense that I’d focus here given my background in human-centric strategy and transformation. But I see now one critical ingredient that I’d missed in all my heady analysis; I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s explore the power of who.

What holds it all together?

What’s the one thing that doesn’t change? Is there such a thing? Yes… it’s our human nature: Our 12 core human needs, and how we feel when those needs are met. It’s this unchanging part of who that ensures Romeo and Juliet is still relevant 5 centuries after it was penned by Shakespeare. It’s this deep, felt experience of love or safety or freedom or creativity or belonging (etc etc) that serves as the glue (the intent) for the some of the most complex businesses on the planet.. and yes, it works magically in our personal lives as well.

I dare you to name a single wildly successful brand that doesn’t tap into one core human need or emotion. They all do. Amazon, Netflix, Uber, etc. = control (I want what I want, when I want it.) Virgin = autonomy and freedom. The largest incumbent in every category = security (“no one got fired for buying IBM.”) Apple = control + creativity. AirBnB = belonging and diversity. The list goes on. The best ones pull even more meaning and purpose (why) into this emotional container, along with more who… the sense of shared identity (rebels, creators, helpers, hosts, etc.). This focus on a Who — a tribe with shared needs and values — allows brands like Apple and Virgin to extend far beyond their original what into other categories, magnetizing customers, employees and partners along the way, without losing their essence.

We’re like plants stretching towards the sunlight, seeking the emotional nourishment that we need to grow. And the reverse is true: we move away from what we don’t want to feel: unvalued, unsafe, trapped, disconnected. Research reveals that “emotions constitute powerful, pervasive, and predictable drivers of decision making,” not only in psychology but also in consumer behavior.

Who’s the most important who?

Pre-sabbatical, I assumed the most important who in a business context is the customer; they pay the bills, after all. So I’d lay out this elegant strategy on how to orchestrate a complex global enterprise around a need or emotion that was most predictive of business outcomes, and I’d hear, “but we don’t have a Steve Jobs.” I’d reply, “You don’t need one. Simply replicate what he and others did. Here’s the recipe.” As if it were that simple.

I was wrong.

The most impactful leaders in the world magnetize global ecosystems because of who they are, not what they do. They know themselves deeply and unapologetically. They’ve doubled down on their strengths. And because they listen to their own inner wisdom, they can hear and have empathy for others. They stand on what I call the “ground of power”… the source of authenticity and individuality that allows them to balance security with flow, stability with freedom. Intent + improv… both/and. As within, so without.

This type of leader also understands the power of coherence. Coherent light is a laser that can cut through steel, while diffuse light is powerless. Coherence that harnesses the power of empathy and emotion? Unstoppable. And this requires a different way of seeing the world: connections, not compartments. Similarities, not differences.

Leaders or entrepreneurs who truly know themselves will naturally create coherence within their teams, partners and customers. A metaphorical casting call, likeminded people are drawn to their visions and identities. This doesn’t negate diversity, by the way; a mindset or emotion (what I call “motivational DNA”) serves as the golden thread that weaves through a host of differences and thinking styles.

When leaders, teams, employees, customers and partners are drawn by the same motivating force, it’s as if an ecosystem emerges from nothing. The power of attraction is activated.

How to harness WHO

Perhaps you’d like to start a business but are unsure where to begin… or you want to take your business to the next level. Or, heck, you simply want clarity in your own life… to be able to make forward progress when your what isn’t clear. My suggestion is to start with who.

  • Know thyself as a leader. Embrace your entire identity and what makes you unique. What core needs have motivated your decisions in the past? How are you wired? How do you want to feel in your life and work?
  • Know thy team. If I’m primarily motivated by freedom and you’re primarily motivated by security, we’re going to run into some fundamental sticking points: our motivational DNA isn’t complementary. That doesn’t mean we can’t work together; this is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate what freedom and security bring to the party and find the middle ground. But it could also be true that one of us is in the wrong place.
  • Know thy customer. This is the person who is responsible for paying the bills, yet too often they’re left out of the culture conversation. What will magnetize them to your brand? How do they want to feel, and how does that inform your business model, offerings, extended partnerships and, yes, internal culture?

Now it’s time to find the golden thread. In the midst of diversity, you’ll find similarity… and it’s the similarity that unifies us. That encourages to bring our whole selves to work. That breaks down silos and helps us all grow together.

The similarity provides the Intent: the stage for the improv (or to use geeky terms, the platform for the ecosystem). Now all the actors can play, experiment, and be agile without being at odds with one another. “You understand me; I belong with you” is what prospective employees and customers think as they are drawn like iron to the magnet that is our shared humanity.

Learn more

I’m a rebel with a cause who’s helping other “rebels with causes” create more freedom and impact in their lives and work (a tangible example of what I just wrote!) I’m no longer doing strategy, but I can advise, review your strategy and make suggestions, assess the motivational DNA for you and your teams, facilitate a workshop, or guide you in a 1:1 journey to gain clarity on your who, why and what (in other words, what I offer can easily evolve around the who). Learn more here.

VIDEO: The back story for Intent+Improv

I’m on my soapbox! If you’re interested in personal transformation, I talk about the transitions… how we can bring a key innovation process from the business world into our personal growth. If you’d like to jump to the most relevant spot:
:42: overview of divergence and convergence
2:14: overview of Kegan’s evolution of the self
5:19: mash-up of the two models
9:20: Intent+Improv: the dance between convergence and divergence
10:49: applied to business strategy
11:45: applied to personal growth

Does this resonate for you? As I work to crystalize my thinking, I’d really love to know what clicks and what might need clarifying. Thanks tribe!