Don’t let *could* be the enemy of great

If there’s one thing I hear from my rebel clients time and time again, it’s “I could do ____.” Yes, of course you could! You’re a fast thinker and dot connector with myriad interests. You’ve proven that you’re a quick study, picking up a variety of skills and know-how throughout your life.

The double-edged sword of being a human Swiss Army Knife is that you could do a lot of things.

One of my clients is a successful CEO who is selling her business over asking price. We’re working together to define her next chapter in which she gets to do what she loves instead of slaving away for the money.

She can get distracted by the idea of executive coaching. And yes, she absolutely could do that. Many of her friends tell her so.

But feel the difference in energy between these statements:

“I could do that…” versus “HELL YES, I was born to do that!”

Wouldn’t you rather do the latter?

For her, executive coaching isn’t a hell yes. It doesn’t tap into the unique problem that only she can solve AND has a great passion for solving. Not only that, but she’d be a tiny drop in an ocean of executive coaches who have been doing that particular job for years.

But still, it lures her away from where her heart is. And she’s certainly not unique; I and many others have been caught in the could trap. I’ve seen a couple reasons for this:

There’s already a path

It’s really easy to be lured by prestige and financial rewards… especially when we have skills in those areas. “I could do that” makes it far too easy to wander down the shiny, well-trodden path when in fact blazing our own authentic trail will generate far more rewards, emotional and otherwise.

Aiming to please

Could can also send us off track when we’re wired to be helpful. People come to us because we’re good problem-solvers… and because we could solve their problem, we do. It’s justified because we love feeling helpful, and it really doesn’t take us that long.

But all of these little detours away from Hell Yes take their toll. They bog us down and fill up our calendars. We expend a lot of energy supporting other people’s dreams instead of our own.

Yes, it’s hard to turn the spotlight on ourselves. There’s a discomfort in truly being seen, or it can create feelings of guilt. But there’s nothing more inspiring than the sight of another human being who’s standing fully in their power, clear on their YES and NO, and flowing instead of striving.

So how do we avoid the could trap?

Start with WHO, not why

In my former life as a customer-centric strategist, I’d always start with the customer. Nowadays I start with the leader: who are you? What lights you up? What would inspire you to jump out of bed each morning? What are both your Hell Yesses and your limitations, and how can we turn those limitations into strengths?

From there, we can look at other WHOs. Your team, customers… even personal relationships. What emotional resonance can be created that unifies and unlocks collective potential around a shared Hell Yes?

With WHO serving as a firm foundation, you can more easily identify the Why, What and How of your business and operating model. You then can enter the flow of doing what you were born to do…. confidently and unapologetically.

I’d love to hear from you. In what ways has could been the enemy of great in your life or work?

PS. The exact same principles apply whether it’s for your personal life, starting a business, or steering a global company. If you’re an entrepreneur or business leader who’s curious about Start with Who, let’s chat.

For a better 2021, think inside the box

The transition to 2021 is well underway, and it couldn’t come a moment too soon! Have you started imagining how this new year could be better than the last? 

The forced solitude and downtime, plus a greater awareness of mortality, are sparking cravings for change in so many people.

Cravings for more meaning, authentic connection, and freedom in our lives and work.

These changes will be unique to each of us. It can be hard to know where to start, or what to focus on first. Tip #1:

wear your innovation hat

I suggest taking a page out of the innovation playbook. As innovation pros know, the best ideas don’t come from a blank page, infinite possibilities, and a generous bank account. 

Instead, the best ideas emerge within design constraints.* Thinking outside the box paradoxically requires thinking inside a box. 

Constraints are even more important for brains like ours that are dazzled by possibilities.  

If we’re smart and talented, perhaps we’ve believed that we could be anything we want. We tend to like novelty, so our overactive brains get busy with endless ideas about what we could or should be. 

We don’t like the idea of limitations… our culture says we’re supposed to correct or transcend them. But  limitations are precisely what we need most. They force us to look at the world more creatively, using fresh perspectives and improving focus and resourcefulness. 

Start with WHO

Tip #2 is my guiding mantra for any kind of strategy, personal or professional: Start with WHO.

Innovation pros know to start with a clear understanding of an archetypal customer: a persona that articulates the needs, mindsets, beliefs and the core challenge to be solved. They know that trying to please everyone results in not pleasing anyone. The persona guides many of the constraints.  

Why should intentional life design be any different? 

Starting with WHO starts with YOU: deeply understanding yourself and how you’re unique. Your core needs that drive your behavior. Your skills, passions, and hard-wired limitations. Those inconvenient facts that won’t change anytime soon: these define your box. 

We stop believing we could do or be anything and start playing with the hand we’re dealt. Not someday in the future if/when our circumstances might be different, but right now. 

Reframe limitations as design constraints

The moment I felt truly liberated was when I publicly claimed what is about myself instead of wishing I was different. I started focusing on what brought me joy instead of being obsessed with fixing or hiding what I assumed was flawed. I stopped waiting for someday or for more money in the bank. 

See, I have a laundry list of personal design constraints: I have a quirky brain that isn’t embraced by most companies. I’m a deeply intuitive dot-connector who doesn’t always understand social rules. I can be too direct, despite decades of practice. I get overwhelmed easily, so I need to carve out a lot of white space. My reality feels slippery: it’s hard to set goals and stick to the plan. I crave novelty and chase shiny ideas. I’m terrible at managing details.

I could have continued my decades-long struggle with trying to “fix” these limitations; instead I embraced them as design constraints in my personal life innovation project. They allowed me to take a pile of wishful options off the table (hurray!) to focus more clearly on my truth.

Is it then any surprise I’ve designed an incredible life in which I get to serve as an “intuitive acupuncturist of the psyche” (as one client called me) for similarly wired humans? In which I can roam the world with my camera instead of sitting under florescent lights getting 2 weeks of vacation a year? Where I outsource what I’m not good at, to focus on what lights me up?

I have designed my perfect life, not in spite of, but because of my limitations. I work with them, not against them. Are there a few things I’d like to improve? Sure. But a lot less than there used to be, when any option was fair game. 

We have very little choice about who we are, but 100% choice with what we do with it. 

Thriving happens when you fall in love with the hand you’re dealt, get creative with what the best version of you might look like, and challenge your assumptions about what’s possible… within the box. 

Questions:

What are your design limitations? What are your YESSES; what lights you up? When you combine your limits with what lights you up, what ideas are sparked about your work, relationships, location, calendar? What doesn’t fit those constraints you can now confidently take off the table? Share in the comments!

Want to jumpstart this process?

Check out the Intentional Rebels group coaching program starting in January! Not just for career transitions, this program will help you design your most authentic life or work. We start with WHO — your unique needs, values and archetypes — and design from there. 

If you prefer a more personalized 1:1 approach, book a call with me for a no-obligation chat. 

*PPPS. If you want to read more about design constraints in innovation, check out this article in HBR or this one in Inc. 

Get these posts in your inbox once a week:

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.