Category Archives: Ideas

Begin with I Don’t Know

It’s easy to assume we know everything, or everything that matters.

If not, we can comfort ourselves that at least we know enough.

“Been there, done that,” is our unspoken mantra.

When we know, we feel the need to tell others.

When we know, there’s nothing more to learn.

When we know, listening is optional.

When we know, questions waste our time.

Curiosity and exploration are irrelevant.

A powerful thing happens when we begin with I don’t know.

We listen to others more than ourselves.

We open our mind.

We embrace the potential for change.

Curiosity and questions fuel our journey.

We become interested.

And, interesting.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Always Better

We’re taught at an early age to do our best.  That we should strive to be the best.

Being the best is a great accomplishment.

Best student.  Best musician.  Best cook.  Best athlete.  Best employee.  Best boss.  Best entrepreneur.  Best leader.  Best parent.  Best friend.

There are at least three problems with best:

  1. Best is often a subjective comparison to the subset that’s around you. There’s a phrase, “big fish in a small pond,” that represents this well.  You’re the best runner in your school.  But, when it comes time to run against another school, your best isn’t good enough.  You finish second in the race.  Every time the subset gets larger, best gets redefined.
  1. Best is a fleeting moment in time. You might be the best today, but what about tomorrow?  Next week?  Next year?
  1. The value of best goes down quickly. Does it matter to your 48-year-old self that you were the best student (however that was measured) back in high school?  Sure, it’s a proud accomplishment from your past, but does it really impact your life 30 years later?

I propose an alternative to being the best:  being always better.

Consider the challenge and reward of always better:

  • No matter what measuring stick you use, if the goal is to always be better than yesterday, the challenge is clear, and the improvement is measurable.
  • There’s no place to hide when the goal is always better. No excuses for not improving, even just a little bit, from yesterday, last year, ten years ago.
  • Always better pits you against your past self. The subset never changes.  It’s you.
  • If the definition of success is to always be better than before, you get to celebrate success every day that you improve.

What if you don’t improve today?  That’s okay, we all have setbacks.  Setbacks remind us not to take our improvements for granted.  We get to see how great it is to come back to where we were, and then take another step toward our better self after that.

Seeking better every day yields a compounding effect that far surpasses the value of merely being best for one day.

Ask these questions of yourself:

  • What am I doing to improve today?
  • Am I focused on learning from my mistakes, or imagining a new way, and charting an improved course today?
  • Do I realize that each day is an opportunity to be better than yesterday?
  • Am I willing to challenge my own status quo, my comfort zone, today?
  • Am I a better student, musician, cook, athlete, employee, boss, entrepreneur, leader, parent, friend, or whatever else you find most important, than I was yesterday? If not, why not?

Ironically, if you work on always being better, there’s a good chance you’ll become the best.  But you won’t care, because the reward you seek comes from the never-ending quest to be always better.

God gave us all weaknesses.  It’s a blessing to find out what they are so we get a chance to turn them into our strengths.

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

 

Innovators and Incrementors

Which are you?  Innovator or incrementor?

It’s cool to call ourselves innovators.  But, I bet most of us are actually “incrementors,” trying to pass ourselves off as innovators.

What’s an incrementor?  That’s the person who looks for incremental improvements, minor adjustments to what we’re doing today.  Incrementors thrive in most corporate settings where steadiness and incremental (there’s that word) growth are celebrated.

True innovation is risky.  It’s hard.  Hard to describe.  Hard to plan.  Hard to justify.  It requires a belief in the power of the unknown.  It requires independence of thought and creativity that most of us don’t have.

Innovators are the ones we rely on to bring us the crazy new idea, the new perspective, the new paradigm.  Innovators make connections we’ve never thought of.  They extrapolate ideas in directions we can’t imagine.

Innovators are also the ones incrementors fear the most.

Consider typical questions innovators receive within most organizations:

  • Don’t you realize we’ve always done things this way and it’s worked?
  • What if your new idea doesn’t work?
  • What if it fails? How are we measuring success and failure?
  • Is this worth the risk? Can we afford to invest in this research?
  • Why are we spending money on something that’s not even guaranteed to work?
  • What do you mean, the first attempt failed? And now you’re asking to fund a second attempt?  How can we justify the second attempt when the first attempt failed?
  • Can we have a couple more people take a look at this thing before we commit to funding it?
  • What does the committee think we should do?
  • Can you define the dollars we’re going to generate in new revenue or reduced expenses from this innovation? What is the payback period going to be?
  • How will the market respond to this new innovation? How can we be sure?  Who do you have researching that for us?
  • Will you deliver the same results we’ve seen in prior years, at the same time you’re diverting some of your resources to creating this new innovation?
  • What are our competitors doing? Aren’t we already light years ahead of them?  Why should we push so hard?
  • Who are we trying to attract with this new innovation that we don’t already have?
  • Will this new innovation create a fundamental change in our core business model? What will that mean to our company?
  • Do we have the right people working on this new innovation? Shouldn’t we wait until we have the right people?
  • I’m sure the “big guys” are already working on something like this. How can we expect to make any headway in the market if they’re going after the same thing we are?

Are you the one asking, or receiving these questions?  Your answer says a lot about whether you’re an incrementor or an innovator.

It’s always easier to seek out the incremental improvement…and then try to convince everyone that your incremental improvement is innovative.  In some organizations, this mindset will fly, and that’s a victory of sorts.

Unfortunately, it may be a hollow victory if your organization doesn’t make at least some space for innovators to shake things up and point the bumpy way toward new opportunities.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

 

The Sally Method Trap

Q: “What’s our approach for this year’s audit?”

A: “Sally Method.”

And that’s how an auditor can shortcut their work.  It’s a tried and true method for getting a quick start, ensuring consistency with the prior year’s audit, and making sure that’s nothing obvious gets missed.

 

Q: “What’s our big goal for the new year?”

A: “Let’s see if we can beat last year’s growth by a few percentage points.” (Sally Method)

Nobody can argue against growth, especially if it beats what we did last year.

 

“We can’t change the rules of the game.  It’s tradition to play it this way.” (Sally Method)

Tradition usually wins.

 

Sally…Same As Last Year (the second L is silent).

It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s safe.

Life outside the box that Sally creates is scary.  It’s filled with uncertainty.  It can lead to failure.  It can lead to embarrassment (something we fear more than failure).

But, it’s also the best place to find new ideas, opportunities for new exploration, and new growth.

What if we start with Sally (the easy starting point), and then opt for more?  Not only something more but something different?  Something radical, and maybe even a little nonsensical?

When we give ourselves permission to explore and fail, we unleash a power that Sally can’t imagine or contain.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

 

Looking for Permission

We’re taught at an early age to seek permission.  At the most basic level, permission is a great defense against chaos.  Imagine if every kid did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  For that matter, imagine if every adult did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  Chaos would result.

We seek direct, indirect, and implied permission.  We operate within the bounds of what our cultural traditions permit.  We stay within what the law permits, at least most of the time.

The permission of others surrounds us.  It shelters us from responsibility.

The big challenge comes when we start asking ourselves for permission.  We look for a direction that fits within our comfort zone.  We seek our own okay to try something new.  We can imagine doing the impossible, but the easiest path is to deny ourselves permission to try.

When we can’t get permission from ourselves, we look for it elsewhere.  We ask our friends and family.  We read articles, blog posts, and books.  We listen to podcasts and speeches (TED talks come to mind).  All is an effort to find someone who approves.

We wonder if anyone else is thinking the same things.  What would they do?  How would they handle this?

Permission’s power is immense.  Without permission, our next indicated step is a mystery.  The un-permitted transforms into the impossible before our eyes.  “Hey, nobody else is doing this thing, so it must be a bad idea.  Let’s bail.”

I’ve read many times that each of us is the product of the five or ten people we interact with the most.  If this is true, we’re really the product of what those five or ten closest people permit from us.  We grant each of them the power of their permission, often without realizing it.

What if those five or ten people, out of concern for our safety, or possibly their own comfort, don’t grant us the permission we seek?  What if their collective box of permission is too small for our life’s goals to fit?  Should we find another five or ten people?  Maybe.  But, that’s not the real answer.

The answer lies in realizing that the permission we seek comes from within.

Our ability to visualize the future, and see ourselves within that new reality is the change that’s needed.  Once we find the courage to consider and see that future, permission for growth and new challenges comes naturally.

Will this be easy?  No way!  This requires a commitment to personal responsibility.  You won’t have anyone else to blame, or forgive, when things go wrong.

You’ll be living a life without the foundation of outside permission.  Your internal permission will become that foundation.

The permission we seek from others must build upon our own internal permission, not the other way around.

“It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” —Grace Hopper

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash.com, Aziz Acharki

Mistakes Were Made

Uncle Lou, our March Madness Bracket Master and Chief Referee, sent an email to our group with “Mistakes Were Made” in his subject line.

What a great subject line, especially from our referee!

It let us all know right up front that things aren’t perfect, and it revealed the one thing many of us avoid admitting at all costs:  mistakes.

Mistakes can be the first step toward that other really bad thing in life:  FAILURE!

Mistakes and failures.  Even more powerful in our lives is the fear of making mistakes, and experiencing failures.

Fear is a good thing.  It keeps us alive.  But, it can also stop us from taking action, changing course, making corrections, or dumping one idea in exchange for another (possibly better, but maybe worse) idea.

Imagine if you wrote an email every day, or maybe just once a week with the subject:  Mistakes Were Made.  In this magical email, you’d describe the areas where you made mistakes, describe the failures that had happened that day or that week, and spell out what you learned.

As challenging as writing this email might be, once it’s written, send it to your boss.  And then send it to the people who report to you.

Does this little challenge strike fear in your heart?  That’s natural.  You should do it anyway.  By admitting your mistakes, you’re letting your boss and those who report to you know that you are human.  You are vulnerable.  You don’t have all the answers.

None of us likes to admit to our mistakes or our failures.  But, the act of admission frees us from the fear and other emotional baggage that we often carry when we make mistakes.

Acknowledging our mistakes and failures is the first step toward forgiving ourselves.  Forgiveness lies on the opposite side of our fear.  Its power against fear cannot be underestimated.  A forgiving mindset, especially toward ourselves, opens us up to real learning and improvement.

I remember learning to water ski.  After a while, my brother and I were pretty good skiers.  We could go for miles and miles slaloming, jumping across the wake, and throwing up huge rooster tails without falling.  That was nice, but our dad had a different view.  He used to say that if we weren’t falling, at least occasionally, we weren’t trying to get better.

The trying was always as important (maybe more important) than the result.  Dad wanted us to always be improving, so in his way, he was asking us to welcome the mistakes that led to better performance.

It’s clear that mistakes will happen.  They come with the territory if we’re pushing our limits and getting better.

Embracing our mistakes is much better than fearing them.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Nathan Shively

Solving Interesting Problems and Finding Failure Along the Way

Failure_Target

There I was, listening to a Tim Ferris podcast, featuring Seth Godin (a great combination, by the way).

Seth said a lot.  When it came to our education system, he said it’s geared toward making compliant workers to serve the industrial complex.  I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

He said our education system should instead focus on two things:

  1. Teaching our children how to solve interesting problems (where the answers can’t be Googled),

and,

  1. Teaching our children how to lead.

As I listened, I completely agreed.

And then, only one day later, I was presented with an interesting problem.

Kip was telling me about a problem he likes to ask his programming candidates.  He gave me the problem with a look that said, “Surely you’ll be interested in this problem, and you’ll be able to figure it out.”

Wrongo!

As he explained the problem, my mind wasn’t looking for a solution.  Instead, I started wondering why I’d spend time on this problem, could I Google it (you can), how long would I have to struggle with it before he’d give me the answer, and what would an HR person say about asking this particular question (ever focused on compliance).

Meanwhile, he stood there expecting me to attack the problem, to ask follow-up questions, to start searching for a solution.  I gave him nothing.

Disappointed, he realized I wasn’t working the problem.  He gave me a hint, trying to get me to engage.  No dice.  I wasn’t tackling the problem.  I wasn’t even curious.  I waited for the answer.  In fact, I noticed I was thinking about something else (probably having to do with where we’d be eating lunch).  I hadn’t even tried.

Here’s the problem (it’s called the three light bulb question):

A windowless room has 3 light bulbs. You are outside the room with 3 switches, each controlling one of the lightbulbs. If you can only enter the room one time, how can you determine which switch controls which light bulb?

An interesting problem.  One I had chosen to not solve.

A problem that a younger version of myself would have loved.  It requires logic, imagination, a willingness to fail, and enough confidence to know, really know, that I can find the solution.

Here’s a small hint.  You’ll need to use all of your senses to find the answer.

For me, the question that’s more interesting than the light bulb problem is why I chose (almost automatically) to give up before trying to solve it.

I can tell myself it’s because I’m not a programming candidate, or that I don’t have to prove myself by solving the puzzle.  But, these aren’t the reasons.

Could be a lack of confidence.  Somewhere, deep in my subconscious (or maybe right on the surface), I didn’t know that I could solve the problem.  Queue the white flag.

That’s not the root cause.  In that same subconscious place, my mind saw an opportunity to fail.

Failure is not an option.

Failure is embarrassing.

Failure exposes our weaknesses.

How could it be that the younger version of myself would have tackled this problem with gusto, but the more experienced version sees an opportunity for failure and runs the other way?

I’ve purposely faced failure countless times in my life.  I remember being the guy who “poked the bear.”  I loved the unsolvable problem.  My job often involved turning around “unsolvable” situations.  Failure lurked around every corner, but it seemed normal to me.

There must be something else happening.

The narrative.  That’s the message we tell ourselves (and others) about our core beliefs.  It describes what makes us tick, our mission, why we do all the crazy things we choose to do.  It doesn’t matter if the narrative is always true.  It’s our narrative, and it drives the way we perceive our place in the world.

Years of status meetings, monthly reports, strategy reviews, and all the rest taught me to avoid failure.  Don’t miss the goal.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  Make sure you have buy-in from everyone before launching that new idea.  Don’t take any unnecessary risks.  Don’t go out on a limb…you might fall.  We have shareholders who expect a return.

Without realizing it, I allowed my narrative to morph.  Failure avoidance found its way in.

What’s the easiest way to avoid failure?

Don’t take up the challenge.  Avoid the risks.  Don’t poke that bear.  Let someone else try.  Say “No.”

But, failures teach us the most valuable lessons in life.  The quickest way to stop learning is to avoid failures.

The truth is, avoiding failure is the biggest failure of all.

Something I’ll remember the next time I’m faced with an interesting problem, or an opportunity to fail (which are often the same things).

Want the answer to the three light bulb question?

Here’s one more hint.  Your sense of touch will come into play.

By now, I’m sure you’ve figured it out.  If not, here it is:

Turn on two switches (call them A and B) on and leave them on for a few minutes.  Then turn one of them off (switch B) and enter the room.

I’ll let you figure out the rest.

Self-Talk

It’s not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life.  It’s what you whisper to yourself that has the most power. –Robert T. Kiyosaki

The first person to give you feedback is yourself…in the form of self-talk.  You have 24/7 access to your internal talk track.  Your messaging is unfiltered and brutally honest.

Does unfiltered and honest mean accurate?  Does it mean valuable?  Not necessarily.

The truth is that no matter how incorrect your self-talk is, or how much you try to ignore it, you are your most trusted advisor.  You have the most power over yourself (for better or worse).

Negative self-talk is easy.  Bad news travels fast, especially when it doesn’t have to travel.

Positive self-talk is harder, and sometimes difficult to believe.  Our positive self-talk can sound a bit crazy, which makes it easier to discount.

Status quo is powered by doubt in our positive self-talk.

The most successful people I know face challenges with self-talk.  They happen to believe their positive self-talk just a little more than the negative.

The negative is right there, trying to hold them back.  Somehow they’ve found a way to focus on the positive, finding ways to push past their wave of doubt.

They’ve usually found kindred spirits who can help strengthen their positive self-talk.  A support network that reinforces their crazy ideas.  The best support network doesn’t fully buy-in to the crazy.  They merely create an environment where it’s okay to explore the crazy.  To bring it out in the open and let it breathe a little.

And, that’s the real secret of self-talk.  We all have negative and positive self-talk rolling around in our heads.  But, if we can allow the positive to get a little breathing room, that’s usually all it takes to win the internal battle against the negative.

Here’s the challenge:  The war between negative and positive is never over.  You have to win it one battle at a time.

The Puzzles We Build

 

jigsaw-puzzle_pieces

When was the last time you assembled a puzzle?

Did you do it yourself, or did you have help?

How long did it take to assemble?  Minutes?  Hours?  Days?

In our house, whenever we started a puzzle, it was an “all-hands-on-deck” affair.  We’d all start working it.  Some of us would focus on organizing the pieces to make them visible.  Others would dive right in and start putting pieces together.

I worked the edges.  It’s the only thing that helped me get my bearings on the puzzle.  Start with the flat sides and establish a border…then work into the middle.  Working from the middle, out, was way too random for me.

“Hey, does anyone want some hot chocolate?” always seemed like a good question for me to ask after about a half-hour of diligent work.  With marshmallows.  Without looking up, I’d get some slow yesses and a few grunts.  By the time I came back with the hot chocolate, I was always amazed at the progress.

I’d get back to working the edges.

Each of us had our specialty and our own pace.  Some of us were easily distracted (me).  My wife would stay focused for hours…one piece at a time.

“Hey, who’s up for a break from the puzzle?  Maybe we can hit it again in a couple of hours with fresh eyes.”  I was always a proponent of fresh eyes.

But, then we’d get most of the edges completed.  I’d get my own personal rhythm, and I could start to see the patterns.  The puzzle started to take shape.  First, in my mind and then on the table.  My perspective on the puzzle and my ability to add value to it changed as the image emerged from all the pieces.

I don’t know if my wife and daughters (or anyone else who’d stop by and get sucked into the assembly project) went through the same evolution in their perspective as I did.

Our latest puzzle is a new business (actually, an existing business that we recently purchased).  Once again, our family is building a puzzle together.  This time, it’s not at the dining room table with a clear picture of the final product.  In fact, new pieces are being added to this puzzle all the time.

Once again, we’re each approaching the puzzle in our own way.  Center-out.  Edges-in.

Distractions?  Definitely.

Is an image beginning to emerge?  Yes.

The best (and most challenging) aspect of this puzzle is that it’s never finished.  It grows and evolves.  It occasionally leaves us feeling a bit perplexed.  But, it also takes beautiful shape before our eyes as we continue to build, one piece at a time.

Anyone up for some hot chocolate?  We’re gonna be here a while!

 

 

Discuss or Defend?

Discussing involves active listening.  Curiosity.  Openness.  It requires genuine interest in ideas, even if they contradict your own.

Defending involves taking and holding a position.  Looking for openings to argue against another idea.  Preparing your response, while you should be listening.

Discussing takes time.  Discussing requires courtesy, respect, and patience.  Defending, not so much.

Most discussions we see on TV, or hear on the radio, aren’t discussions at all.  They’re exercises in defending.  Questions and answers are metered out in an attempt to defend one position or another.

It’s often the same in a business setting.

The search for alignment, a conclusion, a decision, or an all-out victory often trumps everything else, including a meaningful exchange of ideas.

How often do you defend, instead of discuss?  Be honest.  We’re just discussing here…no need to get all defensive.

What if you went through an entire day without defending?  Think you could do it?