You can be on the narrow path without being narrow minded.
Archives For August 2012
Fresh air, good friends and cool bikes. Some loves just last throughout generations.
As I get deeper into my life as a husband, dad, friend and leader the more I begin to really appreciate the intricacies of relationships. The ebb and flow, layers of complexity along with the sheer simplicity of just enjoying the people around me. Have you stopped lately and asked if you take time to enjoy people or are you letting the uniqueness of these amazing creatures we see every day become too normal?
For a while I’ve had a bit of a passing interest in following some of the “startup world” as it’s called. Primarily the technology companies that dream of one day growing to scale and being bought for billions of dollars. Some of the dream team in this arena would be companies like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and even Google just to name some of them. I’ve followed blogs, listened to podcasts and even read some books by and about the famous entrepreneurs. At first it was all really fascinating and sometimes energizing to hear these fiery entrepreneurs talk about the rigors of building a growth company. Even though I’m not in the startup world I found a lot of inspiration to work hard, believe in myself and to be creative in my work.
Also, since I’m in a small company that is working hard to evolve and grow I read a good number of business books. One of the topics I like to read on is building a culture in a company and how important it is. The fierce determination and energy of the start-up world and the study of building culture is both exciting and applicable in your daily work life. (Which I find is fairly rare.)
Not only can I apply the knowledge and approaches in the office but I can often find nuggets of wisdom in being a better dad. After all, isn’t being a dad really similar being the entrepreneur/CEO of a startup?
But lately I’ve started to have a creeping feeling that this once scrappy and exciting arena of start-ups is starting to get, well, self-obsessed. It seems like every other blog post I read or discussion I get into the idea of doing work that “matters” comes up. If you’re going to build a company that lasts you’ve got to focus on “changing the world,” scream the new experts in startups and business literature. Go big or go home! Build a culture that helps people transcend the basic needs and find self-actualization and purpose!
“Wait,” you may think. “Isn’t that good advice? Don’t you want people trying to change the world? Daring to do bold things?”
My answer would be, “It depends.” The issue I take isn’t with the idea as much as it is the broad and exclusive application of and the assumptions these statements make. Let me state my points:
- It seems very self-congratulatory. So often when I hear people talk of how their company is going to change the world, it comes across to me more as a marketing ploy or ego boost than an earnest passion. As if they are trying really hard to be bigger than they really are so people will buy their widget or come work for them. Are they trying to convince me or themselves? Or perhaps they just needed more hugs from daddy.
- “Changing the world” is almost meaningless. By definition, when I wake up every day I change the world. Every decision I make, person I interact with, circumstance I’m in, things I create/destroy, etc. is a change to the world we’re in. So what does it mean to “change the world” anyway? Personally I believe saying you’re trying to change the world is just lazy. Lazy because it’s easier to say that than it is to solve a specific problem and be o.k. that solving this problem alone isn’t giving the world an overhaul but it is no less worth doing anyway.
- Not all businesses need to be built to change the world to be successful. There are countless companies begun by motivated, smart people that weren’t out to do anything to the world other than make their way in it. There was an idea, a desire and a willingness to work for the dream of accomplishment on its own merit. And what do you know? Some of them actually did change the world.
- It assumes that people find self-actualization or purpose because of work. Now, I get that we spend most of our lives at work so we should try to do what we love. But when I hear people almost piously talking about building companies and cultures that help people feel like they have purpose, I have to wonder if they’re deluded or just plain arrogant. Sure, maybe there are organizations that are doing work that by its nature is derived from deep purpose. But most organizations are doing things that aren’t like that. I’m not saying people’s work is without purpose. I’m questioning if they find purpose because of work vs. finding purpose and then applying it to their work. And if someone did base their purpose on their work I think they are standing on a very shaky foundation. (Which, ironically, would be bad for the team they’re a part of.)
- It completely deludes most people. All the zealous screams for doing work that really, really matters and changes the world is closely akin to the ridiculous statement we’ve all heard people tell their kids. “You can do anything you set your mind to, honey.” The problem is that it isn’t true. You can’t do anything you set your mind to. If so, someone would be Superman by now. I really want laser vision and steel skin. Not gonna happen. Similarly, when you elevate the definition of work that “matters” to meaning it must have some legacy leaving impact that will be remembered in the books of history, you have at the same time just told 99.9% of the people listening to you that they can’t do work that matters. And make no mistake, that is the message that is coming through. Which brings me to my final point…
- It totally demeans most of humanity. There was a time not long ago when we honored anyone who supported their family by dependably working at something that added any value to society. It didn’t matter if they were the CEO of a large company, an entrepreneur, a missionary or a janitor at the local elementary school. There was honor and dignity in diligent work. (Notice I didn’t say that all were equally rewarded or admired.) So along with my previous point, raising the definition of meaningful work to be history book worthy insults the mass majority of people who will never achieve that level of results. Not to mention it ironically dooms many of the very people pitching this idea to never achieving anything “meaningful.”
And this didn’t make the list because frankly I have no idea how to expound on it yet or if it makes sense. But a phrase came to me as I thought about this issue the other day and I haven’t been able to shake it. “If everyone is out to change the world, how can we know what the change should be since there is no one living in the world that exists now?”
Many people will likely say I’m misinterpreting or twisting what is being taught, and it may not be the well-intentioned aim of those giving this advice. But results, not intent, is the measure of value. And the results I see are people that get so caught up in trying to achieve some level of transcendence in their work that they are never able to really just be happy. I see companies that are building relatively mundane products and services burn out (or at least look ridiculous) because they stretch so hard to make their business seem like it is fundamental to the human story. Why not just build your relatively mundane company on great values, make a great living (or sell for a large amount) and let your impact not be on the world at large but on the people you get a chance to interact with? Make the lives of others richer and help them reach their goals while you build a financially prosperous company. That may not be remembered by the world but it will certainly have a long range impact.
Or what about being a dad? If I raise kids that are strong, productive and valiant men and women…have I not changed the world for the better?
Instead of telling people to change the world why don’t we talk about playing a positive, inspiring role in our communities? That may have nothing or everything to do with what they do in their work. It may not be something your company’s culture affects directly. What our company’s cultures and purposes should do is create environments where people find the camaraderie, expression and development they need to be energized from their experiences with us instead of drained. When we have a society of people that are constantly energized and are progressively finding their life’s purpose, collectively we will achieve something worthy of the history books.
I’d love to hear from any of you on this. Where am I off base? Why do we need more of the message about changing the world? What points am I missing?
Like nothing else, kids can make us feel emotionally schizophrenic. But if you stop long enough to think, their is a lot of wisdom you catch while raising the next generation. This happened to me the other day. My wife called me with a story that made me laugh and at the same time provoked some really deep thinking.
She and the kids had been outside playing in mud puddles created by a rain storm that just blew through.
Naturally, the boys had worked up a man sized appetite. Like any good mom Cherie loaded them up in the car for a fun trip to ChicFilA. After some food, the playground and WAY too many screaming kids, she was ready to head home for some much deserved down time. Caleb, our 3 year old, left the playground while Cherie rounded up the other two. She assumed he was just waiting near the door of the restaurant as he normally did. But this time she went out and he wasn’t there. Looking outside she sees his blonde head standing next to the truck (where he’d had to cross the parking lot to get to – a big no-no). Reminding herself to be calm, she went out. And the following conversation took place:
Cherie: (Kneeling down to get on his level.) “Caleb, buddy. You can NOT just walk out of a store and cross the street without me. You could have been hurt. I was so scared!”
Caleb: “Don’t worry, mommy. I looked both ways and didn’t see ANY cars! So I just came to the truck and waited patiently for you.” (Flashing a proud smile)
Cherie: (With a mixture of tears from being scared and a laugh from such a grown up attitude from a 3 year old) “I get that buddy and you did do a great job. But you still need to wait on me to be with you. You’re not old enough to do that by yourself. You could just miss something and get hurt.”
Caleb: (Putting his hand on mommy’s shoulder and cocking his head to the side) “Don’t be frustrated mommy…I’m capable!”
At this point the conversation ended because Cherie was having to work so hard to stifle the laughter.
When we got off the phone from her telling me this story, I sat back in my chair and just smiled. I love my kids! But then as I thought about it more I realized there was a wealth of application for my work as a leader. Here’s some of the ones I wrote down:
- Communicate the Goal…And the dangers that could keep us from them. Caleb made the choice he made because he only understood one part of the goal – get to the truck. What he didn’t understand was that there were other dangers that could keep that from happening safely. If all we do is cast the vision without discussing the obstacles we face in getting there we may be setting our teams up for a fall.
- We Replicate What We Repeat. We constantly tell Caleb he is a very capable boy, to be patient and to look both ways before crossing the street! Whatever you want your culture to be, you’ll have to find ways to say it all the time in various ways.
- People are more capable than we realize. I would have NEVER guessed Caleb could carry on that complex of an interaction with Cherie. Reading her, intuiting how she felt and why she was concerned and dialogging in such precise words and phrases. We need to pause from time to time to reassess those around us. Chances are they’ve grown since the last time you did that. (If they haven’t, we have a different leadership challenge.)
- Genuine Care Changes the Interaction. Caleb could take his mom’s admonishment without feeling attacked because he knows without question her love. If we really care about the people we work with the moments of confrontation that inevitably happen can be received with appreciation because they know the source of the confrontation is a heart that is for them.
- Rules become outdated. At different phases of an organization’s growth different rules are needed. But at some point, the rules need changing not stall out the momentum because the people’s and the organization’s capacities have changed. It may take wisdom and/or outside input to know when that time has come. (We’ve not reached the threshold of letting our 3 year old cross the road alone!)
- Celebrate Direction, Not just Results. I was so proud of Caleb for the way he handled himself and for his attitude and independence. Even when people are dead wrong, if their intentions are pure and their attitudes are good we should try to rejoice with them where we can and then constructively offer advice on how to improve the next time. Fast moving people will get off course from time to time. But it’s easier to steer someone back on course than it is to get them moving in the first place. Don’t kill momentum!
I really believe if we treat our work like we treat our families (or whatever relationships you cherish), work would be a lot better and home would be a lot more engaging. We’d learn lessons from both that we’d apply to the other. We’d feel a lot more like we’re living integrated lives and have a sense of unity few ever experience. And hey, in building the story of our lives, having a unified life makes for a much richer story.
So from one man to a little bit smaller man, thanks Caleb. You’re a great teacher.
We all love to set goals. There’s just something emotionally satisfying about goals, isn’t there? (More on this one another time) But when it comes to accomplishing those goals, we instantly think about the “stuff” we just have to have to accomplish the goal. Maybe it’s the cool looking clothes to make you feel good about yourself. Or the latest gadget or software you just have to have in order to be productive. The late night workout widget that promises us the abs we want in 6 weeks flat. In other words, we immediately go to figuring out the best way to shortcut the process.
The tendency lives in us all. You could blame it on our society’s obsession with instant success. Perhaps it is how media glorifies the company’s that grow exponentially or stars that go from YouTube to filling stadiums in seemingly no time. But I think maybe it’s just because we’re flat out lazy.
The other day I was talking with someone about a new venture they wanted to take on. It was exciting and new and they had even written down their reasons for doing this to display in their office. Gleaming in the sun of hope it was…a bright, shiny object. Do you know what I mean? It had caught their imagination and overwhelmed their more rational mind which would normally be able to see all the holes in the ship.
Here was the gist: they had found an opportunity to make money online and had fallen in love with the dream. Bam! Website up, profits roll. Here was the major, gaping hole – they could barely handle the features on their cell phone much less understand things like UI design, SEO, PPC, niche selection, keyword selection, analytics, community building, etc. But no matter! They had a company that was going to help them learn all they needed to know…in 4 weeks. Woo-hoo! Now, I’ll admit the educational material seemed to be pretty good. But no matter how good the material, you can’t go from where this person was to Internet entrepreneur in 4 weeks. And here’s the kicker – the training was going to be thousands of dollars. (Which they didn’t really have.)
Maybe I’m crazy, but this just sounded like a great way to throw several thousand dollars down a hole.
I listened as patiently as possible and asked them things like, “You know, a lot of this kind of learning can be done for free from the web and supplemented with deeper knowledge from fairly inexpensive books. Why don’t you start there and try your hand at doing something on the web like building a blog community? That way you can learn the ropes and then apply it to a business.” The response, like ones I’ve heard myself give before, was “I just don’t know where to start! I’m not sure I can learn without someone to talk with and help explain things to me. I just need help.” Now, on the surface this may seem like a fairly reasonable statement. What if you don’t know where to start and need guidance navigating this new world? Isn’t that what universities are for? Didn’t I do this when I went to GA Tech? But here is the issue: this was a 4-week course. If you can’t learn independently, you aren’t gaining a whole new career-level skill in 4 weeks. Not only that, but the world of building a web-based company is changing by the millisecond. You learned SEO? Oops! Google just changed the rules…again. Got your blog building strategy down? Uh-oh! Now there are new “rules.”
Here’s my point – they were missing a basic fundamental. The “stuff” that was going to short-cut the process aren’t going to do any good unless this person develops the fundamentals of discipline, independent learning, creativity, perseverance and personal responsibility.
Why in the world do we think that throwing money at something means a higher chance of success? It’s kind of like when you see people get all excited about going to the gym and getting in shape. They tend to buy a membership at the biggest, best gym and buy all the cool looking clothes and fancy gear. They stock up on the latest pills and potions…before they’ve set foot in the gym or develop a plan of attack. Then, 3 weeks later they’re back at home sitting on the couch eating Cheetos wondering why their plan failed. It was because they should have focused on the basics first. 99 times out of a 100, you should get started on something using the free options. Once you know this is something you want to do (because you’ve been doing it) you’ll have developed the core of discipline and base level knowledge. Then you can hire someone to help take your game to the next level. Starting with money gives you a false sense of security. You think that since spending money gives a higher chance of success when in reality it lowers your chances. Why? Because it blinds you to what really creates progress. Money doesn’t create value or progress. What creates these things is you. Your discipline. Your creativity. Your perseverance. Nothing else. No coach, course, equipment, pill or formula overcomes the basic fundamentals of winning through personal discipline and will.
To be clear, I’m not at all against spending money to take your game up a notch. But it’s like nutritional supplements. 99% of the people taking a performance supplement derive almost no value from it. Why? Because a supplement isn’t a magic pill that melts fat. (Sorry to all the advertisements out there saying otherwise.) Supplements are just that…supplemental. If you haven’t developed the core discipline of working your butt off and eating right, taking that supplement is going to skinny your wallet – not your belly. And you don’t need a fancy gym or a trainer to work your butt off. You can do pull-ups, push ups, sit ups, running, jump rope, kettle bells and many, many other exercises at home for a few bucks.
When you do master the basics, if you do develop some basic skills, knowledge, discipline and attitude of perseverance and apply that to some initial experimentation in your chosen arena, then adding some paid coaching on top of that can be immensely helpful. When you take the first step on your own, your confidence, base knowledge and discipline will give you the foundation you need to get a return on any money spent furthering yourself. Or…you’ll find that you aren’t going to be able to do this new thing you thought was so great. Either way, you’ll end up knowing you. And that is the most important step.
I know there are a lot more angles to this topic and there is no way to cover them all in a blog post. But I’d love to hear thoughts from anyone else on this. Do you agree that our ability to put money at something up front is actually a bad idea (most of the time)? When would it be better to lead with money? (Other than what is absolutely required to get started.)
UPDATE: I just got this post from Jeff Goins site this morning and loved this guest post: http://goinswriter.com/athletics-of-art/. Highlight:
Repetition tries our intentions. The thought of creating art is appealing to almost everyone. But the commitment and discipline required to make it is another story. People pay big money to set up a blog or get private lessons, but those same people quit quickly when nothing happens overnight. Why? Because maybe they confused a desire to create with a need for affirmation.