The Art of Asking: Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking, by musician/writer Amanda Palmer, hit the bookstores just before the holidays last year.The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Having watched her TED talk months before, I knew I wanted to read the book.

I did not expect to have an addition to my Must Read list for business owners.

And yet, here we are: this is a Must Read.

You don’t have to know or like Palmer’s music to appreciate the vulnerability and wisdom she offers. (In fact, I didn’t much like her music before reading the book. Interestingly enough, after reading the book and coming to appreciate her so much more, I now find I like her music a lot more as well.)

Palmer is clearly a writer as well as a musician, which means her language is both lyrical and clear. She knows how to tell stories, and she knows how to use those stories to make points that comes across with conviction, power, and compassion.

Why is this memoir of an unusual woman and independent musician a Must Read for business owners?

As business owners, we have to be able to ask. Ask for clients, ask for help, ask for money, ask for support … ask.

And asking is often hard.

Sometimes, as Palmer describes, really hard.

With her delicate touch and her nuanced story-telling (some of her stories are more like parables, and I use them with clients in many situations), Palmer helps us come to terms with our own challenges around asking … and gives us tools (I am now constantly reminding myself to take the flower! take the damn donut!) to become better.

Absolutely a Must Read.

And if you haven’t seen her TED talk, I highly recommend it as well:

gljudson Leadership

Failure … or defeat?

Failure is not the same as defeat.

Unless you allow it to be.

It’s probably cliché to quote Thomas Edison, but it’s also relevant:  “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

If he’d allowed his first – or 100th, or 9,999th – failure to equal defeat, someone else would have invented the lightbulb.

We are going to fail. As business owners, as people in relationships, and simply as people, we are going to fail.

Probably especially as business owners, because there are so many ways in which we have to put ourselves out there, be visible, take risks, dare to be vulnerable.

If we allow our failures to become defeat … if we believe disappointing results are personal failures and allow them to defeat us … we’ll never reach the 10,001st iteration that’s successful.

Failure is only defeat if we refuse to learn from what happened.

gljudson Self-awareness

Visible doesn’t mean exposed

I was talking with a client last week who told me that her biggest challenge in being in business has to do with visibility. “I’m a private person,” she said, and went on to describe her fears of having to put too much of herself on public view in order to succeed in her business.

As an introvert and a private person myself, I completely understand. It’s not that there’s something we feel we need to hide; it’s simply that we’re not comfortable being quite as exposed as we think we might have to be to succeed.

But this paints the picture in black and white, either/or terms, and the reality is that there are many shades of gray and both/and options.

The people I know who are most successful, truly prosperous, and  really happy in their businesses are very clear about their own needs and boundaries. They know precisely what they will and will not share or do within their business (and their lives, too, for that matter).

We get anxious about setting boundaries when we confuse having boundaries with rejecting our clients, or when we think that saying “no” means our clients will go elsewhere.

The reality, though, is that clients generally want  clear boundaries. They don’t want to work with someone they feel they can walk on and use as a doormat. They do  want to work with someone who is clear about mutual respect, who draws reasonable lines, and communicates – with no drama – about ground rules.

Respect is important in any relationship.

Respect for yourself means understanding what you want and need in and from your business and your clients. Respect for your clients means never putting yourself into a situation where you resent their demands or feel over-exposed in what you share.

My advice for my client was to specifically define what she would and would not choose to share with the world as she becomes more successful in growing her business.

She can keep what’s private to herself – we all have that right! – and she can share what she wants the public to know about her in order for her ideal clients to trust her. But in order to do that, she needs to understand where she wants to draw those lines – and I encouraged her to write it out so that it was truly clear, instead of just roaming around in her thoughts.

Her relief was palpable as she began to feel what this means for her: freedom to be who she is, freedom to do the work she loves, without fear of over-exposure.

Visible doesn’t mean exposed.  It just means showing up as who we are, and sharing what we want to share.

gljudson Self-awareness

Limitation or invitation?

It’s easy to let ourselves and our work be defined by what we believe are our limitations.

But those definitions keep us from being who we are and doing what we want to do – and therefore from helping the people who truly need us, who are waiting for us to show up and help them out of the chaos we know how to solve.

What if our limitations were invitations to grow and opportunities to receive?

Limitations are simply an expression of our humanness … until we allow them to become a closed door shutting out our dreams.

Limitations meme on hydrangea photo

gljudson Leadership

Define your terms

John A. Toomey was my ancient history professor at Bard College.

He assigned a paper every week. Most of his students thought that was a lot, but as a writer, I didn’t mind, and as someone who was learning to think, it was invaluable.

One of the things he pounded into his students was this:

Define your terms

These days, we casually throw around a lot of big words – success, potential, credibility, integrity, authenticity, transformation, awesome – on and on. Many of these words have become so over-used that they’re almost meaningless. Others carry weighty cultural baggage that makes us nervous about using them or claiming them for ourselves.

Last month, a colleague said to me, “Language is philosophy.”

That’s huge, and so completely true. Her example involved the various ways that different cultures define “table.” She pointed out that someone in France will draw a different table than someone in the U.S. or someone in Denmark or someone in Japan. And these definitions of “table” impact how people in each of these cultures gather around that table, sit at the table, and use it in general.

And perhaps you thought I meant a table in a document or spreadsheet, rather than a physical table that we put things on top of and pull a chair up to.

Your definition of “table” impacts your experience.

That’s just one example of how the terms (language) we use shape our philosophy, and therefore also shape our experience of life and work.

If I believe that success means I have to work 80-hour weeks with no time for myself, I probably won’t want to be successful.

If I believe that authenticity means sharing all my deepest, most private feelings and experiences, then I’ll probably judge myself for being inauthentic.

If I believe that awesome means being perfect and sparkly every day, I’ll probably feel exhausted before I even get out of bed in the morning.

Language is philosophy. Define (or re-define) your terms, and you change your experience.

My definition of success includes sustainability and nourishment. This is something I can wholeheartedly say that I want.

My definition of authenticity includes honesty, vulnerability, and privacy. Now I can feel safe, even as I challenge myself to share more of who I am.

My definition of awesome is playfully passionate, engaged, and in the moment, and allows for the humanness of mistakes and my need for silence and stillness. There’s space here to be the best I can be in each moment, without driving myself to impossible standards of perfection.

Notice, by the way, that when you start defining your terms, you’ll probably need to define some of the language you use in your definitions. For instance, in my definition of success, I also need to define sustainability and nourishment.

Define your terms.

Make the words work for who you are and what you want – and see for yourself how this changes your experience.

gljudson Communication

Setting yourself up: failure or success

A week or so ago, I posted this on Facebook:

If you know how to set yourself up for failure (and most of us do!), then you also know how to set yourself up for success.

In answering the many comments this inspired, I noticed how much the idea surprised people. (It certainly surprised me when I first noticed!) And I was delighted to see what happened when people really clicked on what it means.

Let’s start with the reality that most of us are very good at setting ourselves up for failure.

I don’t mean that as a judgment; it’s simply a statement of what I’ve done myself, what I see others doing, and what my clients tell me about their experience.

If I were to go into the reasons for it, I’d end up writing a book instead of a blog post. Instead, I’ll just say that it has to do with what we’re taught about ourselves, what we believe we deserve, and how we work to achieve that.

Not how we work to achieve what we want.

How we work to achieve what we believe we deserve, even if that’s not what we actually want.

Most of the time it’s unconscious, and therefore maddeningly frustrating. We love what we do and we want to get it out there, yet “something” keeps tripping us up and preventing us.

When we pause, look more closely, and start consciously observing, we become aware of the little things we do that create the small failures that develop into big tripping-points.

Sometimes setting ourselves up for success is as simple as stopping the little things that create those small cumulative failures.

More often, it takes more work than that. More often, we need to go deeper to understand the root causes of our need to keep proving that the messages we’ve absorbed are true – you know, those messages about how we’re not good enough and we don’t deserve to succeed.

I promise you that those messages are not true.  We all deserve to succeed.

You are good enough to succeed.

And when you know how you create failure for yourself, you’ll also know how to turn it around.

gljudson Leadership

Taking back “success”

If we don’t define success for ourselves, it will be defined for us.

Family, friends, colleagues, our culture and society – our environment.

They’ll define it for us, and probably in ways we won’t find easy to live with.

When the definition of success feels wrong – too difficult, too busy, too overwhelming, too heavy, too materialistic, or whatever it may be – it’s no surprise that we struggle to achieve it.  After all, that’s not what we want.

Take back success. Define it for yourself. Make it your own.

It’s a lot easier to be successful when it’s what you actually want.

gljudson Leadership

The view from now

I heard a story on NPR the other day about how the title “president” was chosen for the leader of the United States.

It seems that the House of Representatives was concerned to keep the holder of this position from getting too impressed with himself. (I say “himself” since at that time, of course, there was no inkling that we might ever have women in office.) They apparently debated for weeks with the Senate about an appropriately insignificant title – one that would keep the officeholder properly humble and in his place.

At that time, “president” was simply a term for, as the NPR story relates, “somebody who presides over a meeting…[or] the foreman of the jury…”

While there were those in the Senate who objected, wondering how anyone with the “silly little title” of President of the United States could be taken seriously by the heads of other nations, it was – obviously – the final choice.

President of the United States.  A “silly little title.”

There are now 147 countries whose leaders are called “president.”

The President of the United States is arguably the most powerful person in the world.

The view from our “now” is considerably different from the view from their “now” in 1776.

What does this have to do with you and your business?

Your view of your business is now.  It’s not what your business will be in six months, a year, ten years.  You don’t know what it will be in six months, a year, or ten years.

The view from now is all we’re allowed to have.

Don’t let it limit your vision of what you might achieve.

gljudson Leadership

Sustainable or endurable?

What does it mean to have a sustainable business?

I don’t mean sustainable in the environmental sense. I certainly support environmental sustainability, but I’m thinking about something closer to home, closer to our day-to-day experience of being in business.

Personally sustainable.

A business that gives us the time and space we need to enjoy our work and also our friends, families, and the things we do besides work.

We pay lip service to the concept that we all need time off, that we need to take care of ourselves, get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, and so forth.

But then we check email before bed, answer client calls on weekends, and agree to deadlines we know will push our endurance.

I recently asked a group of people to define what a successful, sustainable business would look like for them. I primed the pump, so to speak, by giving them my definitions to consider as they wrote their own.

SUCCESS: Doing work I love, with people I respect, enjoy, and like in a way that’s sustainable and brings in the money I need to live well.

SUSTAINABLE: Energizing, not exhausting; enjoyable, not an endless struggle to do things I don’t want to do; allowing time for play as well as for personal and professional growth through meaningful challenges; and with the flexibility to do things in my own way and in my own time.

I was surprised and somewhat saddened by their reactions.

It seems that many people define “sustainable” as what I would call “endurable.”  As in, “I can get through this, I can do it.  It’s not going to actually kill me, and it’s better than looking for a job.”

Wouldn’t it be more fun to be energized, delighted, fascinated, and intrigued by your work?

Isn’t that what we’re really here for – to find joy and to enjoy?

If we don’t know what we want, it’s hard to achieve it.

And if we have wonky definitions of the things we think we want – such as a sustainable business that’s really only endurable – well, what do you think your results are likely to be?

gljudson Leadership

The perils of “how”

Everyone does it.

(No, not that. Let’s have a little decorum here, please.)

In over 25 years in corporate America, working on  systems analysis, business analysis, and system design, I never saw anyone not do it.

And in all my years of self-employment since, I continue to see people doing it. Clients, colleagues, friends … and even myself, every now and then, although I definitely know better.

So what am I talking about?

Asking – and deciding on – how before you’re sure you know what.

Answering how before you know what is instantly limiting. It immediately puts you into a box. It inhibits – sometimes very painfully – your ability to access the true scope of what you want. After all, if the how you’re thinking about can’t get you to the actuality of what you want … that what will be stunted from birth, without ever being allowed to develop into its full potential.

So when you answer how before you know what, you’ll almost inevitably warp your outcomes (your what) into something that’s not really what you wanted. You’ll probably struggle a lot more to achieve those less-than-optimal outcomes than necessary. And you’ll never know why it was all so difficult and confusing.

We all know the old saying that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But we don’t always remember to apply that wisdom to our every-day experience.

Let me tell you a little story.

A friend of mine invited me to a party. When I arrived and asked if I could help, she thrust a cutting board, a knife, and a bowl of tomatoes into my hands.  “Cut up the tomatoes!”

“What,” I inquired as I cored the first tomato, “is the goal?”

She looked at me as if I’d started spouting classical Greek.

“Sandwich slices or salad chunks?”

She wanted slices for sandwiches. But if I hadn’t known to ask what, she could easily have gotten something that wouldn’t have worked at all.

And that’s exactly what happens when we jump into solving the how question before we’re completely clear on what.  We end up with something that can be so different from what we wanted that it’s unusable … or maybe just different enough to be painfully disappointing. And we never really know why. 

So next time you’re thinking about something as small as – for instance – an article you’re writing or an email you’re getting ready to send, or as large as – for instance – a new service offering or program for your clients, STOP.

Ask yourself what you’re really trying to accomplish. Because the article, email, service offering, or program? Those are all answers to the how question. They’re the tool, the vehicle, the mechanism with which you deliver the what you want your audience to experience.

Asking what first opens up the possibilities and lets you see a wider range of options. It may be that the how you’re thinking of will be perfectly suited to what you want as your outcome. But there’s a very good chance that there’s something easier, better, faster, and more likely to produce the great results you’re hoping for.

Because whenever you pick the how first – whenever you select the tool before knowing the outcome you want to use it to create – you run the risk of missing the mark, and getting very frustrated in the process.

gljudson Leadership