The Power of Gradual

This post originally appeared in my newsletter.

If you’re like most people, you want change and progress to be big, obvious, and fast.

Yet real, lasting change and progress is seldom big, or obvious – and it’s almost never fast.

It’s gradual.  Incremental.

Waves take years to shape jagged, broken bits into the beautiful, rounded forms of beach glass.  And it might be cliche to say that oak trees take decades to grow from acorns – but it’s true, nonetheless.

At this season, you may be looking back at the year that’s past, evaluating how you feel about it, comparing your expectations and goals from the beginning of the year to what actually happened.

Let go of those comparisons.  Let go of the judgments that inevitably come up when you make those comparisons. 

And instead, take a deeper look at what actually happened this year.  Take a look at the surprises, the unexpected experiences, and the ways those surprises and experiences helped create gradual change and incremental progress for you.  Change and progress that you may have been unaware of, simply because it was so gradual.

Here are a few ways to do this.

Notice subtlety

As I’ve said, progress happens gradually.  When you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to notice.

I see it in my clients all the time.  When I ask them to look back, to notice where they were six months or a year prior, and compare it to where they are now, they’re often startled – and moved – by how far they’ve come.

What subtle changes have happened for you over the year? What progress has occurred that you haven’t noticed – and that you might not have taken full advantage of, or given yourself full credit for?

Acknowledge yourself

Challenges arose during the year that you could never have anticipated.  And you met those challenges.

Acknowledge your courage.  Notice the many things you managed, handled, accepted, coped with, and excelled at during the year. 

If those challenges seemed to be off-track – unrelated to what you thought you wanted to do and accomplish – you might have overlooked how you were strong, the ways in which you grew, the skills and talents you developed, and the love and appreciation you experienced.

Often what you might think are distractions from the path you expected to be following turn out to be key aspects of life.  So in looking back, consider what life might be asking you to pay attention to going forwards.

Go with the flow

When you notice how life is moving, the direction it seems to be flowing in, opportunities naturally open up for you. 

When you pay attention to what’s really happening, instead of what you think should be happening, or even what you believe you want to happen, the power and natural intelligence of life becomes available to you.

The whitewater rafter doesn’t use brute force or willpower to get the raft down the river safely.

He uses his observation of how the water is actually flowing to help him understand what direction to paddle in.

He knows that fighting the flow, insisting that it be different than it really is, will only get him wet (and possibly drowned).

Just because you can’t see the flow of life in the same way as the rafter sees the flow of water doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Let go of your assumptions and expectations.

Pay attention.

I can tell you from personal experience as well as from the experiences of my clients … it’s a lot more fun, a lot more satisfying, and a lot more productive.

“I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.”  Joanna Field – pseudonym of Marion Milner, 1900-1998, British author and psychoanalyst and pioneer of introspective journaling.

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The right question … or the right answer?

No one wants to look dumb.  Everyone wants to have an answer.   Preferably, of course, the right answer – but at least an answer.

I see it all the time.  People rushing wildly towards an answer.

There’s a classic story of how NASA developed an extremely expensive pen that would allow astronauts to write in the zero gravity of space.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, sent their cosmonauts off with pencils.

The Soviet Union was clearly asking a different question than NASA.

In a recent conversation with a colleague, she told me how her company is choosing a new technical platform – and she’s concerned because she doesn’t feel they understand enough about how their clients will actually use this new platform.

They may find a very good answer to the question they’re asking – which technical platform – and yet it may be an answer that turns out to be expensively wrong … because they’re not asking the right question.

Finding the Right Question

It’s not always easy to know what the right question is – especially when you’re in the middle of the situation.

One hint is that the questions that seem easy and fun and intriguing … may well be the wrong questions.  “What technical platform should we pick?” is a very fun question.  People get to go off and comparison shop, looking at the various capabilities of different tools and generally having a grand old time.

Digging into what customers want and how they’ll use something that’s not even fully defined or designed yet … isn’t so much fun for most people.  (I happen to adore these sorts of questions, but then, I’m a bit odd that way.)  For many people, especially those who love poking into technical tools, understanding customers’ motivations, wants, and needs seems … fuzzy.  Cloudy.  Murky.  Unsettling.  Touchy-feely.  And hard.

And it can also feel dangerous.  Because you might learn something you don’t really want to know.

And that’s another hint:  What don’t you want to know?

Is there a question out there whose answer could wreak significant changes in what you’re working on?

Those are the right questions:  the ones that feel weird and fuzzy, the ones where the answer might even mean starting from scratch.   The questions that scare you and that you don’t really want to look at.

When you’re chasing answers to the fun questions, it’s easy to think that the people who are waving their hands and saying wait! stop! there’s something else to think about here are being overly cautious and dragging their feet.

But whether it’s someone on your team, or that little voice in your head … it’s worth listening to.

At the very least, pause and ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is this question the right question being asked at the right time?  (After all, the choice of technical platform does need to be decided at some point.)
  2. What is there in this situation that I don’t want to know?  What answers might arise that will cause a significant change in what I’m doing?
  3. Am I only asking the easy, fun questions?  Is there a hard, uncomfortable question that I’m avoiding looking at?

You’ll notice that these questions overlap in some ways.  That’s intentional.   They create different perspectives on the same view – like different windows in your house that all look out at the same back yard.

I can tell you that I’ve learned to stop and listen before leaping to an answer.  I’ve learned that the quiet voice inside has a lot more wisdom than my eager-to-solve-problems mind.

How about you?  What’s been your experience?

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Reality: your best business partner

We all come into our businesses – whatever background we may have had beforehand – with a host of assumptions and ideas and beliefs about what running a small business looks and feels like.

Those ideas aren’t necessarily wrong.  But if you keep checking your results and experiences against ideas instead of against reality, you run some serious risks.

To start with, you risk constantly struggling with things that aren’t working.  Even more painful, you risk completely missing out on great opportunities.

Taking reality as your business partner – letting reality help you look at and acknowledge what’s actually happening – means gaining real perspective on what’s working for you, versus what’s not – and what’s fun for you, versus a painful struggle.

Reality has no hidden agendas and no personal goals to fulfill.  That’s why I call it your best business partner.  It simply sits there and tells you the truth – patiently and persistently, without getting its feelings hurt if you aren’t paying attention.

Sound good?  Here are a few suggestions to help you start working in partnership with your new business partner – reality.

Assumptions and Shoulds

There are things about being in business that most people take for granted – that you just assume are true.

Take networking as an example.  As a small business owner, you should network – right?

On the face of it, that’s reasonable.  And I’d even agree with it. It’s when you start examining what’s really happening that things get interesting.

I can’t begin to count the number of people I’ve met at various events who will probably never experience the results they want from networking.

Why?  Mostly because they’re looking for people who won’t be at the events they’re attending.

For instance, I constantly meet people at Chamber of Commerce events whose clients are executive and corporate.  If they were listening to reality, they’d notice that executives and corporate decision-makers are rarely found at Chamber of Commerce events.  These people are fishing in the wrong pond, based on the assumption that they “should” network, and that Chamber of Commerce events are places where all small business owners “should” make an appearance.

There are plenty of so-called “business rules” that fall into this category.  Everything from creating business and marketing plans to networking to how you do your financial tracking and goal-setting – there are assumptions and “shoulds” about them all.

What assumptions, shoulds, and rules are you following?

Are they producing the results you want?  Do you feel good about the tasks you do in support of those assumptions, rules, and shoulds, or is it a frustrating struggle?

What is reality suggesting that you do differently?

“I must be doing it wrong”

When you don’t get the results you want or expect, it’s easy to assume it’s because you’re doing it wrong.

But maybe it’s simply that it’s the wrong approach for who you are and what you offer.

I talked last week with a client who has a fantastic new idea for marketing his business.  He’s excited, energized, and flying high with it.

His old plan was to work with an outcall service to do cold calling for him.  Blech.  Not in line with his values or principles of doing business.  Not in line with how he wants – and loves – to serve his clients and potential clients.  No energy there at all.  Small wonder he’d gotten no traction.

What’s reality trying to point out that hasn’t been working for you?

And what could you do instead that might be more fun and therefore more productive?

Everyone’s doing it …

When you see other people apparently achieving great results, it’s natural to want to emulate them.  No point reinventing the wheel – and no one wants to be left behind on the latest hot idea.

When a trend or idea attracts your attention, take a moment to evaluate whether it’s appropriate for your situation.  Does it suit who you are?  Does it suit who your clients are?  And what is it you’re really trying to accomplish?

For instance, video seems to be all the rage right now.  Everyone is producing videos to market their services, or as part of the service or product they offer.

I hear a lot of complaints about this.  Busy people don’t have the time or inclination to watch even a short video when they’re not sure if it’s relevant for them.

Smart marketers are recognizing that while they may want to incorporate video for certain reasons (for instance, Google seems to like sites with video content), they also need to consider alternatives (such as downloadable audio and/or written transcripts) … or they risk losing a significant portion of their audience.

Before you jump on a bandwagon – whether it’s new or it’s been around for a while – ask yourself what you really want to accomplish.  Given your personality and that of your audience, will what you’re considering actually get you the results you want?

Reality is ready and willing to help!

And reality is there for you whatever it is that you’re doing, and whenever you need some help.

Stop.  Do a reality check.  Because chances are that reality, your best business partner, has been calling – knocking on your door – trying to tell you that things could be better, easier, and more fun.

And you might not have heard what it was trying to say.

How much simpler, and how much more enjoyable, to listen and adjust what you’re doing based on what’s really happening, instead of continuing to expect different results from the same old actions!

Because in the end, reality always wins.

“I hate reality, but it’s still the best place to get a good steak.”  Woody Allen, 1935-, American screenwriter, director, actor, comedian, jazz musician, author, and playwright.

“How hard it is, sometimes, to trust the evidence of one’s senses! How reluctantly the mind consents to reality.”  Norman Douglas, 1868-1952, Austrian-born British writer.

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Picking what’s important

How do you prioritize?

As a leader, how do you choose where you spend your time – really?

In talking with clients and with members of groups I attend and/or lead, I’ve noticed that what people say are their priorities … often bears little relationship to where they’re actually putting their attention and time.

Your true priorities reveal themselves by what you do, not what you say.

Like most leaders, I’m sure you acknowledge that learning new things, exploring new ideas, and developing new aspects of your business are all important.

In fact, you probably say they’re priorities for you.

Yet like many leaders I know, you may find yourself postponing these learning and development activities – activities that really are crucial for your long-term success – in favor of something that seems to be more important in the moment.

If that sounds familiar to you, here are some ideas for different ways of looking at how to choose what’s really important.

A client called…

One of my clients recently cancelled an appointment with me because one of his clients called unexpectedly.

Another told me of skipping an important meeting because another meeting ran late … and she couldn’t find a way to say “I have to go now!”

We all want to support our colleagues.  But “support” doesn’t mean “wreak havoc with your schedule on their behalf.”  It’s okay to be up front and clear about the realities of your commitments – even when that means saying “I can’t do that right now.”

Be honest with yourself

The classes you want to take, the brainstorming appointments you make with colleagues, the time you need to work on projects…  It’s easy to say, and even feel, that these are all important.

It’s often harder to be honest about what’s actually happening.

There’s a tendency to convince yourself – to actually believe – that each time you postpone or cancel one of these activities, it’s an isolated incident.  I’ve seen it in myself, and I’ve seen it in clients and colleagues.  Take a look – I’ll bet you’ve done it too.

Looking deeper, most people discover that it’s habitual.

Does recognizing this pattern change how you feel about what you choose to focus on?

Identify the voices

There’s a voice telling you to rearrange your priorities.  Something inside – some thought, some belief – is saying that you don’t have time right now to to take the class, attend the mastermind meeting, spend time developing your team.

And it’s easy to listen to that voice and believe it, especially since it usually comes with fear and anxiety attached.

What if you were to stop and ask yourself:  WHY?  Why don’t I have time?

What would the answer be?

And is the answer really true – or is it a voice of scarcity, urgency, or self-doubt?

Feel what you feel

It’s okay to feel fear.  It’s okay to feel the urgency of needing to respond.

But when you turn away from difficult feelings, you perpetuate the behavior patterns that arise from them.

Instead, meet them with understanding.  Meet your feelings as they are, allowing yourself to see them and to experience compassion and caring (without indulging or victimizing yourself).  As you do so, your behavior will naturally begin to change, and you’ll find yourself more able to discern the truly important from the apparently urgent.

Opportunity is fleeting

The opportunity right here, right now – the opportunity in front of you, whatever it may be, to learn, to discover, to do something MORE for your business – will never come again.  Ever.

It’s easy to think that there will be other opportunities.  And to some extent, it’s true.  There will be other opportunities – but this opportunity is unique.  And remember the pattern of continually postponing “for later”!

What’s right here, right now, waiting for your attention?

How will you choose what’s important?

“Understand that the right to choose your own path is a sacred privilege. Use it. Dwell in possiblity.”  Oprah Winfrey, 1954-, American television host, actress, producer, and philanthropist.

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The myth of the Right Answer

It’s out there somewhere.

The Right Answer.  The solution to whatever you’re struggling with.

The Right Answer.  It’s the promise of self-help books, the siren song of marketing gurus and management guides, and the seductive allure of all those online videos selling solutions.

They all profess to have the Right Answer.

And when you’re trying to succeed at something – especially something as near to your heart (and therefore vulnerabilities, not to mention finances) as your business – it’s natural to want to know what the Right Answer is.  How can you do better at creating, marketing, and selling products and services that your customers want and will buy?

But the “it’s out there somewhere” Right Answer is a myth.

Every situation is different.  Every interaction with a potential customer or an actual client is unique.  The amazing, baffling mix that’s human personality and human experience shifts and changes with every moment, based on an enormous potpourri of factors.

Seeking the Right Answer becomes a trap – a trap framed in frustration and self-doubt.  It’s hard and painful when you come across what you hope is the Answer to your situation – and it doesn’t work the way you were told to expect.

Instead of seeking the Right Answer from somewhere outside yourself – an expert, a book, a training program – what if you were to trust your own experience?

Learning from other people has its place, of course.  No one wants to re-invent the wheel if they can avoid it.

But where one person’s wheel is flashy and bright with red paint and carved spokes, another person’s is sturdy and practical.  One person’s wheel might be chrome-plated and polished, and another’s might be softly textured and subtle.

Each of these approaches has its merits, and each of them will appeal to a different audience.

The only true Right Answer is the one you discover for yourself.  Here are a few questions to help you explore what will work for you – based on your experience.

What’s your style?

Unless you’re aware of – and comfortable with – your style, it’s going to be hard for you to get in touch with what will work best for you.

What experience do you want to have in your business – and what experience do you want your customers to have?

The intersection of your style and your customers’ style(s) is where connection happens – and where businesses succeed or fail.

How do you feel?

My heart breaks for people who tell me about their experiences trying to implement a Right Answer that feels all wrong to them.

They’ve been told it’s the solution to their problem.  Or perhaps there are lots of other people raving about this particular Right Answer, so they’re convinced it must really be the Right Answer.

When it doesn’t work for them, they feel as if they’ve done something wrong.  Because if this is the Right Answer and it’s not working, it must be their fault.

But when something doesn’t feel right to you, then it probably truly isn’t the right solution for your situation.  You may be trying to create a behavior pattern that just doesn’t suit your style, or trying to work with clients in ways that don’t suit who they are and what they need.  Either way, it’s your responsibility to notice what’s going on – and make changes.

Your experience is what matters, not the dictates of the Right Answer you’re struggling with.

What’s the gap?

What’s the gap between what you’ve tried and the results (or lack of results) you’re experiencing?

I’m willing to bet that you know more than you think you know – and there still could be expertise you don’t have.  If so, you can close the gap by learning, or by hiring someone to help.

Or you could have a belief or thought that’s creating a perceived gap for you.  That might be anything from believing you don’t know enough, to uncertainty about the value of your service – and many things in between.

It’s easy to get caught up in trying to close the gap without stopping to see what it is first.  But when you know the dimensions and terrain, you’ll know whether you need help building a suspension bridge, enough time to put down a series of stepping-stones, or just a good running start to make the leap.

By letting go of the hunt for a mythical Right Answer, you free yourself to see what’s really happening.  And you give yourself space to experience what’s actually true for you and your situation – to experience your natural strength and the power of your own instincts.

“I know the answer! The answer lies within the heart of all mankind! The answer is twelve? I think I’m in the wrong building.”  Charles M. Schulz, 1922-2000, American cartoonist and creator of the Peanuts comic strip.

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Clarity + Focus doesn’t mean perfection!

Saturday evening, I went with friends to see Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza.

Clarity?  You bet.  Absolute clarity about what they want to accomplish.  Absolute clarity about how they’re going to do it.

Focus?  Well, if you’ve ever seen Cirque du Soleil perform, you know there’s focus.  There has to be.  Without it, the show would come to a screeching halt because all the performers would be injured.

Perfection?  Nope!

There are way too many moving parts, way too many variables, way too many opportunities for things to go slightly differently every time.

That’s why they use live music, after all.  The musicians watch what’s happening onstage, and adjust on the fly if something takes longer – or shorter – than usual, or if a performer misses an action and chooses to do it again.

They almost always get it right the second time – but the point is, they don’t always get it right the first time.   Even after all the practice and all the performances, there are still imperfections in every show.

We watched someone fall from the high wire last night, missing the landing as he leaped over one of the other acrobats.  He caught the wire with his hands, pulled himself back up, tried again – and nailed it.

My point is, you don’t have to wait for perfection when you’re striving for clarity and focus.  Inspired action takes place without needing perfection.

In fact, I’d say that perfection is the enemy of inspiration.  Because inspiration allows for the occasional fall as well as the flashes of brilliance.

What do you think?

gljudson Management & Leadership

The Runaway Explanation

This post originally appeared in my newsletter.

You know that thing that happens when you want to ask for something, but you’re not sure you’re going to get it – or even that you’re really entitled to it?  Do you find yourself going to great lengths explaining why you should have it, why it’s the right thing to do, or why you can’t do what someone’s asked for? 

That’s what I call a “runaway explanation.”  And it’s a common response when you feel uncertain or vulnerable. 

You might be uncertain about whether you really deserve what you want (such as vacation time without checking in with your clients).  Or you might feel vulnerable about about something you find personally difficult or embarrassing (for instance, a mistake of some sort).

Or you may find yourself in the grip of a runaway explanation when you’ve been asked a challenging question.  I’ve heard otherwise calm, articulate people dissolve into a stream of justifications when all they really meant to say was, “Sorry, no.”

When you’re uncertain about what you’re asking for or how to respond to something unexpected, your tendency will be to over-explain in an attempt to justify your position.  This often leads to feeling even more flustered, off-balance, and weirdly inarticulate, even as you listen to the words pouring out of your mouth.

You’re much more likely to get what you want – and less likely to embarrass yourself by providing way too much information – when you can contain this tendency.  So here are some suggestions for avoiding runaway explanations.

Notice your doubts

Start by noticing how you feel.  You could be letting clients know you’ll be unavailable, following up with someone about a project you really hope they’ll hire you for, or saying “no” to taking a client to dinner because of a previous commitment.  Pause and listen for that internal voice of doubt.

It might be saying, “But this is the busiest time of year – I can’t take time off now!” or, “I don’t think they liked my proposal.  I should just let it go,” or, “Wow, that’s a very important client…I can go to Jessie’s next soccer game.”

Notice what your doubts are saying and what you really want out of this situation.  Your urge to go on and on in a runaway explanation, justifying exactly why you need uninterrupted vacation time, that great project, or how you made a commitment to your family – it’s a direct response to your doubts about what you want.

The common assumption is that because you feel those doubts, your audience will also.  However, that’s a very dangerous assumption.  Instead, your runaway explanation actually brings up doubts and questions in your audience’s mind – questions that would otherwise never have occurred to them.

Keep it simple – then stop!

What’s the simplest possible way to phrase your request or your response to a question?  Say it, and stop.

“I’m going to be out of the office next week – no email or phone messages – so please let me know now if you think there’s anything you need from me before that.”  (There’s no need to say why you’ll be unavailable..)

“I’m really excited about your project – is there anything else you need from me to make your decision?”  (Your proposal already has all the background information your prospective client needs to make his decision; you don’t need to repeat any of it.)

“That evening won’t work for me – I’ve got a conflict.  Can we have dinner next week instead?”  (No need to say what the conflict is.  A commitment is a commitment, whether it’s to ten-year-old Jessie, to a class you’re attending for business, or to yourself for some rest and relaxation.)

Say it, and STOP.  Bite your tongue if need be, but STOP.

Who are you convincing?

Although it might appear that the runaway explanation is an attempt to persuade your audience that your request is reasonable and should be granted, you’re actually trying to convince yourself.

And your doubts are based in emotion, which seldom (if ever!) responds to logic.  So any attempt to convince yourself that your doubts are unfounded is likely to fail. 

Instead, skip the logical argument.  Just stay clear about the doubts themselves.  Otherwise they’ll sneak up on you when you’re making your request – and you’ll find yourself right back in the middle of that runaway explanation.

Stay focused on simplicity

You may be pleasantly surprised:  you may not get follow-up questions, but instead just hear, “Okay, sure.”

But if there are follow-up questions, keep your answers just as short and to the point as your initial statement.

You might need to provide additional facts (what you can provide for your client so he’ll be okay when you’re unavailable, ways to change the scope or schedule to work better for your client’s great project, or other days and times when you’re available for dinner).  But you don’t ever need to provide personal details about how much you want a day off to rest, the importance of the project to your business goals, or your promise to Jessie that you’d be there to watch the game.

Confidence – both ways

People who provide just the information necessary in situations such as these project a powerful sense of confidence. 

And rightly so.  The runaway explanation is a response to your own doubts that then brings up those doubts for the people listening. Therefore, when you make your request or respond to questions with brief, simple, factual statements, you sound poised, confident, and sure of yourself.

There’s real power in being able to simply accept the doubts you feel and control your tendency to blurt out justifications for what you want.  You’ll project confidence – and you’ll find yourself feeling more confident as well. 

So notice your tendency to indulge in runaway explanations, discover the doubts that lie behind it – and put on the brakes!

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  Shakespeare, 1564-1616, English poet and playwrite; from Hamlet, act 3, scene 2.

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