I’ve been investing a lot of time and energy on personal growth. It’s hard work. It’s revealed some tough, ugly truths. One of those truths is that I don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking and planning. I like to get stuff done. Thinking and planning feels like a waste of time. The problem is that I struggle with developing long-term strategies. Because I don’t make the time to reflect, I run the risk of focusing on the wrong things. I’m starting to see this character trait, both in myself and in some of the leaders I come in contact with.
It was one of many Saturday errands. My teenage girls and I pulled into the Goodwill donation line behind a couple in their late 50s who were making half a dozen trips between their van and the doors with what looked like the leftovers from an estate sale. Impatient, I climbed out of my car to carry my bags to the door just as I saw the man in front of me lift an Underwood #5 typewriter out of his van to give away. A gasp of excitement and panic filled my car as my typewriter-obsessed daughters squealed, “Mom, ASK HIM FOR THAT TYPEWRITER!”
Though I am impatient, I am not usually quick to speak. This is both a blessing and a curse. There was a split second of opportunity before this rare treasure was lost to us.
Matthias Schlitte is a German professional arm-wrestler. He was born with a genetic bone disorder that made his right arm naturally larger than his left. His training objective is to build as much strength and muscle mass as possible in his larger arm, but keep the rest of his body (including his left arm) relatively trim, so he can compete in a lighter weight class. In the gym, he develops his right arm twelve hours a week.
All humans are on a journey of maturation. We continue to grow throughout our lives, hopefully until the day we die. I’ve found that these journeys are not linear. Much like Matthias, we develop asymmetrically.
Behavioral changes don’t just happen by accident. They require internal transformations first.
You see, there are subtle ways we sabotage the changes we want to make. If we don’t remove those internal blockers, we’ll never achieve lasting outcomes.
I intimately learned this lesson last year. My family accomplished a milestone goal. We became one of the 20% of Americans who are debt free. My entire approach to this goal was different than my usual run-of-the-mill – goals. This goal required that I show up differently and clearly address my blockers.
By nature, I’d prefer to completely avoid conflict. To me it feels like walking with other people through a minefield, either by force or by choice. In some ways, it is. Navigating conflict requires courage and is profoundly vulnerable.
We know that avoiding conflict at work makes us sick, damages creativity and diminishes productivity and morale. One study by CPP, Inc. found that 1 in 4 employees reported illness or taking sick days due to workplace conflict. More than one-third said that conflict resulted in someone leaving the company, either through firing or quitting. The losses and costs add up quickly.
As I reflect on my life, I find that the greatest growth has come from challenges that had me paralyzed at the time: believing I needed 34 hours in each day as a plebe at the Naval Academy, failing to stand up to a bully in the Marine Corps, trying to stay motivated and effective when I lost interest in my corporate job, learning to sell services to prospective clients, and understanding the depth of my arrogance and lack of curiosity as a coach and consultant.
I was a decent basketball player as a kid. I went to the Taylor University Basketball Camp two summers in a row, and I learned a lot. I’m right-handed, and I’ve always found it easy to drive to the basket to the right. But defenders would always frustrate me by poaching over to their left, shutting down my driving lane. When I learned to dribble left-handed, it opened up a lot of possibilities for me on the court.
Because of my personality, there are other behaviors that also come naturally to me.
Last weekend I was blessed to have the opportunity to go to a 3-day workshop about a personality/spiritual formation tool I’ve been interested in for about 6 months. The little psychologist in me was geeking out as I drove there on day 1. I’ve already been using this with a few clients and couldn’t wait to learn more. While definitely helpful for my clients, what I discovered profoundly changed me.
It gave me a new lens to see my life through. I have much greater clarity on WHY I do some of the things I do. It shone light on a lot of my darker places. While those are hard to concede, there’s also peace in the truth that comes from acknowledging them.
The kindest words that have been said to me lately are, “Jess, I’m worried that you’re wrong, and that it’s going to hurt you.” They came from a friend, who I know didn’t really want to say them, about some personal views in which I had been very confident. Essentially, I had forced her to call me out on pridefully asserting that I was above struggling with something. After opening the conversation, she went on to gently explain her point of view, pointing out some obvious flaws in mine. She was humble, gracious, and obviously continued the conversation for my good rather than her own.
Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi found himself diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 35 with months remaining in his residency. As he and his wife sat across from his oncologist, she asked him to think though his values so he could make the most of the uncertain amount of time he had left to live. While I hope none of us will ever have to have that conversation under those circumstances, all of us live with the same questions and wrestle with expanding and contracting timelines – some which seem more certain than others. I’m convinced that our focus on legacy, impact and leadership development shouldn’t wait until the last decade of our careers.