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.
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.
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.
I feel like the Lorax. They cut down the magnificent old-growth trees on the floodwall. I live on the south bank of the White River, and the Army Corps of Engineers has been floodproofing my neighborhood for 15 years. The latest iteration of the plan involved the industrial scale de-treeing of the levee. Nobody asked my opinion, and I’m in a stage of resentful mourning.
I recently worked with a team in the midst of a major change. Their company was acquired. Everything is in flux. Questions like “Who will be redundant and let go? and “What will the ‘new normal’ look like?” were frequently posed. In the midst of this uncertainty and chaos, it was Kairos’ role was to help them have a healthy conversation to air their fears and determine a path forward despite the disruption and uncertainty.
Through all of the fears that come with transitions, however, I witnessed a few universal themes play out.
Recently I had the opportunity be with a small group of folks to hear from Alan Fadling, author of The Unhurried Life. We had an interesting dialog about how hurry drives us to anxiety and burnout as leaders. I had to laugh when one woman shared that her company’s word for the year is Velocity. Yikes.
Last week I got a Tdap booster vaccination. My arm is still a bit sore. I knew it was going to hurt, because the nurse who gave me the vaccination warned me, “The needle will hurt a bit, and the injection site will be sore for a few days.” I took the shot anyway, because I knew it was good for me.
But in other areas of my life, I confuse pain and harm. And I find other leaders too often make this same mistake.
Often, we set too may goals or resolutions for the New Year. We’ll have goals for health, relationships, career, finances, etc. Having too many goals risks not getting enough done in any area. I call that the shotgun approach.
Consider instead the laser approach of having one focus to direct decisions in all life areas. This is a practice I learned from Christine Kane 5 years ago. It’s called the “Word of the Year.” Forget SMART goals. Instead, all you need is one word.