Archive for the ‘Thinking’ Category
You know those TV ads that feature rugged guys and pretty women exploring the wilderness in their shiny new Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, or Subaru Outback?
Back here in the real world, I suspect that the vast majority of people who buy those vehicles never take them off-road. It’s just that the idea of heading out on our own, beyond where the pavement stops, is so appealing to most of us that automakers have been milking those fantasies for years in hopes of driving more car sales. They believe people will watch those ads and think, If only I drove a ___________, then I’d have the freedom to live life on my own terms, not following society’s rules.
The off-road fantasy resonates because most of us often feel hemmed in by our responsibilities, by others’ expectations of us, by the rules and constraints of society. Buying a heavy-duty car and day-dreaming about driving it right off the edge of the highway provides us an illusion of freedom with a soupcón of ballsiness.
The ironic thing, though is that even though most of us will never go off-road physically, more of us are having to go off-road psychologically and emotionally than ever before. Think of our internal “highway” as the assumptions we make about what our role in society “should” be – those assumptions are fraying and falling apart in a way they never have before. And, more and more, we’re having to find our own path through this 21st century cultural landscape.
For example, sixty years ago, if I were a married woman of 65 with grown children and grandchildren (as I am), my “highway” would be pretty clear. I would be expected to be retired from whatever job I might have had (most likely as a teacher, nurse, clerk, factory or office worker). Though I might have gone back to work after my kids were out of the house, in my 60s I would be expected to stop working and spend my time taking care of the house, my husband, and perhaps the grandkids; to do age-appropriate activities (crafts, gardening, church or charity work); and perhaps – if we had some savings – to travel.
Today that very defined “road” is still being followed by many women in their sixties – but a big percentage of us are truly going “off-road” and hacking very different lives out of the wilderness: continuing to work while re-thinking the idea of retirement; using the expertise gained throughout our careers to start new businesses, either for-profit or not-for-profit; beginning new relationships; doing bucket-list things our moms and grandmas would never have considered. And some of us are even doing traditional things in new ways. I just read about a company called Rent A Grandma – basically, a service that matches “grandmas” (mature women with a love of children and lots of experience raising kids and running a household) with families who need them, since their own grandmas might be off doing something else and not available to them.
And all these possibilities for mental and cultural off-roading don’t just exist for people my age. Another example: sixty years ago, a young man of 22 would probably already be doing the job that he’d have for the rest of his working life (only about 1 in 10 men had college degrees in the US in 1957), saving money to get married, and preparing to be the sole – or at least major – support of his wife and children. His path was laid out.
Now, that young man can take any of a variety of paths – or make up his own. He could go to college, get a job, join a commune, travel the world with a backpack tending bar. He could get married (though most 22-year-olds don’t, these days), or he could live alone, with roommates or a girlfriend (or boyfriend) – or at home with his parents. He might use his twenties to decide what career path to follow, and that path could be something that didn’t exist before he started doing it.
So what does this imply, this new ability to blaze our own trail through life? First, it means we’re all going to have to get much better at learning and doing new things. If you’re interested in that topic and new to this blog, I wrote a book last year, Be Bad First, that’s all about how to be great at being a novice. Which, if you’re mentally off-roading, inventing your life as you go, is a critical capability.
The other thing, I’m finding, is that mental off-roading requires tremendous independence and courage. I feel as though I’ve definitely driven off the regular highway and am now officially in uncharted territory; my life at 65 certainly doesn’t look like my mom’s life did at this age, or my dad’s. It’s different in many ways from the lives most of my friends have created, or those my sister and brothers are living. I’m still working, building the business I started almost thirty years ago – but my role is changing in the company, as is the kind of work I want to do. I find myself more politically active than I’ve ever been. My marriage is amazing – and doesn’t feel anything like what I expected would be happening at this point in my life. My relationships with my kids and grandkids are rich and fun for all of us – but not what I think of as grandmotherly. Every day I find myself thinking some version of, Is this OK? I don’t see others my age doing/feeling/thinking this. OR Wow, this is very different from how my life was just a few years ago…what’s happening? And then I just have to check in with whether “this”, whatever it is, seems to be supporting me in creating the kind of life, relationships and results I want. And if so, I just have to take a deep breath and…keep driving.
I’d love to hear about your adventures in mental off-roading, too….
A few months ago, I wrote a post about finishing a sweater my mom had begun knitting for me twenty years ago. Completing her work became a reflection on all the ways in which her influence shaped who I am today – and in fact all the ways in which we are all influenced by those who came before us.
Now that it’s done, it brings an entirely new set of reflections. When I look at it, I think of all the things in this world that we re-purpose for new generations. For example, I love it when old buildings find new life serving a modern function. Apple recently received the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Chairman award for its placement of Apple stores in four historic buildings in New York. In giving the award, the Conservancy noted that, “Apple is being honored for their contribution to preserving, restoring, and repurposing notable historic structures in New York City. The company has placed four stores in historic buildings – marrying high tech and distinguished architecture.”
Looking at all four Apple projects, you realize that in many ways it would have been easier just to tear down the original buildings and start from scratch. For instance, their Soho store, housed in a 1920’s Beaux Art Post Office building, showcases the original exterior while inserting a new interior that includes a glass tread staircase and a huge central skylight. Even though it clearly required more time, resource, and care to re-create the building for the intended use than to build something spanking new from the ground up, Apple chose to give new life to something beautiful by building upon it for the present and the future.
We can do that with ideas, as well. I look at core beliefs that my grandparents passed to my parents, and that they passed on to me: that men and women are equal; that the color of a person’s skin or their religion doesn’t affect their worth; that our free and fair elections are a deeply valuable thing. These ideals are beautiful, and worth preserving.
A personal plea: please vote in this upcoming election if you are a US citizen. And please consider carefully: do you want to tear down what we’ve built, giving in to the destructive power of hatred, prejudice and violence? Or do you want to continue to build on those precious values of openness, tolerance and inclusion that we have fought so hard to establish in this country, and that are even more important as we face the future?
Think about the world we are continually re-creating for our children, and for our children’s children, when you go to the polls on November 8th, and make sure the person you choose to be our president is someone you believe has the clarity, focus and intention to build upon our democratic ideals.
I was talking to someone the other day about the willingness of many millenials to leave jobs where the culture is bad or the expectations are unrealistic or confusing. We both agreed that, in general, we find it refreshing – and that we believe it will force many companies to think more deeply about how they operate and the cultures they create.
At one point, though, my colleague said, “But it can go too far. Sometimes you have to suffer – there can be a purpose to pain.”
I watched my immediate mental response: That’s not true – thinking that we have to suffer condemns us to suffering. But instead of saying that out loud, I kept listening and asking questions. After a few minutes, I thought I understood what she was really saying, and so took a stab at summarizing. “You’re talking about pain on the way to improvement, vs. just submitting yourself to ongoing suffering.”
“Exactly,” she responded.
Then she told me a great story about two senior executives she knew, both of whom had reputations as tough, sometimes difficult and demanding bosses. However, she went on to note that many people she knew felt their time working for boss A was very valuable, and said they’d work for him in the future, if they had a chance – while most people had really disliked working for boss B, and would never want to work for him again.
The difference? Boss A, while tough, demanding and undiplomatic (to put it mildly) really focused on developing his folks. His toughness was in the service of their getting better, thinking more deeply, being able and willing to embrace new possibilities. Under boss A, people grew. In contrast, boss B was tough because he could be; he was just mis-using his boss power. There was no gain from the pain.
And I think this is a lesson millenials need to learn (and one I see my millenial children and colleagues learning as they get older and work longer). Sometimes, you have to do things that aren’t very comfortable, in order to get what you really want. And if you bail at the first sign of discomfort – whether you’re by yourself, trying to learn something; or in an organization, having to put up with some company BS; or dealing with a boss who may not be the most skilled or emotionally intelligent, but is genuinely trying to help you improve – you’re never going to get very far.
It’s analogous to trying to get in better physical shape, where the price is the bodily discomfort of sore muscles and the mental discomfort of feeling like a klutz. If you really want to get in better professional shape – to find out what you can love and be great at doing, and then to become excellent at doing it – the price is always some degree of mental, emotional, and even physical discomfort.
In other words: if you’re entirely comfortable, you’re probably not learning anything. And if you want to become world-class at doing anything, you’ll have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Read Be Bad First – Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future for more insights about being usefully uncomfortable.
I know I’m dating myself by using that title. It became known as the signature line of Sgt. Joe Friday, the hero in a cop show called Dragnet that was popular when I was a kid. Whenever Joe was questioning witnesses, and they would start wandering off into how they felt, and what they feared, and sharing their biases and prejudices, Joe would stop them and say, “All we want are the facts, ma’am (or sir). ”
As we’re all living through this endless and somewhat depressing election season, I find myself in complete sympathy with Sergeant Friday. My craving for facts is completely justified, given that, according to Politifact, only 30% of what Donald Trump says publicly is even partly true, with 19% of his untruths being of the “pants on fire” variety (“not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim,” according to Politifact) and even Hillary, the most truthful of all the current politicians, only tells the truth 72% of the time. Fortunately, only 2% of her statement are “pants on fire” lies – but still, that’s too much. (I’ll out myself now; I’m a Clinton fan, and think she’ll make a very good president.)
What’s even more frustrating to me is that Americans believe Trump and Hillary are equally dishonest and untrustworthy – even though, on a factual basis, Trump lies about 2.5 times as much as she does. And it doesn’t stop with the candidates themselves, unfortunately. Shortly after the Republican convention, I listened to a Trump supporter, a former soap actor named Anthony Sabato, Jr., say that he believes President Obama is “…on the other side. Oh, the Middle East. He’s with the bad guys. He’s not with us. He’s not with this country.” And when asked to back up his assertion with facts, he responded, “I believe it.”
The most disturbing thing about this whole mess, for me, is the contention that believing something is true, or feeling that it’s true, is just as valid as having the facts about whether or not it’s true. It’s why too many people think that someone “believing”or “feeling” that Obama is in league with terrorists is just as valid as 7+ years of daily evidence to the contrary.
It’s why national figures can say “global warming is a hoax,” or “Obama founded ISIS,” or “immigrants destroy our economy” — and those things are repeated as truth, even though there is no evidence to support their validity, and – in fact – mountains of factual evidence to disprove them.
I believe the best we can do, in these crazy times, is try to be guardians of the truth in our own thinking. Whenever someone asserts that something is true – especially something important to our well-being or our future – I suggest that, rather than either immediately believing or disbelieving it, you do your best to find out the facts. I’d suggest you apply the scientific method: take what you hear as a hypothesis (“Is global warming a hoax?”) then gather the available data about the hypothesis without assuming that it’s true or false. (As opposed to cherry-picking the data to support your existing bias, which is what we too often do.) Finally, decide the validity of the hypothesis based on the data you’ve collected.
If we all did that, we would come to better, more reasoned decisions, and be less susceptible to the lies and half-truths of those in positions of power.
And here’s what Joe Friday thinks about all this (from episode 60: “Internal Affairs DR-20”):
“Show me how to wipe out prejudice. I’ll settle for the prejudices you have inside yourselves. Show me how to get rid of the unlimited capacity for human beings to make themselves believe they’re somehow right–and justified–in stealing from somebody, or hurting somebody…and you’ll just about put this place here out of business!”
I’m with Joe.
Many years ago, my mom declared that she would knit each of us, her four children, a sweater. She had lots of other stuff she was interested in doing, though, so she never quite completed the project. I’m pretty sure she finished my younger brother’s sweater, and she may have finished my older sister’s. In any case, when we went to clean out her house after she died in 2004, I discovered most of the sweater she had been making for me in a knitting bag with (fortunately) the pattern book she was using. I was touched; I decided to take it home with me and finish it someday.
So here I am, twelve years later, finishing the sweater my mom started for me sometime in the 1990s. I thought it would be a nice way to connect with her, and it is. It’s easy to imagine her working on it: getting irritated when an instruction didn’t make sense; swearing softly at having to undo and redo a mistake; her crooked smile of satisfaction at a beautifully complex bit of finished work. And most of all, thinking of her thinking of me.
I’ve also enjoyed the mystery-solving aspect of it. It’s a cardigan, and she had completed the back, both fronts, and most of one of the sleeves. So I had to determine where she was in the sleeve (there’s a cable design running down the middle, so I had to figure out exactly the correct row), and which of the six available sizes she had chosen to knit. And since I had only one skein of the yarn she was using, a yarn that hasn’t been made for many years, I had to find more of it (thank god for ebay). Finally, I had to figure out what size needles she was using in order to finish the ribbed trim on the front, neck and pockets. I tried the size called for in the pattern, but that made stitches that were bigger than hers; I tried a couple of different size needles, knitting a few rows, pulling out the work and redoing it till I got it right. (You can see how it’s going in the picture above.)
Most of all, though, doing this is making me realize that I generally don’t give my mom enough credit for the foundation she provided to me throughout my life. So much of who I am as a professional, a parent, and a human being is grounded in her good example. She taught me how to think critically; inspired my love of language and of writing; taught me that a parent’s job is to provide the tools kids need to create their own life and the moral compass to assure that life is one of contribution and value to others and to the world. She taught me that humor can ease tension, and that it’s mentally lazy to accept “what everyone knows” as truth. She insisted that I take responsibility for my mistakes, and she was quietly proud of my accomplishments. She (and my father) taught me that judging, dismissing, or hating others for some part of who they are – skin color, sexual orientation, country of birth – is just plain wrong. She raised all four of us, two boys and two girls, with equal expectations that each of us would find work we liked and were good at, and build loving, strong relationships and families.
And as I’m reflecting on this, on my own failure to acknowledge her gifts to me, I’m wondering if we aren’t all guilty of this to some extent. It’s too easy to believe that everything now is “new,” that we’re starting from zero every day and having to invent everything as we go. But even though almost every aspect of our world is changing faster now that at any previous time in history, we are able to navigate through this time of seismic change by virtue of the foundation laid down by those who have gone before.
Just as I can finish this sweater because of the start my mom made on it and the knitting skills passed down to me by her and many others, all that we do builds on the discoveries and advances of previous generations. The fact that I, a woman, can be accepted and respected as an author, speaker, consultant and business owner is built on the efforts and sacrifice of my feminist mother, my suffragette grandmothers, and millions of other women of past generations all over the world. The fact that I can share my thoughts with you here, one-to-one, perhaps without ever having met you, is a tribute to thousands of generations of humans who created language, invented ways to write it down and disseminate it (including the printing press), then created ever-more sophisticated computers, and finally harnessed the power of the internet.
It is both humbling and inspiring to acknowledge that we are links in this human chain. It makes me feel very grateful, and it makes me want to leave a legacy that will help move the world and everyone in it toward more joy, more collaboration, and lives of prosperity, independence and discovery.
I know I say this every year, so those of you who have been with me for awhile might be rolling your eyes about now. Nonetheless: I love the holidays.
All the stuff I grew up with is charming to me: twinkling lights, presents under the tree, crackling fires, stockings hung on the chimney, old-fashioned Christmas carols, delicious food, seeing people I love and don’t get to see often enough. I even mostly like the things that other people don’t like: corny Christmas movies, looking for just the right gift for someone.
Most of all though, I love what’s at the heart of all this, at least in my mind. The sense that life and love are astonishing gifts to be treasured every day.
Today is my last day of work for the year, and I’m already expanding into what I think of as holiday gratitude mode. I’m a pretty thankful person under ordinary circumstances, but during the holiday I really make the effort to consciously recognize all the gifts and joys in my life on a daily basis.
At Proteus, we have year-end review and look forward conversations with everyone on the team. I’m just about to have my final one for the year (I’ll be having a couple more in January), and feeling tremendously appreciative of all the smart, good-hearted, committed people I get to work with at my company. After that, I’m going to go and meet my husband at his first “beer event”; a tasting and brewer appearance for his new brewery. And I’m feeling so proud of him, and so deeply grateful to be sharing my life with such a remarkably kind, high-integrity, curious, brilliant, funny, loving, brave, handsome man.
And as I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my living room enjoying our sparkling Christmas tree, each ornament connected to a fond memory. Grateful to have such a wonderful place to live, and the good health and mental capability to enjoy it.
I could go on and on. Feeling grateful elevates you, making your interaction with everything and everyone around you more conscious, hopeful and loving. When you are grateful, it feels wonderful and at the same time makes you a positive force in the world.
So, my wish for you: May you appreciate your holidays to the very fullest extent possible….
courtesy of Brainyquotes
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to be a part of a really profound learning experience. I was one of eight attendees at an Elite Group Experience – a two-day advanced speaking skills course with Victoria Labalme.
Even though I’ve done a great deal of speaking in front of groups over the past thirty years, and believe I’m good at it (and have gotten feedback that supports that belief), I decided this year to take my skills to the next level. I intend to do everything in my power to become a world-class speaker.
Victoria is a wonderful teacher, and my classmates – entrepreneurs, authors, and business owners – were without exception smart, focused and supportive. The coolest thing for me, though, was seeing how well the ANEW skills I propose as being key to new learning served me in this situation, even though I’m not a novice. Here’s how it worked:
Aspiration – Before I attended the course, I worked on increasing my aspiration – making myself want to improve my speaking skills. It’s challenging to raise your level of aspiration when you’re already good at something: it’s all too easy to think that you’re good enough, thank you very much. So I thought about the benefits to me of becoming a better speaker. First, we at Proteus have more important things to share than ever – and I love being able to share it. Also, I’m particularly convinced that the ideas and skills in my new book, Be Bad First, will be helpful to people if I have a bigger platform for sharing them. I can easily imagine a future where being a better speaker would make that possible.
Neutral Self-awareness – I spent some time before the class reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses as a speaker. Some of the pre-work Victoria had us do supported me in that effort. I wanted to be as accurate as possible going into the session, so that I could take full advantage of the learning being offered, and I found my “current state” insights very helpful. (If you’re curious, I decided that my strengths were clarity, authenticity, and connection with the audience, and that I needed to work on having more control over my pacing and volume, making better use of the stage, and exploring new options to three-dimensionalize my speaking – visuals, sound, online support, etc..)
Endless Curiosity – This one was the easiest; I didn’t really have to do much to ramp up my curiosity. Very fortunately for me, being curious is my natural state, and I found myself, during the session, continuously interested in understanding and mastering what Victoria was sharing with us. Over the two days of the class, I watched myself ask lots of Why?, How?, and I wonder? questions. And saw, yet again, how curiosity is jet fuel for learning. Every time I asked one of those questions of Victoria or one of my classmates, I found out something new or something more that would help me improve my skills.
Willingness To Be Bad First – This one was definitely the hardest…but the most rewarding. It’s difficult enough to convince yourself it’s OK to “be bad” when you’re actually new to something. But when you’re quite good at doing something already, there’s a strong momentum toward considering yourself an expert. I found the most valuable and realistic “acceptance of not-good” self-talk in this situation was, I still have a lot to learn, if I want to be a world class speaker. I need to be open to everything I hear. As a result, I was able to hear important feedback from Victoria and from my classmates that I might have otherwise dismissed. For example, in one practice, my partner pointed out to me that I was skimming over the uncomfortable part of the story I was telling – and he noted that “without the lows, the highs don’t feel like highs.” Because I was really listening and taking it in, I realized he was exactly right…and that it was something I do habitually. I was able to integrate the feedback, and it had a real impact.
My husband once asked me “Are people ever done being bad?” And now I can definitely say: No, fortunately for us, we’re not.
My husband and I recently took a little mini-vacation to Grand Canyon National Park. I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to get there – it’s not as though I’ve never had an opportunity before now. All that aside, though: it was astonishing. If you’ve never visited, all I can say is that pictures absolutely do not do it justice; it’s much more vast and beautiful and other-worldly than you can imagine. It made us feel small, but in a completely positive way; a tiny part of an awe-inspiring whole.
Hopi House; Courtesy of Wikipedia
While we were there, I kept noticing buildings that I really loved. There was Hermit’s Rest, the Hopi House, and the Desert View Watchtower. As it turns out, they were all designed by a woman named Mary Elizabeth Jane Coulter, who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad in the first half of the 20th century as an architect and designer. In the words of Wikipedia:
She was one of the very few female American architects in her day. She was the designer of many landmark buildings and spaces for the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad, notably in Grand Canyon National Park. Her work had enormous influence as she helped to create a style, blending Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission Revival architecture with Native American motifs and Rustic elements, that became popular throughout the Southwest.
MJC ca 1893 by California Artist Arthur Mathews
from the Program for Art on Film Web site
I was so charmed by her buildings and intrigued by her story that I bought and read her biography. In 1902, Ms. Coulter began working for the Fred Harvey Company, which partnered with the Santa Fe Railroad to open the American Southwest to travel and tourism in the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries. Coulter was one of the only female employees of the Harvey Company at that time who was not a waitress – and the only woman with management responsibilities.
As I read about her, and looked at the buildings and interiors she designed – and the construction of which she oversaw and managed – I tried to imagine the combination of vision, strength of character and diplomacy required to be successful as a woman leader working with an all male group of colleagues and staff to establish a new kind of architectural style in a barely-civilized part of the US, at a time when any sort of woman professional was a rare creature indeed.
Talk about a high bar.
I’m inspired and humbled to find that she was able to do all of that, to leave us a legacy of wonderfully evocative buildings, structures that live at ease in the landscape of the desert southwest. Her designs are unpretentious and yet in harmony with the grandeur around them, while marrying indigenous Native American and Mexican styles with modern applications.
I suspect I’ll think of Mary Jane Coulter’s life and work from now on when I’m in what I believe is a difficult situation. I kind of feel as though my toughest challenges would seem like an easy day to her. It’s good to remind ourselves of those brave souls who have gone before us; it helps us find that pioneer inside. It supports us to be bold in asking “Why Not…?” and in finding ways to do things that haven’t been done before.
Thank you, Mary…
I’m excited. For the past four or five years, my partner Jeff and I have been acknowledging to each other (and to anyone who cares to have the conversation with us) our need to have an online/mobile aspect of what we do available to our clients. We recognized that if our core focus is, as we say, leader readiness, we needed to support leaders to be ready 24/7, not just when they’re with us in a coaching, training, or facilitated session.
We’ve been able to create some very good audio and video “nuggets” over the years, and we have lots of useful written material to offer (between this blog, my Forbes blog, other articles, and my books.)
But now….drum roll, please…we’re in the process of putting bite-size pieces of our existing audio, video and written content – plus a lot more great stuff that we’re now creating – into our new online/mobile learning resource, ProteusLeader.com. It will be going live in October – so I’m giving you, dear reader, a heads-up now. Partly because I just want to share it with you (as I said, I’m excited), but partly because I’d love your input if you’d care to weigh in. If you have suggestions for stuff you’d particularly like to see, or topics you’d like added, that would be hugely valuable for us.
Here’s how we’re envisioning it. There will be 16 topic areas – the main areas we focus on in our work with leaders. Those topics are:
- Accepted Leader
- Be Bad First
- Being Strategic
- Company Culture
- Giving Feedback
- High Performance Team
- Leading Change
- Making Agreements
- Managing People
- Managing Your Career
- Social Style
- Tough Conversations
You can go straight to this list of topics from the home page (and then select one you’re interested in), or you can get to groups of related topics by selecting one of four “interest areas.” Under each of the 16 topics, we’ll have resources in three “buckets”:
- See It/Hear It – video and audio nuggets focusing on that topic, offering models, tools, insights, or skill demonstrations.
- Try It – video, audio, and written activities to help you assess yourself, prepare for, and practice the skills in that topic.
- Read About it – quick, practical articles about the topic that offer insight and recommendations.
So, what do you think? Anything you’d like that you don’t see listed? Any ideas for specific support in these topics?
I’ll keep you posted as we get closer to launch – but for now, I’d love to know what you’d find useful and interesting…
Thanks, as always, for being here.
I was talking to a wonderful, wise woman today: I learned a lot from her, and I hope she also learned useful things from me. She told me a great quote that she has made part of her email signature line:
People who say it can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt those who are doing it.
When she said it to me, my first reaction was to laugh out loud, in that surprised way that happens when something strikes you as completely and unexpectedly true. I’ve seen that very thing happen in corporate life dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over the past few decades. While some people are pontificating at length about why something isn’t possible, someone else is quietly going about doing it. For instance, I just found out that, even as Wilbur and Orville Wright were preparing to complete their first successful trials of a manned, heavier-than-air flying machine, the New York Times published an article from which the following is an excerpt:
The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years—provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.
— ‘Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly,’ published in theNew York Times, 9 October 1903.
It sounds really smart and well-reasoned (if somewhat smug and self-righteous), but it also turns out, as we all know, to have been complete and utter nonsense.
Fortunately, the Wright Brothers weren’t working for the New York Times, or any of the other thousands of people who were opining that what they were doing was impossible and foolish. Where the quote above gets less funny, but even more true, is when the people doing the talking about what can’t be done are the bosses of the people who are able to do it. That’s when innovation and creativity get torpedoed, and companies (if it gets bad enough and consistent enough) collapse.
For instance, I will bet you any amount of money that there were young people working for Barnes and Noble in 2005, who were trying to tell their bosses that e-readers were the wave of the future, and that they could build one of they just had the support, and those bosses rolled their eyes and dismissed the idea entirely, and blathered on about the strength of the B&N business model and how people will never give up the feel of a real book, or stop coming to bookstores, especially now that we have cafes and kids’ play areas and blah blah blah blah. And all the while Jeff Bezos and company were busy inventing the Kindle in a back room somewhere.
So the next time someone – especially someone who works for you – comes to you with an idea that you believe is just plain impossible, or impractical, or too expensive, or not how people want to do X….just shut up. Suspend your disbelief, and really listen. Ask them to walk you through how they would do it, and what it would require.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to see how it could be done, and why it should be done…
And that could change everything.