Going all in for me and my kids — an open conversation with my saboteur.
Starting a business moved more quickly than I thought it would my first year and I met my goals with surprising ease. But now that it’s time to really ramp things up, I’m struck with a fear I didn’t know I had. I’m comfortable here on the tipping point, chugging along, but in a way, either going all in, or going back to being an employee – either side of the tipping point feels scary. This is a place many of my coaching clients find themselves, so I am thinking through it out loud with you. You’ll know that you’re not alone. I’ll better be able to put myself in my clients shoes when the doldrums hit, the wind is sucked out of your sails, and you’re not sure how to break the spell.
Here’s what goes through my head. I’m afraid if I do nothing, I tip into irrelevance. I hear this when my clients describe their job, the campaign they’re working on, their parenting style, or a relationship in a dull voice. I hear a tone that sounds flat or overly cheerful and well worn, pulled out at every dinner party or networking event. When I interrupt them before they finish their spiel, I feel a startled shift in them, like when an unfamiliar noise wakes up my 8 month old. This job, this relationship, is familiar, and therefore safe, but numbing. Most of my clients are high achievers who are used to being madly inspired, and as their passion fades, they wonder if they need to change their job, or their whole career. Many of my clients cry the first time we talk, and they aren’t the kind that easily break into tears. Saying out loud what is not working and hearing how what you are doing now is out of sync with your values is heartbreaking. If you are tearing up right now, you’re not alone, and you’ll figure this out.
But then thinking about the other side of the tipping point is scary too. For me, it means committing to something audacious, and visible. People will know if I succeed or fail. If I succeed, our world will be a bolder place. My clients’ visions for their work are so often bigger and more powerful than anything their board or managers would expect from them. I say that as a manager who has both challenged team members to live up to their expectations and supported them to succeed, but also as a manager who has been heavy handed out of a desire that a team member do well. In making that mistake, I show a lack of faith in them and their ability to be challenged honestly. Instead I am attempting to protect them from the consequences I think I can see coming by telling them what to do. News flash – no one likes that boss, nor does their best work for them. Diving in and doing something new means putting in effort and using skills that part of me knows I have, or can cultivate. At first I get excited about the possibility. In abstract it seems great! I get a little manic, buzz around, feel confident that I can do what I need to. Look up stuff on the internet (amiright?!) And then, when it’s time to get started, somehow I freeze a bit. Doubt myself.
“I could keep doing this job…” my clients say, their voice trailing off. All of a sudden, when it’s time to do something differently, that place that you came from doesn’t look so bad! “I thought about it, and all of the things on my plate are really important right now. It’s not a good time to clear the board and work on (fill in the blank with that one thing that you told me is really important).” The voices that pop up and try to walk you back when you’re ready to do something different — really ready to do it, not just talk about it with friends, or look it up on the internet 😉 — are what we call your saboteurs. I have good news and bad news for you. First, the good news is that when you hear these voices, you know you’re on to something big and important! They don’t pop up if you’re keeping everything status quo. So when you hear these voices, tell yourself “YES” and know the direction you are headed, scary as it is, is the right way. The bad news is that smart people have smart saboteurs. Sometimes the saboteur will say something belittling like “You’re not good enough to do that,” but more often in the kind of talented people I work with it shows up as “Well, maybe it’s not strategic to do X instead of Y” or “This is a great campaign, but someone else who doesn’t look like me should lead it.”
The answer to this dilemma for me is usually action. If I were a super hero, under my action figure on the box would be the catch phrase: “Power in Action!” By taking action, any action, I move forwards, things become real. I succeed, or I learn something, and gain the momentum to go further. As an organizer, the first step in getting someone to be an activist was a ‘quick hit’ in their neighborhood. By helping someone tackle a small issue on their block, they would catapult from wanting things to be different, into expecting things to be different in their city, state and nation. So I challenge you to take action. Any action. And give yourself permission to fail. When I first set up my business I was afraid to tell anyone what I was doing – which of course is a terrible way to run a business! I was challenged to reach out to someone that I wanted to work with, and eventually did. Guess what, that person never responded back. But the action itself lit me on fire, made it possible to reach out to other people who did say ‘yes’ and made it possible for me to say ‘yes’ to projects I might otherwise have responded to with a polite and lethal “Oh, thanks for thinking of me, but no.”
Here’s one other thing that I’m thinking about tonight. I’ve been reading a parenting book about praising kids, and how when you tell kids they’re smart, it backfires. First, they don’t believe you (I’ve seen this in my adult clients – super supportive families that told them they could do anything, but my clients don’t trust that any more). Second, they worry that if they fail at something the first time, it is proof that they are not smart. The strategy it takes to succeed – persistence and more attempts – seems to be proof that they are not smart, so they don’t do the very things that it takes to improve. Lastly, if they are afraid of failing, they don’t take the harder challenges that will push them further and help them learn. Instead, they’ll pick easy things they know they can do, or give up in the face of failure. So, as I recommit myself to diving in, I’m doing it for me, for the change-makers whose work I believe in, but also for my kids. Worst case scenario, I would rather tell them, “I gave it my all, and it didn’t turn out like I hoped. Some might say I failed. Here’s what I did next.” I would rather share that lesson with them, then know that I never really gave it my all, and instead proved the doubting voices in my head right.