I’ve come to the conclusion that there are too many meetings. My calendar is sliced into 30-60 minute pieces. All day I run from meeting to meeting, just hoping that I might get lucky today and have time to eat lunch or use the restroom. And it is only when the day is done (or in the small hours before the day begins) that I’m able to do my ‘real’ work.
When we have an unmet need, our desire is to see that need met. When we have a project or task, we want to see it completed.
In order to meet a need or complete a project, there are usually several steps along the way. If there are 5 steps to a project, then each step is ‘necessary’, and all the steps, taken together, are ‘sufficient’ to complete the project.
For example, if I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the necessary components are:
Two slices of bread
Assembling them correctly
Collectively, those are sufficient to deliver a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
We want everything to be good. Actually, we want everything to be great. We want it to be awesome, perfect, revelatory, incredible, amazing, game-changing, epic, fantastic…pretty much think of any word that is part of a superhero’s name…that’s what we want.
But, it isn’t possible to put equal amounts of care and energy toward everything we do. It isn’t possible to win a gold medal in every event of of our work and our lives.
We know this intuitively. We know that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything we want to a ‘gold medal’ standard.
And yet, we pressure ourselves to make this the standard. That pressure might be something we apply, or it may be the actual or implied judgement of those around us that make us feel that there are two categories to the work we do: perfection and failure.
There is another way.
For every event in which there is a gold medal winner, there are also silver and bronze winners. Those who take home the silver and the bronze didn’t ‘win’ the event, but they completed it to a solid standard of performance.
And in other events and on other days, maybe they will take home the gold. But on this day, it was silver or bronze, and that is still success.
Because, for every person who took home a sliver or a bronze, there are many, many others who never even entered the event. They looked at the event and the competitors and said to themselves, “If I can’t take home the gold, I shouldn’t waste my time.” If I can’t win, I won’t play.
When we take this all-or-nothing attitude toward our work or home lives, it causes problems.
We become overwhelmed by all the things we must do (events we must complete) and that overwhelm leads to procrastination, or ‘analysis paralysis’.
If we try to take home the gold in every event, it increases our stress and decreases our ability to take action. We begin to spend more time worrying or context switching than it would take to actually complete items and get them off our list. We soon find we have so many things we need to complete that we can’t even think of where to start.
It is impossible to be awesome at ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’. And yet we think it is. Or we think that we should. Or we think that is what others expect of us.
When we set the bar for performance at ‘perfect’, we delay starting the events where we won’t take home the gold. But, the reality is, the events where we won’t win the gold make up the vast majority of our lives.
Not every moment, initiative, assignment, task, or interaction will allow us to be the best in the world. For many of them, we won’t even be able to deliver our personal best because we are juggling so many competing priorities.
And all of this is OK.
In order to have a ‘gold medal’ performance in one event, we must choose the events where it will be OK to get a sliver or a bronze.
When we choose to put forth ‘bronze medal’ effort in one event, it frees us to put silver or gold effort elsewhere.
When you feel overwhelmed, make a list of everything you feel you need to do. Then identify from that list which items require ‘gold medal’ performance. Those are your top priorities.
And then (and this is what most of us don’t do), identify which items can be sliver effort and which could be bronze. And then decide what silver/bronze effort means for each item. Then you can choose if your next best action is to work on your gold priorities, or if you’d be better served by completing the bronze priorities to get them off your list and off your mind.
Once you have made all of your priorities visible and decided which ones actually need your gold-level effort, you will feel lighter. You will feel less overwhelmed and will likely feel motivated to tackle some of your bronze-level items because they suddenly feel less complicated and now feel more achievable.
Sometimes we discover the evidence of something that once was, but is no more. We can see the outlines or echoes of a form that existed and is now only described by its absence.
While walking around Asheville, NC I discovered what appeared to be the ‘ghost’ of a church in the side of an adjacent building.
I took a few pictures and continued on my way.
Later that night, I started to wonder what exactly I’d seen and the story behind it. I began searching. An explanation wasn’t easy to find, so I’m documenting here to make it easier for others in the future.
My wife is committed to helping animals. At various times we’ve fostered puppies and helped caterpillars develop into moths or butterflies. Either process can be very messy.
Both puppies and butterflies undergo change as they move toward their adult/more-developed state. But the processes are very different.
Puppies grow incrementally. They play, learn, discover, and progress toward their adult selves. The change is gradual and you won’t see visible, significant, obvious changes from one day to the next. But the progress is there.
Caterpillars don’t ‘grow’ into butterflies. They transform or metamorphose (today I learned ‘metamorphosize’ isn’t a word) from one state fully into another. The caterpillar creates a cocoon (chrysalis) and later emerges a butterfly. At some point in the process, the caterpillar deconstructs itself and ceases to be a caterpillar. It then creates a new form for itself and emerges as a butterfly.
We use the word ‘transformation’ frequently in professional settings when we talk about change, especially organizational change. Often, those leading or supporting transformation use this language to generate energy, excitement and focus for the difficult task of changing an organization.
But what if all ‘transformations’ are not best thought of like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly? What if many ‘transformations’ won’t entail deconstructing what was there before in order to form something new…something new that might look unrecognizable when compared to what came before?
What if instead of a ‘transformation’, an organization, business unit, or team needs incremental growth and change. What if instead of destroying what they were before to create something new, they can develop incrementally. Like a puppy, they can play, learn, discover, and grow toward a better, more mature, and more effective form.
Incremental change will never help a caterpillar become a butterfly, just like metamorphosis will never help a puppy become an adult dog.
When you think of the group you’re helping to change, what kind of support do they need from you to move toward a more effective form? In this moment, do they need help transforming or support in developing incrementally?
As I work with leaders and teams undergoing change, the two most common themes that emerge, reemerge and never are quite resolved to everyone’s satisfaction are prioritization and role clarity.
Prioritization is a topic for another day.
Role clarity is the most common complaint for people working in a team environment. It is a topic that comes up over and over.
Well meaning coaches and leaders react to the complaint by putting together additional materials describing the responsibility of each role. They create more meetings and training to re-explain the expectations of each role, etc.
And yet, the complaints continue. Why?
Because the root cause of the complaint isn’t a lack of role clarity, it is a lack of alignment on a shared goal.
When you speak about the work you are doing, what language do you use?
Many of us describe what we’re doing using the language of activity: “Yesterday I worked on the presentation for the plan for the next quarter. Today I’ll continue working on the presentation. I don’t have any blockers standing in my way.”
This conversation might happen 1:1 with a colleague or manager. Often it happens as part of a daily or weekly sync meeting where a team gets together to communicate about their shared work.
Less frequently, people use the language of completion when describing their work: “Yesterday, I finished the slide showing the budget for the next quarter. Today, I’ll finish updating the list of unprioritized initiatives up for discussion.”
Do you hear the difference?
One approach, using the language of activity, describes effort. The other approach, using the language of completion, describes accomplishment. Said another way, one approach demonstrates you are busy, the other that you are effective.
When the adventurer Ulysses knew he wanted to do something but didn’t trust himself to follow through safely and appropriately, he made what we now call a Ulysses Pact. He undertook a “freely made decision that is designed and intended to bind oneself in the future”.
These types of pacts can be helpful when you know intellectually what you need to do, but you lack follow through. When you are calm and clear-headed, you make a commitment that you will feel obligated to follow through on later.
I use a variation of this concept when I speak at conferences. If I have a topic I’d like to explore more deeply and I think others would benefit from hearing about, I’ll submit a proposal to a conference. I know myself well enough that without an external commitment, I will find it more challenging to focus and put in the hours to create something of value I can share with others.
Every time I’m accepted to speak, my first reaction is: “Well, damn. Now I’ll have to do all that work.” I have just freely entered into a pact that binds me in the future. And it is a process that works for me.