These are tough times for many of us. In tough times it is easy to get overwhelmed. How do we cope? Change is inevitable. Where do we start?
When things change in the marketplace, new possibilities open up and some current possibilities close down. Just an ancient mariners lived by their skill in reading the changes in sea and weather conditions, we must live by our skill of reading the changes in the world we live in.
Lately, I've been having conversations with the people in my life - friends, clients, business partners - framed by the question "what now?" Given the new world we are in today, what now? What is the world that we are already in? How must our responses be different? How must we be different?
Below are the questions I've been asking people. I think these are the seven most important questions we all need to be asking ourselves today in the middle of our tough times.
I invite each of you to consider them in the context of your own life.
Question One: What is your biggest struggle right now?
Of course, I have no idea what specifically you are struggling with. But let me take away some common false answers to this question. Your biggest struggle is not that you lack time, money, or energy. Your biggest struggle is also not that you lack willpower or discipline. In fact, your biggest struggle has nothing to do with lacking anything. The interpretation that your biggest struggle comes from a lack of something leaves you disempowered. How helpful is that? Not! So let's not go down that path.
I'd like to suggest one place among many that you should consider in answering this question. What if your biggest struggle comes from something that you aren't facing fully instead of something that you are lacking? And what I mean when I say "facing it fully" is seeing, acknowledging, owning, and responding to it fully.
In these times there is a lot of fear and even panic. Nobody can get credit, people are getting laid-off, ecological crises seem closer than ever, Obama is going to change things but we don't know (but hope) that they will be better. There are lots of things to be afraid about.
As humans, when we feel afraid, most of us do what we've always done when we feel afraid. Maybe you are already thinking of what you do as you read this. Some of us hide, some of us attack, some of us run away, some of us freeze up. We all have our own particular responses to our fear that life isn't turning out the way we want it to.
When we react out of fear we are not authentically responding to what's happening now. How could this be the case? Because our reactions to fear are learned and conditioned habits. Our response to fear is pre-determined. But there is no pre-determined response that is ever going to be an authentic response to what's happening. We can't act with skill in facing our situation when we're reacting out of habit.
How can you overcome this? Get to know your own habitual responses to fear intimately. What do you do when fear arises? Your ability to acknowledge and own your automatic response reduces the power they have over you. And that - facing your fears - opens the possibility of doing things differently and for generating an authentic response to what's happening.
What I'm proposing is that maybe your biggest struggle is freshly facing that which you don't want to face. Follow the trail of your fear that life isn't turning out.
Question Two: What is your biggest opportunity in this situation / in this market?
The way I see it, your biggest opportunity will always involve doing something new. It may be bringing forward latent gifts and talents that you have, widening your community, bringing a new level of focus to your work and life, or having a difficult conversation, or taking a bold action. In a business sense, maybe your biggest opportunity comes from a new product or service offering or maybe it comes from deepening customer loyalty. Your biggest opportunity could be anything and I'm betting it will require doing something new. Here's my take on what's at the core of this "something new."
For many of us our biggest opportunity in this market will come from rewriting our future. You might be thinking, "What on earth do you mean? The future hasn't happened yet." And you would be right, the future hasn't happened. But that doesn't stop us from having stories about the future.
As humans, all of us live within a narrative or a story about ourselves, our life, and our work. One of the funny things about the stories we have about ourselves is that we've already determined the ending. We can't, it seems, live our lives unless we have some certainty about the future even if it is made up. Mark Freeman, author of Rewriting the Self (a book which is excellent, demanding to read, and nearly impossible to come by), points to our need for stories with this rhetorical question:
"Aren't stories ultimately defensive delusions, created as a means of defying the onslaught of time, with its accidents, its unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences, its nameless and unending future?"
We create stories with already determined endings as a defense against the true uncertainty and unforeseeablility of the future. Knowing how it all ends helps us live day by day with the uncertainty of life. However, knowing how it all ends is also a recipe for circumscribing the limits of what's possible in our lives. Our greatest opportunity opens up by letting go of the certain ending we hold so tightly.
Since we can't seem to live into the future with zero certainty, we need to make up a new ending for our story. So, who are you going to be? What are you going to do? What are you going to have? All of these questions are open for reconsideration when we invent new possibilities for our future. Rewriting our future - today - and living into those possibilities in a way that they become our reality is the idea.
When confronted with the question "what is your biggest opportunity in this market?" most of us allow our thinking and imagination to only range within the possibilities that we already included in the ending of our story. So I'm not asking what are your biggest opportunities to play out the story you already know how the ending to. I'm not asking you how to win the game you are already playing. Instead, I'm asking you, "What are the opportunities to reinvent your story's ending, to reinvent the game you are playing?"
If you are a CEO or businessperson, your thinking here should be informed by your study of demographic trends, economic forecasts, an interpretation of the changing political landscape, and a grasp of how newly emerging technologies are shifting the competitive landscape. However, to realize your biggest opportunities, you must not take the game you are playing for granted. You must not take the ending to be certain. Instead, change what it means to win the game - change the end of your story.
Question Three: What crossroads are you at in your life and work?
Question One and Two are challenging but they empower you. Therefore they are questions worthy of true consideration. These questions empower you because they challenge you to 1) be true to and face the results that you actually have in your life and 2) to be true to the freedom you always already have in how you fashion yourself (your public and private identities), your relationships, your commitments, and your responses. These questions empower you because they call forth the full measure of your authenticity.
Question Three brings the first two questions together. This question challenges you by saying, "Well, you can continue on the same path, doing more of the same, and generating the same results OR you can take a different path. Which will it be?"
I encourage you to take up this question in as much specificity as you can. To say generically, "I choose to take a different path" without a concrete definition of what exactly you will do differently is useless.
What are the specific crossroads? In your closest relationships? At home? At work? In your career?
The crossroads you are at is an opportunity for you to redefine yourself, to redefine your relationships, to acknowledge and re-commit to what you deeply care about, and to generate new results.
Question Four: As you engage the world, what is most important to conserve?
Conservation is an often overlooked but critical part of any change. Change is a funny thing because we want it badly but we hate being in the middle of it. Usually when we go about making a change, we don't know what we are getting ourselves into because we don't know what has to change in order to make the change that we want in the first place. This is why being in the middle of change is so scary for people. When we are in the middle of the unsettlement and uncertainty of change, it seems to have no end or limit.
A powerful way of allowing ourselves to be in the uncertainty of change is to start off with a clear definition of what is being conserved.
Again, please answer this question in a specific way. And if you are leading change within your organization, speak openly and often about what is important to conserve in the midst of this change.
You might be temped to answer this question by stating your values. Values are great. Go ahead and state them. But you also need to take your thinking to the level of action. What are you going to keep doing the way that you are already doing it?
Question Five: What is your "guiding star" as you navigate through the changes you need to make?
How many times have you found yourself in the middle of doing something differently and felt disoriented? Probably a lot if you are like most people. So what do you do when you get disoriented? What or whom do you consult to get re-oriented?
It is odd (but maybe not surprising) that people often launch off into new territory without packing a compass. They don't have a way of getting their bearings in the middle of the the new ocean they are sailing in.
Like all the other questions here, I'm suggesting that you really take this up and really look to see who or what is your guiding star. And just as before, let me take away some answers that I think are false.
Your guiding star isn't some leadership expert or self-help guru. It isn't a book or a method or a process or a plan. Your guiding star isn't your mentor, coach, priest, or spiritual guide. Of course all of these may be helpful but they aren't your true source of guidance. Your compass isn't outside of you. You are your own guiding star. You might be thinking, "But I'm the one whose disoriented, remember!?" Yes, part of you is disoriented - the part that is trying to get things to turn out a certain way.
Whenever we try to get life to turn out a certain way, we can easily get disoriented. We all have parts of us that are trying to do exactly that. However, as human beings, we also have an indestructible Self that is always whole, unitary, complete, and fully present. Our Self isn't trying to get life to turn out a certain way because from it's perspective life has already turned out. And how it turned out is how things already are.
The amazing paradox is that when we fully accept where we are, true guidance for the journey shows up within us. This is what living and leading from Self is all about. How do we do this? In a way the real answer is different for each of us. However, generically how we do this amounts to letting go of needing to have life turn out a certain way and tuning into what we actually feel and sense in the moment. This is like tuning our radio to the "guidance" radio station.
Question Six: What commitment do you hold that makes this conversation necessary for you?
I'm making a big assumption with this next question - that you already have something that you deeply care about that makes engaging these questions truly worthwhile for you. But I'm on safe ground because human beings are caring beings. We just are.
Most of the time what we care about just hangs around in the background of our thinking and acting. From what I've observed in my own life and in the lives of my coaching clients, when our cares and concerns just hang out in the background we tend to drift through life. And when we are facing tough challenges in life and work, drifting doesn't help that much. Drifting leaves us feeling powerless.
If we bring our cares and concerns into the foreground and into sharp focus by actually stating them as commitments, suddenly we've set ourselves in the driver's seat. We've set ourselves up for driving instead of drifting. And that is empowering.
I used to start these conversations with this question. However, engaging the previous questions tends to prime people to consider this question for real. So take a look at your answers so far. What cares and concerns have been present all along but hiding there in the background? Bring them out into the open by writing them down as commitments that define who you are.
Question Seven: What action are you going to take next? With whom? By when?
My commitment to anyone who enters this conversation with me is that it be of significant value to them. One of the ways that the value becomes real is through the new actions that people take. Again, I'm asking for real concrete and specific actions. So what new actions will you take? With whom? By when?
The Eighth Step: Do it all over again and again and again
The last step isn't a question. The last step is to make working with these seven questions into a practice. Working through these questions just once is powerful however vastly insufficient. To be truly effective over both the short and long term, your answers to these questions always have to be fresh and alive. Stale answers don't work.
I hope that you've found this article of value. I'd love to hear your comments and questions so please share them on this blog.
I want to thank two friends of mine, Ken Homer and Robert Masters, for being in conversation with me as I thought about these questions. Both of these men are wonderfully gifted coaches and I'm lucky to have collaborators of their caliber. Thanks guys!