What to do when you don’t know what you’re doing

Just ten days after leaving the big company I’ve worked in for twenty years, I’m facing things that I have little or no experience dealing with.

How do I describe and package what I do? What do I offer for free and what do I charge for (and how much)? There are legal, financial, and technical issues to sort out. It can be overwhelming, and makes the well-defined boxes inside big companies a bit more appealing.

Here are five things that have helped me already and might help you if you’re trying something new. They’ve made me feel less anxious and more confident, and so the entire process is more enjoyable.

What am I doing?

Find people who already do it.

You can learn a lot from simple research. When I started charging for presentations at a conference, for example, I looked online to see what others like me have charged. For my new online course, I searched for examples of similar offerings.

I’ll reach out to people who have more experience and ask “What do you think?” That research gives me at least a sense of what’s appropriate.

Talk with trusted confidants.

It takes a friend to give you constructive criticism or spend the time to think through an approach with you. It also takes vulnerability – I don’t know what to do. Will you talk with me about it?

In the past I kept my biggest issues to myself and that was a mistake. Now I’m lucky to have a handful of people I regularly go to for coaching and advice. They’re trusted advisors who care enough about me to to tell me what they think is best, not just what I want to hear. If you don’t already have such a circle of advisors, start cultivating them now. You can begin by approaching someone you respect and asking “Would you help me?”

Fail small, fast, and cheap.

After reading how modern start-ups begin and grow, I’ve tried to adapt those ideas to myself. A big part of that is breaking down something you want to do into small, cheap experiments. That allows you try different things and quickly get feedback that helps you learn and create the next experiment. You start small and iterate.

My weekly blog posts led to a book. Free courses I created led to on-line and custom programs I can charge for. The hundreds of free talks I gave led to speaking engagements and a TEDx talk.

I didn’t create risky plans for the start-up of me. I just tried a series of low-risk, low-cost experiments that allowed me to discover things I enjoy doing that also have a value to others.

Frame it all as a learning goal.

I must have told myself “I’m terrible at this” (and worse) more than ten thousand times. And each time I try to remind myself “I’m just not good at it yet.” That is the essence of a growth mindset, and that simple switch in your head changes the entire process.

When trying something new, of course you don’t know how to do many things. What else would you expect? By framing what you’re doing as a learning goal – not to be good or bad but to become better – your ignorance and mistakes become opportunities for improvement instead of sources of suffering.

Keep shipping.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last decade has been this: persistence and passion trumps all else. When you keep shipping – trying new things, delivering, deepening relationships based on contribution – all your fears, detractors, and mistakes no longer define you. They’re behind you because you’ve kept going, and the passion you show over time attracts others who care as you do.

Have you tried something new and thought “I don’t know what I’m doing”? Don’t give up. It can be a beginning instead of an ending.

 

The ambulance at the old age home

When the ambulance comesThe home is just up the street from me. I can see it from my apartment window. Every other week or so, I notice the flashing lights of an ambulance as it pulls up and double-parks outside. The sirens are almost never turned on. It’s as if there’s no reason to hurry.

I think about the person being attended to. The phone calls to family, producing ripples of grief. Or, much worse, a silent dispatch replete with processes and paperwork.

I wonder what the people inside are thinking, as they’re gathered in the dining hall, slowly eating the food prepared for them. Are they reflecting on their own life, committing to make more of the little time they have left? Or is the incident another bitter reminder of a life largely un-lived? Perhaps they’re silently relieved it’s not their turn, and after a respectable silence they continue where they left off.

Each time it happens, I think about my own end. I know it sounds macabre, but for all of us it’s a matter of when, not if.

Will I “go gentle into that good night” or “rage, rage against the dying of the light?”

What will you do, when the ambulance comes for you?

Why “Half-full or half-empty?” is the wrong question

It’s such a common metaphor for our outlook on things. “Are you a glass half-full person?”

But that’s too simple and too static, because work and life are fluid and ever-changing. So here’s a better question to ask the next time you examine your glass:

“Is it evaporating or are you filling it up?”

half full glass of water or half empty PSC0512_FYI

More than just your outlook

Of course, there is a genetic predisposition to how we view the world. In The How of Happiness, Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky says our biology accounts for about half of our happiness. Our environment, surprisingly, accounts for only a tenth.

The other 40% is up for grabs.

That means that even those who win the Genetic Happiness Lottery and the Life Circumstances Lottery can still be quite miserable if they don’t do anything with the 40% that’s within their control.

Said another way, if you passively observe the slings and arrows hurled at you and those around you, you can find plenty to be unhappy about, and the water in your glass will slowly evaporate.

The power of a drop

The way to overcome this passive process is by actively adding to your glass, perhaps with just a drop each day. It might be as simple as pausing to appreciate a moment. Practicing a small act of generosity. Making a connection with someone new, or deepening your connection with a friend.

“Life is a verb,” as Patti Digh wrote, and so is happiness. That might seem obvious, but it took me almost fifty years to realize it.

A few years ago, as part of my own happiness project, I started using a simple guide that has made me more mindful of small things. A bit more of this, a bit less of that.

I’ve maintained such a guide since then, and over the years I’ve discovered the power of the progress principle. Small steps unlock other small steps that, over time, can lead to a remarkable shift in how you think and act.

Each drop changes you in some small positive way. Over time, you can make it rain.

Make it rain

Freedom’s just another word for …

How would you finish that sentence? Perhaps, like the late Janis Joplin, you’d say it’s “just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Or if you were me, about a year ago, you’d quote Nina Simone and say freedom is “No fear!”

But now I think freedom is something else entirely.

© Robert Gober

Prison Window – © Robert Gober

What freedom isn’t

The source of much of my personal development lately is Pema Chödrön. This time, it’s from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.

“The cause of our suffering is…our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom.”

In short, freedom isn’t denying that we have fears and desires and hopes. That would be denying our very humanity. Freedom is allowing yourself to feel all those things and then let them go.

The only way out is through

I spent a long time trying to shut out fear or distracting myself from it. After 51 years of that not working, I’m ready for a new strategy.

Pema Chödrön provides one. She cites the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor when she says that the emotion itself isn’t the problem. It’s our reaction to it; the story line in our heads.

“An emotion like anger [or fear] that’s an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.”

Instead of fighting it, work with it. “The only way out is through,” she said, and she suggests this simple exercise:

“Acknowledge the feeling, give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention, and even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have direct experience  of it, free of interpretation. Don’t fuel it with concepts or opinions about whether it’s good or bad. Just be present with the situation. Where is it located in your body? Does it remain the same for very long? Does it shift and change?”

By the time you’ve worked with the emotion in this way, the ninety seconds have passed and you feel and think differently. No drama or rekindling. You acknowledge what is and move on. No big deal.

A personal example

She advises starting with something not too terrifying, so I started with an email.

I’ve been working on something important to me and was waiting on feedback. When I woke up, I was already anticipating a message related to the project and could feel a low-level anxiety. When I saw the email, I quickly scanned it, fixated on some less-than-glowing comments, and experienced a mild panic.

Instead of denial or distraction – telling myself  “it doesn’t matter” or distracting myself with another task – I remembered the exercise.

I acknowledged the fear I was feeling. I noticed my heart pounding and the knot in my stomach. I let myself feel it without thinking. I took a few deep, slow breaths. After a minute or two, I calmed down, reread the note, and got to work.

No big deal.

What’s on the other side

That may seem like a trivial example, but I found it striking that my body and brain couldn’t tell the difference between an email and being attacked by a bear. The  immediate reaction is the same heart-pounding desire to flee.

In the book, she quotes a poem that describes what you’ll discover when you can stop struggling against uncertainty.

This world – absolutely pure.

As is. Behind the fear,

Vulnerability. Behind that,

Sadness, then compassion

And behind that the vast sky.

What does freedom mean to you? If you don’t feel free already, try the 90-second exercise. Freedom might be closer than you think.

Your life: Is it true?

I have the good fortune of having two friends who are certified coaches, and I spoke to both of them recently.

I was struck that they both asked me the same question and that, weeks later, I’m still working on the answer.

The story I tell

Both of my friends have that coaching gift of saying very little while letting me know they’re listening with various nods and grunts of affirmation.

When they asked me how I was doing, I went on a monologue about my plans and aspirations. They listened patiently as I rattled off a long list of activities and my thinking behind them. When I finally paused for breath, they each asked me a variant of the question:

“Is it true?”

Starting with why

The question caught me off guard, even the second time. I didn’t say anything at first. We talked about what “true” would mean.

Is this genuinely what I want to be doing, or a story for others?

Why am I doing it?

How does it feel?

The first time, as I tried to articulate what motivated me to do what I’m doing, I was uncertain. It’s tied up with making a living, so any noble aspirations quickly get mixed up with other goals, and can easily conflict with them.

The second time, having had more time to think about it, I was able to relate my goals to other events in my life. There seemed to be some consistency in terms of philosophy and values, a narrative thread. But is it just a good story to tell myself and others? Is it true?

Is it true?

Your life

My guess is my coaches weren’t expecting an answer as much as they wanted to help me to pause and reflect. The question wasn’t meant as a test, but as a guide, one that I could use throughout my life to help me be authentic amidst the frenetic busy-ness.

What about you? Perhaps you’re trying to pursue some goal or perhaps your everyday is  already overfull. Try pausing long enough to reflect on what you’re doing, what you’re planning and hoping for.

Is it true?

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