Before starting the new year fresh, one writer stops to examine the lessons she learned from the big risks she took in 2014.
By Ellen Petry Leanse (Technology Strategist and Leadership Coach)
New possibilities, a fresh start: Tomorrow the calendar is clean and the champagne corks fly. I’m excited for 2015, but that’s a post for another day. Today is about what I learned in 2014 that I’m keeping close at hand in the new year (and beyond).
2014 was an intense year for me. I took a gamble, one that scared me and that plenty of people told me was a mistake. Yes, I had some dark moments. I also tapped in to ideas, partnerships, and opportunities that helped me move forward in satisfying ways: the very ways I was seeking. On the journey, figuring things out, I picked up ten practices that notably pointed things in the right directions. If you’re facing risk or seeking growth in the year ahead — and something tells me you are — I hope you find them useful too.
1. Expand Your Discomfort Zone
Yes: discomfort. A big comfort zone is a good thing, but it’s still comfortable. Risk, ambiguity, the unknown: these feel shaky, but they make us grow. Uncertainty is scary. Yet it opens up a lot more options than certainty ever can. If change is the only constant, then staying comfortable means falling behind. Master comfort with discomfort and you’ll find a new, and surprisingly natural feeling, strength. Staying uncomfortable may mean taking steps, even small ones, into the unknown. But small steps forward, even in the dark, are the surest path to the light. Watch a champion surfer and you’ll know: they didn’t get there by staying dry. Or comfortable.
It’s said that focus isn’t choosing one thing: it’s saying no to 1,000. Yet “Yes!” is the word we’re told to say as we add on to our bucket lists, tell all on all social platforms, and register for still one more activity. “No” is hard. We give up a lot when we say it, as FOMO knows. What we GAIN is the ability to focus on what matters to us and deepen our work to achieve it. When “no” means a “yes” to ourselves, we gain something valuable — focus — in the exchange. Dharmesh Shah writes well about that here. I join in, not quite as well, here.
3. Connect the Dots
Some say you can’t connect the dots looking forward. But you can increase the probability of future connecting by collecting wisely. Author Tim Sanders (“Love is the Killer App,” ht Dan Martell) calls this “value currency” for future spending. Now, this may seem to contradict #2, “Focus.” Never fear. The trick is to collect with a specific intention in mind. It’s not random. Choose your focus and commit. Be curious. Push into your discomfort zone to read, research, meet with people who know more than you do, and start gathering dots. Be aware that you’re doing this by design: you’re chasing something, even if you don’t yet know what it is. Trust it. You’ll see the patterns emerge.
4. Ignore the Focus Groups
When we’re taking risks, everybody has an opinion on what we could or should be doing. But the big decisions in our lives shouldn’t be crowdsourced: only we know the full story. Learn to say “Thanks — I have this” when you actually do. If you’re still figuring it out, seek generative conversations with people who are more interested in your questions than in their own answers. Your heart and intuition already know what you want to become, said Steve Jobs. Not sure what they’re telling you? Review points 1, 2, and 3 above. Repeat as needed. And if you do want input, find someone who is genuinely willing to collaborate rather than someone who thinks they know what’s best for you.
5. Hack Reality
How we see things has a big role in shaping how we experience them. Visualizing outcomes we seek, making sense out of what’s happening: our thoughts impact on our reality. This isn’t news. Lao Tse’s take on it is is more than 2,500 years old: “Look to your thoughts, for thoughts become words. Look to your words, for words become actions. Look to your actions, for actions become habits. Habits shape character. And character shapes destiny.” Even in times of uncertainty, the one thing we’re always in charge of is how we perceive things. If we remain open, aware, and confident in the process, and if we see the bigger triumph even in the daily challenges, we‘re actually in charge of a lot (even, it seems, our destiny).
6. Aim for a Real Target
Looking at our life in the context of the bigger story — purpose, a sense of meaning — elevates our vision and creates essential context. There’s nothing wrong having a good job, meeting financial goals, and making progress in your career. But look beyond that, to the story you really want for yourself. You’ll get a new take on how this job fits in. If you’re taking risk or starting something new, look up (especially when the going gets rough) and see that experience as part of a bigger story: the story of you. And, yes: you can stay in the moment, even while you do this. We are always on a path. You can know that, and envision where it leads, even as you step forward in the here and now.
7. Demand Excellence (Especially on Yourself)
I’m shifting to first person with this one, speaking for myself. This was a scary year. Knowing that I was taking a risk made the stakes high. Every day mattered; nothing felt casual. I put pressure on myself. Kept on eye on my metrics, held myself accountable. Course corrected when I needed to and gave myself positive feedback when I did well. If I was going to take these risks and take a year of my life to meet a goal, I damn well better make it worthwhile. This “How is the decision you’re making right now…” technique from Apple days is a key tool that helped me stick to the vision (and meet the mark).
8. Choose Your Team
When you’re taking risks, you’re making yourself vulnerable. And if you’re vulnerable, you need to be very careful about who you keep around you. Some will be your champions. Some may not. Your vision might challenge their own willingness to be uncomfortable, to do what’s needed to do their best work. Stay very aware and trust your gut. If a friend is bringing you down, pay attention. Try to be aware, to “feel” where something feels off. Intuition is an essential tool, especially when you’re pushing your own potential. Listen to it. If someone or something isn’t helping you, re-examine your focus and prioritize accordingly. Have the confidence to surround yourself with the only people and things you need to do your best work. Less may be more. And it may also be better.
9. Do Something With It
You have something inside you that the world needs. That’s why you’re here. And you will find more happiness, not to mention more impact, when you do something with it. The “status quo” doesn’t want you to know this. It’s easier when we don’t rock the boat, go with the flow, follow somebody else’s map rather than our own compass. We don’t get much opposition when we stay safe. We get a lot when we take chances. But know: even small chances can make a big difference. Everything on the list above can help us make progress, whether we’re tiptoeing or leaping toward an ever-better vision of ourselves. If you’re taking a risk or seeking growth, what you do doesn’t have to answer all questions or change everything. All it has to do is make you better at being you. Even if it doesn’t put the next SpaceX on the moon (Mars, whatever), if it makes us better at being ourselves, then we have, actually, made a dent in the universe.
10. Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish
Turning things upside down, it turns out, can sometimes be the best way to see things more clearly. I was lucky to be able to do this pretty radically this year. Knowing what I know now, I see small ways I could have done this at many other points in my life, giving myself longer to reap the benefits. Learning to welcome the beginner’s mind, that objective way seeing, with an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions: that’s available at any point in our lives. “Stay hungry” means avoid “set and forget.” “Stay foolish” means steer clear of thinking you know all the answers: it will lock you in place. Keep yourself a work in progress, always evolving, never finished.
And have a meaningful, satisfying, and very happy New Year.
This piece originally appeared on Ellen's Medium channel.
What lessons from the past year will you take with you in 2015?
About the guest blogger: Ellen Leanse (@chep2m) works at the crossroads of technology, positive psychology, and design thinking. An alum of early Apple, Google, and a several entrepreneurial ventures, she has worked with innovators around the world and always comes home to a simple, human truth: we are all part of something bigger. Her Stanford class on Innovation is among the school’s highest-rated Continuing Studies courses, and will soon be offered online. Follow Ellen on Twitter at @chep2m for updates.