For those unable to attend, this is my write-up of my session from LAST Conference 2018, my first formal speaking arrangement. Here it is, in all its glory! This was a half hour talk, so hopefully not too long to read.
I remain grateful to the people that made it to see me at the conference, and those that have provided feedback since. I have been overwhelmed by the encouragement, and now the only question on my mind is “what next?”.
My talk is titled “from apathy to intent”, as I feel this sums it up my experience of career and personal change. To begin, I think it is worthwhile to explain what I mean when I talk about each of these “states” of being…
When I talk about apathy, I’m speaking about the time of life where we sit back from our desk, stare out a window, and ask our self… “Is this all there is?” Or, when you can’t imagine anything worse than having to get up out of your bed and drag yourself to that place you call… work.
I share this story — my story — to perhaps give a little bit of hope to those of you that can relate to this.
But every good story starts with a villain, and so does mine.
A crap job! Who hasn’t had one? They’re boring, mundane and utterly pointless. They bring out the worst in us — so our colleagues, managers & poor unsuspecting customers better watch out.
When you’re in one of these roles, you are living for a pay cheque, and worst of all, life just kind of happens to you. It is numbing, disengaging, and from my perspective, no way to live at all.
So, what I want to share about is how I got unstuck, and what I do now to prevent it from happening again (And I stress, this is not flawless!). We will look at:
- What it is like to realise your values and goals
- How you can develop your own personal practice that you love
- Moving into a state of growth — in capacity and self-awareness
So that eventually you can find yourself living a life worth living, and uncover what makes you… you.
Which brings me to something I learnt about quite recently.
In her book, “Emotional Agility”, Susan David provides this illustration. She compares the way we live our lives — and careers — to balancing a see-saw. Too competent, and we risk falling into complacency (and apathy). Too challenged, and we will get overwhelmed.
Susan explains that what we want to try to do is maintain a kind of creative tension to keep the see-saw balanced. This will see us “living on the edge of our ability. Stretched, challenged and engaged… but not drowning.”
In the end for me, I had a choice. I could stay in my comfortable old job that I had completely out-grown and had lost any sort of challenge.
Or, I could take on what would be a massive change, and the challenge that would come with it.
I chose the latter, and it felt a lot like this:
I also, at the time, would often describe it like the final scene from Gravity. The chaos. The burning up during reentry. Pieces falling off. Spinning out of control.
No way to predict how it all would end.
I know this is a bit dramatic, but internally there was a lot going on.
This was my reality. My health had never been worse; physically, mentally and emotionally — I was a complete mess. I lost all focus, and time became a complete and utter blur.
I remember thinking to myself just how unfair it all was. This was supposed to be my moment. I was finally performing a role where I was mentally AND creatively engaged. This was something I was supposed to be capable of, and I couldn’t do it.
This was a disaster. What the hell was I supposed to do?
It felt weak. I couldn’t do what others could.
You see, in my mind, I’m in catch up mode. I’m starting a new career as a 30-year-old, I’d just become the sole income earner following the birth of my first daughter, and I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to make this work.
There was a lot at stake, and I’m discovering first hand just how hard change can be.
While this is true — change is often brutal. What I have learnt since, is that we can prepare for it.
We can stack the odds in our favour, loading up the competence side of the see-saw with resilience and capacity for change. The other massive benefit of this, is that these skills are transferrable, and through their development, you’ll find you become a bit kinder to the you that was underequipped throughout the chaos.
And a beautiful place to start, is with courage.
You see we spend our lives forming a set of beliefs and values — this is our comfort zone.
Then change comes, drags us kicking and screaming out of that comfort zone and leaves us with uncertainty. Through this uncertainty comes fear.
Courage has never been a trait of mine. But I recently discovered Brene Brown, who has become renowned for her research on Bravery and Vulnerability, and their necessity when dealing with change.
This has been a revelation to me. That courage was never something you needed to be born with. Courage is ALWAYS a choice, and it is one of those things you only get good at by practicing. Both of her TED talks are amazing, and I can highly recommend her books.
In Brene’s most recent book — “Rising Strong”, she describes her “Physics of Vulnerablity”, and I need to share them with you.
- “If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall… Daring is saying, I know I will eventually fail and I’m still all in.”
- “Once we fall in the service of being brave, we can never go back… Courage transforms the emotional structure of our being.”
- “This journey belongs to no one but you; however, no one successfully goes it alone.” That rising after a fall is one of the most universally shared experiences of being a human, and yet we still need to experience and grow through it.
- “We are wired for story.” That even for the perfectionists, we find connection in sharing our failings. “We do this because we feel the most alive when we’re connecting with others and being brave with our stories…”
Which I guess is why I share this story. Why conferences like LAST exist and are filled with such incredible people. Something clicked for me when I read this stuff.
There was no going back.
Brene says it herself that the most common question she has been asked for her entire career is this:
I remember feeling incredibly frustrated while I was in my twenties. Asking the exact same thing. I knew what I wanted, and that I needed to change, but felt hopeless to do anything about it.
More recently, I have discovered what I feel is a great place to start.
Curiosity. For one, it’s a wonderful way to approach life in general — rediscovering a child-like inquisitiveness. Asking lots of questions and seeing life as though it’s for the first time.
But it is also a powerful tool to overcome fear and uncertainty.
I will continue to be amused, the more people I meet that do the same thing… but I love to spoil horror movies for myself. I would never watch one, but sometimes I just have to know what happens — to understand the twisted creativity, while avoiding the jump scares.
I feel like this is a bit like that. Having that lense of curiosity about yourself has the same effect. We are complicated, and this is a bit like “spoilers” for your guts. By understanding ourselves we can hack our lives.
These are the systems that govern our reactions and will make decisions for us when we are in a tight space. Self awareness about them alone can help you alter what would otherwise be a “default behaviour”.
We can understand and viscerally feel our fight or flight response as the chemicals course through our body. We can identify and work through our blind spots and triggers. And we can understand the unconscious biases that we are all susceptible to.
So, what I would encourage anybody to do, is if you are interested in something and want to learn more about it… write it down. That simple. Then, go research it.
Hunger for knowledge about yourself and the world. As you learn you will start to see yourself differently, and from this increased understanding, new beliefs can emerge.
Through this process I realized something. For my entire life I have carried around this list of things that I would say I “couldn’t”, or “would never be able to” do.
I have since learnt that these are limiting beliefs. They are of no value, and serve no purpose what so ever — other than to put me in a box.
So, I’ve found myself on this mission to get rid of beliefs like this — gradually testing and changing them, and smashing my way out of that box. I didn’t set out to, it started out with something I already loved.
And that was basketball. I started playing it regularly at work and it was like discovering it for the first time, because I realised it helped me in other ways. Sure, exercise is great physically, but it also forces you to be present in the moment, and is a wonderful way to connect with people.
Once that habit started, and particularly because of the connections — the friends I had made in the process — I started to try other activities I never thought I would.
Things like gym, jogging, group fitness. I would try a lot of different things. This was my space. I so deeply valued it.
I would book out my calendar, and fight anybody that would seek to deprive me of this time. I would call it “my weekend in the middle of the week”.
I know a lot of us have these things we know we should start but always have a reason not to. Maybe today is the best time to make that reality?
Because, trust me, it’s worth it.
When I took on that new role (and because it was initially temporary), I made a choice to put down these habits because I thought it would be more important that I be in the office, physically present at all times to learn and show my enthusiasm.
But far out did I regret that. If I wasn’t sure how beneficial it was before, I certainly was after.
And that’s the thing. These activities are awesome on a good day, but it’s the really, really, bad times where they totally come into their own. I suffered because I had to learn this part of the lesson the hard way.
I had a couple of months before the end of my secondment and a permanent opportunity, and I made sure that the very first thing I did (On day two or something!) was join a gym. The habit has stuck ever since.
There was a further learning to be had here.
I realised something. My whole life I had considered myself to be laid back… relaxed… spontaneous. Because of this I had developed this attitude that “routine was not for me”.
I would get up… whenever.
I would vaguely get ready.
I would somehow get to work.
It was a bit hap hazard honestly, because I placed no value in routine what so ever.
You see the things we value need to have a strong connection to some kind of “why?”. A motivation… a problem that they solve.
To me, routine caused more issues than it solved.
I liked being laid back…
I liked being relaxed…
I loved just “winging it”.
But what I have learned since is that when you have no routine, just for the sake of it… You form a routine anyway.
The worst kind of routine. One of making meaningless decisions on the fly. All. The. Time.
Have you ever got to the end of the week and not been able to decide what to have for dinner?
Or procrastinated away a whole weekend, because you can’t decide what to do?
You were probably running on fumes.
You see, we only have a certain capacity, or reserve of energy, for making decisions. If we burn up all that energy on tiny, meaningless decisions, we won’t have anything left to give when we need to make a choice that matters.
Before you know it, you’re eating breakfast in your car or brushing your teeth on the train.
And that is disgusting.
Another big problem for me and my capacity to make decisions, is devices.
How many of us are modern day “multi-taskers”, sitting on the couch with two or three screens going at a time, giving nothing our full attention and forgetting the people we share the house with?
Who else has had that experience of mindlessly scrolling through your phone, only to realise… you can’t remember getting the damn thing out of your pocket to begin with?
Joshua Fields Millburn of the minimalists wrote an essay titled “Scrolling is the new smoking”. While I don’t want to alienate anybody, in it, he draws some powerful parallels between the addictiveness, health, and social issues that are well associated with it.
I think he is totally onto something.
Meanwhile, my daughter is growing up before my very eyes, and I have another due in November!
Being here, in the moment. Present. Focused. Able to keep up! This must be my priority.
This stuff goes well beyond our day job. This is our lives we are talking about.
So now, somehow, I cherish routine. Like I really love it!
Even if I am not perfect at keeping to it, I am always looking for ways to tweak and improve. I can feel the energy it gives me back, and it forces me to practice discipline — something else I have never had a great relationship with.
So how is your relationship with routine? Are there some things you can tweak to reduce your cognitive load?
Because of this new love of routine, I have been able to challenge all kinds of my limiting beliefs:
- That “I could never be a morning person”
- That “I could never find time to meditate”
- That “Yoga, is for… girls”
Now, mindfulness helps me with the brain fog, and lack of focus. I am also far more aware when I am making crap decisions with my devices as well.
Yoga, meditation, and a breathing practice are now core to my life, and I never shut up about how much I love it. I do it…
In our industry I hear it all the time. People describe themselves as “busy brained people” with “all this stuff going on all the time”. Well, for those of you out there like me, it’s simple.
Get on it! There are so many easy ways to start.
In her talk called “Continuous Retrospectives” (which is wonderful by the way), Linda Rising borrows a familiar metaphor. This time, the popular iceberg trope is used to represent our consciousness. The part of the iceberg out of the water representing our conscious mind, and beneath the water is the unconscious, which is “so overwhelming and so under used.”
Then she flips the thing.
She explains that actually, the conscious mind is more like a snowball, perched on the top of the iceberg. ALL the rest being the unconscious.
Down there our reactions happen, and decisions are made. Down there we develop weird narratives about the people in our lives, biases run rampant and our stress accumulates.
Mindfulness — through meditation and yoga — is my way of staying in touch with the rest of the iceberg. Through both, I increase my self-awareness and get to know myself — free of my own self judgement.
This is about making time to practice being present and in the moment.
Not thinking about the stresses of the day, or the worries of the tomorrow.
Just “being”. Now.
Best of all, I get to be the laid back me I always thought I was, it’s just… a different, better version of me.
You can easily start to feel lost when you realise just how much you have to learn. I truly understand what people mean when they say, “the more I learn, the less I know”.
A friend of mine recently reminded me that “you are never you”… you’re never done growing. The status quo was great for its time, but it is not the only way. It is totally up for question.
This is where I like to employ some principles that are familiar to anybody that has worked in an Agile environment.
Starting with Kaizen, a Japanese word that means “change for good”, or perhaps more familiarly “continuous improvement”.
Then combine that with the common-sense approach — that a big problem is easier to solve if you make it into smaller pieces — and you have a recipe for personal growth.
Take the list of things you want to work on, and break it up into chunks. From there you can prioritise the work, and you will find it is a much easier way to figure out where to start.
This is how you start to build your very own practice. Finding space for continuous learning is a critical component. Hopefully you already have some ideas just from reading this!
I use experimentation all the time for my personal growth. I’ll try something new for a little while and see if it makes a difference.
Each of the experiments has an impact on my life. Over the last few years I have implemented countless ones and I just keep the ones that work!
It is the exact same thing we encourage with our software teams.
So how do all these bits of personal development relate to culture and the environment in our workplaces?
The best workplaces are the ones where people want to come to work — at least most of the time. In my experience, for this to be the case, employees require a sense of freedom and autonomy.
This creates space — for people to learn and try new things like I did. I don’t know how possible my growth would have been without it.
So, what we are talking about here is the critical ingredient.
As leaders, this requires shifting the focus to be on people (and avoiding snide “clock-watching” comments, even as a joke) — we need to kill the limiting belief that an individual’s productivity correlates linearly to their time spent at their desk. So many complex problems are solved over coffee, or in the shower… or in our sleep.
Conversely, as employees, it is our responsibility to have the integrity to be trustworthy. We can be offered “fast trust”, but that trust can be lost if we abuse the privileges we have.
Culture however, is something else entirely. It isn’t something a company makes, or can hand to you.
Culture is the sum, of the attitudes and actions of everybody in the building.
Culture requires a sense of ownership. You choose to be a part of it, you choose to invest… you choose to contribute.
I feel like this is why we sometimes get this sense of entitlement running rampant. Suddenly we need so much to be happy. We need:
- 17 types of tea in the kitchen
- 8 types of milk in the fridge
- Ergonomic toilet seats
Despite everything we have, we still find reasons to complain.
The truth is, if culture is something you are waiting to be given, or for someone else to fix, you will never have it.
But if you bring of yourself, and weave yourself into the culture, then you get something special.
Because at the end of the day, this is a conversation about people. Diverse, talented… messy, complicated… awesome people!
I want to know, and care about the people I work with. I want to be in community with them. I want to enjoy the time we have, and I will mourn (while celebrating) when they move onto bigger and better things — as inevitably happens.
We spend so much time with each other after all. We need to lean into it.
Celebrate together, learn and grow alongside each other, and pick one another up when we fall.
You see, work doesn’t stop for all the hard things in life.
Some days, all the things in the world that you have put into place for your resilience will be utterly inadequate.
Then you need a community more than ever.
This is where this becomes a conversation about vulnerability.
Vulnerability, with people close to you, makes all the difference — so long as you have a sense of boundaries. I still have a lot to learn about the boundaries part, but I am sharing it because I am already convinced of its importance and needed to include it.
People that really know you will notice, and even call out stuff before you can register yourself. I would struggle to do it any other way.
Vulnerability also opens the opportunity to coach and mentor one another. We can get alongside each other, share and adopt parts of each other’s practices to bolster our own, all the while contributing to the cycle of growth.
So, I’d challenge you to think about the attitude or posture you bring to work — even in that crap role, can you be an agent of positive culture?
Be in community together, practice gratitude and generosity. Think about what you wish your workplace was like, ask yourself what you can bring, what you can contribute. Think about how you being you can leave the place better than when you found it.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think about how temporary our lives are all the time.
Life has a way of reminding us.
People get old.
People get sick.
Children grow up… fast!
The threat that I am pissing my life away on inane things is scarier than the uncertainty of “the new”.
I guess I feel like there is a lot at stake here. Call me idealistic, but I believe that each of us can make a huge impact on our families, workplaces and communities.
But it all starts with us making space in our lives, for ourselves. For a bit of self-kindness, that will have a flow on effect to everything we do.
Start small, be attentive to the benefits. Grasp the inspiration, the appetite for change and growth, and you will adjust the trajectory of your life for good.
This is the intent that I was talking about in the beginning. So, if you are done with apathy like I was — is it time to take on a new challenge? Are you feeling overwhelmed and need to build your resilience? Or do you simply need to tweak your routine a bit to fit in those things you know you need to do?
Are you ready to see your life as a journey that you GET to be a part of?
If so, think about what really matters to you. Believe that your best is possible and pursue it for the rest of your life!
Re-write your values if you have to, squash those limiting beliefs that would get in your way.
Build a practice that YOU own and can be proud of.
When you think about it this way, it stops being about all the things you don’t have time to fit into your life.
Instead you find it is really about how you don’t have time to waste living any other way.
Instead you find it is really about how you don’t have time to waste living any other way.