Sunday, June 27, 2010

Escaping the Failure Net

There are a lot of things that matter to me. My marriage, composing music, coaching others in unleashing their creativity and developing a purposeful vision, serving on the local steering committee for the More To Life organization, nurturing the meaningful connections I have with friends, and a handful of other things as well. I make commitments about those things on a regular basis, and I put those commitments in my calendar. I know when I intend to work on a piece, how much time I want to spend composing on any given day, when I’ll have a project completed, and when I’ll submit it to a performance opportunity. I chart those kinds of commitments for all of the things that are important to me. And sometimes it all runs like clockwork.

Sometimes, my commitments get in each other’s way. I have a flash of inspiration about something, but I’ve already committed all my time to other areas that week. Or I underestimate how long it will take to complete one step, so my entire time line winds up being adjusted into conflict with other commitments. Intellectually, I understand the need for flexibility. And in practice, I often do well with shifting the landscape of my personal commitments in a way that maintains my integrity and honors my deepest priorities. When I start second-guessing myself or inventing what other people might think, I get into trouble, though.

It goes something like this: If I don’t keep this commitment, then people will think less of me, and then they won’t respect me, and then they will not support what I am creating, and then I’ll be all alone in this, and then I will fail, and no one will really care except me. And then I’m caught with the decision to give up what I want in one area because I’m scared of what will happen. If I was honest about my actual priorities, the decision would be easy, and I could possibly come up with more creative solutions about how all of my commitments can play nice. But when I complicate it with my own predictions and inventions, I trap myself in the most uncreative space possible. I call it my Failure Net.

But the Failure Net is built on a cascade of fears. The truth is the best gift I can offer the world (and myself as it turns out) is my bold, honest, and authentic self, and I can do that in a way that welcomes feedback and insight from others. The only trick to doing that is simply to trust myself.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


What I have learned or read doesn't always make a smooth transition into what I do. Even when I understand something intellectually, applying that understanding sometimes takes effort. I'm thinking about this because of a conversation I had a few days ago. The other person was agreeing with me, and then saying something completely different. I got nods and verbal statements like "Right" and "I agree." Then the next thing I heard sounded like the opposite of what I had said. And I honestly believe that this person thought we were in agreement.

I was frustrated. I ended the conversation for the time and resolved to figure out a better way to explain or demonstrate what I was thinking before we talked again. The next day, it struck me. I already know very specific and valuable communication tools that would have been ideal for that exact situation. Why didn't I use them? Was I too bowled over with disbelief that someone would say "I agree" and then disagree? I don't subscribe to the notion that on some level I didn't really want to be heard, and I'm certainly capable. I simply didn't apply what I knew in that situation.

Something very similar happened yesterday when I was introduced to someone. When asked what I do, it didn't even occur to me in that moment to say the well-rehearsed elevator pitch I've been honing. What I said may have been good enough to get the point across, but the bold and succinct elevator pitch was really perfect for that situation. Why didn't it just roll off my tongue? Why did my brain search for something to say instead of just recalling that planned response to a clear, direct question?

My best guess is practice. Knowing what to say really doesn't have a lot of practical value until I open my mouth and say it. Same thing with recognizing the solution to a challenge. It may be nice to have the tools, but what actually makes a difference is using those tools. If that isn't second nature yet, I think that means I get to practice letting what I know inform my behavior. I suppose that's what a creative life is all about... finding effective ways to get ideas from my head into reality. And trusting myself to know how to do it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

When a Setback is a Breakthrough

I had a conversation I didn't like this week. I've been talking to people I know in non-profit organizations about the launch of my coaching business, primarily because most of my experience is in the non-profit arena. I also believe in the stated vision of many non-profit organizations, and I would love to be a part of creating their visions. Many of these people know me as a musician and composer, but they don't have a full picture of my experience, so the conversations were a sort of re-introduction, as if they were meeting a part of me they hadn't seen before. Most of these connections were incredibly encouraging and rewarding.

One person thought he already knew all there was to know about me. This was the conversation I didn't like. Although I explained what sort of contribution I envisioned making as a coach, he kept mirroring back the label consultant, which has a much different connotation in terms of expertise, credentialing, and price tag. I listened patiently, wanting to really take in the challenges this person saw in what I am creating, recognizing that there are probably plenty of people I don't know who may draw the same conclusions. But at one point, I spoke up a bit more boldly.

It was when he stated very frankly, "I don't know how I could possibly recommend you to anyone. You have no credentials or experience with non-profit management, or a track record aside from a couple of music projects." That got to me. On a certain level, I started defending myself, but I allowed a boldness to be evoked that I often dismiss. There was certainly an edge to my tone of voice when I responded, but instead of brushing off the comment as ill-informed (or worse) and moving on with my life, I addressed the challenge head-on.

I went away from the conversation disheartened and questioning the viability of my vision, even though I had talked with several other people who understood and encouraged what I am creating. The truth is I have personally overseen the production of two CD projects, including writing and performing all of the musical content and forging alliances that would bring the projects to fruition. I have worked in non-profits for 20 years, much of that time in a leadership role, and that included religious, arts-oriented, and educational organizations. I have demonstrated in my personal achievements and my organizational influence that I can successfully create and follow a purpose-based action plan, and it's a skill I am constantly improving.

This is all information that most people will not have about me, unless I am willing to tell them. And something was missing from this individual's perception of me that didn't match up with what he thought I was creating, and he knows me as a creative person. As I mulled that conversation over, I realized that I was dismissing a huge portion of my identity in my new endeavor. My creativity is one of the greatest strengths I bring to the table, and it was barely playing into my action plan for establishing a coaching identity. When I began to think about how I could shift my "brand" and marketing to a creativity focus, I felt energized and confident. It fits.

What seemed at first to be a setback actually became a breakthrough because of what I did with that conversation. I now recognize that I will have greater success connecting with people if I am bold about who I am. And I am now consciously embracing creativity as a strength to be proclaimed. Creativity is a part of everything I do, after all.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Seeing Through Different Eyes

A few weeks ago, I gave up something pretty significant. I gave up my hair. Not all of it, but more than I have had shorn off all at once in about a decade. People have often told me that my hair is my most distinctive physical feature. For many years, it was fairly long. Actually, since I haven't updated my profile picture yet, you can still see what it looked like. It was definitely a radical change.

My hair said many things about me. I believed it communicated my creativity, my willingness to be an individual, perhaps even a conscious non-conformist attitude. Other people may see things I don't necessarily want to convey, though. First impressions being what they are, long hair may signify to someone that I am unreliable, a slacker, a trouble-maker, or any number of other judgments. Those things aren't true of me, and for a long time my decision was that I didn't care what other people thought.

When I look at my goals, however, other people's perceptions actually do matter to me. Much of what I am creating now is built upon partnerships of some kind, and partnership involves being mindful of how another person thinks and feels. Healthy partnership requires that I be the kind of person with whom other people want to partner. And I am in many ways. But people don't always get complete view of someone's strengths if they stop at their first impression.

Last year, someone I trusted told me that I wasn't going to have an easy time being heard by a group of decision-makers because my hair isn't white enough. I knew that what he meant was that whatever I had to say was going to be filtered through other people's opinions of what it takes to be wise, strategic, insightful, or even valuable. For some people, I am simply not old enough for what I say to have value. I can't do anything about that except be aware of it. But, I also realize that for some people, my long hair was an obstacle between their assumptions and my actual strengths. I want to build partnerships in which my strengths benefit and inspire others in what they are creating, so it's important for me to allow my strengths to be most clearly seen.

In the end, I am already used to a new hairstyle. I haven't noticed any radical changes in the way others treat me, and maybe I won't. What I have noticed is greater willingness on my part to be seen and greater intention behind bringing my strengths forward. I can't control how other people will see me or engage with me. At the same time, I can give others the best chance to see me clearly, and I believe that serves both them and me.