Balance, Impact, and Next Steps

Sunset over Kaimana Beach in Waikiki.

It’s a warm January evening in Honolulu. I’m sitting on my hotel lanai in my shorts and bare feet, looking out over the ocean. Here I am, two weeks into my self-imposed  “unemployment,” and life is good.

Since my announcement that I was leaving Groupaya, the company I cofounded in late 2011, lots of friends and colleagues have written to wish me well, which I have greatly appreciated. Several have asked for more details as to why I was leaving and what I was going to do next.

The main theme of my parting post was my desire for balance. But that only tells half the story. The reason I didn’t have balance in my life was that I wanted to maximize my impact in the world. I didn’t know how to live my life so that I could have both balance and impact. That’s what I want to figure out this year.

There are lots of things I love about consulting, but I don’t think it’s the route for me to maximize my impact. Otherwise, I would never have left Groupaya. My life the past few weeks is a case in point. I still have some client commitments that I’m completing as a contractor under Groupaya, and I basically have a full client load right now. I’m here in Hawaii for work, although I’m staying a little longer for pleasure.

And that’s the point. I didn’t feel like I had the space to take that time for myself last year. And even though I still have a full client load right now, I am far less stressed than I was when I was running Groupaya. For example, I like to sleep, but I averaged six hours a night all of last year, not because I didn’t have the time, but because I wasn’t able to sleep any longer. Since leaving, I’ve averaged eight hours a night.

Why was last year so stressful? Part of it was the strain of supporting a company. As a consultant, the challenge is less about revenue and more about cashflow. This is doubly the case when you have people working for you. We exceeded our revenue goals last year, but we had to deal with some gnarliness around clients paying us on time. Such is the life of a consultant. However, while we had to bring in consistent revenue to support our team, my peers also enabled us to do bigger things better, and they enabled me to focus on things I wanted to focus on. They also just made everything more fun and alive. The team more than compensated for any additional stress.

The real source of stress was completely self-imposed. Our goal was to have a greater impact on the world than consulting would enable us to have. Our strategy was to focus on building a stable consulting practice while simultaneously and aggressively learning and exploring. We were able to do both, and we were even able to protect our team from overworking themselves, but I was not able to protect me from myself.

We did a good job of maximizing our impact as consultants. We chose clients who were bold learners, we only worked on projects directly sponsored by C-level leaders, we turned down work that was not properly resourced, and we were just starting to increase the minimum lengths of our engagements. The nature of our work also helped. All of our projects were participatory, which meant that our projects generally had greater organizational alignment and buy-in.

We had plenty of room to improve, but we were also rapidly approaching our impact ceiling. I wanted to blow through that ceiling. We had ideas for how to do this, but we needed time and resources to play with these ideas on top of the time and resources we were already spending on client work.

I was motivated to do both, and we had the team to do it. But it was impossible for me to do both and find my balance, and it wasn’t going to happen this year either. When you’re motivated, it’s easy to tell yourself, “Just do it for one year.” This is a viable strategy if you’re disciplined about setting that boundary and if you’re not simply kidding yourself.

I wasn’t. That’s why I had to leave.

So how am I going to have both balance and impact? I can think of two possible directions. The first is to get out of the meta and apply my skills toward something more concrete. In other words, focus on a vertical (e.g. children’s health) rather than a horizontal (i.e. collaboration). I have no idea what that vertical might be, but I’m open to this possibility, whether it takes the form of my own company or somebody else’s.

The second is to continue playing with some of the ideas we started exploring last year, except without the burden of having to find and deliver consulting work simultaneously. More specifically, I’d like to find ways to develop the field, giving motivated changemakers real opportunities to practice and improve with guidance and feedback.

For example, my friend and colleague, Rebecca Petzel, was already talented and experienced when we first started working with her two years ago. Thanks to our strong brand, we were able to create opportunities for her that she wouldn’t have gotten on her own. Rebecca took those opportunities and ran with them, going from very good to great in just two years. She would have gotten there without us, but we were able to accelerate that process. Plus, we got the better end of the bargain, because she was a delight to work with, and we learned a ton from her.

What if I could create those same opportunities over the same amount of time for 100 people like Rebecca, talented changemakers building their own practices or embedded in other people’s organizations?

This is the question I’m currently pondering. While I do that, I’m going to finish up my client obligations, create lots of space for myself, and play and explore. To help me with this process, I’m going to go from sunny Hawaii to frigid Cincinnati next week to consult with some experts on play. I can’t wait!

Living Life Like It’s the End

I got into a car accident yesterday. I was driving in the middle lane of a three-lane freeway, and an SUV snuck up to my left and changed into my lane without looking. I swerved to get out of the way, swerved again to try and regain control, spun out, crashed into the median, and watched helplessly as the oncoming traffic headed straight toward me.

Remarkably, neither I nor my friend Pete, who was in the car with me, were hurt. I find it miraculous that I am alive and unharmed. If any number of tiny things had turned out differently, I very well could be dead.

I shared this story this morning with my team at Groupaya, along with a reminder to live in the moment. In response, Kristin Cobble shared some wise words from her friend, Vanda Marlow. Vanda noted that we often go through life as if we are in the middle of our lives, but that we actually may be close to the end. We have no way of knowing.

My accident definitely woke me up to this, but Vanda’s words made me wonder: How would living our lives this way (as if we were near the end rather than the middle) affect our desire to do long-term projects?

For example, my friend, Matthew, was telling me the other day that Square has a 5,000 year vision (about the amount of time that money has existed). If you have a 5,000-year vision, you have no chance of seeing it through (ignoring, for a moment, my nanotechnology friends who believe that we are pretty close to unlocking the secrets of immortality). So why would anyone ever pursue anything like this?

I have two answers to this question. First, there’s the old saw about the journey being more important than the destination. I believe it. The destination can be valuable in shaping your journey, but ultimately, if the journey itself does not bring you alive, it’s probably not worth it.

I remember reading a story about how famed director, Robert Altman, was planning on making a new movie when he died. He was in his 80s and had leukemia. The chances of him finishing that movie were essentially zero, and he died before he even got started. But it didn’t matter to him. He loved making movies, and every step of that journey — whether or not he got to finish — brought him alive.

Second, thinking about impact beyond the length of your life does not render your actions futile. It simply requires that you think differently. You may not be able to live forever (again, nanotechnology not withstanding), but the impact that you have on other people will reverberate long past your own life.

In a strange way, whether or not you are a long-term or short-term thinker, the notion of living your life as if you’re near the end results in the same conclusion: Honor and nurture your relationships. They’re the things that matter most.

Why You Can’t Have It All

Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a wonderful essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It’s directed toward women, but it’s really for everyone who cares about work-life balance in his or her own life and in society as a whole. Her basic premise is that “having it all,” while possible, is predicated on a series of half-truths:

  • It’s possible if you’re just committed enough
  • It’s possible if you marry the right person
  • It’s possible if you sequence it right

To change this, we need to:

  • Change the culture of face time
  • Revalue family values
  • Redefine the arc of a successful career
  • Rediscover the pursuit of happiness
  • Enlist men

Slaughter’s essay struck me on two levels. First, the lack of women in positions of structural power does not reflect an “insufficient commitment.” Slaughter writes:

To be sure, the women who do make it to the top are highly committed to their profession. On closer examination, however, it turns out that most of them have something else in common: they are genuine superwomen. Consider the number of women recently in the top ranks in Washington—Susan Rice, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Michelle Gavin, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle—who are Rhodes Scholars. Samantha Power, another senior White House official, won a Pulitzer Prize at age 32. Or consider [Sheryl] Sandberg herself, who graduated with the prize given to Harvard’s top student of economics. These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves. Such a standard sets up most women for a sense of failure.

While these “superwomen” are trailblazers, we cannot view the existence of these kinds of women as a measuring stick for a more equitable society. I recently had a Facebook exchange with Tara Hunt about some of the systemic challenges that women in technology face. I referenced Janice Madden’s study of African-American coaches in the NFL and wrote:

I think the problem is that if you’re a woman in tech, you have to stand out in order to make it. We’ll know that real progress has been made when there are just as many crappy female programmers or entrepreneurs as there are male.

Second, we have to reevaluate how we define success for ourselves and for society as a whole. If success is solely about rising to the top of our professions, then the vast majority of us our failures. When did balance, happiness, and family fall out of that equation? And if they haven’t, if we all truly value those things, what kind of structural shifts do we need to make to support them?

At the beginning of the year, I blogged about Groupaya’s three goals for 2012. One of our goals is, “Space for renewal, learning, and play.” I noted:

This is my favorite goal, and it will be the hardest one for us to achieve successfully. When you’re action-oriented, it’s very easy to spend all of your time, well, doing stuff. But it’s not necessarily healthy nor good for business nor good for the world.

When I said, “it will be the hardest one for us to achieve successfully,” what I really meant was that it would be the hardest one for me.

I go out of my way to emphasize to my peers how important I think this goal is. I am constantly reminding my business partner, Kristin, never to apologize for her lack of scheduling flexibility due to her 10-year old son. (The fact that she often does speaks to the unfortunate societal mindsets around work and family to which Slaughter alludes and that we all unconsciously perpetuate.) I am constantly discouraging my colleagues from working on weekends. I go out of my way not to overallocate people’s times.

While my colleagues will credit me for all of these things, they will also (un)happily point out that I am terrible at modeling them and that it sends a very mixed message. Earlier this year, I was complaining to Kristin and my other colleague, Rebecca, about a client who was having trouble respecting boundaries. I observed how often this client emailed or called “after hours,” then admitted that it was more the symbolism than the logistics of this that bothered me, because in reality, I kept similar hours.

“You mean you both work late into the night and start work early in the morning,” responded Rebecca in exasperation. She then told Kristin about an epic email exchange that she was copied on between this client and me that had started after she had gone to bed and that had continued before she had woken up.

I have realized for some time that the sheer numbers of hours that I work along with the lack of clear start and stop times create stress for my colleagues and undermine our collective goal for space and work-life balance. On the one hand, I resent this. I’m not asking others to be like me. Why should I be punished for my persistence and commitment? Why should I hold back if I feel passionate about what I’m doing and compelled to keep doing it?

On the other hand, it’s not about either-or. It’s about finding the balance. The truth is, I’m not happy about where the balance lies for me right now. Adjusting how often and when I work won’t just help others, it will also help me.

Moreover, when I dig deeper into why I work the hours that I do, it’s not all about passion and drive and all that rah-rah stuff that I like to pat myself on the back about. There’s a dark part of me that doesn’t truly believe that we can be “successful” (whatever that means) if I don’t “work my ass off” (whatever that means).

The rational part of me understands the hidden traps of this kind of thinking. The rational part of me understands that space and balance means that I’m more creative, I’m more effective, and I’m more pleasant to be around. I know from experience that slowing down can mean going faster. I know all of these things, but I’m worried that my dark, hidden beliefs undermine my attempt to achieve balance. Even worse, I’m worried that they undermine my attempt to support my colleagues in living this balance.

Finding this balance takes work and discipline, but it also requires reexamining the structures around you. We’re experimenting with a lot of things at Groupaya right now. We have tools that help manage our information flow so that we’re not disturbed after hours. We all track our time, and I’m trying to figure out how we might reward people for working smarter, fewer hours.

It’s not easy, and we don’t have the answers yet, but it’s a necessary exploration. If your structures don’t reinforce your beliefs, then neither will your behaviors. This is true for individuals, for organizations, and for society as a whole.

Three Tips on Life from Pete Rose

Last month, ESPN launched a film series, which includes a series of web shorts. The first short in the series was a piece on baseball’s Hit King, Pete Rose, entitled, “Here Now.” There’s a line from Rose in the film that I especially loved, where he outlines his philosophy on hitting, on business, on life:

  • Be aggressive
  • Be more aggressive
  • Never be satisfied

Rose obviously had its flaws (as do we all), but this much is indisputable: He was a great ballplayer, one of the most exciting and inspiring ballplayers ever to watch, and a good manager. We could all learn a lot from how he played the game.

The Real Work: A Poem by Wendell Berry

A weekend gift from a chain of friends: Nancy White, who saw it from Jerry Michalski. This poem, “The Real Work,” is by Wendell Berry:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.