I had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Autumn Hays at Partnership for Working Families today. I was particularly struck by her email signature, which opens with:
The Partnership improved the lives of 1.5 million people last year!
This is so smart on so many levels. First, it shows that the Partnership has a clear impact goal and are tracking it in a compelling way. It’s just good storytelling. I’d love to see more transparency in how they’re coming up with their numbers, but I’m a geek, and I’m nitpicking. The fact that they’re doing this at all is great.
Second, they are intentionally drawing people’s attention to their impact in a simple, innovative way. I’m sure Autumn sends lots of emails, and every one of the recipient now has some sense of the Partnership’s impact. It’s the nonprofit version of the McDonald’s “billions served” sign.
I would love to see others do stuff like this. I’m totally planning on stealing this.
Seb Paquet and I had our second weekly call this morning. (Our “jazz hands” insights video from this week’s call is below.) Seb opened the conversation by sharing a personal story and discussing the importance of being fearless, but not reckless.
Which raises the question: What’s the difference between “fearless” and “reckless”?
After our conversation, Seb posted this very question on Facebook. There were a number of interesting replies, with more likely to come. Two, in particular, resonated with me. Alan Yelsey suggested that the distinction was in whether or not you “fully considered the risk or the value of the objective.” Helen Aitkin noted that the etymology of “reckless” was “without care.”
I agree with both Alan and Helen. I think that intention is the critical distinction, which is still a very fine line. If you take a risk that has a 90 percent chance of failing, and you understand that risk up-front, you are being intentional, but other people might still consider it reckless.
So many of the challenges that we face are ultimately about navigating tensions gracefully. By definition, there are no easy ways to describe how to do this. The best principle I’ve found for navigating these tensions is to be intentional, but hold it lightly.
In other words, have a goal, but don’t be so bound by it that you miss out on the opportunity to learn. Put a stake in the ground, but be open to surprises and new learning. If you practice this basic principle over and over again, you eventually develop an instinct for how to assess risk and navigate uncertainty. If you move without clarity about your intentions, or if you hold on to those intentions too tightly, you will likely fail.
This, to me, is the essence of craft, and it’s become the foundational principle of my work.
I shared this principle with my friend, Mark Bolgiano, a few years ago, and he noted that this same principle applies to golf. You need to have a strategy for how you are going to propel your ball to the hole, but if you grip your club too tightly, you will likely miss your mark. I found this to be a nice physical metaphor for how to think about this principle.
Similarly, Seb brought up the analogy of scientists discovering anomalies in their experiments and reacting in frustration, when the anomalies may actually be clues to some groundbreaking new principle. If you hold onto your intentions too tightly, you miss out on the learning.
The discipline of being intentional is an art form in and of itself. On both calls with Seb so far, we’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing the challenges of setting good goals and being explicit about success. Here are some principles that have emerged along with some relevant blog posts:
Define success as a spectrum, from minimum to wild. Seb was the first to share this principle in our conversations by way of a great template from Amy Kirschner. He also noted the importance of considering the zone of proximal development. I first picked up this idea from Kristin Cobble (read her blog post for more), who was strongly influenced by Robert Fritz’s “rubber band model” for navigating tensions.
Define both success and failure. This is a good way of coming up with and gut-checking your spectrum of success, and it was my “jazz hands” moment from today’s conversation. When we are far removed from the actual moment of assessing success or failure, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we might treat something as success when we actually believe it to be failure. If you ask, “What is failure?” explicitly, you can identify this behavior well in advance.
Ask the “wild” success question twice. In the same way that we might be overly lax in defining minimal success, we can often be overly constrained in defining “wild” success. We self-censor ourselves, because we don’t really believe that wild success is possible. Another trick I picked up from Kristin is to ask this question twice, explaining, “Okay, how would you really, truly define wild success?”
Here’s a story I shared last year about applying the principle of being intentional and holding it lightly on one particular project. And, without further ado, here are Seb and my “jazz hands” moments from today: