Last year, I took care of my nephews in Cincinnati for a week while my sister and brother-in-law were on a trip. I decided to make it a point to work my way through their packed freezer, which had some truly ancient and scary looking items, including some cod that was older than my then nine-year old nephew and that had survived a move several years earlier.
Around the same time, I was reading Steven Rinella’s, American Buffalo, an excellent book about this iconic animal’s role throughout human history. At one point, Rinella mentions a mummified, 36,000 year old Steppe Bison in Alaska, and writes off-handedly:
Dale Guthrie, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska, cooked and ate part of the animal’s neck. He reported it to be “well aged but still a little tough.”
I did a double-take when I read this line. It seemed wrong in more ways than one. I was also intrigued, so I did a little research, and I feel good about the overall ethics and wisdom of the move. It turns out that eating ancient animals is a thing, although Woolly Mammoth apparently does not keep well.
It made me feel a whole lot better about cooking that decade-old cod for my nephews. I ended up turning it into a tasty fishcake, which forever boosted their respect for my cooking abilities.
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!