Loud and Clear

Lance Fear, Ideas, Leadership Leave a Comment

Six years ago today I started more than just a new job. To call it a “career change” is correct as things go, but fails to capture the enormity of how it felt … like looking at a full moon through the wrong end of a telescope. It took a lot of thought, prayer, and wise perspective from my Wife for me to become willing to take the leap. When I had agreed to accept the invitation to leave the legal world of the courtroom and become an executive in the corporate world, I fully expected it to feel like traveling to a foreign country where the language and customs would be new to me.

Instead what I found was what felt more like landing on an alien world where the very laws of physics were different. Professionally, the transition was very challenging, to say the least. Psychologically, though, it was at times disorienting. I had moved from a profession and environment in which I was a bona fide expert into one where I was more clueless than the newest unpaid college intern. While the challenge of learning so many new things was definitely invigorating intellectually, it was quite humbling emotionally.

Now, six years later, I’ve made yet another career change and this one may be even more radical than the last. After standing for awhile at the intersection with the freedom to go any number of directions, I’ve decided to embark on the entrepreneur’s journey by launching my own leadership and communication consulting practice:

It is an interesting exercise to look back through time with the perspective of distance to see how the road of life’s journey has unfolded. A few of the pivotal moments that have brought me to this point:

  1. If I didn’t get myself fired in 2005 (the subject of my TEDxDayton talk), I would probably still be there 13 years later, because I was utterly content and had no interest in growing or doing new things;
  2. If I didn’t experience the ugly underbelly of local politics and lose my job once again in 2010 as a result, I would never have had leadership aspirations;
  3. If I had gotten the assignment with the US Attorney’s Office that I interviewed for in November, 2011, I wouldn’t have been around for LexisNexis to come calling for me in February, 2012 … nor would I have been interested;
  4. If I didn’t start blogging again after ten years of being afraid to do so, I wouldn’t have developed the IDEAS concept that is now the basis of my new venture’s analytical framework;
  5. If I didn’t lose my job via layoff last November, I wouldn’t have had the motivation or the time to survey my options and step out into the direction of what I actually want to do.

To see how these experiences all played a part in me arriving at this exciting point is not to pretend away how hard they were. Quite the opposite, in fact. Losing your job for any reason is painful, whether because of your own mistake (#1), the dishonest dealings of another (#2), or the cost-cutting of a corporate layoff (#5). Facing the fears that come from the scars of that pain (#4) and the disappointment of not getting the job you want and know you’re qualified to excel at (#3) is hard too.

The point is this: if you’re looking for them, you can find supremely valuable lessons to take into the future with you from painful events like this. Without the introspection that came from the suffering of twice losing my job as a prosecutor, I would not have been in the frame of mind to take advantage of the huge opportunity LexisNexis offered me when it came knocking: not only would I have had no interest in growing my skillset and experiencing organizational leadership at a corporate scale (learned after #2), I would have been unable to conceive of myself without the identity of “prosecutor” (learned after #1).

Ironically, it is from these experiences as much as (or more than) the successes that I have found both the unique perspectives that are at the heart of the value 5×5 will be bringing, as well as the courage to undertake this venture in the first place.

I hope by sharing this, you will be encouraged to do the same: use yesterday’s pain and disappointments as insight and fuel to seize tomorrow’s opportunity.

A New Direction

Lance Leadership Leave a Comment

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve last written here, and that post had come after just over a month with nothing but radio silence here. There’s been a reason for that, and I’m really excited to start sharing it.

I have been talking a lot about the image above recently. It is the end of the great Tom Hanks movie, Castaway, and it is so poignant a metaphor. As you may recall, Hanks’ character Chuck Nolan was an executive with FedEx when the transport plane he is hitching a ride on crashes, leaving him stranded on a remote island in expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Over the course of his four years on the island, Nolan uses all of the packages that washed ashore with him to survive, save one: a box adorned with a distinctive logo. Nolan keeps the box unopened until he is eventually rescued and is finally able to return the undelivered package to its sender in Texas.

After Nolan leaves the package on the porch because nobody is home, he finds himself at a four-way intersection with nowhere he has to go. He is standing at a literal and figurative crossroads, without any sense of which direction he should go … and then serendipity arrives on a pair of angel’s wings:

Now, I didn’t suffer the trauma of surviving an aircraft disaster, an angry ocean, and years on Gilligan’s Island without any professors or movie stars. But, since my time as an executive in the corporate world ended last fall, I have been Chuck Nolan — standing at an intersection with any number of roads in front of me, not knowing which one to take.

Then, recently, I started putting two and two together, and saw my own set of inspirational wings. Now, I’m back in the car, getting ready to head off into a new direction. It’s a road I’ve never been down before, and never imagined getting to take. I’m so excited at the possibilities, and can’t wait to share the details. In time…

3 Surprising Insights From An Evening With Ryan Hawk & James Clear

Lance Discipline, Excellence, Forbes, Ideas Leave a Comment

Originally posted at Forbes.com

Last night I got to participate in an invitation-only event to see Ryan Hawk record a live podcast episode of The Learning Leader Show with habit-formation expert James Clear. Hosted by the business advisory firm Brixey & Meyer, the event brought roughly 100 business leaders and entrepreneurs from the Columbus/Dayton/Cincinnati areas together to the industrial venue of Dock 580 on the north end of downtown Columbus, Ohio.

If you’re not familiar with James Clear, google “habit formation” and you will find his 1,700+ word essay listed as the #2 result. Naturally, I expected the conversation to focus on the science and systems of habitual behaviors, and that proved true. However, the hour-long conversation between host and guest was not limited to Clear’s expected conversational comfort zone. As Hawk and Clear ventured out into other topics, I was struck by three things Clear said that I didn’t expect to hear. Each insight hit me differently — one was timely, the other profound, and the third uniquely thought-provoking — but all made an impact on me.

The Timely: On Risk

When it comes to starting something new, a common question is “how do I know when I’m ready?” Far more often than not, this is really a question about risk, and postponing the start of some new endeavor until we feel we are “ready” is just a way to reduce risk through additional preparation. Sometimes that reduction of risk is real, but all too often it is just a perception that makes us feel better about the unknown.

That’s not the right way to think about these things, says Clear. Being prepared is one thing; being “ready” is something else. “Ready” is what we routinely confuse with that feeling of confidence that comes from knowing the answers ahead of time. As anyone who has crossed the divide into parenthood knows, life brings with it too many variables to ever truly remove all risk and be “ready.” Instead, Clear advises to “start before you’re quite ready, and trust yourself to figure it out as you go.”

A close friend and I spent the afternoon before last night’s event discussing the ideas and possibilities of starting a business. Clear’s admonition was a timely reminder that “figuring it out as you go” is just as much a part of the process of creating anything new as is preparing before you go.

The Profound: On Uncertainty

Not only is uncertainty an ever-present condition to risk taking and creating something new, it also brings with it an extremely beneficial by-product: mental toughness. One of the unexpected topics Hawk  discussed with Clear was his hobby of photography and international travel. Clear loves to travel the world, so (as he puts it) he can “take pictures and eat the food.” But beyond the expected benefits of international travel, Clear described another aspect of his travel that he intentionally seeks out: uncertainty.

When traveling abroad, Clear said, he consciously avoids the luxurious travel experience he could easily afford in order to experience the tiny adversities of perpetual uncertainty. For example, he recently traveled to Vietnam, a place whose language Clear did not speak, and where English-speaking locals were not common. During his time there, Clear was forced to muddle his way through the unfamiliar and repeatedly ask strangers for help for even the most basic things. By putting himself in situations where he must continually face adversity, Clear regularly exercises his capacity for mental toughness — that quality of being able to focus on those decisions and actions that are within one’s control in order to solve whatever problem one is currently facing.

This point hit me with the sharp point of a well placed accountability email. Looking back over my life’s journey, I can connect the dots between the adversities I’ve faced in life and the mental toughness I have developed as a result. Why was this a pointed reminder? Because, as I am currently in a season of uncertainty, my capacity for mental toughness is being tested. Instead of being discouraged when I find my mental toughness flagging, Clear’s words reminded me to see this current moment as building — rather than breaking — my capacity for mental toughness, which is an invaluable asset to possess in an uncertain world.

 The Unique: On Pain

The most thought-provoking thing Clear said was also the most counter-intuitive. When it comes to finding that sweet-spot mission that makes us say “this is what I’m made for!” most of us are looking at the wrong indicator. When we think about that thing that we’re “made for,” we tend to look at the things we are good at. According to Clear, instead of just focusing on the tasks we are good at doing, the real key to finding the value we are most uniquely capable of providing lies in asking this tougher question:

What pain am I uniquely suited to suffer better than others?

In our modern culture of discomfort aversion, talking about pain like this is quite unconventional. Driving home from Columbus after the event, it was this question that captured the bulk of my non-driving brain. Sure, I am good at certain things, and maybe I’m better than many at them. But, what types of pain and suffering am I constitutionally more comfortable with enduring than others who may just as good as I am at something? This is such a fascinating lens through which to view the matter. It isn’t a question I was ready to answer immediately, and that is always a sign to me of a great question.

How about you? Are you waiting to be “ready” before starting that new venture? Are you regularly encountering the adversity of uncertainty to develop your mental toughness? And when it comes to a unique value you can bring to others, what are the types of pain you’re willing to endure that others shy away from? Hit me up on Twitter or LinkedIn and let me know how these insights impacted you.

Why Old Wisdom Matters

Lance Ideas Leave a Comment

As a result of the kind of serendipity that Twitter at its best can bring, I found myself this morning reading an article titled “A Zero-Math Introduction to Markov Chain Monte Carlo Methods.” Heady stuff to start the day, I know. Here’s the opening paragraph that greeted me after I clicked:

For many of us, Bayesian statistics is voodoo magic at best, or completely subjective nonsense at worst. Among the trademarks of the Bayesian approach, Markov chain Monte Carlo methods are especially mysterious. They’re math-heavy and computationally expensive procedures for sure, but the basic reasoning behind them, like so much else in data science, can be made intuitive. That is my goal here.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s exactly what I was thinking at that point too:

Right?

The article had lots of charts, and reminded me of Nassim Taleb’s insightful book, Fooled by Randomness, so I pressed on. What has me mentioning all of this now (because I know you’re asking yourself…) is this:

That is an example of a Galton Board, which is a device named for the 19th Century English scientist Sir Francis Galton. Through its use of balls, pegs, slots and the resulting bell curve at the bottom, this simple contraption elegantly illustrates a counter-intuitive fact of life:

At scale, seemingly independent and randomly occurring events conform to a discernible pattern over time.

This is why the events of human history appear cyclical, whether it is the rise and fall of empires, the growth and recession cycles of economies, or the “hype cycle” of new technologies. It is also why large scale human behavior can be charted and predicted (hello Big Data!) even as individual human behavior is impossible to predict with any more accuracy than random chance. The truth of the aphorism “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it” is not due to some fatalistic determinism running the universe. Instead, it is in the recognition that history tends to repeat its patterns, and will continue to do so without intentional intervention. Think of George Santayana’s quote as an invitation to interfere with the way history’s Galton Board works.

This fact of life is why old wisdom matters. Reading the insights of those who walked before us is valuable even though the circumstances of their lives were so different because the pattern of life they dealt with may be the same one we are facing now. This is why the Old Testament is worth reading even though its setting is a pre-modern, patriarchal culture very different from our own. This is why the philosophies of Aristotle, the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the speeches of Frederick Douglass are worth reading. It is even why reading about corporate organizational leadership from the prehistoric days of 1982 is still worth doing.

New ideas are always needed, and breaking away from the straight jacket of conventional thought is a noble endeavor. But, let us not forget the value of old learnings. While the particulars of this modern life are galactically different from the ones faced by those who came ages before us, the patterns of their lives and ours are not so different.

Accountability: A Postscript

Lance Accountability, Discipline 1 Comment

Last week I wrote about the challenges of keeping myself on task towards my goal of writing a book without the external expectations of a boss or a team to answer to. I ended that post with this:

I could say more on this topic. In fact, when I started this post, I intended to. But, none of these 600-plus words will count towards my daily writing goal, so I’ve got to end this post here and get to work. I have an accountability email to send out later today.

After hitting “Publish” on that post in order to get to work, here’s how many words I typed towards hitting that daily goal I had just referenced:

Embarrassing.

As I sat down to send my email to my accountability partners — Ryan and Greg — I attempted to mitigate my shame by serving up my excuse with a side of humor and a dash of blame shifting:

It was Ryan who challenged me to get back into the habit of posting here once a week on a set schedule, so as to work the muscle required for writing on a deadline. So, you see, it’s kinda his fault that I wrote last week’s blog post but didn’t put down any words towards my book-writing goal.

Here is what I got in response from The Learning Leader:

… and here’s a live look-in at me reading that email:

(For the record: that’s me on the right…)

Accountability is not for the feint of heart, y’all.

Of course it takes some guts to be vulnerable and make yourself accountable to someone else for efforts and behaviors you need to be doing. Handing someone the keys to the emotional control panel whose buttons can trigger things like embarrassment and shame is a big deal and fraught with anxiety.

But it takes guts just as well to agree to be that source of accountability for someone else. Giving honest feedback and asking the tough questions that hold people accountable like Ryan did in that email is no easy task. To be so direct in making another person confront their own responsibility for failing to meet the expectations they have set for themselves is to flirt with conflict. And, let’s face it: Twitter and Facebook notwithstanding, most people do not relish interpersonal conflict. To avoid it, most of us use passive aggressiveness and codependency to make a point or keep the peace while avoiding direct confrontation.

But, being uncomfortable in the moment is so worth it. Straight talk cuts through the BS and opens up the conversation to the truth. In the context of the discipline of accountability, that truth is not just the reasons for failing to live up to the standard. It is also the light that illuminates the path forward to the productivity and success that was the whole point to begin with.

Yes, it felt like a punch in the talk hole when I got that email. But, that’s exactly what I needed to push me beyond viewing accountability as simply a brain-hack-game to trick myself into being more productive. That digital slap and splash of cold water forced me to treat accountability as a serious effort to accomplish a serious work. Because, if it’s not really a serious work you’re trying to get done, it’s not worth someone else’s time to hold you accountable for it.