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.