Thoughts & Observations

What’s the Worst that Can Happen?

When we were kids, most of us spent at least some amount of time being scared of things that didn’t actually exist – monsters under the bed, ghosts in the closet, witches in the abandoned house around the corner.

As adults, we still do the same thing.

It just manifests itself a little bit differently.

We tend to let our imaginations run away with themselves when we think about what the potential negative outcomes of a situation are. We experience the emotional reaction of failure without even being able fully articulate what the failure we are afraid of looks like.

I was thinking about Julia Child this morning (inspired by a friend doing a fabulous job cooking Julia’s famous boeuf bourguignon for the first time at a dinner party last night) and I came across this quote of hers that I love:

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” – Julia Child

Having a what-the-hell attitude isn’t always easy because we imagine the impact of failure to be monumentally bad.

In deciding to leave Girl Scouts and move to New York, it didn’t really feel like I could have a flippant attitude about it. The consequences of failure felt huge. But that’s the issue – they simply felt huge.

I finally made myself actually write down the worst thing that could happen and here’s what it was:

The worst thing that could happen is that I would move to New York, make no money, go bankrupt, and have to move in with my parents for a while until I got back on my feet.

Hmmmmmm. We actually, that’s not that bad. My parents are great cooks, are fun to be around, and have a wonderful house (and mom and dad, if you’re reading this, I get the sense that you wouldn’t mind that set up either, at least for a little while anyway).

As “worst things” go, that barely makes it on the scale of bad. Even if the worst-case scenario had been a lot heavier and more negative then that, at least writing it down would have given me something concrete to deal with.

It is much easier to fight the ghosts and goblins that are scaring you if you’re honest about what they actually are.
Thoughts & Observations

The Real Estate of Your Brain

In any given day, the number of things you can think about is finite.

You have to make choices about what you allow to occupy your mind.

I had the epiphany a month or so ago that I was giving up a huge percentage of the space of my brain to thinking about things that were not truly what I wanted to be focused on. It occurred to me that if I removed those things from my life, I would open up a tremendous amount of real estate in mind. I would be able to spend time thinking about things that truly excited me and that produced a much better return on investment.

Your brain is valuable real estate.

What are you choosing to fill it up with?


Thoughts & Observations

The Validation Trap

This morning, I sat looking out the window watching the snow come down. My heart felt happy and there was something that just felt right about being exactly where I was.

There is something to be said for listening to what your body and your heart tell you. Whether a place is right. Whether what you are doing is right. Whether who you are being is right.

And not right for other people. Right for you.

There is so much noise around us all the time, pointing us in one direction or another, that our own internal voice gets drowned out. We are almost always judging ourselves by what the rest of the world tells us is right for us. Yes, climb up that corporate ladder. Yes, take that job because it pays more even if it means you never see your kids. Yes, work 80 hours a week because someone in the company will recognize your work…eventually. Yes, be miserable for forty years because then you can eventually retire and sip tropical drinks under a giant umbrella.

But we don’t stop very often to ask ourselves if those are things we actually want, if they are things that make us happy or give our lives meaning. Instead, we blindly follow this unwritten guidebook to life that has become part of our collective subconscious. Why? Because by following it we feel at least partially validated.

But our constant search for validation is a trap. The outside world can never make us feel completely, totally validated. Not everyone is going to be your fan. Not everyone is going to think you are doing the right things all the time. You won’t get a five-star “you’re totally valid” rating from everyone you meet.

That’s why there’s something very special that happens when you stop looking at the rest of the world for validation and you think with clarity about who you are and what gives your life meaning.

Understanding yourself in that way isn’t a selfish pursuit. If you think about it, if one of our key interests in life is contributing something of value to the world, we have the highest likelihood of successfully doing that if we contribute whatever comes from our authentic selves. If we contribute by just following whatever path society has dictated for us, we are not as likely to contribute with our highest levels of energy, insight, and creativity.

The more we seek validation, the farther we get from actually finding it. We are looking everywhere for it, except the one place that matters.

To thine own self be true. -William Shakespeare

Thoughts & Observations

Choose Your Own Adventure

I usually make decisions quickly. I don’t dilly-dally. I get the information I need, give it just enough thought, and then I go.

But I couldn’t do that in this case.

This time, I had to sit with a feeling for months. I kept thinking and thinking and coming to the same conclusion in my gut, but I couldn’t move. I had to keep dipping my toe in the water, hoping that at some point the temperature would feel perfect.

I finally had the realization over the past month that the water was never going to be just right, that the circumstances were never going to align themselves perfectly. If I wanted the change I had been envisioning, I just had to jump.

Last week, I turned in my good-bye letter to Girl Scouts. I had been with the organization for seven and a half years. That was a mighty big band-aid to rip off. But I needed to do it. I realized that I had grown comfortable: I was addicted to the stability of a consistent paycheck and the comfort of health insurance.

On the surface, those may not seem like bad things to get addicted to, but once I realized what I was giving up in the name of achieving that security, I couldn’t look back.

When I first started working, I believed that work was a life sentence we all had to serve, and that the best I could hope for was a job I didn’t hate, with a good salary and some benefits. I felt pretty lucky to have found that comfort at a young age.

But when I became CEO three years ago, a light bulb was flipped on for me. It was dim at first – this slight flicker of an idea that somehow the way that society had conditioned me and everyone else around me to work was wrong. There was something wrong with being chastised like a five year-old for showing up ten minutes late to work. There was something wrong with having to ask permission to take a couple hours off in the afternoon to go to the doctor, as if we were third graders asking for a bathroom pass. There was something wrong with a hierarchy that required staff to write multiple memos to justify buying a $12 pair of computer speakers so that they could listen to an online training. There was something wrong with the fact that I felt that every time I walked through those office doors I had to leave half of myself on the sidewalk.

So I decided to change everything. I read an amazing book called Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, and within a month we became the first non-profit Results-Only Work Environment in the country. I found inspiration from Zappos and books like The Levity Effect and realized that half of what made work suck was that it wasn’t much fun. I started serving kids’ cereal at morning meetings. It became ok for people to laugh and to dress in silly costumes and to just be themselves.

I didn’t realize it as first, but as our organizational culture changed, I changed too. Our VP of Human Resources used to joke that when he first met me, he thought I had no personality. People who met me two or three years ago, when all of this change was just starting to happen, say that I’m a completely different person now – in a good way.

The difference is that I got comfortable being myself.

That light bulb that was once dim was now glowing brightly.

When I launched my Regret Me Not Project back in September, I knew I wasn’t the same person I had been. I was looking at life differently. And looking at work differently. I put a new value on every minute of my day, and didn’t want to waste any of time doing things that drained my spirit and stifled what I knew I was capable of contributing.

Soon, I started to have this strange, nagging feeling that I wasn’t quite where I was supposed to be and that I wasn’t quite doing what I was supposed to do. I started to feel frustrated and knew in my gut that it was time for me to make a big change.

There was still the problem, though, of the paycheck and the health insurance. Those things had built fences around me, and fences have a funny way of creating both a sense of security and a sense of fear.

But the more I sat with the fear, the more I realized I wasn’t willing to live with a constant state of unease and the overwhelming feeling that life had much more to offer me. I realized that staying behind the fences was actually more frightening then stepping out.

So I stopped dipping my toe in the water and I jumped in.

Within the week or so, I will have moved to New York City. I’ll be exploring, doing whatever work I get most excited about, and living a choose my own adventure, walking down my own path.

Starting now.

Thoughts & Observations

Do You Create Art?

The village store in the town where I grew up is what I think city folk envision when they plan an escape to the country. It is right in the center of town, up the street from the church and the little schoolhouse. There is no parking lot. You just pull your car to the side of the road and make your way up the two granite steps in front of the store. You push open the heavy red wood door and an old-fashioned bell hanging above the door announces your arrival. The old wooden floorboards have weathered the footsteps of the town for almost 200 years. If you stop in early on a weekday morning, you will likely catch the standard group of townspeople nursing cups of coffee as they discuss the business of the town: a situation at the dump, the volunteer fire department needing new equipment, or the politics of an upcoming election.

It would be easy for this village store to be just like any other convenience store. It would be easy to stock the shelves full of Bud Light and potato chips, beef jerky and quarts of milk. It would also be easy to write the store off: the population it is serving has lingered between 1,000 and 1,500 since it was first established in the early 1800s. If you run out of milk or need an extra cup of sugar, it is the only place in town you can go. They have built in demand and that could make it inviting to just kick back and take the path of least resistance in running the store.

That, however, is not the path that the owners of the village store chose. They have turned owning the village store in a little town into an art. They have one of the best selections of beer in the state. They stock eggs laid by chickens right up the road and maple syrup made from the town’s maple trees. Their honey is from local beehives, and they stock local ice cream, coffee, and wine. They partnered with a local chef to create an amazing selection of healthy pre-made meals for busy townspeople rushing home from a long day of work.

They chose the difficult path, a path that requires creative thinking and the emotional work of finding just the right products to take up the precious space on their few shelves. They did not have a guarantee that running a store the way they chose would produce more revenue. I have a feeling that was not necessarily the basis for their decision. Nor do I think they did it because they wanted to get written up in the paper or featured in some foodie magazine. I think they did it because they could not imagine running a store in any other way.

The work that they undertook is not easy. Once they started down their path, they could not turn back. If they did, everyone would notice that they have given up.

This is why so few people turn their business into art. There is tremendous fear associated with giving up on the old formula and creating a brand new one. There is no guarantee that it will work and we tend to like to walk down paths that have a predetermined destination.

Even more fear inducing though, is thinking about what will happen when you do succeed. Once you succeed, you have to keep it up. Once you are known for having an amazing beer selection, you can never go back to just carrying Bud Light. Once you have established that you are great (or your store is great or your product is great), you have to keep being great. People find it much easier to be consistently mediocre and surprise people with slight movements into the territory of great every once and a while, then to be great all the time.

Each time I cross over the threshold to the store and hear the bell clinging over my head, it feels like everything in the world is as it should be. Work should always be transformed into that type of art.

Thoughts & Observations

I Could Have Been A Contender

As I was watching On the Waterfront the other night, I felt a strange sense of oneness with the world: I finally understood why for years people had been saying “I could have been a contender” with varying degrees of success in replicating Marlon Brando’s voice.

What I love about that famous line is not what it means in the singular moment when Terry, the former boxer played by Brando, says it in the backseat of the car. What I love is that although it is uttered as a lamentation of a lost opportunity, it is, in fact, that loss that creates the opportunity to do something much more significant.

Terry goes from a self-directed purpose, defending his own honor, to a purpose that is much bigger then a single man.

Sometimes an opportunity that you think you’ve lost is just the world’s way of making you available for bigger and better things.

Thoughts & Observations

What It Means to Fail

Some people get confused about what it means to fail.

The business gurus of the world talk about failure being a good thing. Seth Godin even tells a story about how he once told one of his employees that they weren’t failing enough, and that they needed to start failing significantly more within the next few weeks or else they would be out of a job.

But the failing that Seth and others are talking about isn’t the casting all judgment aside and making mindless decisions type of failing. It’s the failing associated with trying something new and taking risks.

Failing isn’t a synonym for being an idiot.

In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. Failing is what happens when you muster all the knowledge, information, wisdom and ideas you’ve got into creating or trying something new and it doesn’t happen to work.

Being an idiot on the other hand? That’s when you leave bits and pieces of those things out. Maybe you’ve got a big idea, but you don’t apply any wisdom or you forget your values or you stop being humble.

All of us do idiotic things once in a while. We just have to be careful not to turn it into a practice, letting ourselves off the hook by evoking the names of the business Gods who told us it was ok to fail. That’s not, in fact, what they meant.



Why Work Sucks

Well, actually work doesn’t really suck for me. But it used to. And then we changed everything and became the first non-profit in the country to migrate to a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). After that, work pretty much stopped sucking.

Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, authors of Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, just released an updated, paperback version of their book. The new material features a little bit of the story of how Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council switched to a ROWE, alongside interviews with me and Mary, another awesome member of my team.

I first discovered Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It in an airport bookstore in June 2008 and it was the most intriguing thing I had read in years. It verifies every suspicion I had that they way we traditionally work doesn’t make any sense and that there is a better way.

If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think.

Want to read more about rethinking the way we work? You should see the stack of books beside my bed…it includes: