Everywhere is somewhere

“He that is everywhere is nowhere” is a quote often attributed to Thomas Fuller, the 17th century author and scholar. It’s widely used in career advising circles to highlight the importance of focusing on a single field.

I’m all for this general concept as a productivity mantra—if you’re trying to multi-task you’re failing to give your whole being to each task.

But at the macro, when the career focal point is off in the distance, is it worth forcing one solely for the sake of focus? Maybe. Equally worth endorsement, however, is dabbling.

Everywhere, I’d argue, is still somewhere.

Too often students feel ridiculed for holding multiple interests, for dipping into a variety of fields. Such students are typically looked down upon for lacking focus rather than praised for their curiosity.

Many of the best leaders I’ve met have spent a large part of their lives dabbling, and it’s precisely in their dabbling that they were eventually able to find focus.

Their experience allows them to pull insights from multiple fields and to think creatively, two attributes critical for building teams capable of continuous learning and innovation.

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The six phases of creativity

In their book, The Path of the Everyday Hero, Dr. Lorna Catford and Dr. Michael Ray, highlight, in order, the six phases of creativity that are often used to make ideas real.

They are:

1. Preparation

This is the optimistic stage of gathering information.

2. Frustration

Unanticipated challenges arise here. As the authors put it, “challenge is a catalyst for your true creativity because it forces you to find an alternative approach.”

3. Incubation

This is the deep breath phase when ideas and challenges are given time to percolate. Progress is purposefully delayed to spark new creativity.

4. Strategizing

A variety of strategies can be implemented here, but it’s important to keep in mind that part of strategizing involves looping “several times between strategizing and incubation.”

5. Illumination

“The culmination of the incubation and strategizing is breakthrough—the illumination of an ‘Aha!’ experience.”

6. Verification

This is when you test your idea in the real world. Feedback received during this phase is collected and considered.

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Leading through allyship

Being in a leadership position doesn’t necessarily mean serving as the spokesperson on all issues. This is especially true as it relates to matters of social justice.

It’s common for CEOs, for example, to confuse their position of authority in the business with needing to be the authority on social issues, both internally and externally.

The best leaders in this regard are those who, before leaping into public conversations, first create platforms for those on their team who can more authentically speak to the cause, experience, or movement (and who want to take on this role).

Leading through allyship often begins with erasing what you think you know about a particular issue and asking those on your team mindful, sincere questions—regardless of their seniority.

Asking such questions demands vulnerability, which often means it’s not the default form of leadership.

Leaders best equipped to publicly address such issues are those who:

1. routinely tap the collective wisdom of their team;

2. ensure cultures of inclusivity and respect are growing throughout the company; and,

3. continually find new ways to amplify the voices of those around them.

Leading like this from the back of the pack is the best way to know when you should take the microphone or hand it off to someone else.

Throughout history, leadership through allyship has been the key to creating genuine and sustainable social impact.

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Walt Disney’s three rooms

According to former Liverpool Business School professor Keith V. Trickey, Walt Disney developed (or got rid of) promising creative ideas through exposing them to the following framework:

Room 1
The place were (sic) dreams were dreamed, ideas were spun out, no restrictions, no limits – just every sort of outrageous creative hunch or idea was freely developed

Room 2
Here the dreams from Room 1 were co-ordinated and the story board created as events and characters fitted into sequence. (The idea of the story board – now ubiquitous – was a Disney invention)

Room 3
The “sweat box” – a small room under the stairs where the whole crew would critically review the project to date with no holds barred. The process was safe because it was the project not a particular individual that was being criticised.

If your team always generates ideas but struggles to bring them to life, try experimenting with something similar to Walt Disney’s approach.

Fresh ideas are vulnerable ideas, and unfortunately most of them are killed off far too early. This approach will allow your team to first nurture ideas before exposing them to critique.

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After the brainstorm

Many brainstorming sessions fail during the sessions themselves, in part due to a lack of structure going in and a lack of creative leadership during.

But, even among the subset of brainstorming sessions deemed a success, most still fail.

Why?

Because participants rely purely on notes from the brainstorming scribe without personalizing their role and the steps they need to take. This often creates a kind of bystander effect, whereby individuals become entirely reliant on either the brainstorm organizer or the scribe.

After the brainstorm, it’s critical for each member to unpack their personal impact.

By personalizing the experience and their role in the session, and eventually sharing these notes with those on the team, they’ll feel a sense of personal responsibility and they’ll help bring two critical aspects into the execution phase: transparency and team accountability.

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Listen as you hear

Hearing, the process of receiving sound, is a natural process tied to our ability to survive. It allows us to sense our position in relation to sound, be it the sound of our breath, the footsteps behind us, or the thunder high above.

Listening, paying deep attention to and seeking to understand those sounds, doesn’t come as natural for many of us. We can hear when we don’t want to, but we can’t listen with the whole of our being unless we’re committed.

Have you ever felt like someone wasn’t listening to you? In that moment, there was likely nothing more in the world you wanted.

In an age when we’re all distracted by and feeding algorithmic platforms, the ability to listen as we hear will grow into a sought-after skill and will improve the quality of our lives.

Radical, strategic listeners are better able to provide creative solutions for today’s empowered customers, are more trusted and respected as colleagues, and are better equipped to be lifelong students at a time when continuous learning is the key to remaining relevant.

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At the edge of intellect

My poetry students are at their most creative when, having exhausted their intellect, they are forced to tap into something deeper.

This has been the case in my career as a creative as well.

For years I’ve struggled to explain this aspect of creativity, how it often arises not from thin air but from when the intellect has carried an idea as far as it can.

In recently reading the 1980s classic from Stanford University titled Creativity in Business, I came across a fascinating insight from psychologist Helen Palmer that enhanced my clarity on this:

“Usually you come to the edge of your intellectual conclusions. Then you have to presuppose, you have to use some function that is already contained within you. You don’t go blank, and you don’t go to sleep at the wheel. But you have to inspect the particular piece of goods, the decision that has to be made, with some part of the self that is not ‘thought.’ And at that moment an inspiration of how to proceed, a direction that might cut corners, a new way to solve the problem, is possible.”

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Slow down to wake up

Preliminary mindfulness studies in schools suggest a positive correlation between slowing down (to take a few breaths at the sound of a class bell rather than rushing to the next class, for example) and the students’ ability to reduce stress and improve focus.

When I incorporated meditation into a college course I taught, my students were far more focused on the lessons and on our conversations and, over time, far less likely to be distracted by their phones.

We are all students, and we can all benefit from a similar exercise.

One entry point is to determine your “class bells.”

Over the course of a week, make a list of everything that caused you to go into a panic or into rush mode. Note anything and everything, no matter how seemingly trivial. It could be a stop light you always hit on the way to work or the sound of a new email coming in.

From there, determine how you can use those moments as personal triggers to slow down, even if only to take a few deep breaths before proceeding.

The “slow down to wake up” mindset is a practice. Keep at it until it forms into a habit and, at the least, you’ll likely experience a reduction in stress both in those previously stressful moments and throughout the day.

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Our mind’s mansion

Study after study tells us how little of our brains we use, that there’s all this untapped potential within us if only we could find the key.

Ajahn Achalo, the Abbot of Anandagiri Forest Monastery in Thailand, refers to this space as the “dusty rooms” in “our mind’s mansion.”

He tells a story of someone knocking down a random wall and stumbling on a secret room filled with famous paintings.

There are supplements and technologies out there that claim they can grant us access to these other rooms, some of which may have merit.

But I think most of us have an intuitive sense of what’s behind most of those doors. For various reasons, we’ve decided not to discover what they offer.

One practical way of exploring a new room is to write down a list of a few unexplored interests. Ask yourself:

What have I always wanted to try?

For each answer, ask yourself these two questions:

What holds me back right now from doing so?

If I tried now, how would I go about it?

You may find a mix of responses, including some that aren’t possible in your life right now. Ask that series of questions until you find one that is possible, and give yourself the gift of trying.

You may unlock a new room in your mind as a result.

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Visions with potholes

Truthtelling from the top trickles down.

Leaders who paint abstract, magical visions filled with lofty generalisms may initially rally their teams and impress funders, but they’ll struggle to overcome the natural hurdles on the path to success.

Leaders who paint realistic visions, in which the road to success is paved with known and unknown potholes, will have a far better shot at rallying their teams for the long haul.

A vision tempered with reality is a more genuine and more respected vision.

Confident leaders who paint visions with potholes are taking the first and most neglected step towards building the prepared and focused teams that will step up to fill those holes when they arise.

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Leading from the weeds

In the business world, “being in the weeds” is often positioned as the antithesis of leadership. Indeed, many managers frame it as negative in their performance reviews. “I was stuck in the weeds,” they say.

While there’s truth to the idea that being in the weeds means you may miss the larger picture, the best leaders were born in the weeds. Their experience in the weeds is what grants them the perspective they need to lead.

Leading from the weeds often demands mastery over a specific set of in-demand industry skills and having the mindfulness to occasionally step back to assess the project and the team to recalibrate if necessary.

It’s a mix of hard and soft skills, and can result in days or weeks split between being a maker and being a manager.

Those who lead from the weeds are able to “dig in the dirt” to get things done and “stand on the logs” to assess overall progress.

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Creativity in containers

Creativity is often visualized as birds set free and as wild horses roaming a countryside. This mythos has merit but is also part of the problem.

For those in all industries, creativity is often sparked not by having a blank slate and unlimited freedom but by needing to work within a set of rules. Creativity can emerge from the absence of rules and by the containers created by them.

Those first studying Shakespeare, for example, are typically amazed both by the creativity of his writing and the strict literary rules in which he worked.

And most founders in the business world, of course, are forced to be creative within all sorts of containers—be it laws or budgets.

When I taught creative writing, I often told my students that writer’s block doesn’t exist. Curiosity block, however, does exist, and one way of breaking through it is by containerizing your creativity.

I recently participated in a class titled “Applied Innovation.” Had we been told to come up with a startup idea on the spot many of us would have blankly stared at our notebooks.

But when the professor handed us a toothbrush and told a story about how Colgate had a massive surplus and needed to find creative new uses for this toothbrush, our collective genius came to life.

Within 20 minutes we came up with over 15 ideas, from global philanthropic and marketing campaigns to melting the plastic down to form new household appliances.

If you’re struggling to bring creativity into your work, think about intentionally confining it. If you’re already confined, strive to see those confines not as barriers but as springboards.

You may give rise to your best idea as a result.

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Creative failure residue

Most attempts to create or innovate fall short of the goal they set out to achieve. But this doesn’t mean they failed. Nor does “fail fast” actually mean a full-stop fail.

Though such attempts may not lead to the next poem or startup, they leave a residue that can carry over into the next effort.

Capturing creative failure residue was a key component of success during my time as an MFA student in creative writing. Exercises were not intended to lead to polished poems; they were designed to turn walls into doors.

It was up to us to remember the doors and the processes that led to their creation so we could take the steps necessary to open them, see where they led, and build new ones.

The same can be said of the exercises during my time as an Executive MBA student. While often positioned as opposites, I’ve experienced fascinating parallels between the MFA and MBA programs.

They both involve surveying a field, self-reflection, taking creative risks, and then capturing the residue from those risks to build something better.

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Accomplishment curtains

The next time you see a list of someone’s accomplishments, pause for a moment to think about the stories behind them.

While it’s better if you’re able to ask about the stories, it’s also okay if you have to imagine them, as this can develop the habit of realizing that accomplishments are more complex than they appear.

For many of us, our natural competitive and comparative minds tend to take a few different routes once we see the accomplishments of others:

1. We compare them to our lack of accomplishments
2. We’re inspired to pursue our own
3. We convince ourselves that they aren’t all that great

But accomplishments are like curtains; what’s behind them is far more interesting.

Develop the habit of peeking behind them and you’ll likely find yourself continuously inspired not by what was achieved but by how they grew from equal parts failure and resiliency.

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This is it

I was in the front row of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat in Thailand. Sitting meditation lasted for hours, and each time I opened my eyes I saw only the three words he’d painted in bold black letters across the wall:

this is it

No capital T at the beginning and no period at the end, because those moves likely felt too certain, I thought.

With each passing hour my body broke down, and the resounding feeling of impermanence that I’d felt only in brief moments throughout my life began to take root deeper inside of me.

this is it

This is the moment from which we can choose to live our best lives. And this is another moment. And this one, too.

Often, when we think of stringing these moments together, we think about our “legacy” or how we’ll be remembered.

In this sense, we’re not so much living in this moment as we are gamifying the moment—using it to collect points for later.

When we feel a sense of impermanence, as we all do as humans, our default is to move away. But the lessons contained within those moments are best absorbed when we lean in.

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Between the cubicles

Nothing stifles the development of relationships and innovation at work quite like continuous proximity. The sense of familiarity of that one colleague always in their cubicle next to yours can, over time, mask what they have to teach you.

For some, it eventually becomes awkward to ask basic questions because of that inner voice within us that whispers, You’ve been working together for one year. Shouldn’t you know where they went to school?

A lack of curiosity feeds complacency, but stoking this curiosity and bringing it to even the most familiar of places can improve you and your team’s energy at work.

You and that colleague who rarely connect between the cubicles likely have much to teach each other, but one of you will need to cross the chasm to find that nothing nurtures the development of relationships and innovation at work quite like continuous proximity.

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Growth unmeasured

The positive shift to data-driven decision making has caused an unexpected change in the mindsets of many people who are pursuing their personal growth.

Because their days at work are all about making decisions supported by data, they feel barriers when they ask themselves “How do I want to grow?”

These barriers are a result of the question behind the question:

“How can data back up my decision?”

For many who ask what numbers they can wrap around their growth, the default becomes the pursuit of activities that may lead to an increase in income. For others, it’s about using a number as a goal for how many books to read each quarter, etc.

But lost here is growth unmeasured, which includes personal growth through the pursuit of new experiences and perspectives, or growth in the many facets of emotional intelligence.

Reading a book when you’ve tied your completion of it to a numbered goal can create a different reading experience than when your goal is purely about absorbing the material.

Basing decisions on numbers will always and perhaps increasingly play a critical role in our lives. But because numbers grant us a sense of control, it’s easy to believe their influence should guide everything we do.

Naming nature doesn’t tame nature, nor does growth arise only from that which can be measured.

Growth unmeasured is worth pursuing, and those of us who are data-driven must ask ourselves if we’re willing to give up some control to do it.

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Traveling without traveling

A mentor once told me “you don’t have to travel to travel.”

She said this after I’d just returned from three years of traveling throughout Asia, which is to say I Ioved the zen poetics of the quote but didn’t entirely agree with it.

Travel opened up new perspectives and ideas for me. It exposed me to fascinating cultures and to the seemingly infinite nuances that make up the collective diversity of our humanity.

How could I have possibly learned that without traveling?

Years later, I see her wisdom. Because I was embarking on this adventure to learn, to grow, and to observe the world around me, my intent to travel primed me to be receptive to everything I experienced.

Her point was that I could prime myself without leaving my town. She believed it was a shift in my mindset, more than a change in my physical location, which allowed me to absorb so much during my time in Asia.

Have you viewed where you live like a tourist might? Try bringing the same sense of curiosity to your hometown as you did to the exciting destination of your most recent trip.

You might see the place, the people, and your position in the beautiful swirl of it all in a whole new light.

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Shoes aren’t systems

The empathy exercise of “stepping into someone else’s shoes” can provide us with a perspective on the immediacy of that person’s struggles.

There’s even a movement around “empathy museums” where through virtual reality and other means you can get a glimpse into an experience unlike your own.

But shoes aren’t systems. Rarely are these noble exercises paired with an understanding of the systems that led to the suffering. These systems, too, are oppressive and deeply painful.

It’s critical not to take the short-sighted view of seeing the alleviation of the immediate struggles as an alleviation of the suffering.

Nowhere was this clearer to me than when I traveled to Burma and stepped into what I can only describe as concentration camps.

Those immediate struggles of hunger and sickness were real and terrifying. But in interview after interview, those suffering the most quickly went beyond those issues to tell me about the systemic ethno-religious nationalism that felt just as painful and in some ways worse to them.

It meant they were denied employment and even stripped of their business licenses, and that their kids were denied an education. It meant they couldn’t travel because their citizen cards were revoked. It meant the judicial, police and even health systems worked in partnership with the government at every level to make their lives miserable.

Understanding and trying to imagine all of this, at least on some surface level, goes a long way toward developing a more accurate sense of empathy.

When we “step into someone else’s shoes” let’s first ask what we’re stepping into, and if expanding the scope to include systems will bring us closer to the truths we’re seeking.

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Questions like frozen rope

I had a basketball coach growing up who said each chest pass should be like a frozen rope. The metaphor stuck.

Yes, ropes that aren’t a straight line can be frozen, but for years I worked hard as a point guard to make sure my passes didn’t have any slack in them.

The metaphor resonates with me today, but for a different reason. I’m a fan of great questions—both asking and receiving them—and I’m typically a fan of the people who ask them.

Here’s why.

Great questions are like frozen rope passes in that they take more energy than a soft pass. Such energy usually means the asker seriously cares about the receiver and/or their response.

The people I’m most often surrounded by are those who I have the best conversations with—and those who are both open to asking and receiving great questions. Our relationships have been built by consistently going beyond the “How it’s going?” and small talk.

Great questions allow both participants to grow and ultimately to connect at a deeper level.

Think about those around you. Who asks you the best questions? Are the questions you ask others built with muscle and care?

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Two percent off

What holds us back from pursuing something we may fail to achieve?

Is it the unreasonable expectation of being perfect or nothing else?

Is it our inability to remove ourselves from a swirl of distractions long enough to sustain the necessary deep focus?

What might we achieve and how might we grow if we pursued it anyway?

Born in 276 BC, Eratosthenes was a geographer, poet, astrologist, mathematician, and librarian. He’s credited with being the first to come up with a reasonably accurate measurement of the Earth’s circumference.

Depending on the measurement he used (which we’re not entirely sure of), he would have either been 16% or two percent off the actual circumference of 24,901 miles.

Stories like this are often portrayed as magic, as being altogether separate from our potential. But a closer look reveals that Eratosthenes was dedicated to learning from as many disciplines as possible. Indeed, entertainment for him was likely learning — a combination many of us have come to believe are separate.

Eratosthenes’ finding also reveals his keen attention to detail and willingness to explore. Upon hearing about a famous well on the Nile River where the sun illuminated the water at the bottom (not the sides) at noon on one day each year, he decided to check it out. What he saw there became the catalyst he needed to come up with his measurement.

How many others heard that story and decided to check it out?

Of those who did check it out, how many arrived at the well with such a diverse array of knowledge and a hunger to continue learning?

What he accomplished is something few of us could do today—despite having the world’s technologies in our hands.

Rather than taking that truth and putting Eratosthenes on a pedestal, we should remind ourselves of the enduring and often unexpected learnings that can grow from noble pursuits—including from those pursuits that are attached to goals we’re likely to fall short of achieving.

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The fences we build

In personal or work relationships we’re interested in developing, we often build fences to separate ourselves from the other person.

We do it to protect ourselves from the need to be vulnerable and therefore hurt, and we rationalize our actions by convincing ourselves either that we didn’t build anything or that at least it’s not a wall.

These fences allow us to peer in from a distance. They grant us the space to judge without needing to be held responsible for our actions. They give us the false sense that, if we stand at certain angles, we can see without being seen.

In our personal lives, fences can lead to us confusing observation with meaningful connection and even friendship. At work, they can make us believe we’re collaborators even when we’re deep in our bubbles. Regardless of where we build them, they can lead to tension, confusion, and pain for those on both sides.

There may be occasions for fences, but we must not confuse them for walls or bridges. And we must not trick ourselves into believing that what we’re observing from the artificial distance we’ve created is as natural as we think it is.

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Leave some in the tank

Years ago when I was a mixed martial arts fighter, a mentor told me to leave some in the tank. He said to keep showing up consistently, but to go 90% each day so that I stayed hungry.

Consistency was key, he said. But so was curiosity. I had a ton to learn and to absorb it all I needed to maintain not only my body’s ability to withstand the physical demands of training but also the curiosity mindset.

At the time, I understood the advice but didn’t apply it. I thought I was different, that I could push myself to levels nobody else could handle. I’d bought into the Gatorade culture of going 110%, whatever that was, and believed I could train at that intensity each day until I was a world champion.

It didn’t pan out. My body repeatedly broke down and the curiosity mindset that propelled late night sessions of studying film and visualizing techniques began to fade. I’d often get sick because I wasn’t letting my body recover, but worse than that was my loss of desire.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve competed inside a steel cage, but the lesson rings for me today more than it did then. Not only is there nothing wrong with going 90%, but there’s a whole lot right about it.

Consistency at 90% beats inconsistency at 100% in just about every endeavor you can imagine. The challenge, however, is in imagining yourself doing less and being better because of it.

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Thinking with mirrors

In a particularly challenging yoga class, especially near the end when you’re exhausted, you’ll notice your body naturally finds ways to cheat to make the experience a little easier.

A moment before going into the posture, you may have told yourself you’d slack a little. Or it may have happened as a protection mechanism.

Either way, the mirrors show you your shortcut. There’s no hiding it. And good instructors will point out your shortcut with a comment about how it’s essential to “get the full benefit of the posture.”

Our minds take similar shortcuts, sometimes to protect us from pain but also to steer us to more comfortable or entertaining thoughts. Unless we’ve practiced creating mental mirrors, we won’t have the ability or the sensitivity to realize how often our thinking falls far short of our capabilities.

Worse yet, each time we fall short we’re reinforcing the mental habit of falling short, thereby rarely getting “the full benefit of the posture.”

If you’re not happy with your habits of thought, great. It likely means you’re on the path to building the mirrors you need.