Two years ago this month, I did what many others working in corporations dream of doing: I left and created my own job. I had a good job in a legendary company with numerous benefits: smart colleagues, abundant resources, good pay and security. But it was clear to me that my growth would come from another place. For many years, my response to the What would you do if you could do anything? question was that I’d start my own business. In March, 2010, I decided that it was time. My former employer described my departure as an “early retirement.” I described it as a “late restart.”
This anniversary is a good occasion to reflect upon what I’ve learned so far in my encore career. A few of these lessons were expected; many were not. The unexpected lessons come from the same source: how differently I must think about my work. I think more like an artist now: experiencing, expressing, creating, and sharing. It’s more about creating abundance than managing deficits; more about the white space and less about the boxes. While I could write a lot about what I’ve learned about running a business in the last two years, those lessons were expected. The principles listed below, representing how I am learning to think differently, were not.
Know Who You Are
I’ve had to shift from what I do to who I am. What’s my purpose? What are my values? How are people better because of me? A deep understanding of my purpose and its value is my most important asset. Everything else springs from there.
Art Is Work
In her Artist series, Julia Cameron explains the metaphor for my practice: Art is Work. Great art is a product of great discipline. Writers write a set number of pages a day and discard draft after draft. Musicians practice for hours a day to produce a ninety-minute concert. Cameron discards the romantic notion that successful artists are natural talents who sit around waiting for the bolt of inspiration to produce great work. Great work comes from hours of sweat and tears deposited on a regular basis. I relate to her view. My work product may look effortless, but it is not.
Champions are people who understand your field, believe in you, and are generous with their time and support. They are the people you rely upon for advice, insight, support and perspective. If they are really good, they will help you be better. People advise entrepreneurs to start with a plan. My lesson is to start with a list of champions.
I adore my champions. To Kathy G., Casi, Kathy O., Kevin, Cheryl , Gaye, Stephanie, Rick and just about everyone at MSLOC, thank you for your votes of confidence. They mean more than you will ever know. To Jeff, Keeley and Colleen, thank you for being de facto agents for this blog. Finally, to my dearest Peter, you prove every day that I won the husband lotto. Thank you for your all purpose, all weather support.
Lean Into It
A former colleague and current friend, Zenglo, taught me the Buddhist principle to lean into the challenge. My old instinct was to run away. That looks hard, better do something else. That looks risky, better stay safe. Avoidance makes challenges bigger. Zenglo taught me confrontation makes them smaller.
Julia Cameron suggests an exercise to draw a picture of your fear. I did it. I took out my sketch paper and watercolor markers then drew what my fear looks like. You know what? My fierce fear, the bully that keeps me stuck, looks like a dust bunny! Really. It looks like this little grey fluffy thing with a tiny smile. My fear has a friendly smile! This exercise turned something uncontrollable to something manageable. No dust bunny is going to bring me down.
Invest in Inputs
My most profound lesson regards investing more energy into inputs and less into outcomes. When I measured my success strictly by outcomes, it required an enormous amount of effort in managing the choices of others. This produced a roller coaster ride of highs from a “yes” and lows from a “no.” It also bred resentment towards those who could not recognize my brilliant ideas.
Investing more into inputs means tipping the balance of energy into my work. I can control inputs: my choices, time, curiosity, intellectual rigor, quality of work, attitude and effort. I can get the satisfaction of producing my best possible work. While outcomes are important, those choices belong to someone else. I can’t control whether someone returns my call or message, likes my work or says “yes.” Ownership and curiosity work in an inverse relationship. Less investment in “why” provides more room to think about “how.”
My reinvention is still a work in progress; these lessons will change as it unfolds. My key insight is that for all of the planning invested in this change, I didn’t anticipate the biggest need: thinking differently. For all of the questions I asked about the business, I didn’t ask enough questions about me. So, find included a list of questions that have guided me to think differently, to create more and worry less.
Someone recently asked if I would lead differently in my old job after this entrepreneurial adventure. The question surprised me and I didn’t have an answer. I probably would be different, but don’t spend time looking back. Looking ahead is too much fun.
Julia Cameron has a series of books about the creative process. Two I enjoy:
Cameron, Julia (1992, 2002). The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: Penguin/Putnam.
Cameron, Julia (2006). Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance. New York: Penguin/Putnam.