What the People I Learned From in 2018 Learned in 2018
Well, it looks like we made it. 2018 is moving into our rearview mirror and I’ll bet I’m not the only one with mixed feelings about that. This year was turbulent, both generally and personally. I left a beloved team, made the leap into independent consulting (and managed to pack all the usual rookie mistakes into a very short time-frame #overachiever), did a bunch of public speaking, and jumped back into a fascinating new role in an interesting organization, all while grappling with defining a side project related to sexual harassment, complexity, and power. Oh, and the world seemed determined to drift into dystopia.
I felt uncertain and unbalanced the entire year. The upside was that I was especially receptive to learning from others. This year I questioned everything, and was comforted to find others who had already been asking the same (and better) questions; people who didn’t rush to fill the air with simple answers and singular solutions, but inspired me to sit with my uncertainty and try to learn from it. I’m grateful for that, and for them.
So, for the second year I invited a dozen or so of the people I learned from this year to share what they learned this year. Putting this post together was as much a delight this year as it was last – thank you to everyone who agreed to contribute.
I invite you to treat this as a friendly introduction to a list of interesting, smart, and generous people, and I encourage you to explore their work more thoroughly. Finally, it’s worth noting that this list is incomplete. I continue to learn from the wonderful people who contributed to last year’s post, and many others who I haven’t highlighted in either blog. Happy learning to all in 2019.
Stowe Boyd | Founder, Work Futures | @stoweboyd
Learning From Surprise
I am involved in a number of serial activities, and so it is unusual to undertake a small, standalone essay, like this, on ‘something small or large I learned this year’.
I continue to be surprised how much I learn from things others have written in the past, and how discovering them is more work that waiting for new posts on Medium or today’s newsletters to appear in my inbox. I’m not certain that I imbue the older finding with more weight because of that extra work, or if I am impressed by older ideas retaining currency even decades after they’ve been expressed.
Some insights are timeless, and endlessly useful, like this by Shunryu Suzuki, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
I wonder whether I spend time searching through the archives as a way to stay in contact with my beginner’s mind, after all these years.
One insight I gained in 2018 is the result of reading Willing To Be Disturbed by Margaret Wheatley, an excerpt from her 2002 book, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. Her message echoes Suzuki Roshi, and is tied to the idea of constructive uncertainty, that I have written about a great deal. Wheatley writes
No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.
We live in a complex world, we often don’t know what’s going on, and we won’t be able to understand its complexity unless we spend more time in not knowing.
And the most important takeaway? She suggests adopting a new approach to listening, one that is based on moving toward the sources of what surprises or startles us:
Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a very useful way to see invisible beliefs. If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true. If what you say disturbs me, I must believe something contrary to you. My shock at your position exposes my own position. When I hear myself saying, “How could anyone believe something like that?” a light comes on for me to see my own beliefs. These moments are great gifts. If I can see my beliefs and assumptions, I can decide whether I still value them.
I confess that I was startled by Wheatley’s idea, and that led me to step back and noodle on regaining a beginner’s mind and rediscovering the ability to learn from surprise. A reminder to distrust the temptation to listen to those voices that sound most like our own.
My year was full of many small insights.
I continued to learn about complexities faced by leaders who want managers in their organizations to develop better people management skills. This is a non-linear change management endeavor, one that’s rarely complete after a single intervention, like training, coaching, or implementing a new process.
As 2017 came to a close, my position was that harassment and discrimination were failures of leadership action. If leaders were to focus on identifying problematic behavior in their organizations, they could (and surely would!) take appropriate action.
As 2018 has unfolded, I’ve continued to wonder about inaction.
Is bad behavior functionally invisible to some who hold leadership positions, and thus not subject to their analysis? Or action?
I’m not naive — some people don’t care. And some are bad actors themselves. But you can’t want your organization to be dragged in the media, or spend resources in the legal process.
Or can you? My assumption is grounded in my training as a leader and a professional. My own personal history.
I’ve also been learning about how little we understand about business history. My interest was sparked by seeing people in tech repeatedly saying that Intel’s remarkable co-founder Andy Grove basically invented goals.
This seems, um, unlikely? And I’ll be looking into it.
2018 has felt like living five years in one year. The lessons are many and more profound than ever. This year I learned that sometimes following your heart will get you further than logic could ever. I have learned to suspend my thoughts and feelings in an effort to observe the unfolding of my life more. Life is predictable until it’s not. Managing the outcomes robs this journey of what should be the most fun; the unpredictability. I have learned that your health is your wealth. The road to success is best enjoyed slow and steady. We are so focused on instant gratification that we forget to enjoy the journey. As a result, I celebrated my wins more this year and stopped to smell some roses along the way too. Boundaries and temperance are important in life and in business. Excess leads to abuse and abuse leads to the destruction of people. We saw the result of years of both excess and abuse in everything from politics to business this year. There is an erosion of people’s faith in our systems and those who lead. We need genuine solutions to rebuild trust. Work is work is work unless it has a purpose and meaning for you. I was intentional this year about making sure everyone and every piece of business I accepted was in alignment with who I am and what I truly want to do with my talents.
Writing this small piece for Jane turned out to be a difficult process. Learning for me has always been about improvement; discovering a new idea that changes you for the better when you act on it. I am still recovering from a serious illness, and I’ve accomplished so much less this year professionally than I imagined I would. What counts as learning when you’re just trying to get back to the way things were before?
It turns out, this year has been more about “unlearning” for me—things I’ve had to stop doing in order to get back on my feet. I’ve had to let go of bad habits, to make room for recovery and rebuilding my strength. I’ve had to stop putting unreasonable expectations on myself about what should be happening, and simply accept what is. I’ve had to stop being so quick to say yes, and pause to consider whether I have capacity to take on more.
I’ve also had to stop comparing myself to others—the book launches, the marathons, the trips to Thailand. My life might include those things one day, but for now, I’ve had to set them aside.
Slowly, this process of unlearning and letting go is creating new space for strength, calm and opportunity. I don’t know what’s ahead, but the load I’m carrying is lighter. Maybe that’s what I was meant to be learning all along.
Maria Milanetti | Partner, MarchFifteen Consulting
Giving People What They Want
I work each day as a consultant at a small, boutique firm with clients in both private and public sector businesses, and what I love about this part of my career in management is that no two days are alike. I work in two main areas of leadership development. I work with individuals – often successors and/or owners— and also with teams and organizations. In 2018, I came to a very simple, but interesting area of learning.
It started when I was facilitating a module on Negotiation in another country last September. I was using the material from the book Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury, and I was asked about what other material was available on negotiation. It led me to an additional resource: a book called Getting More, by Stuart Diamond. While it has quite interesting advice, and mixed reviews, reading this book helped me to draw a conclusion about something that had eluded me up until this point.
What Diamond talks about extensively is giving other people what they need, a central tenet of negotiation, and one that we miss if we keep concentrating only on what we need from an exchange or a negotiation. This was not obvious to me, and from the interactions that I watch daily, I would say it is not often obvious to others either. To me this behaviour first falls into the category of going with the flow or not fighting the tide. It then follows that there is a belief that people are naturally resourceful and whole. This last phrase comes from management coach training. It reminds us that the people we encounter in the world aren’t necessarily broken, but they may be at a different place than we are in our thinking, or they may have a different approach.
This learning led me to try out the following approach in 2018: giving people what they need, and doing this before and after I launch my ideas or advice. On a good day I do this very well, and on a bad day I still can get it wrong.
The learning I have encountered this year has taught me that: I don’t always know better, that I learn things when I listen more, that I can hear a person better if I can keep their wholeness and happiness in mind, and finally that I can do this because I am at a certain point where I can actually catch how I might be affecting others. As I say, I am still learning and it is in process, but it has been such a great year for this reason and many others. I will remember 2018 with much warmth and sentimentality, and I am pretty sure that the high points have all coincided with times when I managed to exercise this skill I describe.
For the last few years, I feel I’ve been learning more and more about how little I know. 2018 has been no exception, but I hope the difference has been that I’m starting to use that cluelessness in a more productive way. I’ve definitely been enjoying answering ‘I don’t know’ in reply to pretty much any question I’m asked about the workplace. Especially in big, serious corporate meetings where everyone is supposed to know everything.
I’ve learnt how that position reframes the dynamic. Firstly, it seems to remove the power of certainty… it’s difficult to follow ‘I don’t know’ with ‘I do!’ without sounding a bit silly. I’ve also learnt that it shifts the conversation to be more open, collaborative and exploratory – ‘well, what do we do now, how do we find out’? And that’s the magic question I’m looking for as a behavioural scientist – I’m just realising that it’s better when people get to it on their own.
Ronni Hendel-Giller | Principal, Insight Out Leadership | @ronnihendel
The most important things I’ve learned this year can fit under the heading of “complexity.”
This year I discovered a body of knowledge around complexity and complex adaptive systems that I am finding to be rich and exciting. The most important voice I discovered on this topic is David Snowden. His framework for understanding and operating in complexity immediately found its way into my writing, my coaching, my workshops and how I live my life. Perhaps the single most important thing I learned was that, in complexity, outcomes are unknowable. Paradoxically, that has allowed me to relax, to listen better, to not think that there’s something wrong with me when I can’t find the answer to a difficult problem. This translates into me feeling like a better coach, better mom and better partner. It enables me to better maintain and attitude of curiosity and experimentation–and share that more fully.
The person who introduced me to Snowden’s complexity framework, and to much of what I have learned in the past few years was Doug Silsbee. Doug died in July, and Doug’s journey, which he chronicled in a blog (https://letlifelivethroughyou.wordpress.com/) and even on video, was a source of profound learning this year for those that Doug touched–and there were many of us. Doug embraced dying as a “complexity challenge” and an adventure. Being witness to his experience–which he so generously shared–helped me feel more courageous about facing the reality of impermanence. I can’t say that I learned to be unafraid of death this year–but I can say that I learned to be a little less afraid and feel a little more peace. So, when I think of what I learned, it comes with deep gratitude and appreciation for my extraordinary teacher.
Sherryl Dimitry | @sherryldimitry
There is a quote by Bob Marley: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” This is the first thing that comes to mind as I reflect on a very challenging year. To personalize this quote, a conversation with a dear friend drove this lesson home for me. A few months ago, two dramatic changes in my personal and professional life happened at the same time, finally ending what had been fifteen months of deep pain, horrific loss and grief in my personal life that was coupled with significant career and financial challenges. I was telling my friend about the toll this period had taken on me personally—how I felt beaten and deflated by the whole of my life. I said, “This past year has destroyed my strength and confidence.” Her reply provided exactly the reframing and perspective I needed. “Sherryl!” she exclaimed in surprise. “This year hasn’t destroyed you at all! This year has shown you what you are truly made of.”
Learning to reframe one’s perspective is most challenging when the situation itself is the most challenging. I have learned how to reach out and ask for help reframing seeming impossible situations, and rebuilding trust in my ability to survive the bleakest and darkest times even when the way forward looks impossible. I am happy to report that the last month of 2018 has also given me the lesson of gratitude and appreciation for everything it is too easy to take for granted: our health, family, good friends, love, and stable work that uses at least some of our skills and talents
I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallows now
2018 was the year I learned to swim in the Open Water.
I’m a stronger swimmer than I knew.
I still get tired.
I’m learning how to float.
There are more out here in the Open Water than they tell you about.
Those grand gilded ships look like fun. The brochure spins a dream.
After a while, it’s claustrophobic. People jump.
I fare better on the Open Water for now.
People will say you are brave for diving in. Some mean it.
Some are convinced you must have been pushed.
The alternative being too fearsome to grapple with.
Some watch you the way you used to watch dolphins. Entertained. Briefly inspired.
But knowing dolphins have little to do with real life.
And you swim.
Sometimes, you’re tired. You think about sending a flare to a distant ocean liner.
But then you remember the gilded claustrophobia.
You keep swimming.
Where are you going? they ask you.
Further out, you answer.
2018 was a big year. It was my first full year out on my own as a new entrepreneur. And a year that I am ending with an immense sense of gratitude and satisfaction for all of the challenges, successes, and chance meetings along the way (including with Jane, who is one of the most thoughtful, articulate people advocates I have come across). So what did I learn in 2018? I don’t even know where to start. But here are a few things that I will be taking with me to get 2019 started with a bang.
- Your own unique story is more powerful than you think. This is one of the first pieces of advice I received at a women’s entrepreneurship conference early this year. While entrepreneurs lack much of the scale that our more established competitors have, we have our unique stories of passion and maybe a bit of frustration that made us break away from the pack. Connecting with this and owning it, despite the vulnerability it creates, has been both a huge challenge and learning for me this year.
- Worrying about time and money completely destroys progress. My first few months out on my own I oscillated between days where I was completed engaged in my work and days where I was going in circles on what I was doing and why. It became very clear very quickly, that the more I worried about time, money, and my own success, the less productive I was. I realized that it was critical for me to push these thoughts away in order to focus on the task at hand and make progress.
- The most important person you need to believe in you is yourself. This is related to the last point. A critical factor to moving past my own worries, was to move past my own self-doubt. I would be shocked to find a successful entrepreneur in any field that didn’t have a foundational belief in their own capabilities.
- I am a workaholic. I have always put a lot into my work, but largely assumed it was because I was trying to impress my boss and not get fired. Now that I am on my own, it is clearer than ever, I really like to work, and have a tendency to work compulsively even when there is no one expecting me to do anything at all. But self-awareness is the first step, and now I am much more deliberate about pulling back and managing my own compulsions to work when I actually don’t need to be.
- Work-life balance is not about creating a hard line between work and life. It is actually about finding the right balance spending time doing things in your life that give you energy and time on the things that take energy. I found that if I am pushing to a tight deadline, taking time to take a break to do something restorative (e.g., cook myself dinner, go for a run, hang out with friends) makes it much easier to put those extra hours needed to meet the timeline. Breaks are useful, who knew?
Well I think that’s it. Some of my big learnings from 2018, that I will be taking with me into 2019, a bit older, a bit wiser, and ready for more.
I had 3 big accomplishments this year – publishing my first book, earning a MA in I/O psych and being selected as the Adler University Valedictorian for the Class of 2018. What’s similar between these accomplishments is that it gave me the opportunity to share my voice with a broader audience, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. However, there was a gap between how I felt personally about my voice and how it was received by others. Why weren’t more people feeling my stories with the emotion I felt? How did the gap happen? I put my heart and soul into this work. As I reflected on this, I realized that the place where my voice was coming from greatly influenced how my message was perceived.
My voice was being directed by my head first and my heart was second. What a paradox for me! I’ve always let my heart guide me, but I didn’t realize I was letting my head filter the voice that others heard. Is letting your head guide you a bad thing? No it’s not, we need our head to ground us in logic and facts so we can make rational decisions. However, we need the heart to connect with others in an authentic way. My voice wasn’t as authentic I thought.
This a-ha moment came to me only a few weeks ago as I was reading Brene Brown’s latest book “Dare to Lead” and learned how shame manifests in different ways for people. I had never considered shame to be a prevalent feeling for me, but it was actually lurking beneath the surface. It was the filter my head had been putting on my heart.
Over my career, I’ve held several leadership positions and I believe many of the people who I worked with would tell you that I led with my heart. So, this was a bit of shock. Moving from a corporate position to a small business owner really tests your ability to deal with uncertainty, volatility and ambiguity. I think my heart got lost in this transition and the head stepped in to provide its filtering services. While I’m extremely proud of my accomplishments and the voice I brought to world this year, I know it came with a filter (thanks head!). I also know that many of us lead and live with this filter and I believe it suppresses our authenticity that is waiting to shine. Imagine being able to lean into conversations and talk about things that really matter to us. Imagine being the real you. This year I took the next step to be able to do this. Watch out 2019, there’s a lot of heart ready to be heard.