“To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.”
– William James
I got this quote from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book Do More Great Work. Great Work, you see, is what lights you up, it’s what makes a difference. Great Work is the work that matters.
I can picture you right now, reading that phrase and I just know you’ve got an idea. Something you’d love to do. An area you could really make an impact in, that would build on all those things you kick ass at, the things you’re truly passionate about, the stuff of heroes.
I know that’s what made me buy Stanier’s book and probably all those others who’ve launched it to the #1 rank in it’s category on Amazon’s Kindle store.
So why aren’t we all out there doing our Great Work?
Can you imagine if each of us managed just one piece of Great Work this year? Not just for how awesome it would make us feel (although that would be pretty amazing). But for the difference it would make in the world when everyone was out there doing something more. Something that pushed beyond the same old same old we spend so much of our lives in.
So what’s stopping us?
Part of it might be trying to figure out what to do. For that, pick up a copy of Do More Great Work, and let Stanier guide you through a series of exercises – maps actually – to help you discover your Great Work.
But part of it might be that you’re actually resisting the change it would require if you were to embark on such greatness.
Our Immunity to Change
Even when we want to behave differently, we often find it incredibly hard to do so. Just think back to all those New Year’s resolutions, diet attempts… you get the drift. The reason we resist, according to Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey, is that we’ve often got hidden, competing commitments that are holding us back.
Stanier gives the example that perhaps you want to be more assertive in meetings, yet each time you attend, you find yourself passive and quiet. Why? Perhaps being passive and quiet serves a deeper, unspoken goal or commitment, such as being a team player, being liked, or building a reputation as a non-complainer.
Typically, this deeper, unspoken commitment is a defense mechanism against something we fear.
To understand, Kegan & Lahey ask a series of questions:
- What is it you’re committed to doing?
- What behaviors are you doing (or not doing) that are working against achieving this commitment?
- Why? What commitment have you made to yourself that compels you to operate this way?
- What is your big assumption behind this competing commitment?
Below is an example adapted from one Kegan & Lahey gave for a school Principal. The Principal was sincerely committed to creating powerful learning experiences for every child in his school. And yet, he was acting in ways that worked directly against his goal and, thus stopped him from achieving his Great Work around learning.
Testing our Assumptions
I wish I could say otherwise, but there’s usually some truth to our Big Assumptions. Personally, I want to mentor more startups to help them be successful and yet am finding myself regularly unavailable to those that reach out to me. In part I fear I don’t have time to talk to every startup, but in part is a greater fear that I’ll have zero idea how to help them and be found out as a horrible fraud.
So, sadly it’s true. I don’t have time to talk to every startup in the world, and there are going to be a large number of startups that I’m at a complete loss for how to help, who may indeed see me as useless.
The issue is, when I accept my assumption as an unquestioning, global truth, I hold myself back from greatness. In reality, the assumption probably only holds true in certain circumstances. For example, if I try to mentor an entrepreneurial particle physicist I will become a complete, blabbering idiot (which, alas, I know from personal experience).
So, what we need to do – and I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear me say this – is test our assumptions!
We need to gain a little clarity around those boundaries. Kegan & Lahey have found that even small changes in people’s Big Assumptions can lead to significant changes in their actions and sense of possibility. Their advice is to design tests that question parts of your assumption. For example, I might try talking to a startup that’s developing software – as opposed to, say, subatomic microscopes – and ask them how I can help. If it’s something I can do, I’ve learned that there are startups I can help and now have an option for where to start my Great Work.
If it’s not something I can do, I can test my assumption that they’ll view me as a horrible fraud. Unless the particle physicist is reading this in which case I invite you to post your answer in the comments below.
(okay, not really)
The point is, if we can figure out what’s stopping us, that’s our first step to kicking ass. I mean, to Doing Great Work.
What great work would YOU like to do?