Ego Alert! This entry is very self-centered. You’ve been warned.
In looking over my calendar I realized today that it seems very likely that I will be booked all the way up to Christmas this year. While I am sharing billing for a few of those programs with my friends at the German Chamber of Commerce they are entirely predicated on my getting out there and making the business happen. It seems likely that being busy will continue into January and hopefully cap off with a trip to Uruguay in February, also for a work project. I will in those five month generate more personal income than I earned working for someone else from 2004-2006 (to be fair I worked for peanuts in 2004) combined. If we add up income generated from March 2010 through February of 2011 we can add 2007 to that figure. So why on earth did I take so long to work for myself?
The first answer is the obvious one, skill set. I made the choice that a lot of people should make early in their careers to invest in jobs and training that help develop the skills needed to be good at a craft. If we give room on my life’s timeline for a formal education and sometime in a journeyman system by the time I left full time employment (ie working for someone else) at the end of 2007 I had all the skills I would need to be my own production line , sales & marketing department, and R&D department. So what happened? Why did it take nearly two full years to stop committing the majority of my energy to other people’s tasks and focus on what mattered to me?
Rather than be direct let’s flashback to this weekend.
As I kicked off a two day workshop on leadership on Saturday I went through a traditional ritual of letting participants express their concerns and hopes for the workshop they were about to join. Since we were conducting the workshop in Chinese I saw a fair amount of concerns about attending a two day lecture in Chinese conducted by an American. To be fair I have a thick American accent when I speak mandarin and unless I have warmed up I am a little slow in mandarin the first morning. So in essence what they are saying is “we have heard you talk and we aren’t sure this is going to go the way we would like it to.” It’s easy to take that moment and feel like I am being criticized, because in that moment I am. It is easy to take that moment and let it define your emotional state for the next two days and let it torpedo your chances of doing something great.
I would like to point out that at the end of the workshop the workshop evaluation scored me at a 4.38 out of 5. In training terms this is a solid A, not quite an A+ but certainly better than an A-.
So why didn’t I let the moment when everyone in the group volunteered that they saw a significant chance of failure define my feelings? In part because there is a mounting sea of evidence that my level of Chinese doesn’t change my ability to create successful training results. In larger part because I have reframed one of my fundamental fears and concerns, the fear of criticism.
Reframing is a useful technique of actively looking for a new or different perspective. Here is how I have reframed this fear, “people make these little critiques and express these concerns because, in some way, to them the results matter.” So long as I continue to do things that are meaningful to people these sorts of “criticisms” are actually a sign that my work and the result it creates matters to the critic. Once you begin to feel like what you are doing matters and is meaningful it makes taking the steps to ensure you continue working much easier to take. It becomes a virtuous cycle of feeling engaged in your work, by being engaged creating more work, by creating more work that is meaningful staying engaged thus creating more work and so on.
So getting back to the original question… why did it take two years to get focused on my own tasks? To be perfectly blunt there was a global economic crisis that threw a curve ball at me, but that was never really the cause. After all we did not feel the impact of the crisis in China until October, but out the gates in 2008 I was trying to work with other people. By March of 2009 when China was past the worst of the recession (yes it was that fast) I had already put my primary focus on working for someone and stayed focused there for another 6 months or more.
The thing about being afraid of criticism, is it is hard to hear that you are not as bright as you think you are. After all if you fail there is an organization in place to absorb some of the worst shocks of your failure. Unless you do something criminal odds are that failure will not result in dismissal and missing your next meal ticket. If you carry the weight for yourself there is not an opportunity to hide from failure and criticism behind the walls of other people and an established organization.
It took a moment (two years) to get that what I was doing mattered and for that fear to supersede the fear of being criticized. There were people out there that felt strongly enough about it to encourage or discourage my success. I had as Seth Godin put it, found my tribe. Once I knew my tribe was there it was a matter stepping on to the path of my choosing and accepting that people wanted to tell me that they cared about the results of my work. The next time you find yourself distracting your self from doing what you need to do (in my case working I kept trying to work for other people) look to see if it isn’t a fear of criticism holding you from making a full commitment to yourself and the people in your tribe who want you to succeed.