A few weeks ago, I received an interesting Tweet responding to a piece I wrote about heightened risk-aversion among those with many options: “It’s the result of what’s taught to us in the first twenty years of our lives. Risk-taking is squeezed out of us,” Alex Welsh Tweeted. He continued: “It was especially strong in the transition between high school to college when I was choosing a major.” I asked Alex if he would be willing to write a reflection on his own historical timeline of risk-aversion and fear of failure for this blog. And, he agreed. Below is Alex’s rendition of how and when his dreams became safe, and what he did about it.
“In retrospect, I can see a stark reversal taking place over the course of my educational career. When I was in elementary school, I remember my classmates’ desires to become something they considered remarkable: astronauts, firefighters, and the like. I wanted to work at Lego designing new Lego sets because I thought the ones that existed then were too simple. I knew that I could do anything that I wanted, if I put my mind to it. Unfortunately, that stage of inspirational bliss did not last forever.
When high school came, we no longer had such high hopes for fantastic careers. I noticed a very subtle shift in what my teachers and parents were telling me. Of course I could do whatever I wanted, as long as it was safe and in high demand. With that in mind, I thought about being an architect because I liked designing new buildings. When I started looking at colleges, I thought about chemical engineering because I excelled in science. Finally, I settled on business because I wanted to work with people.
So much for working at Lego.
Somewhere along the line, my desire for risk-taking and adventure was nearly ground out of me, and I took the safe route into business school. I knew that in business school I was a shoe-in. I got the top scholarship and aced my classes. I went on networking trips and was in the Select Leader Development Program. Even after all that, though, I was bored out of my mind.
I told myself that it would get better when I started taking classes in my major. It wasn’t. Finally, half way through my second year, I came to the end of myself. I was going insane and I hated every class I was taking. Something had to change.
As I reflected on where I was, I had an epiphany. The control I have had over my education was not a good thing. It meant that I was never satisfied or surprised with the outcome. If I wanted to be in a work environment where I thrived, I would need to be constantly challenged. I needed something for which I could give my all. I needed to stop playing it safe.
Now that I am finished with my formal education, I have realized several things:
- In school, I had been conditioned to expect predictable results based on the amount of effort I put forth. I was stagnant because I wasn’t taking risks.
- I learned I could control the outcome of my performance, so that became my goal. I would put forth only the effort necessary to get an A or A-, which was satisfactory to me. Essentially, I held my required schooling at bay with as little energy as possible while searching with all my remaining energy to find something that would actually engage me.
Slowly, I began to take my education into my own hands. I began to seek out knowledge that I wasn’t getting in the classroom. Instead of reading textbooks full of facts I could find online, I read books like Linchpin by Seth Godin and A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. I began exposing myself to people that made a lifestyle out of taking risks based on their passion. And, beginning with my third year, I left the business school and started to study video game design, where I could put everything I had into creating something meaningful. Now I am starting a career as a game producer in an incredibly competitive field where I take risks daily, and I feel energized, alive!
When I think about the way I was taught, I completely understand the rationale that drove my teachers and parents. They wanted to see me succeed, which in their minds meant having financial security in a “respectable” field. Working at Lego wouldn’t work because it wasn’t very likely that I would succeed, which would mean that they had failed, too. Their fear became my fear, and it held me back.
Now that I have broken that fear, I see a few things more clearly:
- Without risk, my life was predictable, boring, and unsatisfying
- Taking risks is important, but they have to be the right risks
- The right risks are driven by passion and tempered by wisdom
I have discovered that risk-taking is a lifestyle that leads to a very interesting, full life. Fear of failure is debilitating, but it’s rarely based on reality. Even the times when I don’t get to where I planned to go, I always find myself closer to something else new and exciting.
What is keeping you from taking the right risks?”
Alex Welsh is a video game producer and storyteller. He is a recent graduate from Ohio University, where he studied game design and business. Now he is jump-starting his career as a producer and writing for his blog. Find him at AlexWelsh.me or @alexswelsh.
This post first appeared on CNN.com/GPS. You can read the original post here.
Companies like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Amazon.com have created powerful tools to help us gather advice on seemingly everything – where to sleep, what to eat, and what to read. But have you ever noticed that the boom in peer-to-peer advice has tended to skip over the more important decisions we make – what kind of work to do, whom to marry, how best to live?
One could argue that these matters should be kept far away from anything to do with startups and technology. Perhaps, you would say, advice is and should remain the job of your parents, priests and peers.
But what if you could keep these sources of advice constant, but use new tools and structures to improve the quality of counsel that you receive?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve focused on identifying obstacles that prevent people from thriving. In my next few posts, I would like to offer some solutions that I’ve seen help individuals create and execute on visions that are aligned with their values and skills.
Let’s start today with what I call social implementation: techniques that help people do what they say they’re going to do by tapping into their social networks. In her recent book, Join the Club, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tina Rosenberg talks about the power of positive peer pressure, or what she calls “the social cure,” in changing behavior. In my work, those who create social structures for themselves to examine where they most want to focus their time, energy, and resources have been more likely to implement them.
Here are some structures that people can create to tap into the wisdom of their intimate crowd and keep them on their proper path.
The Personal Cabinet. The idea of the “personal cabinet” or “personal board of directors” has floated around management circles for years – from work by Jim Collins to coverage in Fast Company and other publications. Organizations like the Aspen Institute, the Young Presidents’ Organization and the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization use versions of personal boards to help their members think through work and life problems. But, despite the prevalence of the idea in the popular press and research on the effectiveness of group mentoring, advice is still often taken informally and through one-on-one consultations. My own experience has taught me that putting formal structures together that create time to focus on what matters leads to greater clarity and often increases the courage to make those tough decisions.
So what is a personal cabinet? Here are three good posts by Caroline Dowd-Higgins, Vanessa Van Petten and Jason Young on how to set one up. I have a personal cabinet that I convened to help me think through my work and how to build Thrive Labs. During periods of transition and decision-making, I convene this group as often as every two weeks over a focused dinner. We create an agenda, and they help me think through major decisions and how to better align my work with my values. This cabinet has not only helped me clarify my thinking, but also holds me accountable to implementing what I commit to do.
The Pop-Up Board. Not every decision requires a full-fledged personal cabinet. Sometimes gathering great minds together for a one-time meeting does the trick. One of my favorite experiences of a Pop-Up Board was helping a comedian tap his inner circle’s wisdom to strategize about his career. We gathered for just one day. He invited a trusted group of friends. We met for six hours and focused collectively on a single question. As the facilitator, I developed the structure of the meeting, and we gathered as a group of friends and advisors to help him identify how he can be authentic as he builds the next level of his business and uses the platform he’s developed to both entertain and make the world better. We had a limited amount of time, and he agreed to specific goals and commitments at the end of our session. It was like the flash mob of boards.
Develop a structure that works for you. The clients I know who get things done are the ones who develop structures that make sense in their everyday life. One person I worked with belonged to a large family business with more than a dozen grandchildren. The grandfather, in order to keep the values of the family aligned and refreshed over generations, hosted a family conference one Sunday each month. They began the meetings by saying their family vision and mission for their generation, and then spent time sharing updates. Each meeting, one grandchild had a chance to present a problem and gain advice and feedback. Another person I know created a weekly Sunday night conference call with his brothers. Though they lived in different cities and had their own lives, they found that carving out deliberate time for each other to share advice, and more, helped them each in their own lives and work.
I should add some words of caution. First, a board meeting is only as useful as the preparation for it. Convening group structures often works best after a period of individual thinking and reflection. William Deresiewicz writes eloquently about the power of solitude and leadership. Second, choose the right people. If you are trying to make a difficult decision about leaving a certain type of work or lifestyle, surrounding yourself with advisors who have that lifestyle may not be the best form of advice. One of the biggest criticisms of Rosenberg’s work is that it’s not clear who defines what is “positive” peer pressure and what is “negative” peer pressure. And we also know that group pressure can often lead to bad behavior. As you convene people to help you think through your vision, select individuals whom you trust and admire, who have your best interests at heart, who can take you where you want to go.
Creating formal structures of advice and support is particularly useful for members of the creative class, who tend to be unembedded and thus freer and lonelier than other workers. But it is also useful for salaried professionals and people in transition. With the rise of independent consultants and freelancers, and with 40 percent of Millennials wanting to start their own companies, it’s quite possible that personal cabinets will one day be as commonplace as good old-fashioned bosses. Let’s get there faster.
This post originally appeared on CNN.com/GPS. You can read the original post here.
In the last few weeks alone, we’ve heard this rising generation called everything from the Go-Nowhere Generation and the MacGyver and DIY Generation to Generation Stuck and Generation Flux. In recent years, the generation most commonly known as the Millennials has also been described as Generation Me, Generation We, the Trophy Kids, the Boomerang Generation and the Dumbest Generation. (Ouch).
If one theme runs through these different pieces, it’s that people really like to name this generation. (I am guilty of injecting my own label into the mix last week, when I wrote a piece on the Global Public Square casting my cohort as Generation FOMO. We are held together, I argued, by a shared tendency to make decisions based on the fear of missing out on something around the corner.)
As part of my job, I work with talented Millennials on building alternative future strategies. They often come to me feeling burned out and unsure how to make their mark in the world. We work together to think strategically and soulfully – yes, you can do both! – about the kind of future they wish to build.
In this work, I’ve found that, whatever you call them, many Millennials are inhibited by anxieties peculiar to our time. I’ve already spoken of the FOMO problem. In this post, I want to share some of the other blockages that Millennials tell me afflict them. Next week, I will share techniques that I’ve found helpful in overcoming FOMO and these other inhibitors of building, creating and doing.
1. The GTD syndrome. David Allen’s famous book “Getting Things Done” has become a productivity Bible for this cohort. Similarly, productivity apps likeEvernote, Things, TaskPaper and Producteev all help us do what we’re already doing faster or more efficiently. But there’s a tendency among those I work with to forget to ask why they are doing it in the first place. We often prioritize productivity over purpose.
At leading graduate schools around the country, the conversation about purpose and the why (rather than how) is a sideshow. In those moments that seem made for reflection, such as spring or winter break, there is a culture of “doing more,” with students signing up for “treks” to China, India, South Korea and the like. But these are treks not to climb mountains or even hills. They are treks to meet with the executives they might one day work for, the bureaucrats who may one day regulate them, the charities they may one day give to.
One week of spring break has become another opportunity to pack in even more. Gone is the thought of sitting and spending time asking what we actually want and how to build and create a life that represents those values. Initiatives like Bill George’s True North groups and talks by Clayton Christenson have been the rare exceptions.
2. Prioritizing success over mastery. Mastery is out. Serial dabbling is in. With the rise of personal branding and an increased ability to get your message out sooner, the networking mentality of “it’s who you know” has all but replaced “it’swhat you know.” Perhaps because of the rapid expansion of social networks and the flattening effects of the Internet, many of the people I’ve studied and work with estimate that they allocate more of their time to deepening their networks through coffee meetings and phone calls and such than to spending time alone developing an actual skill or craft – something they can strive to do better than anyone else alive. As one talented artist recently told me, every budding artist who asks for help wants to know how they can get recognized rather than how they can become a better artist.
3. The reactive day. Many of the people I work with speak of approaching each day defensively. The question that drives their work is “What do I need to respond to?” rather than “What should I create today?” They swat back emails that fly at them, sit in meetings that they unthinkingly agreed to two months earlier, take phone calls seeking their approval or advice. But they don’t build. They don’t sit and think. They don’t ask: “How could I redefine and reinvent what this job is?”
We’ve heard about the perils of multi-tasking and continuous partial attention. But, rather than finding ways to focus and own their own days, many of the most talented Millennials resist leading. Instead, they react to whatever’s in front of them at that moment. In my Visioning Labs, one exercise I use is to have people write down all of the activities they perform over the course of a typical day. Then I ask them to go back through and classify the activities as either “intake” – information they are taking in – or “output” – ideas or products they are actually putting out in the world. The majority of those I work with are “intaking” at much higher rates than they are creating. Most doers and entrepreneurs are the opposite.
4. Maintenance over courage. The Harvard Kennedy School has an excellent program that seeks to get more women into elected office. It’s called From Harvard Square to the Oval Office. One of the things the trainers tell women to do is to send an email, a handwritten card or a postcard every six months to everyone they know (!) so that their name crosses those eyes with some frequency. You never know whom you’re going to need, or when. You are taught to “water your armies” over decades in preparation for running for office one day. It is something seasoned politicians know and do regularly, and perhaps worthy advice.
However, when it came to advising us on policy ideas, the only real advice was not to put anything controversial in writing. It was not to be bold or think freshly. It was to crouch. This approach has spilled well beyond those people considering an office run. It has crept into the mindset of many Millennials, so that we are effectively encouraged to run personal, perpetual campaigns. The theory is that, one day, when we’re finally ready to cash in those chips and build, we’ll have an army behind us. But many of us spend more time writing emails and staying in touch than developing daring, imaginative, controversial ideas and testing those notions in the real world.
These are some of the blockages that Millennials tell me afflict them. Next week, I will share techniques that I’ve found helpful in overcoming these other inhibitors of building, creating and doing. Check back here.
This post first appeared on CNN.com/gps. You can read the original here.
If January is when the old guard gathers in Davos, Switzerland, March is when the new guard descends on Austin, Texas. At a time of crisis in America, Europe, the Middle East and beyond, a group of tech-savvy do-gooders meets, greets and tweets at South By Southwest.
The conference has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, exploring questions well beyond the sphere of technology. The several hundred panels and featured sessions for this year’s SXSW Interactive tend to reflect the current concerns of the rising elite. In this post, I’d like to add one concern to their list: Can the avid, accomplished doers at SXSW show the way for a rising generation of Millennials who are all too often afraid to fulfill their potential as leaders?
I run an advisory firm that works with leaders young and old to conceive and implement bold, authentic visions. As part of that work, I recently completed a year-long study of the values and behaviors of the world’s next generation of leaders – the most talented, educated, capable Millennials. I was curious about how this rising cohort of leaders makes decisions and plots the future. I concentrated on dual degrees, or graduates of elite master’s degree programs in both business and public policy.
These are people in their late twenties and early thirties who have usually worked in both the public and private sectors, lived in multiple countries, and passed through some of the most prestigious organizations on earth (the Gates Foundation, McKinsey & Co., offices of prime ministers and presidents).
What I found was a rising generation of elite leaders who bring wonderful new gifts to the table – more empathy than their predecessors, more worldliness, more pragmatism for an angry, ideological age. But I also found my generation of young leaders paralyzed, hesitant, and unwilling stick their necks out and lead on the big questions of our time: how to build a more equitable and sustainable capitalism, how to manage the transition to a post-Western world, how to extend prosperity to developing countries without pushing the planet over the brink.
This generation is distinct from its predecessors in demonstrating new ways of leading: less top down and more lateral; less by command than by catalysis. Its members tend to believe that change is made by bringing out the best in others. It is also less ideological and dogmatic, and more empirical and pragmatic than the generation now in power. Its religion is not party or, frankly, religion, but rather “impact.”
This generation feels pressure to make a difference in the world, and is comfortable using the levers of business, public policy and civil society to do so. And they tend not to be satisfied with small, everyday impact. “For my Dad, it would be his patients,” one child of a doctor told me, when asked about definitions of impact. “For me, it’s providing health care to benefit the largest amount of people.”
But strange anxieties are getting in the way of these ambitions – none more prominently than something called FOMO. It is the “fear of missing out,” and it has been written about by others (including in an article about SXSW last year) as a phenomenon caused by social media. These media show them all the cool places they could be and cool things they could be doing, which always seem better than where they now are. However, my research shows that FOMO is leaking out of the technology realm and becoming a defining ethic of a new generation.
“Am I setting up my adult life to be the way that it could optimally be?” one of my subjects asked aloud, speaking of her general approach to life decisions. This subject explained how FOMO could even invade the pursuit of a spouse: “On the personal side, there’s this fear of ‘Am I committing to the right person?’”
More and more, particularly among those who have yet to make those big life decisions (whom to marry, what kind of job to commit to, where to live), FOMO and FOBO – the “fear of better options” – are causing these young leaders to stand still rather than act. “The way I think about it metaphorically is choosing one door to walk through means all the other doors close, and there’s no ability to return back to that path,” one subject told me. “And so rather than actually go through any doorway, it’s better to stand in the atrium and gaze.”
Those with the most options in this generation have a tendency to choose the option that keeps the most options open. Wrap your head around that for a second. It’s one of the reasons that management consulting has become so popular among today’s young elites.
As one subject explained to me, “Frankly, a lot of people end up defaulting to consulting as a compromise, because they look at it to get the best of both worlds, because it not only passes the airplane test, and you don’t have to sacrifice your social status, you can engage in all the activities, you’re never left out of anything, because it’s the 70 percent solution.”
A current consultant told me, “For me personally, it was lack of clarity.” He added: I knew the types of jobs I wanted, but there wasn’t something specific out there calling me.” A number of other subjects said that they didn’t feel “ready” to take on the problems that most interested them. They wanted to linger and dabble and “learn” for a while longer.
As a result, the North Star of this cohort has become what many of its members call “optionality.” There is great worry that they’re going to choose the “wrong” option. In the last year, I’ve run over 100 Visioning Labs with individuals and groups of young leaders to help them identify their values and passions, and build visions that reflect what they want to do in the world.
In one exercise, I ask people to imagine a year away from their present work and cares, with unlimited time and resources. People speak of doing things like “write a book,” “launch a venture,” “spend time with my grandparents,” “produce a film.” I then have them circle the top three options and reflect on them. Fear and practicality are the most commonly cited reasons for not doing such things in real life. And when they begin to think about what they want to do in the future, many look at their immediate next step as the one that will keep the most doors open so that they can have a Pocket Year much, much later.
Many of us watch the choices of our peers and predecessors with a blend of admiration and anxiety. What seems to afflict this cohort – more than the political strivings or existential angst that defined earlier generations of elites – is a persistent anxiety about their might-have-been lives, about the ones that got away. Life for this group is diminished by the presence of so many options one click, one job switch, one social connection away. Though many of these young people described themselves and their cohort with words such as “passionate,” a commonly cited fear was “not having my idealism match my choices” and “being too afraid to take the leap.”
A number of subjects talked about risk aversion rising with success. One subject said, “I’m probably unhealthily obsessed with making the right choices.” He added: “I think it comes from a fear of missing out on something bigger and better in whatever you do. So I like to think of myself as someone who has made good choices up until now and I have enjoyed the kind of outcomes that I’ve been able to get from making those kind of choices.
“I think when you feel like you’ve made all the right choices and don’t feel like you’ve had any major failures, that kind of track record makes you always cautious about continuing to make good choices, and improving outcomes – whatever that means for you.”
Over the next two weeks, I will write a series of posts on CNN.com/GPS sharing what I’ve found to be the obstacles blocking our generation of Millennials from thriving, as well as some of the activities that I’ve observed lead people to thrive again. This week’s gathering in Austin attracts the most adventurous and risk-seeking members of the Millennial cohort. But as they gather to discuss and debate and design the future, I hope they will help think about how to get the rest of us to think bigger, think bolder – and to do.
Last November, I had the privilege to speak on my visioning work and the patterns I’ve seen amongst this generation of leaders and doers. TedxCambridge has uploaded the talk on YouTube and I’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions and experiences related to FOMO, FOBO, optionality and thriving. Not sure what I’m talking about? Just watch.
Envision | Embody | Enact
Priya Parker is a visioner, conflict mediator and strategist. She works with organizations and leaders to zero in on their core purpose and build out smarter strategies. Drawing on ten years of work in government, social enterprise and Track II diplomacy in the United States, India and the Middle East, Priya designs visioning and innovation labs that help organizations grow from the root.