I haven’t quite got the hang of blogging yet … but it strikes me that here’s a chance to explore this issue of courage, and not only in theory. Even exposing my thoughts and feelings on a blog feels risky enough to need a bit of courage! I started off thinking each blog must be perfect, correct, special, akin to a Harvard Business Review publication! But the lovely and interesting responses to my last one had me see something different – it’s about sharing, dialogue, connection, service, not about being right.
Last week a friend asked me ‘What do you mean when you say a person is ‘out there’, you say it often, you seem to like those people?’ On reflection, I mean I see a person who is willing to go to their edge, to pursue a life that for them is exuberant and full. Not because it’s easy to them, not because they are fearless, but because they go forward conscious of possible failure. They go beyond their own comfort zone with awareness, they choose to stretch themselves. In their stretch they are vulnerable to failure – that takes courage.
I admire people who bring their gift to the world, who overcome their fear of failure to do it. Like the doctors who risk life threatening mistakes to prolong life, like the performers and artists who expose themselves to enrich us – the list is endless. I feel grateful they’re ‘out there’, that they risk failure on a grand scale. They too feel the fears of not being ‘enough’ (good enough, lovable enough, strong enough, clever enough…) but they take the risk to bring us the fruits of their labour. Without each of us exercising our courage muscles life would be less…
I see myself as being open to feedback and learning. Probably in some ways I am, but – and it’s a big but – I can also shy away from real risky stuff, staying in waters where I’m pretty sure of succeeding. So, it was like me to go for big promotions at work only when invited to, to choose writing reports, (which gave time to edit what I want to say!) over live presentations. It is my pattern to minimise risk of public failure. So, when I joined Axialent I dived into uncertain waters. I could do my work in culture research and consulting well, top of my game there. But facilitating a Conscious Business workshop? Absolutely No Idea.
What happened? In front of the master, Fred Kofman, I led a 15-minute session on a Conscious Business concept. Crash and burn. Yes, I told a great story but I failed, failed miserably to land the intended message with the audience. Ouch. In front of fellow partners whose opinions matter to me. Double Ouch.
In the following hours, after the ‘it’s unfair’, ‘you did fine’ soothing sessions were over, I came to see how rarely I exposed myself to such risk… and how my sense of myself as open to learning was a pretence. I became conscious of my fear of not being good enough. I got a glimpse of how this fear held me back from exposing myself to the opinions of others; of how rarely I ask others for feedback; of how defensive I am to criticism; how my striving to appear good enough makes me anxious; I was truly shocked to realise how strong my fear of failure in this sphere was.
Me, resistant to learning from mistakes? But surely not? I espouse belief in mistakes leading to innovation, to personal growth, to learning, and I’m someone who forgives mistakes in others. But in that experience, I faced how little I actually exposed myself to it in my own life. I was cheating myself of the very thing I said I believed in – learning from mistakes.
What did I learn from that presentation you might ask? One comment stays with me – Fred said something like (you know how you can’t quite remember the moment because you’re in your own head trying not to cry, overcoming your own emotions of embarrassment, right?) ‘You tried something risky, it didn’t work, but I like that you tried’ … at the time it was small consolation but now I get it … I tried and it failed. I learned, in a way I will never forget and could not have learned so well any other way, what I could have done differently. I failed because I wanted to do a great, memorable presentation; but in my anxiety to look good I clean forgot to connect to the people I was with, to be open to their input. I forgot about them, did not allow their participation, I focussed on my own ‘perfect’ presentation. I missed the essence of what differentiates a great presentation from a good one: connection with others.
At Axialent we use the concept of the comfort zone (where we live automatically), the stretch (or learning) zone and the panic zone (where our emotions hijack us and we cannot think, let alone learn) as a frame in our work. We encourage people to move into their own stretch zone (or to use my language, to put themselves ‘out there’!) if they want to make the most of their time in our workshop. Now I realise that zone is individual, it’s different for each of us. For some, intimacy feels threatening, for others public exposure scares the pants off them; for some a tube ride is terrifying, feels life-threatening, for others it’s a mountain peak.
Living more of my life in that vulnerable ‘stretch’ zone is a way to build up my own ‘courage’ muscles. Writing a blog is a bit ‘out there’ for me. Thank you for reading this far. I wonder where the stretch lies for you?
About the author
Cathy is Axialent’s Managing Partner. She leads the UK & Nordic market as well as our Culture Practice, with an eye on continuously developing and improving our approach to culture transformation journeys. She has a passion for pulling the right levers for change, identifying what a company can do to shift to a higher-performing culture. Read more>