“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance — it is the illusion of knowledge.” — Daniel J. Boorstin
While speaking with a CEO last year about how his company needed to keep innovating, one comment he made stuck with me. “What got us here, isn’t going to get us there.” The veracity of this statement became pointedly clear for me over the ensuing months as I began a journey to reinvent myself.
In order to be valuable today in our rapidly changing world, where innovation seems to be the standard expectation rather than the exception, we all must adapt to changes as fast as they come. As employees working to help our companies grow, we have to creatively connect concepts and produce faster to help our companies remain agile and ahead of the competition. Does this mean that we need to be smarter? No, not intrinsically. But thriving in this new world may require a reinvention of you.
What do I mean?
Many people I talk with continue to use old ways of thinking to approach new challenges that have never existed. They struggle to keep pace with the rapid changes happening in every market and consequently are working increasingly longer hours and burning out at faster rates. Many are starting to stumble and fall behind. In fact, whole companies that were founded on innovation seem to stumbling. Just look at recent news about Yahoo! and HP, for instance. To keep up, we need to shift our perspective and start thinking about working and learning through a whole new lens.
If the way we think got us here, then how do we need to think to get us there? We need to evolve, but how? There are many steps to this evolution, but for now, let’s focus on the first and often hardest step — letting go.
Throughout my career in Learning and Development, I have noted that most working adults seem predisposed to feel like they are done learning. We have made it through school and are now working and successfully performing using the skills we currently have. It’s as though we all believe there is an unwritten life contract that promises, when we reach a certain point in our career, that we get to focus more on collecting accolades for our great work than continue to struggle to learn and prove our value.
The best of us might embrace learning new supplemental skills that will help us in our career, but we are just adding details to a core foundation of knowledge from years of experience learning to do things the “right way.” For the most part, experienced employees feel like they have arrived and their time for learning to navigate the world of work is over. Last week, a Chief Human Resource Officer rather poignantly pointed this out to me by saying, “You can teach leadership skills to a new or middle manager, but that just won’t fly with my executive team. They already know how to lead.” To which I wanted to ask, “Do they know how to lead in today’s business world?”
Unfortunately, many accomplished adults are failing to adapt quickly and optimize the new tools around them to accelerate their learning and increase the impact of their work for the company and its customers. Those of us who have experienced a lot of success in our careers, as leaders or individual contributors, are some of the worst at evolving and being open to new ideas. Much like the popular kids in high school, adults who have experienced success are quite content with the way they are and see no reason to change. They like being on top and want to keep things just the way they are. They don’t want to acknowledge that the world is changing around them, so they keep their minds focused on what they know. Eventually, they wake up and realize they have been left behind. (Note: successful companies are like this too — but that is a story for another day. Today we are focused on people like you and me.)
We need to let go of our basic understandings about learning, and embrace the idea that we need to change our perspective in order to keep up.
Even as a passionate learner and a lifelong educator, I’m embarrassed to admit that my philosophies about learning had evolved very little until recently. I studied whole school change, alternative methods of education, and the short-comings of traditional K-12 schools, while at UC Berkeley for my graduate degree. We pushed boundaries. As a result, I was arguably ahead of the curve in the way I thought about learning. However, I still transferred my childhood core beliefs about learning to both how I approached learning in the business world and how I designed learning for others. After 15 years of educating a wide variety of audiences, I thought I knew the right way.
I grew up in a world where all students learned the same content in a linear fashion. There was a drive to always get the perfect answer and there was a belief that in order to really know a topic, you should be able to regurgitate all the details about it, from beginning to end. Sound familiar? It should. These are the same basic educational philosophies that most school systems have been built upon for generations. It is this mindset, which resides in most adults, that is causing employees to struggle with keeping up with today’s changing world. To evolve, we need to let go of our tight grasp on these approaches being the only or the “right way” to learn.
While some of us have learned to survive in this age of easily-accessible information and rapid innovation, most of us have not learned to thrive in it. There’s a big difference.
For us to be successful, we need to pull ourselves up from our heads-down drive to get the next task done and take a break to look around. We need to increase our awareness of the changes around us and think about how we need to change in response.
Start exploring and be OK with not knowing.
As change becomes more of an ever-present state and innovation continues to create new information, new ideas, and new processes at an increasingly rapid pace, the simple act of keeping current is becoming overwhelming. Trying to keep up using old methods and philosophies of learning is becoming impossible. How do I know? Personal experience. I drove hard for a long time, head down, attacking each new task with enthusiasm and passion. I followed my core beliefs about learning and nearly lost myself trying to keep up with the pace of work at my company. Things got ugly. I now have my head up and, thanks to a great coach, have started evolving the way I think about the tasks before me.
It has been a tough journey, one that I would love to help make easier for others. In an effort to do that, I’m sharing some of the critical steps that enabled me to change my perspective on both learning and working:
1. Achieve Awareness — Become aware of the beliefs that serve as the foundation from which you tackle new challenges and make decisions. Think about how these beliefs might be counterproductive today. The biggest tripping points for me were my beliefs that my work was a personal reflection and that it needed to be perfect. Adapting to rapid change demands that we iterate on the imperfect to get to good enough for now and embrace the idea that our work is separate from our own self-worth.
2. Stop Knowing The Way — No amount of trying is going to fit a new way of working into your current set of models. We need to work together to create new models. Start exploring and be OK with not knowing. As the quote at the beginning of the post suggests, the illusion of knowledge can be our downfall. Life became a lot more pleasant when I let go of knowing.
3. Be Curious — Stop fighting what is different and instead start listening and opening up to possibilities. I needed to open my mind to other ideas and think about a challenge from a different perspective. Instead of tackling the whole, why not tackle a small chunk? Instead of looking at what my capabilities were, why not discover what is needed from the customer’s perspective instead?
4. Be Positive — Change can cause us to feel like we are constantly wrong. This can lead to a steady stream of negative thoughts which beget more negative thoughts and before long, we find ourselves in a negative reinforcement loop that blinds us to new ideas. I found that it was critical to own the idea that change is hard, recognize my negative thoughts for what they were (defeating) and embrace the idea of being wrong as a sign of progress. (Hey, I eliminated one more way NOT to do something!) The more I loved the process of learning something new, the easier change came. Celebrating small wins helped me maintain a positive attitude and this was the key to successful change.
I would love to tell you that I embraced these ideas and evolved my thinking with ease, but that would be a lie. I was good at what I did and didn’t feel the need to change anything. My clients loved me and my work won accolades. All was good until my company decided to evolve the way they worked and threatened to leave me behind. Our customers were evolving and we had to evolve too. I was told that my successes were not worth celebrating. I was told that the very work that I took pride in was no longer valuable to the executive level customers we were going to support going forward. I didn’t want to hear it or believe it. My sense of self-worth felt crushed. I didn’t understand what was happening, and rather than letting go and just learning, I fought to figure it out. My foundational philosophies were of no help. By continuing to work using these old philosophies, I was trying to drive in the wrong direction and I couldn’t even tell. After a long period of struggle, I eventually let go in complete frustration and I started looking around me and opening up to different perspectives.
There is one more critical step to letting go. I saved it for the end because, for me, it was the most important and it is the inspiration for writing this post.
Believe — Believe in your ability to evolve. Believe in your ability to succeed in a new world. When your belief falters, when you feel so defeated and frustrated that it feels impossible to believe in these outcomes, find someone else who will believe for you. Find someone who understands what you are going through. For me, once I felt understood, I could start understanding.
Without this step, I might have given up on this journey long ago. Evolution is not for the faint of heart, but it is worth the effort.
The evidence for the need for a revolution in thinking and learning is everywhere, you need only start to listen. When I listened, I heard a friend talk how his 4 year-old startup, recently purchased by a large tech giant, is now struggling to keep up with other innovators in the field. I heard another friend talk about how her company is tossing out typical resume benchmarks, which were failing to deliver great performers, in favor of assessing candidates on competencies that can’t be taught. When you listen, what do you hear?
Believe — Believe in your ability to evolve.
Radical change and innovation surrounds us. How are you changing to keep up? Are you holding tight to old ways of working and learning? What is it costing you? Look around. Perhaps it is time to let go and look from a new perspective.
You have the choice. Are you going to embrace learning again and shift your perspective? Or are you going to be left behind? Is it time to reinvent “you”?