We’ve had a great run at The Outloud Group -- a run I hope and expect to continue moving forward. And while I’m very proud of what we’ve created and continue to build, I’m not here to champion our success. Quite the opposite in fact -- I’m here to bring our struggles with success to the surface.
Despite the many good things that we continue to do, over the last six months I've come to recognize that as we're continuously dealing with thorny issues I’ve started longing for that moment when we “get over the hump” and settle into a rhythm without constant emotionally draining challenges. Time after time I’ve told myself that the big initiative I was working on was going to get us over the hump.
"As soon as we install our new Standard Operating Procedures, our team will be aligned on expectations and really kick ass."
"As soon as we create an org structure and roll-out Salesforce across media planning, operations, and account executives -- our team will all be rolling together."
"As soon as we resolve this issue of people being nice instead of authentic, we’ll really be firing on all cylinders."
But you know what? Even though we continue to grind and address this steady flow of challenges, it hasn’t gotten easier. Not one bit. The challenges are different, but they are more numerous and more complicated as we grow. Each time we’ve gotten over a hump it’s turned out there are bigger mountains to climb. Sound familiar? I bet it does.
So when does this get easier? When do we get over the hump? How do we get there?
I’ve wrestled with these questions a lot over the last six months, and thanks to a lot of introspection and some fantastic effort from my team, I feel like I’ve got to a pretty good place where I no longer expect it to get easier and I no longer invest energy hoping it will get easier. I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what I’ve learned about the struggle with the struggle:
(1) Increase your tolerance for dealing with difficult things
On a recent much-needed vacation to one of my favorite places, the beaches of The Dominican Republic, I spoke at length with a number of the amazing people that live and work in the tourism sector in The Dominican. I met many people like Miguel, who works 24 straight days from 7am – 11pm before getting 5 days off to spend with his family. Miguel lives 3 hours away from work by bus and during his 24-day work "week", he shares a small single-room apartment with 3 colleagues. Every day while I was in The Dominican, Miguel and I talked about how we were one day closer to him seeing his family and this reminded me of something very special that my father shred with me: life is meant to be a struggle.
In speaking with ~15 Dominicans, I learned that Miguel’s story of working 12 or 24 straight days wasn’t unique -- and I was reminded (again) that working long hours and dealing with ongoing challenges wasn't unique.
I work hard. So what? I needed to get over myself and was reminded that success requires sacrifice...and this shouldn't be an emotional hurdle to clear on a daily or weekly basis. I learned the importance and becoming comfortable with this level of effort and sacrifice that's required to get after it day after day.
How do your expectations of what it takes to be successful compare with the expectations of Miguel? Are you expecting success to require the same amount of effort that Miguel expects? And more importantly, how do your expectations compare to where your expectations should be if you really want excellence?
Life is a struggle and there are no short-cuts to excellence. Odds are that if you’re reading this you’ve already won the lottery by getting the opportunity to live in America. Nothing great comes without hard work, so don’t waste any time longing for it to be different or searching for shortcuts. There are no short-cuts to success. The sooner you really accept this, the easier it becomes. I've relearned this time and time again.
(2) Change your expectations
After chewing on the question of “are we there yet?” with our business for the last six months, I finally came to the obvious yet incredibly helpful conclusion: we’ll never be "there”.
A defeatist perspective? Hardly.
Happiness can be summarized in one powerful if overly simplistic formula:
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
By recognizing that we’ll always be improving and overcoming challenges I’ve transitioned from “if we can just overcome this obstacle” to “since we’ll always be getting better, we’ll always be overcoming new challenges”. I no longer have the expectation that we’ll get to a place where we don’t have challenges and by freeing myself of this burden, I’ve officially decreased expectations. And because this hasn't changed my reality at all -- I’ve enhanced my happiness. Pretty cool, eh?
It’s a beautiful thing to tackle problems every day and by recognizing this is normal and healthy – you’ll change from seeing improvement as a problem to solve to seeing improvement as part of the day to day operations of business. You see, there’s nothing “wrong” with making things better…what's "wrong" is having a perspective that somehow it should be “easy”.
Sometimes flipping a simple mental switch can make a huge difference in our lives. So how about you give it a try – recognize that there will always be problems to solve and not only is that okay, but it will also make you happier.
(3) Trust the Process
Setbacks make you stronger – this is something many of us have come to realize no matter how hard it is to see when you’re in the fog of a meaningful setback. Losing out on a promotion, not getting the job, losing someone important to you – these inflection points give us the opportunity for disproportionate personal growth.
I once had someone on my team apply to an elite business school. Sure, they were applying to a few schools -- but there was one shiny school that they really wanted to get into. While brilliant and tremendously successful in every aspect of their life to date, this aspiring MBA had experienced little to no real adversity in their life. And while I was pulling for them to achieve their goal, I also realized, thanks to a little perspective, that the best thing that could happen for them might be to actually get rejected from this dream school.
Because while getting rejected by a grad school might feel like a monumental setback in the moment, the reality is that it’s a low-cost way for someone who hadn’t experienced much adversity to gain some much-needed maturity and experience. After all, experiencing personal growth and developing resilience are much more valuable in the long-run than getting accepted to Top-5 School A instead of Top-5 School B.
I share this story for you to consider how you can take smaller pieces of adversity as a blessing as well. For that client you lost, what positive changes can you make to create deeper ties with other clients? For that employee who isn’t meeting deadlines, how can you enhance your communication to avoid the situation with others on your team? When your favorite client leaves the company and you’re forced to start developing relationships anew, how can you leverage the opportunity to get better and change your habits?
And how can you start to really adopt the mentality of win or learn...and really believe in the learning part of that question?
Here’s what I’ve had to re-learn all over again:
Building a Business is hard. Really Hard.
Being a Leader is hard. Really Hard.
Those that know me well will share that I’m no stranger to hard work – but even with the discipline of regularly working very long hours, I still have to repeatedly check myself to be comfortable with the discomfort.
It’s not easy now and it will never be easy...but that’s the beauty part of life, not a necessary evil.
So why not take a few minutes to reflect and see how you can be more comfortable with the struggle? Beyond delegating and empowering your team – I’ve found that putting in the effort, appreciating the struggle, and embracing adversity have gotten me a long way. You might find something else moves the needle for you, but the important part isn’t how you solve the problem -- it’s becoming comfortable with your own discomfort.
After all, with discomfort comes growth.