Seeing Things As They Are

So many of my life lessons come when traveling.

The boy seemed fine but tell that to his traveling companion. Several times, I thought “Who’s having a hard time here?”

The scene I’m referring to played out on my flight last week. I was in my usual aisle seat, and to my right was his worried companion. (Not sure if she was the mom or grandmom, or maybe aunt? I’m going with mom, because I’ve been a champion worried mom myself.) The 10-year-old boy was sitting alone across the aisle to the left, one seat up. In other words, I was the pesky human between the mom and her child.

Soon I was having visions of being on a hiking trail, innocently finding myself between a mother bear and her cub. Over and over again, this mom stood up and leaned over me to say something comforting to the child. From my vantage point, it was like watching two different movies play out. On my right was the thriller, where the frantic mom is desperately trying to save her child as he’s swept away by the river current or abducted by aliens. On my left was…the most boring movie you have ever seen. A young boy, sitting calmly in his seat, playing his electronic game without a care in the world.

Finally, the mom asked if I might not want to switch seats with her, so that she could hover over the child without hovering over me. I reluctantly agreed, knowing she would eventually figure out that I choose the aisle seat for the convenience of my seat mate! From my new seat, I could still easily see the boy.

What most struck me about the whole scene was the mismatch between the ability of the boy to handle sitting alone and the inability of the mom to allow him to handle it. I did not see a single indication that the boy was concerned. I have no idea of their history, and there is always more to the story than meets the eye. Yet, in this case, I so wanted the mom to celebrate what this kid was doing, rather than worry about something that wasn’t happening.

In my irritation, I reflected on the times I was this worried mom. How many times have I missed the signals that said that things were going well? How often have I overreacted to a situation, fearing the worst rather than focusing on the good that was happening right in front of my eyes?

How often do I say to Russ or Jen “Be careful” because I’m the one having a hard time with what they are doing? You know, like getting in car to go somewhere, or doing something fun, like going zip lining?I’ve caught myself so many times saying “be careful” reflexively, out of a belief that somehow, I can control the bad things that might happen by evoking this magic incantation. The true message is exactly the opposite. What I’m really touching is my belief that the other person can’t do the thing without my help, and the big truth is this: “I’m worried that something might happen that I can’t handle.”

Every micromanaging move I’ve ever made as a leader came from this space. Any mistake made by another on my behalf could spell trouble for me, and a big enough mistake could spell the end of my career. There have been too many moments to count, all of which seemed perfectly justified at the time, and profoundly embarrassing when viewed in hindsight.

I’m coming to accept this notion: Mistakes are going to happen, and let’s hope they do, because mistakes are an essential nutrient of true learning.

One day, I was meeting with a client who shared my love of micromanaging. His way reminded me a lot of my own, which was to be overly “helpful” to everyone on his team. We were discussing his aspirations to eventually become CEO, and his struggle with letting go of his controlling behavior with his team. It’s a dichotomy I’ve seen a lot. Before I could fully form the thought, these words came out of my mouth: “The extent to which you can rise in the organization is directly correlated with your ability to tolerate and work through the mistakes made by others on your behalf.”

Framing it this way freed him to see the absurdity of trying to lead an organization that had to be mistake-free for him to be effective and comfortable. Discomfort is one of the prices we pay to lead in a changing world full of ambiguity and volatility. We strategized ways for him to begin focusing on what his team was doing well, so that they could believe in themselves, and ways for him to navigate the inevitable mistakes in a way that raised his pressure threshold.

It’s what I so wanted the mom on the flight to do for the boy who was bravely handling sitting by himself in the airplane.

Ironically, this flight was on my trip home after the “galloping workshop” with Stevie Delahunt, whose message the whole weekend was “You can do hard things.” If you listen to our podcast, titled “She Calls Them Spicy Memories”, you will get a sense of the way Stevie moves through the world. In her way of thinking, pressure is a fact of life, as natural as the sunrise and sunset. As she left the “Gaucho Derby,” an endurance race billed as the toughest in the world, she wrote:

The race was hard. Going home will be harder.

There will be soft moments in the months to come, in looking at photos or bits of gear, where reflection will shake you to the core. Tears may escape, or a smile; but we’re all going to feel this ache the same.

This understanding that there’s a different way to exist in the world. This recognition that society isn’t doing things right anymore; because somehow that version of you in the race was the truest self; the thing you bury at home. This thing of unbridled potential.

“This thing of unbridled potential.”

It’s my greatest wish to unleash that unbridled potential in myself. It’s why I spend so much time writing and talking about the possibilities of embracing a life that frees us of the crappy rules that society puts on us. We were born with the Tools to navigate life, and it just makes more sense to me to cultivate my ability to be curious, to listen, and to problem solve than it does to figure out what will make me safe and comfortable. Nothing against safety, but is life really safe? Household accidents cause injury and take a surprising number of lives every year. The closest I’ve come to being dead happened in my own house, tripping on a dog toy!

I’ve begun saying “enjoy the journey” instead of “be careful” when one of my loved ones leaves the house. I would love to hear from you. What ideas do you have on words to send our loved one out into the world?