One of the best CIOs I have ever worked with told me that being CIO is a great role because each time you change company you have the opportunity to reinvent yourself. He is a good example of this but too few of us believe ourselves capable of much radical improvement. By the time we hit our 40s we are formed and incapable of significant personal change.
This is not true, and with all the recent talk of unicorns and millennials, born on the web competitors and the potential for massive digital disruption in every industry, we had all better look at stepping up into the most powerful version of ourselves.
Technology for personal growth and change exists and all of us can access it. I was discussing this recently with David Edmonds, a “reinvention” specialist. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:
So David, you are an expert in what some famous coaches and academics have termed “executive reinvention.” Can you tell us what this is?
In a phrase, it is not about personal change so much as generating something entirely fresh. No matter how successful people consider themselves to be or not to be, our lives are being run by our unseen values and beliefs. We consider them to be fixed and real, and we have little conscious input into what has created them. It is only when we explore what they are, where they came from and their overall impact on our lives that we start to take control. Then, for the first time, we get to have a true say in who we are, who we want to be and what our future will look like.
You say we have little conscious input into what creates our values and beliefs; so what does shape them?
Your brain is an amazing piece of equipment but unfortunately it doesn’t come with a user manual. Its primary responsibility is to keep you safe, ultimately to keep you alive. It is brilliant at doing these things to the point where it stifles our growth. It is this “keeping us safe” that we look at in coaching. Your brain keeps you safe by constantly interpreting the future, for example: “this happened last time so it is likely to happen again.” When anything happens in our awareness, the first thing we evaluate is the impact on ourselves: does it threaten my physical or mental safety, does it threaten my sense of who I am? This is the limiting place where our words and actions come from.
That’s interesting insight but surely once we’re aware of this we can make allowances can’t we? We can take decisions to change things.
That’s what we try to do isn’t it? But whilst our decisions and actions may look different, they always come from the same values and beliefs we hold of the world, others and ourselves. This continues to limit what is possible for us and the vast majority of us live in a world of doing the same thing and hoping for a better result.
Our only access to real change in our lives comes from changing who we being on the inside and accepting that we can never control exactly how things will turn out no matter how hard we try. We are then free to deal with whatever life throws at us in powerful new ways. We get to decide how to react and don’t just do what we have always done by default.
So how do people make this change in who they are being?
The first step to choose what you want from your life. Many people find this difficult. If we ask “if you had a magic wand, what sort of life would you create?” most people cannot get beyond the basics of good health, a secure family and decent holidays. Most of us have grown up only figuring out how to survive in a reasonably comfortable and respectable way. It is perfectly fine for us to want that but it is necessarily limiting. You can all too easily end up like Bob Geldoff who famously called his autobiography: “Is That It?”
So if that’s not it, what is?
The missing ingredient that transforms a life of survival is a passionate sense of fulfilment.
A life of survival is about predicting the future, setting our goals and achievements in order to demonstrate to ourselves and others how well we are surviving, and projecting what we have as the way things should be. When we achieve these goals we feel briefly satisfied and good about ourselves. If we fail to achieve them we make ourselves wrong, look to other people or circumstances to find fault, and secretly blame ourselves for being unrealistic in our goal-setting. Success or failure: both restrict the actions we are willing to take to create the world we say we want. Neither is fulfilling.
So are you saying that we should forget goal-setting in favour of looking constantly for a life of fulfilment? How realistic is that?
Your restricted view of what is realistic for you is the starting point of all your actions. Your actions don’t reflect your commitment to your goals so much as the avoidance of your fears. In order to reinvent your future you must acknowledge that your fears are present but no longer allow them to be in control. Your commitment to the life you want needs to be bigger than your fear.
Reinventing your future starts with your commitment to something that really excites you; something you view as impossible with your present outlook on life. As soon as you think of an impossible commitment you will hear yourself coming up with good, reasonable, realistic reasons why it can’t happen. These fears are what is keeping you from having the life you would love.
What use is fear anyway? If you are confronted by a hungry lion in a confined space you will not be formulating escape plans; you’ll be out of there or you’ll be dead. But your daily fears are rarely this clear-cut, let alone life threatening. Most of our fears are about looking bad to ourselves and others. When we look closely at them they are very rarely real.
Okay nobody likes social embarrassment but is this really so debilitating?
It is the mechanism that controls our behaviours that is debilitating. Our fears come from our interpretations of things that have happened in the past. It is important to understand the difference between what actually “happened” and our interpretation of what it “meant” that it happened. It is our insidious interpretation of meaning that creates the emotional impact and limits our life choices. Only when we can accept that our cherished values and beliefs are haphazardly made up can we start to get power over them. Only then can we choose positive emotions to motivate us rather than allowing our negative emotions to control us.
I think it’s becoming clearer. A coach once told me that most of us try to navigate life through the rear-view mirror. This sounds like what you are saying.
That’s not a bad metaphor but I am really saying we need to free ourselves from past interpretations to live in the moment. We need to reset to zero as far as our interpretations are concerned; we can learn from the past without making it mean we can never succeed. What we are left with is our commitment to what we say we will make happen, and the powerful actions we continue to take to ensure that we do.
A life of passion and fulfilment comes from being motivated by commitments to bigger causes beyond our own narrow needs. Access to a fulfilled life comes from connection and contribution; it starts from your decision about what you want your life to mean and the impact you want your life to have.
And so this is the start of our personal reinvention. Thank you David, I look forward to exploring what this means for our companies in a later blog.
If any reader wants to know more about David’s reinvention coaching please get back to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read about corporate reinvention in the classic Harvard Business Review article by Tracy Goss, Richard Pascale and Anthony Athos: The Reinvention Roller Coaster: Risking the Present for a Powerful Future. https://hbr.org/1993/11/the-reinvention-roller-coaster-risking-the-present-for-a-powerful-future.