As I waited for my interview in an inconspicuous section of Loring Pasta Bar—which seemed eerily perfect for having big conversations with important people—I read over the blog post that caused a number of nonprofit and foundation water coolers to gurgle this past January. Maybe it was the suddenness of it all or the vagueness surrounding Peter Hutchinson’s announcement of him stepping down as president of the Bush Foundation. Wherever your mind took you, it was clear that there were some ripe lessons to be picked from a man who considers his sudden departure just the way he does business.
In your post you talked about knowing what part you’re best at and recognizing that part is done. How did you come to learn what you’re best at, what you love doing, and when do you know when it’s the right time for change?
There are two parts to this answer. The first is that you need to notice what you’re good at. When we’re babies and teenagers, we don’t know. We’re mostly trying stuff. On my very first day of college, it was the president who said, “Everyday notice one thing”. I thought it was so dumb when he said that, but it’s true. The way you find out what you’re good at is to find out what you’re good at—to pay attention.
Many of us are focused on doing. We take our signals mostly from the outside world. We’re waiting for affirmation. We’re waiting for recognition. We’re waiting, waiting. The truth is we experience it every day. We know better than anyone how things feel to us. The key is to pay attention, and notice what gives you a sense of fulfillment and energy.
This leads to the second thing. After you pay attention, you have to go with it—whatever ‘it’ is. Don’t deny the stuff you’re good at or what gives you joy simply because someone else says you shouldn’t do it or you can’t figure out how to make money. The most important thing is to go with your heart. Your head will always sort things out, but your heart is what will always give you fulfillment.
And it’s not a crime to say, I’m not right for this. It’s actually better for you and the organization you’re part of. If you’re trying to fit your round peg into their square hole, it’s not going to be good or fulfilling. It’s going to be painful, and even hurt you.
But really, we’re all experimenting all the time and getting feedback both internally and externally all the time. The question is: are we paying attention to what we’re learning, and using that to move ourselves forward?
The truth is there are trillions of opportunities and millions of jobs. The challenge in life is to find the opportunity where your love and skill matches the need. That’s where you’ll flourish. Keeping yourself somewhere because it’s the only opportunity you can imagine is actually making yourself a prisoner.
If you’re in the right place at the right time doing the thing that brings you joy, then do it forever. But if you wake up one day and it doesn’t feel the way it used to then do something about it. Notice that, and then be okay with it.
When you’re talking about experimenting, you’re also talking about risk of failure. How do you approach failure when it’s staring you right in the face and asking which direction you’re going to go?
What I always ask myself and others who are afraid is tell me exactly: what’s the worst possible thing that can happen if you did X? Most of us are afraid of stuff in the abstract. But if you ask people to be concrete, to be very specific—I could get fired—then they can actually deal with it. What can’t be dealt with is this abstract fear.
When we’re afraid we go into this fight or flight response, and we either go crazy or get real conservative or protective. It’s justified, if it’s really a threat. But if it’s this abstract fear that hasn’t been articulated or really looked at, then it’s hardly worth going in either direction. And I find time and time again, when people start to talk about the worst thing that can happen they actually start to imagine what happens after that and after that.
Another thing I always tell people about risk is: doing something that’s never been done before or is unconventional is not the same as doing something at random. The thing about risk is you have to understand it. What is the risk? Why would this fail? I had a boss that would tell me, “If you want me to do something, make it impossible for me to do anything else.”
If you think through all the questions and risks, then what you’re doing isn’t risky. It still might not work, but risky is doing something in which you are unprepared. If you’re prepared, have thought it through and believe in it, then you’ve increased the odds exponentially that it’ll succeed. It doesn’t guarantee it, but you’re no longer rolling the dice.
Things don’t just happen by accident. Things happen because people do the work. Change is all about putting energy behind something that you’ve actually thought about.