I have the good fortune of collaborating with Jennifer Garvey Berger and the team at Cultivating Leadership, a consulting firm that specializes in helping leaders become more agile, creative, and successful in a changing world. I am impressed with Jennifer’s wealth of knowledge and her generosity in sharing it. I admire her curiosity and desire to learn, her drive to do good in the world, and the practicality of her work. Jennifer has an impressive resume and a high profile client list. She seems to navigate life with joy and ease, despite some serious challenges. Jennifer models what she teaches. She will be the first one to tell you that her work is a team effort. Yet, Jennifer is clearly a thought leader in how to make sense of complexity, and how to help leaders thrive in it. That’s what a lot of Jennifer’s life is dedicated to as far as I can tell. She’s been studying complexity and leadership for years, and it’s clearly her “thing”.
Recently, I reflected with a collaborator at Cultivating Leadership about just that – how Jennifer has her “thing” that’s such an amazing gift to the world. And during that conversation, it has become clear to me that I am putting myself under a lot of pressure to create my own “thing”, too. It seems like I have done so much in my life and I am grateful for the breadth of skills and experiences, yet sometimes I wonder how it all fits together. Yes, I may have some wins under my belt building out leadership development for one of the most successful companies in the world. I’m a decent coach and an engaging facilitator. I can hold my ground with the most demanding and smartest business and technology leaders. Yet sometimes I hear the voice that tells me I’m not really an expert at anything, and as I am building my life as a consultant, shouldn’t I have my “thing” already?
And as I am writing this, two important thoughts surface: the notion of impostor syndrome, and the concept of attachment versus unfolding. Both often come up in coaching and leadership sessions. Funny how we teach what we need to learn the most! I’m going to skip impostor syndrome for now, much has been written about it lately. I want to elaborate on the attachment versus unfolding piece.
To me, attachment feels like firmly holding on to the fact that we want to make something happen in the world. On our terms. Wanting to be in control of what that is, and what it looks like. Having a clear intention and a fail-safe execution plan. Setting goals and milestones, and being highly committed to achieving them. It’s our life’s work after all. So let’s focus and make it happen.
Until life gets in the way… in the form of difficult people, resource constraints, changing goalposts, and unforeseen crises. Being too attached to our desired outcomes can put us in danger of pushing too hard against what life throws at us. We may push for good reasons – we want to make a difference. It’s what gets many of us out of bed every day. Yet it can be exhausting. And it can show us our limits, which is often a tough lesson. Especially when we feel the pressure that makes us work harder and harder, yet returns are diminishing. It sucks the life out of us.
There is another way, which I call unfolding. Unfolding happens when we become present to what wants to happen, both within us and around us. When we pay attention to important signals. When we are open to learning every day. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have vision, or that we are not committed to achieving something important. It doesn’t mean that we are just wandering aimlessly. Unfolding means being open to embracing life and flowing with it rather than going against it. We set the direction we want to go in, but rather than sticking to a fail safe plan, we are taking one step at a time, remaining flexible, and learning as much as we can about the way forward. It’s a partnership with life. The sweet spot at the intersection of what we want from life, and what life wants from us. It’s a joyous way of being in the world. And a great approach to learning how to thrive in complexity. It requires trust. The trust that can be found when we become really present to ourselves and what holds us. We can learn that we are fully resourced, and that every step we are taking with the flow of life gets us closer to our “thing”. Which is probably not a thing at all, but something dynamic, something that’s growing just as we grow. Something that’s growing us.
So – as I find myself attaching to figuring out what my “thing” is, I remind myself to breathe, ground, and listen to what life wants from me, all while bringing to mind my intention to help create a world that works for everyone. From here, my “thing” is unfolding.
And I hear my friend Carolyn’s wise voice: “What if YOU are the thing”?