flying by the seat of your pants

10/20/2011

by pamela welling

Some people in life make you brave. As a coach, I ask clients to consider the importance of having a brain trust or personal board of directors who can reflect back the potential that my client can’t quite see themselves (yet) and help them leap self- perceived barriers. My brain trust is populated with former colleagues, friends, mentors and my coach who we’ll call AE here…oh yes, coaches have coaches! As a highly skilled and intuitive practitioner, AE often pushes me to explore opportunities, ideas and versions of myself that I hadn’t considered (or am not brave enough to pursue). Recently we collaborated on an event that exposed me to C-level professionals in an industry area I hadn’t encountered before. I decided my lack of knowledge about the field these C-level subject matter experts were coming from (and that tiny little internal voice telling me I didn’t have so much to add) should mean I was a minimal presence in the planning, preparation and delivery of the event. AE felt differently and pushed me to think beyond my assumptions, putting me front and center with our key collaborators and in AE’s words, got me flying by the seat of my pants. The end result? Together AE and I executed the event to exceptionally positive feedback from participants.

The learning here is that often times we are better at seeing the potential in others than we are in ourselves. It’s a phenomenon that we have all experienced- how about those conversations with colleagues, friends, family members where you find yourself saying things like ‘Of course you can!’ in response to their concerns, whatever the issue might be. You have no doubt in their potential, but for some reason they just can’t see past the roadblock. Research backs this phenomenon and highlights how we are quicker to identify self-perceived flaws and in many cases, exhibit behavior that can derail our own success (1) than move forward with a challenge.

Not everyone has the lucky opportunity to work with a such highly trained, skilled and intuitive coach such as AE, and for those who don’t there are some simple questions you can ask of yourself  and steps you can take as you consider embarking on something that flexes your bravery muscles.

1: What the ROI and do I really want to invest: Ideally if you are going to make the leap you want to know there is some reward at the end of your hard work: before embarking on a new challenge I recommend that clients interrogate the extent to which the stretch project fits with their longer term vision or goals and decide whether it will add to their tool kit in a meaningful way. Your challenge should do the same for you by forcing you into uncomfortable territory but it should be considered- you don’t need to risk political, emotional and physical energy on something that will not be a value add.

2: Is it really a stretch? Next, ask yourself if the challenge or goal in front of you truly pushes you. It should feel like a risk- on first try know you will have hard learning, that you will most likely make mistakes and identify things you would approach differently as a result of your reflective learning (I certainly did in my example). If you are coming out top of the class in everything you do then you have an opportunity to start something new and be challenged.

3: Be ready to fake it, for now: With your considered risk there will be an element of  what one member of my personal brain trust refers to as: “As if” positioning or more commonly; talking your way into walking it, whatever that ‘it’ might be for you. Again research backs the importance of this faking it to be able to make it approach; studies show that subjects who held a ‘fake’ smile were able to induce happier emotions, the effect of visualization as a successful technique for overcoming illness, or projecting victory in a challenging situation is also well documented. If we bring that research point into thinking about our potential we know that even if we don’t initially feel confident in a particular task, if we fake it, we might just be able to make it.

If you find this process difficult to do for yourself, then consider the idea of the brain trust I mentioned earlier- it is not always possible (or indeed advisable) to have one rock star mentor to guide you as you forge forward in your career, but it is possible to have trusted work colleagues, advisors outside of work, college classmates and friends to make up your personal board of directors and help you, like me, get over your fear of flying by the pants of your seat.

1-    The real reason people won’t change (Kegan and Lahey, HBR Nov 20th)

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