I can ride my bike with no handlebars
Look at me, look at me
Hands in the air like it’s good to be
- Handlebars, Flobots
25 years ago, a friend told me that I should read the autobiographies of famous people to understand how they found their way to achieving great success.
I did not understand this advice. I didn’t appreciate the difference between autobiographies and cheap magazines that followed the life of the “rich and famous.”
I was wrong.
After I read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, I understood this advice. I have to admit that it was with quite a considerable delay until I discovered why it was so exciting to read books about people who had written their life stories on their own.
Autobiographers share what they learned from their journeys and life experiences, with the hope that it will inspire and help their readers. There’s probably some ego involved in the writing process, and when you read an autobiography, you may need to deal with that, with a gentle smile on your face: yes, sometimes what we do could be ego-driven.
Reading a story makes it easy to identify yourself in similar situations.
These are some of the things I wished I had discovered earlier:
how Benjamin Franklin designed a system to create good habits (based on a calendar where you mark your success which helps you reflect on what needs more focus or improvement),
how he discovered the ideal size of a group for a meaningful conversation (the answer is a maximum of 12 people), and
how he refused patents for one of his inventions because it was for “the good of the people.”
More importantly, what I learned from reading his autobiography was that he worked on himself first, and this work on himself had an impact on the world.
Be the change you want to see in the world.
It seems that Gandi never actually said what we find all over the Internet and I did not feature this quote at the beginning of this chapter because of its uncertain origin. However, that’s precisely where I am going in this chapter.
Ideas are not enough. A great idea without any clues on how to put it into action has no value. I am sure you have often heard people telling you they had the idea of (something now huge) before everybody. And, umm, yes… Does it matter?
For example, when I was a kid, I had the idea of the minivan concept before 1984, the year of the launch of the first Renault Espace or of the first Dodge Caravan on the market. I remember all the drawings I made, all the explanations to my parents, friends, and relatives to sell the idea. I also remember my surprise when I saw the first advertisement for the Renault Espace (I was living in France at that time). I remember that my parents were proud of me and repeated this story to many people. In reality, Fergus Pollock designed the minivan concept in the 1970s. You see, I told you... It does not matter.
Everyone has ideas. Execution is what matters.
As for everything else, working on yourself requires persistence, but it is worth the effort.
What do you need to change to get where you want to be? Also, what are the elements that you cannot change or that you cannot influence even a little bit?
The Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr is as follows:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Now, draw a small circle in the center of a piece of paper. The circle represents what you can change through your direct actions. Now draw a larger concentric circle outside the first one. The second circle represents what you can influence.
James Shore describes The Soup concept from David Schmaltz and Amy Schwab. “The Soup” describes what is outside the second circle. The soup analogy is useful because as the first two circles of what we can act upon and what we can influence are well known, this simple knowledge tends to make us powerless. The soup idea pushes us to find a way to influence, even slightly, what we thought we could not affect. So, if I don’t want a cold and untasty soup, I take the big pot of soup and put it on a stove. What happens? Nothing. Nothing immediately, but after some time, a long time, something happens. A small bubble pops-up at the surface, a first shared idea that changes the soup. You can change the soup, make it a little bit hotter, or add some salt and pepper to make it a slightly tastier. The soup analogy is there to push yourself to expand your circles.
Our actions have consequences. Our mindsets have effects. They transform our environment.
I remember a day when all the product managers of a distributed team met in Vancouver. They travelled there for a conference and were meeting to review their quarterly results and their plans for the next quarter. I felt that they were frustrated and overwhelmed, with too many things to do and too many things beyond their control. The tension in the room was growing. I called for a break, and I sketched two concentric circles on a paperboard.
After the break, I explained the drawing to the team. I started with our direct actions, and then I moved on to what we can influence. Of course, they jumped to the conclusion that what was outside of the two circles was what we could not act upon or influence. That’s when I introduced “The Soup.” This short introduction, to re-engage after the break, was enough to reset the tone of the meeting and to help them decide what had more impact on the achievement of their goals.
Let’s take another example; about fifteen years ago, a friend from college visited us at our home. We lived in the vicinity of Paris at that time. As my friend lived in Singapore, we decided to go out for a great steak thinking that he was missing this kind of food. It struck us when he told us he was vegan now, but that it was okay, he should have warned us, and he could manage.
Of course, we had a conversation about his choice. A French guy who changed his diet to become vegan was rare, so we wanted to understand why. He calmly explained that there were three main reasons.
Firstly, it was to protect the environment. Forestry and agriculture account for 25% of greenhouse gases, mainly because we cut trees to plant crops to feed cows.
Secondly, humans don’t need to eat meat or dairy to be healthy. Yes, we need to get enough protein, iron, calcium, vitamins D and B12, but we can find the first two in beans and lentils, for example. Also, all those sources don’t come with saturated fat and cholesterol.
And thirdly, it was to avoid cruelty. Why hurt and kill animals when there’s no need for it?
We had a conversation about the impact of his decision, and he quickly agreed that the effect on the world was small. He was just doing his share and hoping that his behavior would influence others. He was changing the soup.
Fifteen years later, today, it is easier to understand what we can do as individuals to influence climate change. As an example, Henrik Kniberg published this short video on climate change to help us to understand the difference that individuals can make.
Shifting our mindset has an impact on our ability to think, collaborate, uncover ideas, and unlock our potential.
Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, discovered the simple idea of mindset during research on achievement and success. I recommend her book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
People, with a fixed mindset, are concerned about how they are judged. They believe that their innate traits need to be proven. For them, making an effort to improve themselves would be terrible because it shows that they had never been good.
People with a growth mindset are concerned about how to improve themselves. They consider their abilities and traits are things to be developed. For them, making an effort to improve themselves is excellent, as it is an opportunity to learn.
People with a growth mindset identify learning as success. People with a fixed mindset identify proof they are smart as success.
We can learn to adopt a growth mindset. The first step is awareness. By being aware of the two mindsets and understanding our ability, intelligence, business skills, creativity, and personality, we are able to recognize when we are leaning toward a fixed mindset and ask ourselves: What can I learn from this situation?
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Confronting ourselves is not so easy and demands some practice before it can be mastered. When something goes wrong, The Responsibility Process as described by Christopher Avery kicks in.
A few years ago, during the opening of a quarterly meeting of the leadership team of a startup outside Montreal, I drew the different steps of the process on a paperboard as islands.
“Denial,” when we tend to ignore the existence of something, was grey.
“Lay Blame,” when we accuse others of causing something, and “Justify,” when we use excuses for things, were red.
“Shame,” when we return blame to ourselves, and “Obligation,” when we consider having to do something instead of wanting to do something, were black.
“Quit,” when we choose to give up to avoid the suffering of “Shame” and “Obligation,” was in grey.
Finally, “Responsibility” was in blue. Christopher Avery defines responsibility as “owning your ability and power to create, choose, and attract.”
The team agreed on the intent to hold the meeting on the “Responsibility Island.” We agreed to try to catch ourselves when we moved to other islands. We agreed to remind others about their behavior.
I remember being a bit upset, when after I made a sarcastic comment, one of the participants looked at me with a smile and told me, “Hey, Alexis, go back to the blue island.” I was upset at first but genuinely happy after witnessing the team’s ability to work within the agreement and having the courage to confront me.
Over the course of the three days, there were several times when participants acted away from the blue island and, after a pause and a quick look at the paperboard, corrected themselves, saying something like “Let me say that differently...” There were also times when one or more of the participants looked at the paperboard, causing whoever was talking, not from the blue island, to pause and change the narrative.
The only person we can change is ourselves. You can’t change another person... People change when they believe that they can improve. They shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. People change when they have the desire to do so.
Summary and Action
Change starts with us. We can change. Our traits are not fixed and can be developed. Our actions are the only things that can influence the change. Our influence is greater than we think.
Let’s go a little bit deeper with an assignment. Your assignment is to write your Best Possible Self, as defined by Laura A. King, from the University of Missouri, and Jeffrey Huffman, from Harvard Medical School.
The Best Possible Self is an exercise to clarify your goals. Research shows that building optimism about the future motivates people to work toward that desired future.
First prepare a visible calendar with fifteen boxes to check, representing the next fifteen days. For each day that you accomplish the assignment, you tick a box. You’ll thank Benjamin Franklin at the end of the fifteen days as it is the way he developed to install good habits.
Each day, for fifteen minutes, take a moment to imagine your life in the future.
What is the best possible life you can envision?
In all the different areas of your life, professional or personal, what will happen in your best possible future?
Be very specific in your write-up; describe a better future in which you are your best possible self, and what needs to change in your current situation, what you will learn, what habits you will change.
One last word, if you miss a day, don’t be too harsh on yourself. Guilt has a negative effect on our willpower. Just accept that you missed a day and keep going. The Willpower Instinct, a book by Kelly McGonigal, can definitely help you in that area.