What is a comfort zone, anyway?
I guess you know when you’re out of it, huh? When you’ve jumped off that cliff and you realise you passed the last signpost of comfort ages ago.
There are times you can still turn back; maybe with a bit of egg on your face but before any real risk is taken because sometimes you can get in over your head.
But how to tell the difference? One of the things about CrossFit they say is ‘just don’t die.’ Don’t die, don’t quit, keep coming back, and you will get fitter, and you will get stronger. That works for a while, and when the while is up you’re educated enough to know what to do next.
I think there is nothing worse than to stumble through life and settle. Settle for a job you don’t like, a place you don’t like to live, a relationship that doesn’t actually challenge you, friends you have to drink with to make them interesting. I’ve certainly had one or another of these at certain times; I don’t think all at once, thank heavens. But a lot of people do, and, worse, they keep falling back into the same traps.
Because firstly, admitting what you actually want is hard! And finding it is harder.
Sometimes an opportunity comes your way and you pass it by and then you wonder ‘what if?’ I actually did have those feelings periodically between the time the Skyrove job was first floated to me, and the second time when I foolishly agreed to listen. No. Foolish is the wrong word. Naïve or crazy would be more apt.
Sometimes they don’t. And then you wonder. I have a couple of those, too. But oh well, the moment passed, the door is closed, you move on.
It is not normal to get a second chance, which is why when something comes along that you’re not really ready for it’s a good thing to wonder will you ever be?
Now yes, this is not a black and white type scenario. What does ‘ready’ even mean? Take CrossFit. If you’re just starting out, you’re not going to be competitive with the girls or guys who have been doing it for a few years. We’re stronger, we’re more experienced, our technique is probably better in most things. We can do weird things like handstand pushups and muscle ups, and clean & jerk our bodyweight. It’s unlikely you can do any or all of these things if you’re just starting out. But not every competition is going to include such things, and not to compete because you’re not ready means you’re going to miss out on the competition experience. I’ve overheard quite a lot of girls at team competitions talking about individual athletes like ‘oh maybe someday I’ll be good enough for that.’
Well guess what? ‘Someday’ never comes unless you make it. Nothing happens unless you make it happen. The only way you can compete at this level, or win at this level, is to believe you can get there even if you’re not there today, to think of yourself as being on a path to that place, and taking actions to get you there. And that’s fine. Not everyone wants to be a competitive CrossFitter. We’re a crazy bunch, actually, it’s a damn good thing we have each other because most normal people just do not understand and never will. It’s a weird sport, if you’re going to compete.
But also this: it’s a trendy sport, and a sport a lot of people like to criticise without having enough information about it to really be able to do so. That makes you a target. So does being a leader, like of a gym or of a company. Everyone’s got an opinion. The peanut gallery is always right, at least in their own minds. It’s definitely the case about Cape CrossFit, and I was noticing that at Kyalami a few weeks back; one of the mornings when I was doing a long metcon everyone and their brother was telling Rick what they thought. Except for me. I’ll tell him later.
Was I ready when my parents forced me to go to a boarding school in New Hampshire? No, but thank the heavens for that one. It’s funny to think back about the childhood me and how I handled the challenges of that particular environment. Call it a learning experience, but what it did teach me was how to apply myself and work hard.
Was I ready to drop out of university and go work for Ask Jeeves? Arguably. Probably still the best decision I ever made. Had it not been for that experience and those connections many future things including jobs and MBA would not have happened. But also, I would have missed the boat on the dotcom boom; and once that window closes it closes. Trying to enter the job market two years later would have been nearly impossible. I wonder where I’d be now.
Was I ready when I left the Bay Area to go to Boston? Certainly not; a piece of my heart still lives on there. The way the light hits the trees; the smell of the air; the feel of the place. Yeah, I miss it. Never say never, but it’s unlikely I’ll go back for a lot of reasons. But it was time to move on, to open a new chapter in my life.
Was I ready the first time I was actually running product management for a company and didn’t have a political buffer between myself and the head of sales, engineering, and CEO? Nope. Definitely not. But I learned a lot from my own mistakes (and I keep making some of the same ones).
I won’t even go into the move to South Africa; but the point there is that the move (which was never intended to be permanent) taught me what I didn’t want, even if not what I actually did. Rough period, but at the end of the day I learned from it. You always do if you spend time reflecting; even if the learning comes years later.
But the thing is, you figure it out. They say that lots of people go through life feeling like ‘imposters’ or that they are going to get ‘found out’ for not really being capable of doing the jobs they are in. OK, sure, there are cases where this is surely true! But in many cases, it’s just a sign of pushing your boundaries, and it’s healthy and good. I remember once interviewing this guy called Heath for a really boring role (maintenance engineering), and I told everyone I loved the candidate but he’d be bored of the role in under a year. He lasted six months. Far too smart; I forget if he found something else internal or what.
I’m also not saying that you want to set yourself up to fail by taking a jump that’s too big, or going to work for a startup when you have a new baby, or really do anything big if you’re not in the right headspace to do so. Anything big, and worthwhile, and a little bit scary is going to be work. So you need to be ready to put in that work; take that deep breath and jump.
So when I first started at Skyrove I obviously hadn’t done this before. But I was very open and honest about this. On paper, I theoretically had the skills I needed. Babson MBA in entrepreneurship, eight or so years of product management experience, enterprise sales, etc. So what if I knew nothing about telecoms and hadn’t actually had to manage a team that mattered for anything in at least five years? But I believed that I should be able to do this, and if I work hard I’ll get there.
I do remember though my first couple meetings with CEOs of big companies that I’d heard of. People don’t intimidate me normally; knowledge asymmetry does. As it should. If I know what I’m talking about 5x better than you, I can talk circles around you. And that can be a problem. Those meetings are different now; and with knowledge and an understanding of value comes influence, and with influence, power.
It’s a strange thing, the hierarchies we put ourselves into. It’s one of the great things about my gym. Almost no one cares that I’m a CEO. And at my company, no one really cares what my Fran time is.
In a way it was crazy to think I could do this. Looking back now I realise I’ve had to pull on most skills I’ve picked up by osmosis from product marketing to sales to negotiation to strategy. Other things I’ve had to learn quickly like PR, and the political and business landscape that is the South African telecoms industry.
I was talking a few weeks back with one of my partners; a guy for whom I have a deep and profound respect. I was telling him how I don’t properly prepare for meetings because I don’t have time (or don’t make time, sometimes). He said no, that wasn’t true. I may not sit down ahead of time and write up objectives, but I sure as heck understand the context going in, what I want to achieve, and how to think on my feet if the conversation goes another direction (either for negative, or, as has more recently been the case, for positive).
He was correct. And that was when I realised; just like seeing a CrossFit WOD and no longer having to worry ‘can I do all these movements?’ [injury aside] the question becomes ‘How do I tackle this workout?’ That’s when you know you’ve gone from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. And then you see a workout with 5 rounds of 10 dumbbell thrusters & 10 pullups and somehow neglect to realise that you’re doing a variation of Fran. You are not so smart after all.
I’ve said it before so it’s no real secret, but when I was getting into this I didn’t really know what I was in for. I thought it was a manageable jump over what I’d done before. I had NO CLUE the complexity or size of the opportunity. But I learned. I was realising the other day that the speed with which certain things have happened this year has been phenomenal, actually, and no way on earth could we be having some of the opportunities now coming our way had we not done everything up to this point, and just this fast. Yeah it could always be faster, sure. But too much slower and you’ve missed the damn boat. Shoot, two or three months slower and the boat is gone.
The thing is this – it’s a different game I’m playing now than I thought I was playing when I got into this. It’s like the 20s workout that you think is so easy until you get to the dips or something and it wrecks you. Like the partnerships you can form that can, in one fell swoop, completely change the game. Like the guy you dismissed as a pretty boy and it turns out you underestimated him. Or the friend you thought you understood, until you found out a little more, and now you realise you still don’t know what lies beneath.
That’s the other lesson; or two. First: don’t believe everything you read. Nothing you read is true, actually. Nothing. And what you read into it …. Well, that’s your own shit, actually.
It’s like the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
A cigar is just a cigar, folks.
Secondly, don’t judge a book by its cover. I can NOT tell you the number of people who have told me flat out that they underestimated one of our sales people when they first met her (or, worse, they make a comment and I have to abruptly correct them). Firstly, she’s not a dumb blonde, and secondly, I’m not dumb enough to hire a dumb blonde in sales. How patronising.
But that’s just one thing. To be a white female ain’t so bad, actually, at least not in this country, with this culture. To be a non-white professional is much, much harder, and that is just not cool. But that’s a whole other subject.
Now 2014 is going to be the year. Everyone knows it from our team to our partners to our competitors. Am I ready? No way. I can’t be. It’s not possible. But to go for broke is a hell of a better plan than the alternative.
It’s not often that you sit at the end of one year and the start of a next knowing there are going to be some massive changes in the coming year. To move cities, to ramp scale and complexity of operations and number of partnerships, to enter the competitive season as an intentional individual, to challenge myself to rethink what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and even who I’m doing it with. This is all new territory which is what makes it interesting.
What it all means? Everything is everything.