Creating Commandments

Blub, blub, blub. That seems the sound track of life right now.

As #SocialEra (my new book) has been released into the world, the world has shouted back with enthusiasm. But some days and hours, I’ve felt like the surfboarder being battered by waves as they are flung beneath the surface, not knowing which way is up, not being able to cope with the deluge, and feeling very disoriented.

It’s harrowing.

And while I’ve been feeling this way, I was telling myself that this topic needed to be off limits for the blog, because it would only sound like I’m complaining. And maybe it does to you, or will to others. But I am really processing this issue, and it seems like a common problem; it seems to me that the thing I’m trying to deal with is something all of us deal with. In fact, whenever we each grow into a new role (a new job, or a new project, or in this case my work of releasing an idea into the world), the hardest time isn’t doing the creative work itself, it’s figuring what part of the work to say yes to when it’s all so new, and intensely submersive in nature.

Then, my friend, Julien Smith, shared a post about “Choosing your Bible”, a way of characterizing what anchors one to what is “true” and “right”. So even though Julien didn’t assign “homework” as he is apt to do, I am self-assigning it, knowing it could be fodder for your own commandments list…

    • Be Purposeful, in an Orgasmic Big Way. This weekend, I happened to stay at a crappy hotel where I woke up to some noises from the next room that I was super-embarrassed to hear. But at the same time, how great is it that some things evoke the sounds of “yes” from deep within a person that there’s no suppressing it. When any of us are working from our deepest purpose, it feels that way. I know mine, and each “opportunity” needs to lead me to full a “Hell Yeah”. Or a clear, yet kindly delivered, no.
    • Define Your Unmovables. Work is important but what makes life worth living isn’t just “work”, right? Whether one’s ‘non-work’ commitment is to build a startup on the side, write a book, raise children, even work out, those things have to be unmovable or else they can easily be sideline by other people’s requests. For me, family is crucial. I love walking my son to school, knowing there will be a day when he won’t be holding my hand as we jointly enjoy the crisp fall weather as a way to start our days. So, early morning meetings always get a no. Also, most dinner meetings and networking bar meets just can’t compete with a home-cooked meal where my son still crawls into my lap for a cuddle after he’s done eating, and we all sit and talk. A part of me wants to apologize for having this kind of priority because it’s not the cultural norm, but it is what works for me, and I’m coming to accept this. Which ultimately allows more hard-and-fast-blocking of specific time slots makes saying no (or yes) faster, and easier.
    • Yes/No/When. I have a contemporary piece of art by Michelle Scott, that says Yes / No / Maybe and the “Maybe” has about 50% of the space on the piece. I think we’re afraid to say no to people so we settle for this Maybe space. Maybe is squishy; like a purgatory space for ideas and for energy. I prefer Yes/No/When set of buckets. Yes and No being self-explanatory, I use When to manage the interest but not the time. I say whenI can take on new projects or requests. I do this in quarter-timeframe buckets, and I identify the key focus area for this quarter and the next two. Rather than try to take on everything as it comes, I share with people that I am thinking of that next bucket of ideas in Q1 or in Q2 and I signal when I can even start to consider the idea with them. An answer of “when” lets me say yes but in a more managed way.
    • MUTE More. Certain things are growing in volume for everyone — emails, list serves, rss feeds, dialogues on twitter, checking in on Facebook stuff etc. And each of us could do that transactional flow of stuff just about all day long… between that and going to meetings, we might never do the real thinking that creates value. Now, I am blocking off times to do deeper work and manage my energy so that in those blocks, I can really focus. (I know there is some software you can use to block internet access – gotta find that cause I lack the discipline to self-manage some days.)I also really use the auto-respond notes –  saying what is going on, and asking people to get back in touch in x window if it is still important. Then, I literally delete every email that comes in that window (other than things I’m already committed to i.e. corporate board things, audit committee communications, etc) without EVER looking at them. People who keep sending repetitive notes after receiving first bounce message end up being put into auto-delete (never to be seen from again) process because they apparently can’t respect boundaries so it gets managed for them. I’ve done the math: 100 emails costs me about 2-3 hours of productive work or ~30% of my productive work time for any day. (What does it cost you? Really – figure this out. Literally, do your own math) So, the imperative is to be prudent about deleting “nice to haves” whenI’m not already getting my own work done. I’m less strict about this when I’m all caught up. And, yes, I’m sure I’ll make a mistake and miss some communication that could have been important or hurt someone’s feelings by not getting back to them. But – better that outcome, then to go under the waves trying to please someone else, which is like trying to kiss an ever-moving butt.

       

    • Preserve a Give / Get Mix. Saying yes to someone else can mean saying no to your own priorities. But any of us “just” working on our priorities alone doesn’t seem right; we’re not being very open or giving…which is central to thriving for the system. I want to support other women entrepreneurs or catch up with the inventor working on collaboration tools… There’s something about serendipity, meeting new people, hear of new ideas, advising people who need your help, etc.But if I said yes to even 5% of the inbound requests, I could easily do this as a full-time job. My answer? I have turned 99% of advisory / networking meetings into hikes. That makes sure that as I “give” I am also “getting” what I need. People who want to meet with me can walk (slow or fast, but fast is preferred) with me at set times on my calendar. That lets me limit these networking requests to set spots on the calendar and even if the meeting is not amazing, at least I get 20-25 miles a week of fitness in my life. And, I am (hopefully) a better listener when on a hike than if I’m in a coffee shop. Hikes for work for me, but the larger point is how can you give generously and freely without it being a burden? Have people come to you; have a set day or time spot…there are ways to say yes without it being overwhelming.

       

    • Recruit the Posse.
      Some of us work with natural teams so we know who supports us or not. But some of us don’t and support in the form of a posse is not as obvious. Get clear what kind of support you need; it is financial, is it time, is it care in a particular way?If you are doing 20-some-mile walk for the Komen fundraising effort, people know the way to support you is to give you money because it’s clear you want to stand up to cancer. People can throw you a shower / come to your shower / buy you a baby gift if the learn you are pregnant with child as a way of showing they share in your joy of expanding your family. And if you just got fired, you can get support from your friends saying that such-and-such firm … “they didn’t deserve you, anyways”. And they might offer to be a network of resources while you look.In many cases, the convention for how to show support a friend is known. But what if you’re doing something that lacks conventional understanding?I’ve learned through experience (and other authors), that most people really don’t know how to support an author. Just the other day, one of my very best friends asked some question around the book and I realized she had no idea what I had been working on. I wanted to groan aloud. And I would have, except for the fact that this is the norm. I’ve spent a dedicated 11 months on this and they have no idea what ideas matter to me, or why I care so much.  Even though they would easily buy me a $4 coffee at Starbucks, they don’t buy the same-priced book. They don’t read the first 5 pages of the book so they can ask “what makes you care about this topic”. The same people whose baby/wedding/race/breastcancer/whatever thing get support…  they don’t show support back because they don’t know how. A part of me wants to fix it but the other part realizes it’s not likely to happen. So perhaps the answer is to find the people who DO know how to care, and just depersonalize the situation with those who don’t. Build the community that feeds your creativity and soul work — find your posse — and just realize they might not sit next to you in that cube / city / chalice line.

       

    • Fit in Friends. Any one of us can regret the time we waste on things that did not matter but we rarely regret spending time with the people that do matter. I just returned from Chicago in support of a conference entitled, Pitch Refinery. Melissa pierce, who manages to get lots of shit done in the entrepreneur world, asked if I could come to her event and be her closing keynote. She has been there for me during hard times, so I said yes to herand because I could see how passionately she was persuing her big “Hell Yeah” cause.
      Of course, the conference mattered, but that’s not really why I said yes. I am saying yes to the person who stood next to me when I needed a friend. (Sometimes I write back to friends explaining what else is on my plate, to make sure that this thing really matters to them enough for me to stop other stuff to show them I care. That helps triage what really matters in case it’s not clear.) Busyness is fine, but it’s no excuse for not supporting friends. Cause loneliness … sucks. Isolating yourself from friends might work in the short-run but I’m not convinced it ever does in the long view.
    • Honor the Body. I am one of those people that gets super cranky if I’m not getting enough sleep. And, I easily get sick (pneumonia-in-a-day kind of sick) because when I was young, I got TB and it has permanently affected my immune system. So for me… sleep, working out 6/7 days, walking in the sunshine, eating vegetables … are not just nice to haves, they are crucial to being able to function. I used to ignore this wanting to believe I could be more bad-ass or something, but I’ve stopped the war with my own body.  Now I track activity / food / sleep every day (using this really fun device, the Fitbit) because I really want to improve both my consciousness and my feedback loop for what is  / is not working.
    • Archimedes, not Hercules. No idea is ever made into reality by oneself, or by the one who pounded himself into oblivion. Which means: I don’t have to do it all, and, in fact, I shouldn’t even try to do it all. I have to think of how to use my time and creative attention to enable others. I need to focus on higher leverage stuff. I’m asking myself this question: “Will spending this time lead to hundreds, thousands of human beings being more fully alive in the world?” Where can I engage or partner with others to create this change in the world? Where is there leverage? Saying yes to 10 small things – doing lots of work — means I’m not being thoughtful to figure out the point of leverage – to create the shift I’m seeking.  Which circles back to Commandment #1. There’s a reason I’m doing all this, and it’s not to earn money or to be popular or to be everywhere. It is to see a certain change in the world.

 

Even while our intellectual side knows we can’t say yes to everything, our emotional side fears we might miss out on something that could be Amazingly Great. That’s why saying no or yes is so stinking hard to do and why we need our own personal commandments, our own “bible” source for what matters and why. And when we are going up a new learning curve, we are probably even more afraid because things are new and we want to do well. I’m not proud of how overwhelmed I feel right now (and I hope none of this came across as whiny). I think that by coming up with these commandments and sharing them publicly, it’ll really help manage what is still to come.

Curious – what would be on your Commandment list?

13 Responses:

  1. DMC. September 27, 2012 at 6:34 am  |  

    Thanks for sharing your important thoughts, Nilofer. I found them very useful, inspiring and more timely than you could imagine.

    Time to stop catching all the balls all the time, esp. when both hands and head are both full. ‘No’ is an important word.

    On reflection, I just withdrew from an additional role that I was unconvinced I could undertake without being “knocked off the surfboard”.

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 27, 2012 at 5:38 pm  |  

      Thank YOU for knowing what’ll knock you off the surfboard.

      Reply
  2. Todd Lohenry. September 27, 2012 at 2:24 pm  |  

    Never eat a carrot cake bigger than your head… :-D

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm  |  

      But you did. I saw it. ;-) Goofness.

      Reply
  3. Cate Moore. September 27, 2012 at 5:26 pm  |  

    This article wrecked me…in a good way. It didn’t come across as whiny, rather it was honest. I have always been frustrated by the way we (all of us to some degree) sugar coat and massage everything so we don’t feel like we are complaining or so we can appear much more put together than we are-because that somehow makes us more acceptable and loveable. When I read an article like this I immediately feel like I am somehow given permission to be honest…and yes, to watch that I remain grateful for the adventure-but to admit that I am learning and I don’t have it all together. How could I? I’m a new entrepreneur. And why would I want to? Where is the fun in that? This post was the best part of my day and a complete breath of fresh air. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 27, 2012 at 5:38 pm  |  

      Thanks, Cate – this was amazing to read.

      Reply
  4. Trillian. September 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm  |  

    Mute:
    To be anti-social for a while, there is a specific app you can use: http://anti-social.cc/
    But to be honest it takes a lot of will-power to not really check e-mail, twitter, flipboard etc etc. I feel like an addict whose nightmare turned out to be left unconnected…
    So when I really want to think, I switch to old methods now: Pen and Paper

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 1, 2012 at 8:42 am  |  

      Thanks. I appreciate the help to find that app.

      Reply
  5. Heidi Forbes Öste (@ForbesOste). September 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm  |  

    I suppose commandments should end with an “Amen” or “Namaste” or something of the like. Beautifully written. There is much to be said for finding and cherishing that which we need to continue our quest. Sometimes the most important thing we do is take time to reflect. You might enjoy this brief post on just that http://forbesoste.com/reflections-on-reflection/. Thank you for sharing your recipe for balance and following your vision with intent. Cheers!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 1, 2012 at 8:43 am  |  

      Amen. :-)

      Reply
  6. Rhys Gibson. October 3, 2012 at 11:57 am  |  

    I’ve had my own list of Gibson’s Laws for years. In my case it’s more a list universal truths that seem to constantly recur around me than anchors of truth.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm  |  

      We all need guiding principles don’t we?

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 8020Info Inc. - March 24, 2013

    [...] Does Maybe Mean No?  Corporate director Nilofer Merchant says when we’re afraid to say no to people, we often reply maybe. But that’s squishy – and a purgatory that ties up energy or ideas. Instead, respond yes or no, or explain when you will take on the new request in the future. (Source: NiloferMerchant.com) [...]

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