Upside Down, Shake It Up

About 18 months ago, I was sitting teary-eyed and fatigued with my peer CEO group, explaining that I was going to give up. I felt like such a failure.

While there were many good things, a bunch of stuff in my life wasn’t working. As I tried to fix each thing at a time, I became like a caricature of the person spinning many plates: lots in motion, but nothing moves position. I first shared this in a post called “Reinvention Sucks”, in April 2010, which was the first time I shared publicly the tough times I was facing. I went on to kill my company, then I took the summer off to be with my family. It took most of 2010 to painfully and yet professionally shut down everything, and wrap up the old.

And now I’ve come to realize this was just an Etch-A-Sketch moment.

You might remember that game, Etch a Sketch, where using one horizontal knob and one vertical knob you could draw all sorts of things? Over time, you’d make mistakes and since there was no ‘undo’, you’d turn the toy upside down, and shake it up and thus erase everything to start over. Well starting over after a failure is like a real life version of Etch-a-Sketch. And yet, while it’s a new start, it’s not quite a blank slate. Experiences, the extended relationships, the talents developed, perspective gained so far, even the lessons from the failures… those do carry over. It’s like learning the tricky two-knob-sloping-line skill on the Etch-a-Sketch – the blank slate lets you apply that skill anew, and with more precision, in a way that is borderline impossible without starting fresh.

There are many interesting things starting to form in this new space. But before that could happen, I had to allow the blankness, the not knowing, the space that is devoid of clarity and clearness. It was terrifying to me. And I  know some of you may not hear my anxiety through this prose. But it is the truth. The idea of starting over was terrifying — in the middle of the night I would ask myself “what if nothing ever fills this professional void?”. I would ask my editor “what if I don’t have enough ideas?”. I would ask my husband “what if the best is behind me”. Truth be told, facing the unknown still is terrifying for me, at many levels. It has meant reevaluating scorecards, and figuring out who I am without title, and to consider the purpose for which I’m fighting so I can avoid depression. It seems to me I’m not alone in reevaluating things as I look around. It is a shift from worrying about fitting in to learning what matters enough to stand out, to be unafraid of failing, and seeking joy from the process. So I continue to share my own tumbles and trials with some hopes that any clarity or insight I have — if even for a moment– might embolden others to live a more free, conscious, and creative life.

Embracing the blankness is to celebrate that the new art being created on it needs space to come into form.

The blank space has let me start anew. I assume that I can change and design for anything so that what is created next, works. While I’ve always understood that great product innovation requires a similar etch-a-sketch moment to avoid the “add more features” syndrome, I’ve rarely see it done. But until all this personal shake-n-bake changes in my own life, I lacked the empathy on why teams didn’t embrace the fresh start that product cycles can provide.

To start with the blank slate requires a different kind of creative fortitude, a kind of faith that when faced with the blankness, something new and interesting will actually come. Out of fear that it won’t, product teams focus on iterating what is known, rather than re-imagining what is needed. But what if we just believed that we can create from scratch just what is needed? What kind of products, companies, communities, or economies could we create? Maybe ones that work…maybe.

But we’ll never know until we embrace the blankness.


2 Replies

  1. Nilofer,

    Thanks for sharing. This is for you:

    “We join spokes together in a wheel,
    but it is the center hole
    that makes the wagon move.

    We shape clay into a pot,
    but it is the emptiness inside
    that holds whatever we want.

    We hammer wood for a house,
    but it is the inner space
    that makes it livable.

    We work with being,
    but non-being is what we use.”

    – Lao-tzu

Leave a reply

Leave a Reply