Friends, we did it! Already, on the leading edge of Time, the sun is setting on 2021. Finally, we’ve reached the end of the annus horribilis that began with the storming of the Capitol, on January 6th, and included, in no particular order, floods, fires, droughts, pestilence, and Jeff Bezos launching his phallic spacecraft into the Great Beyond.
There were conversations about vaccines. There were more conversations about vaccines. There were so many conversations about vaccines that I kind of feel like I’ve achieved a bachelor’s degree in epidemiology.
Don’t worry, there will be no more mention of the v-word in this email. (But you can unsubscribe here anyway if you want.)
Instead, let’s begin by talking about a different word: celebration.
I’m one of those people who has the etymological dictionary bookmarked on my browser favorites; I love WORDS and their insightful, magical, and often mystical constellations of meaning. As we have been reminded near-daily on our social media feeds, WORDS HAVE POWER.
As communicators, we can wield that power more deftly by understanding how the tools we use work..
So: celebration. When most of us think about celebration, we think of birthday parties, festivals, and sports games. (Maybe—if you’re more disposed to thinking about work—you think of OKRs and sales targets.) We “celebrate” these events with exuberance. After all, we think about celebration as “to commemorating or honoring with demonstrations of joy.”
But celebration sprouts from a religious meaning. From the Latin celebratus: “to keep solemn, to perform publicly with appropriate rites.” A celebration is a performance of a religious ceremony, a tip of the hat to the past. A fellow storyteller friend calls it a “shish-kebab through time.”
When we sing Happy Birthday, we are repeating a process that has occurred uncountable times over uncountable centuries. When the ball hits the net and we roar with victory, we are becoming part of something that extends just as long. The same thing is true of our OKRs.
When we celebrate, we become the freshest grilled mushroom on the shish-kebab of human history.
And sticking with the backyard BBQ metaphor here—I know, it’s the wrong time of year, but it’s lunchtime and I’m getting hungry—the process of our celebration is a bit like the marinade we put on our meal. One part sweet, our part sour; a demonstration of joy that’s mixed with solemnity. Celebration is about making things sacred, entering them into the Story of our lives.
We celebrate when we win. But we need to celebrate when we lose too. The celebration commemorates and honors the closing of a chapter.
I’m particularly excited to celebrate the end of 2021. It was a transformative year for me—which is a big deal for someone who has lived an already transformative life.
For me, 2018 and 2019 were the most successful and lucrative years I’d ever had. Finally, the storytelling training business I founded was gaining traction, and I delivered workshops or spoke at events all over the place: New York, San Francisco, Paris, Bangkok. My rates were rising swiftly. I was becoming a snob about my frequent flier status. (“Economy? Seriously?”) I started imaging that I’d finally figured work out.
I’d achieved certainty! I’d future-proofed my life! I could kick back and enjoy shish-kebabing in my backyard.
I think you can guess where this is going…
When the pandemic began, I eased into lockdown, knowing that I was in a privileged position: I had the comfort and cushion to easily survive. I anticipated that I wouldn’t offer another workshop that year—like many of us, I assumed that work would pick up in 2021, once the pandemic inevitably passed and everyone went back to the office.
I decided to dedicate more of my time to working on other projects, like my book. (More on that in early 2022.) I spent time with family and fell in love with Vancouver again.
But by December, my confidence was waning. On the outside, the COVID chaos was as crazy as ever, and on the inside, I began to feel like something was dying.
With space, I could see much more clearly that there were parts of my work that I found unfulfilling. Airport lounges were not nearly as sexy as I had once imagined; neither was all that time away from friends and family. In particular, I wanted to raise my work to a new—but how much impact could I have when I only worked with clients for a couple of days?
But could I really risk reinventing my business? In the middle of a pandemic?
It was an irrational decision, but I decided to do it anyway.
Reinvention is difficult at any stage of life. But I found this particular cycle of reinventing myself much more difficult than anything I’d ever experienced. Part of it is because I’m now in my 40s; part of it is because the reinvention is occurring in the realms of business.
After all, most people hire consultants because they want solutions. Who hires consultants who are searching how to be different themselves?
I can tell you the answer: nobody. In the last 6 months, I’ve brought in 7% of the revenue I brought in during all of 2019.
That’s not a typo. Seven. My cushion has dissipated rapidly.
My spirits aren’t down, however. In fact, just the opposite. I’m more hopeful today than I’ve ever been. I believe I’m beta-testing my own version of a transformational process that all of us are going to have to move through, each of us in our own way. I have faith that what I’m going through is something that I will transfer to my future clients. And I see validation everywhere.
Just this morning, I read a great piece in the NYTimes: ‘We Threw Out Any Plans We Had’: C.E.O.s Are Forced to Embrace Uncertainty. The article quotes a former Navy SEAL turned leadership trainer, who says:
“As the leader of an organization, you want to give your employees as much certainty as you can.” He explains that, in the military, they had a key saying: Shoot, Move, and Communicate—make a forceful decision, keep pressing forward with determination, create top-down transparency. “It’s very basic,” he said. “Leadership 101.”
It reminded me that Leadership 101 is built on military thinking.
But Leadership 101 doesn’t work the same way in our time of ever-evolving change. Leaders who lead by Shooting, Moving, and Communicating are just as likely to shoot themselves in the foot as they are to send their phallic-shaped rocket to the stars. That leadership style is ending/a new version of leadership is beginning.
No, it’s not going to happen all at once. And no, it’s not going to happen universally—there will still be plenty of military-inspired Shoot, Move, and Communicators in 2022 and beyond. There will still be the old narrative that leaders need to provide solutions to be valuable.
But when I look around my world—the professional one, the personal one—I see so many people in the midst of their own processes of gooey reinvention. I have so many clients, friends, role models who are letting their old selves die, even though they haven’t yet fully imagined the new version of the person who will rise in their place.
I can empathize with how disorienting this feels. I can understand that desire to find a solution, that loss of identity, confidence, and value.
If you’re going through something like that, I want to say to you: I get you. Intimately. I’ve been going through something similar myself.
I also want to say: there is a tidal wave of transformation coming to organizations. I can see it on the horizon. The change will go beyond CEOs; the change will start with us.
I also want to say: have hope.
So what do we do about it? I hear you asking. What are the practical solutions? You are supposed to be the expert. After all, you’re the one writing this email.
Certainly, there are many. The NYTimes article lists a few solutions that innovative organizations have embraced: shifting money into crypto, ending office leases, moving to quarterly spring cycles, rather than year-long budgets and plans. Surely, your organization has embraced something like this, even if it’s “just” Zoom.
But the more meaningful change will be the shift in thinking: how we move beyond the old metaphor of a military-style organizations.
The real transformation is the shift in thinking that leads to new forms.
The other night I was having dinner with a friend. We were talking about this subject. She told me she had a hypothesis: in the old world, leaders—mainly white men—were trained from youth to be like mountains. There were imposing, solid, and dependable, able to withstand the most howling storms. This philosophy about what made a leader—and what made a man—was something that was inculcated in these people since birth.
But in the new world, when leaders aren’t mainly white men, we will need to be much more like rivers. Rivers, too, are imposing, solid, and dependable, but in a way that stretches our definition of the word.
I like that metaphor. From mountains to rivers. Start thinking like a river, see how the change flows.
Mountains may seem immense. But rivers transform mountains into Grand Canyons.
What’s ending: the pressure to deliver solutions; the external demand to be perfect and composed; the need to pretend any of us know where this is going.
What’s beginning: continuous evolution; trust during uncertainty; embracing process; one step at a time.
What’s ending: the Story that we’re helpless against chaos, that the whole world is about to end.
What’s beginning: a new Story about fulfillment, creativity, and living in balance. New vision. New hope.
If this all sounds airy-fairy, I want to say: don’t underestimate the tidal wave of this change. Remember how quickly things fell apart in 2020. What if they could come together in a new way just as quickly too?
We’ll be in a much different place at this time next year.
I want to close with three wishes for 2022: for my community, my clients/friends, and for me.
For my community, I wish for the end of health fears and the beginning of trusting uncertainty. Let us all write a more fulfilling story.
For my clients/friends, I wish for the end to feeling powerless and a beginning to finding new power inside of yourself. Let yourself be a leader in our hopeful transformation.
For me, I wish for an end to “performing” success and a beginning to redefining what success and fulfillment means on my own terms. Let’s make the future more sacred.
Those are three wishes that are worth celebrating.
Happy New Year,