Authoring the Definition of You

dictionary

The definition of a brand is more complex than you think. A narrow view of a brand is that it is a name, logo, or other identifying marks that denote the owner or responsible party of a brand. Branding used for these reasons can be traced back to the medieval period. Today, the role of brands has evolved far beyond these functional purposes. A brand concurrently fulfills the roles of:

  • Identity (name, logo, etc. for which brands were originally created)
  • Image (perceptions in the minds of people who come in contact with the brand)
  • Promises (expressed and implied performance attributes associated with a brand)
  • Relationship (connection point between a customer or other person and the entity represented by the brand).

Brand building entails a tug-of-war between brand owner and constituents. Who defines brand meaning? The owner does… but so does the brand’s audience. The goal of brand management is narrowing the gap between how the brand owner wants to be perceived (identity) and how the brand is viewed (image). The wider the gap, the more branding and marketing attention needed.

"Accept no one's definition of your life; define yourself." - Harvey Fierstein quote This week’s One to Grow On quote admonishes us to fiercely protect our brand. Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein suggests it is our obligation to author the definition of our brand. Others will want to do it for you, but their definition could be incomplete or worse, incorrect.

Harvey Fierstein knows something about the importance of defining one’s self. He was one of the first openly gay American actors at a time when few celebrities had come out. Rather than hide or skirt the issue, Fierstein has woven his sexual orientation into his brand. His self-definition comes through in his writing on gay issues and by incorporating gay life into dramas.

The Define Line

Why is Harvey Fierstein’s quote on defining your life (and by extension, your brand) so important? You must keep in mind that your brand will be defined. There is no such thing as anonymity when it comes to your personal brand. Some brands are more distinctive and better known than others, but all brands are defined. The question becomes who will define it?

We live in a world in which people are quick to form judgments about a situation or person. If you have any doubts, scroll through comments on just about any news article posted on Facebook. Sometimes, you wonder if the people making comments read the same article… or whether they read the article at all. Depth of understanding is no obstacle to having an opinion.

This instant reaction environment has huge implications for personal brands. While I loathe the parade of articles and blog posts about the importance of a professional looking photo in one’s social media profiles, the point made is valid. People make judgments about us with no more information than a thumbnail-sized square full of pixels. They surmise our age, form opinions on physical attractiveness, and immediately can have a like-don’t like position.

Although there is much, much more to personal branding than your photo, it is a reminder that you must put in the work to define yourself. If you do not, the world around you will be all too glad to do it for you.

What’s the Definition?

It is imperative that you proactively manage your personal brand. No product or corporate brand manager in their right mind would let their brand be defined however the market wants to define it. The reason for marketing as we know it is to create a process for influencing others’ definition of a brand. Rather than accept others’ definition of you, stake out the position you want. If not, the labels assigned as others judge us will be our defining attributes. Do you want to be known as:

  • Too inexperienced
  • Not assertive enough
  • Lacking the ideal education pedigree
  • Uninteresting
  • Incapable of leading others?

I am hard pressed to think of an instance where any of these labels would promote your personal brand. They are labels handed out by others. Do you want to own them, or do you want to operate the label maker?

Have Fun with It

Take on the challenge to define your brand rather than allowing others to have that privilege. For far too long, efforts I made to define my brand were reactive, even driven by fear. I wanted my brand to be flawless and avoid making mistakes. That was my first mistake! I have gotten over pursuing that unrealistic ideal.

Today, I am having more fun than ever living my brand. It is what it is, and there is a lot of value offered through it. It is not perfect, nor does it have to be.

Learning: Homework Never Ends

books and formulas- we are always learning

The countdown to graduation is on for several of my students. Seniors eagerly anticipate the end of their final semester. Commencement will officially mark their transition from student to their professional life. Some of them are so excited they have countdown apps on their smartphones that remind them how soon until the big event arrives. I can poll a class any given day and find someone who can state the exact number of days, hours, and minutes until the Commencement ceremony. For some students, it must feel like being released from prison. They will no longer have to attend classes, listen to lectures, and take exams. They have been set free from learning.

I hope no graduating student feels that completing their college studies sets them free from learning. Yes, it might relieve them of the obligations of a college student, but their education has only just begun. Daymond John is known as the entrepreneur behind the FUBU fashion brand and regular panelist on the TV show “Shark Tank.” John has sobering news for anyone who thinks their education is almost complete. His directive is simple: Educate yourself every day. Learning is part survival strategy, part positioning strategy.

"The key to success is to educate yourself every day." Daymond John quote.

Learning as Survival Strategy

The need to educate yourself every day is borne out of survival. Your knowledge and skill set will be a significant factor as you compete for jobs and later, for promotions. If your field is changing rapidly, continuing education is not optional. One statistic drives home this point in the marketing profession. A 2013 survey of marketing executives found 76% of them believed marketing had changed more in the two past years than in the past 50. If education is a form of movement or progress in your life, then committing to ongoing education is a must. Otherwise, if you are not moving you will be passed by as the world (and your competition) adapts and grows.

Learning as Positioning Strategy

Think of education as a “get to do” versus a “must do.” Use learning as a means of differentiating your personal brand. In Me: How to Sell Who You Are, What You Do, and Why You Matter to the World, Colby Jubenville and I devote a chapter to building skill set. Many options exist for education, including formal education (e.g., a university degree or certificate program) and self-directed learning (e.g., online courses from Lynda or Udemy). The option(s) selected depend on the skills you need to learn or strengthen. In some cases, a do-it-yourself approach is more than adequate. In other cases, your best option is to enroll in an accredited, established program through an education institution.

Regardless of the type of education delivery you choose, the end result stands to be the same. In the short run, you will acquire skills that set you apart from others in your organization or even your field. In the long run, an ongoing commitment to learning can position you as an expert, a go-to person for an answer to a question or to solve a problem.

Congrats! Now Go Learn More

Although it is not quite graduation season yet, the train is pulling into the station. So, it is not too early to congratulate the Class of 2017 on reaching an education milestone. You have worked hard and persevered. The goal of earning a degree or diploma will be achieved. You have proven you are a learner. Now, it is time to embark on a lifelong journey of learning.

Embrace the challenges you had to conquer along the way as part of your personal brand makeup. They define how you made it through your formal education program. Maybe you worked two jobs on top of a full-time academic load. Perhaps you had to deal with family sickness or even death yet stayed the course to complete the education milestone you have reached. Those chapters in your life are not just part of your history. Allow them to shape who you are going forward along with the benefits from learning. Commit to educating yourself every day as Daymond John encourages us to do.

Change the Plan, Not the Destination

Notes and notebook

Are you a planner, someone who loves coming up with detailed instructions for completing a project or goal? Plans are essential maps that give direction to reaching a desired destination. Without a map (plan), you might reach where you want to go. However, it will be a trip full of uncertainty, and you might end up somewhere other than the intended endpoint.

Plans are essential for goal achievement. Whether you want to lose 10 pounds or run a marathon, you must have a method for getting to the desired outcome. The problem is we can become discouraged when things do not go according to plan. Before you know it, the weight loss goal has been abandoned or we decide to leave marathon running to others. We let flawed plans dictate a change in goals.

This week, reflect on progress toward goals you have set. If you are not moving toward the goal, the problem could be the plan in place. If the plan is not working, rethink the plan before tossing the goal.

If the plan doesn't work, change the plan but never the goal. - Anonymous

The Plan is the Problem…

Lack of progress toward achieving a goal can be discouraging. You see a path to reach a goal, make a plan for goal achievement, but like a nightmare road trip you never arrive. More times than not, the reason for failure to arrive resides in the plan. Possible shortcomings of the plan include:

  • Unrealistic time frame. We underestimate the amount of time needed to effect change or complete tasks needed to reach a goal.
  • Lack of knowledge. A plan might be doomed to fail because of not enough information or experience to craft an effective plan. If you want to start a business but have no experience, your launch plan could be incapable of getting your business idea off the ground.
  • Lack of support. A plan can be sabotaged by others who are less interested in your goals. They may even want you to fail because success would put you ahead of them.

Or It Could Be the Goal

I embrace the spirit of the idea “change the plan but never the goal,” but it could be a situation where avoiding “never” or “always” applies. It is possible that the goal is the problem. If your goal is actually more like a dream, no plan will help you. The commitment to learn, grow, and even fail is probably not there. Other possibilities for a misguided goal could be:

  • It is someone else’s goal. As a college professor, I have encountered many students over the years who selected a major based on their parents’ desires. It is hard to be effective (or happy) when you are pursuing an outcome someone else wants to reach. You have to own a goal to engage in meaningful pursuit of it.
  • It does not align with passion. Your goal might arise from a fantasy-like vision. The idea of writing a book or vision of being an entrepreneur are fun to imagine. The work and rejection involved in those pursuits—not so much. Certain aspects of pursuing a goal can be a turn-off, particularly when you do not have a strong emotional attachment to the goal.
  • It is the wrong goal. You must acknowledge this possibility. Repeated failure or setbacks could be a sign that you are chasing the wrong thing. For example, if you fail a real estate agent exam once you might benefit from changing your plan. Do you need to study more? Use different prep materials? Meet with a mentor? But, if you fail the exam several times it could mean you are not meant to be a real estate agent.

Not So Fast

It would be naive to always stick with a goal no matter what. Sometimes, goal abandonment or revision is necessary. What this week’s One to Grow On quote encourages us to do is not give up on a goal too quickly. We owe it to ourselves to first determine if changing the plan will overcome a setback in pursuing a goal. While giving up or changing goals can seem like the practical thing to do, it can be the wrong thing to do.

A final thought on adapting plans. A mentor can be invaluable in discerning if the reason you are falling short in goal achievement is the plan or the goal itself. You owe it to yourself to get outside perspective.

Time: A Nonrenewable Resource

hourglass

Wow! Look at the calendar. First quarter 2017 has come and gone. In what might seem like a blink of an eye, we will be toasting the arrival of 2018. How are you faring in making progress toward goals or resolutions you set three months ago? Do you feel like you are moving forward or treading water? Lack of progress toward achieving a goal can be frustrating, but it is not something over which we should beat up ourselves. However, failing to manage time is a shortcoming for which we must hold ourselves accountable.

This week, reflect on how you spend your day. Time is a precious resource, one that cannot be extended. Everyone gets the same 24 hours. Benjamin Franklin observed that lost time is just that—lost. Accomplishing more entails becoming a better steward of our precious time resources.

Lost time is never found again.

Where Does Time Go?

Are you proactively managing how you spend time? I often hear the lament “I don’t have time to…” nearly everything under the sun. The missed opportunities include not being able to:

  • exercise
  • read or study
  • nurture relationships
  • do chores or housework
  • get enough rest
  • pray or worship
  • enjoy a hobby

There is a lot we cannot do, at least according to our own version of events.

The activities listed above represent some of the things you want to do or in some cases, must do in the course of a day. Yet, we know all of the “want to” and even some “must do” things do not get crossed off our To Do list. Who or what gets in the way?

  • Ourselves. We are our own worst enemy and main culprit for stealing time. At an extreme, we fail to prioritize how we spend time and wander through the day with no self-discipline. An even worse outcome is that we know how to set priorities, but we do not follow through on the plan. The result is similar in that we fall short of what we are capable of accomplishing.
  • Others. Demands are placed upon us by children, parents, bosses, friends, all of the people important to us. We can manage impositions by saying “no” to requests that compete with existing obligations, that option is not always possible. We must carve out time to serve others.

Resource Management

Effectiveness and time management go hand-in-hand. My ability to get things done is highly correlated with being intentional about how I spend the day. I perform best when I manage time resources at macro and micro levels.

  • Macro. Set goals. I could stop there, but goals are invaluable for giving direction to how I spend time. Goals represent destinations I wish to reach. That information is a starting point for plotting how to get there.
  • Micro. I break down goals into weekly and daily activities to do in pursuit of them. I spend time on Fridays planning the next week. Similarly, I do not want to start a day without a To Do list in hand. Beginning the day by waking up and saying “now what?” is not ideal. Many productivity tools are available; check this list of five such tools. I use Toodledo to keep projects and required tasks organized. It does not matter what you use as long as you have a system in place.

Take Charge

We do not always have control over how we spend time, but we can minimize time controlling us by committing to control that precious nonrenewable resource that is time. Q1 2017 may be gone, but now is the time to head off regret of lost time in Q2 and beyond.

Image credit: Flickr- giulia gasparro, Creative Commons license

Allow Fear to Motivate, not Dominate

winner's medal

March is one of my favorite months of the year. Yes, warmer temperatures and later sunsets signal that summer is around the corner. But, there is something else that excites me about March: the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness has become a fixture in American popular culture. Fan frenzy spills over into restaurants, bars, and yes, even workplaces. The games offer inspiring storylines about teams, players, and coaches. And, the games themselves are high caliber basketball contested by teams all seeking to be crowned national champion.

The all-out effort given by the teams competing in the NCAA basketball tournament comes to mind when reading the quote below from Robert Kiyosaki, an author best known for his book Rich Dad, Poor Dad.

The 68 teams selected for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament should fear losing. Why? The reality is that 67 of the 68 teams will be classified as losers. They will fall short of the ultimate goal of being national champions. Only one team (Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon, or South Carolina), will leave the basketball court on April 3 knowing the excitement of winning this year’s tournament. Yet, watching games over the last 13 days it is clear to me that teams have not feared losing, regardless of their opponent.

Play Now, Lose Later

Teams in the NCAA tournament have impressed me with their determination and refusal to give up no matter the score or situation. As a fan watching games on TV, it is easy to sit on the couch and proclaim “game over” when one team takes a seemingly insurmountable lead. Both teams know a loss means their season is over, yet maximum energy is expended from start to finish. They cannot be bothered right now about the prospect of losing. They play the game with maximum effort. If they win, the thrill of winning is experienced. If they lose, a  sense of “let’s cross that bridge when we get there” is the mindset observed among the teams.

Fear: Healthy and Harmful

Robert Kiyosaki’s quote encourages us to not let fear rule in our pursuit of success. A certain amount of fear can be used to your advantage. The teams in the NCAA basketball tournament know that one loss spells the end of the season regardless of how well they play or how successful the season has been up to that point. Fear of losing can create urgency to perform at peak levels and do so now.

Fear can also be debilitating. It can rob us of the joy found in doing everyday activities, negatively impact performance, and even change our outlook toward probability of success. No one sets out to sabotage themselves by letting fear get in the way of accomplishment. Yet, it happens regularly, and we become our own worst enemy.

Find Joy, Respect Fear

I am grateful for Robert Kiyosaki’s thoughts on balancing the joy of winning with the prospect of losing. Going forward, I want to emulate the intensity and focus shown by teams in the NCAA basketball tournament. They all have played to win, not played to avoid losing. All but one team will lose in the end, but their chase for a championship is not overshadowed by fears about losing. Besides, you do not get to the NCAA basketball tournament without having had your fair share of success. Teams have already felt the joy of winning by making it to the Big Dance.

Learn to Live with “No”

No

The old saying that there are only two things certain in life—death and taxes—should be modified. A third certainty we can expect is rejection. Our world can be turned upside down by a single word: “no.” Thankfully, rejection usually does not inflict emotional pain like death or financial pain like taxes. But, rejection can damage our ego and dent our spirit. Sometimes, rejection stings for only a few minutes, then we move on. Other times, disappointment and anger affect us for years.

Rejection may be a fact of life, but how we deal with rejection can make the difference between bouncing back or getting stuck. This week’s One to Grow On quote from Steve Jobs serves to explain why rejection occurred. Rejection can do less harm to our outlook if we frame a “no” response in a way that maintains proper perspective. Think of Jobs’ statement as a variation of the infamous breakup line “it’s not you, it’s me.” It is less a matter of your shortcomings and more about issues residing with the other person.

Why We Hear “No”

It is a fair reaction to question yourself when rejection happens. Did you say something wrong? Did you offend the other person? What could you have done differently to change the outcome? We can ask these questions and more after the fact. They are part instructional, part therapeutic. You may have a gnawing feeling inside that you could have done something to reach a different outcome. These thoughts are normal, but they will not yield an answer on how the situation could have had a more desirable ending.

When your idea or business proposition is rejected, the root problem is usually traceable to the other person. Some possible reasons for rejection attributable to the other person include:

  • “I don’t care.” The other person is often satisfied with status quo. Your idea would be new in their lives, something with which they can live without having or doing.
  • “I am afraid.” You can be rejected because you rattle cages. The other person is uncomfortable because they know you are right. They need what you are offering, but they are worried about the change they would have to adapt to by accepting your idea.
  • “I am weak.” I doubt anyone would ever cite this reason for rejecting you or your offer, but it could be an underlying problem. They cannot imagine themselves deserving and enjoying the benefits your idea delivers. It is for someone else but surely not them. Their problems run much deeper than anything you said or did.
  • I don’t like you.” I admit it; I was wrong. One reason you hear “no” is personal; the other person does not like you. You are too young (or old), too attractive (or unattractive), too friendly (or aloof), too something for their tastes. Just as a brand like Starbucks does not appeal to all consumers, your personal brand will not resonate with everyone you meet. That fact alone makes rejection normal.

Your Answer to “No”

So how do you respond to rejection? Our comeback to “no” can validate the other person’s beliefs or strengthen our resolve to stay the course. Let’s embrace the latter, shall we? If “no” doesn’t mean I can’t do it, what must I do to take the focus off the rejection? Here are three possible responses.

  • Prove them wrong. Rejection can be a powerful motivator to show someone they were wrong about you or your idea. At the beginning of my academic career, I was passed over for a position at my alma mater. The rejection crushed me at the time, but it also pushed me to become a more productive researcher. I no longer felt the need to prove them wrong once  I realized I could “do my thing” in other places and with other people.
  • Reframe the message. Rejection is not due to an inadequacy about you. The rejection is a perceived lack of need based on information available to the other person. Address this problem by ensuring your message focuses on what is in it for them. People buy ideas because they will make their life better in some way. Some people will still reject an idea positioned as good for them. Others you are losing now could be reached with a clearer answer to the question “what’s in it for me?”
  • Empathize, not sympathize. When people oppose or reject you, do not automatically dismiss them. Understand where they are coming from (empathize), but do not accept their beliefs as your own (sympathize). Who knows—an empathetic response could win them over. At the very least, you maintain beliefs in your idea and can agree to disagree about its utility to them.

A Matter of When

You will be rejected (perhaps even a lot). Rather than playing it safe and avoiding situations in which rejection is possible, understand that a “no” is not about you. More importantly, it is not a verdict against your idea. Rather, it can be a signal to look for opportunity elsewhere.

Choose Your Focus or It Will be Chosen for You

hourglass

Time is the great equalizer. For all of the variation existing in resources such as education, experience, and income, the one resource that you cannot multiply is available time. We all have 24 hours in a day with which to accomplish how much (or how little) we want to do. Moreover, time has the upper hand in our lives as we do not know when time will be called and life on earth is over. Time is clearly a precious yet finite resource. Time scarcity makes choices about how we focus our attention and thoughts all the more important.

The One to Grow On quote this week is simple, but it is a message that I often need to be reminded to follow. It is a call to make a priority of people and situations that are truly important and recognize the rest for what they are—less important.

I came across this quote at a time when some of my co-workers were hurting. They did not tell me they were hurting, but they did not have to say a word. Setbacks occurred in projects in which they were heavily invested. They had a right to be disappointed, frustrated, and even angry. It saddened me to see them dejected. It also saddened me to see them stewing in so much negative energy for situations that do not matter much in the big picture.

Recognize the Distractions

It is not too difficult to become ensnared with issues and situations that do not matter much in the long run. We do not set out to do let small matters rob us of growth opportunities, yet that is exactly what can happen. We fixate on small things that do not go as we want, dragging us down to the point it impairs our ability to work on big things. You can cite many explanations for succumbing to these distractions:

  • You want to do right. If you have strong beliefs about how an issue or project should be handled, you may feel led to get involved to do something about it. But, if the outcome does not go your way the personal investment you made can feel like a loss.
  • You want to win. Sometimes, our competitive spirit overcomes us, and we take on a non-priority project or issue because we seek the satisfaction of being on the “right” side of the outcome.
  • You forget there is more than one way. Becoming sidetracked with matters that are not related to your true priorities can occur because we think we have the best solution. You may have the best solution, but is it an issue worth your investment, or will someone else’s solution suffice?
  • You welcome the distraction. If you regularly become distracted by low priority issues and projects, are you seeking them out as diversions? Shifting your focus to tackle a project that is low priority might feel good to you. Perhaps you justify the diversion by convincing yourself it must be handled… by you. The unintended effect can be you spread yourself too thin, causing more important projects to suffer.

Goals = Focus

How can we avoid falling into a dark hole of anger and discontent when something does not go our way? Set goals. Priorities are established when goals are in place. They give focus to how to spend your time, attention, and even your money. Pursuing those outcomes that will contribute to your growth leaves little room for distractions in the form of unimportant issues to creep in to your life.

In the book Me: How to Sell Who You Are, What You Do, and Why You Matter to the World, Colby Jubenville and I devote a chapter to setting goals. The practice of personal branding is pointless without having clearly defined outcomes. In Me, we urge setting goals for different life parts. We are not one-dimensional beings, and your goals should reflect your varied interests. The life parts for which goals can be set include:

  • Career
  • Relationships
  • Wellness
  • Spiritual
  • Financial
  • “Bucket list”

When you set goals for multiple life parts, you set priorities for what is important to you and in turn, demands your focus. You will be too busy to be dragged down by the minutiae of low priority or non-priority matters.

Short Indeed

We are wired for accomplishment. The thrill of achievement is one of the greatest feelings we experience. Realizing achievement and success in the right areas can be easier said than done. Resolve to focus on what matters most and let go of what doesn’t. Life is short, and time is limited. Decide what your priorities will be and enjoy the journey of pursuing goals.

Your Outlook Determines Your Outcome

starry sky

When our oldest son, Chris, was seven years old, he played on a baseball team… a bad baseball team. I know, at that age it should be all about having fun. Parents were not having much fun, though, as the team struggled to improve. The low point of the season was a 19-0 blowout loss. I dreaded the ride home- how would I console my child who had just been on the wrong end of a resounding defeat?

The game is memorable because of something Chris blurted out from the back seat. He exclaimed “that was a great game!” My wife and I looked at each other wondering what game he was talking about. It couldn’t have been the one he just played! Yet, in his mind it was a great game. He never explained why he felt that way, but I am glad he did. Chris’s outlook determined the outcome of the game in terms of its impact on him. Others were keeping score, but he felt a different outcome because of a different view of what made for a great game.

Oscar Wilde quote

Life in the Gutter

I often think of that lopsided defeat Chris’s baseball team experienced and his refreshing take on the outcome. Chris’s outlook is echoed in the words of playwright and poet Oscar Wilde. We are all in the gutter, perhaps not all the time, but we face adversity and setbacks that place us in that gutter. Sometimes, we wonder if it is possible to get up and out of the gutter- a lost job, failed relationship, or unsuccessful business venture- and some people take up residence there.

It is helpful to realize that falling into the gutter is normal and is not a matter of your life being jinxed. They say two things in life are certain: death and taxes. We should add a third thing to the list because adversity will land your doorstep. There is nothing akin to an ad blocker or do-not-call list to keep adversity out of your life. You will take up residence in the gutter. The frequency of visits and length of stay will depend largely on your outlook toward the situation.

Gutter Talk

What is the deciding factor in how things turn out when you find yourself in the gutter of adversity? Your outlook on the situation. As much as you might want to blame a boss, a bully, or the government for your woes, none of them will pull you out of the gutter. No one else has more at stake for you to bounce back than you.

The gutter can be a slimy, unpleasant place. I want out as soon as I realize I’m there. The content of your self-talk can be the difference between looking at the stars or getting acclimated to your surroundings in the gutter. I find three reminders helpful to help pull me out of the gutter:

  1. Being in the gutter is normal. I would be more concerned about someone if they told me they had never faced adversity or felt like they were in the gutter. If you never find yourself in the gutter, you are not trying hard enough!
  2. I’ve been here before. Since being in the gutter is normal, you should expect to find yourself there from time to time. It is an acknowledgement that is easier to make the older and more experienced you are. You can recall setbacks and remember you were able to overcome them.
  3. I have control over when I get out. This point can be the hardest to accept. And, it can also be the hardest to implement. Realizing adversity is normal and that you have felt it before takes self-awareness. Buying in to the idea you have control over managing the effects of the adversity you face is more challenging. Unfortunately, in extreme cases some people refuse to believe they have control. Someone or something wants to keep them down; trying to fight it is futile.

Embrace the Gutter

The words of Oscar Wilde will come to mind anytime I find myself in the gutter of adversity. Being there is not uncommon, but I have an opportunity to craft a unique response to the adversity. It will not only free me, but the response to adversity will shape my personal brand story. While I don’t seek out chances to wallow in the gutter, I will not be fearful when it happens, either. Open your eyes, look up toward the stars, and see the possibilities beyond the adversity.

Curiosity: The Seeds of Talent

curiosity

How do you see yourself? Is the way you see the person in the mirror the same as how the world sees you? Sometimes, a wide gulf exists between perception and reality. A very smart person reminded me of this difference. That smart person was Albert Einstein. He once said “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

If Einstein had no special talents, is there any hope for the rest of us? His name is synonymous with intelligence, scientific rigor, and talent. Yet, in his mind he had no special talents. One of the most distinctive personal brands to walk the earth was not lacking in talent, as he suggested. But, he possessed a greater gift that led him to accomplishment: curiosity.

 Why Curiosity Matters

All great accomplishment comes from an unease or dissatisfaction with the status quo. We question whether things could be different or better. Then, if the discomfort is significant enough we embark on a journey to come up with a solution. Alternatively, we could turn away from the current situation and let it remain as is. Growth requires a willingness to accept risk; curiosity is a form of self-permission to pursue accomplishment.

Curiosity is at the root of this transformation. If we are unwilling to question why we accept things as they are, what an alternative would look like, and how to get to that alternative state, we will continue to reside in a comfort zone. The digs are nice, but who knows, we could be in a much nicer “neighborhood” if we allow curiosity to work for us.

Build Curiosity Muscle

Can you become better at allowing curiosity spark personal growth? I hope so because using curiosity to spur growth is a personal weakness of mine. Years of conforming to rules and systems will do it to you. Conformity and curiosity can be at odds sometimes. It is a relief to realize curiosity can become a personal growth tool rather than a liability.

I recently read an article on curiosity by Donald Latumahina. In the article, he discusses why being curious is an important personal trait and how you can develop it. Four tips for becoming more curious stood out:

  1. Keep an open mind. This practice can be harder to follow today as we can fall into an echo chamber of reading and listening to like-minded people. Embrace other perspectives if for no other reason than to deepen your understanding of other people.
  2. Don’t take things for granted. “It has always been done this way” is not the best justification or guideline. Be willing to consider if there is a better way.
  3. Ask questions. Make questions of Why? When? Where? What? more prominent in your vocabulary. I wrote a post on the importance of asking questions in our personal growth. Leveraging curiosity is one of the most important roles asking questions can play.
  4. Learn from different sources. We can deepen our understanding of the world around us and spark curiosity by broadening our information sources. Don’t limit learning to the same newspapers, magazines, or websites. Moreover, don’t limit learning to sources from one field or industry. If you are an accountant, make a point to read works about architecture. We can learn from other fields and question assumptions we make about our own field.

Grant Permission

What I learned from reflecting on the role of curiosity in personal growth is simple: I must give myself permission to be curious. You have heard the saying “curiosity killed the cat.” That thought does little to encourage curiosity. Although some people may be naturally more curious than others about the world around them, the good news is we are not limited to a natural inclination to be curious. We must overcome indifference and apprehension and be open to what we can learn about people and the world around us.

Questions, Questions, Questions—Keep Asking

The answer to creating a better life depends on the questions you ask.

Questions

My wife, Sara, has been my better half for thirty years. She has many admirable qualities, but one that I often observe is her penchant for asking questions. Sometimes, I do not perceive it as a desirable trait, such as having to explain that it is a penalty when a defensive back wraps his arms around a wide receiver before the ball arrives… even though the defender’s job is to tackle the offensive player. Doesn’t everybody know that? Of course not, but when we forget to walk in someone else’s shoes we lack empathy and awareness of others.

When I read a quote from personal growth expert Tony Robbins recently, it changed my view about the questions people ask. All questions matter regardless of depth or perceived importance, at least to the person asking them. Questions serve valuable roles in our life, and instead of questioning the questions we should be thankful they are asked. Moreover, we should consider how asking questions can spur personal growth.

Tony Robbins quote on questions

Why We Must Ask Questions

It only took thirty years, but I now understand why my wife asks the questions that she poses about football, current events, and more. And, the reason has nothing to do with ignorance or lack of knowledge. We ask questions to raise our quality of life, as Tony Robbins states. Asking questions is not an indicator of inadequacy. Rather, a willingness to ask questions means we are open to growth.

Asking questions powers growth in three ways:

  1. Questions fill in the blanks. It is impossible and unrealistic to think we can know everything we need to know to get by in daily life. Differences in upbringing, environment, experiences, and more mean we have knowledge gaps. We simply have not been exposed to all that there is to know. Questions are a natural vehicle for closing knowledge gaps. My wife says she asks questions for this reason. She has a curiosity that she seeks to overcome, and asking questions is the ideal way to make it happen.
  2. Questions challenge our assumptions. Asking questions aids in understanding our beliefs about the boundaries in which we operate. Not asking questions could lead to us accepting things as they are… but they could be better. One of my favorite stories related to this point is about a family gathering in which the women of the family are cooking a meal. One of the women prepare a ham to put in the oven. They cut off the end of the ham. When questioned by her daughter why she always cuts off the end of the ham, the mother responds “because my mother always did it.” Well, her mother was there, so the reason for this practice could be uncovered. The mother’s answer? “I cut the end off because my mother always does it.” The matriarch was in the room, so she, too, was asked this question. The secret was finally revealed: “I cut off the end of the ham because my pan is too small.” Failing to ask questions could lead to us continuing to cutting off the end of the ham, not really knowing why we do it.
  3. Questions move us beyond status quo. Once we challenge assumptions by asking questions about why things happen, we can ask more questions to effect change and in turn, growth. Returning to the family gathering, the aha moment when everyone learns the end of the ham is cut off because the baking pan is too small should lead to follow-up questions. Is there a reason we never got a larger pan? What size pan do we need? What options are available? Answering these questions could lead to taking action… and discontinuing the practice of cutting off part of the ham.

What Holds Us Back

Given the benefits of asking questions, shouldn’t we be posing more of them? Unfortunately, we often pass on the chance to ask and as a result miss growth opportunities. As I think about it, I let far too many chances to ask questions slip away. It helps no one and negatively affects quality of life as Tony Robbins suggests. What is holding me back?

  1. Pride. One of the biggest deterrents to personal growth is pride. How can that be, you might wonder. Why would anyone stand in the way of his or her own development? It can happen when we are too proud to admit we do not know very much. Instead, we should adopt a mindset of if we do not know, ask.
  2. Indifference. Another obstacle to asking questions that we foolishly erect is indifference. We do not know something, but we have survived just fine so far without knowing. So, why bother asking questions? Yes, I may be able to live in blissful ignorance, but at some point that crumbles as a personal development strategy.
  3. Fear. In contrast to the laziness associated with pride and indifference, fear of asking questions relates to what we might have to do based on answers to questions we have avoided asking. Will I expose a glaring weakness I must confront? Am I going to have to admit inadequacies that make it difficult, if not impossible, to reach goals? We must be brave enough to ask questions of ourselves regardless of how uncomfortable answers could make us feel.

No Question about Questions

I have reflected on Tony Robbins’s quote several times since first reading it. That one sentence has changed how I look at asking and answering questions. We give ourselves permission to , learn, understand, and grow when we ask questions. It is one aspect of our growth for which we are in charge. We do not need permission to ask questions, nor are we limited in the number of questions to pose… no question about it!