Leaving P&G… Writing the Next Chapter

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My Procter & Gamble story started almost exactly 19 years ago, as a junior at Ohio University, while attending a free lunch (proving that there actually is such a thing). P&G’s Chief Technology Officer was on campus and invited a handful of students for a discussion where, I later learned, he was trying to determine whether or not to recruit chemical engineers from O.U. Never one to turn down a free meal, I graciously accepted the invitation, enjoyed a nice conversation over some Mexican food, and passed along my resume. I never dreamed that this serendipitous meeting on the beautiful red brick campus in Athens, Ohio would become the opening act for my almost two decade long adventure with deodorants, shampoos, and the vast world of beauty care. Yet three months later, I found myself as a summer intern at the Sharon Woods Technical Center in rural Cincinnati, and began filling the pages of my career.

From there, the halls of P&G opened up worlds of possibilities that I had never even considered as a young chemical engineer. While I had expected to find myself in the lab working with chemicals and in a plant scaling up new technologies, I instead became fascinated by consumer psychology, holistic product design, and commercial messaging. I spent countless hours in focus groups, in the homes of consumers, in conversations with beauty editors, and in stores trying to uncover insights, ideas, and desired consumer experiences. I quickly learned the critical importance of not only designing products with superior functional benefits but also with delightful experiences. I even went to school part-time to get my MBA, so that I could better understand the tools of story-telling, selling, and strategy to insure that our innovations reached their full potentials.

And throughout those years, I had the good fortune to experience the pinnacle of success with some disruptive innovation, but also the character-building disappointment of a market failure. I traveled to many of the richest countries in the world designing beauty products for the prestigious upper class, and also hiked through impoverished rural villages in India, China, and Brazil attempting to find health and hygiene solutions for families surviving on less than a dollar per day. I even uncovered an unknown love for writing and storytelling that first began permeating my work in concept and product design, and then ultimately led to the publication of my first innovation book, Agents of Change.  Every day was a new adventure, and I found myself hooked on all aspects of designing and marketing innovative products to delight consumers around the world.

Yet my greatest joy came from my opportunities to partner with, to lead, and to coach so many talented and passionate individuals. People ask me all the time what I think P&G’s greatest strength is, and my answer unquestionably is the company’s ability to hire some of the most creative, collaborative, and committed people in the world. It always amazes me not just how much intelligence and wisdom resides within the offices and cubicles, but also how much passion and dedication. The willingness to teach and to share knowledge, the drive to uncover rich consumer insights and new breakthrough technologies, and the work ethic and sheer will to deliver quality and speed truly make P&G people special. It is easy to define P&G by its billion dollar brands, its breakthrough innovations, and its financial numbers… but what truly sets this company apart is its people.

So all that said, why leave? It has been a gut-wrenching decision process and one with which I have been wrestling for quite some time. While the entirety of my time at P&G has been an amazing ride, it is true that the past several years have been trying.  I have never stopped enjoying my time fighting the good fight with such brilliant friends and colleagues and I am nothing but proud of the body of work that we have produced.  But as P&G has gone through a constant barrage of challenges, transitions, and cultural shifts, this great organization has seen the departure of many respected, inspiring leaders, has allowed talented individuals to become mired in slowed and convoluted career paths, and at times falls into an atmosphere driven by fear of the costs of failure rather than by a courage to invest in success. The talented, passionate, and driven employees who remain are still fighting the good fight and committed to making the magic happen… but the path has become more arduous. And moving forward, my greatest call to action for the leaders and future leaders of P&G is a critical re-investment in a culture that challenges, that empowers, that enables, that rewards, and that retains its top talent.

Yet, while this struggle may have been a catalyst in my leaving, it is by no means the cause. I leave P&G not only proud to have spent my entire adult life with the company, but also confident that the ship will be righted. The truth is that I have reached a point in my life where I now feel an intense calling to close the book on this first act and to start writing a new chapter. As I have learned more about myself and of what is important to me, the call to embark on a new adventure has become increasingly loud. An innate desire has grown to take my talent for innovation, my passion to create, and my love to continuously try new things, and to make it an even greater part of my day-to-day work. Thus, I am running toward a new opportunity rather than away from an old one.

To start this next chapter, I am excited to be joining Upstream 360 as the Director of Innovation. There, I will serve as an innovation expert and consult with teams and individuals around the globe to translate ideas into concepts, concepts into prototypes, and prototypes into executions. And while on one hand this feels like a dramatic change from my time with Procter & Gamble, on the other it feels like a logical next step to build on my past and to begin writing the next page. And while I am beyond excited to begin this next phase of the journey, I am grateful, reflective, and sad to leave behind such amazingly talented and passionate colleagues and friends.

Finally, to bring this story full circle I spent my final weekend as a P&G employee back at Ohio University reflecting on my closing thoughts from that same beautiful campus where the journey began. So to close this chapter, I have tried to capture some key nuggets of insight that I have learned over these 19 years. It is impossible to cover everything, but I have included my top thoughts that have played a huge part in my story and may be able to provide an idea or two for yours.

Faster Horses

The consumer is boss.  That is a key phrase that echoes through the halls of P&G and is one in which I wholeheartedly agree.  No matter what function or level we hold, we must get to know our consumers, through attending research, going to their homes, and shopping where they shop.  At the end of the day, our job is to create a successful business through improving consumers’ lives and through providing them with delightful experiences. That said… like any “boss”, consumers don’t necessarily always know how to ask for what they want. To quote Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses'”.  It is our job to recognize the key insights and benefits that are important and to design solutions that meet the consumer’s needs- not by simply following their requests verbatim.  For example, if a consumer asks for a bigger gas tank, we can give them better fuel efficiency… meeting their needs in a new and innovative way beyond what they might imagine.

The Power of Holistic Design

I stated previously that I have been a part of some very successful launches, but also a significant failure.  Looking back, the key difference between the two was in how effectively we delivered a holistically designed proposition.  One of the first projects of my career was to design and launch Old Spice Cool Contact Refreshment Towels.  These essentially were scented body wipes for dudes, and represented a new benefit and habit for consumers in the category.  We had high hopes for this proposition as our concept and product testing demonstrated outstanding potential, and we knew that we were effectively satisfying an unmet consumer need.  However, when the product launched, it failed to connect with consumers and was very quickly discontinued.  Why?  We failed to communicate the benefits and the education in our package design, at shelf, and via our commercialization.  So consumers who sought the on-demand refreshment benefit were unaware that a product had launched to satisfy it. We designed a product that consumers wanted and needed, but didn’t present it in a way that allowed them to easily find and understand it.  (Note: even 15 years after its discontinuation, this product is still being sold on eBay and Amazon, proving that there are still loyal consumers seeking the product benefit!) On the contrary, a successful example was in our launch of Secret Clinical Strength.  In this case, we comprehensively executed a product experience, a package design, and a commercial strategy that holistically pulled it all together.  This launch thus ultimately delighted countless consumers and became a huge, lasting success.  Successful innovation must do more than just deliver a benefit… it must holistically communicate a story across all elements of the product, package, and commercial experience.

First “Wow”, Then “How”

Especially in rooms of engineers and scientists, it is easy to start focusing effort on what is actionable rather than on what is ideal.  To create truly awe-inspiring innovation, it is important to understand first the desired consumer experience, regardless of cost and time implications, and then to determine what is possible.  It is far easier to take something amazing and make it actionable that to take something actionable and then to add the bells and whistles to make it amazing.  Every example in my career of breakthrough product performance, from Secret Clinical Strength Antiperpsirants to Pantene Dreamcare Shampoos, started with defining something that was delightful but impossible and only then finding a way to make it possible.

Bring the Tiger into the Room

One of the stories that I tell most often is that of Joe Rohde, an imagineer at Disney, and his quest to create the Animal Kingdom theme park.  After being rejected multiple times by Disney’s leadership (“Disney doesn’t do zoos”), Rohde boldly walked a live tiger into the board room and filled everyone’s hearts with awe, wonder, and magic.  The project was approved and Animal Kingdom became the largest zoo in the world.  With my groups at P&G, we often encouraged our teams to “Bring the Tiger” in an effort to provide a tangible prototype to explain an idea, a concept, or a design.  For example, when we took on the urgent project to upgrade our Pantene package, the team used spray paint, ribbon, and other various arts and crafts to quickly take ideas off the page and to allow us to assess them on the shelf.  A prototype is worth 1,000 ideas, and “bringing the tiger” early and often takes something abstract and shows tangibly how it can come to life.

Never Doubt the Power of a Small, Empowered Team.

With very few exceptions, when I talk to people about their most successful innovations their stories go something like this, “We were a small, empowered, under-the radar team, and nobody thought our project was going to be successful.  We were scrappy and creative about making prototypes and getting data, and were free to learn and to experiment.  When we emerged with a winning proposition, we shocked everyone… and the program went on to be more successful than other higher-profile and higher-scrutinized innovation programs.”   Where we are at our best, is when we allow these small and mighty teams to control their own destinies on a passionate pursuit of “Wow”.  So many examples from my career played out this way that we tried to institutionalize the formation of “5-in-a-box” teams with a cross-functional ensemble of roughly 5 passionate people to make the magic happen.  Whether it be a rapid upgrade to the Secret deodorant line, the creation and launch of a dry shampoo, or the scrappy launch of the Old Spice Hair line, a key component was the camaraderie of small, empowered teams that were able to be quick and agile to deliver breakthrough results.  It is critical that we empower our teams, give them freedom to take risks, and encourage them to beg forgiveness rather than to ask permission.

Unleash the Real-Life Superheroes

The key theme of my book, Agents of Change, is in unleashing the untapped innovative superpowers of the real-life heroes within our organizations.  We hire the most amazingly talented and hungry people in the world, yet often they feel under-utilized, bogged down with bureaucracy, or mired with the mundane.  When we were at our best in designing breakthrough innovation, turning around struggling businesses, or developing superior stories, it was largely because we were deliberate to create a culture of risk-taking, to encourage individuals to take on passion projects, and to empower teams to challenge the status quo. For good measure, we even wore superhero t-shirts on Fridays as we walked the vaulted halls of Procter & Gamble… a habit I plan to maintain long into the future.  Through encouraging “rebellion” to unleash these powers, we were able to help each other find personal fulfillment, to drive better innovation, and to improve lives (others and our own).

Finally… Remember that “It’s Just Soap”

While it is critical to be passionate about our jobs, it is possible to take it too far. Too high of an emotional investment can lead to irrational decisions in regard to initiative work, interpersonal relationships, and, importantly, work-life balance.  While what we do is important both to consumers and to our own financial well-being, “It’s Just Soap” and we need to make sure “not to take ourselves too damn seriously”. (paraphrased from Benjamin Zander).

 

I cannot fully express how thankful I am for the opportunity to partner with, to learn from, and to befriend so many amazing individuals over these 19 years, and I am truly grateful for all of the experiences.  While I may no longer carry a P&G badge, I will be forever cheering on the company from my new desk, and will continue looking for breakthrough and superior products and stories each time I go to the store.  I am thankful for this chapter of my story, excited for the next, and most of all grateful for all of the characters who have brought life to the pages.


 

Check out my book, Agents of Change, inspired heavily by my 19 years at P&G.  It is available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

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Going Rogue

I am a huge Star Wars fan, and for almost all of my 4 decades much of my daydreaming time has been spent in a galaxy far, far away.  The instant that tickets went on sale for the upcoming new film, Rogue One, I was online purchasing them for myself and for my kids─ and we will be heading to the theater in Force on opening night.  Unlike all of the previous Star Wars movies, which have focused on the Skywalker family and their epic heroism, this one is different.  This movie will instead star the rebels, the role players, and the misfits who chose to “go rogue” behind the scenes to set the stage for one of the most profoundly heroic moments in movie history.  We all know the tale of Luke Skywalker, who started the original Star Wars movie as a simple farmboy on a remote, desert planet, and ended it receiving a medal after mystically destroying the most intimidating battle station ever built… the Death Star.  A small but important part of the backstory of that tale was that a small band of rebels risked everything to go undercover and to steal the plans for this Death Star that ultimately enabled Luke Skywalker to complete his amazing adventure.  Rogue One tells their story.

When I first learned of this film, I was excited but also skeptical.  Much of what I have loved about Star Wars from my youth has been that dream of rising from obscurity, learning of some unique magical powers, and ultimately becoming the hero who saves the universe.  I think in life, we all yearn for some of that… to have some untapped superpower unleashed and to be the one standing on the podium receiving a medal at the end of the story.  So a movie about the “common folks”, those not named Skywalker or Solo, is a much different endeavor.  We know that this band of rebels won’t be the ones to actually destroy the Death Star, to defeat the Empire, and to ultimately become legends in the universe.  However… if not for their roles in the saga, then none of the iconic, legendary stories that we all know and love would have ever come to be.

When I wrote my book, Agents of Change, I was inspired by finding ways to unleash the untapped superpowers within individuals and within organizations… in many cases to help them to “Go Rogue”. It is easy to get caught up in dreaming of and judging ourselves against those medal-wearing, Death Star-exploding moments that are so few and far between.  We may, at times, feel like failures, even in the midst of an otherwise successful life and career, because we don’t see ourselves as the heroes that we had dreamed of becoming.  We judge ourselves by the medals, the acclaim, and the celebrity that we fail to achieve and glaze over all of the scrappy hard work, human impact, and unsung accomplishments that we do achieve. That is not to say that we should cease in striving for epic success.  Rather, we should more deliberately focus our passion, our energy, and our powers on finding our unique adventures… and Forcefully throw ourselves into them. Instead of holding ourselves back because of the superpowers and the opportunities that we don’t have, we should unleash and leverage the ones that we do.

And in truly realizing our own full potentials, we must embrace the fact that we will likely need to “Go Rogue”.  When we get caught up in judging ourselves by the expectations of society, parents, organizational norms, friends, social media, etc., we can put our own dreams and superpowers aside and attempt to be what is expected rather than what is inherent.  We can find ourselves reaching for goals that others deem to be important rather than fulfilling our own passions and ideals.  We can get bogged down and constrained by rules and restrictions that we are too scared to break or to fly around.  It takes courage and strength to veer from this path of least resistance, but only in doing so can we fully deliver the role in the universe that we are uniquely designed to play.  I have previously written that the three key barriers that stand in the way of our achieving our missions and our legacies are Ego, Clutter, and Fear of Failure.  We need to rebel against these barriers and place our mission above our ego, focus on what truly matters most, and risk failure in order to find true success.  And in doing so, maybe we will be THE hero at the end of the story or maybe not.  But we certainly will endeavor upon the adventures for which we were made, help some others to reach their own podiums, and unleash our full Force on the world.  And… we will better learn to appreciate those behind-the-scenes role players in our own lives who help us along our own adventures and successes.

So as I sit and watch Rogue One on Opening Night, I look forward to celebrating the story of the rebels who paved the way for my favorite “superhero” of all time, Luke Skywalker, to rise from obscurity and to save the universe.  And while I may never become a Jedi Knight myself (although I haven’t yet given up hope), I will continue to strive to go rogue and to focus on my role in this epic adventure of life.

Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Be Thankful for the Present

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Thanksgiving is easily my favorite holiday of the year.  To me, It is more of what the celebration of Christmas should be─ a time to say “Thanks, God”, while sharing fellowship, food, and fun with family and friends.  (And this year, throw in a Steelers’ football game in the evening to just round out the perfect holiday!).  Sure… there is an overindulgence of turkey, dessert, and drink, but it is more about the spirit of sharing and being grateful for the moment than it is a spirit of shopping and exchanging of “stuff”.  Thanksgiving is not about presents, but rather about being thankful for the present.

This opportunity to be fully immersed in the present moment is not one to be taken for granted.  It is so easy to get caught up in dwelling on the past or dreaming of the future that we can neglect what is real and right in front of us.  This year has been one of heavy reflection for me personally.  A friend called it a mid-life crisis, but I prefer to think about it as a mid-life awakening.  Marketing.

I’ve become very conscious of time… the expired past that I can’t get back, the omnipresent ticking of each moment, and the awareness that time itself is becoming a limited resource.  It’s like I am having a “Scrooge” moment, as my ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are all haunting my thoughts and dreams.  This is especially unusual for me, as I am naturally wired to just drive full speed ahead… spending far more time racing toward all of the future’s possibilities and little to no time looking at the rearview mirror (or even keeping my eyes on the road in the present).  This driving metaphor may explain why I get so many speeding tickets.

And it’s not just me.  I feel this sense of restlessness all around me as it seems like we are all somewhat spiraling out of control.  Whether it is because we are running toward something, fleeing away from something, or just quickly spinning I don’t know… but it is truly hard to just be present in the moment.  Maybe I’m just getting a little dramatic in my “old age”, becoming inflicted with a new sentimentality, or just growing in the awareness of how precious each moment should be.  I guess it doesn’t really matter… what does matter is that there is too much time spent trying to manipulate a future that is uncontrollable, changing a past that is immovable, or even just distracted by the constant noise… that far too little is spent immersed in the moment.

So my call to action this Thanksgiving is as follows:  “Turn everything off and just enjoy the moment.  Don’t check your email, ignore Black Friday, and put away the smartphone.  Forget about yesterday, don’t worry about tomorrow, and just be.  Put politics aside, ignore the “to do list”, and eat, drink, and be merry.  Be thankful for all of our blessings, our loved ones, and our freedom.  And Go Steelers.”

I will tell you that when I started writing this post, this is not where I thought it would end up.  Maybe this is the result of my attempt to simply write in the moment or maybe it is the rambling words of a divergent mind in mid-life crisis / awakening.  Regardless, I truly wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings, that you enjoy the company of family and friends, and that you give yourself and your loved ones the gift of being present.

 

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com (ironically on sale now for Black Friday :))

 

Veteran’s Day Poem… from my Daughter


After a tumultuous week in America, my 11-year old daughter Mara was chosen to be part of a Veteran’s Day presentation at her school.  She had the opportunity to take the podium and share a poem that she wrote, and her words touched the hearts of many so as a proud dad I am honored to shared it with you here.  Enjoy the poem and God bless!

Veterans Day Poem

by Mara Thomas

Weary soldiers, tired from the fight,

Are just about to sleep one night.

A comrade runs into the bunks,

He says “You can pack your trunks!

The fight is over! The war is done!

You can go home, everyone!”

 

The long ride home, the unbearable wait,

Away from war, away from hate.

To something waited on for years,

Back to hopes, away from fears.

Back to the place you call your own,

Back to the one, the only, home.

 

They greet their families with great cheer,

Their excitement is more than clear.

They talk and laugh throughout the night,

But never once about the fight.

This day they feared they’d never see,

The war is over, the country free.

 

The sparkling eyes that laugh tonight

Not long ago were filled with fright.

These brave people will not be the same,

But they have helped our country gain

The greatest thing we could ever need,

They gave us freedom, yes indeed.

The Roller Coaster Effect

roller-coaster-effect

When I was a kid, I suffered from a severe case of roller coaster anxiety.  In the days leading up to a family vacation at an amusement park, I would get excited about the prospect of riding some crazy, new roller coaster and would psyche myself up for the adventure ahead.  I would mentally forge an internal contract to overcome my fears, to stand in line, and to then buckle up for the twists and turns and the ups and downs.  And then the moment would come when I was looking up at the Goliath before me, and that courage would escape me. I would break my internal contract, tear up, and walk back to the safer and smaller rides.  Now as a parent (who has grown to love all sorts of thrill rides), I see this same effect in my kids as I try to compel them to come along with me for the ride.  The strongest desire, plan, or ambition can be broken down by the intimidating sight of the tangible monstrosity of the challenge… The Roller Coaster Effect.

I’ve seen this same effect as I’ve taken on various challenges in my life… it can be in the “big” events like starting a new job, writing a book, or moving away from a hometown, or it can be in the everyday events like starting a small project at home, writing a short blog post, or moving out of my comfort zone.  Sometimes although the mind is willing, the spirit just isn’t ready.  It might be a fear of the unknown, an anxiety of embarrassment, or the avoidance of failure… so that when faced with the actual moment to step on the ride, we sabotage our own ambitions with an exaggerated sense of dread.  While we have imagined ourselves ready for the challenge, the steepness of reality ends up drastically changing our perception.

With Election Day coming next week, I think this Roller Coaster Effect is a strong driver of why this presidential race is so hard to predict.  There are likely more voters than ever before who will step up to the ballot box and not truly know which side of the ballot they will mark until the finality of the moment is before them.  They want to do the right thing, are scared of making a wrong choice, and won’t truly know how they will respond until they are forced to put a choice “in writing”.  While there are tons of stresses on this Election Day, this Roller Coaster Effect is heightening the impact both for the individuals affected directly as well as for those waiting to see who chooses which “ride”.

In so many cases in life, we do not truly know how we will respond to a big, hairy, audacious challenge until the moment is tangibly present. Furthermore, in all the examples listed above, there is at least some sort of concrete deadline… a finite time to make a choice to go for it or to retreat knowing that the moment will pass.  But the scarier situations are the ones in which there is no deadline─ when the pressure of the goal is omnipresent and the easiest response is to continuously procrastinate taking the leap, thus defaulting to a long slow failure to ride.

For the sake of this example, let’s assume that we ultimately do want to overcome our anxieties and experience the thrill of the roller coaster. So what are some ways to Overcome the Roller Coaster Effect?

  • Embrace the Fear: I think we often have some expectation that we need to first overcome and eliminate our fear, so that we can then fearlessly pursue our goal.  Fear is not a sign of weakness.  It is proof that we are trying something bold, stretching, and growthful.  Bravery isn’t about the absence of fear, but rather the courage to act in its presence.  Expect fear.  Embrace it.  And prepare to build the strength to push through it.
  • Set a Deadline: Particularly if you are a born procrastinator like myself, it is critical to set a deadline for accomplishing the mission.  Especially when it comes to making a life change or pursuing some crazy dream, it is far too easy to hide our scary goals in a box and to slowly procrastinate our way to failure by inactivity.  Not making a choice is the same as choosing “No”… it is just a longer, more drawn out and ultimately excruciating process.  Set a deadline and deliberately choose “Go” or “No Go”, and don’t let the easy allure of procrastination choose for you.
  • Find a Mentor: There are very few “roller coasters” in life that someone out there hasn’t already found a way to conquer.  It is easy to feel alone in the internal struggle to push past our own fears, but the truth is that there are experienced people out there who are eager and willing to help.  This may be someone close to you today, someone from your past, or someone out there you haven’t yet met, but finding a person who has been down a similar road before can help you map the course, watch out for pitfalls, or even hold your hand along the journey.
  • Look the Real Roller Coaster in the Eye: Make it real.  In previous posts I have talked about “Bringing the Tiger into the Room”… it is one thing to commit to a hypothetical but quite another to react to reality. A few years back, I set a goal to run a Sprint Triathlon, but had never swam competitively (or even effectively) and didn’t actually own a bike.  My initial pursuit of this goal consisted of running through internet research, biking slowly around the track of procrastination, and swimming through a fear of crashing or drowning, until I actual got myself away from the Internet and into the bike shop and the pool.  I couldn’t begin to actualize this goal until I overcame the activation energy of starting it, and the successful completion of my triathlon began with a single, slow lap in a cold pool.  There was still a ton of work before me, but by making the unknown into a known, I was able to forge ahead.
  • Imagine the Regret: Picture yourself on the car ride home, not having ridden the roller coaster and not knowing if and when you will have the chance again. Taste the disappointment of letting your fears having stopped you from doing something memorable and amazing.  Essentially… flip the Roller Coaster Effect on its head and let the fear of the future regretting of the missed opportunity drive you to take it on in the present.  Concurrently, let yourself imagine the taste of success… the pride in succeeding and just transport yourself to tomorrow to help drive you today.  Tomorrow’s regret can fuel today’s courage.
  • Buckle In and Enjoy the Ride: Once you finally strap yourself in and start the climb, don’t look back and don’t look too far ahead.  You’ve chosen to embark on the journey and there is no turning back, so you are inherently locked into this new path.  Yes… there may be an unexpected twist, a sick feeling in your stomach, or even a fall or two ahead, but now that you’ve begun you know that you have no choice but to finish.  Buckle in, enjoy the ride, and maybe even throw your arms in the air and let the coaster take you where it may.  When all is said and done, the worst thing that can happen is that you overcame your fears and found that the accomplishment wasn’t as amazing as you had dreamt it to be (and maybe left you a little dizzy).  The best thing that can happen is that you have achieved something that gave you a sense of joy in the moment, a sense of pride in overcoming the past, and a bold new path into the future.

And again, while it is easy to see this Roller Coaster Effect in the big, earth-shattering moments of life, it is also very real in simple day to day activities.  And conquering a roller coaster once doesn’t mean that you won’t have to conquer that same coaster again.  Even after writing dozens of a blog posts and authoring a book, it has still taken me weeks to publish anything new as I let my own anxieties, procrastination, and fear of rejection get in the way.  I finally was able to forgive myself my fear of failure, set a deadline for my 3 hour flight to Mexico City, get a kick in the butt from a friend, force myself to put some initial ramblings on paper, imagine my annoyance at landing without having written, and have some fun with telling a story.  It is not perfect… it had its ups and downs and its twists and turns, but I pushed through it, have the weight of procrastination off my back, and can now focus myself forward.  And hopefully someone else will enjoy this ride and take home an insight or two of their own.  The Roller Coaster Effect is real and the fear is indicative of something potentially amazing ahead.  Forge ahead, buckle in, and enjoy the ride.


Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

 

 

Closing the Book and Writing the Next Chapter…

Three months have passed since I completed my first book, Agents of Change, and I am now in that murky phase… caught somewhere in the midst of having pride in the completion of the initial goal, of working to further build upon that accomplishment in the present, and of itching to turn my attention to what comes next. Like so many aspects of my life, I started this journey with a vague goal (publish a book) and with plenty of passion, but without a plan for how to get there or for what to do once I’m done.  Whether it be my writing, my career, or my other extracurriculars that come and go, I tend to just start running and then count on serendipity to insure that my talents, focus, and energy are pointed in the right direction.  And honestly… it has generally worked.  I have never really needed to worry about “turning the page”, because the pages have largely turned themselves. I didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a chemical engineer, but that is where my path led me so I followed.  I went to a free lunch in college with the Chief Technology Officer at Procter & Gamble, and ended up embarking on a seventeen year career.  And later I started writing blog posts on the topics that filled my mind, and ultimately my first book was born.  Again, this has not been a part of some sort of master plan, but more of a happy run through the woods where I just kept racing knowing that a clear path would always emerge in front of me.  Don’t get me wrong… I’m not complaining.  It has been a great run and I am thankful for where these roads have taken me.  But as I now try to decide when and how to “close the book” on this current phase, suddenly the paths are all blocked with fog. So as I am becoming anxious to start the next chapter, I am struggling with how to proceed as my once reliable serendipity has suddenly chosen to sleep.

I am going to focus the rest of this post on my writing, but it clearly applies to my other creative and professional endeavors as well.  It sounds simple to say, but the main things I need to sort out are the purpose, the success criteria, the plan, and the deadline.  It is amazing how often that these basic concepts rise to the forefront in the success of any aspect of life and work… and also how often they are overlooked.  What is your mission?  How do you know if your mission is successful? What is the plan to succeed? When must your mission be completed?  I will tell you that when life is flowing smoothly in the waves of serendipity, you can sometimes get by without them… but for those times when stuck in a holding pattern or in “writer’s block”, it is critical to get back to these basics.

1) Purpose… What is my goal, my intention in writing?  Who is my audience?  Am I writing to teach, to inform, or to entertain?  Importantly, what is more critical at this phase of life… The art or the acclaim?  With my first book, I was clear on the message I wanted others to receive… I wanted to help amazing, but stifled individuals and organizations to unleash their inner superheroes and to become much needed change agents in the world. I also wanted to show my aspiring author of a daughter that if her slow, old dad could publish a book then so could she. But, as is a common theme in my life, I wasn’t clear what I wanted to get out of it personally, which is making it challenging to know where to go next. Like one of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting, if I asked myself the simple question “What Do I Want to Do?” I couldn’t answer it.

what do you want

2) Success Criteria… Is the creative act of publishing a book enough? Do I have a sales goal? Am I measured by 5-star ratings and Likes? Do I want to be recognized externally as an expert in my craft? Is this a springboard to a greater investment in a writing career or a hobby and creative outlet?  Again, with Agents of Change, holding a tangible, published book in my hand was the immediate goal and then I decided to just “see what happened”. It has certainly been exciting and I have been honored by the response… But I still have a nagging sense that I should be doing more. I’ve sold more than I thought I would but not as many as I hoped. I have had good reviews but haven’t made the time to push for more professional credentialing. I have fed a desire to keep promoting the book, but without a clear goal I have not been able to prioritize the time or energy against doing so. Without knowing what success looks like on this first book, it is impossible for me to think about how to start something new.

3) Deadline and Plan… Even if I were to establish a clear success criteria, I need to set a plan to achieve it and a deadline of when to move forward- if for no other reason than to avoid the risk of getting caught up in a whirlpool of waiting. For example, if my goal were to sell a million books (which, while not my actual goal, would be nice) but my best case scenario fell several zeroes short of that, then I need to have a plan and a deadline to free myself from a goal that is no longer relevant or achievable. How long is “long enough” to wait?  When do I want to commit to starting something new? Is there a time when I start phasing one project down and another up?  With this first book, not only did I have no goal, but I set no deadlines. I want to promote my book more, get more sales, and maybe get some external recognition… But I haven’t prioritized it or given myself a timeline. Therefore my sense of urgency to make progress, to wrap things up, and to start something new is all muted. I know that I want to start writing the next chapter, but how can invest in the future when I don’t know what I have left to accomplish in the present?

And so again, at a time where I should be feeling proud of the accomplishment, enjoying the moment, and excited by the endless possibilities for the future, I instead feel trapped in the waiting place and smothered in stuckness. I wish there were a way that I could just ride the coattails of this “win” for awhile, and just let whatever happens, happen.  Life would be much easier, in general, if I were wired that way.  But the tension is strong to make the most out of this first book, but also to get started on the next one.  And I think this sense of urgency is heightened right now as I approach my 40th birthday, as I have recently witnessed too many lives cut short by illness and tragedy, and as the calling to make the most of my God-given gifts and talents gets louder and stronger.  So what do I do now?

In lieu of building a time machine, I am giving myself a deadline.  My 40th birthday is on December 20th, so on that date my priority  will shift to writing the next chapter.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t start working on it now, nor that I will ignore my current book subsequent to that date, but that I am giving myself the license to focus on the present for the next four months and to force the discipline to not fully invest in the future until that date will pass.  In the interim… any effort I put toward the next chapter will be in sorting out the purpose of what it should be.

  • I am dabbling before I decide.  I am sketching out some fiction and short stories, I have a potential new non-fiction topic mapped out, and I have even start writing some poetry.  And of course, I could even just continue down the road of innovation and superheroes that I have been on.  Regardless, I plan to play and to prototype to sort out where my passion resides.
  • Will it be a sequel, a spinoff, or a fresh start?  There is more to the story that I started with Agents of Change that I could continue to tell.  Or maybe I could stay in the same “industry”, but zero in on a particular theme or topic.  Or maybe I could jump ship altogether and take a whole new spin in a new genre. I know that I want to write, but I need to sort out what I want to write.
  • Is this still a Side Bet or am I All In?  To be clear, there is a zero percent chance that I stop working a day job and start writing full time.  Maybe someday… but not now. That said, to this point I have written when time allowed and have not necessarily mandated daily time against this passion.  If “professional author” is something that I am serious about then I need to invest bigger… and if it is purely a creative outlet then I need to set expectations accordingly.  I just need to be decisive and deliberate about what it should be.

So as I close this post, I am still hungry to start the next chapter but not yet ready to close the book on my first attempt.  Setting this 40th birthday deadline is actually quite freeing as I give myself some time to sort out this, and other, goal(s), while committing to focus on the present in the meantime.  Regardless, I need to face and embrace the fact that serendipity is sleeping and that I must now chart my own path and decide where I want to invest my time, fuel my passion, and maximize my impact…

And so it begins.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

 

 

40 Lessons from 40 Years

Parents Wedding with Text

As some of you know, I am now less than 5 months away from my 40th birthday and have been spending some time reflecting on the journey thus far, breathing in the surroundings of the present, and beginning to chart out some changes for the path ahead.  I’ve decided to be deliberate about this milestone year, and have made a “40 before 40” list of experiences, conversations, and journeys to take on before the “big day”.  I solicited advice from a lot of friends throughout the social media universe, and received some brilliant ideas (some more brilliant than others…) that will help me to mark the occasion in a memorable and significant way.  I am not going to share that entire list right now for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorite ideas was to seek out and to say “thank you” to the key agents of change throughout the course of my life.

Even just thinking through the list has been an amazing experience, and I am excited to see where this process might take me.  To kick this off though, who better to thank than the first real life superheroes for me… my parents.  Earlier this year, they celebrated their own milestone with Anniversary XL.  Much of who I have become as a father, as a coach, and as a leader has been shaped by them, and I wrote the following list of “40 Lessons from 40 Years” to say “Thank You” for who they are and for what they have done.  Some of these are inside jokes, and some are more profound than others… but I wanted to share this list as an acknowledgement to them, as encouragement to us all to say “Thank You” to the key people in your lives, and as some insights that extend beyond parenting and into work and life…

40 Lessons from 40 Years

  1. You always kept throwing pitches so I could swing for the fences.
  2. You knew that the little things matter, and stopped wrapping my birthday presents in Xmas paper.
  3. You showed me that the world was bigger than Ohio…
  4. But that Ohio is a great place to raise a family.
  5. You demonstrated the commitment to show up for every game, play, concert, and performance…
  6. And also taught me that sometimes I may have to lie to you about the start time so as not to be late.
  7. You taught me that the love for a child is unconditional,
  8. But that sometimes that child needs a gentle kick in the butt (or pull of the hair) to get on track.
  9. You taught me perspective and to remember the 5 year rule…
  10. And that even the calmest person can sometimes throw ice cream against the wall.
  11. I learned that Thanksgiving is a time to say thanks for all of the embarrassing things that happened to each other over the years.
  12. You showed that family always comes first, before career and personal goals.
  13. You fostered my nerdy tendencies, and fed me math challenges through baseball (e.g. strat-o-matic)…
  14. But never made me suffer through “educational toys” for holiday gifts.
  15. When walking along the treadmill of life, I know that an awkward fall can happen at any time.
  16. You showed the value of coaching and creating a memorable sports experience for me and my friends.
  17. There is always room for a dessert… or twelve.
  18. You made us feel safe and believe that we didn’t even need to lock our front door to keep trouble out…
  19. But taught me that when I have my own teenagers, I should do a better job of locking them in.
  20. You developed my love for Cincinnati from our family vacations there…
  21. But to never lose my heart for Western Pennsylvania and passion for those Pittsburgh Stillers.
  22. You’ve illustrated the importance of Teachers in all phases on life.
  23. You helped me to feel tough, courageous, and brave…
  24. And stood by me even when I was afraid of roller coasters, kite flying, or Return of the Jedi.
  25. You helped me discover a love for reading that turned into a passion to write…
  26. And kept buying me books even when I was too stubborn to read them.
  27. You’ve shown that grandparenting is the coolest job in the world…
  28. And that if even you can become cool then there is hope for us all.
  29. You’ve fostered my kids’ love for adventuring through experiments, projects, and games…
  30. And showed them that fun in this life doesn’t require an #electronicdevice.
  31. You’ve raised kids to be independent and to chart their own paths…
  32. But to remember the importance of home and to always respect our roots.
  33. You’ve modeled sportsmanship and that there are more important things than winning…
  34. But that winning is fun and is worth working for.
  35. You were willing to chase me down on my way to college to return an abandoned toiletries bag… even if I didn’t appreciate it.
  36. You’ve shown that no matter how busy life is to always drop everything for a family member in need.
  37. I learned and now model that ‘A spoonful of sarcasm helps the medicine go down’.
  38. You’ve taught us that magic is real and that we can all “Use the Force”…
  39. As 40 years pass, you’re now reminding us to stop and to smell the roses…
  40. And that there is no greater legacy than the love of a family.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com