And the critical questions to ask in the slow-paced middle ground of refining

Crisis has a way of revealing the truth. No matter what stage you may be in during this COVID-19 pandemic, discovering what’s real about your world and yourself can be disorienting. Like nearly everyone around the globe, you may find yourself impressed by how much you’re capable of and simultaneously disappointed in how you’ve arrived at, yet another, unplanned fork in the road so unprepared. 

For the purposes of this conversation, my goal isn’t to give you a task list that will busy you into numbness or provide a one-size-fits-all solution to making the most out of this time. We both know those pathways will ultimately lead us back to square one the next time life throws us a curveball if we don’t consider the opportunity we’ve been presented right here at the lingering intersection where all paradoxes seem to live. That’s what this conversation is about: How can we let the full truth we’re discovering reveal what matters most to us? 

To give a bit of context for how I arrive at my observations, you should know my brain operates almost exclusively in finding patterns between what people say and the behaviors that follow. What I know to be true of both organizations and individuals is that behaviors are rooted in what we believe to be true about ourselves and, consequently, the world around us. 

The language we choose to define our beliefs is often so inaccurate because we either: 1) don’t actually know who we are or 2) are embarrassed by who we are and think words alone will cover up what lies at the center of what we know to be true about why we exist. 

This disconnect between what we say and how we behave is rooted in a misalignment of values. Somewhere along the line, we decided that compromising who we are allowed us a chance for connection, which was safer or more profitable than owning the deeply held convictions that make us come alive. 

The good news is that while external circumstances often expose our values, they don’t define them. While experts will say what we’re all collectively feeling is grief, I’ll take it one step further and say, we’re grieving the loss of who we were before the crisis revealed who we truly are.

Who we were was familiar. We had a system for it that served us in the world we found ourselves navigating every day. A lot of us are finding that the person we needed to be in order to survive out there isn’t consistent with the person we’ve become as we get to know ourselves more intimately in the confines of our homes. 

What I know to be true is that most of us are at a crossroads now, that we’re itching for some familiarity in the uncertainty of what lies ahead. We can either replicate or evolve.

Replicate 

This path is the most common and proven to land you right back to ground zero the next time life doesn’t turn out the way you planned. In fact, it often compounds over time until you’re so unacquainted with who you are that obstacles great and small send you into an identity crisis.

The first thing you need to know about being a replica is that no one buys the knock off without wishing they could afford the real thing. This doesn’t just apply to brands and marketing strategies. We’ve all been the person trying to fit in with the cool kids at one point in time or another. You wear the right clothes, get the right haircut, use the right slang, listen to the right music and you finally get “in,” only to feel more lonely than ever. 

No matter how you slice it, being a replica is an exhausting short-term game because the expectations aren’t set by you, they’re set by whoever you’re copying. What may now seem like self-preservation is actually the beginning of a pattern of behaviors that consistently put you out of alignment with what you value. 

We’ve all been here because the fear of being left behind in the race is so enticing that we latch onto whatever seems to be working for someone else. No one is coming out of this crisis unchanged, which means we all have permission to re-evaluate. Everyone can emerge from the COVID-19 crisis as a truer version of themselves, which brings us to the opposite end of the spectrum from replicating: evolution. 

Evolve

People who are constantly evolving see crises as transitions (thank you, Dr. Edith Egar, for this perspective). They use change and adversity as a launchpad to innovation, creativity and joy. They do this by removing systems, behaviors and beliefs that no longer serve them or keep them in constant compromise of their values. 

While I see this often from an organizational level, I see it most clearly through countless stories of survivors. With each obstacle, there is a clear choice: either fold into doing what everyone else is doing or take the time to become a truer embodiment of your most deeply held convictions. The requirement to evolve by way of a crisis is a commitment to a vision, a knowledge of what matters most to you and clarity in how you are uniquely positioned to solve problems related to those values. It can not be overstated that values are not aspirational. People who are in a constant state of evolution know that we evolve around our values, not around buzzwords. 

We’re all coming out of this different than how we entered. Allowing this time to return back to ourselves in the most fundamental ways is one of the greatest opportunities the crisis presents to us. We can choose to discover unearthed opportunities that we don’t normally see. We can choose to let this change us for the better.  

Having this posture will serve us the next time things don’t go as planned. We’ll develop habits in this time that serve as a well of resources to draw from when we face adversity in the future.

The pathway to that evolution lies in the messy, slow-paced middle ground of refining. We’re all sitting smack in the middle of that opportunity right now. It’s gross. It’s uncomfortable. It’s confusing. It’s paralyzing. The critical questions asked in the refining phase are geared around bridging the gap between who you are and who you need to become if you’re to evolve. This place needs to become a part of your routine. It’s not a place we visit only once, which is why some practical steps may now come in handy (for when you’re ready, of course).

1. Discover what matters most to you. 

No matter how many times you dip your toe in the refining process, it’s always helpful to reconnect with why you exist. One of the easiest ways to do this is to identify your values. This collection is the why behind everything you do. It’s also the nudge you get whenever you’re working for or with a company that has different values. That nudge that says, “You will absolutely have to compromise your own values in order to work with these people. Is it worth it?”

People who seem to jump at any and every opportunity are often confused about what their values are and often blame everyone but themselves for that compromise. The blame game ends when you’re in the refining stage. Write down your values, create your own definitions for them, and root and build yourself around them.

These values inform a message about who you are and how you want to be known, no matter what role you play. It also helps you make educated decisions and keep yourself out of situations that aren’t a good fit. Here’s a good way to discover your values: Take inventory—what’s worth bringing with you when you get to the “new world” on the other side of this? 

 2. Be honest about what you’re capable of. 

So often we ignore the strengths and talents we are inherently good at because they seem so normal. “Anyone can do this” is what I often hear. The truth is, not anyone can do it (or else they would be), and even if they do something similar, the way you do it is what makes it unique. Stick to the basic tenets of where you naturally excel and continue to build on those before over-promising in areas that water-down what you’re uniquely capable of. 

3. Focus your vision. 

Where do you ultimately want to go? Who do you ultimately want to be? Narrowing your focus allows you to expand your influence. I know it seems counterintuitive, but it’s much easier to gain traction and momentum when you are funneling your resources and targeting your message in a specific direction.  

4. Identify how you want to be known. 

Are you engaging in activities that will make it easy for people to make the connection between what you say and what you do? Are you disciplined and consistent in the experience you provide people? It is critical to make a connection between what you say and what you do. This only becomes more intuitive as you make decisions from a place of awareness of what matters most to you. 

5. Use consistent language to bring clarity around who you are.

Words matter. How you communicate your value is important. First, it helps you recalibrate internally when you’re facing a decision. Using the right words to describe your values can help ground you when everything else seems to be spinning. If anything, words help bring instant clarity so you can find your footing. 

Words also help build a common language around the experience you provide that sets you apart. Being good at your craft is a given. In order to be compelling and inch your way toward helping people solve problems and see the world differently, you have to remind them that your service, product or perspective is consistently proven to provide a specific experience to a felt need. If they don’t want that, great! Move on. But if they do, the connection will be unmatched. 

The warning label to doing this kind of refining is that change will happen. Since it’s already happening on a pandemic scale, choosing evolution puts you in the driver’s seat instead of waiting for the winds of change to happen to you outside of your own terms. 

If you are doing this work as an employee, you may discover that you need to find a better place to work that allows you to bring your full self to the table. If you’re a leader of an organization, you may need to have hard conversations with employees who don’t want to be a part of the shared vision moving forward. 

If you’re in a position where everything still seems like a good fit but you just haven’t been bold enough to speak up about the opportunities you see to solve big problems, then this is where the rubber meets the road. It’s your responsibility to begin redefining how we operate by letting us into your world of meaning. 

The truth is: systems are broken. What a lot of us are realizing is that we’ve been culpable because we were hoping these structures would do for us what we didn’t have the courage to do for ourselves: stand for something. What we see in crisis is that these very systems we put our faith in are feeble. What’s worse…we’ve been complicit by not owning who we are. It starts with us. 

When we emerge from this crisis, I want you to be able to look yourself in the mirror and see the person you’ve been waiting for all along. Let’s be the kind of people who remind those around us what they’re capable of. 


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