I Need Help

"I Need Help"

That was the subject of an email I sent a couple weeks ago to the SmallBox leadership team. I'd had a tough week. My stress levels had been high for several months, along with my blood pressure. Various health issues were perking up asking for attention. I was ending every day pretty wiped out. Things had to change. 

Although I often tell my team that they should ask for help I'm not very good practicing what I preach. The craziness of reinventing SmallBox along with numerous other commitments pushed me to a breaking point and I had no choice but to reach out for help. The problem is that I had waited too long. It had already negatively affected my health and happiness. I shouldn't have waited. I was becoming a "heroic worker".

My pride was getting in the way. Asking for help requires vulnerability which is seen in our culture as a weakness. Of course, asking for help isn't a weakness but I still struggle with that cultural construct every day. 

Asking for help means you can't do it all, you have limits and you are not a superhero. This is a truth we all know but many of us buy into the illusion that we can do it all. That we can say "yes" to whatever is asked of us. We also live with the fear of admitting that we can't do it all- appearing weak. The question becomes, what wins? Too often fear and illusion trump the truth.

There are limits to our abilities. We all need help. Hopefully I get better at asking for it. 

The Trouble With Transparency

Sometimes openness seems inevitable. We are on a high speed train driven by technology and open systems – “Knowledge wants to be free” is the saying. I’m not so sure knowledge “wants” anything. It’s people who want things. We are just beginning to explore our wants and technology is a fantastic, and frightening, enabler of that journey. 

Here's the math, as I see it: technology enables data transparency which creates individual and organizational openness which has the byproduct of vulnerability which threatens our privacy.

Organizations seem particularly vulnerable to transparency. I have trouble imagining a future where all organizations of any real size or significance will be immune to its unrelenting light. Anytime there is a gathering, there is data. That data always has value to someone- internally and externally.

But what about individuals? What role does openness play in our individual lives? Openness leads to vulnerability which is a tricky energy. Vulnerability drives all kinds of behaviors and outcomes, good and bad.

Vulnerability is big right now in the business world. And for good reason. It’s a secret weapon. Biz guru Patrick Lencioni said “I’m tired of talking about servant leadership as if there is any other kind." Maybe wishful thinking but it speaks to what works- leaders that show vulnerability build committed teams. You can’t do great things without commitment. 

Now a little metaphysical detour that will make sense later, I hope.

I believe we are wired to create. In my mind, any creation of value serves a purpose. So we are wired to serve through creation. I don’t claim to know the who, how or why of this. I’m just making an observation.

So as Dylan said “you gotta serve somebody”. Why not have it be a group of amazing people? In this case, what has always been true is a somewhat recent revelation in the cut-throat world of business. But again, openness rewards what was once a weakness. Vulnerability works. 

Openness also has an interesting byproduct: data. As noted above, that data has value. Something that originated altruistically (sharing) has become a commodity (data). In the future this disconnect will increasingly drive conflict between creators, platforms and consumers. 

How about another metaphysical tangent? Ok...

Increasingly you can see the revelation of nature’s intrinsic moral compass by simply looking at “what works”- with ourselves, our relationships, our organizations, our government. “Big Data” is essentially revealing our moral DNA. We can debate the author but we are cracking an intelligent code. Our openness, our data, only speeds our discoveries. Many amazing revelations could come, many dangerous tools could be built. I try to see the positive. 

Our collective openness could result in a more empathic world. A world where we truly know and care for each other. But this won’t happen unless people feel safe.

Openness thrives on safety. If we don’t feel safe, we don’t share. 

So openness and vulnerability cuts both ways. Humans are wired to care but they are also wired to fear. Fear drives all kinds of bad behaviors. Fear is the root of all evil, not money. I don’t know what Jesus was thinking. Must be a misquote. 

Beyond creating opportunities for more good ol' fashioned evil, what else will openness do to our nature?

If we open our lives completely to each other (via machines) will we lose some core human element during the reveal? A touch that kills?

Will openness diminish our private selves? That part of us that we only reveal to ones we trust. 

As we rewire for sharing, how will we maintain something worth sharing?

Not to mention the fatigue that comes from sharing. The constant flow of energy, mostly leaving. It’s as if our devices run on that energy. Maybe someday they will figure out how to do that.

After much wandering here’s where I’m at – humans are wired to have an off-state, computers are not. We need downtime. Our human rhythms are poorly matched with a machine’s. Maybe we should make them more human before they make us permanently less. 

This is where we could find some balance between openness and privacy. Creating safe environments for expression. Limited environments. 100% analog, not digital capture. As we open ourselves to each other, let’s remember to keep a good chunk separate, just for ourselves. 

Struggling With Vulnerability

I hate feeling vulnerable. It makes me feel weak and exposed. Everyone probably feels the same I guess. When I was in 2nd grade I had one of those harrowing choir experiences, you know, where the teacher makes everyone do a solo in front of the class. I was terrified and completely froze. I don't know if I've ever felt that intensity of horror since. So I've known early on that vulnerability isn't native to me in any way. 

When you start a business it can help to appear invulnerable. You want to look confident to potential clients and employees, give off the vibe that you are here to stay. But over time a business is actually better served by a vulnerable leader- one that can take input, ask for help, admit weaknesses. There are some companies that thrive under charismatic, invulnerable leaders but they rarely survive them. 

Personally, I do not want to build companies that exist to serve me. I want to build companies that serve a real purpose. A purpose that has a positive impact on the world and also inspires others to become employees and customers. And yes, a purpose that empowers the company to make money. But to serve a purpose I have to become vulnerable. You cannot serve something or someone without becoming vulnerable. 

Being vulnerable doesn't mean constantly doubting yourself. In fact it can sweep away the shadows of doubt- nudging a difficult topic into the open for honest assessment and proper assignment. Being vulnerable can create similar emotions to feeling weak but I've been surprised to see how much strength comes from displaying vulnerability. It's a paradoxical thing. 

Vulnerability is a first cousin to love, that touchy feely emotion we often try to keep out of the workplace. But we all know that love can do that magic math where 1+1=3. The same thing goes with vulnerability. It usually leads to a byproduct that is greater than its parts- whether it be a new level of understanding, deeper friendships, greater collaboration, etc. We tap into our super powers when we become vulnerable. Unfortunately we have spent most of our lives, and humankind's evolution, fighting vulnerability for survival's sake. There is much to unlearn.

So I continue to struggle with vulnerability. I know the more vulnerable I become the closer I will be to realizing my potential- personally and professionally. My fear of vulnerability is what is standing between me and that potential. I hope someday to become that fully realized person but for now I continue to struggle.