Oh, hello there! It’s me, popping in with a few updates after a long hiatus from this blog. Part of the reason I’ve been MIA is because I’ve been busy making good on my promise to myself to take more action, to push myself out of my comfort zone, and take my creative pursuits to the next level. To create space to do this, I’ve hired a website designer (thanks, Jack, for the new look and better functionality on this site!) and a slew of other professionals to outsource activities that suck my time and don’t bring me joy.
If we’re connected on Instagram, you’ve probably heard about the book I’m writing, the Chicago-based coaching service and women’s mastermind I’ve started, and the “TEDtalk” style speech that I wrote and gave for work titled ‘The powerful capability we all have, but rarely tap.’ So many of you asked for a recording of the speech (which I don’t have due to lack of videographer at the event <sad trombone>), so I thought I’d post the script of the speech here along with the slides I used during the presentation. This speech is on a topic I’m deeply passionate about, and the experience I share in the speech helped me get out of my own way, let go of the fears that have held me back from going after what I feel called to do, and find joy and success in many areas of my life. I hope you find it helpful, and I’d love your thoughts and feedback in the comments if you get a chance to read.
Without further ado… here’s the speech on ‘The powerful capability we all have, but rarely tap’ (15 minute read):
One of my favorite ways to describe my consulting firm is “a safe space for insecure nerds.” It’s an environment that taps into our deep need to achieve and intentionally fosters a competitive spirit where we’re forced ranked against our peers based on our relative talents.
These performance tactics worked like a charm on me in my early days: I threw myself into doing all the things required to be the best, to maximize my strengths, and to grow a personal brand (whatever that means)! My PowerPoint slides were perfect, my Outlook was insanely organized and according to my competency model (which I had printed and annotated in my notebook), I was straight up killing it.
But I had a huge problem, which I didn’t recognize at the time: I was a terrible human being.
Because I was so focused on being perfect, I was also deeply insecure, which bred a whole bunch of problems especially when I made mistakes, or received feedback, or ran into challenges. My career was stalling, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I was convinced that everything would change if only I could get on a "good" project better aligned to my talents.
The reason I’m standing in front of you right now is because I believe that all of the success I've had since that low point — including getting promoted early, tripling my income, and working on dream projects that I didn't even know existed at the firm — resulted from a simple shift in where I focused my attention.
And it was so easy, so obvious and so critical to reaching my potential that I’m still kicking myself for not learning how to do it earlier.
What I did was this: I completely stopped caring about my talents and what I wanted, and focused all of my attention on developing my character and who I was.
Character is an old-fashioned word, right? It's something that we presume is God-given, we’re either born a good or bad person. The purpose of giving this talk is to challenge that assumption, convince you that character has to be developed, and illustrate the incredible power it gives us to get anything we want out of life.
The difference between “talent” and “character”
Before we go any further, I want to take a moment to define the difference between talent and character. Talent is a set of cognitive skills that are innate and unique to a person, what we call our “strengths” like math or visual design or conceptual thinking. Each of us was born with a limited amount of talent. We can continue to develop and maximize them, but we can never gain more.
Character, on the other hand, is a set of “non-cognitive” or social-emotional skills that are not innate or unique to a person, the culmination of which drive the kind of behavior that we unconsciously reference when we call a person trustworthy or untrustworthy, weak or courageous, insecure or confident, disciplined or careless. Each of us has an unlimited capacity to develop these non-cognitive skills.
Simply put, if you were born without a talent to sing, all the voice lessons in the world won't help you become Taylor Swift. And we all innately understand that Rosa Parks did not make history because she had a talent for sitting on bus seats, but rather because she had a strong sense of conviction and a significant amount of courage, both character strengths we aspire to develop in ourselves.
Why non-cognitive, social-emotional skills (a.k.a. character skills) matter
While talent is important, there’s a growing body of research that suggests the non-cognitive skills that compose character are more important in maximizing life outcomes, including career success.
Dominic Randolph, head of the super-elite private Riverdale school in NYC, famously called his graduates "fragile thoroughbreds," remarking that the hyper-focus on GPA and other talent metrics did not predict successful outcomes later in life for his students — in fact, he proved that it did the opposite, leaving his students dramatically under-prepared for dealing with the inevitable challenges and failures they'd meet in the real world.
Together with psychologist and "Grit" author Angela Duckworth, Randolph expanded his research on the power of character in today's constantly changing and innovating world, noting that success requires key character skills like open-mindedness, a service-oriented mindset, and a willingness to fail repeatedly.
Although this body of research around character is starting to be applied in schools, character voids are not being addressed in our culture more broadly, which is a huge problem.
There are literally thousands of examples that I don’t have time to list, but one notable one that comes to mind is the irresponsible financial practices that drove the 2008 market crash. Most of the people who created that mess were incredibly talented, but lacked the critical body of non-cognitive skills needed to guide their behaviors on a day-to-day basis.
That’s not to say that all talented people who don’t develop their character will wind up crashing and burning. But there is overwhelming evidence that character voids will place serious limits on how far we can go on talent alone.
Why so many of us lack the non-cognitive, social-emotional skills (a.k.a. character skills) we need
So here we are, with all of this research telling us about the incredible power that character development offers us in reaching our highest potential, and we're not tapping into it.
We might be tempted to think that it's too late for adults to develop character. But the facts tell another story: scientists in the field agree that mindset is malleable, that character matters, that you can learn, practice and cultivate these non-cognitive skills to become smarter, happier, more effective, more fulfilled and dramatically improve your life.
So what determines character? The answer is that we determine it for ourselves, and we're influenced by what our environment rewards. But we’re not taught why or how to do it, and we’re immersed in environments that don’t consistently reward it.
You might be wondering how exactly I figured all of this out after hitting my proverbial career rock bottom.
So here's the story: I'd spent many months on a huge and perpetually delayed technology project. You know the type, where millions of dollars are on the line, all the leaders are tense, and practically everyone on the project team cries on the way to the airport on Monday mornings. Well, maybe not everyone, but I definitely did. I’d get home at 10pm on Thursdays, pick a fight with my husband, silently rage on conference calls every Friday and wouldn’t be fully recovered until Saturday, only to turn around and repeat the process.
Two things helped me fundamentally shift my focus from a place of “I’m too talented for this” to “how can I make this better”:
The first thing that happened was learning that I could control my thoughts. A friend who could see that I was slowly losing it recommended I read Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”; in that book, Tolle explains that most of us focus on things we literally cannot control: we wind ourselves up over things that happened in the past that we can’t change, or we worry about hypothetical situations in the future that we cannot possibly influence. I learned that the only things we can actually control are our minds and our actions in the present moment.
The second thing that happened was realizing that I was the problem. After a few rounds of interviews to escape my project, a rival firm offered me an extremely generous job offer. Tempted to take it, I went to one of my mentors at the firm for advice. She pointed out that I could leave, join the new firm, get on a new project, and run into the exact same situation. Her advice made me realize that running away wasn't going to resolve the root issue. Armed with the painful self-awareness that I was causing my own misery, I turned down the job offer, began reading every book that Eckhart Tolle ever recommended, and started to practice the non-cognitive skills that I was learning.
You should have seen it. My judge-y, gossipy self who used to keep a special archive file of a certain senior manager’s rude emails suddenly started to bring an optimistic attitude to everything she did, assume positive intent, give others the benefit of the doubt, admit fault and apologize, and give admiration and appreciation like it was going out of style. And the results were astounding!
It was essentially a grand experiment that proved to be right over and over again. It still amazes me what a simple shift in focus has done for my career and every other area of my life. And it resulted in an obsessive love of self-help books that my friends and family make fun of me for to this day.
The best way to develop these non-cognitive, social-emotional skills (a.k.a. character skills)
Although I learned all this by sheer chance, the steps I went through were obvious, logical and repeatable for anyone. And you don't have to spend years reading self-help books to do it. There are two small but incredibly powerful things that you can start doing, today, that will massively improve your life:
The first thing is to start looking at your own mind objectively. If you've studied philosophy or theology or biology, you probably already know that our human ability to think about our own thoughts is one of the highest forms of intelligence we have to tap. Anyone can do it. Most people don't. Imagine pressing pause on your active mind, and stepping out of it for a moment to take a look around. What negative thoughts would you find in mid-float? Maybe judgement? Or frustration? We all have negative thoughts, and we can't stop them from popping up. But starting to train yourself to recognize those negative thoughts the moment they enter your mind allows you to start controlling them. And shifting away from negative to positive thinking is the most important factor in developing the non-cognitive strengths we've been talking about for the past 10 minutes.
The second thing is to pick one particular negative thought that tends to recur in your mind and start to actively practice redirecting it. If I were doing this all over again, I'd start with judgement, because it blocks open-mindedness, creativity, empathy, confidence and a whole host of the non-cognitive skills we need in order to maximize our life outcomes. When you feel the twinge of judgement pop up in the back of your mind, consider what that thought says about you. Ask yourself these questions: "What is it about this person or idea that scares me, that threatens my ego? What might I not know, or understand, about this person or idea, that is causing me to shut them down?" Questioning your own instinct to judge the moment it kicks in allows you to remain open, so you can choose better thoughts and exhibit better behaviors. If you practice actively redirecting this negative thought enough, it will become a habit you don’t have to think about. Let me say that another way: it will become non-cognitive. You can literally rewire your brain to build these character skills.
This is something I still work on to this day. Recently, I caught myself judging a friend who shared a controversial opinion with me. I thought to myself, “Who does he think he is? He has no idea what he is talking about!” and caught myself mid-thought and considered why I felt compelled to judge him. I realized I felt threatened because there was a chance that I could be wrong, that I could be missing part of the story, that the situation wasn’t as black and white as I’d been thinking it was. Instead of shutting him down and closing my mind, I replaced the thought with (albeit forced!) curiosity to learn more, and we had a conversation on an important topic that most people can’t discuss these days. My ability to keep my mind open helped me learn something new, and allowed me to share my perspective and influence my friend as well.
Leo Tolstoy once observed that “everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.” I believe we have to learn how to change ourselves for the better, and if we take the time to do it, we can change our worlds.
I said earlier that we determine character for ourselves, and that we're influenced by what our environment rewards. We touched on what we can do as individuals to grow this body of skills, but we haven't addressed the environment factor. I believe is the most important environment that influences character development in adults is our workplace because it offers a constant flow of problems and a plenty of time to work on ourselves: if you work 45 hours per week, take 4 weeks of vacation per year, and work 30 years - that's 64,800 hours to be honing your non-cognitive skills.
Imagine if all of your 64,800 working hours were spent in an environment that consistently incentivized, developed and rewarded you for selflessness, humility, persistence, and other positive character skills. My perspective is that you'd retire extremely zen, incredibly fulfilled and extraordinarily rich.
My consulting firm is already starting to touch on the need for developing this critical body of skills. We're investing in a few disparate initiatives in the character development space, like startup programs that encourage risk-taking and failing forward, courses like the Art of Empathy, leadership initiatives to develop courage, and activities around growing in mindfulness.
But we're not doing enough, and we're missing the bigger picture. We're talking to our clients every day about the future of work, telling them how cognitive human talents are being automated and absorbed by robotics, AI, cognitive computing, and digital technologies. We’re advising them to start focusing on the non-cognitive, human-value-added skills that cannot be replaced — the same set of skills that roll up under character.
It is my firm belief that we must find a way to more consistently incentivize, develop and reward these critical non-cognitive skills if we want to innovate, disrupt and lead the markets where we work. Those of us who prioritize developing these skills for ourselves certainly will. Imagine what we as a firm could accomplish if all 280,000 of our colleagues did too.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, thank you so much for your time and attention - I’d love your thoughts and feedback in the comments.
P.S. I’ll be giving a customized version of this speech again for a university group in November, and if you think there’s an organization that might benefit from it as well please feel free to reach out!