Escaping your personal escape room

This post was originally part of my newsletter Doctor’s Note.

It is traditional at this time of the year to either write an end of year round-up or predictions for 2021. I’ve read enough of these this year and I don’t want to add to the pile. Another tradition is New Year resolutions that you’ll fail to keep up after March. What is it that we are really doing when we make these? 

They are really reflections about the dissonance between our current lives and our sense of who and what we should be.

Getting fit, eating more healthily, not binge-watching Netflix are all fine resolutions. I’m not knocking them and if you’re struggling, I can recommend James Clear’s Atomic Habits and habit stacking as a way to keep them. The key to those is to think small – atomic – since that keeps barrier to change low and small changes add up over time. Write 500 words a day (about two-thirds of this article) and you’ve written a novel’s worth in six months.

When people approach me for coaching, it is ostensibly about how their design leadership role is challenging them in some way. But, as James Hollis says, “it’s not about what it’s about.” Most often the coaching processing reveals their life at an inflection point and they’ve lost their way or are struggling with difficult choices.

My job is to help them set some boundaries to make some mental space so they can find their shape and re-calibrate their personal compass. Only then can any kind of leadership development work really take place. Most of the time the work is really about personal development and the leadership challenges are just the stimuli.

We all like to think we know what we’re about, what we believe in, and what is important to us. But the drift that happens when we’re heads-down busy means we lose touch with those principles. Worse, the busywork can be an alluring way to rationalise away and avoid examining the inner dissonance. The days, months and years go by and we end up in a place we didn’t intend, not sure who we are anymore.

It’s as if we spend a large proportion of the first half of our lives building an elaborate room for ourselves, only to realise mid-life that it is actually an escape room that we have created. We find ourselves locked in, no longer able to remember the clues and riddles to get out of it. These puzzles take the form of professional, familial and societal roles and scripts we’ve taken on, as well as all the classic trappings of a life built up: education, house, mortgage, children, career ladder, money, status.

The good news is most people have a sense of the clues they left in the room. That’s the itch you’re feeling when you make New Year’s resolutions. It sometimes takes a major catastrophe like, say, a global pandemic, to remind us that they’re even there.

Many of the obstructions are not as solid as we think they are. Some require prising open another locked box before we can explore the one we’re really struggling with. Others are tackled by reframing our view, or gently pulling instead of pushing with all our might.

Two activities I frequently ask coachees to do form the foundation material of coaching sessions. The first is to map out their loves, hates, hopes and fears in a territory map (a type of affinity cluster map). Loves and hates usually reveal the past and present. Hopes and fears are future-oriented. Done honestly and authentically, the demons, battlefields and dreams of the personal territory are revealed.

The second activity is a future work visualisation activity I did for myself a couple of years ago and then wrote out once for a coachee. I have found it useful ever since and return to it often. The approach separates the rationalised future ideal embedded in career titles (such as “Strategic Design Director” or “Head of Product”) from the everyday tangible activities (“in the field conducting research” or “at the whiteboard with the client team”).

It’s these daily activities that lift us up or grind us down. The title is always an illusion that benefits the organisation more than the individual (and is why you should be highly suspicious of a “title promotion” that gives you more responsibility without the commensurate pay rise and decision-making powers).

Both of these activities can help you start to get a sense of your true shape and find your inner compass again. All of this helps you make life decisions as well as changing the way you present in your current work role. Discovering that a source of stress is something you actually hate doing and no longer want to do sounds remarkably obvious, but it often comes as a bit of a surprise to coachees when they unlock that puzzle. As is discovering negative interactions with teammates and bosses echo familial patterns laid down decades ago.

As you reflect on the past year and your future resolutions, I invite you to use the visualisation activity to kick start the process. Many find it revealing, many find it challenging, which is often a sign of having lost track of your inner compass. When you make New Year’s resolutions, it’s tempting to think in terms of “a new you,” but that implies an old you that you separate from and leave behind. That’s not how it works. There is only one you with all the baggage that you’ve gathered along the way. It’s coming to terms with that stark fact that takes the work.

If you’d like some coaching and guidance in the New Year, do get in touch. I should have a couple of slots opening up.

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