Category Archives: Purpose

Intro to My Influencers: Clayton Christensen

Photo Credit: Betsy Weber on Flickr

Author’s note: A while ago, when I began my coaching business, I started making a list of those people that influenced me. But a list alone isn’t compelling enough so I wanted to do a deeper dive into each of my influences to share HOW they influenced me, my personal development, and my coaching. Enjoy!

The late Clayton Christensen taught at Harvard Business School, studied in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and wrote one of the most famous business books of all time, the Innovator’s Dilemma. Beyond these more celebrated accomplishments, though, Professor Christensen’s influenced me through one of his last and less famous books.  

Late in his career, Professor Christensen began sharing some lessons from his life with his Harvard Business School students. He later shared these lessons as a commencement speech for graduating HBS students which evolved into a short book, How Will You Measure Your Life?

What was so fascinating about this book was that I had read “self-help” books and I had read “business” books, but I had never read a “self-help business” book. I was the perfect audience for this book as it took some of the clear, values-based direction you often get in self-help books and applied them in business settings. This addressed one of the key limitations of self-help books for me: they often seem like they don’t necessarily apply to you and your situation.

How Will You Measure Your Life? was different, though. It tackled subjects like leading with your values, investing in the right things, and that 100% compliance was easier to manage than 99%. A clear example that has stuck with me: while I recognized that spending time with your family was a long-term investment compared to finishing up that last email or even an important client presentation, I had never stopped to realize why so many otherwise smart people fell into the trap of prioritizing their careers over their family by working long hours or being distracted by work on the weekend. Professor Christensen highlighted the immediate feedback loops on your progress at work—and rewards to boot—incentivize you to work more. On the other hand, supporting a partner and raising kids have very long feedback loops with big investments of time at the beginning that pay off more slowly (or ever, for some people and some relationships). 

Neither is necessarily right or wrong, but Professor Christensen forced me to confront that choice so that I didn’t unwittingly fall into a common trap of investing in those areas that give you the immediate reinforcement that our ancestral minds crave. And for that, I am grateful.

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Intro to My Influencers: Liz Gilbert

Photo: Wesley Fryer on Flickr

Author’s note: A while ago, when I began my coaching business, I started making a list of those people that influenced me. But a list alone isn’t compelling enough so I wanted to do a deeper dive into each of my influences to share HOW they influenced me, my personal development, and my coaching. Enjoy!

When a former work colleague recommended Big Magic by Liz Gilbert, I wondered if that was the same woman from Eat, Pray, Love who travels around the world? All I really knew about Eat, Pray, Love at that point was that it had something to do with finding oneself and that the book had had a moment, even making it on Oprah’s Book Club. 

Regardless, this introduction to this wandering guru was critical to my own development. 

The vulnerability and realness that Liz shares both in Big Magic and how she engages with her fans otherwise is so simple, real, and welcoming. I’m a sucker for vulnerability. Just tell me what you really feel and I’m usually in. And Liz does so in a way that feels different, though I can’t quite put my finger on how. It feels more real, less polished, less edited. And that builds a relationship with the reader that is powerful. 

But more than that, I read Big Magic at a critical time for me, when I talked a big game about writing, but studiously avoided ever actually doing it. Even when I had some motivation, other things like fear were keeping me from taking the next steps necessary to achieve that dream. It’s a hard realization that fear is keeping you from achieving your dreams, but it’s the only way to address the reality of my continued lack of investment in something that I told others (and myself!) was so important. I knew the importance of it, but didn’t prioritize it like I needed to. 

What Big Magic included were some very specific tips to help make the transition towards letting my creativity out. Liz ingeniously recommends having your fear write to you about what you are or should be scared of and then having you respond. Instead of avoiding fear or trying to minimize it, Liz recommends inviting it along for the ride, but not letting fear change the radio station and especially don’t let it get behind the wheel, as I unfortunately had.

I knew in my heart that writing was a powerful and important way to clarify thoughts and communicate ideas and values. And I knew I had important ideas and values and thoughts that I wanted to communicate. And yet I would get sucked into less meaningful things on a daily basis. Not altogether bad things, but just indolent things. Why? Because I was scared. I was scared I would write something and no one would read it. Or I would write something and everyone would read it and see that it sucked. Either way, fear had won because my ass was sitting on the sideline, getting an extra hour of sleep or catching up on the latest NBA game. 

Liz inspired me to break through this fear in just the right way. I’m sure it’s not the right tone for everyone, but it was the right tone for me to hear. Calm and knowledgeable, but forceful that the rightful place of your ideas, feelings, and art is out in the world and not stuck in your head. She also helped me appreciate the subtleties of all the ways we can express creativity. It’s not just writing or painting, but also includes cooking or sharing one’s love for another. 

A final key thing that Liz and I share is a firm belief in the superlativeness that each of us share inside us. There is something deep inside us that each of us that is so unique, so powerful, so restorative, so contributing to the world. Most of us never spend the time to discover that or are scared to accept what we learn. Liz directly challenges this limitation. And the world is a better place for it.

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Intro to my Influencers: Jes Averhart


Author’s note: A while ago, when I began my coaching business, I started making a list of those people that influenced me. But a list alone isn’t compelling enough so I wanted to do a deeper dive into each of my influences to share HOW they influenced me, my personal development, and my coaching. Enjoy!

Jes Averhart is one of those people that everyone knows and everyone raves about. Still, I had never met her until I ran into her at a United Way of the Triangle open house a few years ago that we were both attending. I introduced myself and we scheduled a time to grab coffee a few weeks later.

When she showed up for coffee, she was wearing her workout clothes, having just exercised before our meeting. As a close-to-first impression, that took a lot of confidence as well as a clear understanding of who you are and why you do what you do. It was not what most people would expect at an initial meeting, but perhaps she sensed a kindred spirit with me. 

A few years ago, in arranging my first meeting with a professional contact, I scheduled a similar meeting with someone I had never met before at a hole-in-the-wall taco joint in San Antonio, arriving in my workout clothes after running there to get some exercise. Our family has a commitment to exercise, so exercising might actually be more impressive to me than the traditional signals one sees in a professional meeting.

More recently, on an episode of the Just Podcast that Jes co-hosts with Rob Shields, Jes honored her instincts and asked a follow up question of their guest, her friend and fellow coach David Spickard. Her follow-up question was essentially and vulnerably: I don’t get it. As a fellow podcast host myself, I’ve learned it can be hard to push back on your guests. But Jes leaned into this ambiguity and the audience, Jes, and David all benefited from that decision. 

These interactions gave me a much clearer view into the whirlwind that is Jes Averhart. Authentic to her core, passionate on the issues that matter, and blithely dismissive of the issues that don’t (like what you wear to a meeting). Still, though, Jes doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t claim to. No, she is just a reflection of what can be when you trust yourself, stop trying to meet other people’s definition of yourself, and put in the work to make your dreams a reality. And for an entrepreneur, leader, and author like Jes, that’s about all you can ask. 

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Hopes and Dreams

Photo by Alex Nemo Hanse on Unsplash

One of our family’s coping mechanisms during this pandemic has been our regular ritual of determining each family member’s hope and dream for the weekend. We each choose one thing to add to our often-lengthy chore and to-do list and, then, as a family, we do our best to make that hope and dream come true. These hopes and dreams are simple, but powerful. Things like get donuts, watch a favorite movie, go for a long run, or try a new family board game. 

A couple months ago on Mother’s Day, my wife’s hope and dream was to watch Michelle Obama’s Netflix special Becoming. I had read Michelle’s memoir of the same title last year and loved learning the story behind the half of the Obamas that isn’t as often in the news. Michelle is impressive in her own right and her memoir told the story of how she made her way from the rapidly changing South Side of Chicago to the pinnacle of power and privilege. 

The Netflix special, though, added some additional color to the memoir by sharing vignettes from her book tour. It showed some of the behind-the-scenes interactions with her team, the funny bon mots she shared with her interviewers at public events, and the touching moments with students and young people at private events. 

It was in one of these private events where a young woman asked why she was invited to participate in this small group conversation with the former First Lady, implying that her background and experience were unworthy of such an opportunity. Michelle wasn’t having it. She told the young woman that she deserved to be there and she just needed to accept the story of who she was and build on that. 

This was a powerful moment in its own right, but it crystallized something important for me. We all want to understand our history, tell our stories, and then write the next chapter. That is an innate human need, but it’s hard. Our personal histories have some great things and also things that we want to forget. Our present lives can be hard to accept sometimes because of the busyness of our day-to-day lives, impostors syndrome, or other barriers. And we all want to write that next chapter, but we are scared of failing. 

There is nothing special about these challenges. Everyone faces them. Seeing Michelle wrestle with similar challenges in her life and then seeing the young adults that she engaged with also wrestle with them crystallized this common human condition for me. I’ve been circling it for a while, but never quite getting there. Getting close, but never close enough. I realized that my goal, my mission is to help people understand and accept their stories and then help them write the next chapter for themselves. To reinforce those superpowers that are hard to acknowledge and to be that Michelle Obama in your corner when needed.

Like that girl, this path was before me and I just wouldn’t accept it.  But if you look at some of the people that influenced me, it only makes sense. 

Nilofer Merchant’s work on Onlyness…

Brene Brown’s various works that have focused on vulnerability…

Liz Gilbert’s deep dive into creativity in Big Magic

Sanyin Siang’s exploration of how to launch and acknowledge your superpowers…

And many more.

They are all about finding and accepting your story and then sharing it with the world. You have to listen to your own story and believe it. 

As I’ve gone about the long and winding process to understand my own history, tell my story, and write the next chapter, I’ve learned that my strengths of learning, relating to others, understanding others’s strengths, connecting dots between people and concepts, and turning ideas into action are best applied in helping others take that same journey. 

Is that executive coaching or career coaching? Maybe a little of both, Regardless, I’ve already seen the impact in some of my clients in the ability to know their history, tell their story, and write their next chapter. It is so satisfying to me to see the proverbial lightbulb turn on and these clients make this change.

But there’s more that I’m excited about. Beyond the fact that this is good for individuals and their own utility, it’s also transformative especially for leaders. Why? Because the best leaders are the ones that know themselves the best. Leaders are praised and rewarded for their clear visions of where they want to go, but many have failed in knowing where they came from and taking careful stock of what currently is. 

But those who know not only where they have been but where they are going are better situated to be leaders. Those who have done this foundational work are confident of who they are and where they came from so they are more humble and empathic as leaders. And you can’t get where you want to go or even define where you want to go in the first place without knowing where you came from. 

Similar to my family’s weekly ritual or Michelle Obama’s encouragement of the young woman, helping my clients uncover these recognitions in pursuit of happiness and positive impact is my hope and dream. Let’s go!

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Upending the Status Quo

MLK Birmingham Jail.jpegPhoto credit: L. Cunningham, US Air Force

As someone whose mission is bringing about positive change in communities around transportation and mobility, I think a lot about the status quo. In mobility, the status quo is the exorbitant funding for roads compared to public transit. It’s the loss of vulnerable lives walking and riding bikes for the convenience of speeding autos. And it’s the systematic prioritization of white neighborhoods at the expense of communities of color. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted our communities in a very short time. The challenges are immense and already well-documented. Though North Carolina has been spared some of the worst of the pandemic so far, we recognize and honor those challenges. They are real and they hurt. 

And yet, we have to acknowledge this pandemic has inspired some positive outcomes. Some of the positive changes are public: 

Traffic went poof.

Water is clear.

Air is cleaner than ever.

Car crashes are down significantly.

And some of the changes are more personal in nature: 

Families are rediscovering game nights

Outdoor exercise is flourishing

Happy hours are being reinvented on Zoom.

When we have this experience to look back on, these positive changes will recalibrate some of those “the way things always have been” conversations. It is already putting into stark relief some of the things that we accepted as inherent to the status quo just may not be.  

For instance, many working parents and disability advocates are finding out that work from home limitations were not technical in nature, but a lack of imagination at best and discrimination at worst. Some cities are finding that sidewalks that aren’t wide enough for proper social distancing require more aggressive measures by taking away roadspace. And Spain is planning a Universal Basic Income to ensure that everyone can pay their bills, even when the pandemic runs its course.


Still, while some aspects of the status quo are changing, more troubling parts of the status quo–especially around issues of equity–still remain.  

  • Areas of the country, especially communities of color, already dealing with a lack of healthcare investment are now some of the hardest hit by COVID-19. 
  • Frontline, lower-wage workers like transit operators, grocery store clerks, and food preparers and deliverers are struggling under the weight of lost wages, a lack of personal protective equipment, and higher rates of exposure
  • Kids who traditionally relied on their school for internet access and food are now navigating an impressive—but still community-driven—effort to cover these critical resources. 

As we collectively struggle with this pandemic which can infect all of us equally, but will affect us all differently, I’ve found Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” instructive as he dealt with the similarly virulent scourge of racism:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 

When we pull one string to close schools, we loosen our social safety net a tad. And when we don’t pay living wages or appropriately honor those nameless workers who we all depend on now, we all pay the price. And when we chronically underinvest in the communities that need it the most, the status quo digs in a little deeper. 

So, even during these challenging times, let’s celebrate those areas where we’re already upending the status quo and let’s commit to ensuring that everyone benefits from the needed changes still to come.

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Above the clouds

It was one of those days where you’re not sure whether you should be flying or not. It was midday, but the sky was dark, the rain is falling, and the wind was howling. You just have to trust that your pilot has been through this before and can handle it.

We push back from the gate and start our taxi. As we hurtle down the runway, our speed forces the rain on the window to move from vertical to horizontal. We start heading up into the teeth of the storm.And then we break through the clouds and it’s sunny and clear. None of the gray clouds or rain are present. It’s as if we are in a different world.  

This should be self-evident. This is simple science. I’m sure I learned about this in sixth-grade science. But, if you can’t tell, I wasn’t always paying attention when I was in school. 

But it isn’t self-evident. When you are in the midst of the storm, it feels like it is that way everywhere. And that’s true whether we’re talking about weather or we’re talking about the storms in our mind.    

The trick is remembering that the storms aren’t everywhere. It’s always clear above the clouds. 

So how do you stay above the clouds?

Photo credit

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How Will You Measure Your Life?

Articles about finding purpose in your life are a dime a dozen.  And most of them are too disjointed from reality to be valuable.“How Will You Measure Your Life?” is different (registration required).

The Harvard Business Review published Clayton Christensen’s adaptation of a speech that he gave to the Harvard Business School MBA Class of 2010.  The class asked Christensen to give them advice on applying Christensen’s research and insight not to their business careers, but instead to their personal lives.As a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen has long been recognized as one of the foremost thinkers in disruptive innovation.  But his essay, the 2010 McKinsey Award winner for best Harvard Business Reviewarticle, displayed a thoughtful and honest analysis of a less academic topic.

Three areas in particular resonated with me.

Life’s Purpose
While a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Christensen spent an hour each night pondering what his life’s purpose should be.  Never having been to Oxford, I can only imagine Christensen in a dim room, lit by a single lamp, huddled over his books and notebooks spread before him on the desk. The result of this investment was clear to Christensen:

It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned. I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.

In the same way that a business can’t be successful without a strategy, neither can a person without a purpose.  And without a strategy or a purpose, it’s too easy to make decisions that aren’t consistent with your long-term goals.

Marginal cost of bad decisions
The challenge is that these long-term goals are always under attack by short-term decisions.  Christensen relates that thinking only of the marginal cost of a particular bad decision, which is admittedly low, ignores the long-term effects of multiple bad decisions.  Jeffrey Skilling, Christensen’s classmate at HBS, likely didn’t set out to defraud Enron employees and shareholders of billions of dollars.  But he ended up there by making many small decisions that conflicted with his moral code or purpose.  In fact, once that line is crossed, it’s hard to stop.  There will always be extenuating circumstances.

When you lack a clear purpose, incentives can also impact you negatively. Christensen warns that high achievers will always choose their career when they want to achieve something unless they have a clear strategy for choosing something else. The reason is simple: you get immediate feedback.  Christensen relates his experience as a parent where it took decades to see how well he parented his children.  As a parent myself, I am faced with this challenge daily. If I refuse to read Knuffle Bunny Too for the 37th straight evening and instead opt to answer a work email, will it impact my daughter down the road?  To some degree, undoubtedly.  And not for the positive.

Christensen’s essay forces the reader to think about important topics that, for many of us, get thought about much too infrequently.  Check it out and let me know what you think.