Become Someone Who Can Deal With It

I’ve recently applied to a job opening at Unsettled – it sounded like a marvellous (and fun) opportunity to learn more about teaching and coaching people, part time, and I seem to still absolutely have the travel bug. They’ve asked three questions and applicants to pick one for the cover letter. I really wanted to go with “the most important thing I’ve learned from leadership”. To talk about how, through yoga, mentoring and our company, Drungli, I’ve learned that sometimes your job is not to push but to make your people stop. But I just couldn’t make it work even after a whole lot of trial, so I’ve resorted to another of the options.

I still think knowing when to stop is a valuable lesson: in certain circumstances, you must cut your losses and however hard, gift a fresh start to everyone involved. But maybe my reasoning didn’t really come together because I knew there must be something more interesting and productive I’ve acquired from being in leadership roles. Well, I needed a fantasy book to remind me, The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson. His heroine, Shai, is a Forger and thief of exceptional skill and knowledge.* In moments of the gravest danger she has a mantra, become the person who can deal with this.

It took me back to my first handful of times teaching yoga to others, practising before my certification exams. Somewhere in there it dawned on me: the person opening the door to her friends and the person stepping onto the mat was different. Even though I was inexperienced, I sensed that in order to hold the space, deliver instructions and gently correct, I need to become someone else, somebody more. This fantasy of a good teacher, modelled on my favourite classes and yogis. Maybe I didn’t have all the knowledge, maybe it was only a handful of times that I’ve practised, but it didn’t matter. I had a mental model of 1) what is expected from a yoga teacher 2) what kind of teacher and person I myself wanted to become.
I realised I can slip into this character at will – from then on it became less nerve wrecking to prepare for the exams.

Why is this such an important lesson? Because we can all do this in times of challenge or crises. We can picture that person underneath our layers of worry, self-doubt and -critique. We can give it a fiercer sounding name – think Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce. We can decide to slip into character and lean in, if only just for a little while at first.

It is a little bit like faking it till you make it, minus the fact that we tend to associate faking with less effort, trying to get away with something. It does require enormous energy to first define who this persona (or personas) of yours is, based on your goals and aspirations. It demands courage to show that face at the next meeting or social function, instead of going with the default settings. But thinking about certain tasks and challenges as a role to perform can make you dramatically more likely to succeed.

A lot of us do this, more or less subconsciously, anyways. Doctors, expected to display a calm, reassuring, still slightly dominant presence. Bartenders and waiters, switching on “friendly” mode even if they had a really bad day. Entrepreneurs pitching, digging up all the faith and passion they can find to convince others about believing in their ideas too. Often our job description and company culture provide the guidelines for this role we are expected to play. Most of the time, the explicit expectation gives us permission to slip into the role and doing it for the others (colleagues, employees, bosses) help us do better. Which begs the question, why is it so difficult when you set out to create something by yourself? I think it’s simply harder, figuring out what this superhero self is supposed to be like when you don’t have the base of external guidelines and expectations. First, you need to justify saving yourself. Then, you have to think long and hard about what are the challenges you are about to face and what kind of person you need to become to face them. Or more precisely, which aspects of your personality do you need to come out and play.

I don not know what kind of challenges you are facing. I don’t know who you are and what your fantasy self needs to do better than your everyday persona. But I do know there are certain straightforward things you can do to prepare.

Amy Cuddy talked brilliantly about power poses in her TED talk. We learned from her that you can achieve 19% increase in testosterone, and a 25% decrease in cortisol, just by taking up a power pose** for 2 minutes, thereby making yourself actually feel more powerful and less stressed. This, in turn, leads to a lasting effect of more powerful presence, self-confidence and more assertive communication. Go ahead, it’s only 2 minutes from your life, it can’t hurt to try.

Costumes – both how we feel in them and how other people perceive our look – are powerful. There is a reason why doctors wear white coats, role play goes sexier and less cheesy if you put on the sexy maid costume for it instead of just picking up a feather duster. Why certain jobs still require employees to put on at least business casual clothing. There is a powerful interaction between how we feel in clothing that matches the role we need to play to succeed and how other perceive us in them. When intention and reaction match up, it serves as the perfect feedback loop. I dress like I’m competent and can hold my shit together – you treat me like I’m competent and can hold my shit together: I’m justified in my belief that indeed, I can keep my ducks in a row. There is no definitive outcome yet, but studies seem to show dressing the part is indeed important for success, especially in a situation when you need to be perceived as powerful. Sure it is the result of a social construct, but wouldn’t you take advantage now that you know that?

Spend some time with invisible work. It is not enough to adopt the mantra and decide that from now on you’ll have this superhero self at your beck and call. You need to have fairly good ideas about what this role should look like to be able to embody it to any real effect. Choose a good day, normally less riddled by self-doubt, talk to a friend, colleague, client who thinks highly of you. Try to see what is already there from the fantasy, as others can often see it sooner and better. Then write yourself a job description to this self, a guardian and fighter who can push through the things you find challenging. It’s a lot like creating a brand actually: you want to focus on a handful of values you want to represent and use them as guidelines for behaviour. Think about the desired effect and what you can do to achieve that. However, there is no need for one persona to know all the answers. When we ask what would Jane Austen or Steve Jobs do, we think about a very specific aspect of them, not the entire complex human being.

Going back to my yoga teaching example, I knew the key things are going to be radiating a certain calm, confident instructions and a lot of attention to the people in the room with me. The costume was my yoga gear – different from the one I practice in – and interestingly it all came with a change in the pitch of my voice too. Stepping on the mat I could let this persona take over. I wasn’t Orsi anymore, an inexperienced yogi thinking who am I to tell these people how to practice? I became the teacher, who simply guides and corrects and holds the space, because that is what’s needed.*** Of course, it is only one role for one specific situation. I need others for networking or times when I dread launching a new project so much it’s paralysing. And it helps to know exactly what this better version of me needs to do to get there.

I won’t say imaginary selves will magically solve all your problems, they really won’t. Especially not if the fantasy about who you could become is not rooted in reality, who you already are to some extent. But every now and then, being able to slip into a well-defined role will help you push away your worries, act more confidently, hold out longer when inspiration doesn’t just happen. Maybe you are not the person who can deal with it all the bloody time – honestly, I doubt any of us can. But for the really important moments, conscientiously choosing to play the role of a more compelling you, you can tap into a lot more strength.

 

* She breaks into the imperial palace and almost gets away with it, would her ally, the Fool not betray her. Captured, she has to apply herself to the challenge of recreating the Emperor’s lost soul. I love how forgers can only change materials or objects if they understood their histories and how do they perceive themselves. It’s a good book, read it.

**Like standing with your hands on your hips, feet shoulder-width apart, chin tilted upwards or the smug CEO pose, sitting with your feet on the table, hands clasped behind your head. Basically, poses taking up as much space as possible. I’d say that Warrior 2 is a great yoga position to achieve the same effect.

***Mind you, this doesn’t mean that you have to relinquish all vulnerability or always have all the right answers.

The Maffia Myth – part III.

This is the third part of a short essay, read the  first part here, the second one here.

what others think

One of my favourite stories mentors ever told me was from Gil Penchina. Paraphrasing it super shortly, when I told him about how I’m unsure if hunting investors is the best way to go for Drungli, because I really don’t like being told what to do, he told me what happens when your whole board of directors agree about something you really don’t see is necessary. Apparently, nothing. Provided things are lookin’ up and mainly go into a positive direction, you can say no. (Or say yes and just don’t do it, which I’m not sure will work unless you are the vice president and general manager of eBay or have a real genuine who gives a flying fuck attitude, but you know, worth a shot.)

In a more general sense, being too concerned about what others think about you, your business and your decisions is something far too common in the eastern half of Europe and it will hurt you in several ways.

Being afraid of judgement, especially from established industry players and the media will hold you back from experimentation. In the worst case, from doing anything at all. It will stop you from initiating conversations, ask for advice and gain better knowledge for the important battles you will have to fight.
Without trust in your own abilities and values that guide your decisions it is impossible to make real use of mentoring sessions and the huge amount of advice you get. We all have our own angle and priorities and not all great advice will work in your own case.
And, if your worst nightmare is people judging you and laughing into your face when you fail, you’ll be held back from action.

I heard another interesting thing from Gil: you can’t be a good CEO without loving the stage. And you can’t go into the arena being vulnerable by empowering everyone with judgement. You need to make a shortlist, know who’s opinion matters, and stick to that.

handle failure better

Our fear of judgement is probably directly connected to our obsession with perfection and total lack of acceptance for failure. Educational systems that are geared towards punishment instead of development, teaching lexical facts instead of consequences and connections do a lot of damage. So as of course periods of recent history where one stray step can alter your life significantly in a very bad way. Less dramatically, a traditionally respected career path, where one works for the same company for 30+ years until he retires can be easily held back or ruined by one mistake.

It is interesting to see how a widening of opportunities contribute to a higher tolerance for mistakes and bad decisions. In a flexible environment, where changes happen in a dizzying pace and having multiple careers is natural, you have no other choice than learn by trial and error.

I don’t buy into the popular there is no failure narrative. Denying real failure and the heart wrenching feelings it causes doesn’t help you to learn or close down a zombie business. It is one step too far to the other direction.
What I’d like to achieve is acceptance failure without the familiar warm wash of shame. To built on it, and not being dragged down by.

What I’m suggesting is not being pessimistic or wielding these issues as excuses. I believe learning through entrepreneurship is a great way to understand how opportunities come up and changes can be your aid. Consequently, it is also possible to pick upon guidelines, understand the basic principles and come up with novel creative and ethical solutions, melded to a shape that is most comfortable for our personal or wider, regional personalities.

Success in this sense  is knowing what do we have in our hands and working that to our advantage.

The Maffia Myth – part I.

Cultural patterns that CEE startups have to leave behind to succeed

When you have the good luck of living in different countries and frequently interact with people from widely different cultural backgrounds, you are prone to happen on interesting cultural differences – sometimes by embarrassing yourself ridiculously. Learning to navigate these cultural gaps and adapt models that work for other nations effectively is also a key factor for the development of CEE region startup communities.

As with all development, the first step is of course understanding ourselves, which does include assessing unique advantages as well as weaknesses. Being a die-hard realist, I thought about cultural and historical heritage that is hurting startups and entrepreneurs in Central and Eastern Europe, regardless of having global or local ambitions.

I’m Hungarian, born and bread and therefore my observations are based on the culture I know best. However, work and conversations with Polish, Bulgarian, Ukrainian and Slovakian entrepreneurs shows that we are struggling with very similar baggages.

CEE startup patterns

The Y generation is still painfully familiar with the twisted entrepreneurial image of the wardrobe sized mean bald guy, accessorized with thick gold chains and a black stolen Mercedes.[1] This picture  luckily is waning  slowly but surely with the strengthening startup scene and more and more public successes. It may still very well be a retaining power if family and friends – the circle who is supposed to give support to aspiring entrepreneurs – didn’t manage to step over it yet.

But a more interesting effect has been pointed out to me by Eze Vidra, Head of Google for Entrepreneurs Europe. During a talk he gave in Kiev he was encouraging young entrepreneurs to reach out to anyone they know, tap into the social circles of family and friends and use these ties to get customer interviews and market knowledge. The suggestion has been followed by awkward silence and then the remark: but we already have that, it’s called the maffia here.

When you come from cultures where for long decades your opportunity of emergence has been depending so heavily on who you know and how your family’s influence can help you, a natural reaction is trying to break free of these ties and achieve things all by yourself. I can actually recall feeling accomplished for getting my first real jobs without back-stair influence. Whereas in western cultures it is taken for granted that if you are just starting out, you need assistance. It is not a shameful act to ask for intros and borrow connections from family and friends.

For the sake of efficient customer development and advancing in sales, we have to cut ourselves some slack and find a comfortable middle ground. Being realistic about our options and exchanging in open and straightforward communication is key.

CEE startup communication patterns

A few years ago on an early morning I was walking over the urban railway bridge to our office with a colleague. The following few sentences for some reason has stuck to my mind:

me: Good morning, how are you today?

him: Sorry, I don’t do small talk.

me: …

I was flabbergasted back then but it only really got me thinking when I started to learn about the rules of small talk, the new etiquette of approaching people through the internet and actually leading interesting conversations with them. What I realized is that we are interestingly shy about small talk and conversation for the sake of entertainment. We tend to deem it a toy for the superficial socialites and salesmen from an intellectual high horse. It is probably partly a linguistic issue, rooted in how other languages adapted and exaggerated the expression small talk. At least in Hungarian, it definitely acquired a slight pejorative sense.

In reality purposeless conversation has important purposes: it helps to establish mutual goodwill, it acts as a bonding ritual and a conversation starter. Good conversation is based on interest and fair exchange. Consequently what we should be learning is not conserve phrases, even though they are very useful for first experiences or when you really don’t have the energy to be engaging just like that. What we need is an understanding why those expressions are used [2] as small talk base and find ways to construct new elements, more comfortable to use in our contexts and cultures.

Watching someone working the room with a somewhat cold efficiency is a weird experience, and can explain very well why we think so begrudgingly of small talk. But we can use available blueprints for guidelines and remember that the real context here is paying forward someone’s time and goodwill by caring about them. Then we can end up in functional conversations and find ways to advance together.

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Part II: I have nothing in my hands and rich people are evil.

Part III: What others think matter and I have nothing on my hands

[1] For the sake of not Eastern-European readers, this image is mainly due to the fact that socialism and communism wasn’t exactly glorifying entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship became the synonym to a wide array of negative attitudes, from being greedy, manipulative, maneuvering all the way to the downright criminal and the mob member.

[2] One of my favourite videos on the topic is from Ramit Sethi.

when did busy became the new sexy?

There are a handful of situations in your life when you are legitimately extremely busy but it just doesn’t make sense for me to be hyper-stressed and continuously engrossed in things all the damn time. I’m talking about the state when you are not even able to hold an interesting or potentially important conversation or haven’t done anything even remotely playful in weeks.

It’s a sad phenomenon that the majority of the jobs and the (at least) 8 hour workdays don’t reward effectiveness but the mirage of a hardworking employee. Thousands of people get away with looking permanently engulfed in work, or anyways, in something that looks like working and it is spreading far and wide. Somehow it became undeniably cool to sleep only 3 hours a night, not be able to sit down for a normal midday meal and having to reach for the calendar anytime you try to have a night out with friends. Even though we are all aware what stress does to our system and brains.

stressed

It was a normal state for most of my colleagues and myself in my ad agency years and apparently now the high street is ready to embrace the spirit of times.* For €17.95 at Zara you can demonstrate how super busy and therefore important and valuable you are.

It would be a way more beneficial to learn how to work smarter, not harder.** I’m probably in luck thanks to years of learning to be a better project manager, but I still struggle to construct daily schedules that are balanced and work well. Here are some of the thing I try to get better at:

1 – learn to prioritize

Years ago a pretty unsuccessful job interview made me realize that I actually suck in prioritizing long lists of things to do. I always found myself trying to get rid of small, fast and urgent tasks first – or as they landed in my mailbox. This meant that big and important bricks of projects were only doable in the evening, the office becoming silent and empty, not to mention how important, but personal items got always delayed on my lists. I still enjoy working during the night but I try not to hold of scary, difficult or really important things for that time, simply because the pressure from the job not being done messes with my whole day.

I understood finally that the let’s just quickly get my inbox in order first, will get to that workshop program later approach doesn’t work and I need systematic planning instead.

2 – learn yourself

There is not one universal rule system, we all have little quirks that need to be acknowledged to be able to build better schedules. I’m for example aware that I need 8 hours of sleep and it is clear that a switch between fundamentally different tasks is very not easy. Not to mention the crushing realisation that multitasking actually doesn’t exist – no wonder I needed to mute the music I’ve been listening to to speed up the writing a bit.

What I do today, based on what I know about myself thanks to 3 years of working alone and for myself, is building blocks. I try to look at my week as a unit, instead of my days and focus my efforts on similar things on any given day. There are days for meetings and others for writing tasks. I try to separate admin and creative tasks and leave enough warmup space for the latter. I’m aware that I need one day a week when I don’t do anything productive but I also know that research somehow doesn’t count. And the plans have space for yoga, reading, games and language learning.

I still steer from my schedules too easily, which suggests that I should really just quit being online on Skype all the time, but I’m getting way better at catching myself and instead of embracing stress, pulling out and starting over.

3 – focus

Easier said than done of course in a culture where multitasking and being busy is so sexy, though mindfulness and simpler living slowly seeps into the mainstream.
I spent years of fighting back a sort of detachment and learning to stay in the now and here, after I understood how it is hurting my relationships and performance. Still not there, but there are some things that help. I cook lunch even if I’m alone. I spend some time on the sunny afternoon terrace and stay silent. I try not to work when I’m with my family, start the morning with yoga, play games and go to exhibitions whenever I can. And I aim to say no when something is demanding my attention when in the middle of another task or project.

I know you are busy and I understand you are stressed. We all are and I’d rather you’d never be around me when I simply scream out of sheer frustration. But it’s probably time not to flaunt and embrace it but make steps for healthier, more organized and happier approaches.

* I’m aware that there is probably a decent amount of irony in any piece of clothing like this. It still transmits a wrong message.
** James Altucher helped me out here to have a super simple goal in mind, from Choose Yourself.

sugar free mojito

Let’s imagine that you are a bartender. The couple in front of you orders two mojitos, one without sugar. Rum, lime, water, syrup, no syrup, ready. How do you decide who to give the sugar free one?

Will you assume that the woman is watching her weight?

Will you assume she is watching her weight but consider it rude to make such an assumption, and put the one without syrup in front of the guy?

Would you just think that of course, he is a real man, no sugarcoating needed?

Would you ask maybe who wants which?

By the way, I ordered the one without sugar and it landed without question in front of my male company. (What can I say, I like my Mojito and lemonade less sweet.) It is interesting how mental images of gender and certain requirements attached to male and female roles effect simple little decisions like this.

Maybe Spain doesn’t really buy into the willowy slimness as ultimate female attribute of attractiveness. Maybe the male as a macho is such a strong mental connection that no matter how many girlfriends and sisters the waiter saw on diet, it’s evident that the guy will have the less sweet tooth in the end.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking this and he simply really didn’t care.

Mojito-with-lime-wallpaper_3289

birthdays

I believe in making the most out of your birthdays. A wise older friend of mine once told me that this is the day – or in some lucky cases, and i plan this one to be a lucky occasion, the week – when you gather all the energy from family and friends, to keep you going in the next 364 days.

I also came to believe that setting future points of times when you start doing something is totally counter-productive. Whenever I set a laziness deadline and said ok, I give myself one month, I start next week, I will really get on with it after my birthday…well, in reality I only gave myself permission to do nothing. Which is, mind you, is necessary sometimes, but not a good permanent strategy.

So instead, I build tiny bucket lists. I plan the month leading to the 30th January and set objectives. I choose things that would make me happy if they were done by that date. Like this site. Like more writing. Maybe I’m not going to be completely ready but that’s okay: I worked  and made progress, learned new things and set foundations to keep on pursuing my projects further.

I feel especially content with my work this January. I planted seeds for many new activities and made some decisions towards a more balanced, self-confident self and integrity. Maybe I inspire you to do the same next time your birthday draws near and instead of feeling panicky, sad or too late, you take a deep breath and work out what are the things you could achieve by that date. Things that will make you feel proud and happy. Worth celebrating.

Happy Birthday!

happy birthday!