Possibilities for Greatness

I’m starting a new project. It’s exciting and a little scary. I’ve written before about the rush of energy I get from starting something new:

The beginning of every new undertaking has a particular type of energy. An open-ended sense of possibility. This energy allows us to step into an uncertain future. There’s a challenge ahead and we don’t know exactly how things will turn out — but we have wits, some knowledge, some structure, and tools.

The energy-of-beginning is important to getting things rolling, but we can’t linger in it. We need to get to work; to become productive. For me this means establishing near-term goals, work practices to achieve them, and habits that allow the work to become part of my daily routine. The quicker this happens, the easier it is to replace the energy-of-beginning with the energy-of-generating.

These paragraphs capture a key aspect of the beginning phase of projects, namely, the exciting release of energy. But they miss something just as important: how scary the beginning can be.

Where does the fear come from? I can name several aspects of the anxiety I feel right now. However, as I think about it, the fear comes down to a single word: insecurity.

This isn’t the type of project where I should be concerned about my physical well-being; I feel entirely secure in that respect. Instead, my apprehensions have to do with psychological well-being, especially in my relationships with other people. Typical mental chatter: What do I know about this subject, anyway? What if I let my stakeholders down? What if I embarrass myself? Etc. Classic impostor syndrome.

At this point in my career, I have confidence in many of my abilities. (Enough so that I have to remind myself to adopt a beginner’s mind.) But there’s an ironic twist in this stage of a person’s development: there are diminishing returns to taking on “comfortable” projects. (That is, the ones where I can bring my current abilities to bear.) Every new project that looks like “another one of those” keeps me from stretching in new ways. No stretching = little growth. And growth matters.

Of course, the risk is of actually falling flat: overcommitting, taking on too much risk, making too broad a leap into the unknown. The further along you are in your career, the greater the penalty for letting people down. As Will Rogers said, “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.” The incentive, then, is to play it safe. But safe ≠ great.

I’m reminded of this thought from Robert Iger’s book, The Ride of a Lifetime:

Don’t be in the business of playing it safe. Be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness.

I love this. Greatness isn’t guaranteed, but we can try to create the conditions that make it possible. Aiming for great requires taking risks. It’s scary, exciting, — and worth it.