When you first choose, (or land in), a profession the immediate need is to narrow your focus. It’s natural to want to master the skills necessary to succeed. The search begins for tools, resources and role models that will help you get and stay on track.
If you’re in a leadership role you might dig into books, seminars, and articles that focus on how to lead and manage people. In the beginning, you gravitate to the how-to, step-by-step formulas that are easy to understand and incorporate into your daily rituals and routines.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you advance to higher-level skills and test yourself against bigger opportunities and more complex challenges. Over time, you sort out the tools that work best for you, until you have a recipe that’s repeatable and somewhat predictable.
This narrowing process is absolutely necessary and helpful to your early development. It allows you to navigate new territory, build your confidence and establish credibility. Until you’ve developed the core skills necessary for sustained success, this should be your primary focus.
Yet for too many people the journey stops here.
Once you find your zone, you get stuck trying to make everything fit the paradigm with which you’ve grown comfortable.
You see through the filter of your models and beliefs.
You become addicted to seeking predictability and certainty.
You categorize things (and people) so they fit within your formulas.
Narrowing provides a foundation. Skip it at your peril. But it was never intended that you remain locked in that stage of your development. This stagnation happens to individuals and organizations. It happens in our personal lives, our relationships, our business and our careers.
If you are struggling to find joy, passion, creativity or energy in your work, (or life), there is a good possibility you are trapped in this narrow zone of being. You might be blaming your boss or your job for a problem that really wasn’t created by your circumstances. It was created by your mindset.
Expanding means intentionally putting yourself in circumstances that challenge your preconceived ideas about how things are done or should be done. It means looking for the flashes of insight on the periphery of your vision and opening to the possibility that other people know things you don’t. It means framing experiences in new ways and connecting ideas that once seemed opposed or unrelated.
In essence, you are asking yourself to let go; to trust what you know and to trust there is much you have yet to learn. You are creating new mental pathways that present new alternatives and inform your perspective. The world didn’t change but now you can see more of what it has to offer.
Here are a few tips to kick off your expansion:
- Read poetry, philosophy, biographies, famous novels.
- Write a book.
- Work in a non-profit or service organization.
- Revisit things you loved or wanted to do when you were young.
- Visit companies that operate outside your area of expertise.
- Do some things you normally prefer to avoid.
- Risk rejection. Risk connection. Risk trust.
- Learn a new language.
- Try meditation or yoga.
- Visit a 12-step recovery meeting.
- Travel to another country, or three.
- Learn to dance.
- Take the opposite challenge.
You probably noticed I just made a bunch of stuff up to create this list. That’s because what you don’t need is another recipe. All these ideas could help you break out of the rut but there are many more possibilities. The goal is to widen your experiences and vision to the degree that you are no longer comfortable or happy with the program you’ve been running.
A note on that last item. The Opposite Challenge is a fun little game I have used from time to time to rattle my assumptions. For every conclusion I reach I force myself to consider the opposite or opposing view. I’ve found many times that the counterintuitive approach was really the better solution, but generally only after I ignored it the first time around. It’s really quite scary and fun to realize that you can’t always trust what your mind is telling you.
Both narrowing and expanding benefit our lives. Narrowing means giving up some things in the short term so that we can focus on what is important at a specific stage of our lives or career. Expanding keeps us connected with our need for growth, learning, meaning and adventure. As we cycle through these phases, it is important not to get stuck but to realize that both are necessary for our fulfillment and progress.