I Feel Scared and Inadequate

I was in the midst of leading a transformational change effort at the Star Tribune newspaper. I looked down the hall from my office door and saw a company consultant. I had met with him a few times to keep him abreast of our company-leading work with employee engagement.

I called out to him with a stern voice. He came toward me with a concerned look on his face. I said, “I have a bone to pick with you. You never told me at the beginning of this change effort that I would feel scared and inadequate so much of the time.” He laughed and said, “At least you are aware of it and are learning.”

That exchange took place more than 20 years ago, and I still feel scared and inadequate often. Actually, I often choose to feel scared and inadequate.  I chose to be a continuous learner and left the corporate world to use myself as my own learning laboratory and to reinvent and renew my life often, which I have done for the past 20 years.

Feeling scared and inadequate often goes with the territory of a life journey unique to each person. We imagine the path we will take, make our own rules and determine our own travel plan. We set out and learn that we must plan, act, reflect, and adapt often. We come to understand our journey is an organic process: messy, inefficient, and filled with unexpected twists and turns. We encounter surprise challenges and meet mentors along the way. We have no guarantees of where our journey will take us. We need to be brave on the odyssey that never ends.

I made major changes in all aspects of my life in the years after I went out on my own. I realized that my feelings of fear, anxiety, and inadequacy were shallow reactions to immediate realities and concerns and that at a deeper and more fundamental level I felt the confidence born of living true to my values, purpose, and vision for my life. Somehow I knew I would be okay and I always was. I’ve grown more comfortable being uncomfortable. Feeling uncomfortable is required to live a good life.

Today, I am at a different stage of life: I am learning to live well in new circumstances and I have goals and things to adapt to. But I am experienced. I will learn, adapt, and stay true to myself as best I can and trust everything will be just fine.

Valerie Jarrett on Being Flexible in Life

Valerie Jarrett to Wellesley College graduates on May 31, 2013:

If you are willing to be flexible, you will find your true passion. So don’t restrict your options, and limit your potential, with arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines. During my senior year of college, I made what I thought was the perfect plan. First, I would head straight to law school, then find the love of my life, marry by the time I was 26, have my first baby by 30, ever mindful of my biological clock, and make partner at a great law firm by 31. Well, I went straight to law school. I married the figurative boy next door. After three years of practicing at an excellent law firm, I moved to another firm that I thought was even more prestigious. And my daughter was born just before my 29th birthday. Right on schedule, huh? Not so fast! By 30, I was separated from my husband, and I clearly remember sitting in my lovely office with a magnificent view, staring at a very lucrative pay stub, and bursting into tears because I was just miserable. So, I had to make a decision. Keep following my plan, or be honest with myself, and search for my true passion. A year earlier, at the recommendation of the senior woman partner in my firm and my first real mentor, I had participated in a young leaders program that exposed me to a diverse range of business, civic and political leaders, all working to make Chicago better. That experience motivated me to finally consider public service. So, I took a leap of faith, and began my career in the public sector. I moved out of my cushy office, and into a tiny cubicle facing an alley. But from my very first day, I knew that I was right where I belonged.

And as a bonus, four years later, I hired a brilliant young lawyer with whom I instantly bonded, because she too had become disenchanted with the law firm life, and wanted to serve her community. Her name was Michelle Robinson, and when we met, she was engaged to a skinny guy with a funny name– Barack Obama. And the rest, well, you know the rest.

But the lesson really is that it is healthy to explore, so that you may discover unanticipated detours that will actually hasten your achievement of your dreams. Do not blindly ignore opportunities to change course, and certainly do not let others impose their priorities on you. From the neurobiologist who becomes an author of children’s books, to the editor of law review who decides to run for state senator, to the mother of three who decides to go back to school when her children are older because she always dreamed of being a doctor, to the mom or dad who decides to scale back their responsibilities at work in order to spend more time with their children. These are not decisions that should be judged by others. These decisions are all choices made by people living their lives on their terms.

But to do this will require you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and to be resilient.

Life often surprises us. As I look back on my life and career I never expected to do most of what I did.

Life is not controllable and predictable. Life is messy, inefficient, and nonlinear.

Plan what you can; take bold action, reflect on your experiences, and change your course as necessary.

Travel boldly.

Life as Art: Feeling Alive

Feeling alive came natural as a kid — a time when we live a life of learning and adventure as we explore and master our worlds. We venture out bravely, don’t know the rules, adapt as we go, and have fun living out our fantasies of being courageous heroes and heroines who do good for others.

Somewhere along the way conformity and compliance become the rule — about the time we go to school, I imagine. I believe from then on many of us sacrifice much of our courage and authenticity as we try to fit in to be accepted by others in order to “succeed.”

Perhaps like you, I’ve always chafed against the rules of conformity and compliance even as I’ve tried to find a place for myself in this world. I’ve taken a long journey to regain my natural and authentic sense of purpose.

In the middle of my life, I left the pseudo-safety of the paternalistic corporate world that demanded more dumbing down than I could stand and set out to create a new life for myself. I was not a wealthy man and my choice to venture out alone was not without risk. I realized that if I failed financially no one would remember in a few short years. But if I did not take the journey into the unknown, I would live with my cowardice and the disappointment of my own unfulfilled potential for eternity (See my post Life as Art: What Do I Want?).

Today, almost 20 years after I began my adventure filled journey, I am grateful for good health; a happy marriage; children and grandchildren I love; two great dogs; financial security; and time to do the things I love. And yet, I still pay attention to my inner stirrings and live my life in such a way as to renew myself often and naturally.

Such a journey of self-discovery beckons many today-not necessarily the external changes that I made but the inner growth of awareness and consciousness. The world struggles in the midst of many transformations with outcomes unknown. Seemingly unsolvable problems threaten our way of life. Regressive politicians try to return us to a world that no longer exists. Technology threatens our humanity. Our previous life paths exist no more. We cannot go back. We must seek out new journeys for ourselves.

The details of each person’s journey are exclusive to them but each of us shares the goals of deeper authenticity, a noble life of integrity, and the expression of our unique contribution to life. We want to feel alive. The inner work is hard. Perhaps as difficult as anything a human being will do in life — as a person, leader, or follower. This personal development requires the courage of a pioneer, the honesty of a child, the imagination of an artist, and the confidence of the naïve, and often begins from deep despair, disillusionment, and a fundamental change of mind. The journey gives one a special energy and changes the traveler forever.

We become the artists of our own lives. We plan as best we can, take bold action, reflect on what happens, and adapt our next steps. Our creative process is messy, inefficient, and non-linear and it redefines us. We stay true to our values and our purpose in life and expand our vision for life as we move toward it. We become artists in redefinition. We create, and we feel alive.

Feeling alive isn’t just about feeling good. Feeling alive is about feeling all of the life around us.


LIfe as Art: What Do I Want?

I’ve coached many unfulfilled people over the years.

I always asked, “What do you want?”

They often responded, “I don’t know what I want.”

We then began a journey for them to discover what they wanted for their lives, to create a vision of their future, and to develop a plan to move from the life they had to the life they wanted.

I’m not surprised that people don’t know what they want in their lives. Asking ourselves what we want is a creative act. But we live in a reactive culture; we solve problems: we fix broken stuff, make things that hurt go away, and we want the remedy to be fast, cheap, and painless. We don’t create our lives from scratch; we try to fix the lives we often stumbled mindlessly into. We follow the paths of least resistance. But creating a life requires us to walk into resistance.  And when we do know what we want, we often give up our pursuit of it quickly because we feel stressed by the gap between the life we have and the life we want. Instead of learning to manage the tension we feel, we lower the vision–wrong thing to do. We should learn to deal with our inner tension and rarely, if ever, lower our goals.

I wanted to leave the corporate world at age 47 and go back to school and get a Ph.D. I was afraid to quit my job. I was good at the work, and I made a good living. But my spirit wanted something different and something more. I worked with two consultants and spent two years thinking about my purpose in life, my core values, and creating a vision for my life for the next few years. I set four goals: 1) Get a Ph.D., 2) Begin to write, 3) Try out consulting, and 4) go to Africa to photograph wildlife. I could not have imagined those goals six months earlier: we must go through the struggle of our own unique creative process.

I completed the Ph.D. 3 1/2 years later. I’ve been writing ever since. I made a living consulting for 13 years, and I went to Africa and took more than 4,000 wildlife photos. And along the way, unexpectedly, I got divorced, lived on the side of a mountain in Colorado for 14 months, moved to Fargo, North Dakota, and married Melanie. I lived in Moorhead, Minnesota for seven years and when a record flood of the Red River forced us from our home, we renewed our lives and ended up in Plymouth, Minnesota with a new job for Melanie and new adventures for me.

Sound easy?

Well, let me tell you: I was scared stiff more times than I can remember. I did battle with my internal resistance and the opposition of others. I suffered the anxiety of possibility along the way. I had little idea of what I was getting into or how hard it would be.  How could I have known? I had stepped into the unknown. I adapted as I went. I suffered the “humiliations of the novice” as I learned. Life was messy and inefficient. I never lowered my goals. I stayed true to the values and the purpose I had defined for myself. I battled the forces of conformity. I learned to manage the difficult growing pains. Only charlatans tell you that deep personal change is easy.  I’ve renewed my vision for my life many times since then, and I’ve learned how to manage feeling inadequate much of the time. I live by a simple model: plan what I can, take action, reflect on what happens, and adapt accordingly. I feel alive.

What do you want?

Welcome to Tom’s Thoughts

Heather turned to me and asked, “Do you want to send it?”

Heather once worked in a large business unit I led at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We lost track of one another about 20 years ago. We reconnected by chance last summer. Heather is now a writer, editor, and a photographer. I hired her to edit two book manuscripts.  On May 28, 2013, we were sitting at my dining room table ready to upload  Learning to Live: Essays on Life and Leadership for publication as an e-book at Amazon.com. Heather not only edited the manuscript, she also designed the cover, wrote an introduction, and formatted the text. I call this a legacy book: it is a way for me to save and leave behind a time of my life filled with adventures and peak experiences.

For the past 20 years, I’ve used my life as my own learning laboratory filled with study, intensity, and constant reflective learning all necessary to compose a life of my own. My art was not only the book I was about to publish but the intentional living that the book expresses. Every life is one of creative potential and we should put as much passion into designing our lives as painters, sculptors, writers, and artisans famous and obscure do with their creations.

I asked my wife Melanie to come to the room. “We are ready,” I said nervously. “I want you to give the command.” Melanie clicked the computer mouse and the manuscript uploaded flawlessly. A few hours later my book was ready to meet the world.

Welcome to “Tom’s Thoughts.”

Twenty years ago after much work, I wrote a purpose statement for my life: To live a life of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual adventures and to share what I learn with others. I will use this blog to offer my thoughts about life and leadership.

I invite you to engage with me.