Bonfire Blogs #2

This is the third in my series of blogs on the ‘Bonfire with Soul’ course I did courtesy of Duke Stump and the Do Lectures late in 2020. This is about the second of the twelve principles that Duke shared and illustrated through a 15-minute video synopsis and then a 45-minute video of a call between Duke and an exemplar of that principle.

This time we are building on from making the product as true to your values as you can and broadening the scope of your individual and organisational ambition.

‘Widen the Lens’

This principle opened with the challenge:

“Are we being moderately successful, or are we flourishing?”

Duke Stump

I really like the word ‘flourishing’ here; in my interpretation it’s not ‘excelling’ or ‘winning’ or an external measure of success; it’s an internal measure, are we doing as well as we can with what we’ve got? Duke continues the challenge with the suggestion that sometimes we all play small as individuals or as organisations, we narrow our expectations, or others narrow them for us, and we busy ourselves trying to do something or be something when there might have been a more compelling vision if only we’d widened the lens and opened the aperture a little more.

Reflecting on this in the midst of a global pandemic was more than a little challenging; it has felt for a lot of us that we really don’t have much control right now and our options have been narrowed right down. The idea of flourishing feels a long way off! However, when your world seems to be narrowing down around you what better time to try and widen the lens and make the best out of what you can still do? I found I got a lot of perspective in lockdown, as Duke suggested sometimes we “confuse activity for productivity” and I found that lockdown helped me recognise this in myself.

This idea is also captured by the analogy of the two films as described by the exemplar interview with Claire and David Hieatt, founders of the Do Lectures themselves. In this analogy you are on your deathbed, and you get to see two films, one is your life, and one is your life and all its achievements if you had used every opportunity that had come your way and used all of your skills and talents to their fullest extent. How can we narrow that gap between the two films whilst we’re still alive, because the gap between the two is the saddest thing we’ll likely experience.

Duke takes up this challenge with his ‘burning question’:

“What does the world need most that you are most uniquely qualified to deliver?”

Duke Stump

Or more succinctly; “what’s your niche?” because it is not about dominance, it’s about finding and delivering on a purpose that will help you to be happy. It reminds me a lot of Dan Pink’s trinity of ‘Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose’ as the core of finding motivation. It reminds me too of the logic of the Personal Business Model Canvas as a process for working out how to transform your unique skills, experiences, interests, and networks into something of value that others might reward you for. This is also something that David Hieatt has discussed at length in his book Do: Purpose. This ‘flow’ from your capabilities and causes to a productive work-life is what Duke also talks about as finding your “effortless self”.

I have worked with similar processes before in an effort to align my work and life in such a way as I might be happier or more successful. I’ve also done this work with students and coaching clients. The barrier to making progress with that process is usually one of three obstacles:

  1. Lacking the confidence in (or sometimes consciousness of) our own abilities and talents to decide to double-down on them and make something more of them.
  2. Even if we profess some confidence in our abilities we still look around and think that there are other people who do these things better than us so there is little point us competing and so we give up.
  3. Perceiving that we can’t cut away enough of our current responsibilities (jobs, caring responsibilities, relationships and duties) to make the change of commitment.

Now, these three are obviously connected, but there are three fallacies with this view:

  1. We always have agency to make changes, they may not be easy or palatable decisions but they’re available nonetheless and choosing not to change is in itself a choice. For some a radical change can be made, for others a stepping-stone approach to change is better.
  2. Almost no-one is better than everyone else at any given skill or competency (unless you’re an Olympic champion) so don’t look to be the best, look instead for the combinations of skills, experiences, interests, and networks that you have and you’re more likely to find something unique at which you can excel. This isn’t that easy either, but it’s far more likely!
  3. There is room for more than one person in the world to be good at something. The world needs more than one plumber and one doctor! Be a good one and you are likely to still make a living. As Claire and David put it: “you don’t have to be exceptional to be successful, you just have to be brave.”

Duke reflected on that idea of unhelpful comparison, describing it memorably as “the thief of joy”. He also talked about the problem of organisations who focus too much on their competition, forever fretting about rivals, and building ‘moats’ to defend themselves. He suggests that those organisations have lost their pioneering energy and purpose and by digging in defensively their company culture turns fearful and introverted. I think that happens in individuals as well, they get stuck defending where they are and lose sight of the fact they could be somewhere else.

In the midst of a pandemic, in an organisation working feverishly to not come off the road and trying to position itself against rivals this all really hit home for me as a reason for feeling rather downcast.  I would always want to come back to the core of the vision (for me or for my organisation), re-commit to that by whatever means, and be an opportunity-seeking pioneer rather than a fearful incumbent forever measuring myself against others. After that reflection I found myself connecting back to my reasons for joining my organisation, re-committing to it’s mission, and using that story more powerfully to think about what I wanted from work.

It’s that alignment between your purpose and that opportunity that motivates you, your culture, and likely your customers, which will resonate and enable loyalty and commitment. Not a fearful culture of moats and defences. I really liked David Hieatt’s focus on “growing the people, not the business” as a similar call to putting your focus in the right place if you want to live your best life.

“Think about ‘how influential can we be?’, not ‘how big can we be?”

Claire and David Hieatt

Connecting directly to the mission of the Centre where I work David and Claire went on to bemoan their view that business schools are “not developing mavericks”; they’re preparing students to work in the companies that already exist rather than supporting students who want to “act on their purpose”. Now I think that’s something we ARE doing at the Centre; we are trying to enable and equip students to change the world. That doesn’t mean ignoring the competition and being commercially naïve, it means seeking and making a meaning beyond simple strategy so that your culture is attractive to staff and customers, your brand is authentic and compelling, and you can tap that effortless loyalty to building something that makes a difference.

‘Widening the Lens’ means embracing a bigger purpose, defining yourself by the impact and influence you can have on that purpose, and not fretting about being the biggest or best.

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