Monday, May 27, 2019

Big goals: What would it look like to try?

“You should write a book.”

Over the past year, the frequency with which I’ve been told this has steadily increased. Until recently, my instant response had been “thanks, but I don’t think I’m cut out for that.” I enjoy writing, but pretty much all of that writing is limited to the scope of between 280 characters and a few thousand words…and, I kind of have this day job of being a faculty member.

Yet, every time I heard the words “you should write a book,” something stirred in me at the thought of how cool it would be to do that and the fact that maybe I do have 80,000 words worth of things to say. But, it was such a big goal that I had no idea how to start, and so I just kept dismissing it as impossible. And, as I do with all of these big goals that I don’t think are possible, I continued to give the outward answer of “thanks, but I’m not interested” while simultaneously saying to myself “yes, I definitely want to do that – I just don’t think I can.”

A few weeks ago, I announced on twitter that I’m going to write a book. Yes, I’m still terrified. But, I’m also super excited. So, how did I get from “this feels impossible” to “this is happening”? The answer is: people and planning.

Your big goal may not be to write a book, but chances are that like me, you do have a big goal that you don’t want to admit, but really want to pursue. So, I’m writing this blog post to share my experience and outline what helped me move from dream to action, with the hope that this can help you design a process for tackling your big goal as well. Here goes:

Speaking it into reality. My friend and fellow faculty member Rigoberto Hernandez has talked about the impact it had when a mentor suggested that he should go to MIT and study engineering, two goals that sounded unattainable to him as a high school student, but “that simple statement opened my mind to think it was possible.” As I’ve ventured into my journey to learn about leadership and mentoring, I have always looked up to the authors of the books I am reading, and perhaps I had a nascent thought of how cool it would be to also write a book myself. But, the idea never really crystallized for me until about a year ago when Shayla Shorter, a postdoc in our lab, started saying “Jen, you should write a book.” And then, every time I dismissed the idea as something I wouldn’t be good at or didn’t have time for, she said “Okay, maybe you’re not writing it right now, but you are going to eventually. I can tell.” Maybe you already know what your big goal is. But, if you don’t, maybe you need to find a colleague, friend, or mentor who knows you well, and ask them to help you figure it out and speak it into reality for you.

“What would it look like to try?” In the first several months that I started considering this idea, I still viewed it as completely impossible. I was stuck staring at an extremely daunting goal, and not even knowing how or where to start. I was also stuck thinking about all of the reasons why it wasn’t possible. Primarily, my job already keeps me so busy that I have very little margin. When would I find time to write a book?!? The key turning point was to stop thinking “I could never do this” and start asking “what would it look like to try?” Not making a commitment to do anything. Just thinking about what it would take on a practical level to give it a try. For me, a key realization is that I do have more control over my schedule than I thought. I recognized that I travel a ton. This was necessary pre-tenure, and also this year as I consider going up for full professor in the somewhat foreseeable future. But, I don’t have to keep doing this. As I thought about what it might look like to try, I realized that if I could be disciplined enough to cut back from my current 2-3 trips per month to only 1 trip per month, that would free up a couple of days each month that I could instead use to write. I realized that my big goal wasn’t inherently impossible – I just had to ask what it would take to make it possible, and decide if that was something I was willing to do.

Support crew. Up until this point, I had not told a single person that I was actually giving serious consideration to this idea of writing a book. Then, a few glasses of wine into a date night with my husband, I told him about my idea. To say that he was excited for me and supportive of me would be an understatement. I realized that I had been so skeptical of my own abilities and that I was assuming other people would do the same. Thankfully, that was not the case. In fact, as I had thought about the writing time I would gain by maintaining a more reasonable travel schedule, I envisioned sitting on my couch at home (much like I am right now) and typing away. He is the one who said “you could totally disappear to a cabin in the mountains for a couple of days each month to write.” Brilliant! And, since we do have two young kids, this support was key. I slowly started telling a few people in my inner circle about my idea and building the support crew I knew I would need through the ups and downs of tackling this project.

Getting practical. At this point, I had started putting some ideas on the page, but I still didn’t know how to tackle this big of a project. Along came my 1-day personal retreat earlier this year. I had never done this before, but I found an empty day on my calendar, and decided to set it aside to think about what I want for my future and how to get there. I spent the day working on a variety of different activities that I had planned for myself, and thinking broadly about what I want in each aspect of my job – my research program, my teaching, my leadership, etc. I decided that publishing a book was definitely part of the “where I want to be in 5 years” and I had the chance to form a strategy around this. It wasn’t fancy, and I’m sure it will change, but it boiled down to realizing my schedule is crazy until the end of 2019, so all I’m going to commit to is adding ideas to my outline every now and then as I think of things. Then, when my more realistic travel schedule sets in next year, I can commit to taking a couple of days each month to write a chapter or two (a goal that I know is reasonable based on my typical writing speed and the fact that I’ll be starting from a really good outline). This would have me finishing in late 2020 to mid 2021. I could live with that. I had a plan!

Committing. Now that I had a plan, all should have been great, right? Not so. Even with a plan, I still felt hesitant to commit. This is where having the right people around me became important again. A few months after my personal retreat, I was talking with Amanda Shaffer, who is my professional coach, and I said “well, if I do decide to write a book…” She stopped me right there and said something along the lines of “Let’s back up. Is that something that you’re really still deciding? It seems to me you’ve made the decision. You might not have decided when you’ll write your book. But, you’ve decided that you’re going to.” I needed to hear that. Even though I had a plan and I was going along with that plan and making progress, I was still giving myself an “out.” I still didn’t believe I could really do this. I needed to be challenged to commit. I needed to be told that I was ready to commit, and that took someone who could see what I could not.

The insecure part of my brain continues to tell me this is a ridiculous goal that I could never achieve. When this voice speaks up, I fight back with reality – I just sat down and wrote almost 1500 words in this blog post in a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon. I just need to keep doing that and I’ll get there. So, here I am. I’m writing a book!

What’s your big goal? Find the people in your life who can speak it into reality for you and support you in the process. Ask yourself what it would look like to try. Make a plan and commit.