Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Message #3 - Challenge Yourself!

This is the third in a series of messages. I'm posting roughly one a month.

For you, what is impossible?

No silly answers allowed. Some things clearly are impossible. We don’t know each other, but I’ll bet you can’t set a new world record for the 100 meter dash. Or achieve many other physical feats. So put those aside. And toss any others that aren’t subject to debate.

What’s left? More than you think. Much more. You’ve spent your entire life creating a wish list of what you’d like to have, except they’re out of reach. Beyond you. So unavailable that you never even consider the possibility they can be yours. For others, maybe, but not for me.

I’m not smart enough. I’m not brave enough. I’m not tall enough. I’m not pretty enough. I’m not talented enough. I’m not lucky enough. I’m not healthy enough. I’m not young enough. I’m not old enough.

You’ve got all these assumptions about your limitations firmly anchored in your mind. How did they get there? Are they part of your DNA? Of course not. They exist because you put them there.

Challenge Yourself! To confront and move beyond these conclusions about yourself doesn’t require deep analysis trying to figure out how they got there. I’m not declaring war on psychiatry. I’m saying that if you’re the one who has concluded that something is not possible, you can also be the one who concludes it is possible.

Self imposed limitations are reversible. At the same time, moving something from impossible to possible doesn’t guarantee a positive result. It only means you are not giving up before you try.

When I look back on my own life I see that I took on seemingly impossible challenges over and over again.

In the 1950’s we still had a draft in this country, and I was drafted into the army. I chose to skip Officer’s Candidate School in favor of being an enlisted man, thus serving two years rather than three. So there I was, PFC Miller, on a troop ship headed for Japan in late 1956.

There were three classes of passengers: enlisted men like me; the navy guys who ran the ship; and cabin passengers – officers and senior enlisted men, some of whom had dependents with them. I had been assigned to KP in the Cabin Passengers Mess. The food and ambiance were clearly superior to what my buddies down below were getting, but I hated KP. Really hated it.

I kept thinking about ways to get out of it. But this was a very small universe, and avoiding KP seemed impossible. Then, in what seemed to be an extraordinary stroke of luck, I heard there was going to be a troop show. Guys working on the troop show wouldn’t need to pull regular duty. That’s for me, I thought, the troop show.

I went to see some Captain who was in charge.

“I’d like to be in the troop show,” I said brightly.

“Well,” he said, “do you sing or dance or play an instrument?”


“Then what would you do in the show?”

I wasn’t going to let my mere lack of troop show talent stand in the way. I smelled a possibility for getting out of KP, and I wasn’t going to let it escape.

“How about I write a play,” I said even more brightly.

“We’ve never had a play before,” he said, almost to himself. “OK. Show me your play at 4 o’clock.”

I said I’d do that. Only one problem: I didn’t have a play, and it was almost 1 o’clock. I had three hours. I had no idea what to write. And given that space was at a premium, I didn’t have a place in which to write. What to do? I was driven to desperate measures. But I was motivated. I remembered there was a small ship’s library that was closed in the afternoon. That would be the perfect place.

I got permission to use the library. By 4 I had a three-act play, three five-minute acts called “Inching to Inchon.” Given that we were on a slow boat to Korea en route to Japan, plowing ahead at about 20 mph, it seemed an apt title. There were to be three performances of the troop show, one for each class of passenger. Therefore, I had to write something that would appeal to each class, which I did. It was a brilliant piece of work, I must say, born of the kind of commitment that made this country great: self-interest.

I cast my buddies. I arranged to rehearse in an empty hold way down near the bottom of the ship just above the bilge tanks. We rehearsed diligently every day and delivered three sparkling performances. It was a great artistic and manipulative success.

I had challenged myself and done the impossible.

Many years later I was working as a consultant to, Iwataya, a large department store group in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. Over a period of 3½ years I spent one week a month in Japan. 40 trips in all.

My first major project was to help Iwataya create a new Vision statement. To begin the process I went offsite for two days with their top executives to come up with a draft. Their assumption was that they would write the Vision and then we’d move on to other things.

I challenged that assumption and offered a new possibility. How about involving the employees before the Vision statement was a done deal? They wondered how that could be done. Not a problem, I said. Revolutionary, but not a problem. Just have a series of meetings with representative groups of employees from all levels of the company, show them the draft Vision and get their feedback.

Then, if there was consistent feedback that suggested changes should be made, incorporate the feedback, rewrite the draft and bring it back to the senior leadership for final approval. What I was suggesting was very un-Japanese. In a top-down, hierarchical structure, asking those lower on the totem pole to get involved was indeed out-of-the-box thinking.

I wasn’t sure they’d buy my suggestion. I was sure that a lot of the changes being made at Iwataya would rise or fall on employee participation, so this approach to the Vision was building on a context that was already in place, at least in theory. One of their primary concerns was that the employees would be too timid or afraid to really speak out, especially if they wanted to criticize work their seniors had done. I argued that I could create an environment in which they would say what was really on their minds. In the end I don’t think many of the executives thought it would work, but they were willing to have me do it, so we went ahead.

I wouldn’t be able to lead all the feedback meetings, so I did a few prototype sessions and trained a dozen people to continue the process. They would lead the meetings, digest the comments and suggestions that were made, and at the end sit down to rewrite the Vision if that was necessary.

120 meetings were held. 1,000 employees participated. As it turned out, many were outspoken and critical of the draft Vision statement. There was consistent feedback on certain points. So the statement was revised and I brought it back to the Directors. They were terrific. They saw that the work their employees had been done was better than what they had produced. They added just one word and then approved it. I was ecstatic. What I had created and promised worked very well.

I had challenged myself and done the impossible.

For you to move beyond what you know and are sure about can be scary. It is unfamiliar territory. The results are unpredictable. It is natural to fear what is unknown and untried. There are no road maps, helpful hints or how to’s to guide you. Venturing outside your comfort zone is uncomfortable.

So why bother? Maybe you’ll make real what you thought was impossible. Maybe you won’t. But that’s not the point.

Message: Living a life of possibility is its own reward

From the beginning of recorded history great thinkers, poets, scientists, philosophers, clerics and many more have been fascinated by “what is possible.” There are no easy answers. It’s a moving target. Which is good for you and me. It gives us the freedom to take it on ourselves.

Challenge Yourself!


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