Work-life balance. Purpose. Meaning. Vision. Direction. Connection. Wonderful terms, all. In the context of real life, though, they are problematic. They suggest an attainable ideal where things are idyllic, consequential and worthwhile. In a perfect world, some of what we do measures up to that goal. But not everything does.
At the same time, most of us want to have a level of meaning and relevance in the work we do. It’s only natural. And it can be enormously frustrating when what we are doing doesn’t follow through. The problem with all of this is that—in my view—we are missing some perspective. Not everything we do is going to be awesome, amazing and awe-inspiring. Not everything will be meaningless dross, either. But these points define the extreme ends of a spectrum that we all inhabit.
Sometimes the work we do is functionally necessary, but we’d really rather not engage in the mundane details of what is required to get it done. In other instances, the work we do is engaging and inspiring, but our passion and excitement appears far less contagious than we might like it to be. In a few fleeting moments, our inspiration matches our impact. What we produce measures up to our potential, and is appreciated by others for what it means and what it offers. The quintessential example of this is fictional, but illustrative. Early on in Jerry Maguire, we see the eponymous character crafting a mission statement of what it means to be an effective sports agent. It’s meant to be a brilliant, inspired, transcendental missive that engages on a level that few—if any—documents manage to attain. Of course, the movie is fiction. The plot point serves the narrative, in crystallizing a life-altering epiphany that shapes the rest of Maguire’s development (and the story arc of the movie). So far, so fiction. But are there actually parallels in real life?
There are, although they are rare. It’s the occasional moment where a single perspective—committed to paper—can catalyze an audience’s transformational experience. We’re talking about words connecting in a way that encourages people to step back, reassess and realign their viewpoints. Not every deliverable has the impact or import of Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the church door, or Jerry Maguire’s late-night theorizing. When it happens, though, it’s a pretty magical experience. It’s not one that can be encouraged, hastened or summoned. But it can indeed happen.
I was reminded of this fairly recently, and in the most rewarding way possible, working on a deliverable for a client. It was one that I had been—if I am honest—dreading producing. I was trying to make sense of a complex and contentious issue, and one whose central problem was rooted in organizational politics. A few weeks earlier, I had facilitated a discussion of the key stakeholders involved in resolving the issue. The discussion was a positive one, in that everyone involved recognized the problem for what it was, and saw the value in resolving it. At the same time, the solution to the problem was relatively elusive. Participants could talk around the problem, were able to speak—extensively—to examples and instances they had encountered the problem. They could articulate what a good solution would feel like. But they weren’t able to define what a solution actually looked like.
The result was that I left the session with an even more solid framing of the problem, but little guidance and direction of what a potential solution could be. And that’s where the situation remained, for a period of weeks. I had a commitment to develop a discussion paper based upon the facilitation session. I was expected to produce some meaningful and constructive guidance on how to proceed forward. And I had very little direction on what that might actually look like. The problem space was well staked out, but the actual solution was less than clear. Executives were expecting a follow-up to what they considered to be an important and relevant conversation. And I had no really clear sense of what that was going to be, what it would look like or how it would take shape.
Eventually, however, something needed to give. A result was required. Expectations needed to be met. And so I sat down in front of a computer and began structuring, and then writing, and then editing and finally embellishing.
The outcome was something that I am extraordinarily proud of. What started as framing the discussion evolved into insights of the drivers and influences behind the discussion. Stated issues revealed underlying problems. Challenges began to reveal underlying patterns. The complexity of the situation began to reveal itself.
The point of all of this is that the complexity didn’t go away. A simple answer didn’t emerge to supplant the complicated with straightforward solutions. The difficulties that emerged in the process remained difficult. And that was the point. If the issue I was dealing with was simple or straightforward, it would have been resolved long ago. That it had not was testament to how enduring and intractable the problem was, and how ambiguous and non-obvious the potential solutions actually were.
Despite that, I actually arrived at the basis for a solution that could work for my client. One that embraced but didn’t minimize the complexity. And one that didn’t try to impose a simplistic and irrelevant answer on a multifaceted problem. I felt that I had done a good job of not only staking out the problem area and listening to the concerns and needs of stakeholders, but also of synthesizing these insights into a solution that made sense. A whole lot of complexity got distilled into a framework that acknowledged what was difficult and different, and still managed to weave multiple, disparate views into a single, cohesive strategy.
What was enormously exhilarating about this was the degree to which I recognized the journey—and the evolution of the result—as it was happening.. By the time I got into writing the dreaded document, I was enjoying myself. I was appreciative of the problem that I was being asked to solve, and grateful for the trust involved in being invited to facilitate the discussion. And I particularly enjoyed the challenge of keeping a complex problem complex, while still finding simple and straightforward ways of explaining and illustrating the many different dimensions and moving parts.
Sometimes you don’t know what a solution is going to look like until you really understand the problem. Sometimes you don’t know what a deliverable is going to look like until you can clarify the structure. And sometimes you don’t know what a meeting is going to produce until you can truly invest in having the conversation. In this particular situation, all of these factors came into play.
I’m not the kind of person who typically writes or produces deliverables in a formal kind of way. For some, they take a problem and produce a rough outline that evolves into a detailed outline that becomes a deliverable. For me, I usually need to be able to visualize the results in my head before I can even commit pen to virtual paper. When a path forward emerges, I’m good. When one isn’t obvious—or obviously helpful—then moving forward is a complicated and complex proposition.
In this particularly instance, I simply started writing. I began with what I had—and what I knew—and I structured that in a way that made sense. The surer I got about explaining the problem clearly, the greater a sense I developed of how a solution might emerge. It took a couple of attempts to get the right level of detail, but the remaining structure took shape fairly readily once I started on it. It took several edits before it was done, but the final deliverable was better than I expected it could have been.
It was a messy process to muddle through—but that, I think, is the important insight. We need to muddle through and muster our best energy towards doing so, particularly when we are uncertain as to both the form and the content of what we are doing. It’s less about trusting the process so much as it is trusting that when we get in process, something useful and valuable will emerge. We are capable and talented enough to find meaning and value, but doing so requires work. Often a lot more work than we want, we expect or we usually observe.
We’re not challenged to work this way often. Much of the work that most of us do is firmly within the wheelhouse of our expertise and abilities. But challenges do come along once in awhile that stretch both of these, as well as our confidence. When we find challenges, we have a choice: we can avoid them or we can commit to tackling them.
Truly tackling the problem, though, requires a level of immersion and focus that rules out distraction. It means diving in, and not just chipping away at the edges where it feels safe. It means committing to the process and acknowledging what we know, what we don’t know and what we need to solve. It means challenging ourselves, others and the problem itself. It’s not an easy thing to do, but knowing we can find that place—and know how to find it when we need it—is the critical ingredient in realizing success.