This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen
Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Acquiring new knowledge and perspectives helps you grow within your general area of comfort or interest. To really grow, you need to stretch yourself outside of that comfort zone by learning or experiencing something completely different. In addition to acquiring the new skill, knowledge, or experience, you also create confidence in your ability to break boundaries. This can help you awaken to your true meaning.
A couple years ago, I came across an article by Heather Kelly on CNN.com (“Mark Zuckerberg’s Bizarre New Self-Improvement Goal”) about how Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg sets an annual “challenge” goal:
Every year, the Facebook CEO sets some sort of challenge for himself. In 2009, he vowed to wear a tie to work every day to show he was serious about Facebook’s growth (and possibly get a break from the signature T-shirt and hoodie he wears to every public event). In 2010, he tried to learn Mandarin.
The annual challenges sometimes make headlines, most famously in 2011 when Zuck vowed to eat animals only if he had killed them himself. That pronouncement led to a mixture of backlash and praise from animal-rights activists.
This year , the famously introverted Zuckerberg is seeking out more conversations with actual humans.
Seeking out more human interaction as a goal seems a bit odd until you think about the world that the young founder of Facebook lives in: a rarified air of groupies, yes-men, analysts, and press types. Interacting with “actual humans” is probably a challenge. Why is that bizarre? I applaud him for it. In 2013, Zuckerberg’s goal was to meet someone new every day; in 2014, he challenged himself to write one thank you note each day; and in 2015, he read a new book every other week.
A key outcome to these challenges is that he learns something new and (often) unexpected. Trying to learn Mandarin taught him that he didn’t listen well, and a year of killing animals made him consider becoming vegetarian. Zuckerberg’s 2012 goal, to converse with humans, helped him understand the personal side of immigration issues.
The reason Zuckerberg’s “bizarre” goals resonated with me is because I have had similar goals for well over twenty years. At first they weren’t true goals—they were just something fun to do. But for the last decade or more, the goals have been formal, with a process for identifying, executing and reviewing progress.
Over the past couple decades, I learned to scuba dive, windsurf, and code HTML by hand. I wrote a book, rebuilt a yellow 1973 Triumph Spitfire, became a vegetarian (rather, a “pescaterian”), skied in five different European countries over six days, started a blog, and ran a full marathon. Toward the end of each year, I identify something to try that is different, unique, or challenging, and develop a plan to dive into it. During the next year, I execute, reflect, and adjust based on my observations. Sound familiar? Plan, do, study, act.
In 2012, my goal was to leave a great job as president of a medical device company and take more control of my life. I notified the board in January, executed a transition plan for myself and the company, and, like a skydiver jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, left full-time secure employment on December 31st. I’m loving it, and the move also created positive secondary effects for the company: a great new Lean leader was developed to replace me and the company got a fresh infusion of Lean energy.
One of my other recent goals—related to this book—was to learn about and understand Buddhism, something I’d bumped into during my trips to Asia and also while living in California. I read books about it, talked to a lot of people, and in a sense, went to the gemba by spending a few weeks in Bhutan and Nepal. I learned about Zen’s history, how it evolved and split into the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, how Mahayana then evolved into Pure Land, Tibetan, and the Zen tradition that’s increasingly popular in the West. What I learned changed how I understood myself.
My goal this year is to read an important work of literature from each of the major ethnic groups or cultures: Latin American, Chinese, Indian, African, and so forth. My annual exploration takes me down some interesting and often unexpected paths, teaching me new thoughts, knowledge, or activities.
The point is that many people say they “think outside the box” but most do not actually explore outside the box. Relatively few people live with an open mind, and even fewer create goals to stretch themselves. Most people find it very difficult to put processes and hansei in place (Zuckerberg apparently does) because it is easier to talk than to act.
I can’t claim credit for knowingly thinking outside the box, especially initially. I sort of fell into doing it. But trying new things has broadened my perspectives by challenging my old perceptions and beliefs. It has deepened my understanding of the world we live in and taken me to interesting places—both physical and spiritual—that I previously wasn’t even aware of.
How will you explore out of the box next year? Perhaps more importantly, how will you ensure you actually do it, and why?