The day I took a lesson from my own book

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Sometimes you need to listen to your own advice

 

Many of you know that this past year, I published the book "Entrepreneur is a Verb". I wrote this book to share the lessons I've learned about how to find a fulfilling career by thinking like an entrepreneur - where you are a product, your career is a startup, and the job market is the market for "you, the product".

Since I graduated college with a degree in electrical engineering, I learned a lot about where I fit in a work setting: what I enjoy, what I'm naturally good at, where I have the greatest impact, what I'm passionate about, and what kind of team I like to work with. Recently I had to a lesson from my own book, when I made the decision to resign from my latest role at the Bounce Innovation Hub in Akron. In this blog, I'll walk you through the process I've been through - the past, present, and future, in hopes that if you're considering a change in your career, this might inspire you to take action as well. 

Formula for Career Satisfaction: doing what you're good at + working for something you're passionate about + being part of the right team environment = happy

Leading up to Bounce

I worked as an engineer at NASA for 4 years. I knew almost from the get-go that I wasn't cut out to be an engineer. While I enjoy working with technology, I'm not cut out to be the one developing it. I realized my natural talents were working with people - relationship building, and serving as a connector. This motivated me to pivot my career into sales and business development just a few years out of college. I learned what type of work I wanted to do and how I made an impact, but that still wasn't enough to make me happy.

The next key component to being happy with your work is doing work you're passionate about. I found my passion through a personal experience, as many people do. I had a startup in college which I spent nearly 8 years with total. Over that time, myself and my cofounders struggled to connect to other founders, resources, funding, and good mentorship in the region. After going through a painful separation with my company, I found that my passion was to help other startup founders navigate this same process - to improve the local startup ecosystem. This is what led me to work for Launch League, a local founder community. But I wanted to have a greater impact - help more founders, at a regional level. So when the opportunity to be contractor #1 for the Bounce Innovation Hub in Akron came about, I jumped on it. I thought, this is the perfect opportunity for me to use my skills to serve a mission I'm passionate about by building a new innovation hub and improving the ecosystem for founders.  So I had doing what you're good at + working for something you're passionate about, but I was missing the final component - the team and work environment. 

Ask anybody that's founded a company and they'll tell you - once a founder, always a founder. As much as I thought doing work I'm good at and working for a cause I care about will be it for me, I realized I just can't do the 9-5 job-thing. I'm setup to work a different way, in a different environment. Beyond this, over the years, I've had the opportunity to work with over 10 different teams. From each of these, I've seen different company cultures, different personalities, and what type of team works for me. I'm naturally drawn to the startup company culture - where we're all highly motivated and work our butts off, we respect each other, we know how and when to let loose and have fun, and we're basically a family.  I realized I needed that type of culture if I want to be happy with my work, and I just didn't feel like I was a fit for the team in my latest role. 

You need all three components to be happy at your job. This is a hard lesson I had to learn recently, and is the reason I'm leaving what many people thought was the perfect position for me. 

Life after Bounce

I resigned from my job this week. People are asking me why (see above), and what my plans are next. To be honest, I'm searching - to find that fit to the formula I know in my head. I'm not going to rush into anything, but at least that formula serves as a compass to guide my decision making when I have a multitude of directions I can take my career in. It's a filter, to help me see clearly when an opportunity will not be a fit. 

If you're unhappy with your work, keep the formula in mind - do you have all 3 key components of job satisfaction? Like any good entrepreneur, I can't wait to see what my next pivot will be. I hope you find yours too!

Passion: they say you need it, but how do you find it?

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Passion in your work

How do you find it?

Usually when people talk about being successful with a startup company, or loving your job, "passion" is listed as one of the key ingredients. While people like to talk about passion and how important it is, rarely does anybody discuss how to actually find it. 

I went through a time in my life where I was searching for that "passion". After graduating college, like most, I started working at a job that I wasn't passionate about. It was a great job, but I didn't have any drive or emotional connection to it. What I learned after jumping from one job to another in search of that "passion" is that passion comes from the inside, not out. No company, as cool as it might be, as great as the benefits are, or how high the pay is will bring you passion. 

Passion is usually a product of pain

While it doesn't sound fun, I've learned that we find passion through hardship. Whether it's losing a loved one, getting hurt or wronged in some way, those times that shatter our reality and drive us through emotional experiences are where passion is born. I found my passion through two experiences: the experience of losing my startup company and the experience losing my mother in the same year. Both instilled in me a different kind of passion, but it's clearly what drives me each day. I'll explain both:

Passion through personal loss

My mother was an inspiring woman. A driven leader and a phenomenal organizer who always put people first. She was a source of unconditional love in my life, and my motivation. She was taken from my father and I suddenly through a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer. Nine months after we found out about her diagnosis, we lost her. I could have reacted two ways to this experience. I could have harbored anger, asking "why us?" and lost all hope in trying. But instead, I took that experience and the memory of my mother's strength to drive me to work harder, as she would have wanted me to. I'm now passionate and motivated by the memory of her fight - it reminds me every day of how precious life is, and gives me a greater appreciation for the people around me and the time I have with them. I have an ability to care about people and empathize in a way that I wouldn't have otherwise. That's powerful, if used for good. 

Passion through professional loss

Today, my life's work and my passion is helping startup founders and building a better startup community. Maybe it doesn't sound like much, but to me it's significant because of an experience I went through. A passion that came from being hurt, wronged, and in some ways, "screwed over" while I was with my own company. Had my startup been successful, and had myself and my co-founders not gone through the painful experiences we did, I never would have found this passion.  

I founded a startup company in college. I spent over 7 years with that company and fought tirelessly alongside my co-founders through patenting and licensing technology, dozens of fund raising attempts, hundreds of meetings, and countless hours building and testing prototypes. Just recently, myself and my co-founders gave our company away to the person that tore it apart, with nothing to take away aside from a very memorable experience and many lessons learned. 

My passion for building startup communities came through this experience. Neglecting the finer details, myself and my co-founders experienced damaging politics, promises unkept, ageism, sexism, ill intensions and ultimately the loss of the company we spent 7 years building, due to certain parts of the community that were supposed to be helping us. While there are plenty of people with good intensions in our community, I ran into enough that were motivated by money, empire-building, and personal gain to leave a bad taste in my mouth. And then I started to find other founders - lots of others - that were experiencing the same thing. So the day that I decided to leave my own company is also the day I decided I would spend the rest of my career fighting for founders. I was passionate about it, because I experienced it first hand.

This could have gone one of two ways - I could have walked away from my startup and decided to complain about the bad experiences we had and just move on. Or I could use that experience and emotion as a driving force to make positive change. When we go through a negative experience, it's often too easily to complain about it. But what if we used that passion for good?

Passion gives you power.

Today, l see the impact of being in a job you're passionate about. Day in and day out, I feel personally connected to my work.  I can relate to the people I'm serving in my job, so I like to think I'm also more effective at my job. Over the past few months, I've had a chance to sit down with founders and listen to their needs. Many vent about ways they've been let down. But I can look them in the eye and empathize in a way most couldn't - I tell them I understand, I've been there. Once they hear my story, they know I'm out there fighting for them, and that in itself can have an incredible impact. They know I'm not doing this for the paycheck, or the title, or the fame - I'm doing it because I care, and I am fiercely driven. I know that my passion drives me to work harder, and speak my mind to stand up for what's right. If I didn't have a personal connection to my work, I wouldn't be able to work the long hours and fight the way I'm driven to fight. The thing is, when you're driven by passion, your work doesn't feel like work. Like caring for a loved one, it's a passion project. 

Lessons learned?

If you don't feel you have a passion that drives your life, don't worry - you just might not have been through an experience that gives you passion yet. Passion isn't something you're born with - it's something you find through an experience. It might sounds crazy, but putting yourself in situations where you're vulnerable, hurt or uncomfortable can be a way to find that passion. Or take a look at the hardships of those close to you and see if you can find meaningful work around that area.  

The up side to all this is that day in and day out, I don't feel like my job is a "job". I love my work because I'm passionate about it. I hope you'll find ways to discover your passion and use it to create change for people in your life as well. 

 

 

 

I wrote a book and it's not perfect, but it is DONE: why we struggle to reach our goals

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Goals

Why we struggle to reach them

As we approach that time of the year for "resolutions" many of us will set goals for 2018. I'm sure at some point in your life you've set a goal before: you want to lose weight, you want to get a promotion, you want to buy a house, or, if you're like me, you want to write a book.  There are different degrees of "wants" in our lives, of course. But the loftier the goal/want, the harder it becomes for us to achieve it. Why? Psychologically, at the start of a journey, we're full of enthusiasm and excitement about our goal. But as we start to work at it, we find just how much work it will take. The honeymoon phase ends quickly, and now all we see is the mountain of tasks in front of us. We get demotivated, and start to make excuses for why we're not reaching our goals. In the next few sections I'll walk you through the struggles I faced when writing a book, and share some tips on how I pushed through to reach my goal.

Struggle #1: Not Feeling Ready

In January of this year, I was at the base of a mountain. I told myself (to make myself feel better), that in 2017, I wanted to spend time learning how to write so I could "one day" write a book. This is the first hurdle you have to overcome: the need to feel qualified to do something. What I didn't realize at the time was that my near-term task of "studying" was really just my fear taking over. I could have studied until the cows came home, but odds are are, I never would have felt ready to write. This is the first trap many of us fall into - feeling unqualified or not-ready.

So how do you overcome this first obstacle? You forget about feeling ready, shut off your over-analyzing brain, and you just start. You'll learn as you go - if you're passionate about reaching your goal, you'll find ways to get there. You're probably not the first person to attempt this thing, and you know that you are intelligent and capable of finding the resources you need. If you struggle with this, maybe all it takes is the encouragement of a friend or family member, or a trusted advisor. That's what worked for me - a push at the right time, by the right people.

I found that as soon as I threw away the safety net of "not being ready", got a push, and shifted my focus to execution, things started moving fast. In June I finally said, forget being ready, I'd just going to start!

Struggle #2: There's just so much I have to do!

But then once you start, you hit struggle #2, task-overload. Writing a book is a long process. Like many lofty goals, I saw a large number of steps and unknowns in front of me, and at first it was overwhelming. "I'll never finish this", I thought. But 3 weeks later the first draft of my book was written. And 2 weeks after that I had my first edited copy. It wasn't so bad, looking back - how silly of me to worry!

But how did I do it? I had zero experience writing books. I got a C+ in english composition. And I hated writing. But as-in step #1, I ignored those things and started, because I had a network, the internet, and I knew how to find people that could help me. Part of that process (and avoiding getting stuck) was consulting with people who had written books before. Forget wasting hours researching on my own - I swallowed my pride and went straight to a reliable source, and had them give me the roadmap for the steps I should take. It was important to me that I write my own book, but not that I figure out how to write it by myself. I had to remind myself that doing this by myself was not my goal. Getting it done was my goal. And my hunger to get it done had to overcome my hunger of doing it myself.

Then, laser focus. I chose to focus on one thing at a time and forget about what came next. Never mind the fact that I still, to this day, with my book being printed a few weeks from now, do not know how to sell my book on Amazon. I'll figure it out when I need to figure it out. The key is this: focus only on what you need to know at the exact place you are on the road to reach your goal. Find out how to push through step 1, then move to step 2. We get overwhelmed and paralyzed at the size of our goals when we think about everything we have to do. But if you take it one step at a time, it's manageable, and soon enough, you'll start to see progress. Then you'll be unstoppable. Think about when you learned to drive a car: when you first got in the driver seat, were you worrying about to merge onto the freeway? How to pay a toll at the turnpike? No, you focused on adjusting your mirrors, then putting the car in drive, then taking your foot off the break -  all one step at a time.

Struggle #3: "But it isn't perfect!"

The final challenge is this: when we get close to accomplishing our goal, we often get paralyzed again. We want it to be "perfect". I nearly fell into this trap when I was preparing my transcript to send to the editor - I thought about going back an re-writing sections...perhaps I'd take some things out.  I wanted it to be perfect...for a moment...but then I remembered: what was my goal with writing the book? I was reminded that the book being perfect was not important - I know I'm not going to be a best selling author or win any awards - I just need to ship it. Having my thoughts out in the world is my goal, so delaying the process by going back and re-writing would actually stop me from reaching it. I pushed through the fear of the imperfection, closed my eyes, and sent the transcript off. As humans, we often struggle to call things "done". We obsess about details. Seth Godin has done excellent work to explain this phenomenon with what he calls our "lizard brains". We hold meeting after meeting, re-read reports, and delay product launches because we're fearful of getting things right. But the truth is, "done" is better than "perfect". It goes against our instinct, but when we're close to reaching a goal, we have to fight and push through and call things done.

Summary

So yes, less than 1 year ago I was paralyzed, as many are, by my own goals. I made excuses for why I hadn't started. But I pushed through hesitations and just did it. It wasn't easy, and I'm still no book-writing expert, but at least I can say I reached my goal.

Seth Godin, the author and marketing guru I mentioned earlier, is considered by many to be a genius. But in one of his talks, Godin shows a slide of all the projects he has "shipped" - books written, businesses started, etc - the majority of which, he says have failed. But a few succeeded - enough to make him the "genius" he is perceived to be today. The reason he was successful is because he just kept shipping, finishing, executing, and moving on, even if it wasn't perfect. Most things he shipped failed, but the few that hit made him what he is today. You just have to keep shipping. 

My book won't be perfect, and I don't care - because it's finished. After all, my real goal was to get a story out into the world. When you think about your goals, think about the goal behind the goal - are you trying to share a story? Are you trying to solve a particular problem? The book was just a tool - and whatever it is you have to reach your goal is the same.

So what do you do to get started?

  1. Identify the goal behind your goal
  2. Just do it! Start!
  3. List out the steps you need to take, then focus on 1 at a time
  4. When you're close to being done - be done!

Happy goal-achieving in 2018! And if you'd like to pre-order my book, you can do so HERE. 

 

 

 

Travel & Your Career: Refresh your Horizons

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After recently returning from a trip for both work + pleasure, I was reminded of how much I need these trips. Not just for the typical reasons of relaxation and "getting away from it all" but because of the positive impact travel has on my motivation and mindset when I return home. In this post, I'll pick apart a few highlights I've uncovered after reflecting on why I always feel a new level of clarity when I get back from a trip.

You're reminded that there's much more in this world than you and your problems

We'll start with the obvious. Getting away, whether for work or pleasure, particularly to a foreign country, resets your baseline for what's a big deal and what's not. By experiencing another culture and getting away from the drama, stress, and hype back at your day-to-day grind, you're reminded that there's a whole other world out there and somehow, your problems don't seem like such a big deal. By experiencing the difference in language, currency, food, and architecture I've always found that my focus shifts to appreciating and experiencing these differences. Subsequently, the "whatever's" I've been so wrapped up around back home fade away. It's like hitting the reset button on your emotions & focus.

You get an ego boost

Perhaps less obvious is how getting away makes you feel better about yourself. It's easy to get into a rut and feel unappreciated when you work with the same people every day. It's not necessarily a product of a toxic work environment, it's just what happens to us as humans - we take people for granted, and that can wear on us. In my recent experience, I gave a TED talk in Budapest, Hungary. Leading up to the talk, I felt as though what I've done in my career isn't so great, and I was almost embarrassed to talk about it. But what seemed as un-special to me was celebrated by the people I spoke to. People came up to me after me talking saying how inspiring my story was, and a big part of that was the difference in culture. All of a sudden I felt significance and appreciation for the experiences I've had. Why? because they were different, unique and special to the people in the country I was in. I was reminded to be proud of what I've done and more thankful for the people that have helped me. Sometimes we all need that feeling!

You're motivated by the people you meet

I met some freakin' incredible people on my trip. We all do when we travel - whether it's a musician, artist, or another professional, simply meeting somebody else who has accomplished something different than you and the people you're around every day motivates you. Usually when traveling you learn different career approaches, different educational backgrounds, and different accomplishments. I was incredibly motivated by the talented people I met on my trip - and that brought me back with a new energy to keep pushing and trying harder at my job here.

You get time to focus on you

For part of your time when traveling, you'll probably get some alone time. Whether it's on a plane or walking city streets, you get time to think. For me, I had a lot of time to walk the streets of Budapest, take in the scenery, and just think. It's so rare that we have that opportunity amidst the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, as much as we try or say we do. Would I ever take 3 hours out of a morning just to walk to the top of a hill to take in a view? Make time for leisurely lunch by myself? Heck no! But when I travel I do. There's a re-focusing, reflection, and clarity that comes from taking time to yourself. No emails, no phone calls - just you. It's forced meditation, and boy is it refreshing. During my alone time on my trip, I was able to think about my future. I set new goals and reaffirmed what was really important to me. I thought about the aspects of my career that are dragging me down and made decisions on what to do to get rid of those burdens. It's nearly impossible to do this if you never step away from the daily grind, and I'm so happy I had that chance.

In conclusion

I get it, you're busy and you think you're too important to step away from your day job for a week or so. ;-) Believe me, I was stressed about not having constant email access and missing phone calls and meetings, but you know what? The earth will continue to turn in your absence. In retrospect, the time I was gone flew by, I was still able to sneak in a few emails here and there, and nothing blew up while I was away. The benefits for myself (and my sanity), my career, the people I work with and the organizations I serve from Courtney-getting-away-for-9-days far outweigh the benefits if I had never gone. So whenever you can - at least once or twice a year, make time for a solo trip overseas. Your career will thank you!

 

Getting started in consulting: "you", the product

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I've had quite a few people ask me, "how did you get started in consulting?". It's a valid question, especially if you're very early in your career. How to find your first client and grow your client base when you have limited experience seems nearly impossible, at first. The goal of this post is to take some of the magic out of this process and share my personal experiences with gaining a solid footing in consulting only 4 years after graduating.  Be Present & Be Patient.

Our generation is prone to moving quickly. We graduate from college, take a job in another city, spend a few years (at best) there and move again. We're often impatient, and if things aren't going exactly as we expect, we decide it's time for a change. My 'luck' (not really, but let's call it that) in consulting is a direct result of the time I have invested in one place, developing relationships with the people here. Consulting is all about who you know, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you that networking is key. My first consulting job was the result of getting to know people and organizations, building trust with them (without even looking for a job), and low and behold, when an opportunity presented itself, I was there, ready to step-up. Gaining trust and developing relationships takes time. The last consulting job I got was with an organization I had known for the past two and a half years. I stayed in touch, grabbed drinks with the colleagues I had there, and when they needed somebody, I was the first person they asked. Why? Because they trusted me, and I had been a consistent presence for the past number of years.

Be Focused

It may take some time, but finding your "thing" is critical in developing a consistent reputation. Your reputation is what will get your jobs. e.g. "Oh Courtney, I know she's a great relationship builder - I think she's a business development consultant". It took me some time to find my focus in consulting, especially since I was a recovering engineer with an engineering degree who happily fell in love with business development. A good tool for finding your "thing" (in the case you don't already have one) is to try Strengthsfinders to help you focus.This online test identified what I was good at in the context of the workplace. It helped me take the idea of "sales" and match it to my personal strengths. Then I stuck to it. Sure, I could easily consult in other areas, and this might be tempting at first. When I started, I was presenting myself as a sales consultant...and a pitch coach...and a STEM education consultant. Soon enough, I couldn't easily explain what I did when I met people. That's BAD. You want what you do to be obvious. Just because you can do multiple things doesn't mean you should. Just like a startup company, focus is critical, especially when you're just getting started. Using strength finders as a tool, I picked my strongest area and I focused on that.

Be Valuable

It might sound strange, but you are product, of sorts. You are unique, you solve somebody's problems, you have competition, and of course, you have a price. Once I had my strengths identified, I could easily pitch myself as a "product". Think through what you do, why you're better, what makes you unique, and most importantly, what problem do you solve for your customers? This will help to identify your target clients and craft a value proposition for yourself, targeted at that audience. As an example, what makes me unique is my engineering background and the fact that I'm good with people and a good communicator. I also had experience with young, innovative companies, so that set me on path to be a great "solution" for tech organizations that needed business development help. I already spoke the language of their customers - this made me stand out from other sales consultants that simply graduated with a sales degree (my value prop!). Finding the problem you solve and positioning yourself as a solution to your customers is key - and the great part is that this process follows in line with any business model, so it's easy for your to read-up on.

A note on personal brand: you hear about "building your brand" a lot these days. That is nearly complete bullsh*t (excuse my language). If you think of yourself like a product, what would happen if a product had nothing but a brand? Will anybody buy it? A brand is merely one very small component of you - you have to focus on the problem you solve, for who, and why you are better first and foremost. The brand will come later. 

Be Known.

Directly related to networking is the need to make yourself known. Once you have established your "thing" and found your value proposition and ideal customer, you can't just sit around waiting for clients. Continue to network, and when you do, make sure you have an online presence. Establish a personal website - doesn't have to be fancy, but invest a few hundred dollars in a domain with your name, a simple Wordpress template, and populate with examples of your work and a way to contact you. I've gotten numerous requests directly through my personal website. Make sure you have business cards, and make every effort to gain media recognition. Lucky for me, I have been involved in organizations that gain media attention for awhile, but I've also been fortunate to be nominated for local awards (e.g. Crain's Cleveland 20 in their 20s). How do you get awards? I can honestly say I have never self-nominated for anything. My nominations have come through my personal network, so once again, your reputation and your network is key!

Be Good. 

Last but not least, if you're a product, you should be a high-quality product. This means delivering consistent, best-effort work for every client you have. And even if you don't yet have a client, having character and working hard at your current job is equally important. I've gotten referrals for consulting gigs from previous employers, and repeat business because of my reputation. Even if you're not out trying to gain new business, make sure you're always at your best. It's simple, but one half-assed project could set your career on fire.