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Closing Speech for Year Zero Studios Co-op Students

Last week, I was honored to deliver an end-of-year closing speech to a group of extraordinary students who were completing their co-op time with social impact lab Year Zero Studios. Year Zero is the creation of my dear friend Kunal Gupta. The team there are exploring problems and building solutions in areas such as mental health, wellness, education and more. Kunal asked me to "inspire them and provide some words of wisdom as they continue their journey".

I was only too happy to help out.

Here's a transcript of what I told them.

Thank you Kunal. My goodness, what an honor it is to be here today with you and everyone at Year Zero, who I admire so much.

I did a little research, and as far as I can tell, when giving a speech like this, I’m supposed to talk about myself a lot. I’m supposed to tell you stories from my life that will inspire and motivate you.

But to be honest, that’s really not my style so I’m going to mix it up a bit. I’ll tell you a couple of stories about me, but mostly, I’ll be sharing stories about the amazing people I’ve encountered over my career and the things they’ve taught me.

I’ll begin with the simple secret to staying unstuck and how I learned it from a young woman who used to work with me.

Back then, even at the age of 20, it was obvious that she was an amazing woman. She had just finished a successful summer internship, and she was about to go back to school to finish her business degree. Her future was bright. She was super smart, extremely likeable, with a great attitude, and definitely going places.

Over lunch one day on a sunny autumn afternoon, she told me about her BIG PLAN.

It looked something like this:

Graduate business school, get a job at top-tier consulting firm, get a promotion, buy condo, another promotion, get married, switch to a client-side job, buy starter house, another promotion, first baby, another promotion, bigger house, second baby, promotion to C-Suite, even bigger house, buy a ski chalet in Whistler and eventually retire there.

She included the age she’d be at each stage as well as the companies she’d work at and job titles she’d attain.

Listening to her, I became incredibly sad.

She’d mapped out a journey. And frankly I’m not a fan of journeys. They’re for tourists, sitting on busses being taken from one place to another. A tourist isn’t creating her experience; she’s watching it happen to her.

Please don’t be a tourist.

Rather, be an explorer. Be Indiana Jones. Be Jane Goodall.

Leave room for surprise, serendipity, uncertainty, fear and discovery. Because the truth is, our imaginations are far too limited to dream of everything that’s possible for us.

Take me for example. In my last year of university, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d one day launch a national magazine, or that I’d be CEO of a tech start-up (hell, as a withered old Gen Xer, when I left university, the term tech start-up wasn’t even a thing people talked about). And I certainly couldn’t have imagined that I’d write and publish a book. I thought I was going to be an Advertising Account Executive and one day, a VP of Marketing somewhere.

My friend and I lost touch after that lunch, but I thought about her frequently throughout the next five years. I imagined her on her journey, slogging it out, stacking achievement upon achievement. And I worried about her. Was she happy? Was she fulfilled? Or was she stuck?

So, five years after that lunch, I found her on LinkedIn and reached out for a chat, to which she happily agreed.

It turns out, I didn’t have to worry about my friend at all. And that’s because the BIG PLAN is long gone.

It turns out that in her final year of university, my friend struggled with depression. She became stuck. She hadn’t even graduated yet and the BIG PLAN was already in jeopardy. This filled her with fear and deepened her depression. But then she had a revelation. Rather than gritting her teeth and doubling down on the BIG PLAN, she used her depression as a catalyst to rethink the whole journey thing.

So, I’m happy to report that the BIG PLAN is dead. In its place, is a new commitment to openness and experimentation. So much so, she landed in a new city, with a new group of friends, and a new boyfriend. When we spoke, her job was in line with her goals, but her approach to getting it was completely new. It came through serendipity. A friendly meeting that led to another friendly meeting that turned into a job interview that resulted in a job offer.

“I open myself up to opportunities as they come,” she told me. “It’s been fluid and organic. Letting go of my controlled vision is what’s led to new opportunities.”

She still has a general idea of what she’d like to do. She’s still herself, or as she put it, “I’m not going to become a yoga instructor in Bali”. But at the same time, she doesn’t have any specific next steps.

And that’s a big thing.

As she tells it, “I’m willing to go to any city in the world. I have 3-4 different industries that I’d be super excited about. I want the next job to be better than the last job.”

If something doesn’t work out, she’ll move onto the next thing with no judgment or self-recrimination. There’s always another path.

She’s no longer a tourist on a so-called “life journey”. She’s an explorer.

Yay for her. Because making that decision took guts.

And as Maya Angelou once said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because it allows you to practice the others with consistency.”

That means you’ve got to be willing to scare yourself.

Think about your life. Are you scaring yourself on a regular basis? I suspect you are, simply because you’re here and a part of Year Zero. But over time, as we move through life and get a job and we have to pay rent and maybe even buy a house or have a baby or two, we begin to crave more certainty and comfort in our lives. And because of this, we might find that rather than putting ourselves out there and doing big things, we’re instead sitting on the sidelines playing it safe.

That’s a problem. Because the most miserably stuck and frustrated people I know are those who never scare themselves.

We’re used to seeing the courage of soldiers or first responders during times of strife and tragedy. But the thing about courage is that it’s all around us all the time.

Last year, my friend moved her 92-year-old mother into a seniors home. This was, as you can imagine, a huge moment for the entire family. The day after the move, my friend showed me a picture of her mother sitting on a sofa in her new room. Her mom was wearing a red sweater and sat with a nice straight back, smiling for the camera. She’s a very pretty woman. But her most defining characteristic in that moment was the look of quiet determination on her face.

My friend’s mom had been given a lovely gift – the opportunity to be brave, even at this time in her life.

And she took it.

My friend however, was pretty traumatized by the move, so she visited her mom the next morning. And sure enough, when she arrived, her mom was sitting with a half-dozen or so other little old ladies, having tea and laughing. Mom was getting on with it.

And in doing so, she was reminding my friend that a life well lived, is a life of courage.

Think about it… I bet you’ve encountered at least one of these brave souls in the past year:

· A new Canadian who is still mastering English giving a presentation in class

· A woman heavily pregnant with her first child

· An extreme introvert attending a zoom meetup full of strangers

· A puppy learning to navigate stairs

As a coach, I get to see courage every day. I saw it in my unemployed client who, while teetering on the brink of bankruptcy applied for over 400 jobs before reaching success with number 393. I saw it in the client who took a leap and moved her family across the country to a new city so that she could pursue work that was more aligned with her values. And I see it in my client who is grieving the recent loss of his wife while planning for a hopeful and fulfilling future.

There’s so much beauty in courage.

Go look for it. Get greedy for it. Let it inspire you.

And trust me. You’re going to need all that courage. Because of the one thing I can absolutely guarantee about your future. Your career will most definitely not go as planned.

You’ll be denied that promotion you deserve. Or maybe your new boss will turn out to be a jerk, or a spineless wimp, or a bit of a dumb-dumb. Or maybe you’ll be saddled with a project you don’t want. Or a health crisis that will keep you out of the game for a spell.

None of it will be your fault. But the consequences will be yours to live with.

So, remember this: no matter what, you’re in charge of your career.

Okay, here comes another story about me.

Years ago, as a corporate vice president, I sat in a meeting with two of my bosses, as they told me that a product I built and launched and grew to profitability was being transferred to another division of the company. When I objected, I was told that my attitude was unacceptable and that I needed to sit down and be quiet.

At first, I was angry about the unfairness of it all, but then, right there in the meeting, something amazing happened. It was as if someone had flipped a switch in my head. I swear I actually heard the click.

I realized: I don’t have to work here anymore.

And suddenly, I was in charge. The next day, I began networking. And six months later, when I walked out the door, I had options. Lots of them.

You are not powerless. This is your career. You’re in charge of your experience. You’re in charge of what you take from it and what you give to it. But mostly, you’re in charge of how you respond to its challenges.

Sometimes, being in charge means letting go and moving on, as it was for me. And sometimes, being in charge means digging deeper and making the most of what you have, where you are.

In those moments, it’s about asking yourself: What can I make of this?

You may have had a project blow up in your face, but you learned a lot from it. Or, your financial situation may make it unwise to quit right now, but the experience you're gaining will make you highly marketable in a year or two. It could be that your terrible bull-headed boss is helping to hone your communication and influence skills.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a hint of possibility, even in the darkness. Take for example, an architect named Chris Downey. I don’t know Chris personally, but his story has had a powerful influence on my life.

At the age of 45, a brain tumor left Chris completely blind. It’s usually best if architects aren’t blind, but this didn’t stop Chris. He never thought his sight loss was insurmountable. Rather, he realized that the creative process of architecture isn’t so much about what you can see, but how you think.

So, a month after he lost his sight, he went back to work. He has a special printer that creates raised lines enabling him to feel blueprints. And he uses bendy wax sticks to design and modify the drawings.

Through this, he discovered something really cool about being blind. He can no longer see buildings, but he can hear their acoustics and feel their textures. This new perspective has made him a truly unique architect. And, a better architect.

It isn’t easy. Chris sees nothing. No shadow, no light. He’s in total darkness.

His story reminds me of an essay by Valarie Kaur. It has a beautiful line in it: “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?”

In other words, what if the loss of Chris’s sight, or the loss a product, or a promotion or a job, isn’t about the death of something, but rather, about something new waiting to be born?

We spend so much time trying to chase away darkness, when maybe what we should be focused on is growing light.

Using his unique perspective, Chris now specializes in making spaces accessible to the blind.

He does what no other architect can do. And he has his answer to the question: What can I make of this?

“I took my disability and turned it upside down,” he says.

And of that, a new kind of architect was born.

So, let me ask: What inside of you is wanting to be born?

You don’t have to wait for tragedy, pain and suffering to jolt you into action. Too often we wait for things to be born of necessity. But what if they could be born of love?

Why not? After all, you’re in charge.

And that brings me to what is perhaps most important bit of advice this old gal has for you today.

You absolutely must learn to laugh at yourself.

Because you are, I’m sorry to say, a ridiculous human being.

Your body makes rude noises. You get terrible, awful songs stuck in your head for days on end. You tell the same stories over and over. You think of the perfect comeback, an hour too late. You’ve zoned out in meetings, then baffled the room with a complete non-sequitur when asked your opinion. You’ve sent bizarrely bungled texts. You’ve bounced down the stairs on your ass, tripped on your own feet, slipped, slid and flailed about. As a teenager, you said and did things that make you cringe to this day. And my god, have you ever put your foot in your mouth. Too many times to count.

You’re a complete catastrophe.

And that’s hilarious.

So my friends, if you’re harbouring feelings of shame and embarrassment over your silly, silly self, let me tell you that it’s time to get over it. You are one of billions of heartbeats on a blue ball orbiting a midsized star on a minor spiral arm of a run of the mill galaxy, which by the way, is just one of 2 trillion.

You're not that big a deal. So, you’ve just gotta laugh.

Laughing at yourself is at its core, an act of self-love comprised of compassion and acceptance. It’s beautiful. It’s healthy. And it will make you better at everything you do.

Because what’s the alternative?

Self-absorption. Self-pity. Self-loathing.

No thanks.

So, on those days when you’ve said or done something stupid and you’re beating yourself up and it seems like you can’t breathe, take a step back. Appreciate the ridiculousness of it all. You’re a mess. I’m a mess. We all are. But if you can find a way to laugh, before you know it, you’ll be ready to take on the world again.

My friends, those are the things I came to tell you today. That’s the best stuff I’ve got.

I wish you all joy and light and achievement as you move forward with your life. I can’t wait to see what you all get up to.

Thank you for having me.


The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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