The Act of Initiative
I realized in the not-too-distant past that my day was full of responses to external demands. Emails, messages, phone calls, reminders, notifications, tasks — micro-level. No large-scale projects. No big picture goals. A work promotion to partner was in perpetual limbo, partly because I was spending all day putting out fires, answering other people or even doing their work. I wasn’t really involved in important projects that could grow our business, or projects that might improve my community. Projects seemed daunting and who had time for one anyway? I was so busy.
The constant barrage of unrelated tasks meant I could never get out of “do” mode to think. I also couldn’t see how I’d grow professionally without taking on more meaningful responsibilities. The social problems around me were constantly on my mind, but I didn’t have solutions. I kept hoping someone else would address it all for me. Even when my boss would agree to get me working on something bigger, I never found time to make a plan let alone execute. This frustrated me for a long time. I knew I had more to offer than what I was doing, I just didn’t know what to do about it.
Over the years it became apparent that change was not going to come from out there. Nobody was coming to save the day. Then slowly it dawned on me...
If no one was coming to save me, no one was was coming to stop me.
I catered an event at the newly operational Salesforce Tower last October where social enterprise entrepreneurs from around the world were being recognized. People who ran clean ocean initiatives or were organizing with those affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico all congregated on the 61st floor with CEO Marc Benioff. Even with Marc’s booming presence, they didn’t “look” so different from those of us who were bussing their empty glasses or serving their wine. But what they were doing with their lives was creating such incredible impact. Many of them charted unique paths from just an idea into a world-changing movement, and Marc’s accomplishments still seem superhuman. Yet there he was, eating from a cheese plate. I looked into the bathroom mirror in the tallest building in San Francisco and admitted to myself that I wanted to be invited as a guest to events like this because of the good work I was doing. I wanted to be collaborating with these people, not cleaning up after them.
Over the past year, it has become soberingly apparent to me from moments like this that the status quo wasn’t going to cut it forever. As I started noticing how I was spending my time and what my days consisted of, I started dreaming of a different life. What would I do if I could do anything? Where could I begin? I didn’t quite realize it then, but I was starting to take initiative.
I knew I wanted to feel more financially secure and meaningfully engaged in my work. I recognized I needed a better understanding of our business, much deeper than I had in the past while in fire-fighter mode. As I was educating myself, I began to identify areas that were deficient, what types of projects I could do well, and what I would likely enjoy. Then I imagined the regular action that would be necessary to accomplish these projects.
Breaking it down into small steps — logging out of email for an hour and a half to think about new markets — seems doable. If I can do this today, I can do it again another day. After a year, even making time just one day per week would yield almost 80 hours on one project that could completely change our business.
Coming up with some exciting ideas almost immediately shifted how I wanted to organize my week at work. If reviewing and improving our customer experience is my project, responding to a client after 2 hours instead of 2 minutes seems reasonable. Everyone ultimately benefits. Is there a way to organize my workday so I can block out time to focus (supporting my long-term needs) and still meet my clients’ expectations?
Taking initiative is hard. It’s also one of the most accessible ways to change our lives. I’ve spent years and years in overwhelm on this one thing, but what I’ve discovered is that perfection doesn’t matter. None of those entrepreneurs at the Salesforce event started with everything figured out. Needing the perfect project, the perfect team, the perfect time… those are all ways to delay starting. What actually matters is that we begin to take steps today and persevere until we’ve created something great.
What if we could look back on our year and see a big accomplishment —launching a new service, expanding into a new city, or completing the tallest, most innovative skyscraper in San Francisco (with the best chef in the biz)— just because we determined what was important to us and put that into regular action? What if we operated in environments where people were collectively working that muscle?
“Persistence guarantees that results are inevitable.” — Paramahansa Yogananda
I hesitated to fully commit to my work for a long time because I didn’t understand that even the most incredible leader can’t create the perfect conditions for my success. Owners aren’t perfect, all powerful or omniscient. Success relies on collective effort. We can work to empower each other — absolutely a leadership objective— but imagine if each of us acted as our own leaders, finding where we could make things better and trying our damn best? Problem areas would be addressed and the work environment would be a dynamic, stimulating place. We could get inspired to think bigger by what other people choose to do and how they do it, and set our own agenda without waiting for someone (who may never come) to give us directions, guidance or permission.
It’s not easy. You have to make tough decisions and synthesize complex information on your own. You have to confront your own tendencies, bad habits, and flawed thinking. You have to risk failure. Not everyone will understand what you’re doing. Not everyone will like it. But the people who matter will recognize your courage and their respect will sustain you. And when we tap into our own ability to take initiative, we actually bring it out of others. It changes people. It changes ourselves.
I think we underestimate the difference we can make, how contagious the spark of joy, no matter what level we start from. I’ve been amazed by the difference in my own community just from redefining my own objectives and schedule, from making my dreams grander and walking toward them.
The vision may change, and that’s okay. We can course correct and shift gears as we go. But if you get just one idea from reading this, I hope it is this: