Excerpt from The PLAN Leadership Fable: Four Steps to Get Unstuck and Live a Life on Purpose.
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Friday morning arrived after a very long week. Joshua considered canceling his meeting with Steve, but he thought it might be a good break from the anxiety at work.
He arrived at the coffee shop a few minutes early. Steve was already there. He sat at one of the corner tables and motioned to Joshua as he walked in. Steve was in his usual attire: a flowered shirt, jeans, and sandals. Joshua thought it would be interesting to see Steve’s closet and how many variations of flowered shirts he owned.
“Good morning, Joshua,” said Steve. “Can I grab you a coffee?”
Based on his enthusiasm, Joshua wasn’t sure if this was Steve’s fifth cup of coffee or not, but he was really bringing the energy.
“Absolutely,” said Joshua as he went to the counter to order his coffee.
“How’s the week been so far?” asked Steve. “I’m sure that sounds like a loaded question, but how have you been processing all the changes as the week’s gone on?”
“Processing?” thought Joshua. He didn’t feel like much processing had gone on the past few days.
Joshua gave Steve a brief glimpse of the whirlwind week he had had since they met. Telling his direct team of the news was the toughest part. He had hired most of them, and he knew it was putting their families in difficult situations. Helping his team process through the business shutdown and next steps had kept his mind off of his situation and what he was going to do next.
Steve empathized with Joshua as he shared. He could feel the emotion rising up within him because it brought back memories of years ago when he went through something very similar. It was like he was feeling everything all over again.
Joshua could tell that Steve knew what he was talking about and could see in his eyes that his story resonated with him.
“Wow, I know that’s tough,” said Steve sincerely. “There’s not a good way to share news like that. I know it’s difficult to have that type of conversation with those you care about. I’ve definitely had my share of conversations like that, and it never gets easier.”
“What’s your story, Steve?” asked Joshua. “You mentioned at the bar the other night that you went through a similar situation a few years ago. Was it like what I’m going through now?”
“Yes, it sounds like there are a lot of similarities, but a lot of mine was self-inflicted,” answered Steve. “I’ll start at the beginning so you’ll have an appreciation of the highs and lows of my journey. Buckle up because it’s quite a ride.”
Steve started to unpack his story.
Steve had co-founded a technology company during the dot-com days of the late 1990s. He was the vision and marketing guy, the one who brought the big ideas and handed them off to others to make them happen. In those early months, there were a lot of ideas, with very few of the ideas coming to fruition. The company had burned through a couple of investment rounds, trying to design the next big technology solution. And burned they were — working tirelessly on a diet of tacos and Starbucks.
Over time, Steve’s company was able to build a product that enabled other technology companies to automate their sales processes. It was a right time, right moment idea that took off, and Steve’s career soared with it. He was a star, making a name for himself on several “Top 40 Under 40” lists and in the fast lane to success.
“I remember when we were first starting out,” said Steve as his excitement level surged. “I felt alive. My purpose was never more clear. I wanted to change the world and had clarity on how I would get there. I felt like I knew myself. I knew my passions. I knew how to leverage my strengths and was operating with clarity and conviction. The growth story of the company was incredible. Hockey stick growth didn’t do it justice. We were moving so fast that we didn’t have time to stop and breathe, but I knew inside this couldn’t last forever.”
“What happened?” asked Joshua.
“I’m not 100 percent sure,” said Steve. “Somewhere along the way, I just started to drift. I drifted from my purpose. It wasn’t as clear as it was before, and I started to lose my passion. It was as if my hope was leaking, and I didn’t have a clue. There were signs all around me, but I was the last one to pick up on them. It wasn’t an event. It wasn’t a specific day. I just started to drift, and before I knew it, I didn’t know where I was anymore. On the outside, I looked ultra-successful. I was a senior executive in a rapidly growing technology company on the fast track, but on the inside, I felt lost.
“My performance started to dip because I was distracted by what was going on inside me. Over time, it was starting to hurt the business. I remember the day I was fired so vividly. It was surreal to be confronted with the reality of being fired from the company I helped to start, but there I was, confronted by the board and other co-founders, being asked to step down. I had no plan. I didn’t know what to do.
“I remember one of the board members pulled me aside as I walked out and told me never to waste a failure. He encouraged me to have a growth mindset, to let this failure develop me instead of defining me. I wasn’t mature enough in that moment to understand his wisdom, but I would remember that comment down the road.
“There were times when I thought it would be easier to just keep driving instead of going home. I wasn’t in a healthy place until I ran into an old mentor who helped me, much like I hope my story can help you.
“It was in this pit that I learned a critical lesson,” said Steve. “I felt like my hope was on empty, and I was just drifting, but I pressed in and used it as a chance to learn something about myself and something about life.
“I learned there are usually one of two things that happen for all of us when it comes to our lives,” said Steve. “We either design our way to our desired destination, or we drift to some destination. My guess is most people end up drifting. We see it all around us. Some people call it a midlife crisis. Others talk about how they never would have guessed they would end up where they are today. We drift. It’s easy to drift. It happens by default, and there’s not a lot of effort required.
“Think about sailing. Now, I’m no sailor, but I do know a little about boats. I know enough to know if you get in a boat on the ocean, you are going to drift somewhere. The currents will move you along, and you’ll ultimately end up at a destination. The key question is, will it be the destination you’ve desired?”
Joshua wasn’t a big boat guy either, but he understood the idea of drifting. What Steve was saying was starting to resonate with him and help him understand his current situation.
“I once heard the pastor at my church, Andy Stanley, talk about what he called ‘the principle of the path,’” continued Steve. “He said our direction will always determine our destination. I added my little twist to this. I think your destination should always define your direction. Start with your destination. Ask first, ‘Where do I want to go?’ You can then ask, ‘How do I get there?’ It’s important to start with the end in mind and to envision a preferred future. This is vision. This is purpose. This is what fuels the journey and is the North Star that we focus on to ensure we end up where we want to end up. Joshua, what’s your desired destination?”
This made Joshua a little nervous. He didn’t know how to answer the question because it had been a long time since he had asked it. He could fake it, but he knew Steve would see right through him.
“To be candid, I don’t know,” said Joshua. “I haven’t asked that question in years. Maybe that’s why I feel stuck. I don’t have a defined destination, and the tyranny of the urgent always consumes my thoughts and eats up the brain space to think about stuff like this. So I don’t have a good answer for you today.”
“Joshua, that’s exactly where I was a few years ago. I couldn’t answer that question, and it ate at me,” said Steve. “I broke, hit rock bottom, and decided I had to invest time in figuring this out so I don’t regret where I end up one day when it’s too late to make a difference. It’s worth it to sit down and burn some brain calories figuring this out.
“Our desired destination should provide the vision and the guardrails for our journey. Most of us just drift, and we wake up one day wondering how we got to this destination, realizing it’s not quite what we had envisioned or where we thought we would be at this point in our lives. In order to design your destination, you need a PLAN. You need a framework that will help you design the blueprint of your journey. That’s what I’d like to walk you through over the next few weeks if you’re open to it.
“Do you remember Mr. Miyagi?” asked Steve.
Joshua wasn’t expecting this question.
“That’s the guy from The Karate Kid movie, right?” asked Joshua. “Of course I remember him. ‘Wax on, wax off,’ right?”
“Yes, the ‘wax on, wax off’ sensei from The Karate Kid movies who taught Daniel LaRusso how to defend himself against the dreaded Cobra Kais,” said Steve. “Do you remember how he would tinker with the small bonsai trees?”
Joshua had to think. He remembered all of the training scenes and the crane kick. He remembered Daniel ultimately winning the karate tournament and Mr. Miyagi catching the fly with chopsticks, but the bonsai trees weren’t coming to mind.
“Mr. Miyagi was often seen pruning and grooming bonsai trees while Daniel was off waxing cars and staining fences,” continued Steve. “The cool thing is that there’s a key life lesson we can learn from Mr. Miyagi related to the bonsai trees he meticulously took care of. This lesson can impact our frame as we talk more about designing your PLAN.
“Joshua, did you know that bonsai trees are not naturally tiny trees?” asked Steve. “They actually have the DNA to grow to all different sizes but are limited on purpose. Bonsai trees are placed in a ‘bon,’ a small tray or pot, which limits the room the roots have to grow. The tree is actually pruned to be small and placed in an environment where growth is limited. Keeping it small is intentional, and the ‘bon’ constrains it from growing beyond the size of the pot.
“This was very interesting to learn and caused me to pause and ask myself this question: As I design my PLAN, what limitations am I putting on myself that are hindering my growth?
“Our goal as we design our PLAN is to not constrain ourselves in our design. We can actually limit our own growth if we’re not mindful and intentional. We can create constraining environments where growth is limited, and we will end up with small trees with untapped potential. Think about that as you consider your commitment to design or drift.
“Consider all this as you think about designing your PLAN and fighting against drifting,” said Steve. “We’ll dive into the first part of the PLAN when we meet next week. It’s important to start with the ‘why’ before we dive in.”
That’s a lot to think about, thought Joshua. He knew he didn’t want to be a drifter, and he knew he didn’t want to land at a destination one day that he regretted. He just didn’t know how to get there yet.
“Sounds good, Steve,” said Joshua. “I think I’ll have to go watch The Karate Kid again before we meet up next week.”