Spend Your Time Figuring Out How To Make The Biggest Difference (Season 2021, Episode 11)

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That’s what is currently written across the top of the whiteboard in my office, The Yellow Studio. In parenthesis, I wrote: (Don’t Be Afraid Of Scaling). A friend uttered that challenge to me months ago. The context? Professional pursuits. Namely, trying to figure out how to effectively serve more clients. Shortly after that, I spent some quiet time as I am wont to do. Pondering time.

Don’t fret if you have no interest in hearing about professional or work pursuits. The lessons here transcend that. I think we’ll be able to make a solid application to just about any endeavor. In fact, I’ll be sharing my own insights in a variety of personal and professional pursuits. Because they universally share that whole “make the biggest difference” idea. I mean, who wants to pursue something that makes a minuscule difference? πŸ˜‰

The Biggest Difference?

First things first, we have to define the biggest difference. It’s ridiculously individual.

You’ve heard me talk about “the ideal outcome.” In fact, I own that domain because it has become such a staple in my coaching practice. Few things are more powerful than each of us coming to terms with – and seeing clearly – our ideal outcome. While others may try to persuade us that the journey is the thing, I’m always challenging clients to gain a clear focus on what they most would like to achieve – “the ideal outcome.”

Here’s the thing about the biggest difference or the ideal outcome – they’re subject to change. In fact, they should change when we’re armed with new insights, information, and experiences. Things change! We change! So should our ideal outcome.

About a month or so ago I released a podcast episode at my work podcast, GrowGreat.com. It was a podcast born from these ideas. It was my first mention of all this stuff that currently is being figured out. I titled it, Traction & Momentum: Pursuing The Things That Work After Killing The Things That Don’t.

Prior to recording that show I had a few conversations with people about “irons in the fire.” We all have irons in the fire, a metaphor for pursuing a variety of things that we hope will succeed. Some of us have lots of irons in the fire, and we keep putting more irons in the fire. Others of us are more selective and careful about the irons we’re willing to place into the flame. Me? I ebb and flow. Sometimes I’m selective. Sometimes I’m more willing to say, “Yes.”

Experience has taught me that what we say “NO” to can be as important, or more important, than what we say “YES” to. In the past decade, I’ve been more of a say YES guy.

On my whiteboard below the stuff you see in that picture above, I drew some flames to represent the fire. Then I drew a number of lines to represent the various pursuits that are irons in the fire. I drew everything I do. Professional. Personal. All the activities I engage in daily or weekly. Then I drew two cross-diagonal lines through the “irons” I wanted to kill. I’m still working on it, but right now there are 7 irons in the fire. I have the kill lines across 2 of them. I have a question mark on 1 of the others. That leaves 4 irons I currently think I’d like to keep in the fire. I’m not sure this is how it’ll end up because I’m still figuring it out.

The point is, not every iron in our fire is going to get hot enough to be productive. Some will. Some won’t. There are two challenges: a) figuring out which irons you care most about and b) figuring out which irons have the greatest opportunity to get hot (gain traction and momentum). Neither of those is necessarily easy.

Think of a time when you felt stretched thin. Maybe it’s now. Maybe it once was. Maybe it feels like it’s always been that way.

Try writing down – on paper or a whiteboard – the activities. Get them all down. In full disclosure, I didn’t write down all of mine because some of them are non-negotiable. That is, they’re just so important they’re a given. It’s not about whether or not I can make the biggest difference in them or not. It’s more a matter of having to do them as well as I can because they matter that much! Like being a Christian. And a husband. And a dad. And a grandfather. Those irons are in the fire and they’ll be there until I die. I simply have to get each of them as right as I possibly can. There is never going to be a time in my life when I can take any of them for granted, or remove any of them. They’re the most critical irons in my fire. What are yours?

The other irons I did write down include all the podcasts, including this one. When it comes to traction or momentum, I don’t much care. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about you, the folks who give me their time and attention. I care deeply. But you’re really a cherry on top of a world-class sundae for me. I’m doing this because I want to. Maybe better said, because I have to. To record some things as they’re happening, or as I’m thinking of them. It’s important to me to speak for myself and chronicle some things. I’ve always been honest and transparent that this podcast is mostly a legacy project. That’s how it began and likely that’s how’ll it’ll end. So keeping this iron in the fire is an easy decision for me. Not because it’s high value for you (which I hope it is), but because it’s high value for me.

How can you determine what makes the biggest difference? I’ll share with you how I’m going about it. Keep in mind, I don’t claim to have this figured out yet. I’m in the throes of trying to figure it out. Here’s the thing about figuring it out…do you ever really know when you’ve achieved it? Do you ever really achieve it? Or do you just get closer and closer? I don’t know the answers. So we just keep pushing forward, right?

First of all, I can pretty easily figure out what isn’t making the biggest difference. I mean, I know the things that aren’t moving forward. I know when things have stopped working. Or they’ve stopped working so well. But here’s the thing. Sometimes we’re tempted to hang onto those things in hopes we can figure out how to recapture the magic. If it was working before – but now it’s not – we can spend way too much time trying to get the momentum back. I’m doing my best to learn how to turn the page and let go. That has never been easy for me. My wife can do it well. She does it instinctively. Which is great for her, but it makes her ability to teach me cumbersome. Because she doesn’t really know how she does it. She just does.

One of the best tools that has helped me combat this is the realization that I’m wasting time that would be better spent in pursuing a different course and the understanding that that was then, this is now. Everything has a time. If the time is past when I once had traction in something that was making a big difference, but now that traction is completely gone — then I’m faced with the reality to spin my wheels going nowhere, or working to find traction in something new. It’s far more invigorating to search for new traction. So I’m learning to turn loose and move on. It’s not easy, but it is doable.

Next, I gauge my interest or passion. If something worked well before, but now it’s not working then I know I need to get in really good touch with my energy level for something. Some years ago I had a life-altering event and it disrupted some things that had become second nature for me – making the biggest difference I could. Circumstances changed. Opinions, too. Suddenly, through no fault of my own, I was seen by some as less than I was prior. Even though I had done nothing – and my oldest mentors urged me to deal with the question, “How have YOU changed?” (the answer to which was, “I haven’t!”) – dealing with the harsh judgments of others wasn’t comfortable. But pride being what it is, I understood what was happening. When life punches you in the gut you need a moment or two to get back on your feet. I needed a moment or two.

During those moments I saw the clamoring that goes on when people enjoy looking down on others. When ambitious people want to be seen in greater glory. It’s just how life works.

It wasn’t long until I gauged my own passion for work I’d been doing most of my adult life. And I realized I’d lost the energy for it. Was it because of the events and circumstances? Absolutely, but mostly it was the result of a few people who enjoyed seeing the sorrow happen to somebody else. You know people like that. People whose lives are made better by the suffering of others.

Initially, I resisted my change in energy because I didn’t want a few people to overshine what I felt was the majority opinion. You see, my personal tragedy wasn’t celebrated by most. Only by a few. But in such times the racquet of the few drowns out the majority. Like on social media! πŸ˜€

What I discovered over time is that I had always (ALWAYS) behaved and gone about my work quietly, operating mostly below the radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Right where I mostly enjoyed operating. But I’m a vocal and communicative introvert. So I made a conscious decision to get very quiet, which was surprisingly easy. And easier. Better yet, I grew silent in this one arena of my life. I’m still silent in that arena and have been for almost 3 years. And I’m good with it. Don’t see it changing. Because I’ve learned what was always true for me – the one person matters more to me because I can best serve the one person!

It’s important to understand exactly what drains your energy and what increases it. I had known this all along, but had forgotten during the sorrow and sadness. So I reclaimed it and it made not only a difference to the one, but it made a difference to me.

These are the 2 big ways I’ve found I can push forward to figuring out how to make the biggest difference. It’s still a work in progress, but I know I’m making progress.

Where Can You Make The Biggest Difference?

It’s not likely just one area. But what if it is? Who cares? A big difference is a big difference. Some of us can have a bigger impact than others. Some of us are more talented. More ambitious. Harder working. Know and are known by more people. Others of us, like me, are far more comfortable working the spotlight to aim it toward those who do their best work under the lights. Rather than judge it, let’s just lean into being more of what we really are – albeit, the best version of ourselves – and let it ride.

This is what I’ve learned – especially over the past 3 years or so. My proactivity is still intact, but it has changed. I’m not a passive person. I don’t wait for the cavalry to come. Sometimes I wish they would, but life has taught me they never do.

That proactive nature is something I’ve tried to leverage for good, but sometimes it can frustrate me. In one big area of my life I’ve let that go by submitting to what others in the group want. It’s that same area where I’ve grown quiet. Today, I’m satisfied doing whatever the group would most want. And if the group isn’t able to figure that out, I’m not inclined to contribute or nudge forward in the least. Rather, I’m more contented to shrink back even further giving the group the opportunity to wrestle with the struggle themselves. It’s how we all grow and improve. My nature is to help the group figure it out more quickly – it’s why I’m a professional coach for leaders and executives. I don’t want to figure it out for others because that’s not helpful to them. I want to be proactive though in helping them figure it out. But sometimes, I’ve learned, the biggest difference you can make is to realize you can no longer make any difference at all. So you let things ride.

Professionally, clients don’t pay you to let things ride. They pay you hoping you can help them in ways nobody else can. This works well for me. While in one area of my life I’m resigned, I’m anything but resigned in another area. In fact, my ambitions have gone up exponentially, likely due to the shift in my life caused by some personal sorrow. Struggles, sadness, and sorrow are some of our greatest instructors. That’s absolutely been the case in my life. All of my life! I wish it were different. I wish the biggest positive difference in my life had come from wild success, but it’s not so. Colossal failure, heartache, and sorrow have been my very best teachers!

Where You Are Matters!

I turned 64 in May. Come January, Lord willing, Rhonda and I will have been married for 44 years. We’ve been a couple since July 1975, 46 years. We’ve been together 2.5 times longer than we haven’t. That’s one perspective. A big one.

We have 5 grandkids ranging in age from 14 to 6.

We’re less than a year away from qualifying for Medicare.

We have new goals we’ve established in the past year or two. Personal goals. Professional goals. Quite a lot has changed. Things haven’t worked out ideally in every area of life as we’d hoped. But you stand in the batter’s box looking at life’s pitches and deciding what you’ll swing at and what you’ll let go by.

At this stage of life, you worry about different things. Like being left alone. Like some serious illness overtaking one or both of you. Like the grandkids. Like the curveballs you know are coming…just hoping you recognize them quickly enough so you can adjust and deal with them.

Context. It’s your context. Where you are right now in life. That’s your context and it’s subject to change. It will change. Just give it a moment. Or two.

What may be your ideal outcome at this very moment may not be your ideal outcome 30 days from now. But it may remain unchanged. We’ll both just have to wait and see.

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a lot of the tragic circumstances others have faced and some continue to face. The death of a mate. A bad diagnosis. The loss of a job or an entire career. The negative impact of a foolish, poor behaving adult child – or grandchild. The stories of suffering are comprehensive and widespread. We’ve all got our share. Some more than others.

I look at where people once were and where they are now. I watch as they attempt to navigate unchartered waters in their lives, knowing they’re not unchartered at all really because countless millions have enduring similar things. Each perhaps handling it in their own unique ways. Some better than others. Some able to make things better by leaning toward wisdom in their crisis. Others making things worse by leaning toward more foolishness. It’s largely the difference between being victimized by life or being energized by a refusal to be victimized.

I’m largely a victim of my own doing. Nothing more. Nothing less. So are you. But I admittedly choose that perspective.

Where I currently am is very different than where I’ve been before. Contextually. But it’s not much different at all really. Not when I consider the perspective of my own responsibility and accountability.

Life owes me nothing. Absolutely nothing. Random chance has happened. And along the way the realization that I, like everybody who has ever lived, or will ever live, have been blessed. Blessed by God above who set in motion things like air to breathe, rain to fall and sunshine to shine. Blessed mostly that God provided all of us a Savior so we could avoid dying in our sins, separated from God’s great favor. Like a forgiving friend who offers us a way to be redeemed from our betrayal, God has given every human a path forward. Never mind that we don’t all see it or want to see it. Never mind that we don’t all obey Him or even acknowledge He exists. It doesn’t remove the fact that He does indeed exist and that He did indeed do for us what we could never do for ourselves – give us a way to be redeemed from our sins.

Maybe you’ve had the perfect, most ideal life. I doubt it. I rather suspect you endured parents who weren’t perfect. Bosses who may have been tyrannical. A career that’s been up and down. Finances that have ebbed and flowed, with more of one than the other. In short, I think I’m on rather safe ground to assume that your life has been anything but perfect or ideal. I’m betting your life has had as many or more days of crying than laughing. More days of gloom than joy. Not because I’m a pessimist, but because I’m now more than ever, experienced at life. And it’s just how life works!

That doesn’t negate or minimize the joy. Or the laughter. Or the good times. I’m betting you’ve had many. But not enough. Because there’s never enough. But for a moment or two let’s consider where you are right now. Because that’s what matters. If we’re going to move toward making the biggest difference.

I have an appointment at a local city hall. I know the way, but here in DFW we have traffic. And with every destination, there are multiple routes. A great way to go at 8 am may be the least ideal path forward at 9 am. So I fire up Waze, an app on my iPhone that routes the quickest path between where I am and where I want to go. Waze uses location recognition to know where I am currently. Without that bit of information, Waze can’t possibly function. At all!

Where you currently are matters. So we’d best be coming to terms with where we are.

Something has occurred to me as I’ve grown older. People hate growing older. Men and women alike. For some reason, my newsfeed using Yahoo News! (don’t ask; it’s an old, old habit to have that has a home page ever since Excite bit the dust) I’m fed way too many older women pretending to still be young. To be fair, I get a reasonable amount of older men, too. Like Kevin Cosner. Or Gordon Ramsey. I hardly ever click on these, but clearly Yahoo knows how old I am so I guess they suppose I’m interested in all the Instagram pics of the likes of Elizabeth Hurley who seem intent on posting bikini pics. She’s 56. I Googled it. Ut oh, that means I’m now really gonna get picture suggestions with her.

Listen, I don’t care how hot Elizabeth Hurley is. Or if her abs are awesome. Good for her. But if she posts as many Instagram pics as Yahoo News claims – like multiple times weekly, I just wonder what that’s all about. It’s kinda odd, don’t you think? I mean if she’s 56 as Google reports I wonder where she’s currently at in her life. Other than maybe thinking she’s 26. But what do I know? Clearly not enough.

I’m not bemoaning somebody who can maintain some degree of hotness into their 50’s or 60s or beyond. But as somebody in their 60s I don’t much understand why the world has to know about it. Or why it would matter to me, as a Yahoo News home page guy. But I’m not trying to hang onto something that is long past. Like my youth. Truth is, I wasn’t hanging onto my youth back when I had it ’cause I was the kid who couldn’t wait to grow up. And even if you’re a hot 26-year old I don’t much understand why the whole world needs to see it. I have much to learn it seems.

But I digress, it seems. The point is knowing where you currently are. For instance, I know I’m not Instagram hot. πŸ˜‰ I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it’s my reality. Well, actually, it’s the truth which makes it universally the reality!

So before you fire up whatever Waze app that you use to live your life, figure out where you are. That likely matters more than where you want to go although both matter. Remember, we’re working toward figuring out how to make the biggest difference. Okay, I can hear some of you guys saying Elizabeth Hurley’s Instagram pics are making the biggest difference. πŸ˜€ Come on, we can surely do better than a vanity metric, can’t we?

It’s been years since I was at Six Flags Over Texas, but they’d always have these big maps behind glass so patrons could figure out how to get to some other place in the park. First, you’d look for some “X” that would be marked, “You are here!” Until you located that, it didn’t matter where you wanted to go. Same thing in your life.

Where’s the X in your life marked, “You are here!”?

Lately, I’ve been watching lots of YouTube videos of private pilots. I do this every now and again. It’s not the first time that niche has captured my attention.

You can listen and watch these pilots as they shift from channel to channel, from one direction setting to another, from one altitude to another. Constantly shifting. Constantly adjusting. As their position changes they’re being told by air traffic controllers to adjust so they can eventually get to their desired destination. With flying, you’d think the straight line would always be in play, but sometimes things happen. Like increased air traffic. Or weather. Or some mechanical problem with the aircraft. Lots of things can happen. And even if the direction seems mostly in a straight line if you consider the adjustment in height…it’s very up and down. Up 1,000 feet. Down 1,000 feet. I’m always amazed at the focus required and the steady adjustments needed to take a small private aircraft from one airport to another. All because the location isn’t static. The plane is on the move. Just like your life.

Where Is Air Traffic Control When You Need Them?

I’ve already shared with you where mine is. God. Not in some “God spoke to me last night and told me to take that job” kind of a way, but in the Bible, God speaks to everybody. In Acts 10:34 the scripture says, “Then Peter opened his mouth and said: β€œIn truth I perceive that God shows no partiality.” (NKJV) The old KJV says “…God is no respecter of persons.” That is, God isn’t doing something uniquely special for you that He won’t do for somebody else. I know people enjoy thinking they’re God’s special person, but that’s contrary to what the Bible teaches. So I don’t mean it in that way.

The Bible clearly shows me that God cares about Eternity. Salvation in Heaven. Avoiding going to Hell. God wants every single person to be saved in Eternity. Well, that changes everything. Knowing that no matter what happens here, my Eternity destiny can be secured by following and obeying God…that’s a game-changer. And it’s demonstrated in how the early disciples in the 1st century were able to endure such persecutions and hardships in this life. And why the apostles mostly suffered being murdered for their faith. These were not happy outcomes in this life. But no matter, Eternity is where the biggest rewards are found. And those rewards don’t have to be impacted negatively by what happens to us here. Unless we let them.

But day to day we sometimes wish a person would just tell us the path correction to make, like those air traffic controllers directing all those planes. If only somebody would just tell me to adjust my course a few degrees in this direction or that direction. We’re having to fly our own planes and serve as our own air traffic controllers. It’s not easy. But it’s what’s required as we navigate our life.

We do need something from which to measure. I’ve shared with you what my true north is, God. But God’s Word doesn’t speak to what I do for a living, as long as I do something honorable, legal, and within the bounds of what God requires of anybody. That gives me a ton of latitude (and altitude) from which to choose. So I must deploy wisdom. My own and the wisdom others are willing to share. I alone must make my choices though. And then work to figure out if I got it mostly right, mostly wrong or somewhere in between. Because this much is sure – adjustments will be required.

The Realization That You’re A Finite Resource

There’s only so much of you to go around. That’s a fact.

We enjoy thinking we’re some limitless powerhouse, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Maybe two. But at some point, hopefully sooner than later (meaning hopefully younger not older) we learn we have capacity limits. And in just about every area of our life except our ability to learn, grow and improve. We can always get better!

There are people limits. No, there aren’t any limits to the number of people you can meet, be introduced to, or know. But there are limits to the number of people who you can be close enough to, safe enough with, to serve in the deepest way possible. Rather than lament that, you should be grateful that for some you are just the right person. That gives other people the opportunity to serve the folks who feel most comfortable with them. Nobody – this includes you and me – are the right person for everybody. It’s not possible. Let it go.

There are time limits. We mostly know this even if we don’t live as though we know it. We squander time more than any other thing I think. Mostly, I guess, because yesterday was much like the day before. And we expect today to go pretty much as yesterday did. So tomorrow…well, it’s gonna pretty much go like all the other days have. Until they don’t. Life shakes us and suddenly we’re facing an unknown. But as soon as we endure that crisis or celebration, things largely return to normal. Routine. The routine keeps us sane, but it lulls us into thinking we’ve got more time. Maybe we do. Maybe we don’t.

You have to say “no” before you can say “yes.” This can be hard. Harder still when you’re upping the stakes as I have in today’s show by challenging us to spend our time figuring out how to make the BIGGEST difference.

What are gonna kill today so something else can live – and more abundantly?

Don’t fool yourself into thinking everything you’re doing can survive and thrive. That may be possible if you’re narrowly focused, but almost everybody I know has far more irons in the fire than the fire can heat up. So what happens is our irons never get quite hot enough to do much with. Sure, we could build a bigger fire, but most of us lack the talent or know-how to do that. And most of us don’t yet understand how that all works. We see successful people who are into this, that and the other. Problem. We didn’t see them before their success. Back when they had a single focus because their fire looked an awful lot like ours does now. It’s fairly small.

Success – financial success – stoked their fire and made it much, much bigger. Today, they can easily accommodate irons the rest of us can’t. Being rich has clear advantages. πŸ˜‰

I’ve seen it for decades. People see rich folks who have multiple streams of income and conclude, “That’s what I need to do.” Only to fail because nothing gains enough traction to really matter.

The reality is nearly all rich folks got rich in some in some singular arena. Real estate. Oil. Technology. Something specific and singular. Depending on the degree of financial reward sparked by that thing, other avenues opened up. Connections. Opportunities. They open up as the wealth increases. For good reason. Wealthy folks have the sought-after resource. Money. Influence. Power. The rich aren’t getting richer because of anything sinister. It’s the law of resource opportunity.

But we’re not watching them closely as they ascend. We don’t even know who they are. Until they’ve made it – and now they’re rich. And now we pay attention to them, but they’re into real estate, stocks, bitcoin, professional sports team ownership, and more. They didn’t start out that way. They started out being what In Search Of Excellence called, “monomaniacs on a mission.”

If you’re going to get an iron hot enough to do something productive, then you have to narrow the focus. That means, jettison the stuff that isn’t moving you forward. The stuff that isn’t working out. The things that take time away from the stuff that matters more. Your big impact is hampered by being too diluted. Chasing too many things.

I’ve Always Been A Media Company

Not a successful one, mind you. πŸ˜‰

That’s why when you look at that photo of my whiteboard you see the things I know are necessary when I create content. High value to my audience. That’s the objective.

I do it by being myself. Rather than chase people who want to be “thought leaders” I do it by incorporating my whole self. Not as a guru, because I’m not one. Not as a thought leader, because I don’t even know what they do exactly. Not as a book author, because I’ve not yet written a book. And honestly don’t figure I ever will. But you never know. What I do know is that it’s not in the plans.

I do what I do the way I do it because I know we’re just a bunch of humans trying to figure things out. If a guy sitting inside a home studio dubbed The Yellow Studio can share some insights, experience and wisdom, then that may have some value. Will it make a big difference? That’s for each of you to decide. For me, I have to figure out how I can make the biggest difference. That doesn’t mean it’ll be enormous. Or even big by anybody’s standards other than what I’m most capable of. If it helped YOU, then I consider it a success. Because I’m still the little boy answering the questioning old man with, “It made a difference to that one!”

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