Leave Room For Discovery

Always bring a pencil to class.
Take an umbrella.
Do your research
.

BE PREPARED (bee-pri-paird) verb a command, threat or warning. Disobey at your own peril.

But imagine for a moment…

You forget your pencil.
You get caught in a downpour without your umbrella.
You go to the movie without reading a single review.

Maybe

You get to write with a fat shiny marker.
You pretend you’re the star of Singin’ in the Rain.
You howl at a scene the critics found “utterly derivative.”

What if the best moments of the trip aren’t the ones you scheduled and mapped out and underlined in the 5 different guide books — but, instead, the afternoon you got completely lost and ended up in a roadside tavern with the local celebrity brewmaster?

What if the breakthrough idea comes not in the meeting where you brought your giant binder, but in the impromptu gathering in the hallway?

What if all the tried-and-true, never-fail strategies you’ve always relied on proved not to work in this case, and it’s time to ditch all the rules?

What if not knowing “how it’s done” is your best weapon for doing it better?

Easy Does It

Don’t go all “if it’s meant to be” on me. This isn’t about leaving everything to chance and it’s not about being unprepared.

It’s about being brave enough to not over prepare.

Gutsy enough to leave room for discovery, instead of walking in armed with certainty.

Courageous enough to say “I know this is the answer — and I have nothing but my gut to back it up.”

Make Room

Maybe that rock solid wall of preparation has been keeping the revolutionary ideas at bay, like a blinking No Vacancy sign.

Open the door.

Don’t over-script.

Go in with an outsider’s perspective, with the wide-eyed naivete of a novice.

The next time you think, “I should be more prepared,” stop there.

You’re plenty prepared.

And if you get caught in the rain, dance your way through it.

The Quiet Side of Brave

Fortune always favors the brave, and never helps a man who does not help himself.

P.T. Barnum

Bravery. It’s a mystery of many shades. We know it when we see capital B Bravery, like the heroic efforts that make the evening news, but more often, bravery shows up in every day moments that are imperceptible to the casual passerby.

Small b Bravery

This kind of small b bravery is all around you and inside you, if you know how to spot it. Here are a few of bravery’s many disguises.

Making eye contact with a stranger on the sidewalk.

Sending your child off with a kiss and a hug when you want to keep her cocooned at home, safe from the world.

Giving voice to the idea you’ve been holding tight in your throat.

A flirty hello after your heart’s been broken.

Speaking truth.

Saying yes.

Saying no.

Raising your hand when you’d prefer to remain invisible.

Stepping through the doors (metaphorical and physical) in front of you.

Believing your own voice over others.

Take Up With Bravery

Bravery left unattended shrinks.

Befriend it. Practice it often.

Keep it nimble and watch it blossom.

Why I'm Done With Being Nice

This is not a parenting story, but parenting is the avenue by which this particular lesson was delivered. Raising human beings has a way of shining light into dark corners.

I’d get that look in my eye, my brow furrowed. But before I could utter a sound, my children would shake their little heads and mumble, “We know. Be nice.” High fives all around for parenting success, or so I thought.

Have you ever gotten one of those beautiful shiny chocolate rabbits at Easter? You go in for a bite of dense bunny ear goodness only to have it crumble in your hands. Hollow. That’s what being nice had become — this shallow thing my kids did just to get me off their backs.

How had we gotten so far off track? I’d been snookered by the easiness of nice and my kids totally exploited it to appease me.

What is Nice?

Nice is sly. He’s banking on you being so dazzled by his shine you won’t bother to take a closer look. Oh, but I looked and you should too. Go ahead. Lean in and squint until it comes into focus. Uh-huh. You see it too? All hat and not cattle as we say here in Texas.

Nice is pleasant, but you wonder if he’s sincere. Nice may not lie, but you doubt his true currency is honesty. Nice cares for others, but it’s out of obligation. Nice is the easy way out. Which is exactly why we so easily fall prey to his allure. He makes us look good, as long as we don’t go poking around too much.

An Alternative to Nice

You might think that while not noble, Nice seems harmless enough. But “harmless enough” is Nice’s cunning lie to keep us on auto-pilot. To keep us at arm’s reach from each other.

So, what’s the alternative?

Kind. The dictionary says Nice and Kind are synonymous, interchangeable. I disagree. Kind is of a higher order — solid chocolate gold. Whereas, Nice is the cheap hollow knock-off.

Kind is pleasant and her sincerity is rarely in question. Kind is honest and demonstrates what she believes in with her actions. Kind cares for others out of compassion and empathy. Kind picks a side, even if it disrupts the status quo. Kind requires effort.

She looks outside herself and asks: What is needed? How can I make this situation better? Kind insists we get involved. Make eye contact. Speak up. Stand up. Notice.

Why This Matters to Your Work

Do you think you can go through life on Nice Mode, barely skimming the surface, then turn around and produce unmistakable work? At best you produce beige — doesn’t harm anything, but certainly doesn’t bring about change or provoke a response.

But something remarkable happens when you heed Kind’s beckon to become actively engaged with the people around you. A deeper, wider world opens up to you. As you discover new things the world becomes a more interesting place and it informs everything you do, think and produce.

Imagine being immersed, all in. You create work that fills the gaps, creates new paths, that has an opinion and is decidedly not beige. All because you cared enough to notice then act.

The question is, which will you choose? Quick, easy Nice or deeper, more demanding Kind?

As for me, with a furrowed brow and a glint in my eye, I now ask my children, “How can you be kind?”

A Love Letter: Saying Goodbye

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry

Nelson County, KY. Photo: Charles B. Cornell

Nelson County, KY. Photo: Charles B. Cornell

I visited you today, the first time since the ground shifted.

You’ve been tugging at the corners of my soul since we first met almost 30 years ago. You knew exactly how to seduce me with your rolling hills, breeze-swept pond and fields of wheat glistening in the summer sun.

Ours has been a long distance relationship, deepening with time. Over the last decade you became woven into my biggest dreams. It started when I vowed you would be an integral part of my children’s lives, not just someplace they visited. With you underfoot they’ve had space to roam and adventures to explore. You’ve filled the gaps of their city life.

As you became part of them my own desire grew, the pull becoming stronger each time I walked your fields.

And it slowly came into focus…

Architected to look as though it was an extension of you. On the ridge under the Kentucky Coffee Bean tree? Or maybe down by the little creek?

Room to welcome my people. Whispering the sweet invitation, “Come. Be.” With the prayer that all who entered would leave renewed. With the hope of many return visits.

The place my Soul Sisters would gather because finally I would be close enough to host them around my own table, after so many years of being their guest.

The place my children would come home to. The place they would bring their children.

Today I say goodbye.

The house won’t be built. The people won’t gather.

Others re-wrote our story, without our consent.

As I walk your familiar paths I leave you my tears. May they soak deep into your soil and nourish you.

I will carry you with me. Always. Forever grateful.

Love,
Denise

What To Do When Autopilot Leads You Astray

Is this all there is?
Yep. This is it.

And you chose it.
Yes, you did.

With every non-choice you made.
Passive
Autopiloting through your own life.
Like the shortest route was your only priority.

Take a long soak in the dissatisfaction.
Let the toxic rain of uneasy wash over you.
Feel it.
Burning.
Remember it. (You’ll need it.)

Turn off the default.
Open your eyes. Examine. Question.
Slow down when you’re going too fast. And press the pedal in the places you’re hedging.

Do.

Choose.

It’s exactly that easy.
And exactly that hard.

So hard you’ll retreat, often.

Remember
The Burning
Feel it.

Choose.

How To Go From Dreamer to Doer

You handled today’s To Do list like a boss. You’re good at what you do and people know it. You look at your life and think this is pretty damn good.

So, what’s with that thought? Yep, that one.

Umm, that thing you’re really good at? The one you’re known for and have built your career around? What if that’s not really who you are? What if that’s not really what you want to be doing? What if you could spend your days doing that other thing? The one that makes your cells tingle.

Uh-huh.

You ignore it.

Yet, it persists. And the guilt creeps in: Who are you to want more when you already have so much?

It persists. And you think, Could I?

And you wonder, What if?

Careful. You’re teetering on a dream. It’s dangerous territory for a Doer like yourself. You’ve bought into the dichotomy of Dreamers vs Doers and you’re clearly a Doer. Dreams can wait until you’re finished with the doing.

I call bullshit.

Learning to dream changed everything for me. My doing changed; it became more focused, more enjoyable, more sustainable.

I came to my dream the long way around. Maybe you’ll have a more direct route or maybe not. It’s a personal journey so I can’t prescribe a formula, but I hope by sharing my story you can find something to borrow and make your own.

Step One: Seeking Clarity

There was something rising in me. I could only describe it as “its time has come” and the pain of keeping it to myself was greater than my fear of sharing. I wanted to explore who this “new” me was and I was especially curious how she might translate to my business.

I had no idea where or how to start this exploration. After many failed attempts, it was clear I wasn’t going to figure this out on my own. I turned to Chela Davison. Together we delved into my new way of being and how it might show up in my life.

The clarity I found through this work spurred me into action with a lot of experimenting and learning along the way. I expected to encounter resistance as a natural reaction to the change, but one roadblock in particular kept cropping up. It was the nagging little voice asking where all this was going, what was the point.

That question scared me because part of my new way of being was letting go of my addiction to everything in my life needing a three bullet point justification and an accompanying strategic plan of how to execute, measure and review.

I’d had enough of that and didn’t want to get sucked in again. So, I went back to Chela.

This time we sat together in my tiny vacation rental in Vancouver. We identified my top three personal and work goals and mapped them out in just enough detail to appease that inner voice while leaving plenty of room for improvisation.

And…it felt empty.

Chela must have sensed my frustration. Pointing to the big sticky notes posted around the room she asked the magic question: In service to what?

Long silence.

If she had asked why all of this was important I would have answered without hesitation: my family. Everything I did was for them. No equivocation.

But that turn of phrase — in service to — kicked off a seismic shift. It was so much bigger than “doing for.” It was devotion.

What was I devoted to?

Step Two: The One Pager

The answer that spilled out of me eventually became the One Pager.

One Pager by Denise Cornell

One Pager by Denise Cornell

It’s the first page in my trusty three-ring binder. I read it almost daily. It’s my North Star. At least once a year I check in with myself to see if anything needs to be revised. The Expertise quadrant tends to change a bit with shifts in my professional interests. The others have remained unchanged going on three years now. When you go deep, it lasts. (Did you notice the second bullet under Checkpoints? “Is this Do worthy?” I wrote that 17 months before I started writing for Do Lectures. Funny how that happens, right?)

Last year I added what Tanya Geisler calls your Brand of Joy. This is the thing you seek in everything you do. For me it’s Welcomed. In everything I do I want to feel welcomed, to feel like I belong and I want to offer that same feeling to those around me.

Step Three: The Dream Unfolds

The One Pager and embracing life in a more creative way were the beginning of a transformation, but at my core I’m a planner and I craved a concrete answer to where this was all going. I didn’t want to default to my old ways of over-planning, so I committed to an experiment. I gave myself three months of open ended exploration and curiosity. If at the end of that time I didn’t have a clear answer to where this was leading then something would have to change.

For three months I studied my One Pager. I shared it with trusted friends. I asked for feedback. I copied it longhand over and over again as a way of interacting with it, absorbing it. I read it aloud. Then I started dissecting every word, phrase and bullet point. I examined everything. What did family lifestyle mean? What would a welcoming home to gather family and friends look like? What kind of travel? How often? Who? Read what? Write what? Share how? With whom? And so on.

This exercise accomplished two things. It satisfied the part of me that loves the granular details and it gave space for a dream to be born. As I repeatedly asked, “What does this look like?,” the dream started to unfold. I could see exactly where all this was heading.

In the past, big goals had seemed somewhat obligatory. They were the things I was supposed to be doing: save this amount, buy the house, diversify my portfolio, achieve this revenue, accomplish these things. All so arbitrary. This time was different.

This wasn’t a goal. It was a dream. The Dream. And it had been born from me, not from out there, not from others.

It became my fuel. My aspiration. My top priority.

(No, you didn’t miss it. I’m not sharing the details of my actual dream. It’s not “for your eyes only” top secret, but it’s mine. Sacred. So, not here. Maybe over a caipirinha.)

Step Four: From Dream to Calendar

I had my big dream in hand, but my head was most definitely not in the clouds. I was more focused than ever. More motivated. More excited.

Devoted.

With The Dream as my top priority, life got a whole lot simpler. I evaluated everything against it. Does this idea/project/job/opportunity/expense support The Dream? Where can I focus my time and energy on a monthly, weekly and daily basis to move me closer to The Dream? The Dream showed up on my calendar and in my bank account — how I spent my time and how I managed my money.

Productivity Hint: I recommend The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan for a step by step system to translate your top priority to your daily To Do.

Step Five: Change As Needed

Dreams that come from deep within us stand strong in the face of life’s ups and downs. But sometimes big things happen and life gets turned upside down. Your dream can be your waymarker when the path seems impossible or your feel like you’ve lost your way. But a word of caution. Don’t blindly cling to the dream. Leave room for the possibility that your dream needs to shift too.

I always go back to Chela’s question: In service to what?

Imagine

Imagine knowing exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing every day. Imagine confidently saying Yes or No to opportunities because you quickly know if they align with your vision. How would it feel to concretely move toward your biggest aspiration?

It starts with dreaming. Give yourself permission to dream, to find yourdream.

Then unleash it.

Let it lead you.

And watch in wonder as you become the kind of Doer you never thought possible.

The Revolutionary Act of Hitting Send

When the folks at Do Lectures made a call for contributing writers back in the Fall of 2016 I was an immediate yes, followed by a heaping dose of doubt. I wrote my submission piece then went to work on my introductory letter. And struggled. Who the hell was I? A complete unknown. I had no writing pedigree. I had no social standing and my then business was tiny and often struggling.

That letter got the best of me. I abandoned the whole thing at least a dozen times. Then on 17 November 2016 my desire grew bigger than my fears. I wrote the following intro letter and hit send.

Hello Dear Doers,

Your call for submissions went out and I was an immediate yes (followed by a lot of doubt). I have such respect for the goodness you continue to put out in the world! It’s hard to imagine the possibility of being part of Do.

I’m not famous. I don’t have a social media following. I pick my kids up from school every day, cook dinner for my family every night and I love on my friends and neighbors the best I know how. In the precious hours of 8am-3pm I run a photography business.

Conventional sales strategy says this is where I should talk about how I meet your needs, solve your problem, ease your pain points. But this isn’t a sales pitch. It’s a letter, from me to you. When I listen to a Do talk or read one of your blog post what I feel most is intent and heart. It seems I owe you the same in return — my heart and my reason for showing up in your inbox.

Creating a business is hard and rewarding and it stretches you to places you didn’t know you could go. Before setting out on my own, I spent 10 years in the trenches at three enterprise software start-ups. The transition from corporate B2B to building a creative consumer facing business has not been easy. I’ve learned things (so many things) and I have things I want/need to share about this experience, things that might be of service to others.

So, here I am, taking a seriously scary step. Maybe this will be my place to land. Maybe not. Either way I’ll remember how it feels to hit the send button and I’ll crave more of that high. I’ll remember that somewhere there’s a yes waiting on the other end of send and the whole point is to keep searching for that yes.

Thank you for the invitation.

Sincerely,

Denise Cornell

I was sure the lesson from this experience was to learn to take more chances, to hit the send button more often, especially when I didn’t feel ready. When the Yes from Do arrived in my inbox I was so certain there’d been a mistake I told no one for 48 hours.

It’s been over a year now and I still feel a pang of nervousness every month when I submit my writing. But I’m still here — trying to be a little better than last time. I am grateful for every word I get to share with this corner of the world, grateful the good folks at Do saw past my lack of pedigree.

It’s easy to see that major life events can reveal our true character. I’m starting to realize it’s in the smaller moments that our character gets shaped and new paths get launched. So, I’ve been paying more attention to the small moments.

Lessons Learned (from my small moment)

Choose Truth Over Strategy.

Lead with your heart, not your fears.

Hitting the send button can be a revolutionary act of courage.

Lessons Applied

Life has taken a few unexpected turns since November 2016. My path looks different now. New beginnings are on the horizon and I have the perfect formula for every new thing that comes my way:

Truth Over Strategy + Lead With My Heart + Keep Hitting Send = Possibilities

Ask the Damn Questions

I’m writing this in response to a conversation between Tim Ferriss and Mike Maples. Before I start, if Mike or Tim is reading, I want this part to be unmissable: THANK YOU. To Mike for being inclusive and kind and generous. To Tim for his endless curiosity.

I was flipping through Tim Ferriss’ new book, Tribe of Mentors, and saw that Mike Maples is featured. It’s cool to see someone you know on the pages of a best-seller. A couple weeks later at a book signing in Austin, Tim told me Mike is one of his favorite people. That makes perfect sense to me. I see Tim as the ultimate learner and Mike is the consummate teacher.

Not long after that book signing I listened to the recording of an event Tim and Mike did in San Francisco. It’s been years since I’ve seen Mike, but hearing that conversation brought back a flood of memories from when he and I worked together at Tivoli, a very long time ago.

That trip down memory lane also sparked a bit of regret. Actually, it started as regret then shifted into more of an understanding of assumptions I had made that led to me blowing a couple opportunities. Digging into these stories is harder than I expected. It’s not personal, per se, but we all have our tender spots and this is a big one for me.

Here goes.

The Ranch

I was an entry level worker bee in the marketing group and Mike was Director of the product marketing team. It was just after IBM had acquired Tivoli and we were all adjusting to going from rebel Texas start-up to being swallowed by Big Blue. Mike was held an off-site team meeting at his family ranch in the Texas Hill Country and for reasons still unknown to me he invited me to attend. It felt like I had won the golden ticket.

I was in full-on sponge mode that day — listen, observe, absorb — and there was a lot to take in. I got to see first-hand the value of a team having shared experiences outside the office. There were no forced team building activities, just good people in an incredible setting, sharing a meal and getting to know each other better.

At the end of that day I had absorbed a hell of a lot about our products and some important insights about team dynamics and leadership. It was an exceptional experience for the new kid, but it’s the missed opportunities of the day that linger in my mind.

Observing was the exact right approach, but I stopped short and missed the critical next step: ask questions.

First, I showed up that day without knowing why I was there. The most important thing I could have said was, “Mike, thanks for the invitation. I am honored and thrilled to have this opportunity, but I’m not sure why you invited me.” Asking that question required a level of courage I did not possess. My logic went something like…if I ask he’ll surely know I’m clueless and un-invite me. But what a powerful piece of information to have, right? To have insight into his thinking process. To arrive with a goal in mind. To understand what was expected of me.

Second, imagine having unfettered access to an entire team of A+ product managers and not asking one question about their jobs. I was plenty curious — what did it take a be a good product manager, what would they change/do differently, what was the next career step for them — but I didn’t have the courage to act on that curiosity. No one in that room expected me to know a damn thing about product marketing, but I hadn’t yet learned that there’s no shame in being a novice. I let my fear of what others thought about me stop me from taking advantage of the learning opportunity in front of me.

The Lunch

Fast forward a few years. Mike and I had both moved on to other companies. Mike invited me to a lunch meeting. I’m pretty confident Mike will have no recollection of this meeting, but it stands out in my memory, unfortunately, because of what it wasn’t and what it could have been.

Mike was curious about how we were doing life-cycle customer marketing at the company I was working. I froze. Now, so you get the full picture, customer marketing was about 80% of my job and I was excelling beyond expectations. Yet, here I was with nothing coherent to say.

Mike was too kind to let on, but I knew he was disappointed. I don’t know why I didn’t understand what he was asking. Maybe he used jargon I didn’t understand? Maybe I was nervous? But if I had simply paused to clarify what he was asking I am certain we would have had a much different conversation. Or imagine if I had asked ahead of time why he wanted to meet?

So, why the fumble? I walked into lunch that day with the self-defeating assumption that I didn’t have much to offer. I mean, here was the co-founder of a hot new start-up in town. Who was I? I didn’t have a fancy title. I was “just” the person executing our programs. I hadn’t yet learned that being on the front lines gives you invaluable insight.

Being Honest

I’m embarrassed. Embarrassed that I blew it, twice. Embarrassed that I just admitted my mistakes publicly. Embarrassed that I’m writing about something that happened almost two decades ago.

I’m not re-hashing the past to beat myself up. It’s the opposite. I remember these events because they had a positive impact on me. I learned something. And maybe my mistakes can be useful to someone else. That’s worth a little embarrassment.

Truths Emerge

It’s so easy to overlook these small moments of failure. But here’s the thing. A mistake that we keep repeating is trying to show us something. It’s pointing us to a fundamental truth we’ve yet to learn.

Three truths emerged from my early mistakes.

  1. Seeking understanding is a strength. Ask the damn questions.

  2. Execution is an equal partner to vision. Don’t dismiss your in-the-trenches knowledge.

  3. Play your own game. Worry less about what other people think.

These truths have stood the test of time and have served me well. Every good thing I’ve accomplished professionally has come when I’ve remembered to ask the questions, to play my own game and to not dismiss what I already know.

I hope you too can find service in these.

A Declaration of Love

As we settle into this new year and I celebrate another birthday, there’s one thing I can say with absolute certainty and sincerity.

Love is everything. Love is all there is.*

End.

*Yes. I am the jerk who is going to footnote love. Qualify it. Although love cannot be earned or bought, it is not free. Access to my most precious resource — my heart — will require that you, in turn, be kind and open and loving. There is no place for the takers, the greedy, those looking to take advantage.

Mothering

Mothers are different. (I’m sure dads are too, but I’ve never been one so…)

There are experiences in life that even with the most genuine of intentions you simply cannot understand until you are knee deep in them. Mothering is one of those experiences. No matter your intellectual knowledge on the subject. No matter your ability to empathize. No matter your close proximity to mothering. Until you have raised a child and have done the actual mothering, day in and day out, you can not enter the gates of understanding.

Mothering doesn’t make you superior, but it does afford you an unparalleled experience.

You see the world differently.
Your priorities shift.
You willingly choose family over the quickest path to success.
Your ability to make sacrifices and feel good about them increases exponentially.
You come to understand that you know absolutely nothing about anything.
Everyday is a learning experience.
Everyday you fail miserably at least once.

You learn time is not yours to keep.
Your learn that the daily to-do list is always longer than your stamina.
You learn that the daily to-list is not sacred. It can be sacrificed.
You learn that sharing your heart is better than having control.

Mothering is unique. Mothering is humbling.

And, if we’re lucky, mothering will wear down our shells and crack us open to a new reality, to a world where whole-hearted love is the answer to everything. Everything. Especially the impossible.