The first time I hit my top gear
The summer after my first year at university I got a job at a feed mill. According to my financial aid agreement, I had to make several thousand dollars over the summer that I could contribute to my overall expenses. We had just moved to a new city where I didn’t know anyone, so I had no connections. I used a temporary agency, and they send me to the mill.
It was hard work – the hardest work I’d ever done. Since we were in the process of moving, my Dad and I were living in our camping trailer during the week while my Mom and my brother stayed in Portland and worked on selling the house. I’d come home to that trailer exhausted every night.
After about a month, Doug, the floor manager called me and the other new floorhand into the lunch room to have a talk with us. He chewed us out royally. We weren’t packing feed fast enough, we broke too many bags, we weren’t helping customers quickly enough. He thought that we were either lazy or somehow deficient. If we didn’t improve, he’d have to fire us.
I went home that night furious. Didn’t he know that I was working as hard as I possibly could? I talked it over with my Dad. Then I looked at the ads for work in the paper. I thought about the $3000 I needed for college. And I decided that my only choice was to keep trying at the mill.
The only thing to do was to work so hard that I collapsed – then Doug would see that he’d pushed too hard.
Of course, he hadn’t.
I discovered another gear that I never knew I had. After another month, I was working much faster, and much more accurately. I ended up being a pretty good floorhand. When I went back the next summer, I was promoted to feed mixer.
My team looks for their top gear
I just finished a week working with a team of 10 MBA students as part of collaboration with the Wharton Business School in their Global Consulting Practicum (GCP). They had to develop a proposal for our client, and get it signed off – this will guide the work that they do for the next four months.
They had a good week. They worked really hard, over long hours. They developed an excellent proposal, and the client loved it. They are set up to do a really good project.
However, now I know a bit how Doug felt. The team didn’t hit their top gear.
We talked about it on the last day, and I told them this. Unlike me in the mill, they agreed with me (or, at least, they appeared to!) If they find that top gear, they have a chance to not just do a really good project, but to do a great one.
What keeps us from finding our top gear?
One of the important ideas here is flow – being fully immersed in a piece of work. Top gear is getting into a state of flow for an extended period of time. It’s quite different from busyness – that is often the state we get ourselves into when we are subconsciously trying to avoid top gear.
There are three things that can keep us from hitting our top gear:
- Ignorance. We might not know what we’re capable of, as I didn’t back at the feed mill.
- Apathy. We may be aware of our top gear, but the current project might not be worth the effort it takes to hit that gear. We might be able to get by with a little less effort, and still do pretty well.
- Fear. We might know what we can do, and have a project that we care deeply about, but we’re scared. So we hold back – that way, if we fail, at least we can tell ourselves that we might not have failed if we had put in everything we had.
Personally, I’ve had experience with all three. You probably have too.
This is a big innovation issue. If we want to innovative ourselves, and if we want our firms to innovate, everyone needs hit their top gear. There are too many other things going to approach innovation with anything less than a full effort.
We always have to keep the lights on, and it’s easy enough to tell ourselves that doing so really does take everything we’ve got. But, of course, it doesn’t. Most of us have another gear – and hitting it will let us do truly exciting and innovative work.
To be more innovative yourself, you have to tackle all three things that keep us from hitting our top gear:
- Understand that you can be creative. This is the ignorance part – too many people say “I’m not creative.” But you are. As Nilofer Merchant says, “Not everyone will, but anyone can.” You have ideas that are worth pursuing.
- Do work that matters. It’s hard to innovate when you don’t care about the job. You have to be working on something that matters to you, otherwise it isn’t worth the effort and pain that it takes to hit your top gear.
- Fight through your fear. Everyone is scared to put their ideas out into the world. I am.
Here is what Paul Jarvis says about it in his book Everything I Know:
Most of the time, our fears come down to being judged by others. And it’s a valid fear, because other people can be really fucking judgmental. Letting that judgment actually stop you from doing something, though, only hurts you. Know that everyone else (including the most successful people in the world) is judged, too. In fact, wildly successful people are judged exponentially – every day. But they push on. We need to do the same. Pushing past the fear of being judged and doing the work is exactly what can lead to great work.
You’re not alone. But we all have to find a way to fight through our fear – that’s the only way innovate.
I wasn’t hitting my top gear at the feed mill. And I still don’t hit it as often as I’d like. For me, the biggest obstacle is fear. I have to find a way to fight through it, and so do you, because finding that top gear is one of the greatest feelings in the world.
And it’s the source of all of the innovation that we care about.
(Photo from flickr/Hubert Stoffels under a Creative Commons License)