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Don't Fear the Rebuild

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By Erin Rollenhagen

Over the past few years I’ve come to the realization that in business (and in life), we fear pivots, backtracks, and starting over way too deeply. We shackle ourselves to ideas, methods, and plans that just aren’t working, expending massive amounts of effort trying to “make it work”.

I’ve advised several people lately who were looking at career changes. One of the most common questions is “I’m miserable in my job. I know I want to make a change and do x, but I’m going to have to take a temporary pay cut to do it. That feels gross. I know it’s what I want, I just don’t want to go backwards. What do I do?”

To the outsider, it’s an easy answer. Do the thing that will be the right choice for the long term. Start over, correct course, and move forward confidently. You’ll bounce back and recover in no time.

But when you're in the driver’s seat, about to make that U-turn, it’s terrifying.

I’ll give you another example. At ET we sometimes encounter situations where despite our best efforts, the way something is architected just isn’t working. I’ve been the developer in those shoes, and now as a leader coaching others going through it. You tend to fight this realization for a while, not wanting to admit that it needs to be redone. The excuse you’ll tell yourself is that this inner resistance is because of how long it will take to redo. But usually, the time in redoing is actually a lot smaller than one might guess.

The real hangup is something else. Starting over means giving up something you worked hard on. It means saying goodbye to the time and energy spent. It means admitting, at least to yourself, that you made a mistake. That you’re a little further from the goal than you thought. And that’s just talking about code. Imagine when it’s something deeper.

I’ve made two really huge mistakes in my life (and of course a big pile of smaller ones). In both situations, I have to admit that I saw plenty of signs that I was on the wrong track, but I was too stubborn to backtrack. I convinced myself that my misgivings were just natural apprehension at making a big decision. I felt like I was so close to taking the next step, to getting what I really wanted. I could see it, feel it, taste it. It felt impossible to go back to square one — to back farther away from what I wanted, even for a moment. And so, I pushed ahead, determined to effort my way to being right.

If you’re familiar with the ways of the universe, you already know how this turned out. After things crumbled (in pretty spectacular fashion both times — life has a way of exacting its revenge when you’re being an idiot), I ended up back at square one anyway, and with a big hole to dig out of (financially and emotionally).

That’s right, the irony is that our determination to reach that goal at all costs, we actually end up making the whole thing take longer and cost more (energy, time, resources) than if we’d admitted our mistake and corrected course earlier.

The book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson cites an example of members of a religious group who were told that the prophet had received a message that the world was about to end due to an alien invasion. The most fervent believers sold all of their belongings and went to a hilltop to wait for the invasion to happen, while the less certain quietly waited in their homes. At midnight, when the world was supposed to end, nothing happened. Then 1 AM came and went, then 2 AM. At 3 AM, with the crowd growing restless, the prophet announced that the aliens had been so moved by the true believers’ show of devotion that they spared the earth from destruction. The moderates who did not sell their belongings quietly distanced themselves from the group and moved on with their lives, accepting that the prophecy was false. But the die-hards who went to wait on the hilltop actually became more devoted than they were before. Their minds could not face the conflict that intelligent people such as themselves would fall for a false prophet, and so they simply chose to interpret it in the way that allowed them to maintain their own view of themselves as enlightened, rational people.

We all have our hilltops and alien invasions. We all get sold on false hopes and pushed around by false fears. No amount of devotion will change the outcome when that happens. In fact, our attachment to a failed plan is actually more dangerous than the failed plan in itself. The path to success is rarely smooth. But how quickly we can recognize and begin to correct mistakes often determines our success.

For me the process often looks like this:

  1. Feel the pull of a new goal or desire.
  2. Jump on the most obvious way to pursue it.
  3. Sense it’s not going as well as hoped, yet starting over seems hard. Try to force it to work anyway.
  4. Realizing forcing it isn’t going well, yet starting over still seems hard. Force more forcefully.
  5. Beat myself up, feel dejected, finally come to terms that I chose the wrong path.
  6. Feel rush of excitement as I’m freed from the burden of the failed path and can start over with a better plan.
  7. Armed with lessons learned, march onward to success.

Steps three through five often drain a lot of time and energy (especially if we repeat the cycle a few times). They can make a person feel that it’s hopeless, that we have to make this path work or else we’ll FAIL COMPLETELY. But rarely is that true. And rarely is it true that anyone’s first attempt at anything is a raving success. Your first bike ride, your first calculus problem and your first love were probably all clumsy, frustrating, and ultimately not the right way. But you learned from them, dusted yourself off, and did better the next time.

There’s also an observation I’d make about these moments.

In the book Coming Apart, Daphne Rose Kingma discusses the purpose of failed early relationships as tools to meet a developmental need. Maybe we need to learn to open up, or communicate, or put another person first. Whatever it is, the relationship sucks us in and then runs its course once the lesson has been learned, leaving the participants to move on with their lives in healthier ways. I think this is true in many areas of life, not just relationships. 

We’re often attracted to the thing that will teach us what we need to learn.

And that’s a great blessing. The mistake is in hanging onto a failed plan once the lesson has been learned. Once it’s done its job, it’s time for us to move on to bigger and better things — things that we’re now prepared for, thanks to what we learned from our false start.

I learned to make cheesecake last summer. I always start with a new dish by following a recipe. The first time I did it, the outside burned and the inside wasn’t set. If I had continued to insist that the recipe (plan) must be correct, and therefore can’t be changed, I would have been stuck with the same result every time. Instead, the next time I made it (okay, the next day), I tried a lower temperature for a longer time and it came out perfectly, much to the chagrin of my summer diet plan.

Part of the reason it was easy for me to question and correct the faulty cheesecake plan was that it wasn’t my plan to begin with - I had no ego invested in whether or not the plan was a good one. I didn’t even really judge the person who made the recipe for making a mistake. Hey, it happens. And also, even subpar cheesecake is still pretty darn good.

But even when the mistake is a lot bigger than cheesecake, most of us are pretty kind to others about it, especially when they admit their mistake. PR firms advise most clients caught in scandals to immediately put out a statement apologizing for their mistakes. And the world can be pretty forgiving when they do that (see Martha Stewart). In fact, for most of us, another person’s self-awareness and willingness to examine their mistakes is actually a good thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a friend in a bad relationship say “Well he apologized, and he knows he’s wrong, so I think it’s going to be okay.” We place such high value on this introspection because it’s actually the most critical component of growth.

Recognizing the mistake is seizing the power of the lesson.

So you were wrong. Who cares? So’s just about everyone else who’s ever attempted anything worth doing. Hold your head high, go forth, and rebuild.