in the earliest days of building our company, I found myself sitting at a table with my team after they asked if we could meet for an hour. When I realized there was no agenda, I got that sinking What now? feeling. Charles, our CFO, looked at me and said, “We need to rumble with you on a growing concern about how we’re working together.”
For years, my first thought in a situation like this would have been Oh, God. It’s an intervention. And I’m the intervenee. But I trust my team, and I trust the rumble process.
Chaz, as I’ve called him for twenty-five years, cut right to the chase. “We keep setting unrealistic timelines, working frantically to meet them, failing, setting new timelines, and still not meeting them. It’s keeping us in constant chaos and people are burning out. When you set a timeline and we push back because we know it’s unattainable, you get so insistent that we stop pushing. It’s not working. You have a lot of strengths, but you’re not good at estimating time, and we need to find a new process that works for all of us.”
As my team sat there looking anxious for me to respond and relieved that the issue was on the table regardless of my response, I thought about the first time I heard someone say “You’re not good at estimating time,” and I drifted off to the memory of an almost-fight I had with Steve a decade before this meeting.
Steve and I, along with our next-door neighbors, signed up to host a progressive dinner party to raise money for our daughter’s PTO. Steve and I were in charge of appetizers and salad at our house, then the guests would walk next door for dinner, then back to our house for dessert and coffee. Very retro and very fun.
Everything sounds easy when it’s months away.
I remember exactly where I was standing when I looked at Steve and said, “This is going to be great. I’m excited about the new recipes. All we need to do is get the house ready. I can do a little paint touch-up in the dining room, and I need you to add some pops of color in the front yard. I need the yard to say, Welcome! We’re glad you’re here! These flowers are evidence that we’re awesome neighbors who have our shit together!”
Steve just stared at me.
I glared back at him. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
Steve said, “The dinner party starts in two hours.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ve thought about it. It’ll take you fifteen minutes to get to Home Depot, thirty minutes to pick out the right combination of flowers, fifteen minutes to get home, forty-five minutes to plant them, and then fifteen minutes to take a shower.”
Steve couldn’t speak. He just stood there shaking his head until I said, “What? What’s wrong?”
Steve said, “You’re not good at estimating time, Brené.”
I quipped back without thinking, “Maybe I’m just faster than most people.”
I drew a deep breath, immediately regretting being a smartass when I needed him to hightail it to Home Depot. I responded to my own comment before he could. “Really? Why do you think that I’m bad at estimating time?”
“Well, for starters,” he said, “you didn’t factor in the hour we’re going to need for the fight that’s going to break out when I say ‘Hell, no, I’m not going to landscape the front yard two hours before company comes’ and you respond by accusing me of never caring about the details or worrying about the little things. You’ll say my lack of attention to detail is why you’re so stressed out all the time. Then you’ll say something like ‘It must be nice not to have to worry about the little things that make a big difference.’ ”
I just stood there.
The fact that he was saying all of this in a kind way and not being crappy made it worse.
He continued, “Your ‘must be nice’ comment is going to feel like blame and criticism, and it’s going to piss me off. All of the stress of hosting this party is going to escalate things. You’ll try not to cry because you don’t want puffy eyes, but we’ll both end up in tears. We’ll spend the rest of the night just wanting it to be over. So we’re not going to get flowers, and I think we should skip the fight, given our tight timeline.”
His prophecy forced me into a weepy laugh. “Okay. That was painful. And funny.”
Steve said, “The best thing you can do right now is go for a short run and take a shower. What people see is what they get.”
As I pulled myself back from this memory and into my seat at the table with my team, I found myself deeply grateful for Chaz’s clarity. Over our years of researching and working together, we’ve learned something about clarity that has changed everything from the way we talk to each other to the way we negotiate with external partners. It’s simple but transformative: Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind. I first heard this saying two decades ago in a 12-step meeting, but I was on slogan overload at the time and didn’t even think about it again until I saw the data about how most of us avoid clarity because we tell ourselves that we’re being kind, when what we’re actually doing is being unkind and unfair.
Feeding people half-truths or bullshit to make them feel better (which is almost always about making ourselves feel more comfortable) is unkind. Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind. Talking about people rather than to them is unkind. This lesson has so wildly transformed my life that we live by it at home. If Ellen is trying to figure out how to handle a college roommate issue or Charlie needs to talk to a friend about something…clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.
I looked at my team and said, “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me this. It’s not the first or even hundredth time I’ve heard this feedback about my sucky time estimation skills. I’m going to work on it. I’m going to get better.”
I could tell they were a little disappointed in my response. The “Okay, I get it and I’ll work on it” is a common shut-down technique. I took a deep breath and leaned into the mother of all rumble tools—curiosity. “Tell me more about how this plays out for y’all. I want to understand.”
I’m glad I asked. I needed to hear what they had to say, and they needed me to hear how frustrating, demoralizing, and unproductive it was for me to continue pitching ideas and timelines that were completely unrealistic and then looking at them like they were crushing my dream when they did their jobs by being honest and saying, “That will take at least twelve months, not two months, and it will require a significant cash investment.”
It was painful and uncomfortable. Which is exactly why we try to wrap things up quickly and get the hell out of conversations like this. It’s so much easier to say “Got it, on it,” and run.
After listening, I thanked them for their courage and honesty and promised again that I would think about it. I asked if we could circle back the next day. In my research and in my life, I’ve found absolutely no benefit to pushing through a hard conversation unless there’s an urgent, time-sensitive issue at hand. I’ve never regretted taking a short break or circling back after a few hours of thinking time. I have, however, regretted many instances where I pushed through to get it over and done with. Those self-serving instincts end up costing way more time than a short break.
When I got home that evening, I downloaded a couple of books on project management, and for some reason, maybe something I read on LinkedIn, I convinced myself that I needed a “Six Sigma black belt.” I had no idea what that even meant, but I googled it, and after I read for a few minutes, the thought of it made me want to knock myself unconscious with my laptop.
It didn’t take long before I realized that my plan wasn’t going to work. I’m not good at time or things with hard edges, like Tetris or Blokus. I don’t think that way or see the world that way. I see projects in constellations, not lines. I see plans the way I see data—relationally and with rounded corners and a million connection ports. As much as I read and tried, it felt like a strange and terrible spreadsheet world to me.
Interested in an example of how I think? Brace yourself.
When I realized that I couldn’t return to my team and impress them with my shiny new black belt and laserlike time estimations, it made me think immediately of Luke Skywalker struggling to become a Jedi warrior in The Empire Strikes Back. I share my love for this story in Rising Strong, but I’ll share it again here because there’s no such thing as too much Star Wars.
Yoda is trying to teach Luke how to use the Force and how the dark side of the Force—anger, fear, and aggression—is holding him back. Luke and Yoda are in the swamp where they’ve been training when Luke points toward a dark cave at the base of a giant tree and, looking at Yoda, says, “There’s something not right here…I feel cold. Death.”
Yoda explains to Luke that the cave is dangerous and strong with the dark side of the Force. Luke looks confused and afraid, but Yoda’s response is simply, “In you must go.”
When Luke asks what’s in the cave, Yoda explains, “Only what you take with you.”
As Luke straps on his weapons, Yoda hauntingly advises, “Your weapons, you will not need them.” Luke grabs his light saber anyway.
The cave is dark and scary. As Luke slowly makes his way through it, he is confronted by his enemy, Darth Vader. They both draw their light sabers, and Luke quickly cuts off Vader’s helmeted head. The head rolls to the ground and the face guard blows off the helmet. Only it isn’t Darth Vader’s face that’s revealed; it’s Luke’s. Luke is staring at his own head on the ground.
This parable got me thinking about the possibility that maybe the problem was less about my time estimation and project management skills and more about my fears. So I wrote down a couple of very specific examples of timelines that I forced on my reluctant team, and sure enough, the biggest enemy was not a lack of estimation skills but a lack of personal awareness. Was I cutting off my own head with a light saber?
I discovered that my unreasonable timelines were seldom driven by excitement or ambition. I drive these unattainable timelines for two reasons: (1) I’m feeling fear, scarcity, and anxiety (e.g., We’re not doing enough, someone else is going to think of this idea before we get it done, look what everyone else is doing), or (2) In addition to the daily work we do together, I’m often holding visions of longer-term university commitments, publishing contracts, and a dozen potential collaboration conversations in my head. Sometimes I’m pushing timelines because I’m trying to sync up the timing on projects and deadlines that my team doesn’t even know about because I’ve failed to share.
It was powerful to figure out the source of the issue, but that didn’t translate to my wanting to circle back with my team about these key learnings. I didn’t want to say “I’m actually not good at the time estimation piece, and the more I understand that skill set, the less confident I am that I will actually get much better.”
I didn’t want to share the truth about my fear. What if the scarcity and anxiety are happening because I have no business being a leader? Even being honest about my failure to communicate larger strategy was daunting. What if my communication fails are just symptomatic of my being in over my head trying to run businesses? The most critical thing that the shame gremlins kept whispering was You don’t belong in this job. You study leadership, but you can’t lead. You’re a joke!
When we’re in fear, or an emotion is driving self-protection, there’s a fairly predictable pattern of how we assemble our armor, piece by piece:
I’m not enough.
If I’m honest with them about what’s happening, they’ll think less of me or maybe even use it against me.
No way am I going to be honest about this. No one else does it. Why do I have to put myself out there?
Yeah. Screw them. I don’t see them being honest about what scares them. And they’ve got plenty of issues.
It’s actually their issues and shortcomings that make me act this way. This is their fault, and they’re trying to blame me.
In fact, now that I think about it, I’m actually better than them.
People think it’s a long walk from “I’m not enough” to “I’m better than them,” but it’s actually just standing still. In the exact same place. In fear. Assembling the armor.
I don’t want to live in fear or lead from fear, and I’m sick to death of the armor. Courage and faith are my core values, and when I’m in fear I show up in ways that leave me feeling out of alignment with these values and outside my integrity. This is when I remember Joseph Campbell’s quote, which I believe is one of the purest calls to courage for leaders: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
Campbell consulted with George Lucas on Star Wars, and there’s no question in my mind that my favorite scene is Lucas bringing this wisdom to life.
This is how I think. No black belt, but I have to believe that the Force is with me.