“Even if we all had wings, very few of us would fly. Like most things in life, it’s not what you’re capable of; it’s what you’re willing to do”
This quote jumped off the page for me and really hit me square in the back of the head. Is it about skill or will? As a human resources professional, I have learned to ask this question often when we are seeing performance issues. Is it that the person needs help, training, coaching, or is it that they really don’t want to do what we are asking of them? Many leaders have trouble with the “will” part. They usually don’t think about whether it is about the individual wanting something, they usually go right to skill. Hence the multitude of different assessments, training courses, etc. Yet often we should be looking at whether the person wants to do something. Are they inspired by what we are asking? Do they understand the means to the end? Do they understand the end game? Are they scared because it is new.
This can translate into life as well. Are we willing to step out of our comfort zone in order to find our passion or use our gifts? Are we willing to grow and learn and take a risk or are we so concerned with flying that we stay put in the safe zone? So many of us really sit back and let life happen.
I know I did for a long time. I didn’t want to take chances, risks. Back in late 2000, my company asked me if I wanted to be part of a complicated acquisition in Japan. I was specifically asked because at that time very few human resources professionals had worked internationally and I had just completed a project to build a subsidiary in Ireland. This new project was really about downsizing individuals in Japan, a culture that does not eliminate roles very often so the company also wanted someone who could handle making that happen in Japan. Again, something I had done too many times in my career, large scale reductions of staff. So I was asked.
I was quite honored to be asked, but scared as hell. Really, Japan? I asked how long and if I would have a job when I returned. I was informed it would be about 3 months and there would be a role for me back in the US when I returned. I remember talking to my parents about it; they were both so supportive and thought this was a great opportunity for me. And so I went.
7000 miles away from my entire support system was quite daunting. Keep in mind, early 2001 the internet was not sophisticated. We didn’t have Skype, Facetime, even high speed internet. I shared a phone line with others in the office that we worked in and that was how we made calls and used the internet. Yes dial up service!
I was there alone. Everyone who was there for this acquisition were new to me, I didn’t have relationships already with them so I felt very alone. At this time, Tokyo was not very friendly to a woman, at least that is how I felt. I remember walking into a restaurant by myself one evening. All the chatter stopped. Then the whispering began. Now I don’t think it matters what language people are speaking, you get a feeling you are being talked about pretty quickly. And I knew it then. I walked to the sushi bar and sat down. The man next to me was saying something to the person to his left and then looked at me and turned to his partner and said something else that made them both laugh. My face must have turned red as the sushi chef saw me and saw the tears in my eyes. He immediately said something to the person next to me in Japanese and then in broken English asked me where I was from. I said New Jersey and he began to call me Jersey! He was so very nice and helped me become comfortable sitting there. The man next to me must have felt bad and offered me Saki. I refused but at least I began to relax.
I remember going back to the hotel that evening and just crying myself to sleep. I was so far out of my comfort zone, I was in a country that didn’t really speak my language, I had no one to talk to and I was trying to do work that isn’t done in this culture.
I called my mom the next morning and told her I wanted to come home. I couldn’t do this. I was sad, alone and didn’t think I could even accomplish the task that was asked of me. My mother’s reaction was not one of compassion. She very toughly said to me, “Your company asked you to do this because they know you can. Just do it! Don’t quit.” In other words, suck it up buttercup, this is your job. Don’t be a pansy. For all the times in my life that I wish my mom might be a bit compassionate, this was the one time she needed to be exactly as she was. I was so concerned with being alone, being uncomfortable that I wanted to quit. I didn’t think I was capable, but she knew I was. I actually was questioning my willingness to move forward and take this risk. Was this too much for me?
I was given the wings to fly. I had the support from the leadership of both the US operations and the Japanese operations and I had the skill. I was really fighting the will. I was so scared to be so far out of my norm, my comfort zone that I was questioning everything and blaming my wish to go home on perhaps not being able. I was able, I was more than able, and I was just scared and unwilling.
After that conversation with my mom, I did suck it up. I realized that I needed to focus on what I was asked to do and do it well, and let go of my fear of failing; my fear of being alone; even my fear of being different. I embraced the lesson and began to flourish. I also began to use my natural gifts of building relationships, and accomplishing by collaborating.
The experience moved from one of fear and loneliness to one of fun, adventure and new friendships. I was more than capable; I was just unwilling to fly. Once I realized my wings were strong, that I was supported, I flew! I flew high and helped my company achieve what it wanted. This turned into the best experience of a 30 year human resources career.
But more importantly, it turned into one of the most important experiences personally for me. It showed me that I am capable of just about anything and that I could not only survive out of my comfort zone but I could thrive! It also helped me to really understand my natural gifts of building relationships, helping others grow, caring so much for someone that they are changed because of me. That was said to me by my closest friend in Japan when I was leaving, “I’ve changed because of you.” I was overwhelmed by that comment and understand now the impact I had on him.
I still get apprehensive at times about moving out of my comfort zone, but then I harness the feeling I had living in Tokyo, making friends both with Americans and Japanese associates and realize that when I am given wings to fly, go for it! Don’t stop myself because I don’t believe I can do something, believe in me and be willing to take on the challenge!