Monday, April 1, 2013

Shaking up my own status quo: How I went from whiny "no" to unstoppable "yes"

“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
― Apple Inc.
It got to a point where I wasn’t invited to meetings anymore.  As the decisions came down and the to-do list itemized, my face would get whiter and whiter.  In terror, I repeated blindly, “it can’t be done.  It’s too much, we’ll never finish on time.” 

I’m somewhere in my mid-twenties, running sample rooms for some of NY’s hottest designers.  My job is to manage a team of patternmakers and sewers to transform a designer’s sketch into the clothes that ultimately went down the runway.  By the time fashion week was upon us, we had been working 7 days a week into the small hours of the night for weeks on end, living off of a rotation of delivery services for meals and starved of the company of our friends and family.  

The final days before the show were the most challenging emotionally.  Run down, my reaction to being overwhelmed manifested as frustration – this is impossible!  Why am I being set up to fail?!  Sometimes I would lock myself away in the bathroom, crawl into a ball on the floor, and just cry.

But my fear of deep humiliation if the clothes weren’t ready for the runway was stronger than my conviction that I couldn’t do it.

So I sat in the meetings and repeated “no, no, no” until I wore out my welcome, and then, faking confidence as best I could, set to work with my team to do everything we possibly could to try and get it all done. 

Amazingly enough, every single season we put a gorgeous collection down the runway. 

After many years of this routine, with the bar set higher and higher each season, I had become a broken record of “can’t” and “no.”  And worse yet, my track record was appalling – I had been wrong every single time.  My limited belief in myself was making me deeply unhappy, damaging my credibility with my peers, and holding me back from career superstardom.

So when I took a big job to run product development with an overseas team, I challenged my internal status quo and decided to go from “no” to “yes.”  Now it was my turn to ask people to do more, faster and for less cost than they ever thought possible.  “I know it's crazy, but you can do it,” I would promise, drawing on deep reserves of resourcefulness and patience learned from my runway days.  “How about we try it again this way…” 

Once I had convinced myself that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to, it was easy to get my team on board, and together, knock our goals out the park.  Within a year, I was negotiating with monolithic factories to rebuild their machines, rethink their minimum order requirements, meet aggressive calendar dates and slash costs.

With that magical 3-letter word, “yes,” I transformed into an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.  “Here comes trouble!” the Chief of Operations would cry out when he heard the click-clack of my heels approaching his office.  

“Yes, what do you need me to do?”

  • Observe yourself - red flag any time you hold yourself back with “no” or “I can’t do that.”
  •  Challenge your set of assumptions that lead you to “no” – are they valid?  Play it out in your head – what would happen if you said “yes” instead? 
  • Fake it ‘till you make it: faking confidence in my abilities didn't have the same magical results as truly believing in it, but was still an incredibly effective tool and led to a string of victories to lean on.
  • Practice!  I found that saying “yes” is MUCH harder than saying “no.”  The confidence to back it takes time to develop (8 years in my case).  So be patient with yourself and take baby steps. 
  • Save your “no” for when you really mean it.  When I made a habit of saying “yes,” I found my “no” became very powerful. 
  • Best of all, let the joy and the passion of your new confidence come through – it’s contagious and inspiring. 
An art teacher of mine in high school, Sr. Anne, had a lot of students tell her they were not artists.  “I can’t even draw a straight line!” they would say. 

“Well thank goodness,” she would reply, “because there is nothing more boring than a straight line.  Now give me the best curves, zigs and zags you have.”

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