In my experience, the chief reason people don’t finish their most meaningful projects is because they’re trying to do it alone. Given that the more a project matters to us, the more we’ll thrash with it, it’s even more important that we build a team of allies around us, yet it’s the fear of having people see us thrashing or – gulp – asking for and receiving help that often keeps us from building that team.
This maelstrom of thrashing, fear, and tension is why it’s so important to take the time to pick projects that really matter to you. The meaning-making from doing the project itself, as well as the outcomes that will be created from completing it, are necessary headwinds to get you through that maelstrom.
Allies serve as another source of headwinds that can keep your project going, and, if chosen well, they can convert some of the worst parts of the project into the best parts.
With your goal, level of success, and for-real start date, you have enough to start building your success pack. Your success pack is the group of people who are going to be instrumentally involved in helping you push your best-work project to done. Think of this group of people as the rest of the Avengers, the Fellowship of the Ring, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or the crew of the Enterprise (without the redshirts).
Before we jump into building your success pack, I’m going to make the counter-intuitive suggestion that you build and activate them before you make a plan. For too many of us, planning can be a socially-acceptable way to justify the brave work ahead of us. Your success pack can help you build a much better plan faster than you could on your own and also point out when your “planning” is really just stalling.
So, if the project really matters to you and you want to push it to done, you’re going to need a team. Read on to see what type of people you’ll need and how to assemble them.
(The content below is a modified excerpt from my award-winning book, Start Finishing.)
The Success Pack: Four Roles
There are four kinds of people to put in your success pack:
You’ll want to include three to five people from each group for projects that you think are going to take a quarter or longer, but you may need to build a success pack for smaller projects if such projects require big changes to your habits, career, or lifestyle. If you have more people than that, you’re more likely to end up a rudderless ship due to too much input and overwhelmed by having too many people to keep in the loop. Less than that in each group and you won’t have enough people fuel and diverse perspectives to augment your own. Assembling three to five people per group means you’ll have twelve to twenty people who have got your back, but note that a person can be in multiple groups — this is especially true for supporters and beneficiaries.
Building a team of active supporters not only gives you additional capabilities to get your project done, but it also gives some positive voices to counteract the undue attention we all give naysayers. Because of faulty wiring, we’re far more likely to imagine a crowd of naysayers or see the (at most) handful of naysayers in our lives and make them the primary anchors for our fears and insecurities. It’s the person who has their arms crossed while we’re speaking that we latch on to, or the one out of a hundred negative comments on our work that sends us in a tailspin for days.
Rather than focus on the naysayers, we’re stacking our success pack with yaysayers. Our yaysayers are the people who have seen who we are all along, been in our corner, and want and need us to succeed. Rather than trying to prove our naysayers wrong, let’s prove our yaysayers right. (For many people, this refocus is both freeing and terrifying.)
Let’s handle each role in turn.
Your guides are people you look up to who have walked the road a little longer than you have. They’ve done more than just accomplish a certain level of success that you’re after; they’ve done so in a way that resonates with you in terms of character and approach. Your guides serve as compasses, remote advisors, and paradigm shifters when you get stuck in seeing things in ways that aren’t working for you.
Ideally your guides are alive and reachable, but you may also have some historical and larger-than-life guides that are important to you. Be careful that you humanize this latter type of guide, though, so that you don’t create a model that’s impossible for you to live up to. “What Would Jesus Do?” is great from an ethical perspective, but “walk on water” isn’t so great when you’re drowning in a project ocean.
As far as interactions go, your guides are like Yoda, Dumbledore, or Gandalf. They won’t be in the work with you, they’ll often give cryptic counsel that you’ll struggle to understand, and they’ll pop in and out randomly — and many times, when you’re stuck, the way they’ll pop in is with your version of “Use the Force, Luke.” Picking your guides is less about the external interactions you’ll have with them than priming yourself with their worldview. Sometimes it’s literally asking yourself how they would discuss your challenge or question that does all the work.
For instance, Seth Godin is one of my guides more for his character than his marketing genius. While we’ve had actual conversations, at this stage in my career, I have imaginary conversations with him multiple times per month. Our imaginary conversations are much more intense than my imaginary conversations with Peter Drucker, Lao Tzu, Aristotle, Teddy Roosevelt, and Maya Angelou.
While historical guides aren’t to be discounted, it’s extremely helpful to have a few living guides in your success pack. Enrolling a living guide can be tricky, though, because it’s likely that a lot of other people want their attention at the same time so that they may have no idea who you are. I’ll let Pam tackle this in a sidebar since it’s one of her genius zones (see below).
Peers are people at your approximate level of accomplishment or skill who can and will regularly contribute to your project. You’re likely in a reciprocal relationship where you’re helping them with their projects and in regular back-and-forth communication. If your guides are in front of you, your peers are with you side by side.
When considering your peers, it’s important that you don’t conflate cheerleaders with yaysayers. Some of your peers should challenge your thinking and approach, as well as point out your blind spots. They’re like the friends who will tell you about the salad in your teeth when you’re at a party. The big difference between the unhelpful critic and the helpful critical peer is that the latter draws out the best in you rather than just making themselves look better.
It’s also important to make sure you have some peers who are outside of your discipline, field, or echo chamber. Few things will propel your work more than having a successful peer who isn’t deeply familiar with your discipline, field, or work, because they’ll ask the questions you’ve forgotten are questions, and you won’t dismiss them as beneath your consideration or as something coming from a critic. The other major upshot to having a peer outside of your field, discipline, or industry is that they’ll have a lot of insights and analogies from their discipline and field that will cross-pollinate your work.
Your supporters are the people who are doing work with and for you to help you get the project done. More so than status or level of accomplishment, you can ask the people in this category for support and expect them to meet reasonable deadlines — guides and peers are much more removed from this aspect.
Your most important supporters often are outside of the office. For instance, your spouse or partner may be a key supporter, or would be if you actively enrolled them to support your project. In a similar vein, it may be the neighborhood kids who tend your lawn on Saturdays and babysit in the evenings so you get in some extra project time. Or maybe it’s your roommate who does most of the grocery shopping, cooking, and dishes while you’re on a deadline.
Actively building and curating your support team is the single most important practice that you can do to ensure that you’re finishing your best work. Your support team is your force multiplier — no matter how competent you are, you’ll always be constrained by the amount of functional hours you have available in a day.
In addition, few joys are as sublime as winning as a team; at root, we’re cooperative animals who are biochemically rewarded for cooperative success. We were made to slay dragons together. (Tweet this.)
In theory, building a good support team isn’t that difficult. In practice, it’s much harder because most people have to work through a lot of head trash around asking for help and claiming that their work is important enough to prioritize. Women especially struggle with these challenges because we socialize women to be supporters and to be asked, but it’s rare that people will ask you to do your best work and to pick themselves to support your best work. Men struggle more due to the self-made-man myth and the mindset that asking for help and support makes them weak.
I’m well aware that I’ve juxtaposed the reality that we’re naturally cooperative creatures and we have a lot of head trash that keeps us from collaborating. There’s no logical tension there, but it’s an experiential tension that plays out every day. Furthermore, the tension between cooperation and independence plays out in every dimension of our lives from our relationships to politics, so why would we think it wouldn’t play out in our best work as well?
Your beneficiaries are the specific people who will benefit from the completion of your work. Whether it’s full bellies, full minds, or full hearts, your beneficiaries’ lives will be better because of the work you’ve done.
There’s an important corollary here: If you don’t finish your best work, your beneficiaries will be worse off. Whatever pain your work heals or delight it delivers won’t be healed or delivered without you doing your work, and there’s no substitute for your best work because no one else will create what you create in the way that you create it.
I state the corollary because it’s been my experience that it can be helpful when your project gets hard or you’re stuck in the void. It’s one thing when your best work is just about you and what you want to do; it’s quite another when you think about the people who will be worse off if you don’t stand tall, lean into thrashing, and work your way to done. This is where the “specific” piece of the definition of beneficiaries comes into play, for there’s a big difference between an imaginary person being worse off and some specific person you know. You might quit on yourself; few of us will quit on other people.
An additional reason beneficiaries need to be specific people that you know is so you can ask them for feedback about what you’re building. Your head trash, ignorance, and arrogance can keep you stuck and take you way off course; having the courage to show your work and ask your beneficiaries how it’s landing can keep you on course and inspire you to finish it up.
DON’T JUST BUILD YOUR SUCCESS PACK — USE IT
While it can be fun to think about who might be in your success pack, the real magic happens when you make a plan for how you’ll actively use it. Sure, you may have one of your trusted peers in your success pack, but how are you going to do your best work with them? How frequently will you be in contact with them? About what? And what will you need to show them so that they can provide their best feedback?
Since we love worksheets around here, here’s a success pack worksheet to help you put your people to paper. Let’s take “I forgot who they were” off the list of reasons you didn’t assemble your success pack. ????
Here are the steps to go from idea to action on this strategy:
- List the three to five people who are a part of each group. Remember that you’re looking for specific people — “single moms in Idaho” don’t count as a beneficiary, for example. In this step, you’re building your phone-a-friend list.
- For each person, brainstorm at least three specific ways they can help you or you can help them. If you can’t think of at least three items, you likely have the wrong person on the list or don’t know the person well enough. For your guides, perhaps list what types of questions you would like to ask them or who they may be able to introduce you to. For peers, list skills, connections, or perspectives they bring to bear. For supporters, list what work they can do to help you do yours. For beneficiaries, list what questions would reveal whether what you’re doing is actually making their world better. Now you know what to phone your friends about.
- Determine the frequency of communication that would be most supportive for you and the project. For a default, consider a monthly pulse for your peers and beneficiaries and an at-least-weekly pulse for your supporters; guides are more as-needed and will often find you.
- Let each person know they’re a part of your success pack. Given that it’s unlikely they know what a success pack is, just let them know you’re working on something and you would love their help. Based on your answers to questions 2 and 3, communicate to them how they can help and about how much you’ll be in touch with them, so they know what they’re agreeing to and what to expect from you. Guides are trickier because you may not be able to enroll them due to their being out of reach or no longer alive; even when they’re alive, the most you might want to do is email them and let them know they’re an inspiration for the project you’re working on. If you have a mentor relationship with your guide, then you can enroll them as if they were a peer.
- Proactively communicate with and show your work to them per the pulse established above. It’s not the job of your guides, peers, and beneficiaries to follow up with you and ask how you’re doing; it’s your job to keep them informed and engaged. The exception here is if your guides and peers agree to help keep you accountable, in which case it may be their jobs to follow up with you if they don’t hear from you on the pulse you jointly agreed to.
You can probably get through the first three steps in 15 focused minutes or less. It’s the fourth step that terrifies people, because assembling your success pack makes things real really fast. Suddenly there are twelve to twenty people who care about you, who can help you, and who expect something from you. Suddenly you’ve got skin in the game, deadlines, and accountability partners. Suddenly your excuses, procrastination, and what-abouts morph into a simple “Will you or won’t you?”
Of course, in that same step, you’ve set yourself up such that completion is nearly inevitable as long as you show up. So if you’re ready to make the completion of your project nearly inevitable, work through the steps, assemble your success pack, and start finishing your project.