Box of Crayons Blog


The Mutant’s Approach to Getting Unstuck

boc-original-500It’s not if. It’s how.

It doesn’t matter how well it’s all going in general — and congratulations on that, by the way. There are, nonetheless, places where you’re stuck. Wheels are spinning. Ruts have been found. Plateaus have been reached.

Where is it for you? (Be honest, now.) Here are three places to look.

Is it project connected?

Perhaps your project’s hit an impasse, and you don’t know how to break through.

Or maybe you’re turning in Good Work and it’s keeping you busy, but you’re not pushing yourself to do more Great Work: work that has more impact, work that has more meaning.

Or maybe it’s something else.

Is it people-related?

Could you be going through the motions in a familiar relationship? It might be bad or not that bad, but certainly not as good as it might be.

Or are you neglecting someone who matters to you, taking for granted their presence, their friendship, their generosity?

Or is it something or someone else?

Is it a pattern of your own behaviour?

The days and weeks are passing in a familiar groove. Pleasant enough, perhaps, but where’s the zest?

Is your routine responsible for playing it safe? Keeping you from breaking something precious? Or avoiding the hard thing?

You know what I’m talking about.

Find your stuck place. Now, let’s see what we can do about it.

[For reciprocity, let me tell you about my stuck place. I’m thrilled at how Box of Crayons is flourishing, delivering our coaching programs to organizations in North America and beyond. We’re working with some very special clients, from HBO to USSA. And . . . I’m turning my eyes to a new horizon. I want to find a way to take the programs into the non-profit world — in particular, the world of education. But it’s not a sector I know at all well, and I don’t want to go blundering in without understanding some of the light and shade, the ebb and flow of how things work there. So I’m daunted by the unknown-ness of it, everything from where to start the conversation to whether we need to change our business model.]

Microbial role models

I recently watched this short video:  It’s an extraordinary (and, honestly, terrifying) picture of how microbes mutate to defeat antibiotics. Coming up against increasingly strong versions of antibiotics, the advancing microbes hit the barrier, pause, mutate and press onward. Take two minutes to watch it, and if you’re keen, another four minutes to understand the why behind it.

Now, this is bad news indeed if you’re in the antibiotic business. And yes, we’re all got investments in that market. When antibiotics stop working, and that’s happening everywhere, things are going to get scarily medieval. (There’s a great TED Talk — of course there is — on our future after antibiotics.)

Putting aside global health crises, this video is inspiration for when we’re feeling stuck. You hit the barrier. You won’t get over it or through it or around it as you are. You need to change things up, evolve, mutate. Here are ways to do just that.

Answer these two hard questions

I’m quietly confident you’ve already picked up a copy of my new book, The Coaching Habit. (How else could I explain that it’s been the #1 coaching book on Amazon for almost all of the six months since its launch?) So you’ll know that it highlights seven essential questions and encourages you to practise and master them.

For our purposes here let’s narrow the questions down to just two.

The Focus Question: What’s the real challenge for you here?

You’ve picked where you’re stuck. That’s great. Now be brave and go deeper. (You might even want to write this down, to make it “real.”)

Reflect on this: What’s the real challenge for you here? Hold the focus on you: How are you facing up to and addressing this challenge?

And what else? Because there’s more than one thing here. What else is the real challenge here for you? And what else?

So now you’ve got some options. Go one level deeper for me. With all of this stuff emerging and becoming clear . . . what’s the real challenge here for you?

[What’s the real challenge for me? It’s not what you might think. It’s that I keep putting myself back into the daily work at Box of Crayons, something that keeps me busy and engaged . . . and unable to bring real focus and leadership to how we might work in the education sector. I keep trading Good Work for Great Work. (Hangs head in embarrassment.)]

The Foundation Question: What do you (really) want?

This question nearly always makes me squirm. It’s hard to be still enough, courageous enough, persistent enough to get to the heart of what you want. You’ve got to cut your way through the undergrowth of old dreams, past ambitions, others’ expectations and societal norms. You might uncover it, like Machu Picchu or Angkor. Or perhaps it will sidle up to you shyly and whisper quietly. Perhaps it needs to confess under the bright spotlight and duress of a friend pressing hard. In any case, as you find this place, as you get clear on what the real challenge might be for you, ask what it is you really want.

[Turns out there are a few things I want. First, I’d like to give a good part of my working hours to figuring out how to get into the education sector. Let’s say perhaps two days a week, so I don’t keep the few contacts I’ve already made hanging on but give them the attention they deserve. Second, I’d like a place to experiment, to try out a few things. Rather than overthinking things, I want to beta test.]

Accept no less than 10×

You know what you want. Now 10× that insight, that hunger, that desire.

A recent article titled “Google’s Larry Page and the Gospel of 10×” outlines that the genius of 10× is that you can’t just do more/faster/better than your original idea — you have to go way beyond that. You have to stretch to something entirely new, something that swirls with both excitement and terror. You also, to quote Page, need to have “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” I love that!

Write down some of your ideas — aim for five. After you’ve written down your first thought, ask yourself, “What’s bigger or bolder than that?” And then, “What else? What else is bigger and bolder?” Continue with your other ideas, and keep channelling Goethe: “Dream no small dreams.”

[Me? Ah, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask. It’s a little scary, since 10× means giving up all the current work I do at Box of Crayons and giving myself fully to this project. It could also mean looking for partners, sponsors, and underwriters to do something as ambitious and grand as a beta test. It could even mean starting my own school or education foundation. (Eek!)]

Frame failure

The challenge of 10× is scary, because it takes you out to the very edge of what you can imagine, and of what’s possible. It’s not just dragons that dwell in these unexplored places; there’s likely failure too.

You’ve watched the microbe video, so you know that most microbes fail to move from one phase to the next. The bigger the barrier, the longer it takes to figure out a way through. Massive failure is necessary for the breakthrough to occur. Transition from one state requires death, then rebirth.

In short, whatever you’re going to be working on isn’t going to be flawlessly executed first time through. You’re in beta mode, experimenting and figuring out what’s new that works.

As you experiment, see the failures as the necessary part of the journey:

How does this move me closer?

What does this tell me about the goal? About my approach to the goal?

What can I celebrate in this?

What can I mourn?

How will this change me going forward?


When we think of mutation, our minds can go a little Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. Scary stuff. And yes, let’s avoid that.

But don’t be afraid to use the insights and tactics of mutation to adapt, change and succeed.

3 Responses to The Mutant’s Approach to Getting Unstuck

  • Donna

    I love this structure for helping myself and others get unstuck. The sequence of questions that get you down to the “real” stuff. Starting broad and then narrowing the perspective so people can really focus on what is in the way.
    Got to admit the microbe thing is a little scary but the idea of mutation from a growth perspective is very relevant.

  • Gabby

    For your own endeavor, you may know that coaching has for at least a decade been quite a huge push in education in the United States. I believe the start was in New York City, of using coaches to coach teachers in how to work with their students in mathematics and writing. Microsoft was one organization that became very involved in the coaching enterprise, the underlying belief being that teachers were not adequately trained or up-to-date to serve the students at hand or to collaborate with their same subject peers to find solutions together and share best practices. Because of the ubiquity of the coaching model in education in the US, I think when you turn yourself seriously to it you will find lots of history of that approach. I don’t know whether coaching in an educational setting was as wildly popular with administrators in the UK or whether the coaching model came from Asia.
    I am less familiar with the models of leadership coaching in education, in the sense of the coaching of school administrators, though I believe those grew in parallel. Good luck in your undertaking!

  • Robin

    Great insight and instruction on ways to get “Unstuck” in our Lives. Also very helpful to incorporate these ideas into team dynamics when leading a group through a transitional phase or a major change in an organization.
    Thank you!

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