I was trying to pray this morning and all I could get in my mind was what happened last night. My wife and I were doing a 30-minute talk for a group of about 150 people. Being the super-organized person she is, my wife had outlined the talk for us noting where she would speak and what points I would cover. Most sections of the outline had clear talking points and examples.

One section earmarked for me basically said, “Do that thing you do here.” I had received the outline a week ago. She had dutifully shown me that section so that I could prepare.

I mulled that section over during the week. I sat at my desk. I took it with me in the backpack of my mind on a run. I drove around with it.

Nothing. Zip. Nada.

Then it happened. The host of the evening had already introduced us and the participants were doing a 10-minute group exercise. Suddenly, the ideas flowed. I scribbled furiously on the back of the carefully-printed-by-my-wife notes. Then we walked up and did the talk. My sections went OK, but the part of the talk I scribbled out just before game time was clearly my best.

I wish I could say that this was unusual. But here’s the truth. I need work and the pressure it creates. Desperately. Maybe you do too. Here’s why for me:

  • I need to eat. Duh. Work that adds value gets paid for. Then you eat. But that’s not all…
  • There’s actually some decent stuff inside of me. And I’ll bet there’s cool stuff inside of you too. But it’s buried inside me like a deep oil field that doesn’t do anyone any good until it sees the light of day. Work fracks the good stuff free. Work shapes it. Occasionally, work makes it beautiful or brilliant or useful.

I wish my work process was neater and less nerve-wracking. Waiting for inspiration to hit me frustrates me, similar to the feeling I get watching my teenage son who apparently isn’t happy unless he has his daily panic caused by staying in bed until the last possible minute and almost missing his school bus. I wish I could spell out a predictable and pedestrian pattern that has produced my best ideas. I’d probably become a millionaire and sell a gajillion books and be featured on TED which is my personal fantasy since that’s my name after all.

Prepare to be disappointed.

Here’s how it actually works:

  • Someone knows me and asks me to help solve a problem. This problem usually involves wrangling a group of skeptical Type A executives through a creative planning practice to help them decide a little thing called their future. Cue the screeching monkeys.
  • I say yes. It’s not like I don’t know how to do it – that would be malpractice – but I’m honestly going to have to figure out how to do it this time.  Because every case, while having similarities to past situations, is a bit different. It’s a bit of live at the improv. Don’t tell me you don’t do this. You do. And I’m glad you do. If we all only did the things we’ve done 1000 times before – and in the same way we did in the past –  we’d never do anything new. For that matter, we wouldn’t do anything. Except maybe eat and sleep. Which, if you can get paid to do, I say go for it.
  • Get yourselves organized!!I sit with the problem. I schedule time and work on it. I puzzle. I write notes on post-it notes and slap them on my office window secretly hoping they’ll arrange themselves in proper order like a flock of migrating geese mysteriously drawn home.
  • I struggle. I mull. I take a run. Time ticks by. I scribble in my iPad.
  • Just in time (usually), the inspiration comes. I get an idea that will crack the case this time.
  • I show up and do the work. It (usually) goes well.

I often have my most useful ideas when I’m pressing into a new arena. Those ideas have “happened” on airplanes, in the shower (too often), on runs (which is why I now carry a digital voice recorder when I run), and probably many places I now forget because I had no way to record the ideas. But one thing is certain: I only get these ideas if my mind is tuned to the How Can I Best Serve These Folks channel. If I’m on the I Don’t Want Have an Epic Fail and Look Stupid channel, I might as well fold up shop and go home. Nothing good is coming out of that.

When I told her I might blog this, my wife said, “You’re going to admit that?!?” Bless her. I think she gets ideas and inspirations through a neater, more predictable process like someone putting a quarter in a gumball machine. A coin goes in and out comes a ball of sugary goodness. The only question is what color it will be.

My process is more like plastic extrusion – pressure, heat, and smoke. And I’m not ashamed of it for a simple reason: I’m not being lazy. I’m not even procrastinating. I show up for all of those frustrating meetings with myself days and weeks before the lights go on. If I didn’t, I’d accuse myself of being slipshod and I’d fire myself.

But I can’t afford to do that because I need the work.