Wired for Significance: Learn and Leverage Your Design

Warwick Fairfax

November 11, 2019

The key to leading a life of significance, a life that helps others, and moving beyond a searing experience, a crucible moment, where you are forever changed, is to understand your design.  We are all designed a certain way.  If we look at those around us, our children, siblings, and our loved ones, we all come out of the box with our own wiring.  We may be creative and artistic or love math and the sciences, or we may be adventurous and athletic.  We all have certain aptitudes.  If we are wise, we will understand our innate strengths and giftings, and build upon them.

Leading a life of significance and crafting a vision that makes the world a better place and helps others starts with understanding how you are wired.  Sometimes, out of your crucible experiences, you learn a lot about who you’re not.  Perhaps you were in a cubicle doing analysis, when you yearned to be outside relating to people.  Maybe you were in a freewheeling creative space, when you would have preferred to be in a more orderly, structured environment.  Being in the wrong position for your wiring can be miserable.  It saps you of energy and will make it harder to have a vision that you are passionate about, one that leads to a life of significance.

So how do we truly know who we are?  A good first step is to take an assessment.  There are a lot of them out there.  The more well-known ones include Myers-Briggs, DISC, Enneagram, and Strengths Finder.  One I particularly like is the SIMA Motivated Abilities Pattern (SIMA MAP) that asks you what you are good at and what you enjoy doing at different times of your life (grade school, high school, college, 20’s, 30’s, etc.).

As good as these assessments are, no one assessment or even a combination of assessments can provide the complete answer of how you are wired.  They give a glimpse but not the total picture.  People are complex individuals.  Even when we get the feedback from the assessment, we often find ourselves asking, “So what do I do now?  What should my next step in my career be in light of this?”

A concept I wrote about in my last blog, the refining cycle, applies particularly well to understanding our design and being able to lead a life of significance in line with that design.  It is a combination of theory and practice.  This includes understanding the common threads from the assessments we have taken and then looking back at the different jobs and experiences we have had.

Similar to the SIMA MAP approach, it is helpful to look at the different jobs and positions we have had (including nonprofits we have volunteered with).  What positions did we really enjoy and what environments did we thrive in?  What jobs and positions did we loathe and couldn’t wait to get out of?  Make a list of the commonalities of each job and position that we loved and each one we hated.  Connect the dots.  What pattern is emerging?

We can also ask friends and family who really know us well, who they think we are.  We can show them some of the results from the assessments we have taken, and ask them what they think of the different jobs we have had.  Ask them what patterns they see emerging.

Life is a combination of learning and doing.  We were not meant to live in a lab.  What I mean by that is that we need to experiment.  After taking the assessments, looking at our past positions, and asking family and friends for input, it is time to try something.  Look at some positions you think might be a good fit and try it.  In our day and age, most people do not work in the same company or in the same position forever.  If, after a couple of years, you feel it is not working out or that there is a position that would be a better fit, it is all right to make a change.  As time goes by, while our innate wiring may not change, our expertise and experience may grow, opening up other opportunities.

This is the nature of the refining cycle.  Observe, learn, experiment.  And then repeat the process.

What are some examples of this, of observing, learning, experimenting, and being willing to take a risk on a new path?

The E-commerce Mogul

The e-commerce mogul Jeff Bezos started Amazon in 1994, taking its sales from $510,000 in 1995 to $17 billion by 2011.  As of 2018, Amazon had 100 million paid subscribers for Amazon Prime, which includes free shipping for Amazon products as well as video and music streaming.  In 2018, Amazon was worth more than $1 trillion, the second company after Apple to hit that mark, and Bezos had become the richest person in the world with a net worth of $110 billion.  As of 2019, Amazon controls 40% of all e-commerce in the U.S.

So how did Bezos get to where he is now?  He was born in New Mexico in 1964 and went to high school in Miami.  He had an early love for computers, building electrical contraptions in his parents’ garage as a child.  He also has had a lifelong fascination with space and Star Trek.  Hence, Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, is an aerospace manufacturer and sub-orbital spaceflight firm dedicated to giving humans access to space.

After being the valedictorian of his high school, Bezos then graduated from Princeton University with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering.  He went on to become the youngest senior vice president of the investment firm D. E. Shaw on Wall Street.

In 1994, he made a risky move.  He quit a high-paying job with a lucrative career ahead of him.  Bezos moved to Seattle to start Amazon.com, an online bookstore that became one of the internet’s biggest success stories.  Amazon had success from the beginning.  With no press promotion, Amazon sold books across the U.S. and 45 foreign countries within 30 days.  In two months, sales reached $20,000 a week.  Amazon launched Amazon Studios in 2013, with critically acclaimed shows such as Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle.    Bezos purchased the Washington Post in 2013 and in 2017 Whole Foods, a supermarket chain selling healthy foods.

Bezos’ career has not been linear, nor could you have predicted it.  If you gave Jeff Bezos an assessment in high school or the early part of his career, pre-Amazon, it might have said he had mathematical aptitude, was good with computers and was a creative problem solver.  A motivated abilities assessment may have picked up that Bezos is a dreamer.  After all, in his valedictorian speech, he said he dreamed of the day when millions of his fellow earthlings would relocate to colonies in space.

But Amazon?  Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest person?  Amazon with a net worth that is almost as high as any other company?  Bezos is very smart.  He is driven.  He is a risk-taker, and he is creative.  He saw the potential of the internet and e-commerce, starting with selling books.  He tried it out, and then he kept experimenting.  From book sales to e-commerce powerhouse to Blue Origin, the Washington Post, and Whole Foods.  Bezos understood his skills, observed opportunities, experimented, and then kept going.  He was not afraid to try something new, that’s for sure.

The Culinary Icon

Julia Child was the bestselling author of Mastering The Art of French Cooking, as well as the host of the popular television program The French Chef.  Mastering The Art of French Cooking was considered ground-breaking upon its release in 1961 and remained the best-selling cookbook for five straight years.  The French Chef, which started in Boston, became so popular it was syndicated to 96 stations throughout America.  The French Chef premiered in 1962 and was so well received it went on to air for 206 episodes.

Mastering The Art of French Cooking and The French Chef succeeded in changing the way Americans related to food, certainly French food.  Child is credited with convincing the American public to try cooking French food at home.

So how did this all happen?  How did Julia Child become an American icon, changing American attitudes and tastes in cooking?

She was born in 1912 in Pasadena, California.  Her father was also a Princeton graduate, like Jeff Bezos, and was an early investor in California real estate.  Julia grew up in affluence, graduating from the prestigious Smith College in Massachusetts, where she studied history.  She was tall, 6 feet 2 inches.  She was athletic, adventurous and — as one of her school friends said — was, “really, really wild.”

After college, Child had a stint in New York in the advertising department of home furnishings company W. & J. Sloane.  She ended up being fired for “gross insubordination.”  With the onset of World War II, Child joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a forerunner of the CIA.  In 1945, while working in Sri Lanka, she met fellow OSS employee Paul Child.  The following year they returned to the U.S. and were married.  In 1948, Paul was working for the U.S. Foreign Service and was assigned to Paris.  While there, Julia developed a love for French cuisine and attended the world-famous Cordon Bleu cooking school.  After she finished the program, she banded together with fellow Cordon Bleu students Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle to form the cooking school L’Ecole de Trois Gourmandes (The School of the Three Gourmandes) in 1951.

In 1961, Paul Child retired from the U.S. Foreign Service and the couple returned to the U.S. to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  As mentioned, her bestselling cookbook Mastering The Art of French Cooking was published in 1961 and her television show was launched in 1962.

In 1993, Julia Child became the first woman inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame.  In 2000, she received the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor.

What accounts for Julia Child’s success?  It is probably as much due to her sense of adventure and willingness to take risks as anything else.  It would not have been easy to see her future career path growing up, in college, or before her move to Paris.  She was athletic, was considered to be wild, and was fired for “gross insubordination.”  She served in World War II in the OSS.  But does this add up to world famous cooking icon?  Not exactly.  But Julia Child was a passionate, risk-taking person.  Once she moved to Paris and attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school, she found her passion and her love.  She would bring the fine art of French cuisine back to American households.  She would pursue this vision with boldness and experimentation.  From a cooking school in Paris with two Cordon Bleu classmates to writing a best-selling cookbook and starring in a hit TV show.

Julia Child was an original.  What made her television show so successful was her combination of humor, exuberance, and unpretentiousness, mixed with knowledge of French cuisine.  She was fearless as she cooked on the show. She often made mistakes while cooking, but remained unflappable, encouraging viewers to accept mishaps and continue to cook.  She provided clear instructions and explanations.  She would always sign off her show with her catch phrase, “Bon Appetit.”

When I think of my own experience as an executive coach, I have taken many assessments both to better understand myself and to help my clients.  In the mid 1990s, I took an assessment that was both helpful and pretty accurate.  It said that I was intuitive and analytical.  I liked working on a common project or mission with others who were like-minded.  I liked learning and personal growth, where I was solving a problem and making an impact.  All this feedback was and is true.  But at the time, while all this resonated, I remember asking myself, “What do I do with all this?  What do I do now?”

As I mentioned in my last blog on the refining cycle, in hindsight I ended up experimenting.  I took a job at an aviation services company doing financial and business analysis.  Then after another assessment and executive coaching feedback, I became an executive coach.  Speaking in church one day about my story led me to write a manuscript about my life’s journey.  All this and some experience on two nonprofit boards led me to think I had a perspective on leadership that has culminated in Crucible Leadership.  In my own way, I tried to observe, learn, and experiment.  And yes, I was willing to take risks.  It might not have been jump-off-a-bridge type risks, but they were risks nonetheless.

The stories of Jeff Bezos, Julia Child, and even myself offer a template for how to understand your design and apply it.  Know how you are wired, know what you love and are passionate about … then experiment.  Life cannot be lived in a lab.  We have to be willing to move and be willing to make mistakes.  Experimentation, mistakes, and even failure are the price of success and significance.

Reflection

  • What have you learned from the assessments you have taken?
  • How do you, your friends, and loved ones look at the positions you have had and the assessments you have taken?  What are the common threads?
  • What next step or position should you be willing to take that is in line with your design, that you are passionate about, and which will move you forward? What risk do you need to be willing to take?

Leave a Comment