Last night I was chatting over a glass of wine with a friend of mine. His stories always captivate and surprise me and I usually leave convinced that he has been everywhere & done everything. We talked about projects in Italy and Vietnam; about sailing in the Mediterranean, the Pacific, Gippsland; how to publish a book; the most famous people we know and his latest business innovation. Yet even George was stumped when I asked ‘So, what’s your latest ‘first’?’ I fully expected a story of some wild adventure – or a new idea he was pursuing.
Doing firsts stimulates growth. We can easily think we’re growing when what’s really happening is the same activity repeated. You may be invigorated and stretched by that activity, but George and I both felt that if there aren’t any firsts in a long time, we’ll lose our edge and we’ll also miss our true path. We’ve both experienced setbacks that arose out of that staleness. Our firsts seemed to be the source of most of the good stuff that happened in our lives, even when they seemed irrelevant or indulgent or terrifying.
Now everyone seems to have a pet theory about how to stay lively and productive and I’m not going to pretend I have a ‘Theory of Firsts’ that will solve the world’s problems. But perhaps by checking your ‘firsts’, you’ll find an idea that helps you add more zing to your life.
It seems to me there are three ways to ‘do a first’, which is when you get outside the familiar world of things you know you know. These are:
- Expand from what you know you know. If you play music, try a new instrument. If you read novels, read a new genre. If you were trained as a mechanical engineer, put together a radio. Take your core area of expertise and branch out.
- Use your intuition, which is what you know at a gut level. Wander and deliberately get lost. You can do this in a city, in a library or in a new discipline.
- Leap. Write down six things you’ve never done and throw a die to choose one.
Here are six ideas for leaping:
- Go to an event focussed on an industry or profession you’ve never had dealings with.
- Apply for a job that intrigues you but for which you aren’t qualified.
- Write for a magazine that is not related to your profession.
- Read someone’s PhD thesis in a field that’s not your own.
- Complete a random course on Udemy or Coursera.
- Research something you know nothing about by speaking with six people who are your second level connections on Linkedin.
The way to derive the maximum value from these firsts is to reflect and use them for change:
- What do they tell you about how you learn?
- What does the experience tell you about your resilience?
- What are you passionate about? (It’s intriguing how our passions get expressed even when we’re doing something very new).
- How do other people see you, when you’re ‘just a beginner’ in their field?
- What did you discover about how much you know and can do that was hidden to you?
Navigating to growth
When I’m working with professionals in transition, I help them navigate this strange territory, this world of firsts. It might be the first time doing ‘nothing’ in order to recover from stress. It might be the first time having an exploratory interview rather than a transactional one. It might even be the first time writing down why they are so great! Firsts are vital. They contain the markers that you need to guide your growth. These markers include:
Just how much can I stomach that’s weird? (Resilience)
What nice things happen when I take the plunge? (Trust)
What kind of person do I discover I enjoy being with? (Engagement)
What capabilities do I take for granted that others value? (Confidence)
How have I overestimated the risk involved in trying something new? (Courage)
What new skills turned up just when I needed them? (Competence)
If you want a sense of what can happen when you try a first, learn about Mustafa Salameh, the first Jordanian to climb Everest – who started out as a refugee and an illegal immigrant cook in Scotland. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/13/middleeast/mostafa-salameh-everest-inside-the-middle-east/index.html
So here’s your challenge: do something for the first time – and share the results. Although we’re surrounded by novelty and lots of fun things to do, real firsts underpin your ability to tackle the most vital task in life – to keep growing.