Dangerous advice – “Do it yourself”


I grew up hearing my mother say “If you want something done right, do it yourself”, usually accompanied with a sigh conveying equal parts exhaustion but also fierce pride.

And as I grew up, I  started hearing this sentence echoed by many people around me, especially amongst strong, capable, busy women who are often the informal glue of their community.

However, in my role as a leader, I now regard this as a dangerous life rule to play by if the do-it-yourself philosophy turns into a relentless need for control over the small things. Many times I see people who get stuck in their careers at a certain level, because they are unwilling to give up control over tasks or duties that don’t serve them or stretch them anymore.

It’s a lesson that I’ve learned the hard way myself.

When I started off in my role at NUS, I insisted on doing everything myself, from writing the curriculum, to teaching the students, to double-checking the AV and sound, all the way down to sticking the masking tape on the floor of our workshops to demarcate where people should stand.

Those were crazy days!

I remember going to a Mozart concert at the YCT Conservatory after an exhausting day at work one day, and while I was watching the beautiful, complicated, precise movements of the orchestra, I had a sudden epiphany.

In my role as a leader of my team, I was the conductor of the orchestra. But imagine, I was conducting a few bars, then jump on to the stage and play the first violin for another few bars, and then duck behind the stage and compose the next 3 bars of music, and then run outside on the street and drag in more audience members to watch the show, and jump back into the conductor’s pit again.

I needed to let go and learn that at my stage, my principal role was as producer director. I started building a team that could operate on their own – the composers, the principal players, the operations team, the sales people, so that I could use my skills to create value at the highest possible level that I was hired to do.

It was a painful process because I had this ego-attachment to the “No one can do it as well as I can” philosophy.

But I challenged myself to adopt a Beginner’s Mind attitude, and I soon found out that if you stretch people and give them enough space to learn and experiment, they can surprise you with their growth and wisdom. It also takes a whole tribe working together to achieve anything important. I love that African saying – if you go alone you go fast, if you go together you go far.

Now that it’s annual review season, I find myself talking to certain members of my team who are at the stage where they need to evolve and step into the next level of leadership. And that means that they need to start learning to delegate, let go and surrender control of the things that they’ve outgrown, even though they are running those tasks so well that they’ve become a well-oiled machine, so that they make space for new challenges.

To be clear, I don’t mean delegate everything all the time. It’s about balance. You still have to learn skills from the bottom up when you’re starting off. And even at a senior position, you have to have an eye for the details and be willing to roll up the sleeves and do anything and everything that’s required.

However, you only have a limited amount of hours in a day. Are you intentionally using those hours wisely to play at the highest possible level?  To do the things that really use the best of your skills and abilities so that you can operate at the limits of your potential? Or are you getting caught up in the small stuff?

2 questions to reflect on

1.) Are you choosing Comfort, or are you choosing Growth?

These are the 2 basic modes. When you’re in Comfort, you sure as hell aren’t growing, and when you’re in Growth, you sure as hell won’t be comfortable.

I’m not saying that you have to choose Growth all the time! Life would be bloody exhausting if you were relentlessly chasing Growth in every waking moment without looking at well-being and comfort, you’ll get burned out.

2.) Reflect on what you’ve been spending time on and ask yourself what you can stop doing.

Too much of the time, our tendency is to add more things to the “start doing” list, but the “stop doing” list is just as important.

Reflect often on the answers to these two questions for the choices you make will shape your career, and the richness and value that you get out of life itself.




(picture taken at gorgeous Lake Tahoe where I was lucky enough to have a couple of days off recently :))

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