Force of Habit: Party of Firsts

Many people are trailblazers. In a world where models really count, they (and you) forge a path for others to follow.

Sometimes you know you’re doing it.

Sometimes, though, you don’t.

The trailblazers I know look a lot like the ones you know. There is the female scientist (from a family where it was questioned why she would go to college, and then had the chutzpah to get a grad degree), the second generation immigrant who went into the field outside the family path, and now is a rising star in the business world, and the single mom (by decision an adoptive family) who is balancing multi-generational family life with steering her “startup” into its sixth year.

All charting paths no one in their family has done. All charting paths most people don’t take. No “This is how you do it” manual to open up to page 47 to find the best way to do something; no easily reachable person to bounce a couple of ideas on how they did it.


And when you’re pioneering, where every day is a new day, things are both easy and hard. The easy part? Endless possibilities; an open sky of choices (think Lewis, Clark & Sacajewea). No choice is the set choice; you get to make it up as you go along.

The hard stuff? Endless possibilities, the open sky of choice. You have to make it up as you go along.

Trailblazing came to mind as my family navigated the end of another school year with the apple of my eye, our soon-to-be 4th grader (pictured). As seemingly the only boy in his school of several hundred kids  in Marin with a two-dad both working family structure, many days fall into the “now how do we do this?” vein.

Psychologists will tell you that it takes 21 days to have something become a force of habit – something that you do automatically (think amputees working without the former limb, or somebody adjusting to their move into the new house and knowing where the lights switches are in the middle of the night).

I can assure you that it means 21 consecutive days; most of the things for us (who packs the lunch for the field trip, who details the call from school that somebody may have gotten a concussion when someone grazed your son’s head when they jumped off the 10 foot play structure, etc.) aren’t closely repeated, a chunk of the stuff that whizzes by on some days feels new.

And when rare unhelpful-headed-to-hostile (yup, even in San Francisco you’ve got folks who appear to be homophobic to go along with the other usual suspects like racism, sexism and some anti-semitism) school staffer makes life a little tougher, sand can get wedged into the not-so-well-oiled machine, even with all the really helpful people who go out of their way to lend a hand.

That sand in the machine vulnerability is there for any trailblazer; when the easy stuff is hard, the hard stuff becomes that much harder.

Any part of “firsts” will tell you that there’s only so much time and energy in a day. Tap it into the things that are less important or less productive and there’s less for the big, important stuff.

But with the pioneers I know, including me, the satisfaction comes not in only reaching the destination, but having successfully traversed the voyage.

Author J. Mike Smith is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better. Over the past 25 years as a senior business executive, J. Mike has worked with Fortune 500 companies such as Genentech, AT&T, and Visa. You can learn more about J. Mike at Life Back West.

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