Lillian Grace is the Founder and CEO of Wiki New Zealand, a collaborative website making it fun and easy for everyone to use data about New Zealand. Her life has led her in different directions and she has followed it and invited the change. She tells us about career changes, loosing the fear and about starting again, again.
I did not expect my life path to be curvy. I grew up truly believing my path would be straight and really really normal. So it was initially quite surprising and challenging for me when it started to curve, and when it seemingly went backward and upside down I had to learn to deal with the motion sickness that comes from that. I used to think that knowing and planning my path in advance was important, but now I value not knowing. I plan my next steps, but not all my steps. I really value being able to seize opportunities and not feel constrained or penned into a direction just because I once thought that’s where I would go.
I started my career as a high school physical education teacher as that was the best job I knew existed when I grew up. During my first year teaching I was asked by the CEO of a software start-up company to come and work for her. Every day when I was teaching I tried to encourage my students to reach for the stars and take opportunities and I thought, well I kind of have to do that myself so I jumped and took the job at Massive Software. Many people thought I was crazy as they thought I was wasting the years of my university education; but I refused to be stuck to that because of a decision I made when I was 17.
I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about business. I started as the CEOs Executive Assistant and just jumped in with both feet – flailing about, learning and doing as much as possible, and a few years later I was helping her run the whole company. When I was at Massive I learnt how to move and think fast, how to hone and listen to my instincts and how to make things happen and just DO stuff. It was an incredible six years, I did lots of travel especially to California where most of our customers were, and the visual effects industry was really sparkly to be part of. I was continuously pushed to run and jump and do and make things happen. When the company went offshore I took a job at think tank The New Zealand Institute. It was pretty much the opposite kind of work. I sat at a desk, quietly, and had to dive really deep into one piece of thinking and research at a time. It was exhausting to start with. I had to learn to think differently, and I learnt a whole lot of new content to think about.
When I got both of those jobs – at Massive and The New Zealand Institute – I looked really rubbish on paper. But both times I just refused to let my past restrict what my next steps would be, and I was fortunate that both times the people hiring me could see that and my willingness to learn, and they took the risk hiring me. I then went on to start Wiki New Zealand which I’m now the CEO of. For the first two years I did it half-time whilst I was strategy consulting on the side, and then the Chief Strategy Officer for another software company. I’m now full-time Wiki New Zealand and am having the absolute time of my life. I have never felt more ME as I do right now. I am spending my days bringing something to existence from my mind and bringing people on the journey with me. It feels magical to create an organisation from nothing, and to realise we are doing something that nobody in the world has done before.
When I reflect on what caused each bend in my path, I can pinpoint some really important moments that I am very thankful for, and at each curve there was a challenge and a really conscious decision to make – I had to choose to change direction and accept the risks associated with that. I have given myself full permission to curve and bend my path as I see fit, forever. It allows me to make sure that I love what I’m doing, and to make sure that I can continue to learn and grow. It’s interesting to muse on the pressure we feel to continue doing something we decided to do years ago, as that implies a model where we aren’t allowed to learn and adapt. I don’t think we should be afraid to test what we’re doing and if it’s still the best thing or not. If we question it and come back with the answer that yes, it is the right thing, then we surface with more motivation and commitment. If we test it and realise that it’s not the right thing – then in my opinion that’s something I never want to hide from.
As I have altered my direction and moved to different roles and across industries, I have had to consciously put myself into a position of being a junior multiple times. That could be hard if you wrap your self-worth around that. But for me, it has been absolutely worth it every single time. When I reflect on the most important things I’ve learnt in the last 15 years, they’re of a very different type than I would have guessed when I was younger. The things that I value most are the thoughts I have that shape how I feel and act. There are 6 in particular that I frequently and consciously think, and it fascinates me that most of them sound quite negative, and exactly the opposite of what you would expect to be motivational…
1. No one cares about my life as much as I do. I used to really care about what other people would think about my decisions. This included family and close friends, right through to acquaintances and people I barely know. I have come to really grasp that ‘we’ are the most affected by our life decisions, and whilst others may have an opinion and voice it, and they may care deeply about us – all that anyone that loves us really cares about is if we’re happy. This realisation deeply affects my life now, it means I feel a great deal of freedom about what I choose to do with my life, and I know that it is actually up to me to do what ‘I’ believe is the best thing, not something I can expect to come from or be the responsibility of others.
2. I am wrong, and I don’t know it. If we operate under the assumption that we don’t know everything, and that we are not right about everything we do know, it stands to reason that there are things we currently think, that we are wrong about. What that means for me is that I feel less concerned about ‘being found out’ to be wrong about things, instead I assume it to be a very normal part of life. It makes me feel more comfortable sharing my thoughts and ideas, and it makes me really consider what others are saying and testing to see if they know better or more than I, rather than feeling I need to assert my own rightness.
3. I am responsible for how I think. Sometimes it feels like we can’t help our thoughts, that things surface in our mind and we can’t help it. And whilst that is partly true, I have come to see it’s not completely true. We can actually choose to push things out of our mind. It can be hard and it can take practice, but we can absolutely do it. We can also choose how we respond to things. A real example of this is with one of the first Board meetings for Wiki New Zealand we were all supposed to be meeting in person. A few hours before it, one of my board members text me to say they weren’t going to be able to make it. I felt instantly really ragey and frustrated because it was ruining how I’d planned things. But then I thought – wait, I don’t want to be a CEO who can’t deal with things that arise, I want to be calm and unflappable and able to take anything in my stride. Realising and articulating that to myself actually changed how I felt, instantly. It was the first time I’d really consciously done that before and it felt very powerful.
4. I am going to die. This sounds negative, yet similar to the first point, this one really makes me feel a huge amount of freedom – freedom to try and fly, freedom to do what I really believe is the most important thing that I can be doing with my time. My time is all I really truly have, so reminding myself that it is finite really motivates me to make sure I’m spending all my minutes consciously. That doesn’t mean I can’t relax for fear of wasting time, but it does mean I consciously choose to relax and enjoy the heck out of it.
5. Most of the lines are imaginary. This is one that took me quite a few years to really grasp, and I think two things have helped me realise it. One is that because I have entered new industries a bit mid-way rather than starting off in them from a young age, and because I have taken roles that I haven’t been very qualified for officially, I tend to just apply first principles to things and work my way through to what makes sense. That is limiting in some situations, but in others it means that I do things before I realise that I ‘shouldn’t’. I have always gone up and talked to people, and asked people for things, and then a few years later I sometimes look back and blush and think ‘I can’t believe I did that, I’m glad I did, but if I’d been more trained, I would have realised that was odd’. The other was through my experience at Massive and the way our CEO operated. She refused to see lines that everyone else saw and it was absolutely magical to witness what happened because of it.
6. I can’t do better than my best. I absolutely accept myself, and that involves accepting that I cannot do better than my best, and knowing what my best is. Sometimes my best is world class, and sometimes, about twice a year, my best is staying under the covers for a day watching terrible tv shows. As long as I have a really honest line of communication with myself around what my best is, I never feel guilty. I refuse to feel guilty for who I need to be and what I need to do.
I am here to be perfectly me, and you are here to be perfectly you. We are here to be brave, we are here to sit in the driver’s seat of our own lives, to really, properly, drive and be responsible for the direction we take. Finding out who you are, what you care about, what you believe in, what you will stand for, what you will fight for, what you love, what you hate, what you’re amazing at, and importantly, what you can learn, is more valuable than I can properly express. Knowing those things is what brings everything else together so you can operate as your best possible self. It is entirely relevant to your work, both the way you operate day to day, and your long-term path.
Knowing what you need to function well is critically important, and it’s your responsibility to know that and ensure you have what you need. When we have our settings right the rest is so much easier and fun – Lillian Grace
If I had a magic wand and could pick one thing to do it would be remove fear. What would you do if you weren’t afraid? It’s a question I ask myself frequently, whether it’s when I’m facing large things in life or small things like – should I send this email and risk looking dumb? and when I realise fear is the only thing stopping me, I have to do it. In large teams and organisations I understand there is a fear around people stealing ideas and claiming them as their own, of you not getting credit for what you’ve done. You are not as good as your last idea. You are way better than that. Your mind is an engine that can produce many great ideas, and the value that you will get from continuously sharing and collaborating with others, rather than protecting your turf, is huge and something I only properly believed after trying it and experiencing the outcomes. I think that many people are held back by fear. Fear of being wrong, fear of being found out, fear of others being better, fear of being rejected. And those things are all very likely to happen! Truly operating without fear does not mean believing they won’t, it means accepting they will and not letting them define you when they do.
Better by design. That’s a pretty commonly used phrase, and I think it applies to life as well as business and products. There are things that I consciously do to make my life better, by design, that I will share with you.
1. Find out what you care about and align your work to that: When you marry your passion and your profession your life will change. Waking up and being able to pour your energy towards something you truly care about is extremely powerful. I’ve had jobs that weren’t aligned before, when I was younger. And it’s fine, and sometimes it’s necessary. But when you can, it changes not only the enjoyment you can get from your days, but your effectiveness and ability to innovate. And finding out what you care about isn’t something that you do once! Rather, it’s something you continuously tap into as you learn and evolve and give yourself the freedom to build on your experiences.
2. Know what you need and know what you want: What you need and what you want are two very different things, and they’re both valid and important to know. What you need is relative, I don’t just mean food and water. For example, one of the things I need to function well at work is an environment where I feel accepted exactly as I am. Knowing what you want is important, which leads to the next one…
3. Set goals and celebrate things as you achieve them: If I asked you to list 8 things you achieved last year I suspect most of you would struggle to remember. A few years ago my friend and I were both in pretty rubbish situations, so we decided to put it in our calendars to meet a year later to celebrate how far we’d gone since then. We’ve done it every year since and have learnt some interesting things from the process. Each set of goals so far has been REALLY different, and it’s really neat to see that as an indication of how much changes, and it also gives a sense of freedom over current goals, knowing that whilst they are important now, they do not define us. We’ve also learnt how easy it is to forget what we’ve achieved, and we found that when it came to looking at the list to see what we’d done that we’d completely forgotten some of the goals we’d achieved earlier in the year. It’s important to celebrate the wins before resetting.
4. If you are going to fail at anything, make sure that you do it being you: It’s pretty likely that we’ll all fail at things from time to time, but I think that deep regret only really comes from going against your better judgement. Especially when you believe you can’t do better than your best, doing something different from what you think is best, because you’re afraid, is not doing your best.
5. Ask questions and admit it when you don’t know something: I think this has been one of the most powerful things for me. I grew up really naively. Happy, but naive. And so as I became exposed to more experiences I quickly learnt that there are fast ways and there are slow ways to learn. If someone uses a word in a meeting that you don’t understand, or an acronym, and you don’t speak up and ask what it means, you can easily fall behind in your overall comprehension of the conversation and your ability to contribute. I have also found that by being bold at asking people to teach me things, and following it up with really listening, results in really deep teachings from a whole heap of experts that teach me faster and deeper than anything I could do by going home and looking up things online at the end of the day.
6. Get good sleep, drink enough water, exercise regularly: It’s pretty mind-boggling that we hear this advice pretty much our whole lives and yet rarely follow it. There are lots of good habits we get told about, but these 3, are right up there with life-changing. Even after one week of sleeping say 10:30 PM – 6:30 AM, starting the day with 15 min cardio and 15 min strength or toning, and drinking 2L of water throughout can absolutely transform how you feel and operate. Do you realise, that being tired is not something we have to put up with? I got to the point where I thought that being tired was just what happened as you got a bit older and worked a bit more. That is not true. It happens because we don’t care for ourselves properly, and when we do, the energy that follows is astounding and results in far more productivity than just working longer hours.
7. Take time for yourself: This is the most important one, because without it – you’ll never really hear the answers to the rest, you’ll never know what you really care about and how to align it with what you do, and you’ll never know what you’re afraid of and what’s holding you back. I need alone time. Without it I feel really uncentered. I know I need it, and I know it’s my responsibility to make sure I get it. Even just 15 min lying in the sun on the carpet can do wonders.
All the things I’ve talked about are really about making sure you get what you need, and that you know how to work to get what you want. Putting yourself first and making that all happen can sound selfish on the surface, and a previous CEO and I had an issue that took over a year to resolve because of it. In the start-up years we all lived together and worked ALL hours of the week. I was the only one who got 8 hours sleep, who walked every day, and who made sure I saw friends once a week. The CEO thought it was a bit selfish of me, and we continued to discuss it philosophically, not dramatically. But over the years, it really sunk in that it meant I would never burn-out or drop the ball, because I made sure I got what I needed. Putting yourself first in a raw and reasonable way is what enables you to do, give and serve at a high level, and sustainably.