We spend too much time thinking about things and not enough time trusting our gut, and going with the flow. There are entire fields of science about such things, such as trusting your gut and being in flow state. Those are worth studying, but often as we apply it to our own lives it’s really about simplifying – not complicating – the thinking process to produce better results in our lives.
Here’s one tale about how trusting my gut worked for my professional life (and aligned to my belief there are no coincidences). Things happen for a reason, even if we don’t understand or appreciate it at the time.
You might be thinking: “Eric, why did you start a post about a professional story with a yoga pic on a hike?” That’s kinda the damn point; read on.
There are three key steps to going with the flow:
- Listen to your gut
- Be patient, let things happen
- Act, decisively
In 2013 I was working at Premera Blue Cross near Seattle, running the Corporate Communications team, and looking for a motivational speaker to break-up a joint, day-long offsite for my team and the Marketing Department. As that need lingered in the back of my head, some mindless Twitter scrolling led me to a tweet from Olympic swimmer and area native Ariana Kukors about appearing with former NBA Seattle Supersonic Slick Watts at a local sports award banquet.
Something clicked in my mind with the tweet, knowing a little of Ariana’s story of perseverance: missing the Olympics in 2008 by eight one hundredths of a second, becoming a World Champion and World-Record Holder in 2009, and making the Olympics in 2012 (summarized in a splendid ESPN column). Did Ariana do any motivational speaking?
I pinged her on Twitter to ask. The answer was yes, and we met for lunch to see if the opportunity was a good fit. It was a great conversation. I very quickly determined, yes, she’d be a good fit for the motivational speaker I wanted. And as we conversed more in that initial meeting another idea started percolating in my head: is Ariana a good fit for the emerging marketing campaign for Premera’s LifeWise brand?
At the time, health plans were preparing for implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and through a quirk of health insurance history in Washington state, Premera had a brand in the individual market with the freedom to be (very) different than the Blue Cross brand. The company was planning to differentiate the two in the new ACA-world, in part by pitching LifeWise to consumers interested in active lifestyles in the Pacific Northwest. Could Ariana, the homegrown Olympian, who was now telling me about her current health journey and passion, be a fit with LifeWise?
I let that thought sit in the back of my mind as we concluded a verbal agreement to have Ariana speak at the offsite meeting. We followed that with some prep to make sure her remarks would best fit the group and then got to the day.
I still had the “Ariana…LifeWise?” thought bouncing around my head as I prepared my introduction for her talk. I wasn’t doing anything with the thought other than acknowledging it, not shooting it down, and letting things unfold, including as she was a surprise guest, known only to one member of my team as our speaker before that day.
I introduced Ariana with a wind-up that included quoting from that ESPN column and showing this picture, revealing her emotional response at the 2012 Olympic Trials upon seeing she was going to the Games in London, giving a window into why Ariana had a story to tell, and to provide a deeply human feel to her tale.
Then she killed that talk. It was emotional. It was motivational. It was about more than sport, it was about life.
She was swarmed after by attendees, including members of our Marketing team and our recently hired agency for LifeWise. Some people quickly started musing about the very idea lurking in my head of “Does Ariana have a role with us?”
The question wasn’t a one-day musing in the close wake of powerful public speaking, the conversations continued. Soon we reached a consensus among myself, key members of the Marketing team, and our outside agency that Ariana would be an outstanding addition to the budding experiment of our new LifeWise campaign.
Yet, there was no Marketing budget immediately available to fund the honorary “Director of Health Inspiration” role we foresaw for Ariana to be a public-face of LifeWise for the remaining months of 2013, during the peak of marketing before the ACA’s first open enrollment period.
What to do?
As the leader of the Corporate Communications team, I had some flexibility in my budget while the Marketing team was tapped, otherwise requiring a time-consuming, special corporate budget request in tight budget times. While those of us involved in crafting this project with Ariana believed mightily in it’s potential, the relevant Marketing leader who would need to make a special budget request was neither bold and decisive, nor visionary. Thus, there was no way a special request would be considered in time to add Ariana to the team in a timely manner to meet the business opportunity.
It wasn’t a tough call. I funded the experiment for the remainder of the year, believing it would prove itself and be funded in the Marketing budget in 2014.
On one hand, it would have been perfectly appropriate — and indeed, normal — in the corporate world for me to say, “That’s not my area of responsibility, they need to fund it, not me.” On the other hand, my gut was screaming: “This is the right thing to do for the business.”
So, I did it.
The result: the experiment paid off. Ariana became an integrated part of the LifeWise campaign in her Director of Health Inspiration role. She was a social media force, an online writer, a regular feature at event-based marketing, and eventually a staple in TV appearances for LifeWise.
Along the way, I found an outstanding friend, Ryan Hodgson, on the agency side of our Marketing team. Together, we recruited Ariana to join a team Ryan created to run a Tough Mudder race in October 2013, converting that group into a LifeWise-sponsored team.
We slayed that race.
Returning to the idea of no coincidences, and Ariana’s TV appearances: the latter went so well our agency team eventually negotiated to have Ariana appear as a LifeWise sponsored special correspondent to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for Seattle’s NBC affiliate, KING 5.
Ariana’s powerful experience in at the Winter Games motivated her to attempt a comeback to competitive swimming, with an eye on the 2016 Olympics. She moved to southern California and teamed up with a renowned coach of international swimming stars, USC Swim Coach Dave Salo. Injuries ultimately halted Ariana’s comeback, but along the way of that journey she met her now husband and started professional relationships that led to time with Win Forever/Compete to Create (more on why I think that company is really damn special).
No coincidences. At all. In any of it.
As for me, I view this entire episode as one of my best professional moments, second at Premera only to this brutal day (though the LifeWise project was way more enjoyable!). It also helped get me promoted to Vice President at the age of 39, in part because I was creative in identifying a business need and successful in implementing that solution. Along the way, as I reflect on what I enjoyed about that experience, talking about that effort with LifeWise and Ariana internally at Premera was a lot of fun. Because I believed in it and it filled me with joy.
Joy, in one’s professional life? Yes, joy. Pure unadulterated joy.
Which gets me back to the three steps of making this happen.
- Listen to your gut. I didn’t squelch a potentially far-fetched idea when it screamed “pursue this!”
- Be patient, let things happen. I didn’t force things to happen. Some of it had to be driven by others. By following step #1, step #2 could manifest.
- Act, decisively. When it was truly on me to move the ball forward, I did, by committing to a major budget expenditure that the Department I led didn’t need to make, but I knew the company would be better for it.
Here’s the trick: following you gut is risky.
I was working in health insurance when I did this, a highly risk averse industry, not known for rewarding bold steps. At any point along the way, I could have easily chosen inaction rather than action.
Yet, when we start trusting our gut and going with the follow, it suddenly becomes even easier. You want to know what barriers I ran into during the story above?
Many hurdles were possible. They never materialized. I don’t think that’s a coincidence either.
I think about that today as I’ve decided to take a leap and my follow my gut to make being a writer part of my professional portfolio, leading a more unconventional professional life than was the case for my relatively straight-laced career since college.
Is that scary?
Is that risky?
Is it what my gut is calling me to do?
So, with a glass raised to this tale with Ariana, here I go.