Beth Comstock has had an astounding amount of success in her career. She’s a director at Nike. A trustee of the National Geographic Society. Formerly: a Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Museum board president. Vice chair of innovation at GE. An exec at NBC Universal.
And so some people were surprised when she kicked off HOW Design Live 2019 with the following: “I could tell you a lot of stories about our success, the team, our luck … but somehow I feel you deserve a different set of stories.”
Rather, she powerfully walked everyone through the defining moments of failure and struggle that eventually led to her successes. HOW Design Live is where speakers get real—and give attendees real advice to empower their careers and their lives.
As Comstock said, “The SparkNotes version of my talk today is this: It’s about change. Change happens when you give yourself permission to imagine a better future, and then you make it happen.” Here are six actionable highlights from her keynote that helped attendees do just that.
Open the Door
When she was 25, Comstock was miserable—simply put, she was not living the life she wanted, so she made a leap and got a divorce. She thinks everyone has a figurative door in their life—on one side is where you currently stand, and on the other is where you want to be. You have to summon the courage and energy to open it and walk into the unknown. Today, whenever Comstock faces a terrifying decision, she remembers that she has walked through that door many times—and has come out on the other side just fine.
Give Yourself Permission
We’re masters of making excuses in our lives—we could pitch a new idea, speak up more in a meeting, make a defining decision—but we tell ourselves our bosses will turn us down; that there’s no time; that there’s not enough money. So Comstock always kept a stack of permission slips on her desk to empower her colleagues.
“What is something that you’re going to give yourself permission to do that you’re a bit afraid of, that’s holding you back professionally?” she asked the crowd at HOW Design Live. “Give yourself permission.”
Write a permission slip for yourself, and keep it on hand for those moments when you need it most. And perhaps embrace Comstock’s persistence: “When someone tells me ‘no,’ I hear it differently—I hear it as an invitation,” she said. “I hear it as an invitation to keep going. To me, ‘no’ is ‘not yet.’”
Ask That Most Important Question
To Comstock, feedback is critical, as is having the courage to ask the following question to your colleagues: Can you tell me something I don’t want to hear? As Comstock said, “You need to hear it.” It’s how she found out certain things she was doing were hurting her ability to best work with her team and drive results. “Get used to feedback. Ask it often. The faster you get feedback, the faster you’re able to change.”
On a similar note, Comstock hates conflict in the workplace—but over the years she has learned to make the best of it when it inevitably arises. Her advice: Invite your critics in, because they can make your ideas better. “I call it ‘agitated inquiry’—it’s kind of a highfalutin way to say ‘How are you going to beat your ideas up? How are you going to get more people to join with you?’ It’s a very strong leader who can say, ‘I need help. I don’t know all the answers. Where are we going?’”
When she wrote her book Imagine It Forward, Comstock considered titling it “Fail Forward”—because, really, failure is inevitable. “If you sign up to make change, you sign up to fail. It’s the nature of the job,” she said. Wallow in your failure. And then pick yourself up and ask: What did I learn? “To me it comes down to this,” Comstock said. “If failure’s not an option, then how can you possibly ever expect success?”
Roll With Risk
Comstock believes the business world’s obsession with optimization and efficiency is squeezing the imagination out of us—and yet imagination is what we need more than ever. “Risk is the cost of imagination. And it’s what ends up saving us. … We’re in a world where we need creative new solutions to solve new problems in new ways. The gap is that difference between the new creativity we need and our reliance and resistance on solving things the way we’ve always done it—the same old way.”
At the end of her talk, she summed everything up best: “We all have creative power, but we don’t always all channel it—especially at work. Creative energy is a given in all of us. It’s our human potential. We’re here because we hold our creativity dear. We realize there’s a power—there’s an obligation we have. The obligation isn’t to be precious about our creativity. Don’t hide it, don’t hoard the light of your imagination. You have to get it out there. You have to share it. You have to teach it. You have to empower others. I know our world needs people who are willing to lead with imagination and fight for the future. They need you.”
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