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There’s an elephant in this room

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Personal Development

Last week, I gave a virtual presentation at X, formerly known as Google X.

The notoriously secretive company is known as the moonshot factory. It’s dedicated to researching and developing breakthrough technologies that bring radical solutions to enormous problems.

X doesn’t innovate for Google. Its mission is to create the next Google.

X has produced numerous groundbreaking technologies, including self-driving cars, autonomous drones, and contact lenses that measure glucose levels.

When I was invited to give a talk at X about moonshot thinking, I jumped at the opportunity. I told them I’d love to do it.

But here’s what I didn’t tell them: I’m scared. Really scared.

I’ve given keynotes on moonshot thinking to countless organizations, from Fortune 500 companies to small start-ups. But what could I possibly say about moonshot thinking to the members of the moonshot factory? If there’s any organization who’s mastered the mindset, it’s X.

Before my presentation, I knew this was going to be the elephant in the room. At least some people in the audience were going to think, “This guy is going to explain to us how to do moonshot thinking? Please.”

Instead of ignoring that elephant, I decided to call everyone’s attention to it.

I began my presentation by saying: “Being invited to talk to you about moonshot thinking felt like being invited to give a lecture about basketball to Michael Jordan.”

Laughter ensued, and all tension melted away.

Here’s the thing about the elephant in the room: Everyone can see it. Everyone knows it’s there. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. In fact, the more you ignore it, the bigger it gets.

The best way to shrink the elephant—any type of elephant—is to say, “Hey, look, there’s an elephant over here!”

The elephant might be the tension you’re feeling in a company meeting. Instead of ignoring it, say, “This feels really tough right now, doesn’t it? Why don’t we take a moment to pause and catch our breath?” Watch your acknowledgment cut through the tension, allowing everyone a collective sigh of relief.

The elephant might be the unaddressed fear you’re feeling in yourself as you contemplate a particular decision. Address that elephant head on by writing your fears down. Acknowledging what you fear has a way of turning a beast into a statue. Your fear becomes a cold, cement block—a passing feeling, a moment in history frozen in time, gazing back at you, harmless.

The elephant might be that your audience in a presentation is much more senior than you. Do what a 26-year-old Adam Grant did when he was asked to give a lecture to senior Air Force colonels. He opened his talk with this remark: “I know what some of you are thinking right now. What can I possibly learn from a professor who’s twelve years old?”

The next time you spot an elephant, don’t ignore it.

The elephant, like the rest of us, just wants to be seen.

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