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Like most of you, I sat around our Thanksgiving table last week feeling grateful for what I often take for granted on a daily basis — my work, my family and of course the food. As I toasted the company of my loved ones, it occurred to me that exactly five years ago, this month, I was in a very different place.

I was seven months pregnant with my second child, and I received the phone call that no entrepreneur wants to hear. The parent company of the direct-to-public car-buying model I had developed from a seedling of an idea into a national operation purchasing thousands of cars per month no longer wanted to invest. I was given the directive to wind down the business. On the day I received the call, I was in San Francisco attending a technology conference, listening to Sheryl Sandberg deliver a keynote address about how to “Lean in,” when I received instructions to “Get out.”

On the night I received the news about having to close my company, an automotive executive that I had admired for many years invited me to attend a dinner. Reminder: I was seven months pregnant and I had just been told to close my business. It was the last thing I wanted to do that night. But I dragged myself to dinner and found myself being asked the question, “What do you want to do next?”

That morning I had been in meetings, making plans to expand our operating system. Now I had to determine how to return to my company, liquidate assets, take care of our strategic partners and most important, care for our employees. I left San Francisco the next morning with no idea about what I wanted to do next, or how to move forward. On the flight home, the stress and anxiety made me feel like I was having a heart attack.

Despite having to close my business, I was still receiving invitations from various companies to discuss my goals and interests, post-maternity leave. At this point, I was nine months pregnant, driving and flying around the country to have these conversations. If I’m being totally honest, I was fearful of lacking relevancy when I returned from leave, so I kept pushing. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that if I was being asked to meet for future job opportunities while nine months pregnant and closing a business, that I would probably be okay if I didn’t have something lined up upon my return.

When I finally paused to consider my options, I realized that my compass for decision-making was malfunctioning. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but I wanted to keep pressing forward even though I couldn’t discern what I was pressing toward. It was at this point that I discovered time-lining, and I began to recalibrate my personal compass for making decisions.

Time-lining helped me learn to stop making decisions out of fear — something many of us do that often leads us down paths that just don’t fit. I wanted broaden my experience within alternate channels in auto, and over the next six months I consulted and pushed myself to accept projects that were unfamiliar. I knew that I wanted to explore the intersection of tech and automotive and my consulting work appeared to be a way to gain more experience in this space. Consulting took me out of my comfort zone, but was one of the best non-fear-based decisions I’ve ever made.

In the months that followed, I accepted more consulting work that took me around the world. I reconnected with industry relationships, and in one year, I went from being pregnant and closing a business to being tapped by brilliant entrepreneurs to embark on a journey in automotive tech. The business we founded was DRIVIN, a revolutionary automotive offering that was completely technology-centric. DRIVIN not only transformed the automotive industry, but it also launched my career into a new and exciting trajectory.

This brings me to present-day November 2018. As I think back to myself at Thanksgiving five years ago, I was overwhelmed. Did I make some poor decisions at this time? Probably. But did I make some good ones? You bet I did. But that’s the benefit of time and distance; it offers a glimpse of how much you have grown. If you’re in a tough spot, it’s like staring directly at a stunning canvas close-up. Your perspective is askew and it’s hard to discern the whole picture. But if you step back to look at it from a distance, you gain perspective and can see how the big picture comes together. I’m grateful for this perspective. But I know I wouldn’t have it today if I had not said, “yes” to opportunities that felt unfamiliar and somewhat scary. I’m eager to know your stories too. When did you decide to say “yes” and figure it out as you went along?

How many of you have been doing something routine — commuting to the office, going for a run or maybe walking the dog — and an idea comes to you? It’s a great idea, and the more you think about it, the bigger it gets and the faster your heart beats because there is something about this this idea that not only sounds right, but feels right too. The idea is like a shiny red balloon that you keep filling up with great big, creative air — and the more you focus on your idea, the bigger your shiny red balloon becomes.

“I should write this down,” you think. “I should really do something with this.”

But you don’t. Instead, you move onto the next routine action in your day — and that shiny red balloon slowly deflates and withers away into some universe of spontaneous creativity where it started.

Imagine, for a moment, if some of our greatest inventors had let their balloon deflate. What if Alexander Graham Bell decided that the idea of transmitting sound via electricity wasn’t an idea worth pursuing? What if Alexander Fleming didn’t make the effort to grow some extra mold in his laboratory in 1928?

Thanks to Fleming, we have antibiotics that successfully combat infectious diseases across the globe. And 131 years after Bell’s invention of the telephone, Steve Jobs brought his vision for a touchscreen smartphone to life, and introduced the iPhone to the world.

Every invention, innovation and movement that changes the world starts with one thing: an idea. And here’s the best part about that one idea: it doesn’t have to be fully baked for you to get started. Maybe your idea isn’t clearly defined. That’s okay. Keep putting pen to paper until it starts to look like something that is. Maybe your idea is a side gig. That’s okay too, as long as it’s a side gig that reinvigorates your creativity and dares you to stop running on autopilot.

See what I’m getting at here? For most of us, our problem is not a lack of ideas, it’s acting on those ideas. Big ideas often have small beginnings. You simply have to begin! It’s blowing up your balloon and then letting it go out into the world to see what’s possible. What about you? What’s your shiny, red balloon? What first step could you take now to make your idea come to life?

Last week, I was hiking with a good friend. We were catching up on our families and our jobs, dreaming aloud about the lives we’re trying to create for ourselves, and others, now and in the future — and the transitions we’ve already made or will make on our journeys to get there. We’ve all experienced transitions of some kind: from school to the workforce; job to job; adjusting to life and work with a new baby; becoming an empty nester; retirement. There are so many crossroads in life that we navigate; it becomes easy to just let them happen without paying much attention to the process. But if we really want to purposefully and deliberately create our lives, how do we actively participate in the process of these continual life transitions?

As my friend and I were hiking and asking these questions, I recalled a quiet morning about five years ago when I found myself in a hotel lobby reading about 'timelining', an exercise that helps you gain insight into what you truly want in your life by capturing insights from past experiences to shape future actions. That morning, I had the urge to dive into this exercise, and I asked the concierge for a scrap of paper and got to work. The timeline I created that morning on my little piece of paper in a hotel lobby was so helpful and meaningful to me that I actually still have it. Now I want to share the exercise with you.

You can create your timeline from the beginning of your career, or you can expedite the process, and just think about the past five years. It works like this. Take a piece of paper, and draw a horizontal line across it. Moving left to right, begin writing events or endeavors in your career, drawing a line upward for positive developments, down for lowlights. Place events you view positively — accomplishments, moments where your talents and gifts stood out or were acknowledged — at the top of the time line. Take the moments where you failed (or perceived that you failed), ran into obstacles or even felt dissatisfied at the bottom.

If you’re like most people I know, you’re focusing on your failures right about now. That’s fine — get them out of the way, because once you acknowledge those curveballs, we can get to the good nugget of this exercise, which is to glean insight about the events that preceded the positive developments in your career and life. What events and personal circumstances precipitated these highlights? What was your frame of mind? What was the culture or environment like? What kind of people did you work with and surround yourself with, and how did they contribute to these events?

Here’s what my scrap-paper timeline helped me discover: what enabled my success in the past was not a guarantee for my future. I could also see that I had my greatest bursts of energy and launched my best projects after periods of reflection. In addition, I also realized that I became discontent when I failed to prioritize personal and family time.

What does your time line look like, and what is it telling you? Can you see themes or patterns? Can you gather clues about your success or setbacks and the circumstances that contributed? At this point, I bet you can see how much you’ve accomplished. Just knowing that should be a big pick-me-up right now.

Now, take a moment, flip over your timeline and draw a T-Chart. Write “Works Well” on the top of one side, “Avoid” on the other side. Now that you’ve reflected on your timeline, capture a running list of what has worked well for you over time. This will help you see what it is that you need more of in future endeavors — or what you should avoid.

My hope is that your timeline offered a big picture for you — one that revealed both the stumbling blocks and the successes along your journey, and a vision to purposefully and deliberately create the next steps to you want in your life and career.

If you create a timeline today, let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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