As women today, we’re hungry to live the truth of who we are at work—and even insisting on it—but how to do that often feels uncharted.
What’s so remarkable about Dr. Jane Goodall (Emerging Women Live 2015 keynote speaker) is that she not only pioneered science, but she also opens our eyes to how to work from our most authentic self—all starting in the 1950’s.
She didn’t have the “right education.” She didn’t “plan it all out” or follow rules for making it. Rather, she made her preeminent scientific contributions by living the deep truth of who she is. All these years later, her path is still one of the most inspiring I’ve seen. In my work to help individuals and teams combine success and fulfillment, Jane’s life serves as a kind of archetypal map that guides us into authentic territory that’s available to all of us.
Jane’s Early Insistent Actions
At the age of 23, this untrained, captivating blonde Brit was invited to Africa and met a renowned scientist. These facts on their own imply she simply landed in the quintessential right time and place. However, it was actually the momentum of what I call her Insistent Actions that led to her success.
As a little girl, Jane consistently repeated a set of actions, which she honed into valuable skills. Imagine Jane when she was 5 years old, sitting in a chicken coop. Hiding in straw, she was determined to know, “Where does the egg come out?” She waited unobtrusively for hours until she found out.
She also catalogued, drew, and wrote about animals. In countless personal letters, she wove together intricate descriptions of animals she watched. All these actions were unprompted by people or obligations. At 13, she wrote to her friend, “I am home today as I have a cold, and I am practising drawing birds from real life. I am determined to get good at drawing them.”
Like a fish swimming or a rose blooming, these Insistent Actions were native in her. She couldn't not do them.
She brought to life something inside her—in the words of an E.E. Cummings poem—“which is natural, which is infinite, and which is yes.” We see what is natural, infinite, and yes in 13-year-old Jane as she’s lying on her bed with the sniffles—pencil and notebook in hand, determined to get good at drawing animals.
From Insistent Actions to Prodigious Impact
When Jane met her mentor, paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, his life’s dream was to reveal the mysteries of human evolution. At a time when the typical methods for studying animals were killing them and examining the remains, his vision to observe chimps in their natural habitat was cutting-edge. He knew he needed a keen observer, and Jane’s Insistent Actions—practiced thousands of times over two decades—had shaped her into one. Soon after meeting her, he recognized her observational prowess and said she had “record eyes.”
Despite no formal training, her Insistent Actions developed into her Native Genius—which is something we all have. Native Genius is the intersection of what we love doing and what we’re good at. It expresses itself in a collection of Insistent Actions we do, that we may not notice we do. When we focus, practice, and train those actions, they have the potential to grow into something powerful and useful like Jane’s “record eyes.”
Jane’s life shows us how we can grow our Native Genius from moment-to-moment, starting where we are, regardless of our life circumstances.
Jane called her time studying the chimps “paradise.” That’s because she hit her Native Genius jackpot. She started using her Insistent Actions like never before, in a focused and deliberate way. All of the Gombe Stream Chimp Reserve became her “chicken coop.” Her patient, reverent observing was one of the key actions that made her so successful when living among the chimpanzees. In her first year there, she had already made four pioneering discoveries. The advancements in science were exponential.
Trusting Your Insistent Actions
Most of us don’t follow our Insistent Actions with Jane’s kind of devotion, because the uncertainty can be excruciating. We want to know the destination before we begin. We don’t sense our own eyes lighting up when we do them. Even if we do sense the joy, we need to know, “Where will this go?”
The answer we often get from inside is “nowhere,” or worse: “somewhere bad”—for example, a life without love or money. Fear gets in the driver’s seat and we subtly turn away from the spark of YES in favor of something seemingly more productive, more marketable, or more certain. Jane followed the spark of yes without knowing the destination. We can too.
We may be afraid to ask ourselves what our Insistent Actions are. Like the hero in a story, we fear we’ll get all the way to the treasure chest, only to pause, open it, and find it empty. As much as I’ve partnered with people to uncover their Native Genius, I’ve never found the treasure chest empty. Ever.
I’ve also never found it full of useless junk. We always find a collection of Insistent Actions, as unique as a fingerprint. The Insistent Actions almost always have underused energy and creativity behind them. Remember, what made Jane’s “nothing” of watching animals turn into a “something” was her natural, infinite, yes that animated it. We all have that.
No matter what our life circumstances, each of us can spend 15-minutes a week doing an Insistent Action we adore.
We can trust that it will grow and coalesce. Jane shows us the extent to which Insistent Actions are, by their very nature, generative. They generate results, learning, and trying again. Jane shows us that we can risk devotion to our Native Genius without knowing exactly how to make it into something. The Insistent Actions themselves are a map we can trust that unfolds with each step. Following them will pull us forward into the territory of our Native Genius, our thriving, and our most wondrous contributions.
Kristen Wheeler is the creator of the Native Genius® Method which helps people and teams be in the sweet spot of big results and personal fulfillment.
She has consulted for more than two decades with companies about the intersection of human thriving and organizational performance—from multi-national companies with 80,000 employees to small nonprofits with 100 employees. She’s been a speaker and audience favorite at TEDxBoulder and Emerging Women Live. At Emerging Women Live in 2015 she will speak on Vision and Native Genius with Vanessa Loder.