A week ago I invited a very fit and adventurous girlfriend of mine (whom my husband says reminds him of Angelina Jolie) to join me in climbing in the largest aerial forest adventure park in North America. If you are wondering what an Aerial Forest park is, it’s a gigantic obstacle course in the tree tops consisting of platforms connected by bridges in various configurations of cable, wood, rope, and zip lines. You get to walk on tight ropes, beams, and other rickety contraptions several stories up in the air, climb up wiggly rope ladders, and swing between trees Tarzan style. It requires balance, strength, and guts to defy one’s fear of heights. The kicker is, unlike my girlfriend, I am in what I call a “tip-top proposal shape” – other than a couple of hours a week at a gym, my only regular physical activity is typing.
So, one sun-dappled October Sunday, we buckled ourselves into safety harnesses and set off to climb. I hung onto the cables for dear life as I was teetering at a three-story height. Mixed with fear was the awe at the surreal view of tall trees with golden leaves, crawling with people, like fairies at the Fern Gully. Desperately balancing and trying not to fall (or worse yet, lose my glasses), I kept up with my better-fit girlfriend.
It was going on two hours when we picked an even more difficult course. It was no cakewalk with a ladder hanging four stories high with nothing underneath, and a four-foot distance between steps. The ropes made it twist and turn as I struggled to swing my legs high enough while my arms were getting weaker by the minute. But there was no quitting at that point. Upward and onward was the only way out. I scaled the ladder, but it brought me to an even trickier obstacle. It was a contraption with two horizontal cables adorned with more than a dozen vertical pairs of ropes. At the end of each of those ropes dangled wooden logs, with three-inch horizontal wood stumps at the bottom. To get to the next platform, in theory I had to pull myself up on my arms on the cables and then move forward while “resting” my feet on the tiny stumps. In reality, the contraption wiggled out of control as my legs were going into splits and my arms were aching from the strain. I struggled and pushed myself forward anyway, past the point at which my whole body shook uncontrollably and cables cut into skin. I managed to force myself almost to the end of the bridge when my muscles simply gave out. I reached the limit of my physical capabilities. As if in slow motion, my arms released and I fell.
Half a second later, to my huge relief, I realized that the harness worked. The only problem was, I still had to get out of there. I had to push past exhaustion and get back up on the contraption, climb the last few feet, and struggle up the platform. Then, I had several more obstacles to tackle before being able to make it to the ground.
The next day I felt as if a truck had run me over. My body hurt and my arms had ghastly looking cuts and bruises. Yet, I felt happy. Only Marines, Special Forces, avid athletes, and outright masochists would relate to the level of exhilaration I felt despite my injuries. I had outdone myself, and felt proud.
My adventures weren’t over. The next weekend my girlfriend invited me to do it again. I jumped at the opportunity. To my huge surprise, this time it was a different experience. I balanced easily on the beams, and even got fancy letting my arms go and walking without any assistance. I only had a couple of scary moments. And the next day, my body didn’t hurt nearly as much as the first time.
As I was enjoying myself, it struck me that my experience with this aerial forest is similar to one’s professional development in the proposal arena. Here are five parallels that I found:
1. Challenge yourself and push yourself harder to sharpen your proposal skills. Just like me inviting the fittest of my girlfriends to come along, have someone stronger than you set the “bar” higher and light some fire under you. Watch and make notes of how a much-respected capture or proposal manager does their work, or ask someone you respect to mentor you. Put yourself in a challenging situation by inviting upper management to your reviews, or by bringing in a powerful teammate. Do it the way it should be done and not the way you may have done it in the past. Impress everyone with your professionalism and build self-confidence by stretching yourself.
2. Don’t stop when it gets tough – keep going. Do whatever you have to. The platform, or a place you can rest at, is not as far as it seems. Sometimes in developing winning proposals things get excruciatingly hard, but don’t despair. Often the goal seems farther away than it actually is. You will get that proposal done on time no matter what. Staying with it while others quit will help you prevail.
3. Know what’s the worst that could happen, and deal with your fear. I was very afraid in the beginning, because I was scared to fall. After I actually fell and knew that the harness would catch me, I had less fear. I lived through my fear and I was OK at the end. In proposals, you can do all kinds of things that could be an equivalent of falling – submitting a proposal late; making a crucial compliance mistake; not doing a good enough job and losing; and so on. This is why you build some contingency into your schedule no matter how tight it may be, and don’t skip the reviews where others triple-check your work – it’s an equivalent of a harness. Regardless, falling may feel awful while it happens, but the truth is – once it happens to you and you survive – you actually get tougher, more dangerous, more competitive. It liberates you to play harder and take the precautions better than anyone who has never experienced it first hand – even the people who have been wildly successful.
4. It gets easier the more you do it. The first time I went climbing, I was awkward, working way harder than I had to. The second time I was shocked at how much easier it got, mentally and physically. The obstacles were familiar, and I already had the faith that I could get through them. Suddenly I had better balance and greater strength. I also learned strategies and shortcuts on how to get things done, and got more efficient. It’s the same with proposals – not knowing what’s ahead is harder whenever you are doing something for the first time: putting together a technical solution while you have a shortage of subject matter experts, or going after a “must-win” opportunity that’s a “make or break” of your company; or just trying to finish a short-fuse proposal. Now that you know, and you have the confidence that you can deal with whatever comes up, it gets much easier.
5. Don’t skip instruction, no matter how much you believe you know. The first time I was there, I went through a safety brief, so I thought I didn’t need to pay attention in the safety brief the second time. I kept half an ear open anyway, and to my surprise, I learned something completely new from a different instructor. As a result, I became more efficient at working with my safety gear, and learned a few more tricks that gave me greater confidence. Same with capture and proposal development – keep up your professional training. Even if you have 20 years of experience, there are always tricks that you can pick up that will make you better and faster. Remember that the technology continues to change, and so do your customers. You need to keep up with these trends and changes or risk getting “out of proposal shape.” Just like remaining physically fit, staying on top of your game requires more than a few hours a week of exercising your fingers.