Downward Spirals

A woman was about to cross the 33rd street in New York City. As she was about to cross, she looked the wrong way and took a step forward. But, a bicyclist she didn’t see swerved and narrowly missed her. She fell.

Instead of taking a step back to the pavement, however, she began screaming at the bicyclist. This turned out to be an unfortunate error as a taxicab followed the bicyclist a few seconds later and hit her.

There’s a saying that it takes at least 7 consecutive mistakes or unfortunate occurrence for a plane crash to occur. And, we’ve all likely witnessed downward spirals of varying degrees of severity. For example, we see it frequently in sports when talented sportsmen fall apart once they make a mistake on a big stage.

In all these spirals, it is not the first mistake that counts. Instead, it is when we get caught in the emotions of the moment – anger, annoyance, fear – and refuse to move on. That’s when we commit the second, third and the costly fourth mistake.

It is much easier to write about avoiding downward spirals than it is to do it – especially if you are given to bursts of emotions. But, in these critical moments, the only way out is to recognize you’ve made a mistake, stop, take a few deep breaths and snap out of the emotion as quickly as possible.

Failure is not the falling down – it is the staying down. Downward spirals are what convert falls to failures. And, as with most mistakes, the first step in dealing with one is being conscious and accepting of the fact that it happened.

(Story source: The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin)

Learning to Reset

After reflecting on a year of attempting to “seek to understand and then to be understood,” I realized that my ability to do so seemed to decline through the day. I write a quick note at the end of the day with an assessment of how I did. And, I found that I was most vulnerable to interrupt-itis at the end of the day. This is especially the case if there were a series of meetings in the second half.

As a result, a skill I’m working on is learning to reset during the day.

My thought process at the moment is that my ability to listen gets lost as I flow unconsciously through the day. And, teaching myself to reset would be a reminder to be conscious about how I approach the next section.

This sounds great in theory. But, I’ve struggled, so far, to execute on the idea. So, as is usually the case, I’m writing about it to clarify my thinking on it and make a public commitment to do better at it.

I hope to have more on this in a few weeks.

Courage and life’s dimensions

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage” | Anais Nin

Courage is not the absence of fear. Instead, it is when we take action in spite of the fear. We exhibit courage when we push ourselves to expand our perspective, have a difficult conversation and venture beyond our zone of comfort.

And, this quote is a lovely reminder of the fact that the depth and breadth of the impact we drive is a function of our ability to consistently venture beyond what is comfortable.

(H/T Tim Ferriss for the quote)

We don’t get promoted at home

But, what if we did?

Would we spend as much time as we do at work?

How would it change the decisions on the margin when we are choosing between finishing that one last thing and going home a bit late?

Would we spend less energy at work so we come back home less tired and more willing to engage?

Would we still check our email in the evening?

This needn’t be limited to the home. It could be applicable in the gym, a book club, a yoga class or or a hiking group.

I’m not suggesting we start giving our spouse, our yoga classmates, or ourselves titles and promotions. But, the clear and measurable incentives that we have in place at work have a strong hold on our daily behavior. While this is great in the short run, it is the stuff that is hard to measure that gives us the kind of fulfillment and happiness we seek in the long run.

And, a good way to check in on our behavior is by asking – how different would we behave if there was a promotion on the line? If we’re talking about radical change, maybe it is time to change things up a bit.

The 3 laws of privilege

First law: Success = Privilege x (Intention + Effort + Luck). Privilege acts as a platform for success and it’s height acts as a multiplier on hard work, effort and intention.  The more privilege you have, the more your hard work counts.

Second law: The biggest driver of privilege is birth – specifically who you are born to and where they are located. This combination ends up determining the ease with which you get opportunities to accumulate education, power and wealth – all of which combine to further increase the height of the privilege platform.

Third law: For every bit of privilege present, there is an equal and opposing internal force that refuses to acknowledge it. The more you have it, the harder it becomes to see it.

Share development goals for the year

A simple step to increase the impact of your annual review – synthesize your development discussion into three goals for the year and share them with everyone who works closely with you.

Of course, sharing your goals alone isn’t going to help you work through them. You’ll need to follow up with frequent checkpoints with yourself and a couple with the folks you shared them with over the course of the year.

But, it is a first step that helps nevertheless. It is much easier to make progress on goals when everyone around you is aware and helping you make progress.

There doesn’t need to be mystery around development goals. Every one of us has a list. And, we can help each other ensure that next year’s list looks different from this year’s list.

Drawing well and white space problem solving

In his book on Pixar, CEO Ed Catmull explains that drawing well requires us to learn how to see. The difficulty with drawing is that we let our mental models of objects get ahead of us and get us to jump to conclusions. For example, if we’re drawing a portrait as an amateur, we let our mental models of the size of the various elements of a face take over. This is why an amateur’s portraits don’t look like the real thing.

Art teachers teach students to conquer this by getting them to draw an object upside down or, more interestingly, by asking them to draw the negative/white space around the object. We don’t have mental models for what white space looks like. So, our mental models don’t get in the way.

The fascinating lesson here is that this “examine the white space” approach is applicable to problem solving. Don’t just look at the problem – look at the context/situation around it. For example, at Pixar, a scene could sometimes only be fixed by looking at the entire story or changing the preceding scenes.

This technique gets to the challenge of dealing with causality. We often make the implicit assumption that solving the symptom (what we see) will help solve the problem. That is generally not the case. And, taking a step back to examine the white space is a great way to remind ourselves to solve for the cause.

Until it is too late

We generally recognize the importance of health when it goes away.

Organizations rush to value their best employees when they show up with alternative job offers and announce that they’re leaving.

We often pay more attention to win over people who spurn us than to people who choose to show us that they care. Until, of course, they decide to walk away and they become the ones who spurn us.

Our default setting is to appreciate the value of things only when they are gone.

It doesn’t have to be that way and we don’t have to wait until it is too late. We can start with two minutes spent tomorrow morning or at the end of the day feeling grateful for five things that are going well in our life. If we keep that up, over time, we’ll learn to appreciate what is good while it is still around.

And, that makes all the difference in the world.

Investing in Loss

When a performer first starts out in a new system or level of play, they have to take apart their game and learn a new set of skills. If the performer is expected to perform brilliantly in her first few games in a new system, she will definitely disappoint. Josh Waitzkin (in his book, “The Art of Learning”) calls this principle “investing in loss.”

The gifted boxer with a fabulous right and no left will get beat up while he tries the jab. And, the excellent soccer player with no left foot will be significant less effective while she invests in it. And, yet, investing in loss is the only way forward.

But, how do you do it in competitive arenas like our working lives where there are seldom weeks when performance doesn’t matter?

Josh’s response is to have an incremental approach that allows for times when you are not in peak performance state. We must take responsibility for our own learning and not expect the rest of the world to understand what it takes to be the best we can become. Michael Jordan made more last minute shots to win the game for his team. But, he also missed more last-minute shots to lose the game than any other player.

We have to be willing to look bad to get good.

PS: I love this framing. I think of this as part of the “What got you here won’t get you there” principle. We have to commit to reinventing ourselves from time to time. This framing makes it clear that the reinvention doesn’t come easy.

Anniversary of doing the work

Seth had a post on his blog today on his blog’s sixteen year anniversary. In it, he shared a profound observation –

It’s easy to come to the conclusion that someone’s generous or inspired and so they do the work. But it’s more likely that doing the work makes you generous or inspired.

First, we commit to showing up every day and doing our best work. Then, energy, inspiration, and ideas follow.

Congratulations, Seth. Thank you for inspiring us for 16 years. Looking forward to many more.