Butterflies and Erosion

When we talk about change, we often talk about the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies. We’ve all heard a version of this analogy at some point in our lives. It is the ultimate story of dramatic transformation.

We are drawn to dramatic stories – ergo the entertainment industry – because they provide the escapism we crave. But, these stories are the exception and not the rule.

Most change, for example, is akin to erosion. Erosion is the process by which rocks are gradually worn away by flowing water or the wind. You can’t erode a piece of rock in a day and there’s definitely no beautiful transformation story. Instead, a stream might effect the change it desires over a period of months and years. And, it can only do so by showing up and keeping at it every day.

Maybe more of us would stick with our plans for change if we thought of change more like erosion?

It probably doesn’t need force

There’s an unsaid rule when you are assembling an appliance or a piece of furniture – the right tools and technique work much better than force.

If you’ve tried applying a lot of force to align edges or to ram screws into pre-drilled holes, you’ve experienced this. When force seems to be the only way through, it is likely you need to go back to the manual or find a different tool.

It turns out that solving people problems isn’t all that different. While there is the rare occasion when force is useful, for the most part, it serves as an indicator that you are doing something wrong. Technique in working with people is making the effort to understand those you are seeking to influence and employing a combination of humor, care, systems and thoughtfulness.

When in doubt, choose tools and technique over force.

Tai Chi and breathing

I’ve been sharing “meditations” from Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” in the past few weeks. I’m down to my last two passages. Today’s note is about Tai Chi and breathing.

In William Chen’s Tai Chi form, expansive (outward or upward) movements occur with an in-breath, so the body and mind wake up, energize into a shape. He gives the example of reaching out to shake the hand of someone you are fond of, waking up after a restful sleep, or agreeing with someone’s idea. Usually, such positive movements are associated with an in-breath – in the Tai Chi form, we “breathe into the fingertips.” Then, with the out-breath, the body releases, de-energizes, like the last exhalation before falling asleep.

It is Chen’s opinion that a large obstacle to a calm, healthy, present existence is the constant interruption of our natural breathing patterns. A thought or ringing phone or honking car interrupts an out-breath and so we stop and begin to inhale. Then we have another thought and stop before exhaling. The result is shallow breathing and deficient flushing of carbon dioxide from our systems, so our cells never have as much pure oxygen as they could. Tai Chi meditation is, among other things, a haven of unimpaired oxygenation.

This is such a practical and, yet, fascinating thought. I plan to think about it further and see how I can integrate this idea into my day. More when that happens.

Thanks again, Josh, for a fascinating insight.

Ask advice better – replace the generic question with a hypothesis

The typical approach to asking for advice is to ask generic questions like – “how can I get a job in xx?” or “how can I do well in my x admissions interview?” 

Aside from being hit and miss if you are the person asking these sort of questions, they can be very frustrating if you are on the other end of these questions. They showcase no thoughtfulness and feel formulaic.

A better way is to replace this question with your hypothesis or approach. For example, you could lead with – “I realize it is challenging to make the switch to xx. But, my research points to other folks who’ve done it by doing yy. So, as a first step, I plan to do yy. Second, I am thinking about taking a course on the side or working on a side project to prove I can do it. I’m curious to hear your feedback on my plan?” 

This simple change in approach can have a magical effect because it showcases your preparation and thoughtfulness. In conversations where people don’t know each other well (and, let’s face it, we don’t have such conversations with people we know well), showcasing interest works much better than saying “I am interested.”

Show, don’t tell.

I am really bad at that

When we say “I am really bad at that,” what we are really saying is that it isn’t worth our effort to get better at it.

It is perfectly acceptable to decide it isn’t worth investing in a certain skill or habit. It may not be the best use of our limited time.

But, it isn’t right to pretend we aren’t capable of getting better. That’s just a way to let ourselves off the hook. And, while it might seem perfectly harmless to let ourselves off the hook on something trivial, it spirals quickly into skills and habits that aren’t so.

We can get better at anything we want to get better at. And, the first step to doing so is by fixing language that allows us to let ourselves off the hook.

Building trust in relationships and teams

The research on great teams has concluded that the key ingredient is psychological safety. That, to me, is just another word for trust. Great relationships and great teams are built on trust. If you’ve ever worked in a team which operated with 100% trust, you know what such experiences are like. They are a thing of beauty and are experiences you’ll cherish forever.

It turns out that there are no shortcuts for trust. Trust is predicated on knowledge and then understanding. We can claim to know someone when we know who they are and what their story is. We begin to understand them when we begin to understand how they make decisions and why they do what they do.

Building diverse teams, as a result, requires this investment. It needs to begin by taking the team out for a day or two and spending time understanding each other’s stories. No devices, no distractions, 100% presence. It is only after such a day that we can begin to understand how and why people operate the way they do. We hear stories we’ve never heard and find ourselves opening up to perspective that we’d never have considered. Only then are we ready to get work done. We have to go slow to go fast.

This sounds like a painfully intentional approach to building diverse teams. It is. Diverse teams are rarely built by accident. When that happens, it happens because the team members are stuck in the trenches – in very difficult situation that requires them to go through the same process under stress. Such situations often creates friends for life. The process of building and operating in a great teams isn’t different.

This process also speaks to why we naturally gravitate to building teams with people who are similar to us. It is easy to understand people who are similar to us. They share similar back stories, similar backgrounds and the process of understanding takes little effort. But, in my limited experience, such teams are the equivalent of getting five guitarists together. You may have a great jam session.

But, you rarely build a great band.

And, you never have a shot at being a part of an orchestra.

Intent over words

Productive intent is a pre-requisite for a good conversation. Polished and thoughtful delivery definitely help – but, they’re secondary. People listen for intent before they listen to the words.

That is why the most productive conversations typically involve people who trust each other.

In the absence of deep trust, there are only two other routes to productive conversations. The first is to build a reputation for having good intent and to lean on it. And, the second is to signal intent early. Start with appreciation and the why behind your feedback before you give your feedback.

Intent is what people remember when they’ve long forgotten the words.

Presence must be like breathing

I’ve been mulling a passage from Josh Waitzkin’s Art of Learning and thought I’d share it in full.

In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is clearly being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.

While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits like writing, painting, scholarly thinking or learning. In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives. On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then, life, art and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential – for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to the purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments where everything is on the line.

The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.

“The secret is that everything is always on the line” resonates deeply.

I thought this passage was both true and profound. Thanks Josh.

Bad workplaces, poor work experiences and incompetent managers

It is natural to work hard to avoid one or more among bad workplaces, poor work experiences and incompetent managers. And we should. But, it is also hard to overstate their value in the long run when we do find ways to overcome them when they happen.

Spend a bit of time reflecting on your painful experience and you walk away with perspective that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It is very hard to appreciate what is really bad if your experience of work only involves fancy office spaces, free food, projects that involve smart colleagues and hyper growth, and thoughtful managers.

However, if you’ve worked in a mind numbing data entry job, dealt with a manager who never failed to make you feel insecure or cleaned toilets at a restaurant for three months, it makes it a lot easier to appreciate what you have.

I don’t think the takeaway is to go seeking bad career experiences. But, I do think there is value in seeking varied experiences in our careers – especially in the early days. One of the biggest benefits of doing so is that some of those varied experiences will turn out to be bad.

And, while great workplaces typically help build great careers, bad experiences can give us the sort of perspective that can help us build happier lives.

PS: If all you have experienced is a great work environment, this is just a reminder to work extra hard to be conscious of all the privilege and be grateful.