Fear and mistakes

A periodic reminder about mistakes to self: Do not fear mistakes. Instead, if we must go down the path of fear, fear only –
i) the repetition of the same mistake because we didn’t learn from it and
ii) the absence of a creative, constructive, and corrective response to the mistake.

The last word

As I was walking lost in thought to another building recently, I failed to notice someone walking a few yards behind me. As he overtook me, he told me off for not holding the door open for him.

As I snapped out of my thoughts and processed what he said, I realized I thought his comment sounded harsh. I had phrases like “how entitled” flying around my subconscious.

So, I continued to follow him with the intention of saying something about it.

Until I didn’t.

I’ve been paying more attention to my habitual attempt to have the last word of late. It comes from my reflex to fight fire with fire.

As I pay more attention to this, I’m learning to let go and separate stimulus from response from time to time. It doesn’t always happen. But, it is at least beginning to happen more frequently than it used to.

It turns out that I do just fine without having the last word – in case you were wondering. :-)

If anything, it actually results in less time spent dwelling on such situations. And, it is resulting in an improvement in my ability to look at feedback as input (more on that another day).

It was just another reminder of “when you want to fight fire with fire, remember that the fire department uses water.”

Here’s to more of them.

Frontal assaults

When we picture wars through history, we often picture two armies clashing against each other – i.e. a frontal assault. Frontal assaults rely on raw power and lose effectiveness over time because of their predictability. I remember seeing a stat that said <5% of all wars fought involved frontal assaults.

That makes sense. Force and raw power tend to be most effective when used sparingly.

You see this all the time in interactions between parents and children. Parents who employ the frontal assault strategy may win a few battles – but, inevitably, lose the war. The dominant strategy when faced with war tends to be tact (to look for ways to avoid it if possible) and surprise.

I’ve written about my struggles with tact from time to time here. I tend to impulsively fight fire with fire – a really bad strategy in any confrontation. Luckily, parenting a 2 year old has provided a great training ground to improve my skills.

As with most things in life, making the change is not about shutting down that rush of blood when my lymbic brain senses an imminent confrontation. Instead, it is channeling that rush of blood to work on a tactful response/creating a surprising distraction.

This is no different from the principle of separating reaction from response. But, then again, principles are easier said than done. And, making them second nature requires plenty of tactical experimentation.

Here’s to that.

Mistake free

The point of engagement isn’t to be mistake free and perfect. There is no such thing as being perfect as long as we’re alive and learning.

To learn, we experiment. And, as long as we experiment by trying and testing new things, mistakes are inevitable.

Instead, a consequence of engagement is that we spot our mistakes quicker – often right after we make them. That means we get the opportunity to craft a creative, constructive and corrective response. And, once we do that and understand what triggered it, we can aim to keep the benefits of that experiment and move on to different experiments and different mistakes.

Besides, it isn’t mistakes we should fear. It is the absence of a creative, constructive and corrective response that is the real problem.

An engaged life is a wonderfully human life. It is what being alive is all about.

And, making mistakes is an important part of being alive and human.

Interacting with a single stimulus

Every once in a while, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where a single stimulus will upset you. This could be a bad email, an angry exchange over the phone or a meeting that went awry. It could also just be a negative review or a disappointed user reacting to something you shipped.

Here’s an idea that might help – proceed with caution when reacting to a single stimulus. This is because we are wired to process negative responses with more intensity than positive responses. So, a single harsh email criticizing your recent presentation can threaten to cancel out ten positive responses. Of course, that’s if you let it.

There are a couple of ways to solve for this. First, try to get an aggregated pulse of a situation instead of focusing on one strong reaction. So, if you are picking a sushi bar, check out the average rating for the sushi bar on Yelp before diving into a single bad review. That seems natural when picking sushi bars, right? And, yet, when it comes to any kind of personal feedback, we tend to completely ignore this idea and fixate on the negative event. We need to go broad before we go deep.

Second, put extra weight on responses from practitioners or people you respect. Most people have an opinion on most things. Thanks to the proliferation of reviews online, giving feedback has become a sport these days. When you’re in the business of shipping, however, a lot of feedback is useless. This is because most feedback is given in isolation and, very few, as a result, have the level of insight required to be useful. This is where a practitioner’s view can be very useful. If someone has a track record of delivering the kind of presentation you’re seeking feedback on, pay attention. The feedback may still not be useful as we all have different styles. But, the chances of it hitting the mark are much higher.

Overall, it still comes back to the original point – beware interactions with a single stimulus. In fact, I’d even suggesting actively discounting it until you see widespread evidence that tells you otherwise.

There’s a nice quote that does this idea justice – ‘There are 7 billion people on this planet. Why, then, do we let just 1 of them ruin our day so often?’

Why indeed?

Tim Duncan and Hurricane Hugo

Tim Duncan, then a kid in the Virgin Islands, dreamed of becoming a swimmer on the 1992 US Olympic swim team and emulate his sister. His mother instilled an incredible work ethic in him and he became a nationally ranked swimmer by age 13 in 1989.

But, hurricane Hugo swept through the Virgin Islands in 1989 and destroyed the only Olympic size pool in his home island of St Croix. Now, the only remaining place to practice swimming was the Carribean sea and this dented Tim’s enthusiasm as he was afraid of sharks. Following that, his mother died from breast cancer taking away his desire to swim.

While the Virgin Islands might have lost many a talented swimmer then, Tim began focusing on basketball thanks to encouragement from his brother-in-law. While there are few are blessed with Tim’s prodigious athletic ability, he only started playing basketball in his 9th grade – considered late by every standard. However, thanks to that work ethic and a constructive response to a tough situation, he went on to win 5 NBA championships and is often named the greatest power forward of all times.

It is safe to say that went well.

If it wasn’t for hurricane Hugo, we might perhaps have never seen Tim Duncan, the legendary basketball player. However, given his work ethic, we’d likely have seen or heard about Tim Duncan, the great swimmer.

There is no human being on the planet who doesn’t face challenges. Very few, however, respond like Tim and simply rise above them.

Thanks Tim – for showing the way, and for reminding us that it isn’t what happens to us that matters. It all comes down to how we respond.

The half-life of a failure

I heard back on 2 project outcomes yesterday – one went really well and one didn’t go so well. Guess which one I woke up thinking about?

The half-life of a failure is much much longer than the half-life of a success. So, the question then becomes – is there a way around it? Here’s how I think about it –

In the short term, I’m not sure there is. Successes and failures are a part of life and we have to learn to accept that failures stay longer with us. We expect negative emotions very intensely. There is no getting around that and you aren’t going to change your response overnight.

In the medium term, there are a few ideas that can help. The first is to develop a coping mechanism. I have developed two coping mechanisms that tend to help me. First, I give myself a certain stretch of time (depending on the size of the failure) to play victim. And I allow myself to kick myself and curse things a bit. Once I’m done with playing victim, I think about I learnt from the process and write about it. This part enables me to look back at the process that led to the outcome, draw my own conclusions about what went wrong and look forward to things that I should do better. The beautiful part of writing a daily blog that talks about seeing failures as learnings is that failures help me keep a steady pipeline of content. That’s not a bad outcome.

And, finally, in the long term, I see it as a part of a quest to become more zen – to accept the things I cannot change and focus intensely on the things I can. Every minute spent on a past result is a minute taken away from a future process, after all. I know this but it doesn’t make executing on it any easier.

As you can tell, I am in the “medium term” bit. This process has taken me about 6 years to internalize. Let’s hope I’ll be writing about the long term part 6 years from now. :-)

If mistakes are inevitable (and they are)..

.. and the thing that is most remembered about them over time is a creative, constructive and corrective response, then why the hell are we so scared to make them?

Johnson & Johnson’s response to Tylenol won them worldwide trust while British Petroleum were brought under intense scrutiny. Both these mistakes are about as large as they get. And, yet, they’re inevitable. Machines fail, humans make mistakes, and circumstances sometimes go against you.

Ignore the impulse to avoid them. You can’t. Ignore the impulse that says “Oh shucks, I am screwed and should cover that up.” That’s both useless and harmful in the long run. And, focus entirely on the response. In fact, take it a step forward and make it a point to use every response as a part of your mistake recovery practice regime.

And, once you’ve done that, share it with the world so other’s can learn to do that. If you don’t know how about doing that, write to me. We’ll anonymize it, share it, and have a good laugh. No embarrassment required. By reflecting on it and ensuring an appropriate response, we will have done as much possible to avoid making them again. That’s the best we can do.

Mistakes are how we get better. Mistakes are how we get made.

Be surprised when things go as per plan

“I wait for you to make a plan so I can make a complete mockery of it and mess it up.” | The Universe

If the universe could talk, I’m certain that would be something it would say. As human beings, we attach ourselves to positive outcomes more often than we should and then waste a lot of energy worrying and cursing when our plans inevitably go awry.

The only way around is to consistently take the opposite stance – be surprised when things go as per plan… because, when you are sitting amidst chaos today having just watched your grand plan disintegrate in the last few hours, you ought to know that all is normal in this world.

No reason for annoyed reactions. Smile, remember the duck – keep calm above water and paddle hard underneath, and carry on.