Diagnosis, Effort, and Capability

My six-year old daughter was moving nicely through her 7-minute piano practice session the other day when we opened up the music to a piece called Toy Soldiers. This piece breaks new ground for her by having not one but two Gs in it (up until that point she’d only played between the A and F around Middle C).

She instantly burst into tears, poor thing. “It’s too hard, I can’t do it!”

Needless to say she absolutely can do it, and did do it almost immediately after she calmed down. But even after that, this piece is still resolutely in the “too hard” category in her mind.

It’s more obvious when it’s a six-year-old who’s decided she can’t play a G, but we all do this: decide that we have some sort of limitation of our own capability when really what we’ve gotten wrong is the diagnosis.

Diagnosis of how big the problem is.

Diagnosis of what it will take to overcome it.

And most of all, mis-diagnosis of the fact that what’s keeping us from doing it is the decision that we can’t do it.

Diagnosis is our fundamental leverage point, on problems big and small. It’s the step we rush through too quickly when we think we have the solution, the step we get wrong when we’re comfortable with the way things are, and the step that is the beginning of the breakthrough when we allow ourselves the space to see clearly.

After good diagnosis comes effort, and it’s true that that bit can be hard: sustained effort, emotional effort, these things require both commitment and endurance.

But capability? The actual lack of capacity to do something? That is almost never the real problem.

People don’t change their minds

I feel like I need to write “People don’t change their minds, they change how they feel,” 100 times on the chalkboard, like Charlie Brown, in the hopes that it will someday fully sink in.

Yes, I’ve heard different versions of this point repeated time and again, by everyone from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow to storytelling gurus Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard.

The metaphor is: think of the human mind as composed of an elephant and a rider. Elephants are people’s emotional and instinctive reactions, the rider is our rational brain. Guess who wins when they disagree? Per Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard:

Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

The irony is that reading this alone, by definition, won’t make me, or you, believe it. Until your elephant experiences this in a way it understands, it’s just an idea floating out there like any other, one that won’t change your behavior.

Our inability to live this truth plays out in elections (“don’t they understand he’ll make a terrible President?!”), in fundraising pitches (“I’ll show them the facts and they’ll understand how important this is”) and everywhere in between. We think storytelling and emotional connection is a nice way to start and end a pitch, a cute way to open and close, and forget that these moments are the pitch. The connection to people’s emotional and intuitive selves are the things that direct and point the elephant in one direction or another, while the facts and analysis we present are used by our audience to justify a decision they’ve already made.

Let me try it again:

Bonus: the single best piece I’ve read on this topic, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitation of reason from February’s New Yorker.

Two roads

When you write, when you speak publicly, there are two roads you can walk.

On the first road, your goal is to get people to believe you, to agree with what you’re saying, to consider you smart, credible, maybe even funny. On this road you communicate expertise and mastery. You amaze them with your technique and your wit. There’s a lot of entertainment value.

“She was such a great speaker, wasn’t she? I just felt so good after hearing her talk!”

On the second road, the only barometer for success is how much you mobilize them to act. This road is about showing a gap in the world that is unacceptable, maybe even a bit ugly, and helping them to see that they are the ones who can fill it. This talk creates passion, it ignites emotions, and, most important, it creates tension and discomfort that are only resolved through action.

Their reaction isn’t about how great you were, it’s about what they now have to do.

Which one are you going for?

“They Just Don’t Get It”

What do you do when the values, the culture, or the (new and improved!) strategy of your organization aren’t translating into the behaviors you’d like to see? What steps do you take when the shifts in thinking and action that you worked so hard to develop aren’t visible in how people show up every day?

Often, when a message isn’t resulting in visible change, it’s tempting to rewrite or to double underline the message. A diagnosis of a communications failure means that it’s time to communicate more and better – to shout more loudly clearly until the message lands.

But what if something else is going on?

There’s a theory that each and every organization is perfectly aligned to deliver exactly the results that it wants to deliver. Not the results (and accordant behaviors) it says it wants, but the results it actually wants.

Under this view, it’s not that people aren’t hearing the message. Rather, they are attuned to multiple messages on multiple levels, and the messages that are landing the most are the ones that are 100% aligned with the way they’re behaving today.

If this is what’s happening, then shouting louder accomplishes nothing. Indeed, it could feed a credibility gap if you insist you want a set of thing but your day-to-day actions, policies, or language express something else.

The bigger lift is to look in the mirror and ask if the new message is true:

Where do we talk about a set of values but fall short of demonstrating them?

Where do we espouse that we want to see a set of behaviors and then fail to support the people who try to demonstrate them?

Where do we come up short in living the message?

Resolutions and Priorities

I don’t make a lot of New Year’s resolutions. I feel like once a year is too infrequent to reset my goals, and I also believe that change comes because we build the muscle of making small shifts that snowball into bigger results.

That said, with a whole year stretching before us, and with a little time away to get away from work and to reflect, we do have a nice opportunity to think about what we’d like 2016 to hold for us.

My suggestion for any resolutions you’ve made, or the ones you’re still cooking up? Go deeper.

Meaning, resolutions are often articulated as activities (“Go to the gym more”) instead of at the level of priorities. This is why we don’t keep them: because the way we’re currently behaving is perfectly aligned with our current (unstated, underexamined) priorities.

While it is possible to behave our way into new priorities, we’ll succeed more often when we take the time to dig deep into what our current priorities – and their associated beliefs and attitudes – really are.

As in:

Is it really impossible for me to find two free hours a day for sustained work on difficult problems, or am I just unwilling to take the short term pain of saying “no” to two more meetings each day?

Do I truly care about creating value in our current system, or would I rather communicate through my actions everything that’s wrong with the status quo? (output be damned)

Do I really need 15 minutes every hour to “unwind” with online nonsense, or is that just a way for me to hide?

What do I care more about, sleep or exercise?

What matters most to me, avoiding disapproval from everyone or making something that changes everything for just 10 people?

What are the moments, the people, the activities in my day that make me feel energized, connected, and happy? Who is stopping me from spending more of my time in these situations?

Here’s to a year of examined priorities, of courage, of great leaps. Here’s to a year of embracing who we are and a year of having the conviction and commitment to start becoming who we can become.

Here’s to a great 2016.

Transform the spark

There’s a feeling that happens every once in a while…you have a fleeting moment of recognition and hear a quite voice saying there’s something different you could do, right here, right now, in this situation.

Where does that feeling come from?

Its starts with observing and listening with the intent to be changed by your surroundings. This orients you in a different way, allowing you to take notice of things that others are missing.

The moment you see something different, you have the chance to do something different.

This something might be small and it might be heroic. In truth, you probably don’t know what will feel small and what will feel heroic to others, because the quality of this moment has changed thanks to the ‘it’ that only you are seeing.

You might smile or invite someone new into your circle. You might raise your hand for a task that others think they don’t want to slog through. You might anonymously help someone else shine.

When you have a moment like this, the only thing you must be sure to do is act.  Because that moment of observation, that difference in perspective that hit you, is both powerful and fleeting. It’s the action you take that transforms that ephemeral moment of recognition into something tangible that’s experienced by others.

Only then does it begin to ripple out.

 

Halfway to the Wall

Last week I gave my middle-school-aged son my old iPhone 5s (his first cell phone) and got a new iPhone 6s. The new phone is sleeker, sexier, more fun to hold and interact with, and the battery lasts all day long.

Fundamentally, though, it’s no better than my iPhone 5s.  There’s nothing important that I can do now that I couldn’t do before, and all of the improvements are at best pleasing refinements on something that already worked really well.

Reflecting on that, I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve ever made a $750 purchase so blithely (paying $34/month takes the sting out), nor can I think of a time that I’ve spent this much on a product that I enjoyed so much and that delivers so little additional value.

Thinking about this, I began to reflect on how quickly the iPhone has run out of runway. Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone in 2007. This means that it’s taken eight years to go from revolution to marginal improvement in the most revolutionary product to hit the world since the TV. Eight years.

The iPhone is one of a zillion products that’s running out of space to get any better. Our razor blades can have only so many blades, our TVs only so many pixels, our knives can’t get any sharper, and we can’t execute stock trades any faster.

It’s true that there are some places where we are leveraging the power of global capitalism in ways that will drive global change for everyone – and not just for the richest billion or two. The iPhone revolution will reach the poorer parts of the developing world in the next five year – another 2.5 billion will have smartphones by 2020 – and that could be transformative. Tesla’s investment in batteries has the potential to transform how power is being delivered to the three billion people who don’t have access to reliable electricity.

But we’re not eight years away from solving the vaccine cold chain problem. Or from figuring out how to educate the next billion kids who live nowhere near a qualified teacher. Or from reversing global warming. By 2023, the new Global Goals notwithstanding, we won’t feel ho-hum about yet another primary care hospital chain that can deliver quality care at 1/100th of what it costs today; we won’t feel that the market is saturated with drought-resistant seeds that ensure that a billion smallholder farming families don’t go hungry; and we won’t be saying that we don’t need new ideas for making slums into dignified, safe place to live, because they’ve become so dignified and safe.

Part of the reason this won’t happen is because some of these problems are fundamentally more complex than the purely technical challenge of building a better battery or, even, revolutionizing mobile computing. But it increasingly feels to me that our real limitation comes from funneling the vast majority of the world’s time, talent and resources into solving problems that, increasingly, don’t matter all that much for improving human well-being.

What I wonder most of all is whether there is a shift coming – and, if so, when.

By 2030 will we have a collective awakening that causes us to say “wow, we really can’t create more value with the next best app, but getting another billion people safe, clean, affordable power [or whatever else is truly needed] is an opportunity worth a trillion dollars of investment?”

If not by 2030, what about 2050? 2070 anyone?

At some point, do we hit an inflection point where we say, “all of these toys are great, but we’re through putting all of our energy into getting halfway to the wall?”

And, if we’ll arrive at that inflection point someday, the next question to ask is: what will it take to make that day come sooner?