Baby steps

We’re sometimes confounded by the big changes we want to make.

We get a glimpse of the person we hope to become, or a new behavior we hope to engage in, and nearly immediately find ourselves frustrated that we’ve not suddenly mastered that new set of actions. This isn’t how we change.

Real, honest, deep change starts small and builds, with steps like:

I will observe my reactions.

I will understand what triggers me.

I will watch the group.

I will experiment with new ways to respond.

I will be more observant about how people react to the things I do, and about how I react to the things they do.

Step by small step is the only way we get to bigger things like “I will stay grounded in stressful situations,” or “I will be more effective at confronting aggressive people.”

We owe ourselves the space to start small, figure out the component parts of the change we want to make, and then be deliberate and persistent. Our job is to go easy on ourselves along the way, while also not letting ourselves off the hook of continued progress.

Looking backwards the changes will look like leaps, but often they’re the accumulation of lots and lots of baby steps.

 

Our practice

We become who we are going to be someday through practice, and we will excel at the things that we practice.

“Who we are going to be” doesn’t refer to doctor, lawyer or firefighter.  It doesn’t even mean “great public speaker,” or “fiction writer” or “people manager.” We have to right-size our lens to the component parts that we can actually, manageably practice. And we have to remember that, conscious or not, we are always practicing many things.

We can practice generosity, openness, and stillness.

We can practice being courageous, not taking it all so personally, and seeking out others’ strengths.

We can practice demagoguery, reinforcing our biases, blaming others, and deflecting criticism.

We can practice objectifying others, defining “us” by demonizing “them,” and stoking fear.

We can practice hiding, critiquing, standing on the sidelines.

We can practice raising our hands first, doing the work, being reliable.

We can practice speaking in a way that others understand and relate to, every time

We can practice telling stories and using the words “for example.”

We can practice telling ourselves a story about our own limitations, and that this is all we will ever be.

Or we can practice being honest with ourselves, not shying away from our fears, and seeking out feedback.

And of course, most important at all, we can practice practicing.

Whatever we practice, that is what we become.

Strengths, and Weaknesses

I got back on my yoga mat this morning for the first time in a long, long time.   I used to have a regular practice, but my days keep getting fuller, my kids are going to bed later, and time is squeezed.

Yoga is a healing practice, and lately, without yoga, I’ve been walking around only noticing the things in my body that hurt a bit: my left knee, thanks to a torn ACL 20 years ago; one of the joints in my left foot; my right Achilles tendon that I tweaked a bit playing squash; the rotator cuff on my right shoulder that is still only back to 90% three years after an over-zealous week of vacation-tennis. As I walk down the street, I cycle through a broken record of “knee, toe, heel, shoulder….” as I notice the discomforts.

On the yoga mat, things feel a little different. I had a yoga teacher years ago, a guy named Rolf Gates, who, only joking a little bit, would demonstrate a flowing series of yoga poses and say, in his booming voice, “Now, say to yourself while doing these poses, ‘I am the most beautiful yogi in the world!’” It was silly, but it also made us all move with a little more poise, a little more grace. Being on the mat is a chance to feel more – to feel the parts that ache a bit, sure, but also to feel yourself being strong, graceful, and balanced.

It is so easy to walk around feeling only what hurts, to feel only the parts that aren’t working. We hear feedback about something we did wrong, and that becomes our whole story for a day, a week, sometimes even months or years. The perceived faults and shortcomings become everything, the throbbing knee or aching tendon that are the only things in our consciousness; while the things that went great, the thing that come easy to us, all of the areas where we shine, fade away.

Let us recognize the areas where we are still falling short, our niggling injuries that hold us back. But let us never let them eclipse all of the things that make us special, the things that are in clear view to everyone except – sometimes – us.

Where the Magic Happens

I’m a big believer in people’s capacity to change.

In fact, I think that one of the most powerful levers we have in life is recognizing that we can change.  This can be around mental plasticity – realizing our ability to learn big, new things.  Or we can go deeper, reconfiguring our habits, our outlook, even our emotional responses – how we are wired.

It all starts with knowing that we are not static beings.  And with recognizing that the way we act and the person we are aren’t one and the same thing.

We also have to give ourselves permission: the space to see that it took us decades to learn to act the way we act today, so it no doubt will take years, not months, before our new behaviors and orientation grow deep roots and feel natural.

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the first Lean Impact Summit organized by Leah Neaderthal and Leanne Pittsford.  It was an energizing, entrepreneurial event based on the premise that we will create faster, more powerful change if we learn to embed Lean Startup principles into social change work (you can too!).

I got a huge positive reaction (judging from the Twitter pics) to the last slide of my presentation, an image drawn by Jessica Hagy – whose new book How to be Interesting has lots more great stuff.

Where the magic happens_Lean Impact Summit

Jessica’s right, of course, the magic does mostly happen outside of our comfort zones.  That’s where we change and grow.

Attaining excellence

Continuing on the theme from last week’s post from Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families, I also appreciated the book’s inquiry into how we attain excellence.

American families are obsessed with having their kids play organized sports, so Feiler took to investigating where great athletes come from.  He turned to research by psychologist Benjamin Bloom who, in the 1980’s, analyzed the trajectories of world-class performers in six different areas, “concert pianists, Olympic swimmers, sculptors, tennis players, mathematicians, and neurologists.”

Bloom’s results, documented in Developing Talent in Young People, are surprising:

The child who ‘made it’ was not always the one who was considered to be the most ‘talented.’  Many parents said another one of their children had more ‘natural ability.’  So what distinguished the high achiever from the underachieving sibling?  ‘A willingness to work and a desire to excel,’ Bloom wrote.  The most common words used were persistence, determination, and eagerness.

While I’m not specifically interested in what makes star athletes, I’m hugely interested in people reaching their full potential, and Bloom’s observations ring true.  Time and again, the people I meet who are exceptional are the ones who have decided that they are going to be great at something.

Recently I heard Maria Popova, the now-famous Brain Pickings blogger, describe her path from college to where she is today.  Maria hated college but discovered that she loved discovery, she loved self-directed learning.  And so she started exploring and writing about what she was learning and sharing it on a blog.  It was hard work, it sounded pretty lonely, and it didn’t pay anything.  For four full years Maria gutted things out, barely getting by, and doing her work.  In just one telling illustration, Maria decided she needed to take a computer course to learn how to code for her own blog.  The only problem was that she was broke.  So Maria chose to eat beans and tuna for weeks to save up the money she needed for one HTML course.  And that was just one step on her long journey to becoming Maria Popova.  One of a thousand decisions she made to do the work she needed to do.  Maria didn’t spend four lonely years waiting to get discovered, she spent four years honing her craft to become someone worth discovering.

In some ways Maria’s story is familiar: the heroic figure who toils in obscurity for years and then breaks through.  But there’s a danger in this heroic narrative.  It insulates us from the story, it allows us to trick ourselves into thinking that because we are not heroes, because we’re doing what we’re doing and not what they did (*gasp* because we JUST have a job) that we don’t have the potential to transform or the right to be great.

Part of the problem, I think, is that when you have a job you see all the signposts of title and official job responsibility and, yes, how much you are paid.   The concreteness of those external markers supersedes the much more important personal reckoning of discovering who we are and where we are in our own development.  Instead, we play by the rules of whatever system we are in, and in the process we create a numbing separation from the work we do.  We make an uneven exchange of “persistence, determination and eagerness” for doing what needs to be done to get the kinds of rewards bestowed by the system we are in.  And then we get frustrated because the system doesn’t give us what we really want AND we aren’t growing the way we hoped we would grow.

One way to break the cycle is to wake up to the fact that we have greatness inside of us and to find the joy in creating what we are meant to create in this world – even if today we are creating just a small part of it.  The simple act of caring and making personal investment transforms the quality of everything we do, big and small.  Suddenly we put ourselves into the things we create, and we create them as part of a broader undertaking of daring and learning and failing and picking ourselves up again.  The ultimate power of this broader undertaking, this broader narrative, is that we begin for the first time to see that our own growth happens in long cycles.  We trade in “where am I going to be 12 months from now (job, title, etc.)” for “what’s the real work I need to do now to be a transformed person in five or 7 or 10 years’ time?”

Reflecting on my own growth and development, I know that if I can make just one real, substantive change in how I work each year then I’ve had a transformational year.  Think, then, of the shape of the arc that gets me from where I am today to where I need to be.

Of course it is hard to see, looking forward, that we will only become who we are going to become in the long run, and that in fact we have the time we need to get there.  The easily quantified, externally-recognizable stepping stones to get from here to come at the pace they are going to come.  But there’s no escaping the real work we need to do to become the person we are meant to be.

Persistence, determination, and eagerness.

Confidence and Abilities

A woman I’ve gotten to know has had one of the most incredible professional trajectories I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness.  In six years she’s gone from an off-the-street volunteer/intern into a key player in a global organization.  It’s not just that her job title or her responsibilities have changed – she is a fundamentally different person (or, more accurately, she’s taken huge strides towards becoming the person she’s meant to be and who the world needs her to be).  Amazingly, the organization she works for has been able to keep up with her trajectory and give her bigger, more challenging roles.

When we talk about her career and her life, we keep coming back to the fact that one of her biggest challenges is having her confidence keep pace with her abilities.  While the people around her realize who she’s become, realize what a linchpin she is for her organization, at times the echoes of her former self, her former self-image, her former limitations, all reverberate, if only for her.

For a while I thought that this reflection was just for her, because most people don’t transform as quickly as she does.

But of course it is for all of us.

Most of us carry the mantle of our former selves – the intern we were, the person with the entry-level job clamoring for attention, with all those perceived limitations holding us back.

Worse, we make the mistake of spending time and energy clamoring for that bigger job, the new job title and formal responsibilities, energy that could instead be spent on actually doing bigger, better, more audacious things.  And we get even more confused when our asking for more actually gets us more, reinforcing the specious notion that real authority, ability, and voice come from anywhere but inside of us.

 

Which conversation – addendum

I’ve heard from a few readers that yesterday’s post – Which Conversation – was a little opaque.  So here’s take 2:

There are two models of how you build yourself up professionally, how you grow your visibility and responsibility.

The first model says that you do what’s asked of you, (over) deliver, and then ask for/be given more responsibility. That’s the school version of life – do your homework, get good grades, advance to the next class.

What I was getting at is that you’re holding yourself back if you always ask for permission.

Why not be indispensable instead? Go ahead and DO all those things that seem like the next step, the thing you’d like to do next year or someday.  If you do that well, if you’re already delivering like crazy AND handling a bunch of other important stretch opportunities, then you’re no longer going to your boss asking for permission, you’re going to her with a full list of things that you’re already doing and just asking her to formalize your role in whatever way will confer the official authority you’re looking for (but may not even need).

Of course this requires you to figure out a way to nail your current responsibilities and to make time and space for all the new stuff.  It forces you to think hard, confront your fears, do things without formal authority or blessing from above.  It forces you to do real work.

If you’re up for it, then you’ll find yourself having a very different conversation with your boss a year from now:

1. School version: “I did well. Is it OK if I do these new things next year?”

2. Indispensable version: “Here’s everything I’m doing, all the ways I’m going above and beyond.  Anything I should stop doing?  If not, at some point we should formally acknowledge that I’m doing a lot more than the job I was doing before.”

Hope that’s more clear.