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.

 

Sarabande: What’s one plus one?

Here’s an excerpt of Handel’s Sarabande, which you may have heard on its own or as part of the soundtrack for Deer Hunter, American Horror Story, 21 Grams, or more than 100 other movies and TV shows.

My son has been learning this on the piano, and as you might be able to tell from all the markings, we’ve spent a lot of time together trying to get these three measures right.

What’s tricky about this piece is that it has three separate voices but the pianist has only two hands. (If you’re not a musician, don’t panic, this is easy: the notes on the top staff with the stems pointing up are the top voice; the ones on the top staff with the stems pointing down are the middle voice; and the ones on the bottom staff are the bottom voice. So in this section you need to play, and think about, two voices in your right hand).

Watching him take this on is a sometimes-sobering reflection on how learning really happens.

The way you pick apart a piece like this is to work on one hand, or one voice, alone; then work on the other voice or hand alone; and then put it all together.

So, right hand first, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

Then left hand, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

And then, voila! Both hands together.

What drives my son insane is that it just doesn’t work like this. Not even close.

There “voila” doesn’t happen because when you put both hands together, things usually fall apart. All the old habits and wrong notes and fingerings that don’t quite work – the ones that are ingrained at a deeper level of (muscle) memory – come roaring back in the face of the complexity of trying to put all of the pieces together.

And so, it’s back to the drawing board. To each hand alone. To putting hands together in tiny increments until those hold together. To putting bigger and bigger pieces together, and having those fall apart too. And then, bit by bit, it sticks, you can play the whole thing.

And then you sleep on it, you come back the next day, and it’s fallen apart. Again. Only this time the putting back together happens more quickly, more naturally.

And then one day, you arrive.

What we’re experiencing is that the act of putting together more than one new behavior isn’t a 1+1 = 2 process. It’s a 1+1 = 1 process, over and over and over again until, if you stick with it, if you don’t get too discouraged, if you’re willing not to abandon ship, 1+1 = 4.

More often than not, it’s not the learning of new things that we find hard, it’s the work of not giving up. We are often unwilling to slog through that awful period in the middle, that part where we know what we’re trying to do, we’ve done a bunch of work, and the new behaviors don’t hold together. We often have little reason to believe, in the midst of not getting there yet, that we are actually on the right path, that this is what the work looks like, that real growth and progress are never linear and that new skills are fragile things that crumble, at first, when exposed to the light.

Until they don’t. Until they become a part of us. Until they become natural and we just show up and play, beautifully.

 

 

Where blog posts really come from

One of the reasons I blog is so that I have a regular, disciplined practice of turning loosely-formed ideas into concrete, cogent, shareable posts.  Over and over again.  Until I get better at it.

Part of the power of repetition is getting to observe a process unfold repeatedly.  So, over the last 5-plus years of blogging (and of life), I’ve learned that most of the time my best ideas come through conversations.  When someone asks me a great, thorny, interesting question, and we engage in real dialogue about how to answer that question, I learn things.  This is a powerful piece of self-knowledge that I otherwise wouldn’t possess.  It informs how I structure my time and how I think about the conversations I need to have, and the people I need to interact with, to learn, to push my own thinking and my own understanding of the world and of my work.

Rare, though, is to have a photograph of that moment.

The most popular post I wrote in November was How do I get a job in impact investing?, and after I wrote the post I saw this tweet from Josh McCann.  It’s a photo taken the moment I was asked by the Warton Social Venture club how to get a job in impact investing. I was stumped, but I winged it, and we talked, and together we figured it out.

How to get a job in impact investing

Where do your best ideas come from?  Alone, or in conversation?  After a lot of reading and study or on the spur of the moment?  With a pad of paper and a pencil, a whiteboard, with a cup of tea or cranking at your desk at work, constantly jumping back to your Facebook feed (probably not)?

We all struggle with managing our time the right way.  Knowing where we get our best ideas can help.  This is one of the big ideas in Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself, an article that’s worth rereading at least once a year.

Try it, you’ll learn

Irrespective of how much you care, about how hard you try to imagine every little thing your customers might need or want, until you are a buyer of your own product you’ll never fully understand what pieces it has and what are missing.  This means:

Using a new app for weeks until you figure out that the slow startup time actually matters in frequent use cases.

Trying the self-checkout line to discover that buying produce is a nightmare.

Creating presentations using Powerpoint to discover that the seven commands you use the most are on seven different menus, and three of them are buried two levels down.

Having your team member pitch you as if you were a potential donor to see what questions actually come up.

And of course giving to your organization – and to a bunch of others – to see what sort of communications you get how they make you feel.

The difference between a good experience and a great one is in the little things that are just right; and these are almost impossible to see from far away.

Fifty Pounds of Clay

I’ve just started reading The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast  by Josh Kaufman to gain more insight on how effective skill acquisition happens.  Kaufman begins the book with a list of ten principles for rapid skill acquisition, the 10th of which he illustrates with an excerpt of Art & Fear by David Bales and Ted Orland:

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.  All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right side solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” groups: fifty pounds of pots rated an A, forty pounds a B, and so on.  Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an A.

Well, come grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.  It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Kaufman’s conclusion is that, “Skill is the result of deliberate, consistent practice, and in early-stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolutely quality.  The faster and more often you practice, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill.”

It’s a familiar pattern in human-centered design – rapid prototyping to get your hands dirty and learn by doing.  It’s how the strongest marshmallow towers are built.  Yet it’s easy to separate that approach from how we imagine our own goals of becoming better  at ________ (building Excel models; finding answers by ourselves online; becoming better public speakers; learning to fundraise).

Indeed my mental model of how to learn and practice started way at the other end: having played classical piano seriously for two decades, I had spent literally thousands of hours focused on the last 20% or 10% or even 3% of getting a piece “perfect.”   So it has felt completely counterintuitive for me to think that “just starting” is an effective strategy for anything but the most rudimentary of tasks.  And yet, through a deliberate process of unlearning, accelerated by plenty of healthy kicks in the pants from mentors, I’ve tried this other way, and over time I’ve started to rewire myself towards a different mindset: that I can learn new skills, and that the approach to take centers around starting first, being willing to feel like a fool at the outset, and sticking with things long enough to get out of that first, terrible phase.

(My first day on a snowboard, 13 years ago, I must have hit my head HARD against the mountain at least fifty times.  I was very close to walking away.  It’s only because I’d been warned that the first day is painful, and that the second day isn’t, that I stuck with it).

Imagine, then, that your job when imagining something you’d like to learn involves just two steps (not 10, not yet):

  1. Breaking that skill into its smallest component parts
  2. Practicing just one of those skills relentlessly

For example maybe the component parts of fundraising are: getting the first meeting, finding new funding prospects, holding engaging meetings, storytelling, listening, , learning to build from one meeting to the next, comfortably asking for money…. (there are more).

If you were to decide today that you’re a terrible fundraiser (by the way, you’re not) BUT you wanted to become a good fundraiser a year from now, data from the ceramics class would teach us that spending as much time as possible practicing just one those eight component parts (and I’m sure there are more of them and each could be narrower) for two weeks would get you much further along than spending two or three or four weeks reading books on prospecting and getting the first meeting.   This is why, for example, deciding to get rejected 100 times works – it is concentrated effort on a specific task, one that unavoidably gets our auto-correct mechanism to kick in an teach ourselves better ways to do things.

We know all of this in principle, but it’s a lot easier to say “fail fast” than it is to actually jump in first.  I find that imagining a giant heap with 50 pounds of finished pottery, some of it beautiful, helps me get out of neutral.

Skills for this century

The deadline for applying for Seth Godin’s summer internship is tomorrow, May 31st.  And the last 15 applications will be discarded, so today is effectively the last day to apply.  It’s a two-week internship from July 22nd to August 2nd.  All the details are here.

I thought the skills Seth is looking for were pretty indicative of must-have skills for the next century, no matter what line of business you think you’re in.  Everyone doesn’t need all of them (though why wouldn’t you learn all of them at at least a minimal level, since today you can, easily)?

Still, it’s impossible to argue that anyone is allowed, any more, to have none of them.

Seth_internship skills

Basically, the list boils down to:

  • Coding
  • Design
  • Writing good copy
  • Coming up with ideas
  • Selling stuff
  • Managing projects
  • Hustle

(I, too, give bonus points for Monty Python trivia but I’ll admit that feels a bit arbitrary.)

Not a bad list, though, sadly, it compares terribly to what we’re teaching in our schools (including business schools).

On this last point, if you have kids or you care about education, you really must watch Seth’s “Stop Stealing Dreams” talk at TEDxYouth.   And once the video inspires you, read and share Seth’s full manuscript with the parents and educators in your life.

33 voices

Moe Abdou runs a site called 33 voices and he recently posted an interview we did there.  It was a far-flung conversation and Moe does the heavy lifting of boiling that down to 10 maxims – in addition to posting the full audio of our conversation.

Actually interesting to see someone boil down a conversation to just 10 things, and makes me wonder how those 10 things might change over time, as well as depending on who you’re speaking with.

I do like the “best advice” Moe said I gave: Trust yourself and quiet the voice that’s telling you that you can’t do it.  Advice to myself as much as to anyone else.

33 voices mission is to educate, connect and inspire – lots of great content there including interviews with Babson College President Leonard Schlesinger on teaching entrepreneurship and with venture capitalist Tony Tjan on self-awareness.  Hope you find some good stuff there.