In any close contest, the line between winning and losing is thin.
In sports, it’s a few points that go to one team or another, a couple of plays that were close, a few steps between being ‘safe’ or ‘out.’
These few moments create one winner and one loser. They last, at most, a couple of minutes over the course of a few hour.
And yet the story we tell ourselves afterwards is about the whole contest: “this time it was different” or “I really showed him,” or “I can’t believe I blew it, I’m no good.”
In our desire to make meaning, our story dwarfs the fleeting moments that were the difference between winning and losing.
It’s the same thing with any close call—job interviews when you’re one of a few finalists, promotions that are right on the fence, a client who says yes or no to a big sale you’ve been working on.
If it was a tough decision, then a few small (maybe arbitrary) things made the difference.
This helps us remember that “I’m so [adjective]” statements aren’t the right conclusion in these situations.
Instead, try out “it was close, and I [did/didn’t] get it this time.”
This mindset helps us focus more on those few clutch moments, the specific, small thing that kept us from winning—this time. It also frees us from unproductive self-criticism (or unfounded self-praise), shrinking the emotion of both the win and the loss.
Then, instead of telling ourselves a big, unfounded narrative, we can get on with our important work of giving it our best shot the next time around.
I may be looking at Ye Olden Days through rose colored glasses…
…but I can’t help but notice a difference in attitudes about work today compared to when I had my first jobs 25 years ago.
Back then, my colleagues and I would talk actively about whether our responsibilities would ever extend beyond making copies, sending faxes, and answering the phone. There was enough clerical work and hierarchy that “entry level” was truly menial. When a superior asked us to do anything that involved thinking, we jumped at it. Non-clerical work was a perk, and when it came our way, it was our job to find time to make it happen: do all our menial work, and do this too. These projects were a chance to demonstrate that we could do something other than stand by the fax machine, and each mini-assignment served as a testing-ground of whether we should be given another useful thing to do.
While there are countless flaws in that old system, the mindset around how to approach “stretch assignments” stands the test of time.
A great stretch assignment is a chance to do something new, challenging, and exciting. By definition it’s beyond our current levels of mastery, so it requires additional time on our part to learn and to get it right.
Often, though, I’m hearing just the opposite (including from job applicants): I can only take on that new thing if there’s a 1-for-1 trade of getting rid of this existing thing.
I don’t think it works that way, at least not in environments that are moving fast and trying to grow: the organization only grows its reach, its scale, and its revenues profits and impact, if the things that make up that organization—software, systems, processes and people—can stretch and grow.
Whether it’s a one-off project or an expansion of our role, the best way to take on stretch assignments is, literally, to stretch: our mental capacity, our willingness to be uncomfortable, the number of hours we put in to make the “stretch” possible on top of everything else that’s on our plate. That means finding time around the edges, whether early in the morning, late in the evening or on a weekend, to get that job done. Hopefully the opportunity and learning are more than worth the trade.
(Better yet, in the process of adjusting to this fuller plate, we often discover a bunch of non-essential things that we were spending time on that don’t require nearly as much polishing).
The reality is, the path to leverage in our job requires us to constantly shift, adjusting to new opportunities and new sets of responsibilities.
Learning the skill of sprinting, and getting adept at shifting and stretching time, is the way that we discover what our maximum output really is. It’s also how we discover where it is that we really shine.
While I was in temple earlier this week, celebrating the Jewish New Year, I was struck by the words of this prayer:
We are stiff-necked and stubborn; teach us to bend before you.
Convinced we’re right, entrenched in our own perspective, we resist Your call to repent.
Convinced we’re self-sufficient, entrenched in the illusion of control, we resist Your call to humility.
Convinced we can have it all, entrenched in the dream of mastering the world, we resist Your call to wake up.
Today You summon us out of our arrogance, out of rigidity, fantasy, shallowness, self-deception.
Teach us to bend our knees, to bow our heads before the Mystery; to realize our frailty and our finitude.
When I think about the big problems our species has created in the world—most notably the climate emergency and mass extinction, but also the entrenched separations and divisions wrought by income inequality, racial injustice, gender discrimination, xenophobia and all of our manufactured fear of the “other”—I can’t help but feel that much of it is summed up by our collective stiff-neckedness and stubbornness.
The illusion of control.
Our dream of having all the answers.
Our desire to master the world.
Humility is a powerful, subtle thing. We often misunderstand it, thinking it cannot coexist with boldness, determination, and an unyielding belief that we can create something better tomorrow than that which exists today. It can.
Humility is the recognition that we know a lot, but we don’t know it all.
That we can control many things but not every thing.
And that, just maybe, mastering the world isn’t the point at all.
In Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, George Orwell mused, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” Imagine if Orwell had been able to see what unfolded over the next 70 years.
You may not consider yourself a ‘writer,’ and it’s possible that writing doesn’t feel integral to your work. Even so, consider this a nudge to invest in your writing—the yields are broader than you might imagine. Writing is not a narrow skill, like juggling or doing a cartwheel. It is a mirror into the mind: we cannot write clearly and persuasively if we are unable to think clearly and persuasively; and as we move the needle on our writing, we sharpen our powers of observation, analysis and storytelling.
Writing with the intention to change minds hones our abilities—to see what’s around us and develop insights about what we see, to understand the worldview of the people whose minds we aim to change, and to communicate in ways that shift thinking and actions.
Begin by choosing to write more. This is much more helpful than choosing to write well. Trying to write well is the best way to end up not writing a lot, and you cannot write well if you’re unwilling to write poorly. This means finding places to write: that could be investing in making your emails 50% better by making them shorter and more human; or you could sign up for a site like 750words.com, a private site where you commit to writing every day, just for you.
Then, stop writing the way we think we are “supposed to” write. It’s hard to pin down when, exactly, business-speak was created (though the Atlantic has a few theories), but the main function of so much passive tense and invented verbs (“downsize” “rationalize” “incentivize”) and catchphrases (“run up the flagpole”) is to obscure rather than to clarify, making your writing worse.
Your job isn’t to “increase the frequency of your articulation of stated arguments and objectives through engagement in writing- and writing-related activities,” your job is to “write more often and be more persuasive.” Please, please, write like you speak. We, your readers, want to read something written by another human being, and we experience human-ness when your voice comes across in the words you put down on paper.
To practice, before you hit the “publish” or “send” button, read what you’ve written, to yourself, out loud. Ask yourself: does this come out naturally? Is this how I speak? If not, cut, edit, and replace: remove words, replace words, say things in 5 words instead of 12. In the end, your writing will sound like your spoken voice: clear, simple, natural. Your goal is to express formed thoughts and emotions in as few and as precise words as possible.
Read more. Pick the kind of reading that speaks to you. The more you read the more good writing becomes part of your world. You may even inadvertently start mimicking authors you like, which is fine as a start: over time, your own voice will come out.
In the end, all of this is an investment not just in your writing but in your clarity of thought. It’s a chance to avoid the pessimistic concerns that Orwell describes as the self-reinforcing loop of poor language:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
As we give attention to our writing, we rescue ourselves from our own “foolish” thoughts. Over time, we clarify our own thinking, increase our capacity to persuade, and develop the skill of taking unstructured observations and turning them into clear, structured, persuasive words on the page.
If you’re in a position of authority, a big part of most days is being asked for your opinion or approval.
Often, you are what stands between the things your organization creates and your customers. Naturally, an important part of your job is to quality check and do the last bit of polishing: you know the most, you are the most experienced, and you can give it that last distinguishing touch.
While it’s true that you’ll always have something to add, don’t forget to ask yourself:
Where are we in the process?
Is this just a matter of taste?
When is it too late to say what I’m about to say?
And (above all), What is the cost of communicating that, no matter what someone else does, no matter how hard they try, it could always be better?
While you might have two cents to add, some days all you should do is smile, nod, and say “great job.”
This communicates confidence in others, reminds them that they’re also on the hook, and it also lets them know that they, without your help, can create your organization’s best work.
It’s the end of my summer holiday, and I am in the Scottish Highlands on a fabulous off-road mountain bike ride with my daughter. The scenery is breathtaking – layers of grey mountains in the distance, the ground covered in purple heather and ancient ferns amidst pine groves, with not a soul as far as the eye can see.
We come to a fork in the road. The path to the left is the short route back to the bike rental shop. The path to the right takes the long way around, an additional 6 miles. My daughter has been quiet on the ride, she seems in good spirits, but I suspect her energy is flagging. At the same time, I’d love nothing more than to take the long way home and steal an extra hour in this magical place.
I’ve already checked in with her a few times to see how she is feeling, and whether she’d like to stop for lunch. She’s said she is “good” and not hungry, gives a flash of a smile, and we’ve pedaled on.
At the fork, after another non-committal “good,” I ask her, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how energetic are you feeling?”
“Um…six?” she said.
We stand there a bit longer and take another drink of water.
Then I look at her again and she says, “Well, actually, four.”
We walk up to the fork, put our bikes down, and plop down on the mossy ground under some pine trees. We eat the three sandwiches we have packed along with two apples. We relax, we talk, and, a half hour later, we head off on the short path home.
The gap between my daughter’s 6 and 4 response is just one representation of the distance that exists between what someone feels and what they tell us in order to please us.
Especially when we are in positions of authority, we consistently get rose-tinted responses to our questions. This means that not only do we have to ask for feedback, we also have to create relationships that nudge that feedback towards being as honest and open as possible. And, even when we get this all right, to get an accurate barometer of what’s really going on we must remember to discount the good and amplify critiques.
For years I fell into the trap of a self-serving story about “honesty” and “directness.” I tried to be honest and direct with the people around me, and I expected them to do the same. When, after the fact, I learned that someone hadn’t told me “the truth,” I pinned the blame on them—”they had the chance to speak up, and they should have,” I thought, self-righteously.
This mindset is willfully blind to what it means to be in a position of privilege and authority. To truly listen to those around us, whether colleagues or friends or beneficiaries of the programmatic work that we do, we must meet people on their terms, not ours, and understand how power dynamics and culture color all that we do and say.
If we’re lucky, and if we do our jobs well, the gap between what we’re told and reality will only be the distance between 6 and 4. Better yet, the longer we listen and the more space we create, the more likely it is that someone will tell us that they’re actually feeling like a “4.”
As summer winds down, consider this: part of what makes summer so great is the freedom of your feet.
I’m serious. Flip flops, going barefoot in the grass, the feel of wet sand under your feet. These are some of the defining feelings of summer.
We can replicate this feeling year-round with different, better shoes: shoes that give our feet space to breathe and that let our feet hit the ground naturally.
When you’re walking barefoot on the beach, or in the grass, your foot is open, it spreads out, and you use the muscles in your feet. This has a long list of benefits from decreasing migraines to reducing anxiety. Plus, our feet determine how our legs hits the ground, which in turns impacts the well-being of our knees, hips and lower back. Think of it this way: humans evolved over millions of years to have feet that can do their job barefoot, so having our feet hit the ground as they would without shoes makes a lot of evolutionary sense.
I started noticing this ten years ago. I discovered that my nagging knee pain that had forced me to quit running for 9 years, went away when I switched to “barefoot” shoes: I put on a pair of Vibram 5-fingers and ran four miles with no knee pain at all.
As I did more research, I discovered that, for many people, a traditional running shoe, with its highly cushioned heel, causes the foot to tilt down, disrupting our gait. Running shoes today can have up to 35mm of heel cushion, and the drop from heel to toe can be 11% or more—like running down an 11 degree incline when we are on flat ground.
The other big issue with traditional shoes happens up front–for aesthetic, not functional, reasons, they get narrower. This makes no sense, and, at the extreme, can transform our feet:
Our toes’ job is to help us balance, and this is only possible if they have space to spread out. Just like an athletic stance—when we stand with knees bent and legs shoulder width, we have good balance—open, spread toes let our feet do the job they were designed to do and improve our balance.
Lately I’ve begun wearing more low/no-drop, foot-shaped shoes, both for work and exercise, and I’m getting addicted to it. I kind of want to throw out the rest of my shoes.
My current collection of foot-shaped shoes is:
Atoms: I described these as my “cloud walking” shoes a while back, they’re now available to the public and you might want to get a pair. Not cheap, but I bet once you get them you’ll wear them four days a week.
Lems: I have the Primal 2 and they are a great everyday shoe from a small Colorado-based company. I’m thinking of getting some of their dress shoes.
Olukai: I’ve had a pair of their flip flops for years and they are sturdy, amazingly comfortable and look unchanged from the day I got them. Three weeks ago, I got a pair of their Nohea Moku shoes and they really do position your foot like it’s standing in wet sand. I just bought my son, who wears a size 13 wide, a pair and he is loving them.
Altra running shoes: zero drop shoes but with cushion, they are the best of both worlds—they are shaped like feet, don’t distort your stride, but they give you great impact protection. I’ve been wearing Altras for five years and they keep getting better. I love the Torins.
Harrow squash shoes: it just so happens that squash shoes are flat, and Harrow is one of the few brands that have a wide toe box. I’ve been wearing the Vortex for the past two years. They’d be great for volleyball, racquetball, table tennis and badminton.
Note that I have a wide foot so your mileage and fit may vary, but even if you don’t, you don’t need to subject yourself to squished toes any longer
A final note: shifting to zero-drop, open toebox shoes is a bit of an adjustment. Our feet, ankles and calves are weak because of the shoes we wear. So definitely start slowly, walking before you run, to avoid soreness and injury.