Our Highest Threshold

There’s a reason why the military has boot camps, why Olympic gymnasts treat each practice as if it were an international competition, why Seth Godin’s famous alt-MBA demands 30+ hours of work per week and 13 completed projects in a month, all for students who have full-time jobs.

Part of the reason is the training itself. Army recruits come together when they’ve gone through a harrowing experience together. Gymnasts get stronger and more fit when they work that hard. And you learn loads by knocking out project after project such a short period of time.

But the real impact is on the psychology of each participant: the act of discovering how much you can accomplish—how much more than you thought you could—resets your internal bar. Whether it’s your psychological threshold for pain, the amount of heat or number of pushups you can withstand before you start to panic, or simply a new perspective what you can produce when you sprint, the most valuable part of these sorts of experience is to expand your sense of what is possible.

Pushing through gives you that unique ability captures so effortlessly by Nigel Tufnel, the fictional lead guitarist in Spinal Tap: when you need that little bit of extra juice, it makes all the difference to have an amp that goes up to 11.

Holocaust Education

A few weeks ago, I discovered that two thirds of Americans aged 18 to 39 are “unaware” that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Two thirds!

According to this same study, 23% of young Americans said the Holocaust was “a myth, had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure.”

While I live with the assumption that anti-Semitism is a pervasive, global fact of life, these numbers were still shocking. They make me reflect on how I, and many Jews I know, live with the quiet expectation that at any moment the tide could turn against us: that passive, fringe anti-Semitism could spill over into mainstream hatred and state-sanctioned violence against us.

If this sounds like hyperbole, consider this. The week before last, I went with my family to outdoor Shabbat services at our temple. 50 families, mostly in or in front of our cars, spread out across a parking lot while our Rabbi and Cantor each stood on the flatbeds of two Dodge RAM 3500s leading services.

To my surprise, at the start of services I was hit by waves of sadness. Something about sitting in a parking lot, praying, was a reminder of all the things COVID-19 has taken from us, things so essential to our mental health and well-being: handshakes, hugs, togetherness, community.

And yet, as we continued to pray, my perspective shifted. I began to think about the resilience of the Jewish people, about all the times in our history we’ve had to find ways to come together to practice our faith in the face of adversity.

Walking around that parking lot, saying ‘hello’ to fellow congregants, I ran into a friend who I’d not seen for months. When I asked him how he was doing, he was very upbeat. “My children and I were just awarded our German (dual) citizenship yesterday,” he said. I congratulated him, trying to mirror his enthusiasm, and also asked why. Gravely, he looked me in the eye and said, “my parents waited until 1939 in Germany before they starting thinking about how they could get out, and by then it was too late. I promised myself I would never repeat that mistake.”

Consider that for a moment: that some Jews are quietly planning for their escape should things turn more ugly, more armed, and more violent in the United States.

A week later, another Jewish family we ate dinner with brought up their own conversations about what it would take to move to Canada (and not, I might add, because of COVID-19).

This is what it is to be Jewish in the United States in 2020.

This fear is perverse, but it is also quiet. As a white, male, heterosexual Jew, I don’t experience the systemic, daily oppression of white supremacy, misogyny or homophobia. I don’t especially fear the police, and I’ve not taught my kids how to make sure any interaction with the police doesn’t escalate. I’ve never been discriminated against when applying for a mortgage or shopping for a house. I’ve never been denied a job or a place in a school because of my name, my gender, my sexual orientation or the color of my skin. Indeed, I and many American Jews are connected to exceptionally strong networks of social capital that make it easier for us to lead good, comfortable lives. Relatively speaking, we are very, very privileged.

At the same time, we still live with fear.

It’s a fear that the pervasive, but mostly fringe, anti-Semitism that exists everywhere will get more powerful and more mainstream. A fear that mentioning that we are Jewish—on a trip to a new country, in a blog post read by people around the world, in certain parts of the United States—will ignite some backlash of virulence and hatred. A growing fear that the target will be placed on our backs once again as the U.S. gets more divided. It’s a fear fueled by our President’s dog whistles, the complicity of his Republican enablers, and the viciousness of our new State Media (Fox News) defending oppressors and painting them as victims.

So, I wanted to do my small part to speak to the young and not-so-young, ignorant Americans who don’t know about or “believe in” the Holocaust (and who, I assume, also turn a blind eye to the hatred and violence eating away at our country each and every day).

This document is a list of the names of Jews who arrived in Kobe, Japan, as refugees fleeing from the Nazis. Two of the names on this list are my paternal grandparents, Lejb and Chaja Dichter, who fled for their lives. Their son, my father, was born in the Shanghai ghetto in 1945.

What about this document is a myth?

What about them fleeing for their lives makes you unsure?

Why, if the Holocaust is exaggerated, did I never meet the rest of their families?

Why does my father not have any first cousins?

Do you really believe that all of them weren’t killed?

We simply cannot create a better future if we, collectively, fail to learn about, understand, and collectively address the wrongs of our pasts.

The United States is at a breaking point: our democracy, our collective understanding of truth, our basic willingness to see each other’s shared humanity, all hang in the balance.

I have no choice but to be optimistic, but, to be honest, I’m also terrified.

Nothing’s Changed

So often, we’re easily convinced that we have an objective view of ourselves.

That thing we’re working on, the new skill we are cultivating, the organizational improvement that we’re spearheading? We believe that we can see where we are today relative to where we’ve been.

And yet our children grow up before our eyes, and, were it not for photos, bigger shoes and the occasional new bike, we’d never see it.

The truth is, real change happens daily, incrementally, often imperceptibly. It also is rarely linear, meaning even a plateau can be the precursor to a leap forward.

Yet when a change requires our sustained effort—as most important change does—our “nothing’s changed” assessment can be an excuse to slow down or even stop.

Find objective measures and use them to mark your progress.

And, when in doubt, keep at it. You’ve already come further than you think.

Math Class

In most of my math classes growing up, you’d get partial credit for showing your work. This was a boon for me because I was sometimes prone to careless errors.

Giving credit for the work makes good sense in grade school math: the concepts matter more than getting the arithmetic 100% right.

Along these lines, working hard each and every day—what used to be face time in the office—can also be a way to show that you care, that you’re trying your best.

On the other hand, this can go too far.

As we get grooved into the habit of hard work, we start to measure ourselves in terms of hours spent rather than results achieved.

The hours, once a means to an end, become an end in and of themselves: look how hard I’m working (you say to yourself and others).

The problem is, this can become a negative spiral: we can slip into the bad habit of being less disciplined with how we spend our time, lose sight of the difference between urgent and important tasks, and (ironically, despite all the time we’re spending working) give short shrift to the best things we have to offer.

Letting your work stand there, to speak for itself, is an act of bravery.

The Goldilocks Pricing Myth

We, sellers of new and fabulous things, seem to have this notion that there’s a “just right” price that we can hit in the marketplace.

Imagine this Goldilocks Price (if we could only find it)…. It’s not too high, it’s not too low. It’s just right.

Think again.

For your new customer, there simply is no Goldilocks Price.

Why? Because there are only two situations in which your price is “just right.”

The first is in markets with limited product differentiation and lots of competitors. In these markets, everyone knows the “right” price because you can Google it. If you’re unlucky enough to be selling into this kind of market, you’re in a race to the bottom to squeeze margins enough to survive. No fun (and sooner or later you’ll be Amazon-ed).

There’s also a good scenario with “just right” pricing. This is with your longtime, repeat customers who fully appreciate and understand the value you deliver. The price is “just right” to them because it’s high enough to match the exceptional value-creation bar you uniquely manage to hit. Nice work.

Now, let’s get back to that new customer who thinks your prices seem a bit high.

You’re selling a differentiated product that you’re explaining to them for the first time. They have some idea of what it’s supposed to cost, but that’s just based on what they budgeted or what a friend told them or some number they made up.

It seems high to them not because it’s overpriced but because they don’t yet understand the value that you will create for them.

If you find yourself in this sort of situation, don’t respond to “that sounds expensive” with an offer to do your exceptional work for less.

Instead, recognize that what they’re really saying is “I don’t understand the value, yet.”

Then tell a better story to help them to see what you see, to get a taste of what your best clients get to experience every day.

My Call

The situation is messy, and it’s unclear who gets to decide.

I’m not sure that I know best – or even enough.

Nevertheless, I recognize that in this situation, a decision has to be made. So I’m using my judgment and I’m making the call. Because ultimately that’s my job: to make tough decisions and be responsible for the consequences.

The most important professional moments are defined by a willingness to step into uncertainty, to act, and hold oneself accountable for outcomes.

Not because we need more people to make good decisions. The answers themselves, whether right or wrong, are a dime a dozen.

What’s scarce is the willingness to take responsibility for success and for failure—to be on the hook for your customers and your team.

Morning Walk

There’s a giant field near my house. The grass is covered with dew each morning.

When my new puppy, Birdie, and I get there at the end of our early walks, she shifts gears.

She starts running full speed, nose to the ground and tongue out, apparently trying to lap up all the dew on the field. It makes me wonder if morning dew is sweeter than water.

Watching her, full of glee and boundless energy, I can’t help but break into a huge smile.

As her joy washes over me, I think about what joy feels like and where it comes from, and how, like yawns and laughter, it is contagious.

Afraid of the Dark

As longtime readers might recall, I have a bit of a hot-and-cold relationship with swimming.

Swimming freestyle scared me as a kid. Nevertheless, swimming has always seemed like the kind of thing I could love, so I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last five years learning Terry Laughlin’s Total Immersion approach to swimming. In addition to helping me swim better, it was also my introduction to kaizen, a learning philosophy that emphasizes specific, hyper-focused continuous improvement. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Over these last few years, I’ve made enough progress that I now appreciate swimming and from time to time I even have good swims. However, swimming remains low on my list of priorities, so my progress has been slow.

That said, I can now work my way through a mile in the pool reasonably well and with limited agita—even if being truly relaxed in the water eludes me most days.

Nevertheless, quarantine has been a chance to go deep in all sorts of physical activity, and recently I had the chance to spend a week by a big, beautiful lake in Maine. The only problem was that open water swimming still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Given this backdrop, and as a nod to safety, when I have the chance to swim in this massive lake, I decide the best approach is to swim laps to a buoy that is about 40 meters from the shore.

I dive in, imagining that soon I be cutting through this pristine lake gracefully.

Then I put my head in the water. It’s nearly pitch black. I cannot see the bottom and I have no idea where I am or how far I away I am from the buoy.

The old narrative in my head kicks in. “This is scary, and I can’t do this. How much longer until I get to the buoy? Should I pick up my head or swim some more? I can’t see, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how much progress I’ve made or how far I still need to go!”

I am unmoored. The sensory experience nearly overtakes me.

And yet, if you pulled back the camera, what you see looks nothing like what’s going through my head. I am swimming, just as I always do. I’m making progress to and from the buoy. I’m not going particularly straight, but it’s not too bad. Sometimes a wake bounces me, splashing some water in my mouth. Mostly I’m swimming the way I always do.

So which view is the right one, the real one? Is it the one in my head, or the one you’d see from the shore?

What saves me from throwing in the towel is that I remembered the order of operations inside my head: first I have feelings and emotions, then I make sense of them with the story I tell.

The feelings I’m experiencing: disorientation due to darkness, no sense of where I am, of whether I am stuck or making progress.

The emotions I feel: fear and panic.

The story I tell myself: this will never work, I am failing, I should give up.

This pandemic is a bit like those black waters. Stuck at home, we can lose our sense of place, of progress. It’s harder to tell where we are and where we are going. The clarity of what it feels like to go from point A to B and back again has been yanked away from us.

We feel unmoored.

This feeling results in emotions.

These emotions result in a story about what we can and cannot do.

Thankfully, in the water, I had put in enough work before plunging into that lake that I know how to swim reasonably well. I kept the initial panic at bay by talking myself down from the ledge (“Nothing, objectively is wrong, even though I feel afraid. This is not that different from what I do in the pool. I am OK.”). But mostly what I do is continue to swim. Stroke by stroke, breath by breath, I keep on doing the thing I had set out to do. The story my mind wants to create rattles along in the background. I let it be while I continue to do.

In the end, the story never vanishes, but it also doesn’t win. I swim with fear until I swim with less fear until, for at least some bits, I just swim.

These are, objectively, scary times for too many reasons.

The more we believe the worst stories our mind tells us—stories it creates to make sense of our feelings and emotions—the more power we give to those stories.

Rather than try to figure out, analyze, or beat back those stories, we often are better served by putting our heads down and doing the work we set out to do.

The work deserves that much, as do the people it serves.

Remember, courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is continuing to act despite feeling fear.

Focus on the Flats

Back when I was a high school athlete, the theme song of choice was “Eye of the Tiger.”

Our coaches yelled a lot, pushing us to go to the max and stay there as long as we could. Greatness was achieved, apparently, through Rocky’s last one-armed push up, his angry smack of the speed ball, his last, shaking and moaning chin-up.

The only thing is, this is the wrong approach for most sustained change—in physical activity or otherwise.

How much longer?

For example, as I returned to running these past few months, I noticed that I spent most of my runs counting down how much further I had to go (“only two more hills after this one.”) Suffering, apparently, was not optional.

Then it occurred to me to ask: what would it take for me to have running, at a good pace, just be running? To have it be no big deal, something I could sustain?

At first this felt like copping out on my max-effort philosophy. But that’s an illusion. Over the course of a 40 minute run, at most I might be able to really “push it” for 5 minutes. Why would those 5 minutes, and not the other 35, be where I focus my attention?

Work on the Valleys, Not the Peaks

The point is, we eventually max out on our ability to make our peaks higher.

At this point, we discover the greater opportunity in redirecting our attention to lifting up our valleys.

This means refocusing our attention on two things:
1. Not letting peak effort knock us off our game
2. Spending most of our mental energy on a strong recovery rather than on peak effort

Why Do We Get So Tired?

The reason peak effort kicks our butts isn’t because of physical exhaustion.

Instead, we hit mental overload from crossing a perceived threshold of what we’ve decided we can do. Because we lack a practice of strong, sustained and resilient recovery, we run out of psychological gas.

And, just as we’ve all been broken by a hill or a sprint, we’ve also crossed mental breaking points when someone shouts at us; when the tension in a professional conversation gets too high; when we’re in the thick of a sustained period of heavy work.

When we get through those moments on our last emotional breath, it can take days or weeks to get back on our game.

If, instead, we have trained ourselves (emotionally, physically) to find the ease in the midst of our effort, then we’re able to sustain a higher threshold of effort and we learn to recover more quickly to a comfortable, productive steady state after peak effort. Ultimately, this grace after fire (in addition to grace under fire) makes us more effective.

Focus on the flats

This change only comes when, in our training, we focus on the “easy bits.”

My running will only improve, and get more enjoyable, when I can be completely relaxed on the flats. This doesn’t mean going slowly or not trying. It means finding a place of sustained, comfortable effort and practicing staying calm and present through that slow burn.

This is the work of building up our foundation, of making it more solid and more stable. It is a mental practice more than a physical one, demanding sustained attention and focus, not maximum heart rate.

When we build deeper, not only does our minute-to-minute performance improve, we also get harder to dislodge.

Then, whether it’s a hill or a disagreement, a sprint to a finish line or a sprint to meet a deadline, the act of sprinting no longer unmoors us. We learn the skill of snapping back quickly, easily, and with minimal fuss.

By all means, don’t give up the sprints. They’re fun, and they lead to both discovery and growth.

But, more often than not, a sprint is just another way to get the run over with–it’s not the path to sustained and lasting improvement.

Ease and Effort

I just completed my 30-day yoga commitment, and while the physical experience has been front and center, there’s a lot more going on that I’m trying to notice.

I’ve particularly appreciated what I’ve heard about ease and effort from Rolf Gates, a wonderful yoga instructor, substance abuse counselor, ex-Army Ranger, and author. I first met Rolf 20 years ago and he’s still one of my favorite teachers (bonus: he’s now giving excellent live online yoga and meditation classes).

In yoga, and in life, our intention is to be in flow, which Rolf describes as “maximum effort without an ounce of unnecessary effort.”

“Maximum effort, without an ounce of unnecessary effort” requires us to maintain focus, calm and discipline even while engaged in something strenuous. Which is to say: the thing we are doing might be strenuous, but that does not mean that we need to experience strain while doing that thing.

I encourage you to contemplate this profound idea while doing something physically challenging–a yoga pose, a sprint, lifting weights, even just holding your breath for 30 seconds–to see what you discover.

This is another way of describing the integration of ease and effort that is at the heart of yoga. Rolf does a lovely job explaining this in a class I took with him last week:

In life we tend to like the ease of life and we don’t really prefer the effort.

And what we’re taught in our practice is that we need both ease and effort to keep growing.

But we want to organize our life around what we like (and we want that) and what we don’t like (and we don’t want that).

We struggle in this battle, this inner battle: ease good, effort bad.

And what our practice is telling us is that the two things are really the one thing, that we don’t have growth without both.

Needless to say, this is not just about yoga. The yoga poses are simply a chance to explore this idea.

For example, every time I get into an elevator (ah, the good ol’ days) and hear someone say “only 2 more days until Friday,” I’m hearing “ease good, effort bad.”

Of course, work can be hard, and weekends can be wonderful. We need a healthy dose of both to have a balanced life.

But balance doesn’t come just from the right proportion of work and rest. It also comes in a more profound way from our experience of work and rest.

The mindset “ease good, effort bad” is not neutral, not at all. That mindset is not a reflection of our lived experience, it profoundly shapes our lived experience.

If there’s one thing most of us non-essential workers are living during this pandemic, it’s the blending together of “work time” and “free time.” For those of us with families at home, this blending is making it harder to be productive in a traditional sense. For those without families at home, creating boundaries around work can be especially difficult, since our office is just a few feet away. In both cases the division between work and rest has blurred.

This, then, is a golden opportunity to observe our mental model of the duality, “ease good, effort bad.” It is a golden opportunity to explore finding the ease within the effort, and the effort within the ease.

What we find there is at the heart of a much more sustainable long-term strategy for all of us.