100% of the time

A while back I wrote about the “125% rule,” the idea that having more on your plate than you can really get done as a good thing, because it forces you constantly to triage, to work better and faster and smarter, and to say ‘no’ to things that you shouldn’t really be spending time on.

That post was about work, and this one is about life.  A perfect life is one in which at every moment you are doing exactly what you should be doing.  Whether at work or at home or somewhere in between, you are fully engaged, fully energized, fully yourself.

I’ve never much liked the term “work/life balance” because of the dichotomy it implies – one is good (life), the other is bad (work), and somehow the idea that “work” is anything but “life” is confused at a pretty fundamental level (plus the phrase really is just corporate-speak for “let’s not make people work nights and weekends.”)

I’m much more interested in “balance,” and to me that means living your life in a way that is aligned with your own priorities, beliefs, who you are today, what you value, and who you want to be in the future.

Pulling “balance” off is tricky.  If I break my life up into its component parts – work, spouse, family, friends, time for myself, etc. – it often feels like all of them could use more time.  And if I run that idea over in my head enough times, I flip from a sense of fullness and energy into a perpetual cycle of “I’m not doing enough” in every phase of my life.

Which has led me to ask: if at (nearly) every moment I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, am I even allowed to be stressed about what I’m not getting done?   Because if I’m doing what I need to do at every moment, yet I still have a never-ending list of incomplete “to do’s” in every aspect of my life, it seems like this means one of two things: either I’m spending my time in the right way but have the wrong attitude about what’s possible – and I need to change my aspirations– or I’m not really spending my time in a way that aligns with my priorities.

Or maybe this is just what life feels like in your 30s?

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Is “fundraising” a dirty word?

Continuing yesterday’s thread, I think we might need a new job title.  “Fundraising” is stigmatized – it sounds transaction-y and narrow and kind of like something you don’t want to do.  (If there’s a job out there that no one can fill, then I probably don’t want it, right?)  “Development” is not so great either – too euphemistic.

One approach is to borrow known words from the for-profit sector.  Personally I have no problem with “sales” because I’ve gotten to know lots of incredible salespeople, and I’m not hung up on the “have-I-got-a-deal-for-you” used car salesman baggage (it is so outdated that it’s lost its power).  “Business Development” seems equally OK, since it implies a level of partnership and co-creation that actually captures a lot of what this work really is about.

Everything else seems a little too clever by half, things like:

  • Head of Resource Mobilization
  • Chief Rainmaker
  • Director of Strategic Alliances
  • Capital Raiser Extraordinaire
  • Head Storyteller
  • Philanthropic Adviser (taken)
  • Etc.

If you ask the best fundraisers (and salespeople) what they do they will say things like: “build partnerships,” “steward relationships,” “mobilize resources,” “make connections,” “build networks and tribes,” “tell stories,” and “translate across lines of difference.”  Of course you “raise funds,” but the word has no moxie and I’m skeptical that we’ll succeed in resuscitating it anytime soon.

Maybe this isn’t all that important, but if we know that there’s a need for a new model of “fundraiser,” one with a broader remit, a deeper connection to the mission of the organization, and a defined role of bringing the voice of top stakeholders into strategic decision-making…  well we’ve got a branding problem on our hands.

Any ideas?

Jeff Immelt was a sales guy

Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE, was a sales guy.  So was Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM, and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft.  In fact, Steve Ballmer started in sales at Proctor and Gamble, selling something called the “Coldsnap Freezer Dessert Maker.”   Better yet, while selling the Coldsnap, Steve shared an office with Jeff Immelt, another entry-level sales guy.

When you’re a Fortune 50 company looking for your next CEO, you often pull from the ranks of your top salespeople.  Why?  Because they spend all their time talking to your top customers, who are, in turn, the lifeblood of your business, not just today but into the future.

What about in the nonprofit sector?  A friend of mine who is a very successful nonprofit fundraiser describes fundraising jobs as “the best-paid unfilled jobs in the world,” and while I don’t know all the data, every time I check out the Chronicle of Philanthropy job site I see more unfilled “fund raising” [sic] jobs than any other (today’s count: 233 fundraising, 151 Executive, 98 program, 82 administrative.)  It strikes me that if nonprofit fundraising jobs (sales jobs, right?) were where nonprofit Boards looked for their next CEOs, then this wouldn’t be the case.

My chicken-and-egg question is: why isn’t the “Head of Development” job the proving ground for future nonprofit Executive Directors and CEOs?  Successful EDs and CEOs spend most of their time in external-facing roles (representing the organization, raising funds, working with the Board, creating strategy and positioning and owning the brand and thinking about organizational growth), so shouldn’t at least a typical stepping stone to the CEO role be the top fundraising job?

It isn’t and I wonder if this is because:

  1. Fundraising jobs are confined to the proverbial “boiler room” in the organization – not seen or heard from, with most organizations actively insulating these people from the “important stuff” (including, ironically, interaction with the Board, which is the Executive Director’s job)?
  2. The low status of fundraising self-perpetuates the problem – status is low, so it is hard to get the best people into these roles and harder still to keep them.  As a result, the development staff often isn’t positioned to be the next crop of nonprofit CEOs?
  3. Fundraising professionals, over the years, get so disconnected from the program work that they don’t make good CEOs?
  4. I’m just flat-out wrong – lots and lots of nonprofit CEOs came from careers in nonprofit fundraising?
  5. Something else

This matters because in order to have growth and large-scale impact, nonprofits need to mobilize resources.  And if we could find a way to bring the best people into fundraising roles (however broadly conceived), and if we could groom them to become world-class at mobilizing capital and at creating the best deep, innovative, lasting partnerships, we would take a huge step forward in cultivating a different kind of leader for our sector.

The question I used to hate

For a long time, when interviewing for jobs that I was supposed to want, I prayed that I wouldn’t be asked, “Why do you want to work here?” Because often I didn’t have a clue why I wanted the job.  It often wasn’t my passion.

Now I find myself answering this question nearly every day – not because I’m on the job market (I’m not), but because this is the (often unspoken) question in any fundraising meeting.

“Tell me a little more about yourself,” says the potentially interested donor. Translation: “Tell me why you’ve decided to devote your life to this cause. Tell my why you’re passionate about it, why you believe in the mission, and why you’ve decided to walk this path when so many others with your capabilities are doing something completely different?”

Put another way, “tell me about the commitment YOU’VE made, before we talk about the commitment I might make.”

Every potential donor should ask this question, and every time you or anyone in your organization talks to a potential donor, you need to find a way to tell this story (briefly).

By skipping this, you miss your greatest chance at authentic, personal connection. You miss the chance to talk about your own passion in a personal and genuine way.

Too often, people think their job in a fundraising meeting is to do a dog and pony show about why the organization they work for is so great.  Find the comfort to talk about yourself first, with humility, to tell your own story.

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Not flier-worthy

I was walking down the street today and passed a guy handing out fliers.  He handed them to the guy in front of me, looked me up and down (blazer, slacks and all) and didn’t give me a flier.

Good for him.

The flier probably doesn’t cost more than two cents.  So he’s not saving money.  But he’s decided who his customer is – who he wants to attend the opening or who he wants to buy whatever he’s selling – and he’s decided it isn’t me.

I don’t know if his criteria are right, but at least he knows that some people are in and some are out.

Are you making these kinds of choices, or do you just hand the flier to everyone out of desperation?

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The junk drawer experiment

My house has a junk drawer, somewhere for keys and phone chargers and pens and post-its…and whatever other random things seem like they should be around but don’t have an obvious home.

For the last two years, it’s been almost impossible to close the drawer.

For a while I’d grudgingly clean it every few months, painstakingly sorting through what should stay and what I wanted to throw out.  Invariably, two weeks later it would be overflowing again.

Three months ago I tried something different with the drawer.  I took a plastic bag and dropped everything I didn’t absolutely need from the drawer into the bag.  But I didn’t throw the bag out – I just put it aside.  This way I was comfortable putting a lot more stuff in the bag, instead of leaving things in the drawer that I wasn’t ready to throw out.  I was curious to see how long it took for me to look for something in that bag.

Surprise, surprise: I’m at three months and counting, and I have yet to go look for the bag.  Pretty soon, I’m going to have to admit that I’m ready to throw it and the former contents of the drawer out.

I wonder if there’s any application here to philanthropy – to help us all as givers in our own practice of aparigraha, or non-hoarding? (which is something I talked more about here).  Could you create a vehicle for people (everyday people, not just ultra-high net worth individuals who for lots of reasons create private foundations) to set aside money to see how it feels to live without the money for a while?  Some sort of escrow account that’s practice for giving more, where people could put the money aside with a plan to give but the option to get it back?

How would you structure it?  What would the mechanics be?  Who would you want to have involved – financial institutions, 401(k) providers, non-profits, online giving marketplaces? What would you name it?  How would you spread the word?

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Connection, not Deception

Continuing on the Kiva thread, I wanted to pick up on my previous post where I argue that what Kiva is doing is nothing new, and put a sharper point on my argument.

(But first I have to applaud Kiva for already making prominent changes to its website in explaining how they operate: old vs. new; and old vs. new.)

Saundra Schimmelpfennig of Good Intentions Are Not Enough describes my take on this as “Sasha Ditcher argues in his blog that to get people to donate aid agencies have to use half-truths.”

This isn’t what I think at all.  Lots of nonprofits get lots of people to donate in lots of ways, and it’s simply empirically incorrect to say that they “have to use half-truths.”  Most don’t; some do.  I firmly believe that transparency and accountability will win; that, especially now, any organization that makes claims that it cannot support will lose (faith, trust, brand, credibility, donors) in the end.

What I’m saying is that “give to help this person” pitch is both true enough and compelling enough that it’s not going anywhere, no matter what we wish for.

Why is it so compelling?

A parable: imagine you’re walking in the woods on a crisp fall day, the leaves have just begun to turn, and you can see your breath as you crunch down the still trail.  You come upon a clearing and see mist rising above a flat, wide lake, and across the lake and close to the opposite shore you see a single rowboat.  As you approach, you notice the boat is rocking and you catch a glimpse of the boater’s face, agitated.  She whips her head around to see you, and starts waving frantically.  “O my gosh!!!” she gasps.  “Thank goodness!!  Please help me!!  My boat has a leak and I don’t know how to swim!  I’m going to drown!  Please help me!”

You will swim into the water and help.  Nearly everyone will.

Now change the story.  The lake is in a park, and fifty people are around.  What are the odds you’re going to help?  Low.  And in fact the odds that nobody helps are better than you’d think.

Need proof?  According to newspaper accounts, in 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death by a serial rapist and murderer.  The killing took place over the course of nearly half an hour, and 38 people witnessed the attack and did nothing – they didn’t even call the police.  This wasn’t an isolated incident.  It is easily replicated by social psychologists, enough that it’s been coined the “bystander effect.”

As Saundra points out, there are lots of reasons to bystand when faced with people in need half a world away: maybe someone else will give; maybe the money I give won’t get there; maybe it will be mismanaged.  The reasons not to give are so compelling that it reminds us that each time someone does give it is an act of generosity, of faith, and of trust.

How do you counteract the natural tendency to do nothing?  Kiva gives us at least one very compelling answer. Create an experience for a potential donor that’s as similar to walking by a lake alone with one person in danger.  How does Kiva do it?  They present this potential donor with:

  • A specific borrower
  • With a real story with strong emotional content
  • Needing a specific amount of money
  • With a deadline
  • And the ability to see what happened to that person
  • And they present this all to a web-savvy, 21st century consumer who has lots of experience clicking on things online and having real things happen (e.g. when they use Amazon)

The ask is concrete, tangible, direct, has emotional content, a feedback loop, and it’s presented to someone who is used to using online tools.  It’s brilliant, and it’s well-executed.

And let’s remember: these are real people who are getting real loans from real microfinance organizations and really paying them back.  And Heifer International really is buying livestock that goes to real people in the developing world.

It does seem like Kiva is already making some adjustments, and my guess is that they will lead the pack given their commitment to transparency.  But just last month I received an email from another international NGO titled “Help millions of women like me” with a personal letter from one woman whose story was alternately heart-wrenching and triumphant.  It’s a true story, it’s compelling, and it’s not going anywhere.

To summarize:

  • Do I think that giving to individual people in need is ever going to get to the root of the problems of poverty in the world?  No.
  • Do I think that there’s some blurring of the lines of what exactly is happening versus the appearance of what is happening when a nonprofit says “help someone like me”? Probably.
  • Do I think that fundraising in this way ultimately serves to undermine the hugely important role the nonprofit itself plays, inevitably leading to the spurious conclusion that all “overhead” should be minimized so nearly all of the dollar given goes to the person in need?  Yes.
  • Do I think that we desperately need both nonprofits and donors to lead with a different story that has strong emotional content and connection AND that helps us build real, large-scale solutions that work to solve these problems in a fundamental way?  Absolutely.
  • And do I think that the “help this one person” ask is going away, ever?  No chance.

The good news is, conversations like the one that just flared up around Kiva will keep the system in balance, and there are more tools than ever to create this kind of accountability.

But the real challenge is for all nonprofits to look at the Kiva playbook and really understand why their ask is so effective.  We need better stories to donors that explain all the nuance, challenge, importance and complexity of this work, but these stories will only serve their purpose if they have all the concrete, tangible, direct, and emotional content that Kiva creates for hundreds of thousands of people every day.

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Kiva Community Conference Call

The Kiva conversation continues vigorously online, including nice summaries by Sean (Donors Choose v. Kiva and Philanthropy Daily Digest) and Nathanial which are definitely worth reading.  For those interested in a live conversation, dial in to Kiva’s next community conference call on October 20th at 3pm U.S. Pacific time.

Dial in US: 866-740-1260 Access Code: 6415483

Dial in (Outside US): +1 303-248-0285 Access Code: 6415483

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Kiva Customers Don’t Receive the Loans you Give

If I wanted to get your attention, that’s the headline I’d write.  Strictly speaking, it’s true.  And when you only have a minute to grab someone’s attention, isn’t it your job to grab their attention?

That in essence is what’s at the core of the conversation that’s swelled up over the last two weeks about Kiva.  David Roodman’s “Kiva Is Not Quite What It Seems” post kicked things off; Tim Ogden took things further in his post on the Philanthropy Action blog, and Sean Stannard-Stockton provided the definitive summary of the conversation, with his take on it, on the Tactical Philanthropy blog in a post titled “Is Kiva Misleading the Publc?

Here’s the low-down: you can log on to Kiva, find a microfinance client in the developing world who needs a loan, and fund that person.  The catch is that that person has already received their loan.   In fact all the clients on the Kiva website have already received their loans.  The microfinance organizations that gets money from Kiva does receive those funds, but the funds don’t go to that individual client.   The GiveWell blog provides the picture that’s worth a thousand words by showing what the Kiva donor is told (graphically) and what the microfinance organization is told.

The thing is, what Kiva’s doing is nothing new.  Heifer International raises tens of millions of dollars a year by sending out millions of catalogs that are every bit as sophisticated as the LL Bean or J Crew catalogs, only instead of buying rugby shirts you buy a chicken or a cow for a family in the developing world.  But you’re not really buying that chicken or that cow.  On the bottom of every page for every cow or chicken or trio of rabbits you “give” to someone, there’s a small-print disclaimer:

Gifts made through this catalog represent a gift to the entire mission. To help the most number of families move toward self-reliance, Heifer does not use its limited resources to track gift animals from donation to distribution. We use your gifts where they can do the most good by pooling them with the gifts of others to help transform entire communities. And, because you are helping Heifer fight hunger and poverty, your gift is tax deductible.

So the gift of a cow isn’t buying a cow, just like the Kiva loan isn’t going to that actual Kiva borrower.

Before we get on our philanthropic high horse, let’s be clear about what is and isn’t true here.  To keep it as simple as possible, imagine you run a nonprofit that provides food aid to people struck by natural disaster.  The simplest story goes:

  1. People are suffering as a result of this natural disaster
  2. One can buy food for one person who is hungry for one week for $10
  3. We’re in the business of buying this food
  4. So give us $10 and we’ll buy the food.

And when you’re writing a catchy headline to get a high open rate for your emails, you’ll lead with “A $10 gift will buy someone food for a week.”  This is, strictly speaking, true.

So the question here isn’t really about truth, it’s about how big a sin of omission each nonprofit can and should commit as they play this game.  Is it the responsibility of the nonprofit sector and donors alike to break down the myth that each gift does or doesn’t buy a specific thing?  And will those who take the high road ever win out in the marketplace of ideas?  It’s an empirical fact that people give more to help one person than to help many (check out this excerpt from Made to Stick for the startling experimental data), and this is wired deep into our brains, it’s not something that was created by the nonprofit sector.

Which is why I think Nathanial Whitttemore has it right when he says that this “problem” is here to stay, namely that nonprofits will, by and large, tell almost-truths to their donors – focusing on a specific connection between their dollars and a given outcome – and that a major shift for the majority of the giving population won’t happen any time soon (if ever), even though as professionals our aspiration might be to change the narrative to investing in nonprofit organizations, as Sean suggests.  It’s a good aspiration, and we should keep at it, but it will never be the bread and butter for most nonprofits or for most donors.

It is true that philanthropists who makes major giving decisions and give considerable time and energy to these decisions have the opportunity to break this cycle; and the supporting infrastructure of philanthropic advising has an opportunity to push this conversation forward, aided by nonprofits who are willing and able to tell a different story.  But let’s not pretend that we will someday divide the world into two, with the masses being duped into emotional decisions that get them to dig into their wallets while major donors dig in deep analytically and primarily make educated, highly rational, institutional-building investments.  If it doesn’t happen in the stock market, why will it happen here?

All givers are essentially the same, essentially human, making rational and emotional decision based on the information they have and the amount of time they have to give to their giving decisions.  The emotional connection is the starting (and often ending) point for everyone, and what matters is the ability of every individual donor (whether they give $20 or $20 million) to insert themselves into the narrative of a particular nonprofit organization, the problem they’re addressing, and the role that the philanthropist and their gift have in addressing that problem.

The “your money buys this” message isn’t going anywhere soon. If anything, what Kiva and Charity:Water and DonorsChoose have shown is that there’s a way to take this approach and adapt it to 21st century tools – so that you can see an online photo of the microloan recipient or the well that was dug or the classroom that was helped — if not directly by your money, at least by that same amount of money as the amount you gave.  It’s interesting that making this association more visible and tangible is calling into question the veracity of these claims (no one’s writing about Heifer, right?), when in fact all Kiva et al are doing is strengthening a tried-and-true narrative.  The mechanics of gift -> organization -> recipient haven’t changed one bit.

If you think about it, it’s nearly impossible to change these mechanics and run an efficient, global nonprofit.  So why are we all acting so surprised?

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The real role of mentors and coaches

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old one-liner.


But practice what?  Diligence and hard work aren’t enough – you have to know where to place your energy.

At first, the roadmap can seem pretty clear.  You want to get good grades?  The teachers will tell you what to study.  Want to be a good analyst at your first job?  Your boss and peers will tell you what to do, and it’s up to you to do it.

Most of this is about someone else setting up the rules of the game and you trying to win against that set of rules.  And as you progress in your career, you decide which the skills and behaviors you want to master and you work to improve them.

For example, here’s the illustrative chart for how you get better at public speaking:

Skills 2

So if you want to become a public speaker (Aptitude), there’s a set of identifiable Skills (e.g. projecting confidence, engaging the audience, having a good and varied speaking voice, being a storyteller, etc.) that matter, and you might be good (filled in circle) or not-so-good (empty circle) at these skills and at the behaviors that support these skills.  Simple enough, if you put in the effort.

And if you do put in this effort, if you’re a “sawgot” (someone who gets things done), you will over the years systematically pick off the skills and behaviors you need to work on to improve on the aptitudes you’d like to master.

This is likely a lifelong endeavor, and while it’s part of the answer it isn’t the whole story.  At a certain point you need to get underneath all of this and find new points for leverage.

The “underneath it all” are your attitude and assumptions – both about other people and about yourself.

Skills 3

I think of the top three levels (Aptitudes / Skills / Behaviors) as “What I do and How I Act” and Attitudes/Assumptions as “Who I am and How I See the Word.”  It’s Attitudes and Assumptions that are the the bigger leverage points if you can get to them; and these becomes increasingly important over the course of your life (since you’ve already come a long way at mastering behaviors and skills, right?).

More specifically, you’re carrying around a set of assumptions that colors your own sense of where you do and don’t excel, along with a story that explains why.  So for example you might have decided long ago “I’m not a good public speaker because I’m not a creative storyteller.”

For both parts of this sentence (“I’m not a good public speaker” and “because I’m not a creative storyteller.”) you could be 100% right or 100% wrong (or somewhere in between).  For example, maybe you’re only an OK public speaker but it has nothing to do with how well you tell stories (do people laugh at your jokes?).  The assumption about why will color where you put in effort, and you might be completely misdiagnosing what’s going on. So you might be putting in lots of effort into “storytelling skills” when what actually happened is that you’re carrying around the wrong mental model of what makes for a good presentation (stand up and present a bunch of boring slides).  It ain’t that you’re a below-average storyteller.

And this is where I think coaches and mentors come in.  I used to think that mentors were mostly for “what am I going to do with my life” conversations, but I’ve found out that that most people, other than you, are very poorly placed to answer that question (the best they can do is give you information about the different paths out there).

But if you can build relationships of trust and honesty with people who know and respect you and who know more than you about (at least) some things; and if over time you can develop a shared sense of who you want to become; then you have the opportunity to dig in to this conversation at the level of assumptions – the story you carry around about yourself that informs all the time and effort you’re putting in to your own development.

What this requires of you is cultivating these relationships of trust plus a willingness to go all the way to your assumptions about yourself when talking to these people.  This can be hard, because these stories, these assumptions we carry around, our personal narratives…these usually run straight to the core.

But imagine the impact if, in one conversation, someone is able to reflect back to you that just one assumption you’ve been carrying around for your whole life is plain wrong.  If someone were, in a single comment, able to show you that the circles you thought were empty were in fact filled in, and vice-versa…that it’s the story you’ve been telling yourself that needs adjusting, not the things you do (which are just tactics, after all).

If I were a betting man, I’d say the wrong assumptions you’re carrying around are about something you think you’re not good at…when in fact you already pretty good or even great.

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