Old Dog, New Tricks

old dogs, new tricks

It is simply not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Yes, you might not be able to teach an old dog to run as fast, or jump as high, or even see as well. Old has its disadvantages, to be sure. But old dogs are actually better than young ones at learning new tricks: they have better attention spans, and are less easily distracted.

No, the old dog’s problem is the old tricks: having spent a lifetime getting positive reinforcement for those old tricks, she just can’t seem to let them go.

If you are one of my many non-dog readers, think about it for a minute: isn’t what got us here all our old tricks? And aren’t we quite well-trained to seek the praise get when we do them?

Couple the power of that lifetime of reinforcement with our recommended daily allowance of pride, fear, unwillingness to admit fallibility and surrender authority. Then top that with a cherry of the smidge of shame we anticipate if we try something new and unproven in front of other dogs. After all of that, we may not even know if we’re any good at new tricks, because there’s so much underbrush to clear away before we even let ourselves get started.

Perhaps we can motivate ourselves by another adage, this one less famous but more useful: if we fight for our limitations and win, our prize is that we get to keep them.

Symptoms and causes

You tweak your knee and start limping a little, only to find that your lower back on the other side starts to ache.

Your job has gotten overwhelming, you are working too many hours, and now, no matter what kind of day you had, you’re finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Two colleagues have misaligned expectations for who will do what, the deliverables get botched, and, going into the next client presentation, they are reticent to work together.

We’re all told to work on the root cause, and not just the symptoms. But often the symptoms become just as real as the thing that caused them – whether pain in your back, learned anxiety, or another deliverable that’s not up to snuff.

If the thing you can work on today is the symptom, and you know how to do that work, then that’s the right place to start.

Often, we behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

 

Perseverate

Perseverate: to repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.

Put more simply, it’s continuing to react in the same way even though the situation is different.

It’s the narrative that says:

“We need this in order to…”

“I know I’m the kind of person who…”

“I always…”

Not always.

Maybe not even today.

Three Realities

Consider three realities:

  1. Who you are
  2. Who you think you are
  3. Who others think you are

Consider three sources of information:

  1. The actions you take
  2. What you see about the actions you take
  3. What those around you see and hear about the actions you take

It’s nice to think that the stories about us are written all around number 1 type things. It’s nice to believe that who people see us to be is who we really are.

In truth, people form and affirm impressions based on what they see and hear about the actions we take. So, to change minds, we must change what people see and hear.

This starts, every time, by doing great work. Work full of care and love and conviction and joy. If we don’t do that, then there really is no point, is there?

But that is not enough.

A good friend once told me that we should think of ourselves as Sherpas who must scale the mountain twice: once as we do good work, and once as we care for the story that is told about this work.

It might feel challenging, even disingenuous, to consciously think about what people see and hear about us: shouldn’t we just do great work and have that speak for itself?

Yes, and no.

All work arrives with a story wrapper, and part of that story is the story of you.

There’s no harm in directly attending to that story as well, especially if there’s a big gap between what you do and what is directly seen and heard by those whose minds you seek to change.

 

(Related: it’s also the case that “who we are” and “the stories we tell ourselves about who we are” also aren’t one and the same thing. But that’s a post for another day).

A New Algorithm

The definition of the word algorithm is “a process that solves a recurrent problem.”

We come up against recurrent problems all the time. Here’s a list of things that are decidedly not a process:

. Wishing the problem didn’t keep cropping up

. Continuing to do things in the same way

. Ignoring the problem

. Working on other, smaller issues

. Getting frustrated

. Keeping your best ideas about a better process to yourself

. Talking about a new process, acting like you care a lot about doing things differently, but then continuing to act in the old ways

. Complaining

. Shooting down suggestions about doing things differently

. Blaming the people around you for not solving the problem

Your recurrent problems deserve a new algorithm.

Diagnosis, Effort, and Capability

My six-year old daughter was moving nicely through her 7-minute piano practice session the other day when we opened up the music to a piece called Toy Soldiers. This piece breaks new ground for her by having not one but two Gs in it (up until that point she’d only played between the A and F around Middle C).

She instantly burst into tears, poor thing. “It’s too hard, I can’t do it!”

Needless to say she absolutely can do it, and did do it almost immediately after she calmed down. But even after that, this piece is still resolutely in the “too hard” category in her mind.

It’s more obvious when it’s a six-year-old who’s decided she can’t play a G, but we all do this: decide that we have some sort of limitation of our own capability when really what we’ve gotten wrong is the diagnosis.

Diagnosis of how big the problem is.

Diagnosis of what it will take to overcome it.

And most of all, mis-diagnosis of the fact that what’s keeping us from doing it is the decision that we can’t do it.

Diagnosis is our fundamental leverage point, on problems big and small. It’s the step we rush through too quickly when we think we have the solution, the step we get wrong when we’re comfortable with the way things are, and the step that is the beginning of the breakthrough when we allow ourselves the space to see clearly.

After good diagnosis comes effort, and it’s true that that bit can be hard: sustained effort, emotional effort, these things require both commitment and endurance.

But capability? The actual lack of capacity to do something? That is almost never the real problem.

People don’t change their minds

I feel like I need to write “People don’t change their minds, they change how they feel,” 100 times on the chalkboard, like Charlie Brown, in the hopes that it will someday fully sink in.

Yes, I’ve heard different versions of this point repeated time and again, by everyone from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow to storytelling gurus Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard.

The metaphor is: think of the human mind as composed of an elephant and a rider. Elephants are people’s emotional and instinctive reactions, the rider is our rational brain. Guess who wins when they disagree? Per Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard:

Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

The irony is that reading this alone, by definition, won’t make me, or you, believe it. Until your elephant experiences this in a way it understands, it’s just an idea floating out there like any other, one that won’t change your behavior.

Our inability to live this truth plays out in elections (“don’t they understand he’ll make a terrible President?!”), in fundraising pitches (“I’ll show them the facts and they’ll understand how important this is”) and everywhere in between. We think storytelling and emotional connection is a nice way to start and end a pitch, a cute way to open and close, and forget that these moments are the pitch. The connection to people’s emotional and intuitive selves are the things that direct and point the elephant in one direction or another, while the facts and analysis we present are used by our audience to justify a decision they’ve already made.

Let me try it again:

Bonus: the single best piece I’ve read on this topic, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitation of reason from February’s New Yorker.

Two roads

When you write, when you speak publicly, there are two roads you can walk.

On the first road, your goal is to get people to believe you, to agree with what you’re saying, to consider you smart, credible, maybe even funny. On this road you communicate expertise and mastery. You amaze them with your technique and your wit. There’s a lot of entertainment value.

“She was such a great speaker, wasn’t she? I just felt so good after hearing her talk!”

On the second road, the only barometer for success is how much you mobilize them to act. This road is about showing a gap in the world that is unacceptable, maybe even a bit ugly, and helping them to see that they are the ones who can fill it. This talk creates passion, it ignites emotions, and, most important, it creates tension and discomfort that are only resolved through action.

Their reaction isn’t about how great you were, it’s about what they now have to do.

Which one are you going for?

“They Just Don’t Get It”

What do you do when the values, the culture, or the (new and improved!) strategy of your organization aren’t translating into the behaviors you’d like to see? What steps do you take when the shifts in thinking and action that you worked so hard to develop aren’t visible in how people show up every day?

Often, when a message isn’t resulting in visible change, it’s tempting to rewrite or to double underline the message. A diagnosis of a communications failure means that it’s time to communicate more and better – to shout more loudly clearly until the message lands.

But what if something else is going on?

There’s a theory that each and every organization is perfectly aligned to deliver exactly the results that it wants to deliver. Not the results (and accordant behaviors) it says it wants, but the results it actually wants.

Under this view, it’s not that people aren’t hearing the message. Rather, they are attuned to multiple messages on multiple levels, and the messages that are landing the most are the ones that are 100% aligned with the way they’re behaving today.

If this is what’s happening, then shouting louder accomplishes nothing. Indeed, it could feed a credibility gap if you insist you want a set of thing but your day-to-day actions, policies, or language express something else.

The bigger lift is to look in the mirror and ask if the new message is true:

Where do we talk about a set of values but fall short of demonstrating them?

Where do we espouse that we want to see a set of behaviors and then fail to support the people who try to demonstrate them?

Where do we come up short in living the message?

Resolutions and Priorities

I don’t make a lot of New Year’s resolutions. I feel like once a year is too infrequent to reset my goals, and I also believe that change comes because we build the muscle of making small shifts that snowball into bigger results.

That said, with a whole year stretching before us, and with a little time away to get away from work and to reflect, we do have a nice opportunity to think about what we’d like 2016 to hold for us.

My suggestion for any resolutions you’ve made, or the ones you’re still cooking up? Go deeper.

Meaning, resolutions are often articulated as activities (“Go to the gym more”) instead of at the level of priorities. This is why we don’t keep them: because the way we’re currently behaving is perfectly aligned with our current (unstated, underexamined) priorities.

While it is possible to behave our way into new priorities, we’ll succeed more often when we take the time to dig deep into what our current priorities – and their associated beliefs and attitudes – really are.

As in:

Is it really impossible for me to find two free hours a day for sustained work on difficult problems, or am I just unwilling to take the short term pain of saying “no” to two more meetings each day?

Do I truly care about creating value in our current system, or would I rather communicate through my actions everything that’s wrong with the status quo? (output be damned)

Do I really need 15 minutes every hour to “unwind” with online nonsense, or is that just a way for me to hide?

What do I care more about, sleep or exercise?

What matters most to me, avoiding disapproval from everyone or making something that changes everything for just 10 people?

What are the moments, the people, the activities in my day that make me feel energized, connected, and happy? Who is stopping me from spending more of my time in these situations?

Here’s to a year of examined priorities, of courage, of great leaps. Here’s to a year of embracing who we are and a year of having the conviction and commitment to start becoming who we can become.

Here’s to a great 2016.