Strengths, and Weaknesses

I got back on my yoga mat this morning for the first time in a long, long time.   I used to have a regular practice, but my days keep getting fuller, my kids are going to bed later, and time is squeezed.

Yoga is a healing practice, and lately, without yoga, I’ve been walking around only noticing the things in my body that hurt a bit: my left knee, thanks to a torn ACL 20 years ago; one of the joints in my left foot; my right Achilles tendon that I tweaked a bit playing squash; the rotator cuff on my right shoulder that is still only back to 90% three years after an over-zealous week of vacation-tennis. As I walk down the street, I cycle through a broken record of “knee, toe, heel, shoulder….” as I notice the discomforts.

On the yoga mat, things feel a little different. I had a yoga teacher years ago, a guy named Rolf Gates, who, only joking a little bit, would demonstrate a flowing series of yoga poses and say, in his booming voice, “Now, say to yourself while doing these poses, ‘I am the most beautiful yogi in the world!’” It was silly, but it also made us all move with a little more poise, a little more grace. Being on the mat is a chance to feel more – to feel the parts that ache a bit, sure, but also to feel yourself being strong, graceful, and balanced.

It is so easy to walk around feeling only what hurts, to feel only the parts that aren’t working. We hear feedback about something we did wrong, and that becomes our whole story for a day, a week, sometimes even months or years. The perceived faults and shortcomings become everything, the throbbing knee or aching tendon that are the only things in our consciousness; while the things that went great, the thing that come easy to us, all of the areas where we shine, fade away.

Let us recognize the areas where we are still falling short, our niggling injuries that hold us back. But let us never let them eclipse all of the things that make us special, the things that are in clear view to everyone except – sometimes – us.

Synchronized parking

Walking down West 15th street at 8:50am the other day, I watched a big NYC street sweeping truck rumble down one side of the street.  That side of the street was clear of cars because of New York’s alternate-side parking regulations: it’s illegal to park on the north side of 15th street from 8:30 to 10:00am on Mondays and Thursdays.

So far, nothing remarkable going on here.

Then, within seconds of the street sweeper passing by, three cars, as if on cue from some invisible maestro, swung simultaneously to the other side of the street, with the grace and unison of synchronized swimmers.  I’d never seen cars do ballet before.

The sign said no parking until 10am, but at 8:51, they’d moved to the other side of the street.  Were they all ready to wait another 69 minutes, or do they know that once the street sweeper passes by, they’re not getting a ticket?

The exact point is that I don’t know the answer here but they do.  Why?  Because they’re the real insiders, who care the most (about that parking spot), who know how the rules are played, who understand all the constraints and limitations and where rules can be bent.

There are a lot of rules that are in place for good reasons (we need clean streets), lots of norms that tell us what we can and cannot do that are a great guide for our actions.  And there are those that aren’t.

Figuring out which is which takes time.

This is why there are no shortcuts, why mastery takes 10,000 hours, why people who seem to bend the world to their will soon discover, once they’ve done it once, that they can do it again and again.

(It’s also why caring the most matters.  Whether those folks in the three cars waited there for 5 minutes or 69 minutes, they got those parking spots for free for the next three days.)

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For those who liked yesterday’s post about Kevin Kelly, his essay from the book is available on Kevin’s blog.

We can’t argue about pinball any more

It was my first summer internship at my first real job.  One day at lunch I had a mock-heated discussion with a colleague about whether pinball was a game of skill or luck.  I argued for “skill” and as evidence offered up the fact that pinball tournaments exist in the world, which wouldn’t make sense for a game that’s pure luck.

My colleague didn’t believe me.  He claimed that there was no such thing as a pinball tournament.

And so a bet was struck: I needed to prove, irrefutably and by the end of the workday, that pinball tournaments existed.

This involved rushing back to my desk, finding a Yellow Pages, searching for pinball dealers in the Washington, DC area, and, from there, cobbling together a list of contacts until someone would send me a faxed entry form for an upcoming pinball tournament.

Of course this story is quaint today because we can no longer argue for more than a few seconds about this sort of thing.   If this were happening today, the argument would be resolved between sandwich bites by typing “pinball tournaments” into someone’s smartphone.

Less romantic, more efficient.

The fact is that nothing factual is out of reach these days.  While it wasn’t out of reach 20 years ago when I made this bet, the friction has been reduced to zero.  So if you want to know the difference between a Roth IRA and a regular IRA; if you want to know what “suited connectors” are in Texas Hold ‘Em and when to play them; if you want to learn how to knit or sharpen a knife or which mortgage is right for you or even what this whole debt ceiling debate is really about….well all of these answers are literally a click away.

So our ignorance about any topic is, in the most literal sense, willful in a way it never was before.  This is great news for people willing to make two (just two!) decisions:

  1. To be the kind of person who seeks answers, even when it’s scary
  2. To choose where to deepen your knowledge and to act on that decision by spending your time accordingly

That’s it.

No more pinball arguments, but so much more freedom for those willing to take that first step.

20-80-100 and Adjacent Possibility

Katya and I were comparing notes last week about our blogs and the experience of blogging.

One of the biggest impacts blogging has had on me is that it forces me to develop thoughts that would normally remain 20% developed (in the form of casual observation) and form them into blog posts, which are about 80% fleshed out.  (Katya and I both agreed that we’d leave the 100% development of ideas to professional journalists like Ellen McGirt at Fast Company…there’s something nice about the leeway blogging gives you not to be perfect, and in fact I think it’s just this leeway that gives space for creativity.)

Think about the impact, over years, of systematically taking ideas that are partially developed and developing them fully.  Think about what you learn over time, both at the level of the individual idea – because the act of writing takes you places you didn’t know you’d go – and over time, from repeating this action every day.

I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From – I’ll review it fully when I’m finished, as it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.  The foundational idea in the book is that great ideas are formed in the “adjacent possible” space, the space that’s right at the edge of understanding of a particular problem you’re working to solve.  Breakthrough insights typically come from the reassembly and reconfiguration of existing ideas that are right at the edge of what you know and what you don’t know.

This feels 100% right to me.  Generosity Day, for example, grew out of my Generosity Experiment more than a year ago, coupled with the experience of helping create Search for the Obvious at Acumen Fund (really the brainchild of James Wu), along with the ongoing hunch I’d carried around for 14 months (and explored occasionally in other blog posts) that there was something bigger that could and should come of my personal exploration of generosity.  Generosity Day was sitting in my adjacent possible space, and it took the panel at Social Media Week and the ensuing discussion with the other panelists to crystallize the “aha!” moment – that we were three days away from Generosity Day 2011, we just didn’t know it.

And if that’s right, then what serious bloggers do every day is expand – inch by inch, bit by bit – their own space of adjacent possibility.

Perseverance

You don’t need it when people are cheering you on, when sales are piling up, when the press is pounding down your door, when you’re getting praise and are in the limelight.

You do if you ever want to get there.

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Be a Sawgot (SWGTD)

Are you a “sawgot,” Someone Who Gets Things Done?

If you’re not now, what would it take?

With an ever-shifting economy, and all of the challenges in the job market, I can think of few skills more universal than being a sawgot.  Because when it’s crunch time and something absolutely needs to happen, the people in charge look at each other and say, “OK, we need our ace right now.  The game’s on the line.”  And you want to be that ace.

Being a sawgot is about a mindset and an outlook: having the humility not to ask “why am I doing something that’s not in my job description?” and the wisdom to know that moment you’ve become the kind of person who reliably makes problems go away, you’ve become indispensable.

This is particularly valuable early in your career, when you’re looking to stand out.  If you work in the kind of organization that creates opportunities and moves quickly, the sawgot’s ability to move a project forward, on time and without (visibly) breaking a sweat is the kind of thing that gets you noticed (and if it doesn’t get you noticed, go work somewhere where it does).

Speed, accuracy, an ability to ask the right questions to get enough clarity to do what is being asked of you…these are the starting point.  There is also a trove of really basic skills that you just need to have – and which there’s no excuse not to have mastered by now.  You:

  • Create clean, attractive, simple slides in Powerpoint: few words, great images, tell a story (this implies some facility with Photoshop).
  • Generally “do stuff” with ease in Excel (this includes formulas and pivot tables and some data analysis and text-to-columns and Lookups).
  • Write clearly, concisely, quickly, and at the right level of detail
  • Manage projects against deadlines, and get things done early
  • Never let things fall through the cracks
  • Know how to create content for the web (including poking into the code here and there if you need to) – and are comfortable creating and sharing multimedia quickly and easily
  • Reliably create narratives from a set of inchoate inputs / sources
  • Know just a little bit more than your boss about what’s new and useful in the world, including but not limited to the online world

The skills allow you to dance at the party, but the sawgot’s ATTITUDE gets you in the door.  You don’t want to jump into so many things that you cannot do your day job, but if, right now, you’re not working on one or two things that you’d describe as, “this is outside of the scope of what I do, but it really matters that our team/group/organization/company gets this right,” then it’s time to put up your hand and say, “how can I help?” or “why haven’t you asked me to help?”

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Darn breakthroughs

Turns out they only happen after you’ve been chipping away for so long and working so hard, you almost forget what it felt like when you started.

Next chisel, please…

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The full court press

I just loved Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article in the New Yorker, “How David Beats Goliath.”  It aims to explain nothing less than why and in what situations the weak beat the strong.

Like any good story it has a likeable but complex protagonist, some twists and turns, and plenty of surprises.  It weaves together the fate of a 12-year-old-girls’ basketball team, former all-Pro running back Roger Craig, a successful immigrant entrepreneur, wars throughout history, renowned NCAA coach Rick Pitino, and Laurence of Arabia.  What’s not to like?

My favorite line out of many great lines: “Relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.”

Over the last decade, relentless effort has gotten a bad rap.  The Internet and Wall Street booms both reinforced the myth of the overnight success.  Have a great idea for selling dog food online?  Internet millions!  Are you 25 years old, smart, confident and good with numbers?  Here’s your million dollar bonus.  Are you gutsy enough to buy a house with no money down and resell it a year later?  You too can be rich!

Sure, it’s nice to dream big and have inspirational icons, but at some point as a society we end up undervaluing hard work and making collective bad decisions based on a something-for-nothing mentality that works fabulously until the music stops and lots of good, hard working people are left holding the bag.

So now we all have to get back to work.  Hard work.  And this presents two challenges: first, you have to be willing to do the work.  And that means every day, for years, long after the thrill of getting started has passed and the early glimmers of attention (which paint the outlines of what might someday be possible) have faded.  This is the hard part.

Harder still: where exactly should you place your effort?

This is about finding your own highest and best use and leaning your shoulder into that wheel.  Hard work in the wrong situation or on the wrong problem won’t get you there (though that may be part of the learning and discovery process).

So be willing to do the work, and be open to crazy-sounding ideas that may work better than what everyone else is up to.

In basketball, apparently, that’s the full-court press.  What it is for what you do?

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