The Difference Between Discomfort and Injury

Every athlete knows that aches and pains are part of the process. Especially as we get older, something always hurts a bit.

The challenge is distinguishing between aches and injuries.

For an ache, the best approach is to continue to work the area to promote healing. Usually a slightly different activity is best, but, counter-intuitively, healing happens faster through more use of the affected area. This increases blood flow and stretches and strengthens the supporting muscles and tendons.

Injuries, on the other hand, require rest. We suspend activity, ice the area, maybe immobilize it until it stabilizes and is ready to be built up again.

These truths apply to our mind and hearts, not just to our bodies.

When we are challenged emotionally, when we take what feels like a professional risk and fall short, we often misdiagnose the difference between discomfort and injury. Any blow – in the form of embarrassment, a critique, a sale we didn’t close, a displeased client – hurts our ego.

It can feel like an injury, but it’s usually just discomfort.

If we allow ourselves the mistake of bandaging up and immobilizing that new muscle that we’ve just used the first time, healing will take forever.

What this new muscle really needs is more work and more effort, so it can be strengthened.

Baby steps

We’re sometimes confounded by the big changes we want to make.

We get a glimpse of the person we hope to become, or a new behavior we hope to engage in, and nearly immediately find ourselves frustrated that we’ve not suddenly mastered that new set of actions. This isn’t how we change.

Real, honest, deep change starts small and builds, with steps like:

I will observe my reactions.

I will understand what triggers me.

I will watch the group.

I will experiment with new ways to respond.

I will be more observant about how people react to the things I do, and about how I react to the things they do.

Step by small step is the only way we get to bigger things like “I will stay grounded in stressful situations,” or “I will be more effective at confronting aggressive people.”

We owe ourselves the space to start small, figure out the component parts of the change we want to make, and then be deliberate and persistent. Our job is to go easy on ourselves along the way, while also not letting ourselves off the hook of continued progress.

Looking backwards the changes will look like leaps, but often they’re the accumulation of lots and lots of baby steps.

 

Attaining excellence

Continuing on the theme from last week’s post from Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families, I also appreciated the book’s inquiry into how we attain excellence.

American families are obsessed with having their kids play organized sports, so Feiler took to investigating where great athletes come from.  He turned to research by psychologist Benjamin Bloom who, in the 1980’s, analyzed the trajectories of world-class performers in six different areas, “concert pianists, Olympic swimmers, sculptors, tennis players, mathematicians, and neurologists.”

Bloom’s results, documented in Developing Talent in Young People, are surprising:

The child who ‘made it’ was not always the one who was considered to be the most ‘talented.’  Many parents said another one of their children had more ‘natural ability.’  So what distinguished the high achiever from the underachieving sibling?  ‘A willingness to work and a desire to excel,’ Bloom wrote.  The most common words used were persistence, determination, and eagerness.

While I’m not specifically interested in what makes star athletes, I’m hugely interested in people reaching their full potential, and Bloom’s observations ring true.  Time and again, the people I meet who are exceptional are the ones who have decided that they are going to be great at something.

Recently I heard Maria Popova, the now-famous Brain Pickings blogger, describe her path from college to where she is today.  Maria hated college but discovered that she loved discovery, she loved self-directed learning.  And so she started exploring and writing about what she was learning and sharing it on a blog.  It was hard work, it sounded pretty lonely, and it didn’t pay anything.  For four full years Maria gutted things out, barely getting by, and doing her work.  In just one telling illustration, Maria decided she needed to take a computer course to learn how to code for her own blog.  The only problem was that she was broke.  So Maria chose to eat beans and tuna for weeks to save up the money she needed for one HTML course.  And that was just one step on her long journey to becoming Maria Popova.  One of a thousand decisions she made to do the work she needed to do.  Maria didn’t spend four lonely years waiting to get discovered, she spent four years honing her craft to become someone worth discovering.

In some ways Maria’s story is familiar: the heroic figure who toils in obscurity for years and then breaks through.  But there’s a danger in this heroic narrative.  It insulates us from the story, it allows us to trick ourselves into thinking that because we are not heroes, because we’re doing what we’re doing and not what they did (*gasp* because we JUST have a job) that we don’t have the potential to transform or the right to be great.

Part of the problem, I think, is that when you have a job you see all the signposts of title and official job responsibility and, yes, how much you are paid.   The concreteness of those external markers supersedes the much more important personal reckoning of discovering who we are and where we are in our own development.  Instead, we play by the rules of whatever system we are in, and in the process we create a numbing separation from the work we do.  We make an uneven exchange of “persistence, determination and eagerness” for doing what needs to be done to get the kinds of rewards bestowed by the system we are in.  And then we get frustrated because the system doesn’t give us what we really want AND we aren’t growing the way we hoped we would grow.

One way to break the cycle is to wake up to the fact that we have greatness inside of us and to find the joy in creating what we are meant to create in this world – even if today we are creating just a small part of it.  The simple act of caring and making personal investment transforms the quality of everything we do, big and small.  Suddenly we put ourselves into the things we create, and we create them as part of a broader undertaking of daring and learning and failing and picking ourselves up again.  The ultimate power of this broader undertaking, this broader narrative, is that we begin for the first time to see that our own growth happens in long cycles.  We trade in “where am I going to be 12 months from now (job, title, etc.)” for “what’s the real work I need to do now to be a transformed person in five or 7 or 10 years’ time?”

Reflecting on my own growth and development, I know that if I can make just one real, substantive change in how I work each year then I’ve had a transformational year.  Think, then, of the shape of the arc that gets me from where I am today to where I need to be.

Of course it is hard to see, looking forward, that we will only become who we are going to become in the long run, and that in fact we have the time we need to get there.  The easily quantified, externally-recognizable stepping stones to get from here to come at the pace they are going to come.  But there’s no escaping the real work we need to do to become the person we are meant to be.

Persistence, determination, and eagerness.

Hard skills, soft skills, real skills

There’s a whole set of things that feel concrete and objective and are easiest to talk about: writing, financial modeling skills, project management, writing a decent PowerPoint deck, etc.

And then there a whole set of “softer” skills – skill in building relationships, how well you manage a meeting, whether or not you successfully deal with uncertainty.

And then the real biggies: Are you a great judge of talent? Do you consistently build trust?  Are you courageous?  Does your presence and do your actions make people better at their jobs?  Do you inspire people?

The challenge is that there’s an inverse relationship between how important a skill is for long-term success and how easy it feels to talk about it.

“You’re still not where you need to be in building a cash flow statement” feels safe.

“I’ve not seen you show consistent success in gaining a sense of shared ownership around your good ideas,” feels like emotional thin ice, so we don’t go there enough.

On some level we know that the second conversation is orders of magnitude more important than the first, but since it feels (inter)personal, less objective and harder to talk about, we avoid having it and stay in the safe (today) but dangerous (in the long-term) space of “stuff that you can learn in a textbook.”

Sooner or later, we have to learn how to talk about the real stuff.

Tune in for mindless affirmation

File this ad for New York TV station WPIX under: I’m not even sure I get what they’re saying.

“If you’re thinking it, they’re saying it” is the slogan.  Huh?  It seems to mean, “We promise everything you see on our station will be an echo chamber that reinforces your existing opinions.  We swear we won’t challenge your thinking.”

I wasn’t tuning in to local news anyway, so this starts out as a post about a somewhat troubling and pretty weak subway ad.   But it’s a worrisome meme: watch us because you know we agree with you.

We’re getting more information flows are made just for us: we choose who to follow on Twitter and who our Facebook friends are, what blogs to read and what news sites to peruse.  Mass-customization might allow us to hone in on what most interests us, but it might also be code for “We swear we won’t challenge your thinking.”

Worse, there’s a lot more filtering of information than you might think.  Eli Pariser gave a chilling talk at TED 2011 in which he showed how Facebook is filtering his (and your and my) feed, showing a lot more updates from his lefty friends than from his righty friends.  And, one week after the uprising in Tahir Square, Eli showed how two people on two different computers got radically different Google search results for “Egypt”  – one got political news, the other got vacation and travel sites.

This makes it all the more important for us to decide why we read – for pleasure, for edification, to learn something, to challenge ourselves?  When I recommend a book that’s designed to challenge people’s thinking – like all the manifestos by the Domino Project (Poke the Box, Do the Work); or Cognitive Surplus or Drive or Made to Stick or Rework or even my Manifesto for Nonprofit CEOs – I always wonder what people who tell me they didn’t like the books really mean.

Does “I didn’t like it” mean “…because it made me really uncomfortable” or “…because I disagreed” or “…because this is different than the way I do things” or something else?

We have access to more information than ever, and it’s becoming less likely that we stumble across contradictory views.  This can’t be good for civic discourse, for our political process, for our shared values and culture.

Armed with this knowledge, it’s incumbent upon us to seek discomfort in what we read.  It also means, for the writer/blogger, how illusory and deceptive it is to strive for popularity.

Here’s Eli Pariser’s TED Talk

http://ted.com/talks/view/id/1091


One good sign

In early 2008, about a year after I started at Acumen Fund, I noticed something surprising.  Even though I was busier than I had ever been, I started reading again– first fiction, but then all sorts of things including a healthy dollop of things that cut to the core of how I see and understand the world and how to be more professionally effective.

What changed?  I’d have thought that going from a not-so busy routine to one where I have to savagely guard every minute of the day would give me less space to think and reflect and grow.

It’s because in my previous job, I was dying on the vine.

That meant that I spent all my mental energy all day long trying to convince myself to hang on, that I was making it work, that all of the cognitive dissonance – the cacophony, really – between what I hoped the job would be and what it turned out to be was manageable.  So by the end of the day, when I had some time to myself, the idea of reconnecting to the professional, productive part of who I am ran the risk of reminding me of my terrible, energy-sapping job, and I wanted no part of it.

What I wish someone had told me then – which is what I wanted to share now – is that you (if you find yourself in a similar situation) are not the job.  You are a wonderful, intelligent, highly capable person who will take huge strides forward as you continue to invest in yourself – through what you read and the relationships you build and the connections you make and the doors you open for others.

And if you find yourself stretched and thinking and growing every day, take that as a sign that something’s very right, because in yourself is just about the best use of time around.

Abundance breeds abundance, not the other way around.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook