The experience is familiar: we’re interacting with a piece of software, and it’s clear that the developed didn’t contemplate a wide-enough set of use cases. The result is that the thing we’re trying to get done is hard/impossible to do, and we end up frustrated.
This same thing happens to us as we try to develop new skills and responses: when these new approaches and aptitudes are nascent, we can, at best, deploy them only under ideal conditions.
For example, we may be working on listening harder and responding more slowly and less defensively in the face of criticism.
At the outset, we’ll succeed in doing this only with our coach or our most sensitive and constructive colleague. When someone shows up with too little care, or even aggressively, we’ll revert to our old behaviors
This example help us to add an axis to how we think about skill development.
The more obvious axis describes our overall skillfulness, and it ranges from:
(Self) awareness: we can clearly see the gap between our current behavior / skill and our desired behavior / skill
Nascent: we show the first signs of being able to deploy the skill
The additional axis contemplates the situations in which we can deploy the skill, which is a window into our skill resilience:
None: we can never deploy the skill
Highly curated: we can only deploy the skill in ideal circumstances
Most: we can often deploy the skill
All: we can always deploy the skill
The first axis is the axis of skill development, and the second is of skill resilience.
While they are naturally correlated, they are not one and the same thing. Most important, it is easy to confuse lack of skill resilience with lack of skill development: for example, we might have strong skills that but not be adept yet at deploying them in varied contexts, and we might mistakenly use this data to mis-diagnose ourselves as having made too-little progress.
Often, the resilience axis has roots in the things that trigger us — a trigger is something that gets us off our game. Exploring our triggers for any set of skills/situations often leads to more universal insights, and is the first step towards moving us from Ideal Conditions to All Conditions across the board.
In sixth grade, I took a two-week, after-school typing class.
For some reason, it was held in our middle school computer room. We were surrounded by some old DOS terminals, seated a few feet away from a dot matrix printer with green and white lined paper.
Each of us was given a manual typewriter, the kind where you had to push the keys down three or four inches to get them to hit the ribbon. I sometimes wonder if the physical force we had to generate, and the ‘clack’ of the letter hitting the ink and the page, grooved the keyboard layout in our neuromuscular system more than a computer keyboard ever would.
Amazingly, that class alone (coupled, perhaps, with the fact that I played the piano) was enough for me to learn how to type. After the two weeks, I had my ‘ASDF JKL;” grooved, and soon after that I was typing without looking down and gradually increasing my speed and decreasing my error rate.
I can think of few things I’ve learned that have yielded more for my professional life: learning to type 80 words a minute, and not 20, saves me hundreds of hours each year.
Typing, unlike most skills, has a distinct before-and-after and an obvious path to mastery: before, I looked for each of 26 letters (plus punctuation) one at a time; after, my hands stay in the right place, the letters’ location have entered my muscle memory, and I’m 4x as fast.
But nearly everything we do has a slow/manual version and a fast/grooved version, even things that don’t look, at first glance, like concrete skills.
There’s the little stuff: how we get through our Inbox, create a chart, proofread.
But there’s also bigger stuff, which has similar multiplicative properties: the time it takes us to write a good email, to prepare for a 1-on-1 meeting, to think through and deliver feedback.
And there are things that don’t even look like skills, but are. Think, for example, about something that happens in most demanding jobs, having a surge in work and pushing for a deadline. This experience of pushing ourselves (or being pushed) requires us to develop the skills of: focused endurance; staying grounded while managing the stress of (self-imposed/external) deadlines; maintaining quality with constrained time; prioritization; overcoming procrastination; shipping.
Managing through, and eventually thriving amidst, things that are “hard” is just as much a skill as touch-typing, and it has just as much yield.
What it requires of us is the recognition that there’s something here for us to learn, and not just endure, and the patience to allow ourselves to grow, in time, from amateur to novice to expert.
A few weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon, a colleague of mine sent around a great TEDx talk, Shawn Achor’s The Happy Secret to Better Work, which has been viewed more than 23 million times.
I took 12 minutes out of a busy day to watch it. I enjoyed it, and connected to our team’s conversation about it. One takeaway that rose to the top was that to increase our positivity and happiness, we should engage in one random act of kindness each day. What’s not to like?
The following Monday, I came across that same thread in Slack.
I wanted to jump back into the conversation, but I immediately discovered that, outside of the “let’s do more random act of kindness” takeaway, I remembered virtually nothing about the talk.
I watched the talk again, this time taking some simple notes. Here they are.
The talk is about positive psychology
When we focus averages–in education, in economics, in life–we fail to design and plan for the extra-ordinary. This is a mistake.
Our happiness is not objectively determined. If Shawn could look only at your externally-observable world (job, income, family life) he could only determine 10% of your happiness.
IQ does not determine job success. 75% of job success is determined by optimism levels, social support, and seeing stress as a challenge not a threat.
We need to reverse our mental model of happiness and success.
The wrong model is: Work leads to Success which leads to Happiness.
The problem with this model is that whenever we succeed, we move the goal posts (expect a higher level of performance), so we never get to Happiness, which we’ve put out on the horizon past Success.
Instead, our job is to raise our own positivity in the present.
Five things we can do to raise our positivity are:
Practice being grateful for three things a day for 21 days;
Journal about one positive experience per day;
Engage in random acts of kindness by praising on person in our social support network each day.
Now, you should absolutely watch the talk. It’s a thousand times better than my notes, full of wonderful humor, sibling rivalries, and an actual unicorn story.
But if you’re like me, the talk, and this blog post, no matter how much you enjoy it, will slip through your fingers if you don’t take active steps to process it. I, for one, remembered less than 5% of the content.
I can’t resist: I’m training our 6-month old, exuberant, I-must-sniff-and-greet-everything-and-everyone puppy, Birdie, and can’t help but notice a few things.
Positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement.
Catching her in the act of doing something wrong and correcting works much less well than creating a situation in which undesired behaviors are less likely to happen.
If she’s distracted, she cannot learn.
If she’s afraid or triggered in any way, she cannot learn.
Just because she did it right yesterday doesn’t mean she’ll do it right today.
Every new behavior has to be repeated, repeated, and repeated some more.
The distance between “I understand what this is and how to do this,” and “I will do this all the time” is huge. Getting her from one to the other requires extra-ordinary patience.
Things go wrong when my expectations get ahead of where we are, today.
Context matters tremendously. If I want her to demonstrate a new behavior, I have to ask her to do it in the simplest, safest context first. Only once she’s mastered the behavior in that environment can she succeed in a more challenging context.
When my expectations get ahead of where we are, we are both frustrated.
If she messes up, it’s on me.
Of course, I understand that human beings have frontal lobes, that we can practice meta cognition and that we don’t only learn by getting lots and lots and lots of little rewards for good behavior.
But we could set ourselves up for success with a bunch of lessons from Birdie.
To develop or teach a new skill, start small and in a safe environment, and allow plenty of time for practice before moving on to a more challenging environment.
Just because we got it right yesterday doesn’t mean we know how to do it today.
If we’re frustrated, it’s probably because our expectations got ahead of us.
Be patient with yourself or with the person you’re coaching.
Repeat so much that you’re a little bored, and then repeat some more.
Most of all, keep at it and treat yourself kindly. Remember that daily progress is almost undetectable, but that weekly, monthly and yearly progress (when we keep at it) will be remarkable.
It took my youngest daughter longer than her friends to be able to do the monkey bars.
Seeing her now, doing them joyfully, I often wonder why exactly she persisted. How was it that seeing other kids ahead of her was motivating rather than discouraging?
More than most things, the monkey bars are binary. Before you can do them, you’re stuck on one side, hanging and falling, and not really improving. Then, one day, you cross a chasm—from not doing to doing. Once on the other side, it’s deeply self-reinforcing: you’re having a blast with your friends, and you’re getting stronger and stronger.
There are two lessons here:
Most things are like monkey bars: the act of doing the activity itself is the source of improvement, so the best thing you can do is start.
One of the most valuable things we can do is to encourage people who are just shy of the starting line, and help them to believe in themselves.
One of the reasons we don’t acquire new skills in the way we’d like is because, ironically, we take on too much.
It goes like this. We decide one day that we’re motivated to learn something new. Armed with a vague and imprecise understanding of the new skill we’d like to develop, we engage in an (often haphazard) mimicry of that vision. Then, after trying for a bit and seeing few tangible signs of progress, we give up, falling back on a familiar internal chorus of “change is hard” and “I’m never going to be good at this.”
That’s patently untrue. You could be great at this with a different approach.
One way to rewire our ability to learn and grow comes through a clearer understanding of the What, the How and the How Long of mastery:
What to focus on.
How that focus will manifest.
How Long it will take to master the skill.
What to Focus On?
“What” is a massive point of leverage. The most important “what to focus on” rule is to stick to very small things. These are the types of things that, lacking the skill we aim to acquire, we can still learn and master.
This feels counter-intuitive, because we’ve been wired to think about big changes and big skills. Naturally, we fight against the notion of committing to something small, believing it won’t add up to anything. Yet we take for granted that the flawless abilities of any master—musicians, athletes, writers, public speakers—are comprised of thousands of micro-skills brought together seamlessly. Why would it be any different for great people managers, great listeners, great analysts?
The truth is, the only way we learn is with tiny, incremental changes in small things, coupled with enough follow-through to have these small changes accumulate over time. The specific small things we focus on will depend on the skill we aim to master, but a good rule of thumb is to find the foundational skills that have the most connection to the other pieces of the puzzle and go from there.
How to Focus?
The “How” of successful skill acquisition is marked by consistency, concentration and presence.
Consistency is the most important: each and every day, in very small doses, is a far more powerful approach to transformation than once a week on Saturdays for two hours.
This can seem obvious, but we rarely sign up for 15 minutes a day for 30 days straight. We think “that’s not enough time to (write a book, learn to swim better, become more creative),” when, in reality, this sort of daily commitment is transformational.
We should spend these 15 minutes with full concentration and presence, sweeping away both obvious external distractions and the more pernicious internal (mental) ones that hurt us more.
We do this by cultivating the skill of deep mental focus, learning to redirect our attention, every time it gets pulled away, to the task at hand. In this act of re-direction, we can remind ourselves to maintain an attitude of curiosity and good humor, rather than one of self-criticism. Think of it like a moving meditation, and gently bring your wandering mind back to the micro-skill you are working on.
“How Long” is the doozy.
Early on in my yoga practice there was a pose I simply couldn’t do, called Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana: standing up, you grab your big toe of one foot, lift your leg and straighten it in front of your hip.
It was the second year of my yoga practice, and, in the midst of a yoga retreat in which, thanks to 4+ hours a day of practice, I could nearly do the pose, I quietly predicted that I would be able to do that pose in another year’s time.
That was 18 years ago, and I still haven’t pulled it off. While some of this mis-estimation was a failure of the right kind of commitment on my part, mostly I grossly underestimated how much further I had to walk on that journey.
“How long” is the silent killer of improvement: the gap between our expected and actual progress creates a cycle of self-criticism, reinforcing our original, fixed story of ourselves. “This is impossible, for me,” is untrue, but it taunts us daily as we soak in small failures.
Each of us needs to find our own way to banish this demon, but it helps to remember that these things truly take time (18 years!!), and to remind ourselves that the journey is the whole point.
With this in mind, today, we commit again. We find our 15 minutes. We focus on the one thing we’ve committed to. We remember that working on this one thing, today, is the only way to be sure that we are moving forward.
My daughter is working her way through a summer book of math and reading. She got to the end and found this Summer Brainiac Certificate on the last page. She was ecstatic.
After filling it in and cutting it out she asked, “Is this a real certificate?”
Striking to notice how, at just seven years old, she’s already picked up that it might be someone else’s job to tell her if she’s achieved, to decide whether she gets a trophy, a certificate or a gold star.
“Yes,” I told her, “it’s definitely a real certificate.”
This lesson, that someone besides us is judge and jury, holds on tight to us. We started learning it at a tender age, and year after year, our schools and then our workplaces have taught us that a grade is coming from somewhere, that someone besides us decides what the homework is, how we should direct our efforts, what is going to be on the test. If we do it all right, they give us a piece of paper that confirms, to us and to others, that we hit the mark.
Makes me wonder what blank certificates I should be writing for myself for the skills and achievements I’m working towards. So simple to write them out and leave a blank space for my name.
To be clear, I couldn’t be prouder of my Brainiac daughter, most of all that she choose to do the work and then she filled out her own certificate.
A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right side solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” groups: fifty pounds of pots rated an A, forty pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an A.
Well, come grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Kaufman’s conclusion is that, “Skill is the result of deliberate, consistent practice, and in early-stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolutely quality. The faster and more often you practice, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill.”
It’s a familiar pattern in human-centered design – rapid prototyping to get your hands dirty and learn by doing. It’s how the strongest marshmallow towers are built. Yet it’s easy to separate that approach from how we imagine our own goals of becoming better at ________ (building Excel models; finding answers by ourselves online; becoming better public speakers; learning to fundraise).
Indeed my mental model of how to learn and practice started way at the other end: having played classical piano seriously for two decades, I had spent literally thousands of hours focused on the last 20% or 10% or even 3% of getting a piece “perfect.” So it has felt completely counterintuitive for me to think that “just starting” is an effective strategy for anything but the most rudimentary of tasks. And yet, through a deliberate process of unlearning, accelerated by plenty of healthy kicks in the pants from mentors, I’ve tried this other way, and over time I’ve started to rewire myself towards a different mindset: that I can learn new skills, and that the approach to take centers around starting first, being willing to feel like a fool at the outset, and sticking with things long enough to get out of that first, terrible phase.
(My first day on a snowboard, 13 years ago, I must have hit my head HARD against the mountain at least fifty times. I was very close to walking away. It’s only because I’d been warned that the first day is painful, and that the second day isn’t, that I stuck with it).
Imagine, then, that your job when imagining something you’d like to learn involves just two steps (not 10, not yet):
Breaking that skill into its smallest component parts
Practicing just one of those skills relentlessly
For example maybe the component parts of fundraising are: getting the first meeting, finding new funding prospects, holding engaging meetings, storytelling, listening, , learning to build from one meeting to the next, comfortably asking for money…. (there are more).
If you were to decide today that you’re a terrible fundraiser (by the way, you’re not) BUT you wanted to become a good fundraiser a year from now, data from the ceramics class would teach us that spending as much time as possible practicing just one those eight component parts (and I’m sure there are more of them and each could be narrower) for two weeks would get you much further along than spending two or three or four weeks reading books on prospecting and getting the first meeting. This is why, for example, deciding to get rejected 100 times works – it is concentrated effort on a specific task, one that unavoidably gets our auto-correct mechanism to kick in an teach ourselves better ways to do things.
We know all of this in principle, but it’s a lot easier to say “fail fast” than it is to actually jump in first. I find that imagining a giant heap with 50 pounds of finished pottery, some of it beautiful, helps me get out of neutral.
The deadline for applying for Seth Godin’s summer internship is tomorrow, May 31st. And the last 15 applications will be discarded, so today is effectively the last day to apply. It’s a two-week internship from July 22nd to August 2nd. All the details are here.
I thought the skills Seth is looking for were pretty indicative of must-have skills for the next century, no matter what line of business you think you’re in. Everyone doesn’t need all of them (though why wouldn’t you learn all of them at at least a minimal level, since today you can, easily)?
Still, it’s impossible to argue that anyone is allowed, any more, to have none of them.
Basically, the list boils down to:
Writing good copy
Coming up with ideas
(I, too, give bonus points for Monty Python trivia but I’ll admit that feels a bit arbitrary.)
Not a bad list, though, sadly, it compares terribly to what we’re teaching in our schools (including business schools).
How do you approach absolutely brand new, hey-I’ve-never-done-this-before-in-my-life situations?
If you’re working with someone who HAS done this before, here’s something you might try: “Hey, friend, I’ve never once done this before. I’m excited to learn, I’m ready to jump in, but as of this exact moment I’ve no clue how to do this. What should I be thinking about?”
More often than not, with new and tricky things, people jump right into the tricky thing (“this is a big deal, we better get started!”) instead of spending time talking about HOW they’re going to do what they have to do.
“I’m new to this…” ignites a conversation that will inevitably set agendas, define how the work is going to be done, roles, strategies….instead of getting stuck in the weeds of Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 of the project. It also demonstrate the confidence of showing vulnerability – if you say this in the right way and with the right attitude, what comes across is, “I’m a doer. I’m planning to do a great job here. Help me take that first step.”
Plus, more likely than not, by asking this question, you make learning how to do “this” (whatever “this” is) one of the goals of the project. You put your own learning and growth on the agenda.