No Better

It’s easy to confuse the time we spend thinking about getting better at something and time we spend doing the work of improving.

“I’m no good at fundraising.”

“I’m terrified of public speaking.”

“I don’t stand up to people when I disagree with them.”

These are our going-in narratives

Then we start thinking about how we’d like to be better at that thing, maybe we buy a book or take a course or join a gym in service of that goal.

We’ve done something. A thing. It’s more than nothing, just enough to tell ourselves we’ve started.

But improvement is slow. We get distracted. We do a little bit every now and again, but not much.

And then something subtle and truly dangerous creeps in: an old story. The part of ourselves that enjoys the narrative of this particular limitation mounts an argument in favor of how we’ll never get from here to there. It does this by winding the clock back to that first day we noticed a gap, then skipping forward to today, and says something like, “You see? A full year has gone by and I’m no better. Just goes to show that I never will be!”

As in: never mind that I’ve only talked to 10 potential investors in the last six months, look at my meager fundraising results. There’s something wrong with my pitch and with my capacity as a fundraiser.

As in: I’ve only given a stand-up talk in front of an audience twice since last March, yet when I watch someone else nail their speech I’m quick to decide she’s more talented than I am and that she’s never been as nervous or as fumbling as I think I am today.

As in: my appropriate and legitimate fears about challenging authority notwithstanding, I’ve never used the safer spaces around me to practice speaking up. Yet I beat myself up when, at that one moment when the stakes are highest, I don’t speak my mind.

It’s clear when you describe it this way: the thing that keeps us from persisting, from growing, from ultimately transforming is that quiet, alluring voice in our heads that smiles and says “You see? You’re still no better.”

Your reply is simple: I am. Just a bit. And I’m going to keep at it until I get there.

First, Yes

I’ve written before about the situational leadership framework, a model of both learning and coaching that helps make sense of how new skills are acquired, and the adaptive role managers must play in supporting their teams.

The four roles managers can play are:

  • Directing: tell people what to do, how, and when (S1)
  • Coaching: guiding, advising (S2)
  • Supporting: nudging along a skilled person on a task that they might not want to do (S3)
  • Delegating: they’re off and running (S4)

From the perspective of the team member, there framework has a simple 2×2 of skillfulness and willingness:

  • Unwilling and unable (S1)
  • Unable and willing (S2)
  • Able and unwilling (S3)
  • Able and willing (S4)

Though simplified, this is a nice shortcut for framing our development of different skills and the kind of support we require: how good (or bad) am I at doing this new thing? And how willing (or unwilling) am I to do the work?

Recently I was watching a squash coach teach a high backhand volley to a teenager. The coach explained the principles, gave some specific pointers, and then demonstrated. His synchronicity from seeing the ball to the energy he transferred from legs to torso to shoulders to racquet was a sight to behold. Pow!

Then the teenager stepped up, got fed a high ball to hit, and…barely connected. It was a jumbled mess, all wrist and arm going every which way, with the contrast to what he’d been shown all the easier to see from outside the court.

And what did this experienced coach say, seeing this mess?

“Great job!!! Nice work.”

I kept on waiting for the “and…” or the “but…” because there were a hundred shifts that were required.

And then I realized what I’d just seen: the teenager had just shifted from S1 to S2, had just gone from unwilling to willing, and, since we have loads of time, and since sustained motivation matters much more than skill today, the right response is just that.

I applaud your willingness.

I stoke the flames of your belief in yourself.

I encourage you without reservation.

The technique you’re trying to build…that will come later.

Right now, at the start of this journey for this skill on this day, my job is to say “Yes!”


“Is this what it was like to live in Colonial times?” my 11-year old daughter asks, golden firelight flickering off her face in our living room on Wednesday night.

The power was out in our house and in our neighborhood, thanks to the late winter storm weighing down trees under layers of ice and wet, heavy snow.

I’d just arrived after my own three-hour saga from New York City – 20 miles away – thanks to a tree that hit and immobilized my train, stopping all service in both directions for the night.

We had a few flashlights, the kids were reading by candlelight, I was finally warming up, and my wife says, “Shoveling. We have to shovel, or it will freeze by morning. Let’s do it now.”

Never mind the exhaustion of the journey home, the temperature dropping in our house, eating by flashlight, or all that important worrying we had to do. Let’s shovel.

And she was right.

We trudge out into six inches of wet, nasty, heavy snow, do an hours’ worth of work, and it’s taken care of.

The only reason we did the tough, ugly job that needed to be done? Because she said “now.”

Sometimes we just need someone to speak that kind of truth, cut through it all and say “this, right now. This is the most important thing for us to do.”

Maybe that someone is you.

Maybe the time to put something hard and important at the top of the list is now.

Your team will follow. Even if it’s not, technically, “your team.”

Vision, Strategies, Tactics, and Results

We each have a natural set point, a place we feel most comfortable.

We might be seers who can imagine, out of whole cloth, a future.

We might be doers who need to be neck-deep in the work to come to conclusions that mean anything to us.

We might be analyzers who see the whole field of play and can visualize which pieces need to be moved in what ways to tilt the field.

We might be movers who just need to make something happen to feel any sense of accomplishment.

The point is, each of us starts somewhere, and like any good journey the first step is to figure out where that “where” is.

For example, I remember back in college the terror of each paper I had to write.

Inevitably, days before a paper was due I’d stumble across one classmate or another whose answer to a perfunctory “so…what are you writing about?” came back in fully-formed, immaculate, intimidating paragraphs. I’d nod, mutter something in response, and walk away, even more stressed that I was still just reading, and reading, and reading some more, taking tons of notes but struggling to come up with any sort of well-formed ideas of my own.

Over time I discovered that my own process required me to read and sit and write and struggle and read some more until, finally, my perspective would emerge. Not an easy process, but once I’d done it enough times I noticed that I like starting from the middle and working my way up (big picture) and down (specific proof points or tactics). No coincidence, then, that having a daily practice of capturing and developing ideas—in this blog and in my daily work—is part of how I structure my time. It’s a system that allows me to produce my best ideas.

So, if, irrespective of where we like to start, we must eventually build out everything from vision to tactics and all that lies in between, we must ask ourselves questions like:

How do I process information?

Where do I feel most comfortable along the chain?

More often than not, what are the moments, contexts, or situations in which my new ideas arise?

Once I’ve got a new perspective, or insight, or even just an inkling, what steps do I then need to take to fill out the other pieces of the puzzle?

And, finally, given all of this, how can I structure my day, my time, my conversations (or lack thereof) to give myself more opportunity both to develop the nuggets that come most easily to me, and to then turn these into flushed-out ideas that I’m ready to start putting out into the world?

Project Ski

For the last decade, I’ve been investing in what my wife affectionately calls “Project Ski,” teaching our three kids (now in 8th, 5th, and 1st grades) to get up and down a snow-covered mountain.

Skiing is an enormous investment of time, energy, logistics, effort. Teaching three kids to ski/ snowboard…that’s a whole other level. The gear alone (skis, boots, poles, hats, gloves, glove liners, long underwear tops and bottoms, goggles, helmets, balaclavas, ski pants, fleece, ski jacket, lift tickets…times five in our case!) is enough to test anybody’s patience and strain their bank account. And with the crazy weather that is our new normal, most of our ski trips in the Northeast U.S. have ended up either being dangerously cold (well below 0 degrees F) or rainy.

Having invested 10 years in this crazy endeavor, last week we take our first family trip to Colorado.

The ski gods smile on us.

It had been a very poor season for snowfall, but it snows more than a foot the week before we arrive and another foot while we are there.

So we drive and park and fly and drive some more on winding roads…we sleep and get on gear and buckle uncomfortable boots and ask “do we have any toe warmers?”….until we finally find ourselves at the top of a massive Colorado Rockies peak.

The sky is a piercing blue. The air is thin, crisp and clear. All around us are fields of untouched powder and evergreens.

And I suddenly remember what I’d forgotten over the years of sweating and organizing and cajoling (“c’mon guys what’s a little rain?!”): skiing is really about freedom.

Not just the freedom to go, or go fast.

It’s the freedom of being out in nature.

The freedom of being a dot amongst miles and miles of untouched beauty.

The freedom of feeling the air, the ground, the sky all around you.

The freedom, and joy, to go anywhere that I and my family pointed our skis and boards.

And, yes, also the freedom that comes with the rush of speed and motion and fluidity that occasionally happens when everything comes together going down the mountain.

This kind of freedom felt particularly magical now, living as we all are in an era in which we struggle to shield ourselves from the cacophony of news and our schedules; we fight to remain present for even a half an hour; and we promise ourselves, daily, that we’ll put our phones away for the night and not check them first thing in the morning.

While skiing isn’t for everyone (my wife is quick to remind me that ‘lying on the beach would be great too’), this sort of joy, presence and liberation certainly are.

And I can’t help but reflect that this flavor of liberation only arises out in nature, when the sensation of the ground crunching beneath us, or a wave splashing over us, or a breeze catching light in the leaves, remind us of our here, our now, our smallness in a big world, and our inexplicable connectedness to all of it.

I’m feeling grateful for having shared this time my family, and for the reminder that this sort of experience is still out there, 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).

What does the Hippo think?

I was in a meeting recently with a successful startup CEO who was sharing how he runs his teams for best results. He finished by by saying, “…and that way we make sure we don’t end up with ‘hippo’ decisions.”

And I thought, “Heavy decisions?” “Decisions that are big and more dangerous than they appear?”

No, “hippo” decisions are actually HIPPO decisions, ones in which the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion rules the day.

There are entire organizations and cultures built around HIPPO decision-making. You’ve worked at these sorts of places–maybe you do right now. In these cultures, in meeting after meeting everyone is holding their collective breath waiting for the HIPPO to speak. Or, whole conversations happen and ultimately the HIPPO tells everyone what she thinks of the conversation and tells us all what we’ll do next.

Some anti-HIPPO resources that might be useful: the original HBR article on Adaptive Leadership and the great +Acumen course that will help you learn and apply the concepts. A powerful book by General Stanley McChrystal on Teams of Teams.

The funny thing about HIPPO cultures is that they let everyone off the hook: you’d think the non-HIPPOS might feel frustrated that their voice isn’t being heard, but often it’s a relief to have someone else decide, to know that you’re just pitching in some thoughts and that someone else will be on the line.

(And to all you HIPPOs out there, while it’s possible that you’re consistently the smartest, most experienced, wisest person in the room in general, what are the chances that you’re the smartest, most experienced, wisest about all things all of the time?)

Lest we forget forget…hippos are the most dangerous animal on the Savannah.

Blank Spaces

There’s no way I can fully know and see everything you know and see (and vice versa). So how do I react when I discover you did something that seems wrong?

I start by reminding myself that what I know right now about the facts you had and the decision you made is full of blank spaces. In the absence of knowing what you know, I can choose to have a bias in favor of believing that you likely did the right thing. (did you really?)

I can decide that the difference between the choice I’d have made and the choice you did make is the different, better information that you had.  (or you just acted without really thinking things through)

And I can remember that it is always better to enter conversations about what happened and why with genuine curiosity, not judgment. (even though, let’s be honest, we’ve seen you do this sort of thing before)

I can also remind myself that there’s a short game and a long game at play, and be careful about sacrificing your long-term agency for my desire to get each and every step right between here and there. (at the same time, this was a screw-up)

This doesn’t mean that the decision might not have been wrong, or that there aren’t things to learn—because it might have been, and there probably are. But the strongest message we send in each interaction is whether we really believe in and trust each other, and how much we are committed to investing in each others’ agency. (and let’s remember that trust needs to be earned every day)

Finally, and most importantly, I can hold firmly to the notion, each and every time, that your intentions, like mine, were overflowing with goodness, with care, and with as much desire as I have to get the best outcome.

(And to be honest with myself about my own inner narrative.)

(Everything in parentheses is the corrosive inner dialogue, the one that says “I really do know better,” the one that communicates just going through the motions rather than honestly and fully embracing the other persons’ decisions and actions.)

(Even if that voice is speaking truth in this particular situation, you’re kidding yourself if you think that you’re the only one who hears that narrative of doubt.)

(So does the other person, in his own head, and he’s just waiting for you to amplify it.)

(The point is to actually, truly, let that go.)

Culture shortcut

Conversations about team and organizational culture can easily go off track, veering into a messy mixture of behaviors, culture, values, strategy, and attitudes.

To cut through it all, I’ve had success with the following: ask each member of the team to imagine they are interviewing a candidate they would like to hire. Have them describe to this candidate what it feels like to be part of this team: how do we behave, what does it feel like, what are the words that jump to mind?

The answers you’re looking for are tangible, simple:

“We move fast.”

“We are collaborative.”

“We talk a lot.”

“We have fun.”

“We are always thinking three steps ahead.”

“We have a plan.”

“We are disciplined.”

“We listen to everyone’s voice.”

And then you also want people to think about and tell you: what are one or two things that are missing from our culture that would help us be more effective?

To avoid anchoring (having the first, loudest, or most senior person’s voice determine the direction of the conversation), have each person write down their answers first. Then read them out, one at a time, and see where there are similarities and differences.

I’ve found that this is a nice way to cut through the noise, helping teams to zero in on who we are today and who we’d like to be tomorrow.

One Bag to Rule Them All (and more international travel tips)

I’m just heading out on an international trip, and I’ve been meaning to write a rave review of the bag I bought a year ago, so here goes.

Let me start by saying that I don’t care much about this sort of thing: I don’t need the perfect bag, pen, belt, watch, etc. – as long as it’s functional, I’m fine.

That said, international economy air travel is its own special version of “how can we make this even more unpleasant?” and my biggest gripe is the insult-to-injury-ness of the lost time spent after 24+ hours in the air, as you wait at 2AM in the baggage claim for the roller bag they forced you to check.

Which is why I didn’t buy a roller bag, I bought a duffle.

It’s this Tumi Alpha 2 Double Expansion Travel Satchel bag, which, in my experience, has the following benefits:

Tumi Alpha 2 Double Expansion Travel Satchel
Tumi Alpha 2 Double Expansion Travel Satchel
  • It has more packing space than most small rollers, because roller bags (especially smaller ones) have lots of wasted internal space for the handle hardware.
  • It is soft, so it squishes up well
  • I have yet to find an overhead compartment (domestic or international) it doesn’t fit in
  • I even once had a stewardess walk by and say, “wow, what a small bag”

Getting a week’s worth of clothes into this bag, as long as you’re sensible about toiletries and shoes, is easy. Last year I managed a two week trip (NY – India – Uganda – New York) with just this bag and a briefcase (OK, I was pushing it a bit).

The one big caveat here is that it doesn’t roll. So if it’s going to be your main bag, you have to have a decent amount of upper-body strength to comfortably get through the airport. I think it’s a good trade in exchange for being 100% sure that you’ll be able to carry on a bag that easily fits a week’s worth of clothes.

As long as we’re at it, a few other bonus travel items that keep me sane:

  • YogaPaws: this is a new one as of last year, and to my surprise they
    YogaPaws. Image from Wanderlust and Lipstick

    work for 95% of the yoga poses I want to do, and I now bring them on every trip I take. They take up the space of a pair of socks and you can do yoga anywhere as long as the floor/ground is clean enough. Since my biggest international travel challenge is falling asleep when I fly east, not having to think twice about being able to do yoga every day, even if just for 15 minutes, is heavenly.

  • Slipper-like running shoes: back when I was transitioning back from
    Nike Flyknit 4.0
    Nike Flyknit 4.0 (why did they discontinue them?!)

    barefoot running I bought a pair of Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit mesh running shoes (sadly, that model has been discontinued but some places still have it in stock). They take up almost no space in my bag, I can wear them with a pair of jeans on a casual day, and I can still run five miles on them without issue.

  • Meditation Podcast: I don’t have a regular meditation practice at home, though I’d like to. For my last few international trips I’ve been more consistent about meditating for 15-30 minutes before going to sleep. Not only is that a good practice for winding down, but it reminds me that emailing up until 5 minutes before turning out the light is not what I do at home, why would I do that when I’m on the road?

    Kindle Paperwhite
    Kindle Paperwhite
  • Kindle Paperwhite:I love this device so much more than I’ve ever liked an iPad. It costs less than $100 (which is great, and it means I’m not stressed about traveling with it), it’s lightweight, lasts at least a month on a single charge, creates no eye strain, and I can’t google something from the book and then get distracted by my Twitter feed or whatever else.
  • Eye cover: essential for the plane, whether a hat to pull over my eyes or eye shades, these are much more important than those bulky, uncomfortable neck pillows. Oh, and no movies on flights unless I’ve got two 8+ hour flights, otherwise I never fall asleep.
  • Foam earplugs: no noise cancelling headphones or other such
    3M E-A-R Plugs
    3M E-A-R Plugs work best for me

    nonsense, for less than $0.10 a pair I keep out the roar of the jet engines, which helps me stay asleep and lessens how tired I feel after a long flight. These E-A-R Plugs from 3M don’t fall out my ear like other shapes do.

  • Sleep aid: I stick with over-the-counter, and find that Benadryl and/or Melatonin do the trick, and help me get through the first few nights.
  • Global Entry/TSA Pre: this is just for U.S. citizens, but it’s great at the end of a trip to breeze through immigration (with my always-fits-in-the-overhead-carry-on) and get from the gate to the curb in 10 minutes or less.

That’s pretty much it for me.

Any other essentials you’d add to the list? Throw your suggestions into the comments, I’d love to know what’s missing.