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.)

Grit, Agency and Mastery

Angela Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long term goals.”

She also has found grit to be the single best determinant of long-term success.  The single one.  And, she tells us, we know very little about it – little about how to instill it in our kids or in ourselves.

But perhaps the definition itself, in its simple economy, gives us some insight about the way forward.

Passion: meaning that you have to care.

Perseverance: meaning that you have to push through, that this won’t be easy, that there are going to be many hard days (weeks, months), many times when things aren’t looking good.  This is going to test you.

Long-term: as in years, in most cases.

Goals: you need to have an objective, somewhere you’re trying to go, a point on the horizon or, at least, a north star.

It strikes me that we get tripped up on the “passion” bit.  Enough people have found a way to be part of something that they care passionately about.  Yet even if the big Mission with a capital “M” is motivating, the day-to-day also needs to hang together for years on end.

And what if you’re not actively working towards something that moves you?  What if you don’t even know what moves you?  Here is where people get and overwhelmed by the notion of “finding their passion.”

Two suggestions.  First, that mindset may be starting at the wrong end of the sentence.  If we’re working on grit then we can start with “perseverance,” “long-term” and “goals” and devote ourselves fully to doing great work and getting our ego out of the way.  Second, I don’t think we need to start with “Passion” with a capital “P.”  We can be passionate about small things (figuring out pivot tables once and for all) or about pieces of our work (coaching others) even in situations where the whole is leaving us flat.

The shift comes when we realize two things: that we do have the ability to decide where to apply our energies (agency); and that through applying ourselves we grow in amazing ways over long periods of time (mastery).

I find that – whether as a husband, a professional, a father, a squash player, a blogger, a speaker, a boss, whatever – I’m always aiming to improve, and the only thing that works is focusing on one thing at a time in each area of my life (as in, in squash I’ve been working on my drop shot for about a year now).  Each thing I’m passionate about changing is part of a longer term goal, and through the process of focus and dedicated work, that change happens – slowly, one thing at a time.  Each change takes months or sometimes years.  But, mostly, I progress.  And knowing that’s possible changes everything.

Angela’s 6-minute TED talk on grit just might change your whole perspective. It certainly pulled a lot of threads together for me.