How to Make a Big Pot

I was chatting with my son, who is a potter, about what it takes to make really big pieces on the wheel.

Last year, he’d often come back from class to report that the piece he had thrown had collapsed. Week after week he’ spend two hours at the wheel and have nothing to show for it.

That’s not happening to him this year and I asked him why: is he being less ambitious with his projects or has he just gotten better?

He said the answer was pretty simple: speed.

Last year he would try to get a piece from tall to tall-and-wide really quickly – in two or three minutes. A new teacher this year explained that the process needs to take closer to 30 minutes. The simple fact is, the clay cannot transform and stretch that fast.

We often ask ourselves whether we are able to change as if it’s a binary thing. More often still, we notice our pace of change and feel it’s not fast enough.

Of course, change is possible, we just need to recognize how slowly or quickly we can stretch and transform.

Old habits, old mindsets, old attitudes, old limitations. They’ve made themselves part of our psyche and part of our personal story. We took years, maybe even decades to build them up. Should we expect that they’ll just fade away after a few minutes, weeks, or even months?

Our biggest barrier to change isn’t ability, it is attitude: the willingness to stick with things long enough to have  our efforts bear fruit.

Don’t let your results after a few days, weeks or even months dictate what you can accomplish. Your change, your stretch, your transformation – they’re all happening.

The trick is to understand, and to embrace, the pace of what is possible

 

Nothing’s Changed

So often, we’re easily convinced that we have an objective view of ourselves.

That thing we’re working on, the new skill we are cultivating, the organizational improvement that we’re spearheading? We believe that we can see where we are today relative to where we’ve been.

And yet our children grow up before our eyes, and, were it not for photos, bigger shoes and the occasional new bike, we’d never see it.

The truth is, real change happens daily, incrementally, often imperceptibly. It also is rarely linear, meaning even a plateau can be the precursor to a leap forward.

Yet when a change requires our sustained effort—as most important change does—our “nothing’s changed” assessment can be an excuse to slow down or even stop.

Find objective measures and use them to mark your progress.

And, when in doubt, keep at it. You’ve already come further than you think.

10 out of 30

Two weeks ago, to address some recurring pain in my knee, I made a 30-day yoga commitment: a minimum of 30 minutes of yoga a day for 30 days. I even have a big ol’ Austin Kleon 30 Day Challenge calendar hanging in my kitchen, with giant red-crayon X’s for each day I’ve completed.

10 days in, I noticed a few things.

The beginning is not the hard part. In fact, beginning big commitments is fun. There’s a bit of fanfare as you tell folks. A sense of self-validation that you’re doing something big and courageous. You spend time imagining the amazing results that will come at the end of 30 days.

This glow remains for a few days. Those first days are a living, breathing validation of all that excitement. They’re still fun.

Then, about a third of the way in, the excitement dies down.

You’re by yourself, alone with your commitment.

There’s no fanfare, no fans.

It’s just you, stuck in the middle. You’re tired and struggling for time and motivation. Maybe you’re noticing that you’ve not made as much progress as you originally imagined.

What a tempting moment to quit.

“Who will notice, really? Maybe I’ll just skip a day.”

I know that my motivation to start on Day 10 was zero. Same for days 11, 12, 13 and 14.

Here’s a dirty little secret about hard work, especially the kind that leads to real and lasting change: the middle bits (and lots of the bits) aren’t all that glamorous.

They’re hard not just because of the actual challenge of doing the hard thing we’ve decided to do. They’re also hard because the act of following through is itself sometimes a grind.

All of us, 3-4 months into this pandemic, find ourselves past the beginning stage of this new world and new life. We’re far from the shore we left, and we’ve got no clear end in sight. No doubt we have felt, or are about to feel, a dip.

Whether or not you’ve specifically made a 30-day commitment, you’re no doubt spending your days doing new things, trying on new approaches, working on new ways (slowly…but also surely) of becoming the person you’re meant to become: a healthier you, a stronger you, a more accepting you, a more confident you, a more grounded you, or maybe a you that’s more at piece with the fact that kid(s) + job(s) = a different calculus on what “productive” really means.

In case you find yourself stuck, I thought it might help to hear this reminder: just because the middle bits are hard doesn’t mean it’s time to give up.

In fact, the middle bits being hard are the best indication that you’re doing something worthwhile, something that will yield important results.

Keep showing up for yourself.

The results will come in time.

 

Want New Habits? Set Up More Reminders.

Change is only possible through the cultivation of new habits. Most of the time these habits grow or fade thanks to tiny, daily reminders.

We are, after all, trying to replace old habits with new ones, and we’re entitled to some help.

Reminders can be people or places, words, smells or feelings. They are formed through promises we make to others and intentions we set for ourselves.

Reminders nudge us to do the things we said we want to do—they push us forward when we feel like ignoring our best-laid plans, and, on the days we forget those plans entirely, reminders put them in front of us, in plain sight, where they’re impossible to ignore.

The reminder distracts us from the delusion that the choice of whether to do this new thing, today, is a big decision. It’s not. We already said this was important to us, and that decision won’t improve if we revisit it. Our job, today, is to start. Once we start, we tend to continue.

So whether it’s making a plan to meet someone for an early morning walk, chopping up the raw vegetables we want to eat instead of chips, a colleague giving us a supportive nod right before we walk on stage, or just whispering our intention to ourselves before a difficult conversation, one of our jobs is to set up reminders everywhere.

They help us turn our plans into habits, our habits into practices, and our practices into the new person we aim to become.

Commitments are a series of choices that we make again and again.

Reminders help make each of those choices a little more straightforward.

One Person

I remind myself that if this post can create a change for just one person, then it’s a good post and a good day.

One person, not hundreds or thousands or millions.

An individual who experiences a small shift and does something different because of it. Someone, somewhere, who takes words and ideas and turns them into positive action.

That shift doesn’t appear in the stats, the likes or the shares.

Those numbers measure something else, and maybe that something matters a bit, but it is poorly correlated with the thing I’d really like to measure: the number of people who are more hopeful today, more committed, more empowered to make a change they seek to make. The number of people who take one more step towards their mission to create positive change.

The measure of success is you and what you do.

Ain’t no stat for that, so why do I keep on checking the numbers?

And why do you?

Defaults

We schedule 60-minute meetings because Microsoft built it that way.

It’s just one of defaults that make up the fabric of our days.

The time we go to bed and wake up.

When show up at work, and when we go home.

What we say when someone asks “how are you?”

How we decide if we’ll stop for conversation.

Who we look in the eye.

What we do in the elevator.

And in the car, the train, the subway.

How, when and what we eat.

The first thing we do when we open our laptops, or when we have a free moment, or after concentrating hard for 15 minutes.

The number of minutes (seconds) we allow ourselves for unstructured time just to think.

Feeling rushed.

Acting rushed.

What counts as “real work.”

How honest we are with our boss, and with ourselves.

These are all defaults we’ve developed. Some are intentional, many are unconscious.

Most of them served us well once and don’t any more.

Want to change your day, your health, your outlook, your productivity?

Start by changing a default.

(Including in Microsoft Office)

Right Thought, Right Action

You’d think they go together nearly all the time.

But when we’re trying to change, especially when someone has asked us to change, they rarely do.

Thankfully, right action is always available to us.

We just start, we do this new thing, once, a second time, over and over again.

We might not understand why. But we can choose to start by acting, and in so doing we show our faith in and respect for the person who suggested the change.

If it helps, you can see this right action as an exploration: once we genuinely engage in right action, we will see its results. Often, at this moment, our blinders come off. The limitations of our arguments defending our prior, not-as-right action, get exposed.

Right thoughts will follow, because the actions and their results speak for themselves.

The other path, the one where we only act after we’re convinced it’s right, is a mirage.

Because our mind has this terrible tendency to believe itself.

Ritual Reflections

At a reception at the Lean Startup conference, where I was speaking last week, I struck up a conversation with a couple as waited on a food line. The three of us had started the day together in the hotel’s small, dark, grey gym, with ESPN blaring.

“How was your workout?” the woman asked, kindly.

“Oh, it was terrible,” I replied. “Truly, every minute was awful. But I finished.”

It was true. I’d had a tiring week, had rushed to catch my 6-hour flight to Las Vegas, wore earplugs all night because the hotel room was so loud, hadn’t eaten breakfast, and was feeling sluggish. I didn’t feel at all like running on the treadmill, but hoped that after I started it would get easier or better.

It never did. This is normal.

I exercise a lot, and at least half of the time I don’t really feel like doing it before I go. I mostly ignore that feeling and the accompanying thoughts, because they tell me almost nothing about what will happen once I get going, let alone how great I’ll feel afterwards.

I notice the same pattern with my kids. This weekend I had to wrench my 7-year old daughter from a lazy Sunday afternoon TV show to get her to practice her ukulele. As kids do, she vocalized all the feelings she had at that moment. “I don’t want to!” “I’m too tired!” “Can we do it a little later?”

But this morning, before school, without protest or prodding, she was in her room strumming away, belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It’s made me realize that most of what we do as parents is to try to instill good rituals.

Rituals of saying please and thank you. Rituals of putting dishes away after a meal. Rituals of how we go to bed. Rituals of doing homework early in the day. Rituals of always saying hello when we enter the house and goodbye when we leave. Rituals about using our phones and when we put them down. Rituals of reading before bed. And on and on.

These rituals only stick if they are for all of us.

My days are no different, filled with ritualistic behaviors: on the train into work, how I act when I get into the office, how and what I eat, what I do on a long-haul flight or how I get to sleep in a hotel room in a different time zone.

These rituals can be comforting, helpful and reassuring. They can be positive, well-thought out, and intentional. They can lead, day by day, to big positive changes.

Or, they can work against us: reinforcing the limitations we’re feeling in our lives, distracting us from what’s going on right now, buttressing our limitations…different flavors of short-term relief we trade, moment by moment, for a future we say we want.

Rituals are powerful because they help us push through the protests we’re feeling in our minds and bodies – whether we say them out loud like my 7-year-old, or we voice them silently. Rituals are a pre-determined set of priorities that free us from the decision of whether we should do this or that.

How we use our rituals is up to us. But when we watch someone who is doing something that seems impossible – running on a freezing cold and rainy morning; showing up perfectly pressed for work no matter what’s going on around them; always listening carefully; writing a blog every day — we should remember that what we’re witnessing isn’t a display of willpower, talent or skill.

It’s the result of ritual.

The quantum mechanics of intentions (Part 2)

I’ve been thinking more about my post from last week, trying to figure out why I found myself questioning the value of good intentions. As my friend Greta rightly pointed out on Twitter,

“I believe that our intentions, objectives, or ‘passionate purposes’ make all the difference, Sasha. They guide us internally and have a lasting effect on all those with whom we connect.”

That’s right.

So how to resolve the tension between good intentions that mean little to the person whose life isn’t any better, and knowing in our gut that that if we are serious about making the world a better place then we must take our intentions seriously?

Where I’ve landed up is:

Intentions, if you just take a snapshot, might not matter much.

At a moment in time, the fidelity of that intention, from its genesis in the person deploying capital to the lived experience of the person served by that organization, is not necessarily that high. Intention can get lost in an impact investment just like it can get lost in a game of telephone, an ad campaign or, dare I say, a blog post.

However intention is powerful, maybe even unstoppable, when observed through the lens of time.

True intentions, strong intentions, deeply-held intentions cause those holding them to focus deeply on an outcome.

That focus results in curiosity.

That curiosity results in inquiry.

That inquiry results in examination of what’s really happening all the way down the line.

That examination leads to dissatisfaction if results are not being delivered. It leads to a rise in expectations and a drive to find better answers.

When it comes to creating social impact, that intention may in fact be the only thing that leads to an improvement cycle – because external forces driving to better results are weak (poor feedback loops in terms of the data that typically comes back; huge power imbalance between those providing capital and those, hopefully, benefiting from it).

Intention, then, is the engine of our own cycle of improvement. As builders of new solutions, new companies, new NGOs, new investment funds that are trying to push the frontiers of social change, of business, of markets, of inclusive economies, our intentions are what push us to be dissatisfied with “better than before.” They fuel us through the dips and the bumps and help us turn around when we hit dead ends. Our intentions, held by us and shared by those around us, give us the strength to keep on building.

Old Dog, New Tricks

old dogs, new tricks

It is simply not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Yes, you might not be able to teach an old dog to run as fast, or jump as high, or even see as well. Old has its disadvantages, to be sure. But old dogs are actually better than young ones at learning new tricks: they have better attention spans, and are less easily distracted.

No, the old dog’s problem is the old tricks: having spent a lifetime getting positive reinforcement for those old tricks, she just can’t seem to let them go.

If you are one of my many non-dog readers, think about it for a minute: isn’t what got us here all our old tricks? And aren’t we quite well-trained to seek the praise get when we do them?

Couple the power of that lifetime of reinforcement with our recommended daily allowance of pride, fear, unwillingness to admit fallibility and surrender authority. Then top that with a cherry of the smidge of shame we anticipate if we try something new and unproven in front of other dogs. After all of that, we may not even know if we’re any good at new tricks, because there’s so much underbrush to clear away before we even let ourselves get started.

Perhaps we can motivate ourselves by another adage, this one less famous but more useful: if we fight for our limitations and win, our prize is that we get to keep them.