Bringing Joy to our Jobs

I’ve written before about Total Immersion swimming. While it’s taught me a good deal about swimming, the bigger lessons are the Kaizen-based mindset that form its foundation.

Kaizen, a Japanese word that describes the idea of continues improvement, is an attitude we can apply to anything in life. For me, Kaizen is a mindset that is equal parts curiosity, self-reflection, self-knowledge, high standards, patience, and discipline.

To illustrate the thinking, here’s an excerpt from a Total Immersion blog post by TI founder, the late Terry Laughlin, that I got a few weeks ago. Swimming is, of course, just a placeholder:

Expect improvement. Most adult swimmers have become resigned to swimming year after year with little to show for it. A T.I. Swimmer’s goal should be Kaizen (continuous improvement) Swimming. Because swimming offers limitless opportunities for solving the UHSP (Universal Human Swimming Problem) and increasing self-awareness, you could continue gaining in Mastery for decades. I still make exciting advances every year, and still sense almost limitless possibilities for further improvement. The refinements I’m making are fairly subtle, but my capacity for fine distinctions in position and timing has increased steadily. My current focus is on greater relaxation, especially when swimming faster.

There’s so much to grab onto in this short excerpt:

  • The mindset of expecting improvement, rather than resignation to being stuck. It’s all too common in the workforce to resign oneself to no longer improving. Not only is this a depressing thought, it’s an enormous waste of talent and potential.
  • The notion of increasing self-awareness. I’ve found that self-awareness builds on itself. The more genuine curiosity and humility we hold, the more we discover.
  • “Gaining in Mastery for decades.” Imagine continuing to work on mastery, in something as deceptively simple as recreational swimming, for decades. Imagine applying this same mindset to other skills we hope to develop in life: listening, learning to apologize, being courageous, connecting with people, writing, public speaking, presence…
  • “Limitless possibilities for further improvement.” Terry sees learning at a micro-level, the tiny subtle improvements, as joyful. So often we think of learning and growth as painful, something we must endure, because it can be uncomfortable. Terry knows that learning often feels like struggle. The question is, what would it take for us to convert that struggle into joy?

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.

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.

 

Sarabande: What’s one plus one?

Here’s an excerpt of Handel’s Sarabande, which you may have heard on its own or as part of the soundtrack for Deer Hunter, American Horror Story, 21 Grams, or more than 100 other movies and TV shows.

My son has been learning this on the piano, and as you might be able to tell from all the markings, we’ve spent a lot of time together trying to get these three measures right.

What’s tricky about this piece is that it has three separate voices but the pianist has only two hands. (If you’re not a musician, don’t panic, this is easy: the notes on the top staff with the stems pointing up are the top voice; the ones on the top staff with the stems pointing down are the middle voice; and the ones on the bottom staff are the bottom voice. So in this section you need to play, and think about, two voices in your right hand).

Watching him take this on is a sometimes-sobering reflection on how learning really happens.

The way you pick apart a piece like this is to work on one hand, or one voice, alone; then work on the other voice or hand alone; and then put it all together.

So, right hand first, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

Then left hand, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

And then, voila! Both hands together.

What drives my son insane is that it just doesn’t work like this. Not even close.

There “voila” doesn’t happen because when you put both hands together, things usually fall apart. All the old habits and wrong notes and fingerings that don’t quite work – the ones that are ingrained at a deeper level of (muscle) memory – come roaring back in the face of the complexity of trying to put all of the pieces together.

And so, it’s back to the drawing board. To each hand alone. To putting hands together in tiny increments until those hold together. To putting bigger and bigger pieces together, and having those fall apart too. And then, bit by bit, it sticks, you can play the whole thing.

And then you sleep on it, you come back the next day, and it’s fallen apart. Again. Only this time the putting back together happens more quickly, more naturally.

And then one day, you arrive.

What we’re experiencing is that the act of putting together more than one new behavior isn’t a 1+1 = 2 process. It’s a 1+1 = 1 process, over and over and over again until, if you stick with it, if you don’t get too discouraged, if you’re willing not to abandon ship, 1+1 = 4.

More often than not, it’s not the learning of new things that we find hard, it’s the work of not giving up. We are often unwilling to slog through that awful period in the middle, that part where we know what we’re trying to do, we’ve done a bunch of work, and the new behaviors don’t hold together. We often have little reason to believe, in the midst of not getting there yet, that we are actually on the right path, that this is what the work looks like, that real growth and progress are never linear and that new skills are fragile things that crumble, at first, when exposed to the light.

Until they don’t. Until they become a part of us. Until they become natural and we just show up and play, beautifully.