The What, the How and the How Long of Mastery

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?

“How Long” is the doozy.

BKS Iyengar Photo Credit: Jack Cuneo Yoga

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.

Stay the course.

 

Announcing the Launch of 60 Decibels

I have exciting news to share.

Today marks the start of a next chapter for me professionally: I’m launching a new social enterprise, called 60 Decibels, that I’ve co-founded with Tom Adams. Our goal is to reboot social impact measurement, to make it useful for people who are doing the work of building social businesses and NGOs. We want to help them serve customers better and, in so doing, create more social impact.

Our thesis is simple: understanding social impact should be based on listening directly to people.

60 Decibels will take forward the Lean Data approach, which was first built at Acumen to solve our own impact measurement challenge and has already been used by more than 200 non-profits and social businesses in 34 countries.

Imagine if we truly held ourselves accountable to the people that impact capital and philanthropy are meant to help, by systematically including their voices in how we assess impact.

(And, for those of you who don’t work in this sector, it’s worth articulating the counter-factual: yes, it’s true, today, when we ‘measure’ impact in impact investing, most of the time we don’t actually talk to the people whose lives we aim to improve. Crazy, huh?).

My belief is that if we can get this right, we have the potential to make a massive shift in the world.

Everywhere, the cracks in capitalism are being exposed. That’s leading to backlash against “plutocrats,” it’s creating waves of populism, and it’s generating calls, in some circles, for a new model of capitalism: one that creates wealth without being so extractive, one that balances the needs of shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees, and the planet.

But how are we going to put the needs of customers, suppliers, employees and the planet on more equal footing?

Our bet, with 60 Decibels, is that it starts with voice: that by listening better, and by amplifying voices that are currently left at the margins, we can create a system that’s more in balance.

The in’s and out’s of how I think we get from here to there is a longer conversation. (You can get a sneak peek here at the 60 Decibels website, where we’ve written a white paper that’s equal parts manifesto and social impact data). The short version is that 60 Decibels helps companies that are in the business of creating social change listen to their customers. We leverage the power of technology and mobile phones to make it easy to listen to anyone, anywhere, and hear from them about their lived experience. And we move fast, getting results in weeks (not months or years), because that’s the only way we’ll be relevant to the people doing the real work.

So, if you’re in the business of social change and have found social impact measurement to be challenging, burdensome, complex, or frustrating, let me know, maybe we can help.

And, if you’re wondering, 60 Decibels is the volume of human conversation.

So far, it’s been a lot of fun, it’s really challenging, and we’re just getting started. We have a team of 30 amazing people in the US, UK, Kenya and India and we’re working with customers all over the world.

And, in terms of this blog, I’ll still be here every week sharing what’s on my mind. I expect that, gradually, the content of the posts I write will shift slightly. That’s nothing new—it’s been happening since I started blogging in 2008, as my bullseye has moved from fundraising and sales, to generosity, to leadership and the work we all need to do to be grounded, effective agents of change.

A closing thought: in many ways, this blog is a chance for me to think out loud about the issues I find most important, most challenging and most meaningful. That exploration is an important part of my own evolution and growth. To the extent that I’m ready to take on this next challenge, that is due in no small part to what I’ve been able to figure out, week in and week out, through the dialogue that unfolds here on this blog.

None of that would be possible without you showing up and continuing to read and respond. So thank you.

Here’s to the next chapter. Thanks for continuing this journey with me.

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?

The Difference Between Discomfort and Injury

Every athlete knows that aches and pains are part of the process. Especially as we get older, something always hurts a bit.

The challenge is distinguishing between aches and injuries.

For an ache, the best approach is to continue to work the area to promote healing. Usually a slightly different activity is best, but, counter-intuitively, healing happens faster through more use of the affected area. This increases blood flow and stretches and strengthens the supporting muscles and tendons.

Injuries, on the other hand, require rest. We suspend activity, ice the area, maybe immobilize it until it stabilizes and is ready to be built up again.

These truths apply to our mind and hearts, not just to our bodies.

When we are challenged emotionally, when we take what feels like a professional risk and fall short, we often misdiagnose the difference between discomfort and injury. Any blow – in the form of embarrassment, a critique, a sale we didn’t close, a displeased client – hurts our ego.

It can feel like an injury, but it’s usually just discomfort.

If we allow ourselves the mistake of bandaging up and immobilizing that new muscle that we’ve just used the first time, healing will take forever.

What this new muscle really needs is more work and more effort, so it can be strengthened.

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.

The 21st Century Resume

In a world in which access to knowledge is democratized and elite universities are exposed as little more than factories for social network currency and expensive badges, how should we be reading resumes? (Assuming, that is, that we should be reading them at all.)

While it depends on what exactly you are looking for, I’d bet that most 21st century jobs value:

Capacity for learning over knowledge.

Ability to build and provide value to networks over credentials and badges.

Expanding disciplines of responsibility over contained functional expertise.

Facility navigating multiple cultures over being able to thrive within one culture (note: culture is not the same thing as nationality. Not even close.)

Sustained and deep effort that result in exceptional skill in an area of interest.

GPAs, going to a fancy school and job titles with incrementally more seniority are terrible proxies for these sorts of capabilities. Which is why I’d rather see a resume that:

Tells me the latest skill you mastered and what you’re working on.

Describes a knowledge gap you had in your latest job and how you filled it.

Identifies the networks you’re a part of or have created, and what you’ve done to strengthen them.

Helps me see that these networks bring together all sorts of different people with a shared purpose.

And highlights a few areas in your life where you’ve been putting in the hours for a decade or more, even if it has nothing to do with “your job.”

We can do so much better than a listing of schools, job titles and “accomplishments.”

And what better way to stand out from the crowd than to have a resume that actually stands out?

It’s true, most people reading it won’t like your new resume. That’s good news, because your 21st Century Resume will serve as an automatic filter to help you identify the kind of people you want to be working with in today’s fast-changing world.

The right reaction to a mistake

I come from a family of musicians and have played classical piano all my life. So, naturally, all three of my kids play too. It’s not always easy, because unless they practice regularly at home, they don’t make any progress–and very few kids want to sit down and practice every day.

In an effort to bridge the gap between how I grew up (rules for how many minutes, and then hours, to practice daily) and what seems possible in our family, I try to spend a good deal of their practice time with them to help them make the best of it. Over the years I’ve worked on finding the sweet spot between the helpful role I can play as a more experienced musician; the somewhat stern role I need to play to push them to practice more productively; and being careful not to be too tough on them and take the fun out of things. It’s a delicate balance, one I’m still working on, and I don’t always get it right.

This fall, I’ve been noticing my middle daughter as she’s been making her way back to the piano after a summer at camp. She’s started doing something new that I think is just wonderful: when she misses a note that she knows she should get right, she lets out a small chuckle. It’s almost as if she’s saying to herself, “oh, I know that’s a B-flat, isn’t it funny that I played a B-natural.”

What a lovely, elusive reaction to a mistake:

I see myself making a mistake.

I observe the mistake, and see it clearly.

I note what I want to do differently the next time.

And I take the whole thing lightly.

This is not the typical response to a mistake. Normally, when we notice that we messed up we show up with piles of excess emotional baggage. This baggage doesn’t make us better the next time, nor does it deepen our ability to make a change. All it does is associate our misstep with self-criticism and an imprecise emotional mixture of fear, anger and shame.

Much better to notice with curiosity, be deliberate about what changes to make, and let escape a nearly silent little chuckle.

Kaizen Basking

Rowers talk about how, when the whole crew is in sync, the boat somehow lifts a few inches out of the water and magically seems to glide.

That moment is the payoff from the accumulated effort of years of training, focus and discipline, the prerequisites to that moment of synchronicity.

This can happen in our day-to-day as well. We put in analytical, emotional and financial effort to make something work just right, but still it’s not quite there yet.

And then we see something new. It’s something that had been there all along, hidden in plain sight. Then things just click, and something that was almost-there is suddenly there. What a great feeling that is.

Kaizen is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. It’s based on the principle that we never arrive because we are always on the journey.

We are.

But, thankfully, we sometimes get to experience those moments of discontinuous leaps, where something comes together and we perform at another level.

Don’t forget to bask in those moments before resuming your journey.

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.

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.