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.

No wonder(ing)

During my first proper summer internship, working in Washington DC, some colleagues and I got into a friendly argument over lunch about whether pinball was a game of skill.

To resolve this heated debate, we agreed that the “ayes” would have it if and only if we could prove, by the end of the working day, that there was such a thing as pinball competitions or tournaments.

“By the end of the working day.” Can you imagine such a thing? That it might be hard to get this sort of answer in five hours?

But it was the early 1990s, so we dutifully thumbed through the yellow pages, called up pinball shops, and eventually tracked down the answer (yes, with apologies to the taxpayers for our wasted time).

Today this would never happen. Being able “to Google” anything instantly means all knowledge is at our fingertips. Which feels like an unabashedly good thing until we discover that we’re letting our brains off the hook: our memories are actually getting worse.

Plus, kids who have grown up with devices in their hands exhibit shallower information-processing. It’s not surprising. Even around something as trivial as an argument about pinball, we had to do more than state our opinions and look up who was right: we had to imagine the steps we would take to solve the problem, and then walk down that path. Even for an argument about pinball, meta-cognition (thinking about how we would think about the answer) was a required behavior.

In terms of practicing the skills that ladder up to leadership, today’s instant-information world is losing the daily tension of not-knowing. We spend less time holding and exploring two equally-plausible outcomes. We have fewer genuine moments of “I wonder.”

Instant gratification is indeed gratifying, but let’s be careful not to forget what it feels like not to know. Let’s not atrophy our “how would I figure this out” muscle in a world in which it’s gotten so easy to figure out the easy stuff, yet the hard stuff looms as big and as complex as ever.

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.