The (false) dream of mastering the world

While I was in temple earlier this week, celebrating the Jewish New Year, I was struck by the words of this prayer:

We are stiff-necked and stubborn; teach us to bend before you.

Convinced we’re right, entrenched in our own perspective, we resist Your call to repent.

Convinced we’re self-sufficient, entrenched in the illusion of control, we resist Your call to humility.

Convinced we can have it all, entrenched in the dream of mastering the world, we resist Your call to wake up.

Today You summon us out of our arrogance, out of rigidity, fantasy, shallowness, self-deception.

Teach us to bend our knees, to bow our heads before the Mystery; to realize our frailty and our finitude.

When I think about the big problems our species has created in the world—most notably the climate emergency and mass extinction, but also the entrenched separations and divisions wrought by income inequality, racial injustice, gender discrimination, xenophobia and all of our manufactured fear of the “other”—I can’t help but feel that much of it is summed up by our collective stiff-neckedness and stubbornness.

The illusion of control.

Our dream of having all the answers.

Our desire to master the world.

Humility is a powerful, subtle thing. We often misunderstand it, thinking it cannot coexist with boldness, determination, and an unyielding belief that we can create something better tomorrow than that which exists today. It can.

Humility is the recognition that we know a lot, but we don’t know it all.

That we can control many things but not every thing.

And that, just maybe, mastering the world isn’t the point at all.

The Six Stages of Kevin Kelly

Last week I encouraged readers to buy the End Malaria book.  When 62 great thinkers line up behind a cause and offer to share their ideas with you for free, PLUS you get to make a donation to end malaria…to me that’s a no-brainer.

(one important clarifying point in answer to a question that came from a reader: the book itself is not about malaria, it a series of short essays on living a productive life.)

First, a reflection on my experience buying the book.  To my surprise, it did actually feel, when I curled up with my Kindle, that I’d gotten the book for free and had also made a donation to Malaria No More.  It didn’t feel at all like I’d paid $20 for a book (I hadn’t).  Interesting to think about that buyer experience in terms of participating in something as opposed to just consuming it.

Second, I have both the Kindle edition and the physical copy, and for the first time in a while I think the print is better just because it is so beautiful.  It will make a great gift.

Third, Tom asked for reflections from the book itself, so here goes:

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, wrote an essay in the book called What You Don’t Have to Do, which really has amplified my thinking on the same topic.  Here are the stages of professional life, according to Kevin:

Stage 1: Don’t Screw Up.   “When you start your first job, all your attention is focused on not screwing up.”

Stage 2: Learn New Things. “At this stage, working smart means doing more than is required.”

Stage 3: Exploration“Working smart here means trying as many roles as you can in order to discover what you are best at.”

Stage 4: Doing the Right Task. “It takes some experience to realize that a lot of work is better left undone.”

Stage 5: Doing things well and with love. “At this stage, you can begin to do only the jobs that you are good at doing and that need to be done.  And what a joy that is!”

Now here’s where things get interesting, because it doesn’t stop there.  The meat of Kevin’s essay is about getting past this stage, which is asking a lot.  Stage 5 sounds pretty great.  But, Kevin tells us, through real dedication, hard work, and honest reflection, we can go a step further and discover the things that ONLY we can do.  Counter-intuitively, this means taking all things that are worth doing and that you do really well (but that others can also do well) and letting go of them.

As a magazine editor, that meant Kevin giving away all his story ideas to other writers, except the ones that no one would take on.  These felt like duds, but Kevin discovered that some of them would keep coming back to life AND that he couldn’t get others to write them.  So he hung on to them, and eventually he wrote them.  They became his best stories.

That’s the last stage, not just for Kevin but for all of us: finding those things to which you are uniquely suited, and doing only those things.

Think of the discipline that requires.  Think of the faith it takes to let go of all sorts of things you’re good at and that are worth doing – and the fear that if you do that, you’ll be left with nothing (which of course you won’t).  Think of the courage and conviction it takes to realize that when people are telling you something is a bad idea, they may just be indicating that this one, and only this one, is the one that YOU need to make happen.

Kevin’s essay is much better than this blog post, so I hope you have the chance to read it.

Our most important job

Schools teach two sets of lessons, one useful, one problematic.

The (generally) useful lessons are the ones that teach us the things that schools are meant to teach – reading, writing and arithmetic, progressing to critical thinking and deep domain expertise.

The second, silent, unspoken lesson is that schools are in the business of teaching us (defining for us) what we’re supposed to learn and master (they give out the grades after all).  And then more silently still they hand over this role to our employers who define the rules of the game with evaluation matrices that tell us if we “did not meet” “met” or “exceeded” expectations.

Whose expectations, exactly?

It takes a while (sometimes forever) to figure out that the most powerful levers for one’s personal development aren’t the skeleton keys that teach us how to be great __________  (speakers / analysts / bloggers / designers / teachers / coders / investors / whatever). That’s just skill mastery.

The most powerful lever is is figuring out what configuration of skills matter the most to what we hope to accomplish.  This is why we can’t outsource this process of discovery (it is discovery, it’s not a set playbook) to our teachers and employers and parents and friends.

Our job, first and foremost, is to figure out what it takes to be great, and then to have the courage and conviction to go out and do those things that will get us there.

The figuring out part is the messy, quiet bit that people mostly don’t talk about, even though it’s really the most important thing.

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The real role of mentors and coaches

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old one-liner.


But practice what?  Diligence and hard work aren’t enough – you have to know where to place your energy.

At first, the roadmap can seem pretty clear.  You want to get good grades?  The teachers will tell you what to study.  Want to be a good analyst at your first job?  Your boss and peers will tell you what to do, and it’s up to you to do it.

Most of this is about someone else setting up the rules of the game and you trying to win against that set of rules.  And as you progress in your career, you decide which the skills and behaviors you want to master and you work to improve them.

For example, here’s the illustrative chart for how you get better at public speaking:

Skills 2

So if you want to become a public speaker (Aptitude), there’s a set of identifiable Skills (e.g. projecting confidence, engaging the audience, having a good and varied speaking voice, being a storyteller, etc.) that matter, and you might be good (filled in circle) or not-so-good (empty circle) at these skills and at the behaviors that support these skills.  Simple enough, if you put in the effort.

And if you do put in this effort, if you’re a “sawgot” (someone who gets things done), you will over the years systematically pick off the skills and behaviors you need to work on to improve on the aptitudes you’d like to master.

This is likely a lifelong endeavor, and while it’s part of the answer it isn’t the whole story.  At a certain point you need to get underneath all of this and find new points for leverage.

The “underneath it all” are your attitude and assumptions – both about other people and about yourself.

Skills 3

I think of the top three levels (Aptitudes / Skills / Behaviors) as “What I do and How I Act” and Attitudes/Assumptions as “Who I am and How I See the Word.”  It’s Attitudes and Assumptions that are the the bigger leverage points if you can get to them; and these becomes increasingly important over the course of your life (since you’ve already come a long way at mastering behaviors and skills, right?).

More specifically, you’re carrying around a set of assumptions that colors your own sense of where you do and don’t excel, along with a story that explains why.  So for example you might have decided long ago “I’m not a good public speaker because I’m not a creative storyteller.”

For both parts of this sentence (“I’m not a good public speaker” and “because I’m not a creative storyteller.”) you could be 100% right or 100% wrong (or somewhere in between).  For example, maybe you’re only an OK public speaker but it has nothing to do with how well you tell stories (do people laugh at your jokes?).  The assumption about why will color where you put in effort, and you might be completely misdiagnosing what’s going on. So you might be putting in lots of effort into “storytelling skills” when what actually happened is that you’re carrying around the wrong mental model of what makes for a good presentation (stand up and present a bunch of boring slides).  It ain’t that you’re a below-average storyteller.

And this is where I think coaches and mentors come in.  I used to think that mentors were mostly for “what am I going to do with my life” conversations, but I’ve found out that that most people, other than you, are very poorly placed to answer that question (the best they can do is give you information about the different paths out there).

But if you can build relationships of trust and honesty with people who know and respect you and who know more than you about (at least) some things; and if over time you can develop a shared sense of who you want to become; then you have the opportunity to dig in to this conversation at the level of assumptions – the story you carry around about yourself that informs all the time and effort you’re putting in to your own development.

What this requires of you is cultivating these relationships of trust plus a willingness to go all the way to your assumptions about yourself when talking to these people.  This can be hard, because these stories, these assumptions we carry around, our personal narratives…these usually run straight to the core.

But imagine the impact if, in one conversation, someone is able to reflect back to you that just one assumption you’ve been carrying around for your whole life is plain wrong.  If someone were, in a single comment, able to show you that the circles you thought were empty were in fact filled in, and vice-versa…that it’s the story you’ve been telling yourself that needs adjusting, not the things you do (which are just tactics, after all).

If I were a betting man, I’d say the wrong assumptions you’re carrying around are about something you think you’re not good at…when in fact you already pretty good or even great.

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It’s not you

I busted my left knee a little more than 15 years ago in a skiing accident – torn ACL, meniscus tear, the works.  I was on ski vacation with 20 people I didn’t know, the guest of a member this big group.  The first morning, I awoke groggily at 7am to a foot of fresh snow piled on the window sills.  But most of the group slept in, and between putting on snow tires and getting ski rentals for nearly everyone, we only made it to the top of the mountain by noon.  Young, eager and frustrated, I soon pitched myself past a sign marked “cliff area.” Three turns in, I discovered a side of mountain without a lick of snow.  Crash!  It’s amazing I didn’t do more damage.

That was in 1993, and over the years I’ve quietly eliminated one high-impact sport after another in deference to my ailing knee. A year ago, my knee started acting up again, and with it went the last semi-high-impact activity – squash – that was left in my repertoire. The good news is that, thanks to a good (if gruff) orthopedic surgeon, a successful arthroscopic surgery and some rehab, I’m back on my feet, and slowly making my way back onto the squash court after a one-year hiatus.

As the excitement of getting back on the court has waned, I’m smack in the middle of ample opportunity for self-criticism – all the things my squash game once was and is no more. And this has gotten me thinking: how can I fix the things that I need to fix on the court without spending all my time thinking, “I’m terrible! This is awful! That’s an easy shot I just missed!”? How do I grow without all the self-criticism?

Which of course is connected to my professional life.

I’m a firm believer that the best jobs are ones that offer real opportunity for growth.  People often take that to mean jobs where you can take on more responsibility and get promoted, but I think that’s only half the equation.  The other half is finding an environment where people give real, constructive criticism (positive and negative) about what you can do to grow into the leader you want to be.  Work environments that encourage and nurture this kind of feedback are rare.  Rarer still is having the professional trust and personal confidence to be able to take on this kind of criticism, hear it for what it is (constructive), and integrate it in a positive way.

Which brings me back to the squash court, and all the games that I used to win that I’m currently losing.  And it’s forced me to ask: why is it easier to acknowledge a criticism on the court than it is at work?

I think the answer is that, on the squash court, (self) criticism is about what you do.  “Don’t stand too close to the ball.”  “Anticipate the next shot sooner.”  “Take your racquet back earlier.”

At work, self (or external) criticism feels like it’s about who you are.  So when someone gives you feedback on how you run meetings or speak in public or what you put in emails or the way you go about analyzing problems, you first reaction might be, “How dare he say that about me?”  

“About me,” not “about what I do.” This is where you might trip yourself up.

The trick is to remember that both situations are the same. Both are about what you do, and how doing some things differently, some other things more, and another set of things less, you can be more effective.

Separating yourself (the actor) from the things that you do (the action) might just give you the space to hear the criticism for what it is: an act of support; an offering by someone who wants you to succeed, showing you what you can do differently to be the leader you want to be.

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