Focus on the Flats

Back when I was a high school athlete, the theme song of choice was “Eye of the Tiger.”

Our coaches yelled a lot, pushing us to go to the max and stay there as long as we could. Greatness was achieved, apparently, through Rocky’s last one-armed push up, his angry smack of the speed ball, his last, shaking and moaning chin-up.

The only thing is, this is the wrong approach for most sustained change—in physical activity or otherwise.

How much longer?

For example, as I returned to running these past few months, I noticed that I spent most of my runs counting down how much further I had to go (“only two more hills after this one.”) Suffering, apparently, was not optional.

Then it occurred to me to ask: what would it take for me to have running, at a good pace, just be running? To have it be no big deal, something I could sustain?

At first this felt like copping out on my max-effort philosophy. But that’s an illusion. Over the course of a 40 minute run, at most I might be able to really “push it” for 5 minutes. Why would those 5 minutes, and not the other 35, be where I focus my attention?

Work on the Valleys, Not the Peaks

The point is, we eventually max out on our ability to make our peaks higher.

At this point, we discover the greater opportunity in redirecting our attention to lifting up our valleys.

This means refocusing our attention on two things:
1. Not letting peak effort knock us off our game
2. Spending most of our mental energy on a strong recovery rather than on peak effort

Why Do We Get So Tired?

The reason peak effort kicks our butts isn’t because of physical exhaustion.

Instead, we hit mental overload from crossing a perceived threshold of what we’ve decided we can do. Because we lack a practice of strong, sustained and resilient recovery, we run out of psychological gas.

And, just as we’ve all been broken by a hill or a sprint, we’ve also crossed mental breaking points when someone shouts at us; when the tension in a professional conversation gets too high; when we’re in the thick of a sustained period of heavy work.

When we get through those moments on our last emotional breath, it can take days or weeks to get back on our game.

If, instead, we have trained ourselves (emotionally, physically) to find the ease in the midst of our effort, then we’re able to sustain a higher threshold of effort and we learn to recover more quickly to a comfortable, productive steady state after peak effort. Ultimately, this grace after fire (in addition to grace under fire) makes us more effective.

Focus on the flats

This change only comes when, in our training, we focus on the “easy bits.”

My running will only improve, and get more enjoyable, when I can be completely relaxed on the flats. This doesn’t mean going slowly or not trying. It means finding a place of sustained, comfortable effort and practicing staying calm and present through that slow burn.

This is the work of building up our foundation, of making it more solid and more stable. It is a mental practice more than a physical one, demanding sustained attention and focus, not maximum heart rate.

When we build deeper, not only does our minute-to-minute performance improve, we also get harder to dislodge.

Then, whether it’s a hill or a disagreement, a sprint to a finish line or a sprint to meet a deadline, the act of sprinting no longer unmoors us. We learn the skill of snapping back quickly, easily, and with minimal fuss.

By all means, don’t give up the sprints. They’re fun, and they lead to both discovery and growth.

But, more often than not, a sprint is just another way to get the run over with–it’s not the path to sustained and lasting improvement.

The Work of a Clean Kitchen

Anyone can splash around and follow a recipe.

Good cooks have the presence of mind to keep mentally ahead, to anticipate and stay calm, and to react quickly and smoothly when things go awry.

If you and your team can move through the chaotic moments with this kind of mastery, you’ll get much more than good immediate results.

You’ll give your people the chance to know what it feels like to remain fluid and present in the heat of the moment, to do great feats and stick the landing all without breaking a sweat.

That builds a confidence for the next round that’s like lightning in a bottle.

Adjusting Your Value Wheel

Each business has a value wheel – the collection of things you do that create value for your customers.

In each situation, and for each customer, you present these in a different way. One customer cares more about the speed of delivery, another about how flexible you are, a third loves that you have an office in Cairo right next to where their main supplier is.

While your value wheel has a few core elements—the handful of things (values, behaviors, promises you keep) that make you you—each customer’s next-level reasons for hiring you will differ.

Your job, when selling your wares, is to know which of these value wheel elements to present when and to whom, and to be facile enough in representing and rejiggering them to communicate just the right offering to each different (potential) customer.

If this all wasn’t easy to see a month ago, it certainly is now. A month ago, a big chunk of how we used to create value was taken off the table. Our new task is to see if the pieces we are left holding are enough that we can continue to do (a new version of) what we do, even in today’s new, unprecedented context.

For many industries and business models, the short-term answer is a simple ‘no’:

Airlines can’t be airlines if people don’t want to travel.

Most restaurants can’t be restaurants without seated customers

But there is also potential, even with a lot of change:

Schools, it turns out, could probably teach kids effectively without kids coming together (though most are failing to do this well).

Most services businesses, whose lifeblood used to involve face time (not FaceTime) with clients and going to giant conferences, are discovering that a lot of that was expected behavior that was mostly unnecessary.

For those of us lucky enough to still be holding enough pieces to stay afloat, the questions to ask are:

How do we clearly see the collection of pieces we’re left holding?

Might there be a way that THIS collection of pieces is, in fact, enough to do meaningful work?

If we imagined that this new normal were here to stay, what would we do differently? What bigger bets would we make?

(and finally)

What new things have we learned about ourselves, our capabilities and our customers that we want to preserve, even when things get back to “normal?”

To help take this forward, here’s a downloadable value wheel that you can print out and fill out with your team (virtually, of course).

Value Wheel

Resilience in the Face of Tragedy?

I’ve always found it off the mark – in places like Pakistan or Israel or anywhere there is repeated violence as part of civilian life – to laud the “resilience” of everyday people in continuing to live their lives in the face of tragedies.

The day before yesterday, on Tuesday night at 6:20pm, seven people died when an MTA commuter train slammed into a Mercedes SUV that was inexplicably stopped on the train tracks, even though the guard gates were down. The woman driving the car, Ellen Brody, was killed as were five passengers in the front car of the train.

The accident happened on the train line I take every day, around the time I usually ride home, about five miles north of where I get off the train.

Yesterday, thirteen hours after the accident, I trudged to my train stop to go to work. People are mostly silent on the platform on winter mornings, and it was as quiet as ever. Eerily, though no one was saying anything, about 2/3rds of the people who usually wait for the first car of the train weren’t standing in their everyday spots.

Once on the train, I talked with some of the passengers around me about what had happened.  Mostly, though, people were quiet, reading their papers or their books, maybe shaken on the inside, but having what appeared to be a normal morning.

When I got to Grand Central Station, the only indication that anything had happened was this announcement on the train’s schedule board. No acknowledgment of what had happened, no words of condolences or solidarity with the victims.

 

MTA_Valhalla_flip

Even when things are this close to home, we can block them out and avoid the proximity. I’d been shaken by this tragedy, but it took this description in a New York Times article to make my stomach clench up and allow me to see myself in that front car of the train.

One witness, Chris Gross, appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” said that he had been watching a Mel Brooks movie in the front car when suddenly the train was jolted.

“People started falling over each other,” he said. He was tossed into the aisle and saw flames, and he heard a man in front of him screaming.

“I turned over and looked,” Mr. Gross said. The man in front of him “lost his leg below his knee.”

In the chaos, he said, a man who had burns on his hands managed to pull the emergency latch so they could escape.

The man with the burns, Mr. Gross said, plunged his hands in the snow, hoping for some relief.

Today, on the train home, the same group of guys is playing bridge like they do every day in this car. As they wrap up their game, they talk about the twist in the road, what happened with the driver of the Jeep, how such a thing could have happened. But the conversations are clipped, and there aren’t many of them. People might be thinking about the victim’s families, or feeling especially grateful for good health, safety, and the chance to hug their kids tonight.

But resilient? No, I’m not feeling or seeing resiliance. I feel shaken and a little bit numb, like going on with my day and my life was at best a neutral choice, not a display of courage.