Attaining excellence

Continuing on the theme from last week’s post from Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families, I also appreciated the book’s inquiry into how we attain excellence.

American families are obsessed with having their kids play organized sports, so Feiler took to investigating where great athletes come from.  He turned to research by psychologist Benjamin Bloom who, in the 1980’s, analyzed the trajectories of world-class performers in six different areas, “concert pianists, Olympic swimmers, sculptors, tennis players, mathematicians, and neurologists.”

Bloom’s results, documented in Developing Talent in Young People, are surprising:

The child who ‘made it’ was not always the one who was considered to be the most ‘talented.’  Many parents said another one of their children had more ‘natural ability.’  So what distinguished the high achiever from the underachieving sibling?  ‘A willingness to work and a desire to excel,’ Bloom wrote.  The most common words used were persistence, determination, and eagerness.

While I’m not specifically interested in what makes star athletes, I’m hugely interested in people reaching their full potential, and Bloom’s observations ring true.  Time and again, the people I meet who are exceptional are the ones who have decided that they are going to be great at something.

Recently I heard Maria Popova, the now-famous Brain Pickings blogger, describe her path from college to where she is today.  Maria hated college but discovered that she loved discovery, she loved self-directed learning.  And so she started exploring and writing about what she was learning and sharing it on a blog.  It was hard work, it sounded pretty lonely, and it didn’t pay anything.  For four full years Maria gutted things out, barely getting by, and doing her work.  In just one telling illustration, Maria decided she needed to take a computer course to learn how to code for her own blog.  The only problem was that she was broke.  So Maria chose to eat beans and tuna for weeks to save up the money she needed for one HTML course.  And that was just one step on her long journey to becoming Maria Popova.  One of a thousand decisions she made to do the work she needed to do.  Maria didn’t spend four lonely years waiting to get discovered, she spent four years honing her craft to become someone worth discovering.

In some ways Maria’s story is familiar: the heroic figure who toils in obscurity for years and then breaks through.  But there’s a danger in this heroic narrative.  It insulates us from the story, it allows us to trick ourselves into thinking that because we are not heroes, because we’re doing what we’re doing and not what they did (*gasp* because we JUST have a job) that we don’t have the potential to transform or the right to be great.

Part of the problem, I think, is that when you have a job you see all the signposts of title and official job responsibility and, yes, how much you are paid.   The concreteness of those external markers supersedes the much more important personal reckoning of discovering who we are and where we are in our own development.  Instead, we play by the rules of whatever system we are in, and in the process we create a numbing separation from the work we do.  We make an uneven exchange of “persistence, determination and eagerness” for doing what needs to be done to get the kinds of rewards bestowed by the system we are in.  And then we get frustrated because the system doesn’t give us what we really want AND we aren’t growing the way we hoped we would grow.

One way to break the cycle is to wake up to the fact that we have greatness inside of us and to find the joy in creating what we are meant to create in this world – even if today we are creating just a small part of it.  The simple act of caring and making personal investment transforms the quality of everything we do, big and small.  Suddenly we put ourselves into the things we create, and we create them as part of a broader undertaking of daring and learning and failing and picking ourselves up again.  The ultimate power of this broader undertaking, this broader narrative, is that we begin for the first time to see that our own growth happens in long cycles.  We trade in “where am I going to be 12 months from now (job, title, etc.)” for “what’s the real work I need to do now to be a transformed person in five or 7 or 10 years’ time?”

Reflecting on my own growth and development, I know that if I can make just one real, substantive change in how I work each year then I’ve had a transformational year.  Think, then, of the shape of the arc that gets me from where I am today to where I need to be.

Of course it is hard to see, looking forward, that we will only become who we are going to become in the long run, and that in fact we have the time we need to get there.  The easily quantified, externally-recognizable stepping stones to get from here to come at the pace they are going to come.  But there’s no escaping the real work we need to do to become the person we are meant to be.

Persistence, determination, and eagerness.

Four tips for better group decision-making

I’m most of the way through Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families.  The book takes the best, recent insights on how groups/organizations perform and applies it to families and raising kids.  This results in surprising suggestions like using agile development principles to make getting kids to school on time less stressful or coming together to write down and display family mission statements.  Feiler is non-doctrinaire in his writing, avoiding “must do” and “top 7” lists in favor of a series of surprising, useful, often counter-intuitive recommendations, many of which seem worth a real shot.

Outside of the book’s relevance for anyone raising kids, The Secrets of Happy Families is also a great refresher on new thinking in organizational behavior.  There’s lots to mine here, and I thought Feiler’s summary of four factors for better group decision-making were particularly on point.  (all the quotations below are from The Secrets of Happy Families).

  1. Too Few Cooks Spoil the Broth.  This addresses the wisdom of crowds (Surowiecki) and how large groups with the right information can be smarter than the smartest person in the group.  The part that I found most interesting was: “Uzzi [a sociologist] analyzed 321 Broadway musicals and found that teams of people who had never met did not work well together and produced more flops.  Meanwhile, groups that had collaborated before were also not that successful, because they tended to rehash ideas and not come up with fresh concepts.  The sweet spot was a mix of strong and weak ties, where trust existed but new ideas could flow.”  To me this speaks to the need to have fluidity of both people and ideas (often from outside the organization) to get to the best decisions.
  2. Vote first, talk later. “I was shocked to learn that groups are better at making decisions if participants express their views at the start of a meeting before they’ve had a chance to listen to anybody else.  Countless studies have shown that once the discussion begins, the people who speak first tend to persuade others of their position, even when their positions are wrong.  Daniel Kahneman offered a helpful blueprint. ‘A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position.’   This seems like the easiest tactic of all to employ – simply ask people to write down what they think at the start of an important conversation.
  3. Hold a premortem.  “As the conversation reaches a climax, it’s important to encourage people to express their true opinions, especially if they disagree with the group…psychologist Gary Klein calls [this] a ‘premortem.’  When teams engage in prospective hindsight…they increase their ability to identify what might possibly go wrong…[e.g.] ‘Let’s imagine it’s a year from now.  We’re following this plan, and it hasn’t worked out.  Let’s write down what we think would have gone wrong. Klein says the main value of a premortem is to legitimize doubts and let skeptics voice their concerns.”     What’s powerful about this is that it engages us in a concrete thought experiment that grounds a conversation of “what if’s” and complex dependencies.  By placing ourselves in a future space, we can see the decision from a new vantage point and understand the risks and opportunities of the different paths we might take.
  4. The Law of Two Women.  “One night I was having dinner with an executive at Google, and I asked him to tell me the most significant change he’s seen in how his company runs meetings.  Without hesitating, he told me they always make sure there is more than one woman in the room.  He then told me about the study that led to this principle…”  I won’t summarize the subsequent MIT study – the punchline is “groups that had a higher proportion of females were more effective.  These groups were more sensitive to input from everyone, more capable of reaching compromise, and more efficient at making decisions.”      This one is fascinating and, again, very easy to implement.

Increasingly I’m coming to appreciate the importance and power of small groups that come together to make decisions.  I’m also coming to understand that just putting a handful of smart, effective people together and saying “be an effective group” is a pretty terrible strategy.  You need trust and safety and mutual investment and a sense of shared purpose and higher goals.  And you also benefit greatly from tactics that are proven to result in better decisions.

This list seems like a great way to start the important work of making your groups as high-performing as the individuals in them.