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.

Barbara Grant – Management Practices for the Social Sector

I admit it, going into an all-day training called “Management Practices for the Social Sector” I was feeling, uh, skeptical.  I’d heard great things from colleagues who’d done the training, but I was suspicious.

Man was I wrong.

Barbara Grant has been running her own training and consulting practice since the early 90s.  Before that she had roles of increasing seniority at Microsoft including her last job running all of training and development for Microsoft’s most senior executives.  And before that she worked in the prison system.  She’s been there and done that.

Barbara was tough, funny, and insightful.  She was practical and dynamic in going where the group needed to go yet also keeping us to our agenda.  She presented a number of frameworks that we could and will actually grab on to and use, and gave us a shared vocabulary that will allow us to have different conversations internally.

In short, if you work in nonprofits and are looking for a great trainer, I’d recommend looking Barbara up (and no, she doesn’t even know I’m writing this post).

We covered a lot in just one day – a coaching formula Barbara calls, simply, “heart, tree, star;” a situational leadership framework; a model for task and work prioritization; a facilitated conversation around decision-making styles, all of which I found impactful.  But probably the thing that hit me hardest over the head was her presentation of Argyris’s Ladder of inference:


The basic notion is that, as human beings we have a natural adaptive mechanism to filter out information based upon past experiences, and in so doing we create a self-reinforcing worldview – about people or about situations – that limits our ability to really see  what is happening and draw new inferences or conclusions.

So, for example, I clearly have a ladder of inference about group training sessions: based on experiences in the past in which I didn’t find management training valuable, at the start of the session with Barbara, rather than just taking in the observable data I’m sure I selected data that affirmed my worldview, added meaning and then made assumptions based on that worldview…and on and on up the ladder.   And of course every time you get up the ladder you use that information to reinforce the ladder, further narrowing the data you choose to see and the stories you choose to tell yourself around those data.

So it could be stories around how so-and-so doesn’t prioritize the work we’re doing together; so when she’s late for a meeting I retell that story to myself rather than consider that her flight might have been delayed.  Or how another person is always getting the plum assignments; so when she goes on a work-related trip to Paris it must be because she’s a favorite and not because in her prior job she worked in Paris and has a lot of business contacts there.  And on and on we go up our ladders.

It’s such a simple framework, yet just being talked through it by Barbara I quickly saw it everywhere, and I realized how my ladders could be short-circuiting my ability to really listen, to process new information, to be adaptive in my worldview.

The bit that really hit me in the gut is that I know that I’m generally quick at processing information.  And then I got to wondering: could it be that I do this not only because I objectively process things quickly but also because I’m really quick to build ladders or use existing ladders? A sobering thought, but also freeing when you have a new framework to carry around, one that gives you the freedom to check your ladders at the door.

Just a glimpse of a great day in which Barbara gave us real gifts, ones that I know I’ll carry around and use for a long time.  Maybe she can help you too.