The Power of Graduality

Most things happen gradually.

A roof appears on a newly-constructed home only after the gradual process of building the foundation and walls first.

A child “suddenly” learns to walk only after they’ve gradually learned how to roll over, sit up, military crawl, real crawl, stand next to furniture, and finally take their first awkward steps.

A pitcher makes it to “the show” after working nearly every day of his life.

That amazing motivational speaker you saw this morning got amazing by speaking to hundreds of audiences over the past five years.  Truth be told, she probably wasn’t amazing five years ago, but now she is.

The raging river you’re rafting down began its journey as a few drops of melted snow and built from there.

That guy in the gym who knocks out 50 pushups between weightlifting sets got there by doing one pushup at a time, thousands of times…when nobody was watching.

Even when we see the results of graduality all around us, it’s easy to miss.

Make no mistake.  Graduality is one of the most powerful forces in the universe.

But it carries a price few are willing to pay:  self-discipline and self-belief.  The discipline to work tirelessly, and the undying belief that you’re doing the right thing.

What future do you want for yourself?

Do you believe in that future?  Do you have the discipline to work for it every day?  If so, the power of graduality is there for you.

The good news is that when you harness graduality the right way, your destination becomes much less important than the journey itself.

“Winners embrace hard work. They love the discipline of it, the trade-off they’re making to win. Losers, on the other hand, see it as punishment. And that’s the difference.”  –Lou Holtz

Personal note:  Something I’ve worked on gradually for nearly six years is writing blog posts like this one.  This is my 220th post.  While I’m proud of this achievement, I enjoy the journey of writing them much more than the realization that I’ve amassed so many.

I’d love to hear what you’re gradually working to achieve.  Let me know in the comments.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

 

Grandma’s Hot Chocolate

There’s something special about grandma’s hot chocolate.

It doesn’t matter that she boils water and pours in the envelope of instant powder like the rest of us.

It’s what she does while the water’s boiling.  The questions she asks while stirring-in the powder.  The way she stops stirring to listen to your answers.

Grandmas have that way of listening, even to the stuff we’re not saying.

It’s the way she adds the right amount of milk to “thicken it up a bit.”  Nobody else gets it exactly right like grandma.  She knows just the way you like it.  In fact, she’s the only one who does.

It’s counting out the right number of baby marshmallows.  Enough to sweeten things, but not so many that they get in the way.

It’s the way she squeezes your shoulder as she places the cup on your placemat.

It’s the way she sits to enjoy it with you.

That first sip is such a treat.  Is it the taste of the chocolate, or seeing grandma’s warm smile across the table that makes it so good?

It doesn’t matter.  Your loving journey to the bottom of this cup of wonder is just beginning.

Funny how the simplest things in life are transformed when they’re mixed with grandma’s love.

A love she teaches us to bring to the simple things in our own lives each and every day.

Photo by Salome Alexa on Unsplash

Overcoming the Weed-Out

They’re called weed-out classes.  The classes in every major designed to weed-out the pretenders, the students who can’t hack it, the ones who just don’t have what it takes.

They usually come around the third year…just when you think you’re pretty good at this stuff, and after you’ve committed two-plus years of your life to this major.

There were a couple of doozies in my major, Computer Information Systems.  But, none compared to CIS 324—Database Programming.  On the first day of class, Dr. Stumpf said he wouldn’t be surprised if we’d be in the computer lab 40-60 hours per week, just to complete the four main programming projects.  We’d also have a mid-term and a final that covered all the database theory we were supposed to be learning while completing the projects.

To make things tougher, each project picked up where the last one left off.  So, if you stumbled on the first project, you were setting yourself up for a potentially unrecoverable torture test in the second, third, and fourth projects.

It didn’t matter that you had other classes, or that you had a life that included working 30-40 hours per week.  This was CIS 324.  The weed-out class.

There were 26 of us in class that first day.  I remember the number because two people wanted to add the class, and Dr. Stumpf was concerned because we only had 24 chairs in the classroom.  That wouldn’t be a problem for long.

Five weeks and two projects later, there were 18 of us in class.  The others had dropped.

Seven weeks and three projects later, we were down to 11.  This was long before Survivor, but students voted themselves off the island nearly every week.

Dr. Stumpf took it all in stride.  This type of attrition was normal.  The students who didn’t make it would try again next quarter, or they’d re-evaluate their choice of major and never be back.

In the tenth week as we handed-in our last project and prepared to take the final exam, there were only 9 of us.  By now, we knew each other well.  We had spent many hours together in one of the computer labs (this was a bit before the days when you could use your PC to connect remotely).  We were in every class, pulling for each other.

We were part of this small band of students about to make it through Dr. Stumpf’s CIS 324 class.

Looking back at those ten weeks, I don’t remember much detail about the projects.  I remember the long nights in the computer lab, the endless diagrams, and lines of code.  There was an amazing vending machine just outside the lab that dispensed ice cream bars for 30 cents apiece.  I lived on ice cream bars and Mountain Dew that quarter.

I remember coming to each class, especially on the days our projects were due, wondering who’d be there and who’d be gone.  I remember Dr. Stumpf congratulating each of us when we handed in our final exams on the last day of class.

Since CIS 324, I’ve faced lots of “weed-out” tests, whether I knew it or not.  I’ve taken on projects that were way over my head.  I’ve asked myself to deliver “the impossible” more than a few times.

Were these real-life weed-out situations harder than my CIS 324 experience?  Definitely.  And, many lasted a lot longer than ten weeks.

But, the experience of overcoming my first weed-out test made it easier to pass the next one.  And, passing the second weed-out made it easier to pass the third.

Overcoming all these weed-out tests had five things in common:

  1. If I focused on the ultimate and final deliverable on the first day, I would have given up. The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  It’s the same with overwhelming challenges.  Break them down to their next indicated step and take that step with confidence and an open mind. That will lead to the next step…
  1. It’s easy to feel alone in these weed-out tests. But, I was never alone, even when it felt that way.  I found allies, sounding boards, mentors, people willing to join my cause, people I could trust.  These people made all the difference.
  1. Related to the above: Never forget the people who helped when you needed it most.  Make sure they know how grateful you are for their help.  Be there for them.  They’re facing weed-out tests of their own and can use your help.
  1. No matter how unique you think your weed-out situation is, it isn’t. Someone else has probably faced a similar challenge and lived to tell about it.  Take the time to review what others have learned and apply it to the test you’re facing.
  1. Don’t let your success on this test go to your head. Sure, it’s a great achievement.  Have a nice dinner to celebrate.  Enjoy the accomplishment.  But, stay humble.  Humility is the foundation for overcoming your next big, scary weed-out test.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

When we take the time to temper that strength with humility, we’re preparing ourselves to take on the next weed-out challenge that’s surely coming our way.

Photo by Jonny Caspari on Unsplash

 

The Big Ass Wall!

How to build a wall:

  • Determine where it’s going and what it looks like
  • Dig a trench for the foundation and set your forms
  • Install reinforcing steel
  • Pour concrete for the foundation and let it set
  • Get a load of bricks and mortar
  • Did I mention that you should decide if you’re building this wall yourself?
  • Lay down the first course of bricks, ensuring they’re perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • Continue laying bricks, perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • Continue laying bricks, perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • Continue laying bricks, perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • Install scaffolding when your wall gets too high to reach from the ground
  • Continue laying bricks, perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • For a super strong wall, fill all the open cells with concrete
  • Cap off your wall with one final course of perfectly level and properly-spaced bricks
  • Clean-up after yourself
  • Admire your wall.
  • Go build another one.

Building anything of value requires the same steps (in roughly the same order) as building a big ass wall…one brick at a time.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

Begin with I Don’t Know

It’s easy to assume we know everything, or everything that matters.

If not, we can comfort ourselves that at least we know enough.

“Been there, done that,” is our unspoken mantra.

When we know, we feel the need to tell others.

When we know, there’s nothing more to learn.

When we know, listening is optional.

When we know, questions waste our time.

Curiosity and exploration are irrelevant.

A powerful thing happens when we begin with I don’t know.

We listen to others more than ourselves.

We open our mind.

We embrace the potential for change.

Curiosity and questions fuel our journey.

We become interested.

And, interesting.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Never Hit on 13!

“Son, I’d just stay on that if I were you.  Your job is to make the dealer bust.  We’re countin’ on you to get this right.”

My new “mentor” spoke with a confidence borne of the many decades of experience showing on his weathered face.

I didn’t realize it, but the open seat I filled at the Blackjack table was the third-base seat.  That meant I was the last player to get cards before the dealer.

He continued, since he must have figured this young fella sitting next to him could use some more of his wisdom.  He could tell this was my first time playing Blackjack in Vegas.  “If the dealer has a six or less, you make sure she gets the 10 card that’s sittin’ in that shoe.  Do you realize how many 10 cards there are in that thing?  Each one is a bust card for her.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way until he mentioned it.  There are a ton of 10 cards in each deck…16 to be exact.  And, if you add in the 8’s and 9’s, which are also bust cards for the dealer if she has a 14 or higher, that’s 24 cards out of 52 that are bust cards (nearly half).

I couldn’t believe I should stay on 13.  The dealer was showing a 2 of clubs.

Two people had already hit and busted.  My mentor’s wife stayed with her 18.  My mentor stayed with his 20.  Now all eyes were on me and my 13.

My $5 chip wasn’t the only money at risk.  My mentor and his wife each had $25 chips up and they were counting on me to make the right choice.

Sure, there’s a bunch of 10 cards in there, but there’s also a bunch of non-10 cards.  And, the dealer may have a 9 facing down, so that’s 11.  A sure path to 21 and a rousing defeat for everyone at the table.

13 seemed a long way from 21 and not a very powerful way to win.  It sure would be great if I drew a 7 or an 8 and could defend against the dealer’s next hit card.

What to do?

My new mentor could sense my quandary.  He could see that this newbie had no idea how this game was played.  “Son, remember your job. Make her bust.”

I decided to stay on my 13.  The dealer turned over her down card.  It was a King.  She had 12.  She hit and pulled a 10.  Bust!

“Are you gonna let that $10 ride?  Seems like you have the hang of that seat.  Time to see what it can do for ya.”

Another decision.  I looked at the other players and saw them putting up their new chips.  My mentor and his wife were letting their $50 ride.

I left my chips up and waited for my cards.  This time, the cards were in my favor and I had 20.  My mentor had 12, and his wife had 17.  The dealer was showing a 6.

“Looks like I’m in the third-base seat for this hand, since you’ve got a 20,” he said as he motioned that he’d be staying.  I followed suit and stayed with my 20.

The dealer turned over her down card to reveal a Queen.  She had 16 and was required to hit.  Another Queen showed up.  Dealer bust, again!

This “13 strategy” was showing some strength.

“Are you gonna let that ride again?”

Feeling a bit more comfortable with my situation, it was an easy decision to let my $20 ride for the next hand.  Mr. Mentor and his wife let their $100 ride.  They were on a roll!

This was more than I’d ever bet in Vegas.  A whole $20!  And my new friends each had $100 on the line!  I could feel my heartbeat racing as the cards were dealt.

My mentor’s wife received a pair of Aces. My mentor had 17.  I had 12.  The dealer was showing a 4.  This was a perfect setup for my new-found strategy.

The first two players each hit on their hands and received low cards.  Both were still in and stayed.  My mentor’s wife split her Aces and placed a new $100 chip on the table.  The next card was an 8.  She stayed with that hand.  Her other Ace received a 10.  Blackjack!  The dealer paid her $150 in chips for that hand and moved on to Mr. Mentor.  He stayed with his 17.

It was all up to me.  That’s when things went sideways.

I started obsessing on the number 7.  What if I stay and the dealer pulls a 7 out of the shoe?  That would give her 21 (this all assumes that her down card is a 10, of course).  If she gets a 21, she’d beat me and everyone else at the table.

But, if I got that 7, I’d have 19 and be sitting pretty against whatever she had.

Somehow, in the heat of that moment, I forgot about holding on 13 (or 12) if the dealer is showing a 6 or less.  I just knew that the next card was a 7.  That 7 was mine to take and I’d be saving the entire table from oblivion.

“Hit me!”

The dealer slid the card from the shoe.  The world started moving in slow-motion.  She slid the card over to my hand and turned it over.  It was a 10!  I busted.  There went my $20!

It gets worse.

The dealer turned over her down card to reveal a King.  She had 14 and was required to hit.  You guessed it.  That 7 card came up for her.  She now had 21.

I had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for myself and my fellow players.  That 10 that I took should have busted the dealer, but it busted me and then everyone else at the table.

Ashamed, I looked at my fellow players, shaking my head and saying I was sorry for blowing it for them.  Here was a group of strangers I’d only met a few minutes earlier and I’d let each of them down.

My mentor didn’t miss a beat.  He tossed another $25 chip on the table and said, “Those cards don’t care about you.  They don’t get nervous.  They don’t care what happens.  They play by their rules and that’s it.  You knew your rules and ignored them…and that’s how this casino was built.  You’re not the only one who forgets his rules when it matters most.”

I learned the importance of knowing my rules and playing by them.  Every time.  In every situation.

I don’t go to Vegas often.  Whenever I go, I find time to play Blackjack, always from the third-base seat.

 

Note:  The preceding may or may not have happened exactly as described.  Either way, the lesson is clear.  Rules matter…especially your rules.  Know your rules before you play.  Play by your rules when you play.  Don’t lose sight of your rules when things get rough or when things look hopeless.  If you stay true to your rules, you’ll win far more often than you lose.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

 

 

 

Being the Reason

Be the Reason…

Someone smiles

Someone thinks

Someone laughs

Someone finds clarity 

Someone chooses life 

Someone serves others first 

Someone believes more deeply 

Someone learns something new 

Someone goes beyond their limits 

Someone knows they have amazing potential 

Someone has a fond memory they’ll cherish forever 

Your boss can’t imagine delivering results without you 

Your employees can’t imagine delivering results without you 

Both can deliver results without you because you’ve taken the time to ensure they can 

Your children are independent and productive members of society 

Each person you encounter remembers your positive energy 

Your children know right from wrong 

Someone steps outside their habits 

Someone uses their imagination 

Someone enjoys their day 

Someone is inspired

Someone is forgiven

The world is more beautiful.

 

Quick Note:  I originally published a version of this list in June, 2017.  I found it a couple days ago and noticed some things to improve.  I started wondering what my list would look like as an “inspirational poster.”  Would it be easier to read?  Would it have more impact?  I prefer this version.  What do you think?

Always Better

We’re taught at an early age to do our best.  That we should strive to be the best.

Being the best is a great accomplishment.

Best student.  Best musician.  Best cook.  Best athlete.  Best employee.  Best boss.  Best entrepreneur.  Best leader.  Best parent.  Best friend.

There are at least three problems with best:

  1. Best is often a subjective comparison to the subset that’s around you. There’s a phrase, “big fish in a small pond,” that represents this well.  You’re the best runner in your school.  But, when it comes time to run against another school, your best isn’t good enough.  You finish second in the race.  Every time the subset gets larger, best gets redefined.
  1. Best is a fleeting moment in time. You might be the best today, but what about tomorrow?  Next week?  Next year?
  1. The value of best goes down quickly. Does it matter to your 48-year-old self that you were the best student (however that was measured) back in high school?  Sure, it’s a proud accomplishment from your past, but does it really impact your life 30 years later?

I propose an alternative to being the best:  being always better.

Consider the challenge and reward of always better:

  • No matter what measuring stick you use, if the goal is to always be better than yesterday, the challenge is clear, and the improvement is measurable.
  • There’s no place to hide when the goal is always better. No excuses for not improving, even just a little bit, from yesterday, last year, ten years ago.
  • Always better pits you against your past self. The subset never changes.  It’s you.
  • If the definition of success is to always be better than before, you get to celebrate success every day that you improve.

What if you don’t improve today?  That’s okay, we all have setbacks.  Setbacks remind us not to take our improvements for granted.  We get to see how great it is to come back to where we were, and then take another step toward our better self after that.

Seeking better every day yields a compounding effect that far surpasses the value of merely being best for one day.

Ask these questions of yourself:

  • What am I doing to improve today?
  • Am I focused on learning from my mistakes, or imagining a new way, and charting an improved course today?
  • Do I realize that each day is an opportunity to be better than yesterday?
  • Am I willing to challenge my own status quo, my comfort zone, today?
  • Am I a better student, musician, cook, athlete, employee, boss, entrepreneur, leader, parent, friend, or whatever else you find most important, than I was yesterday? If not, why not?

Ironically, if you work on always being better, there’s a good chance you’ll become the best.  But you won’t care, because the reward you seek comes from the never-ending quest to be always better.

God gave us all weaknesses.  It’s a blessing to find out what they are so we get a chance to turn them into our strengths.

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

 

Yahtzee Lessons

I was probably seven when Grandma Anne taught me to play Yahtzee.  I’d spend the night at her house with my cousin, Devin, and invariably, we’d be at her kitchen table, playing Yahtzee all afternoon.

It’s a simple game…on the surface.

Each player gets thirteen turns to complete their score card.

The top section of the score card consists of numbers 1 thru 6.  You need to roll three ones, three twos, three threes, etc. to get your “minimums.”  You could also roll four fives (or four of anything), which comes in handy if you were only able to roll two threes on a previous turn.  The idea on the top section is to score at least 63 total points, so you can get the 35-point bonus.

Yahtzee! scores 50 points.  That’s when you get all five dice to be the same during your turn.  Some players focus solely on getting Yahtzee at the expense of everything else.  The theory being that 50 points is huge, and if you get a second Yahtzee that one’s worth 100.  Of course, the odds of getting a Yahtzee are against you, but the payoff is big when it happens.

Grandma was always clear that while a Yahtzee is nice, the most consistent winning strategy is to get your bonus on the top section.  Rely on those 35 points as your foundation.  A Yahtzee, or a big four-of-a-kind on the bottom section of the score card would be icing on the cake.

Relying on the foundational 35 and less on the Yahtzee probably explains many of the best decisions I’ve made in life.

Each turn, you roll five dice to start.  You get two more rolls in your turn.  Depending on what the dice show after your first roll, you may not need to take those additional rolls.  Life is good when you roll a complete large straight or a Yahtzee on your first roll!

The bottom section of the score card has three-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, full house, small straight, large straight, Yahtzee! and Chance.

Chance comes into play when you’re rolling for something that doesn’t happen.  Like, you already have your small straight, and now you’re rolling to complete a large straight.  Unfortunately, that last number doesn’t come up.  You count-up the total of all the dice and enter that number into Chance.

Chance is a lot like a mulligan in golf.  A do-over.  In this case, you get to capture some points even though the rolls failed to produce.  They say there are no do-over’s in life, but I disagree.  There are plenty of second chances, if you’re willing to ask for forgiveness (mostly from yourself), learn from your mistake(s) (hopefully), and try again.

How often do three sixes come up in a roll?  How likely is it that you’ll be able to roll that one specific number you need to complete your straight or full house?  When you’ve used up your Chance spot, and your rolls have led to nothing, which slot are you willing to sacrifice to end this turn?  Odds and decisions.

Yahtzee seems like a game of chance.  It’s much more.  It’s a game of decisions and imperfect trade-offs.

After a while, we graduated to playing Triple Yahtzee, which entails playing three games simultaneously.  You get 39 turns.  One column is worth triple points, one is double points, and the last column is regular points.

The decisions and trade-offs from the “Single Yahtzee” game are in play, but now you want to maximize the point values in your triple column and consider sacrificing some of the slots in the regular column.

Don’t be fooled.  Mastering Triple Yahtzee isn’t just triple the challenge.  As in real life, something that should be only triple the challenge is often exponentially more challenging than it first appears.

What is the answer to all this exponential chaos?  Methodical effort and focused strategy.  The priorities and the strategy are defined.  The decisions that follow from these priorities become clear.  Maybe even simple.

There’s a certain genius in showing a seven-year-old the game of Yahtzee.  They haven’t fully formed their approach to decision making.  Success, failure, decisions, and sacrifices are in play with every turn.  Excellent practice for the real thing.

Yahtzee illustrates how something completely random and driven by chance can be managed within a solid set of priorities and strategies.

I didn’t just get to learn about rolling dice, counting numbers, and making decisions.  Grandma gave me the gift of lasting memories that I cherish to this day, playing Yahtzee at her kitchen table.

Now that I have six (!) grandkids of my own, I can’t wait to teach them the game of Yahtzee…and then, Triple Yahtzee!

Photo by Lea Böhm on Unsplash

 

 

How Do You Measure Success?

Ask ten people how they measure success, and you’ll get ten different answers.

Your own answer to this question today is probably different than your answer was ten years ago…or will be ten years from now.

Not happy at work?

Not happy in your relationships?

Not happy with your current situation in life?

It’s at least partially due to not knowing how you and those around you are measuring success.  If you don’t know what success looks like, how can you ever hope to achieve it?

If you’re working for an organization that measures success differently than you do, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll become unhappy in that organization.

As you consider how you measure success, avoid the comparative happiness trap.  The trap that says you can’t be happy or consider yourself successful until you have as much or more than someone else.

Ultimately, it all comes down to your own perception of what success is, how you define it, and what you’re willing to do to achieve it.

Your personal definition of success is about you and no one else.

Hint—it usually requires a lot of hard work to achieve any meaningful success, no matter how it’s measured.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash