Category Archives: Discipline

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

Did You Add Value Today?

I often ask people this question, and I never define what I mean by the word “value.”  I enjoy hearing the range of responses as the person quickly reviews in their head the times in the day where they added value.

No matter what you do each day, where you work, whether you’re paid for the work you do, whether you interact with lots of people, or toil in solitude.  The question matters.

Did you add value today?

Did you improve something?  Did you add a new idea to the world?  Did you help someone else today?  Did you listen?  Did you motivate?  Did you share?  Did you forgive?

If you manage people, did you help your direct reports add value today?  Did you congratulate them on the value they added?

Did you add value today?

A simple question.  It’s most powerful when you ask yourself this question a couple of times a day.

Photo by Nathan Lemon on Unsplash

 

Five Stages of Problem Solving

I could write how problems are opportunities in disguise (many are).

Or, I could describe all the ways we can work together to find solutions to the problems we face.

But, I think it’s most useful to describe the five-stage problem-solving model that most of us follow in our day-to-day lives.  It doesn’t matter if these problems are personal or professional…the same stages are usually in play:

1. Ignore the Problem

Ignoring a problem doesn’t mean not knowing about it.  We know it’s there, but we purposely choose to ignore it.  This gives us plausible deniability.  There’s a lot of hope involved in ignoring a problem.  Our hope is that if ignored long enough, the problem will solve itself, or someone else will take ownership and find a solution.

2. Deny the Problem

This is a bit more active than ignoring the problem.  We acknowledge that something is wrong, but it isn’t really a problem.  By consciously changing our perceptions, and the perceptions of those around us, we can plausibly deny (there’s that phrase again) that a problem exists.  And, if it really is a problem, it’s not a problem for “us” to solve.

3. Blame Someone (Else)

When denial stops working, the focus shifts to ensuring we aren’t held responsible for the problem.  We aren’t ignoring or denying the problem.  But, we know we aren’t the cause, for sure. Therefore, we shouldn’t be expected to provide a solution.

The most advanced version of this stage is to not only blame someone else.  But, make sure the world knows we warned everyone that this type of problem could happen…if only someone had listened to us in the first place.  I call this person the omnipotent blame shifter.

4. Accept the Problem

We finally accept that this is a real problem.  It’s our problem, whether we caused it or not.  We own it. We also own the task of finding the best solution.  This is the trickiest stage of all…

If we caused this problem, we must now admit our weakness, our mistake, our error in judgment, our previous lack of attention or understanding.  We may even have to admit that something happened that was out of our control.

If we didn’t cause this problem, our challenge is to put aside blame, and focus on solving the problem.  We don’t have time to teach lessons at this point.  Our focus must be finding solutions to the problem we’ve just accepted.

5. Address (Fix) the Problem

Ah…we finally arrive at the solution stage.  We’ve accepted the problem.  It’s real.  It’s ours.  And, now we (and possibly a large team we’ve assembled) will fix the problem.

Ironically, this may be the easiest stage of all, even if it’s the one we’ve worked so hard to avoid. It sits patiently, waiting for us to arrive.  To focus our attention, our effort and our creativity on delivering ideas and solutions to the problem.

Imagine the energy we’d have available to solve (and prevent) problems if we didn’t waste our time ignoring them, denying them, and finding others to blame.

 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

 

The Pebble

As in the small rock that somehow slipped into your hiking boot.

Can you give your boot a quick wiggle and move that pebble out from under your foot?  Maybe, but guess what.  It’ll find it’s way back under your heal in no time.  They always do.

Does it matter that you’re making great time up the mountain, and have lots of momentum on your side?  Nope.  That little pebble demands attention.

That’s the way of the small irritant.  It’s there and it won’t be leaving on its own.  It will start to cause damage, become more distracting, and take more of your attention.  Try as you might, there’s no way to ignore it.

The only thing you can do is stop and take off your pack, then take off your boot and dump that little pebble out.

Eliminate the irritant and get refocused on the trail ahead.

Sure, it’s annoying to stop.  But, the alternative is far worse.

Photo by Aneta Ivanova on Unsplash

 

The Power of Chaos

Chaos is easy to create.  Eliminate judgment, eliminate priorities, and you’ve set the stage for a good dose of chaos.

Chaos is seductive.  It gives the appearance of action while preventing forward progress.

All the planning, all the preparation, all the foresight…none of it will prevent chaos when we give it control.

Chaos provides excellent camouflage for mediocre results.

After all, how can I be held accountable when all around me is chaos?  If I’m able to deliver any results amidst all the chaos, I’m a hero.  It doesn’t matter if my results are of the highest quality or even the desired quantity.

Look around you.  Is your work environment chaotic?  What about your personal time?  Chaotic?

Is all this chaos creating a positive environment for the changes you want, or is it sapping energy and stopping progress?

The secret to chaos is that you own the choice.  You decide how chaotic your life is.  You have the power over chaos, even when it appears that chaos is in control.

When you choose your priorities, choose what gets your attention, choose what to ignore, and choose what to eliminate, you take back control from chaos.

Be careful…

As you consciously take steps to eliminate chaos, you will be held accountable for the results you should be producing, instead of the results you sneak past all the chaos.

In the end, living in chaos is easier than being truly effective…probably why so many people choose it.

 

Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash

 

 

If you look…

…for things that are frustrating

…for people to disappoint you

…for what’s missing

…for situations that are hopeless

That’s exactly what you’ll find.

If you look…

…for opportunities to be thankful

…for people to surprise you

…for what’s included

…for situations with a path to success

That’s exactly what you’ll find.

It’s easy to be disappointed.  Easy to be frustrated.  Even easier to want more.

Are you seeking the good, or just the opposite?

Do you expect failure, or success?

Your expectations and perspective create the outcome.

Are you a manager?  A parent?  A coach?

Guess what…the people who count on you the most will quickly learn what you’re looking for.  If you’re looking for success, they will deliver it.  Looking for failure?  They will deliver that.

You find what you seek.  The choice is yours.

 

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash