Category Archives: Learning

Mistakes Were Made

Uncle Lou, our March Madness Bracket Master and Chief Referee, sent an email to our group with “Mistakes Were Made” in his subject line.

What a great subject line, especially from our referee!

It let us all know right up front that things aren’t perfect, and it revealed the one thing many of us avoid admitting at all costs:  mistakes.

Mistakes can be the first step toward that other really bad thing in life:  FAILURE!

Mistakes and failures.  Even more powerful in our lives is the fear of making mistakes, and experiencing failures.

Fear is a good thing.  It keeps us alive.  But, it can also stop us from taking action, changing course, making corrections, or dumping one idea in exchange for another (possibly better, but maybe worse) idea.

Imagine if you wrote an email every day, or maybe just once a week with the subject:  Mistakes Were Made.  In this magical email, you’d describe the areas where you made mistakes, describe the failures that had happened that day or that week, and spell out what you learned.

As challenging as writing this email might be, once it’s written, send it to your boss.  And then send it to the people who report to you.

Does this little challenge strike fear in your heart?  That’s natural.  You should do it anyway.  By admitting your mistakes, you’re letting your boss and those who report to you know that you are human.  You are vulnerable.  You don’t have all the answers.

None of us likes to admit to our mistakes or our failures.  But, the act of admission frees us from the fear and other emotional baggage that we often carry when we make mistakes.

Acknowledging our mistakes and failures is the first step toward forgiving ourselves.  Forgiveness lies on the opposite side of our fear.  Its power against fear cannot be underestimated.  A forgiving mindset, especially toward ourselves, opens us up to real learning and improvement.

I remember learning to water ski.  After a while, my brother and I were pretty good skiers.  We could go for miles and miles slaloming, jumping across the wake, and throwing up huge rooster tails without falling.  That was nice, but our dad had a different view.  He used to say that if we weren’t falling, at least occasionally, we weren’t trying to get better.

The trying was always as important (maybe more important) than the result.  Dad wanted us to always be improving, so in his way, he was asking us to welcome the mistakes that led to better performance.

It’s clear that mistakes will happen.  They come with the territory if we’re pushing our limits and getting better.

Embracing our mistakes is much better than fearing them.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Nathan Shively

Getting on the Next Pole

I sat in front of a pole vault coach on a recent plane ride. Overhearing his discussions brought back memories of my vaulting in high school.

I had no idea I’d become a pole vaulter when I went to the first track practice in my sophomore year.  The coach told us to go run a green (running around all the grass in the school, maybe a mile) as a warm-up.  I didn’t know anyone on the team as I started my warm-up run.  Suddenly, a group of guys ran up behind me and asked what my event was.  I said that I didn’t know, but I was a pretty fast runner so I figured I’d do one of the running events.  Looking back now, I really had no idea.

Immediately their response was, “You should be a pole vaulter.  It’s the best event out here!”

My response, “I’ve never vaulted before,” was met with an even quicker response of, “No problem, we can teach you…it’s easier than it looks.”

So, by the time we got back from running the green, I was a vaulter.  When the coach called my name and asked what event I was trying out for, I said, “Pole vault,” like it was my plan all along.

Fast forward a year or so.  I was stuck at 11 feet for the longest time.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t clear 11’ 6”.  We were blessed to have a pole vault coach, and he recommended I move to a pole that was a foot longer and rated for a bit heavier vaulter than my actual weight.

Moving up to the next pole is quite an adjustment.  It feels completely different.  Everything is off from what you’re used to.  The run-up needs to be adjusted to accommodate the additional height of the pole.  Plus, you have no idea how the pole will respond on your first jump.  In a worst-case scenario, your step may be off, the plant goes poorly, the launch is compromised, and the pole might spit you back, instead of taking you into the air.  For a high school kid, that’s a lot to consider.

In practice, I never actually took any jumps with the new pole.  I merely worked on adjusting my run-up to get the plant right.  As our next meet, against Warren High School, approached we decided to bring both my old pole and the new, longer and stiffer pole.  I remember the bus ride to Warren, wondering if I’d have the nerve to jump with the new pole in competition.

Warren had the “new” rubberized track and runways (standard nowadays).  The rubber runways added bounce and speed to my approach.  This was the perfect time for me to get on the new pole.

My coach’s advice was to block out any negative thoughts (always good advice, by the way), focus on a smooth approach, and nail the plant.  He said that if I relied on my technique, the rest would take care of itself, and I’d have no problem making my first jump.

My warmups were over and I still hadn’t actually vaulted with the new pole.  The plan was for me to take my first attempt on the new pole, and if it didn’t go well, then use the old standby pole to clear a height.

My opening height was usually 10 feet, just to establish an opening.  We decided to pass to 11 feet since our competition was good and we might need to win with fewer attempts.  Pole vault competitions are won by the vaulter who goes the highest with the fewest number of total attempts on the day.

I passed at 10, and then 10′ 6″.  Other vaulters cleared their opening heights.  My tension mounted as 11 feet came up.  He gave me the sign to pass that height as well!  So, I did.

Finally, at 11’6″ I took my attempt.  My heart pounded in my ears.  I didn’t hear anything else, except for my deep breath as I readied for takeoff.  My run up felt great.  I focused on hitting my plant perfectly and blocked everything else out.

The plant was perfect and I felt a sensation I’d never felt when vaulting. There was a noticeable pause in the takeoff and then a sudden lunge straight skyward.

As I twisted at the top of my vault I saw the crossbar whiz by and still I was climbing.  I had skied over the crossbar by at least two feet!  Everything slowed down and I reveled in amazement that I was higher than I’d ever been before.  I caught myself celebrating in my mind before realizing that I needed to let go of the pole and prepare for my landing.

I fell backward toward the pads in slow motion.  All I saw was that crossbar sitting there, motionless, as I cleared my opening height with a pole I’d never used before that day.

The cheers from my fellow vaulters (my team and the Warren vaulters) and my coach were deafening. The height I cleared wasn’t high (even by 1983 standards).  But, everyone knew that I’d just catapulted (literally) to the next level in my vaulting career.

“You flew that vault!  You could have easily cleared 12’6″ or even 13′!” my coach yelled as he patted me on both shoulders.

We decided to pass at the next two heights and come back in again at 12’6″.  Another height I’d never cleared in my life.

On only my second vault of the day and my second vault on the new pole, I easily cleared 12’6″.  My new personal record.

I don’t remember what place I finished that day.  I think we swept the top three spots in the vault and collected all the points from that event for our team.

It didn’t matter to me at the time.  Overcoming my fears, leaping to a new level, delivering for my team, and creating a new launch pad for future improvement was more important to me than my place in that day’s standings.

We are being formed throughout our lives, whether we realize it or not.  We face opportunities for failure every day.  Opportunities to let fear win, for status quo to take the day.

Overcoming the mental terrorism that only we can inflict on ourselves is the key to finding that new level.  The new levels are there, waiting for us to arrive.

Once we arrive, we can choose to stay or leap to the next level.

Solving Interesting Problems and Finding Failure Along the Way

Failure_Target

There I was, listening to a Tim Ferris podcast, featuring Seth Godin (a great combination, by the way).

Seth said a lot.  When it came to our education system, he said it’s geared toward making compliant workers to serve the industrial complex.  I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

He said our education system should instead focus on two things:

  1. Teaching our children how to solve interesting problems (where the answers can’t be Googled),

and,

  1. Teaching our children how to lead.

As I listened, I completely agreed.

And then, only one day later, I was presented with an interesting problem.

Kip was telling me about a problem he likes to ask his programming candidates.  He gave me the problem with a look that said, “Surely you’ll be interested in this problem, and you’ll be able to figure it out.”

Wrongo!

As he explained the problem, my mind wasn’t looking for a solution.  Instead, I started wondering why I’d spend time on this problem, could I Google it (you can), how long would I have to struggle with it before he’d give me the answer, and what would an HR person say about asking this particular question (ever focused on compliance).

Meanwhile, he stood there expecting me to attack the problem, to ask follow-up questions, to start searching for a solution.  I gave him nothing.

Disappointed, he realized I wasn’t working the problem.  He gave me a hint, trying to get me to engage.  No dice.  I wasn’t tackling the problem.  I wasn’t even curious.  I waited for the answer.  In fact, I noticed I was thinking about something else (probably having to do with where we’d be eating lunch).  I hadn’t even tried.

Here’s the problem (it’s called the three light bulb question):

A windowless room has 3 light bulbs. You are outside the room with 3 switches, each controlling one of the lightbulbs. If you can only enter the room one time, how can you determine which switch controls which light bulb?

An interesting problem.  One I had chosen to not solve.

A problem that a younger version of myself would have loved.  It requires logic, imagination, a willingness to fail, and enough confidence to know, really know, that I can find the solution.

Here’s a small hint.  You’ll need to use all of your senses to find the answer.

For me, the question that’s more interesting than the light bulb problem is why I chose (almost automatically) to give up before trying to solve it.

I can tell myself it’s because I’m not a programming candidate, or that I don’t have to prove myself by solving the puzzle.  But, these aren’t the reasons.

Could be a lack of confidence.  Somewhere, deep in my subconscious (or maybe right on the surface), I didn’t know that I could solve the problem.  Queue the white flag.

That’s not the root cause.  In that same subconscious place, my mind saw an opportunity to fail.

Failure is not an option.

Failure is embarrassing.

Failure exposes our weaknesses.

How could it be that the younger version of myself would have tackled this problem with gusto, but the more experienced version sees an opportunity for failure and runs the other way?

I’ve purposely faced failure countless times in my life.  I remember being the guy who “poked the bear.”  I loved the unsolvable problem.  My job often involved turning around “unsolvable” situations.  Failure lurked around every corner, but it seemed normal to me.

There must be something else happening.

The narrative.  That’s the message we tell ourselves (and others) about our core beliefs.  It describes what makes us tick, our mission, why we do all the crazy things we choose to do.  It doesn’t matter if the narrative is always true.  It’s our narrative, and it drives the way we perceive our place in the world.

Years of status meetings, monthly reports, strategy reviews, and all the rest taught me to avoid failure.  Don’t miss the goal.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  Make sure you have buy-in from everyone before launching that new idea.  Don’t take any unnecessary risks.  Don’t go out on a limb…you might fall.  We have shareholders who expect a return.

Without realizing it, I allowed my narrative to morph.  Failure avoidance found its way in.

What’s the easiest way to avoid failure?

Don’t take up the challenge.  Avoid the risks.  Don’t poke that bear.  Let someone else try.  Say “No.”

But, failures teach us the most valuable lessons in life.  The quickest way to stop learning is to avoid failures.

The truth is, avoiding failure is the biggest failure of all.

Something I’ll remember the next time I’m faced with an interesting problem, or an opportunity to fail (which are often the same things).

Want the answer to the three light bulb question?

Here’s one more hint.  Your sense of touch will come into play.

By now, I’m sure you’ve figured it out.  If not, here it is:

Turn on two switches (call them A and B) on and leave them on for a few minutes.  Then turn one of them off (switch B) and enter the room.

I’ll let you figure out the rest.

Are You Really Outside Your Comfort Zone?

ComfortZone

In the 80’s, the message was, “Dress for Success.”  Dress at least one level up, make a great impression, get promoted.  The concept focused on impressing the gatekeeper (your boss, or your boss’s boss), moving up, achieving success.  “Upwardly mobile” was a phrase people used to describe themselves.  Inherent in this approach was the thought that your success was dictated by how far up you climbed in one organization.

In the 90’s, the message was, “Be nimble, move fast, deliver quality.”  Tom Peters really came into focus in the 90’s with his thoughts on the “nanosecond” 90’s.  Big companies needed to find ways to “bob and weave,” to adjust to the ever-changing market dynamics.  We all searched for ways to shift paradigms, boost quality, and invent new ways of streamlining processes.

One by-product of this nimble and fast-moving behavior was rapid employee movement.  Corporate downsizing, upsizing, and reorganizations, along with an even faster corporate merger and acquisition pace, made remaining in one organization for a lifetime as remote as winning the lottery.

Dress for Success was out.  Upward mobility was out.  The era of the entrepreneur was upon us (even though it had been with us since the dawn of civilization).  The corporate version, the “intrapreneur,” became a big thing.  This was the person in the meeting who was slightly quirky, a bit edgy and imaginative, and didn’t mind “poking the bear” a bit.  He or she operated with a flair that the corporate mindset both embraced and slightly feared.  This was the person that would help the corporation remain relevant in the face of fast-moving competition, but might upset the apple cart along the way.

Somewhere in the late 90’s or early 2,000’s I started hearing that we should “think outside the box.”  “Think Different” became Apple’s calling card.  It was only that type of thinking that would yield meaningful results.  Anything else was just window dressing, or “lipstick on a pig.”  Look at the top 10 companies in terms of market value (both public and private) and it’s hard to argue with this sentiment.

But, even those “renegade” companies struggle to stay “different” over the long term.  What once seemed new, even revolutionary, becomes the new norm.  Soon, there’s a clamor for the next version, the new invention, the new product, the next “thing.”

What’s the answer to all of this?  Organizations and entrepreneurs try to operate “outside of their comfort zone.”  Yeah!  That’s the ticket.  If we can get everyone pushing outside their comfort zone, maybe that will result in something different, and cajole some new ideas into fruition.

But, the truth is that none of us like it outside our comfort zone.  Most companies and shareholders prefer their comfort zone as well.

We constantly seek our comfort zone, even as we talk about pushing ourselves outside of it.  If we happen to venture out and actually operate for a while in the hinterlands, our deep subconscious goal is to regain our footing, by seeking approval or acceptance of our crazy ideas back in the comfort zone.

We may get used to operating in a new zone and call that our new comfort zone…but, it’s still our (new) comfort zone.  This is one definition of progress.

People have varying perspectives on what’s comfortable.  The free climber is happiest and most “alive” when climbing a 3,000-foot rock face without ropes.  Another person’s comfort zone is speaking in front of a large audience.  Still another person’s idea of comfort is analyzing reams of financial data about the performance of their company.

What is your comfort zone?  When are you the most at ease?

What are you doing to operate outside that zone?

When you find yourself outside your comfort zone, what’s your goal?  To return to the safety of the comfort zone, or to extend your reach to an even more uncomfortable spot?

Look closely and be honest with yourself.  You’re probably spending most of your time inside your comfort zone or trying to find your way back there.

It’s up to you to determine whether this is okay, or not.

 

 

 

 

 

The Questions We Ask When Someone Dies Are the Wrong Ones!

  • How old was he?
  • How did he die?
  • Did he suffer at the end?
  • Was his family with him?
  • Various versions of:  Who is he leaving behind?  How are they doing?

These are all worthwhile questions.  They show how much we care.

They also provide a small glimpse into our future, and the future of the people we love and care about.  We will each take our final breath someday.  It’s just a question of when and how.

These questions do more to quench the morbid curiosity we have about our own future than to learn about the life of the person who just died.

We used to receive a local monthly newspaper.  I was always fascinated by the stories in the obituary section.  Each person had a story.  An arc through time.  Milestones.  Achievements.  Lives they touched.  But, these were merely stories someone else had written to encapsulate an entire lifetime into a few paragraphs of highlights.

It’s impossible to capture someone’s life in a few paragraphs or even an entire book.

Our lives aren’t just a series of events and milestones.  They’re an almost infinite collection of moments.

Moments that often seem trivial when they happen, but are anything but trivial.  These moments would probably never make the “highlight reel.”  These are the moments that (with the benefit of hindsight) are turning points in our life, and the lives of the people we touch.

Our lives are also a feeling.  An energy.  An impression we leave behind.  It’s not tangible, and it can’t be seen or touched.  But, it touches everyone around us.  It’s something they can only describe with a far-away look in their eyes when we’re gone.

The questions we ask when someone dies miss what really matters.

I’d like to add some new ones:

  • What are the moments you shared with him that you remember most?
  • What stories did he tell you?
  • Which stories had the most impact on you?
  • How did he make you feel when you were around him?
  • How did he impact the direction your life is going?
  • What did you learn from him and the way he lived his life?
  • What type of energy did he bring to your life?
  • What impression did he make on you?
  • What comes to your mind whenever you think about him, now that he’s gone?

And, one final question to consider while we’re still here:

How will those that you love and care about answer these questions after you’re gone?

 

The Puzzles We Build

 

jigsaw-puzzle_pieces

When was the last time you assembled a puzzle?

Did you do it yourself, or did you have help?

How long did it take to assemble?  Minutes?  Hours?  Days?

In our house, whenever we started a puzzle, it was an “all-hands-on-deck” affair.  We’d all start working it.  Some of us would focus on organizing the pieces to make them visible.  Others would dive right in and start putting pieces together.

I worked the edges.  It’s the only thing that helped me get my bearings on the puzzle.  Start with the flat sides and establish a border…then work into the middle.  Working from the middle, out, was way too random for me.

“Hey, does anyone want some hot chocolate?” always seemed like a good question for me to ask after about a half-hour of diligent work.  With marshmallows.  Without looking up, I’d get some slow yesses and a few grunts.  By the time I came back with the hot chocolate, I was always amazed at the progress.

I’d get back to working the edges.

Each of us had our specialty and our own pace.  Some of us were easily distracted (me).  My wife would stay focused for hours…one piece at a time.

“Hey, who’s up for a break from the puzzle?  Maybe we can hit it again in a couple of hours with fresh eyes.”  I was always a proponent of fresh eyes.

But, then we’d get most of the edges completed.  I’d get my own personal rhythm, and I could start to see the patterns.  The puzzle started to take shape.  First, in my mind and then on the table.  My perspective on the puzzle and my ability to add value to it changed as the image emerged from all the pieces.

I don’t know if my wife and daughters (or anyone else who’d stop by and get sucked into the assembly project) went through the same evolution in their perspective as I did.

Our latest puzzle is a new business (actually, an existing business that we recently purchased).  Once again, our family is building a puzzle together.  This time, it’s not at the dining room table with a clear picture of the final product.  In fact, new pieces are being added to this puzzle all the time.

Once again, we’re each approaching the puzzle in our own way.  Center-out.  Edges-in.

Distractions?  Definitely.

Is an image beginning to emerge?  Yes.

The best (and most challenging) aspect of this puzzle is that it’s never finished.  It grows and evolves.  It occasionally leaves us feeling a bit perplexed.  But, it also takes beautiful shape before our eyes as we continue to build, one piece at a time.

Anyone up for some hot chocolate?  We’re gonna be here a while!

 

 

Relax, You’re Doing Fine

I saw this on a license plate frame.  When I first saw it, I didn’t give it much attention.  Then, as I sat at the red light, staring at those four simple words, I realized how freeing they are.

Relax, you’re doing fine.

You aren’t as far behind as you thought in the “race” of life.  In fact, life isn’t a race at all.  There’s no prize at the end for getting to the finish line faster than the other people.

You’re living in a great time.  Why is it so great?  Because it’s your time.  It doesn’t matter what else is happening.  The fact that things are actually happening, and you are here to see, participate, and have an impact is all that matters.  What impact?  That’s up to you.

What you do, how you do it, and the pace you choose are up to you.  I recommend you take advantage of your limited time on the planet.  Start moving, stay moving, always learn, and never stop teaching.  But, that’s just me.  It’s up to you and no one else.

Not as happy as you’d like to be?  Not as fulfilled as you’d like to be?  Worried that life is passing you by?  Worried that you aren’t as rich, pretty, strong, tall, smart, stylish, successful, or any other measure society places on us, as you’d like to be?

We all have the same seconds, minutes, and hours every day.  Our ability to define our time by the people we help, and the smiles we coax into the world are the only things we control.  The rest is going to happen with or without our involvement.

Enjoy your time.  Let someone else worry about all that other comparison stuff.

And, never forget:  Relax, you’re doing fine.

Are You Willing?

“I know this now.  Every man gives his life for what he believes.  Every woman gives her life for what she believes.  Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, and yet they give their lives to that little or nothing.  One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it and then it’s gone.  But to surrender what you are and to live without belief is more terrible than dying—even more terrible than dying young.”  –Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc lived less than twenty years.  Yet she fought for her beliefs and made a huge impact on history.  She died for her beliefs at an age when many are just beginning their life’s journey.

She knew what she believed in.  She knew what it meant to sacrifice for her beliefs.  Ask anyone who serves or served in the military, a first responder who runs into a burning building to save others, or a newly formed priest who has answered God’s call.  These are just a few examples.  Each of them know what it means to sacrifice for their beliefs.

Sometimes our beliefs emerge quietly without our knowledge.  We go through life, making seemingly inconsequential decisions about what we will and won’t do.  We decide who our friends are, and how much we will let them into our lives.  We decide when to listen.  We decide how honest we will be with the world around us.

We establish habits for living our life, and we go on our merry way.

Do you know what you believe in?  Really?  Do you know what you believe to be true?  Do you know what is important in your life?

Have you made the quiet time in your life that’s necessary to consider these questions?

What if it turns out that the things you believe in aren’t manifested in the way you live?  Are you willing to change your habits?  Are you willing to eliminate the things that don’t support your beliefs?  Will you support your beliefs in the way you live, and the way you work with others?  Are you willing to make your beliefs the centerpiece of your actions in everything you do?

Joan of Arc was right.  One life is all we have, and then it’s gone.

Where are you in that one life?  Is it too late to examine your beliefs and change the way you live?

The answer is clear  But, it won’t become obvious until we make quiet time in our lives to reflect.  When we do, we find it’s never too late to examine our beliefs and change our life.

Every day is a new beginning if we choose to make it so.  It doesn’t matter what happened in the past.  It doesn’t matter who wronged you.  It doesn’t matter if you had a terrible childhood.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve missed opportunities in the past.  It certainly doesn’t matter if you failed in the past.

All that matters is learning what you believe in.  Then, deciding what to do with that new knowledge, starting today.

The only question is:  Are you willing to find out?

 

Beliefs and Values

h/t:  Matthew Kelly

Keeping the Wonder

In the beginning, before we’re experts, the following are easy questions to ask:

  • I wonder if this will work.
  • I wonder how this works.
  • I wonder who can help me if this doesn’t work.
  • I wonder what’ll happen when this works.

Once we become the expert, our expertise means:

  • This will work.
  • I know how it works.
  • I’m the one that people come to when it doesn’t work.
  • I’ve seen this work a million times, so I know exactly what’ll happen when it does work.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. –Shunryu Suzuki

Expertise means knowing.  Knowing usually repels wonder.

But, powerful things can happen when expertise is mixed with wonder, instead of being separated from it:

  • I wonder if there’s a better way to make this work.
  • I wonder if I can eliminate this entire step and get the same result another way.
  • I wonder who I can help learn more about how this works.
  • I wonder how my customer views the way this works.

The expert who keeps their wonder is willing to search for new ways, new answers, and even new questions, in a quest for continuous improvement.

That same expert might even wonder (pun intended) if their expertise can solve an entirely new set of problems.

True innovation is almost always impossible without its main ingredient:  wonder.

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.  –Aristotle

 

 

Discuss or Defend?

Discussing involves active listening.  Curiosity.  Openness.  It requires genuine interest in ideas, even if they contradict your own.

Defending involves taking and holding a position.  Looking for openings to argue against another idea.  Preparing your response, while you should be listening.

Discussing takes time.  Discussing requires courtesy, respect, and patience.  Defending, not so much.

Most discussions we see on TV, or hear on the radio, aren’t discussions at all.  They’re exercises in defending.  Questions and answers are metered out in an attempt to defend one position or another.

It’s often the same in a business setting.

The search for alignment, a conclusion, a decision, or an all-out victory often trumps everything else, including a meaningful exchange of ideas.

How often do you defend, instead of discuss?  Be honest.  We’re just discussing here…no need to get all defensive.

What if you went through an entire day without defending?  Think you could do it?