Category Archives: Learning

What We Don’t Know

Consider everything you know…

All the things you’ve learned since you were born.

All the things you’ve forgotten…in the last five years.

The capital of Vermont.  Montpelier.  I remember that one from 5th grade, even though I’ve never been to Vermont or Montpelier.  I like the way it sounds, and the word Montpelier always makes me think of potato peelers.

“I” always comes before “E,” except after “C” and in weird words like weird.

Over ninety-eight percent of the population of Australia lives within 25 miles of the country’s coastline.  I learned that from a tour guide.  I assume it’s true.

Now, consider everything you don’t know.

Like, how to sew.  Or, how to find top dead center on a Volkswagen engine.  What about the method for calculating the orbital decay of a satellite?  The percentage of nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere?

How about the exact weather forecast for a month from now?  What your customers will want or need or expect one year, two years, five years from now?  The truth is, they probably don’t know either.

I’d venture to say that what we don’t know is “Infinity minus One” larger than what we do know.  Sounds hopeless.

But it’s the unknowns that make our little journey interesting.  Discovering the secrets of an unknown is the reward for our curiosity.

How does cruise control work?

How and when did someone decide it was a good idea to pick certain red berries, dry them in the sun, then put them over a fire for just the right amount of time (whatever that is), then grind up what’s left and run hot water over it to make coffee?

Where does castor oil come from?

Curiosity and the humility to admit our ignorance, in pursuit of new knowledge is the key to learning.

Understanding that our decisions will never have the luxury of complete or perfect knowledge.  We’ll never know everything before making the decision.

In fact, taking that risk and making the (uninformed) decision is another way we learn.  If our decision is wrong, we learn from it (hopefully) and make a new decision that is less wrong.

Knowledge is power, and ignorance is bliss.  Both are right.

But I believe ignorance can have more power.  The power to try.  The power to seek.  The power to chase the unknown.

What do I know?  I know that I don’t know much, even though I know a lot.

Knowing that I don’t know drives me to ask the dumb question(s), to search for answers, to seek the unknown, to leap, to discover, to practice, and most of all, to never stop learning.

Photo by Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash

 

 

 

Iteration is Everything

Iteration knows none of us know.

Iteration recognizes our first try isn’t our only try.

Iteration feeds innovation.

Iteration is fueled by our commitment.

Iteration is the only path to knowing.

Iteration overcomes our Resistance.

Iteration makes the mysterious familiar.

Iteration makes the impossible possible.

Iteration makes mistakes.

Iteration requires failure to find success.

Iteration sheds light on the darkness we fear.

Iteration is the journey to greater understanding.

Iteration always gives us another try.  The question is:  Do we have the courage to try again?

 

Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

 

 

The Book on Pushups

Surely, reading a book on pushups is the best way to learn how to do them.

The proper techniques.  The most effective forms.

When should you do your pushups?  How often each week?

While doing your pushups, what should your mind be doing?

What’s the proper number of pushups per set?  How many sets should you do?

What are all the available variations of pushups?

Why should you do pushups in the first place?

Are there any risks associated with doing pushups?  What about the rewards?

What if the author also provides weekly blog posts and podcasts about pushups…or YouTube videos of people doing pushups?

All of this is helpful. None will match what you learn by doing your first pushup.

That first one will be awkward.  It’ll shock your system.  It’ll be much harder than you imagined after seeing all those happy people doing them on YouTube.

Your technique will be terrible.  Your body will scream in protest.  Your wrists will ache, your shoulders will burn, you’ll probably feel muscles in your lower back you haven’t felt in a while.

Now that you’ve done that first one, what about the next ten?  The next hundred?  Will you make this a habit?  Will you do pushups every day, every-other-day?

Maybe you’ll decide they’re too hard and just skip them altogether…

It’s the same with most things in life.  Reading about it, talking about it, or watching it provide only one dimension of understanding.

Doing is an entirely different thing.

Doing brings the risk of failure, the risk of embarrassment.

Doing requires discipline and endurance for the journey you’ve chosen.

Doing requires personal drive and motivation to push through the awkward (and sometimes painful) beginning.

It’s easy to sit on the sidelines of life, casually watching and listening to what everyone else is doing.  But, the most important choice each of us can make is the choice to step into the game.

Step in and do the thing you’ve been watching.

It’s the only way to truly learn.

 

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I’m not afraid of heights…

…but I am afraid of ladders.

When I heard someone at the gym saying this to his workout buddy, he was referring to the reason he doesn’t put up Christmas lights.  He hates climbing on ladders.

For the record, I’m not too keen on climbing ladders either.

My immediate thought was how easy it is to dream of and visualize reaching the heights of our chosen field.  The hard part is the ladder.

Choosing the right ladder, or series of ladders.

Our ladder needs to be sturdy enough to take our weight and the weight of everyone else making the same climb.

It’s easy to pick the nearest ladder or the one where we can see the top.  But that’s not always the right one.

And, once we choose, how long should we climb before jumping to another ladder?

The real question isn’t about fear of heights or fear of ladders.  It’s about your definition of the higher ground.  Your definition of success.  The “why” for your climb.

Are these easy questions to answer?  Definitely, not.

Here’s the tricky part:  your answers to these fundamental questions of why will morph over time.  Something you thought was important in high school isn’t important when you’re 25, or 30.  Similarly, something that’s important when you’re 30 isn’t so important when you’re 50, or 65.

Our answers also adapt to our surroundings, to the people we see the most.  It’s human nature.  We adapt to survive.  We compromise to fit with those around us.  Our perceptions are shaped by what’s closest.

The good news is that with the internet, blog sites, news sites, books, videos, and podcasts, the definition of “closest” has changed.  While it’s true that we still work closely with the ten people that are near us, we have access to a universe of ideas and perspectives far beyond our “local” reach.  All we have to do is choose to look.

What about heights and climbing ladders?  They matter.  But not as much as why you’re climbing in the first place.

“Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”  –Stephen Covey

Photo by Samuel Zeller 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

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.

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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

 

 

The Interview—7 topic areas to include every time you conduct an interview

Your success is all about “the people.”  More specifically, your company’s success comes down to the employees you can attract, hire, train, grow, encourage, motivate, challenge, and retain.  In most service-based companies, 95% of the company’s assets go home every night.

Employees make all that customer stuff possible with the skills and work they bring to your company.

A huge step in the “people” process is The Interview.

I call that meeting you’re having with a potential job candidate a recruiting interview.  Why?  Consider what’s happening.  You’re attempting to recruit them to your company, and they’re attempting to recruit you into the belief that they’re the one you should select.

I’ve seen countless articles about ways to “ace an interview,” or “answer all the interview questions correctly,” or “how to control the interview process” from a candidate’s point of view.  To be fair, I’ve also seen a bunch of articles about ways for the interviewer to “put the candidate on defense with curve-ball questions,” or “ways to get the candidate to tell you about their true selves,” or “how to use the secret questions Google (or Apple, or any other successful company) uses in their interviews.”

The reality is that there aren’t any secrets to creating a perfect interview.  Each interview is as unique as the human beings involved.  Having said that, I always try to get the following questions or topics into each recruiting interview I conduct (not necessarily in this order):

  • I’ve seen your written resume.  Can you take a couple minutes and give me your verbal version?  Also, tell me how you found us, and why you’re here today.  I like this line of questions at the beginning because it gives the candidate open-ended questions to talk about their favorite subject (themselves).  It also lets me see what they prioritize or emphasize.  The answers to these questions usually lead to a series of follow-ups and propel the conversation in a way that most candidates find comfortable.

 

  • What do you know about our company and the position we’re trying to fill?  This one lets me know if they’ve done any research on my company.  At a minimum, have they looked at my company’s website for a few minutes?  They can also tell me about people they know who either work for my company or people who have told them about my company.  Do they have a sense of what makes this company special?  Do they know the company’s position in the marketplace?  What is their view of the company’s reputation?

 

  • Tell me about the training you received in your past positions.  How did your training process go?  What did you learn?  This line of questions gets to how “trainable” someone is.  It doesn’t matter if this is a 20-year veteran or someone who’s just out of high school or college.  Getting them to talk about how they learned their craft, obtained their skills, hone their knowledge, their favorite classes, who taught them, etc., provides a window into their trainability.  It’s also good in the interview to mention how important trainability is to you.  You like a person who knows they don’t know everything (since none of us do), and who has the humility to know it’s okay to ask for help.  This person will have to learn how to be successful within your company, regardless of their technical skill set.  The trainability factor is critical in evaluating a candidate’s fit for your company.

 

  • This position works independently.  You won’t have a manager or supervisor (or me) telling you what to do throughout the day.  Tell me about how you’ve worked independently in your past positions.  Do you consider yourself to be a self-starter?  Are you someone who takes the initiative and runs with it?  Tell me about a time when you took the initiative and delivered beyond the expectations of your managers.  This line of questioning is obvious, and often people answer these questions with what they think you want to hear.  It’s important to be thorough in this section of the interview and ask for examples.  How do they anticipate taking the initiative, or being creative, within your company?  It doesn’t matter that they don’t know anything about your environment.  Ask anyway.  See how they respond.  You’re looking to see how engaged and creative this person will be in your environment.

 

  • The “goals” questions…  These are so commonplace that they’re almost cliché.  But, they’re worth asking:  What are your goals with this position you’re applying for?  What do you think is an ideal role for you in a year, two years, five years?  How do you see this company fitting into your personal goals over the next 5 years?  I’m interested in their personal goals, the vision they have of their future, and what they see as their future self.  How does my company fit with their view of the future?

 

  • Do you have any hobbies?  What are you most passionate about?  What do you do when you’re not working?  Often when the person tells me their hobby, I ask them how they got into that hobby, how long they’ve been doing it, what do they like about it…all focused on learning more about this person and what motivates them.  If I happen to know anything about their hobby, I ask some specifics.  If they say that they like to watch movies or read books, I ask them what they saw most recently or the last book they read.  I want to see how they think on their feet, and again, what interests them the most…plus, I’m curious about them as a person.

 

  • I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I also spend time describing the company, its history, why I love it here, the position we’re trying to fill, the reasons the position we’re filling is difficult but rewarding, why it takes a special person to fill the role, and how important the role is within the company.  I want the candidate to know what our company thinks is important, the values we have, and the culture we’re trying to create.  The way a person fits into our specific company culture will be critical to their success.  They may be the best fit technically for a job, but not fit in with the culture…a recipe for failure.

 

  • Wait, I thought there were only seven topics! True, but there’s one more thing to mention:  the technical abilities of this candidate.  The topics listed above will touch on the candidate’s technical skills (whether in accounting, programming, deep tissue massage, customer service, call center operations, marketing, ad copywriting, concrete finishing, auto mechanics, or any other skillsets you’re trying to hire).  But, none of them directly test or assess a candidate’s actual skills.  It turns out that it’s almost impossible to assess a candidate’s actual skills in an interview setting.  Some companies require candidates to take a technical test, but that’s not a common practice.  Beyond a technical test, you have their resume, the stories they’ve told you, your assessment of how they might fit within your organization, and then a leap of faith that they have the skills they’re representing.  Not ideal, but that’s where your ability to assess and improve their performance (once they’re hired) enters the picture (and that’s a topic for another day).

Will these topics ensure a perfect interview?  No.  In fact, you may not get to cover one or more of these topics in the interview (which is a warning sign).

Will these topics guarantee you’ll always choose the perfect candidate?  Again, no.

But, if you cover all these topics, your batting average will increase dramatically, and you might even hit the occasional home run.

 

It’s your turn:  What other topics do you include in your interviews?  Let me know in the comments section below.

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The Freedom of Humiliation

Consider how much time and energy we devote to avoiding humiliation.  We’re taught early in life to strive for being right.  Quickly understanding, and then knowing the answer…especially to the questions that’ll be on the test.

Think back to your first job, your second job, in fact, every job you’ve ever had.  How was your first day?  What about your first month?  How comfortable were you?  What type of impression did you want to make on your new boss?  Your new co-workers?

I bet your main goal was to avoid screwing up, learn what it takes to be successful, and by all means, don’t embarrass yourself.

It’s the same in just about any new environment.  Meet a new group of people and one of the first things in your mind is how to present the best image of yourself to this group.  Don’t let them see your flaws, your fears, your anxieties.  Don’t let them know you’re completely uncomfortable.  For now, your goal is to fit in, get to know who’s who in the group and, don’t embarrass yourself.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”   ― Rick Warren

What if you approached all these situations and nearly every other in your life without fear of humiliation or embarrassment.  In fact, imagine if you sought situations where humiliation was a distinct possibility.

What if you approached that new software tool, or the new sales program with the confidence of knowing that you’ll be learning something new…rather than worrying about arguments against them, or how they’ll push you out of your comfort zone?

We usually think of humiliation in its negative context, since we’ve allowed it to matter.  But, humiliation is closely related to humility, and humility is the first step toward real learning.

Once you approach a subject with the humility of a beginner, regardless of your tenure or experience, only then will you be fully prepared to learn.

The humble learner doesn’t allow themselves or their ego to come between new ideas and their pre-conceived notions of the truth.  They allow these new ideas to penetrate the veneer of pride and self-righteousness where many of us hide.  Then, they can truly assess and make a judgment about the new ideas.

Too often, we don’t even allow the new idea to enter.  We’re too busy coming up with reasons that our own ideas are correct, the only direction, the only way.  The new idea is like a foreign invader to be repelled at the gate.

A new and potentially rewarding relationship is placed behind a well-crafted wall of pride and imagery that hides our fears of humiliation or of letting this new person visit the deepest parts of ourselves.

All these walls and anxieties have their root in our fear of humiliation.  We can’t face the risk of being wrong, of being weak, of being vulnerable.  We are right, and our focus is on ensuring we reinforce this “fact” to anyone or anything we encounter…especially to ourselves.

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”   ― Ernest Hemingway    

The freedom of humiliation is a freedom to be open:  to new ideas, new people, new directions, new beliefs, and even new perceptions of truth.  When we’re free from the fear of humiliation, we don’t have to defend ourselves from new situations.  We turn the threat of the new into an opportunity.

This doesn’t mean giving up on our definitions of right and wrong, our definitions of how to live a virtuous life or our core beliefs.

It means dropping that wall of protection we place around ourselves and our ideas and allowing them to roam freely and interact with others.

“A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.”  ― Albert Einstein

 

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No Surprises…the Secret to Managing Up

“I love spontaneity, as long as it’s well-planned.”  –Says nearly everyone in business

Surprises can be great.

We love surprises when they bring unexpected wealth, unexpected fun, or unexpected comfort.

Sadly, surprises aren’t always good news:

  • Surprise! The IRS just sent you an audit letter.
  • Surprise! That small mole on your cheek is melanoma.
  • Surprise! That neighbor you thought was a nice guy is wanted in another state for armed robbery.
  • Surprise! Microsoft just added a feature to their operating system that makes your profitable utility app obsolete.
  • Surprise! Your private financial and credit information was just hacked at Equifax (well, that type of thing shouldn’t really be a surprise nowadays).
  • Surprise! Your most promising employee is leaving your company…to join your competition!
  • Surprise! The executive that “owns” your company’s contract and projects just got fired.

Surprises in business are rarely the good kind.

In fact, a “good” surprise in business can become a nightmare if you’re not prepared.

Think about that sudden and unexpected increase in demand for your service or product.  Great news!  But, now your staff is feeling overworked and things are starting to break under the pressure of all this new business.

How does all of this connect with managing up?

The number one thing your boss, and your boss’s boss (and so on) need from you is to minimize the surprises that come their way.

Does this mean you should keep information away from them?  Of course not!

It means creating an open and thorough communication path between you and your boss.

It means anticipating surprises before they happen.  Preparing for the unexpected, since you can always expect it.  I’ve seen lots of surprises that shouldn’t have been surprises at all.

Your boss needs to know when something is wrong, or about to go wrong.

Your boss needs you to be honest.  Always. Even if you’re the one causing the surprise.

If you, or someone in your organization, make an expensive mistake, your boss needs to know about it.  Now.  More importantly, your boss needs to know how you plan to learn from that mistake, and avoid a similar mistake like this one in the future.

If you see or hear something in the marketplace that can help (or hurt) your organization, your boss needs to hear from you.  Now.

The last thing you want is for your boss to learn about a problem (or a surprise, which may be the same thing) within your organization from someone else.  This does two things:

  1. Lets your boss know that you may not understand that something is going wrong, and
  2. Makes your boss wonder if you’re hiding bad news and if you can be trusted.

When I was a kid, we lived in a small 3-bedroom house.  We had a hallway that got pitch black when all the doors were shut.  Even when your eyes adjusted, there was almost no light to see where you were going.  I always had this (unfounded) fear that I might run into something, hit my head, or crack my shins on some unseen edge.

Your boss might as well be walking in that same dark hallway, whether he or she realizes it.  It’s tough to see what’s coming, and in the real world, that fear of being hit by something in the darkness is often justified.

Many of the lessons we learn from the “school of hard knocks” begin as surprises.

Lesson One:  expect the unexpected.

Lesson Two:  make sure your boss knows what’s coming.

Lesson Three:  don’t ever forget about Lesson Two, and you’ll be doing a great job of “managing up” in the process.

 

 

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