In my blog “Better is Better than Perfect,” I talk about how practice used to make me crazy. As a young girl, I took piano lessons. The lessons were fine. Playing the piano was fun. Learning to read music was exciting. The occasional competitions got my juices flowing.
None of that overcame my personal hell called “piano practice.” My mother nagged me and then restricted me and then told the teacher on me. Not that she needed to be told. The piano teacher knew. She was no fool. In fact, she was an outstanding teacher who could have helped me become a concert pianist.
My hands could learn to play the notes – but my mindset was way too self-limiting in those years to become great.
My young mind wanted to be perfect at the outset. I hated mistakes! There was no way I would embark on a journey of the thousands, if not millions, of mistakes it would require to become a concert pianist.
This perfection mindset permeated every aspect of my life. (Except maybe cleaning my room.) For example, when I went to the roller-skating rink, I measured how much fun I had based on how many times I fell down. Less was always better.
If I was measuring my learning, I would have embraced the falls as progress in my learning. But no, not to this young mind. I was measuring mistakes.
So I quit piano in order to avoid practice. I had some lame excuses about a busy social life, wanting to study and other lame reasons, but the truth was I hated to practice.
During one of my first visits to Coble Ski School, former world champion April Coble Eller got on a trick ski and did some flips. She made it look easy. When she got off the water, she said “That flip took me 500 falls to learn.”
If she had chosen to follow the young Lynn view of practice and mistake, she would never had learned those flips, or any of the other skills that made her a world champion.
My favorite thing about the word “practice” is the implication that whatever you are practicing is a work in progress rather than a finished masterpiece. Just using the word practice has a way of giving permission to play with something, try new things, and make mistakes.
Sounds lovely. But the truth is, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with practice.
Unfortunately, just because practice is a good thing doesn’t stop me from rushing to the end goal. For me, practicing has become a lifelong journey of learning to take things one moment at a time, so that I can actually learn rather than stay locked in place. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.
Later in life, I married a man with an old piano and started plunking again. Soon I was playing. And before I knew it, practice took on a whole new meaning. In order to actually play well, practice was required.
Something had shifted inside me to make practice not just palatable but desirable.
Fast forward thirty years and now I love it when I can’t do something. Where once not being able to do something caused me to turn away from it, now I’m more likely to turn into it. My first attempts at watercolor painting were disasters. Trying to ski the course in water skiing was a dismal failure. (My first time at ski school I hit my head and had to get stitches.)
Walking more than 2 miles in my mountainous town caused unbelievable pain. Learning the throw pottery almost made me throw the clay across the room. The chin up bar was too high and my body too heavy to consider even one pull up. When I went back to riding horses, I got thrown and spent 3 days in the hospital.
Now I sell my watercolors. I run the ski course on a regular basis. I walk four miles and more in the hills around my house. I throw big, beautiful pieces. I can do several unassisted chin ups in a row. I take weekly horseback riding lessons. My list of once-failures, now-successes continues to grow.
So what changed? I changed my mind about practice.
In order to get better - at anything - practice is essential. Yet it is all too easy to take the safe path and do what has worked before.
We are all practicing all of the time. Think about it. Every day you make decisions, hold conversations, live by your values, choose how to see a situation, and do any of the other things that make up a life. You are practicing. The question is, are you getting any better at those things? Perhaps you are improving. But are you getting measurably better? Are you really going for it, like an athlete would go for a new personal best? Do you have that charge that makes it exciting to live a bit on the edge, to know that you are pushing yourself and stretching your limits? For many of us, the answer to that question is no.
I must tell you I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake you hear it. If you want me to play only the notes without any specific dynamics, I will never make one mistake. Never be afraid to dare… Always there should be a little mistake here and there - I am for it. The people who don't do mistakes are cold like ice. It takes risk to make a mistake. If you don't take risk, you are boring. Concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz
Many of us live a flat line in our jobs. We are boring and locked in ice. We know how to do the basics: have conversations, run meetings, make decisions, assess a situation, state our values.
But trying to be better in a corporate context is very different than trying to be better as an athlete, artist or performer. Why?
Because the environment is not quite as friendly towards mistakes and practice. Most companies set an expectation of “flawless execution” or six sigma or other methods that try to drive mistakes out of the pipeline. For lots of good reasons, they would rather have a stable path to perfection rather than a learning path to innovation.
So how can one become an individual learner in an environment that doesn’t support it?
I’ve found that answer is practices, use here as a noun rather than a verb.
What is a practice? It’s something you regularly do that is designed to turn a thought into a reality.
For example, in the book Hardwiring Excellence, Quint Studer describes the practice of writing thank you notes to people expressing gratitude. We often think about gratitude; a regular practice of writing thank you notes turns that thought into reality.
In my coaching practice (notice that word again?), I’ve found that just committing to have regular practices starts the momentum towards change. One of the first practices I will often add to a leader’s repertoire is meditation. There are lots of types of meditation. People ask me which one they should do. My answer? The one you will do as a regular practice.
You already have a lot of practices in your life. I bet you brush your teeth. Doing it regularly helps you avoid the social stigma that comes with non-brushed teeth.
True change can come about with both practice and practices.
What do you regularly practice? What practices have made the most different for you? Where would you like to be better? What stops you from making the changes you want to make?
A couple of years ago, I was horseback riding on the trail with a friend. It was my second time on this horse. More importantly, it was my second time on any horse in almost 20 years. And even more importantly than that, my thoughts and beliefs about horses and horseback riding were deeply tainted by the modern world. My misperceptions, and frankly my ignorance, got me injured pretty badly.
Humans have been on this planet a lot longer than cars, and in all that time, we got from place to place with the help of animals. By anyone’s measure of history, horses have been a predominant form of transportation for the vast majority of human history. Cars have been a our main form of transportation for only about 100 years. The Army used horses in the Calvary until a mere 70 years ago.
Our ancestors understood how to work with nature and animals, where things happen more or less in their own time and in a natural rhythm.
It’s not that way in today’s world.
Thanks to the dawn of the modern era, we now have machine thinking.
Here’s how I define “machine thinking.” The input directly correlates to the output. For example, you flip a switch and the light comes on. You turn the ignition and the car starts. You move the steering to the left and the car turns. You press the “Buy Now” button on Amazon and the thing shows up at your door the next day. You press the button and elevator arrives. (And regardless of what many of us think, hitting the button over and over again doesn’t make it come any faster.) You hit the brakes on the car and the car stops. All of this happens because there is a predictable, mostly unfettered connection between the input and the output.
But there is a huge problem when you bring machine thinking into the animal world. Animals are not machines and their instincts have not been tainted by the modern world in the same way ours have. Their essential nature has not changed.
Our great-great grandparents knew it took time to cultivate and harvest a garden. Friendships evolved over many years of face to face interaction. Fire was created with a spark and dry material. Messages took weeks, months and sometimes years to get to us. Keeping animals for transportation involved patience, care and problem solving as much as it did getting from here to there.
In the modern world, we want everything now.
The day I fell off the horse, my own “machine thinking” created expectations in my brain that were not relevant in the animal world.
In my case, the horse picked up a trot when I still wanted him to walk. I forgot I was on an animal and not on a machine. When I pushed the stop button (my warped thinking) and the horse didn’t stop, my patience went out the window. My fear went sky high. My brain confused the mechanical with the organic. Rather than try something different, I hit the elevator button over and over again.
To the horse, the only thing being elevated was his fear. What I intended to communicate and what I actually communicated were two very different things.
Because my fear sent me into full on Survival Mode, I was incapable of accessing my ability to calm the horse, assess the situation and give him a minute to hear me and slow down. I wanted instant gratification.
Even though I “knew” I needed to relax, being able to actually do it under this kind of pressure was impossible.
With the person on his back sending huge fear signals, he did what any sane horse would do. He got me off his back. I got to spend three days in the hospital with a broken collarbone, partially collapsed lung -- and the question of whether I would ever get back on a horse again.
Reflecting on this experience over the last two years, I’ve learned more than a PhD program or 20 years meditating on a mountain.
Horses are not machines. Neither are people. All too often, I’ve come to expect humans to respond like a machine. My patience goes out the window when I don’t get instant gratification. Rather than get curious, I get judgmental. Seriously? You’re going to write a check instead of a single swipe? Rather than sift through possibilities, I jump to conclusions and run with my first thought.
Many years ago, the bank I worked for sent me to a highly-coveted leadership program for the leaders who showed great potential. It was my first experience getting 360 feedback, and nothing prepared me for the emotional hit I was about to take.
Even though most of the report was positive, there was news about me in there that made me miss the main message of the report. All I could see was that “Lynn needs to learn to listen.” And “I don’t feel valued by Lynn.” See how that works? All these years later I can remember the bad news, while I could not begin to tell you the good news.
I spent a lot of time in that leadership session commiserating with my fellow attendees, all of whom were having similar emotional hits. No amount of placating, comforting, or showing us the facts helped us get out of fear-based Survival Mode. Most of the conversation was about how “they didn’t get it and we shouldn’t have to listen to this and who says I am going to change.”
The machine that spat out a 97% positive report can’t prevent the human reaction to 3% negative news.
Why could we not see the good? Why would we not take the opportunity to use the report for our betterment? How could we let such a small bit of bad news cause us fear?
Because we are human.
Only time, reflection and support helped us come to terms with the truth of the feedback.
As leaders of people, we have to remember that change is about more than pushing a button and getting the new result. We have to remember it takes time and practice and repetitions to be able to actually DO what we KNOW to do. After all, even though we have a conceptual understanding of something does not mean we can do it.
Just because you sent a memo that says “here’s the new way of doing things”, it doesn’t mean that everybody will suddenly be on board. In the best of circumstances, it takes time to leave the old way and absorb the new. Typically, people will just tell you why they shouldn’t have to change. In the worst of circumstances, they will stage a revolt.
Managing change is not flipping a switch. It involves taking people through the “change curve” and giving them a chance to catch up with what’s happening.
The pathway to getting the result we want does not come through a direct connection like it is with a machine. It has to first go through our instincts, our emotions and our need to survive. We have to understand the kind of beings we are really working with here.
How often is the message we intend to communicate different than the one we actually communicate? When does the pressure of a situation keep us from being able to do what we know how to do? What does it take to bring our understanding of human nature to our leadership challenges? How do we tame our own Survival Mode so that we can bring our very best work to the big problems we are solving? How do we recognize others that are in Survival Mode and support them to realize things are not as bad as they first appear?
Simple. It’s just not that easy. We have to remember that people are not machines.
On a recent flight, I finally got to watch Free Solo, the documentary of Alex Honnold free climbing El Capitan. That’s a 3,000 plus foot climb without a rope. One mistake, and he’s plummeting to his death. Splat. The filmmakers depict the risk and pressure beautifully. No one in their right mind would do such a climb. Spoiler alert: The fact that he survived shocked many of his friends and climbing buddies.
Just the idea of such a climb sends shivers through me, much less watching it on film. Knowing he succeeded did not make it any easier on me. Actually, I couldn’t watch most of it. My fear of heights sends the sensation of falling through me with the simple thought of being up that high. I played a game on my phone to get me through the most death-defying scenes.
Clearly, Honnold has tamed his survival mode more than the average person. In the film, they show him getting the results of an MRI designed to study what’s happening in his brain when fear-inducing things pop up on a screen. The average person’s brain is all lit up in the amygdala, AKA the Survival Brain. Honnold’s brain barely registered anything. He asked if his brain was broken. They said it was not broken – but definitely he had trained himself not be as fearful as the average person. If you think about it, that’s not really surprising. Otherwise, he would definitely have not been able to climb El Capitan without a rope. His fear would have overtaken him.
However, his LACK of fear might also eventually prove fatal.
Many argue he was stupid to try it. When you watch the film, you see that his friends, and especially his girlfriend, wish some fear would show up to keep him from putting himself into that level of danger. One of the undercurrents of the film is that taking this kind of risk is how he feels alive.
I can’t imagine that he is going to live to a ripe old age. A mistake will catch him at one point, and in free climbing, even a tiny mistake is fatal. He really needs fear in order to survive.
And that’s the problem with fear. And food. It’s not the fear or the food that really matter. It’s the balance that matters.
We need both fear and food in order to survive. We can also overdo it with both.
When our relationship with food is out of balance, we get fat or emaciated. The fallout of eating too much or too little is pretty obvious. Not that having clothes that don’t fit makes it easier!
But, here’s the point: you can’t walk away from food. The only way to stay at the same weight is to be balanced with your food intake. If you use food as a coping mechanism, getting into balance will require you to find another way to cope. Or heal.
Fear is the same way. You can’t walk away from fear either, because fear keeps you out of danger. We are hardwired for survival. Fear can be your friend.
Fear can also be your greatest enemy. When we are out of balance with our fear, we will either over or under do it. We take crazy risks – or we get frozen and take no risks.
I usually get frozen – and as a result, don’t take risks. Or let fear hide in the background, keeping me away from the edge and therefore away from reasonable actions that need to happen. Like difficult conversations. Like trying a new sport. Like writing a blog like this.
Fear gives good reasons for why not to have that conversation or try the sport or write the blog. “Well, the way she spoke out of turn wasn’t really that bad. Maybe it won’t happen again.” “Sure I would love to learn how to row. But what if my boat turns over?” “I love to write about topics that matter. But what if I make someone mad?”
It’s not the fear – or the food – that’s the problem. It’s our relationship with the fear and food, that gets both out of balance. It’s the habitual pattern of just letting fear or food run you that gets us into trouble.
I have a special place in my pantry for chocolate – the really good, dark chocolate that is delicious and “healthy.” When I get a small bite and sit down and actually experience the deliciousness, the chocolate serves as a wonderful treat.
But what do I do all too often? I mindlessly open the pantry door, grab a bite, eat it as I do something else, grab another bit, do something else, and the next thing I know, I’ve eaten 3 servings. And I haven’t really tasted any of it. Now I have to work off those calories. Nope, that doesn’t serve me. It’s out of balance.
Fear and food in balance are our greatest friends. Out of balance, they start to run us and we become a slave to our old habits.
Where has your fear truly served you? Where have you let fear stop you from doing something worthwhile? What do you do to restore balance?
Today I sit on the airplane appreciating realistic thinking instead of wishful thinking. Many times traveling, I only allow for exactly the time it takes to the airport plus a little wiggle room. This trip was more complex. There are three of us traveling, and many more realities, like slowdowns due to construction, a checked bag, dropping dogs off, a loose hog in the middle of a field (not kidding), a stopped school bus, waiting on a contractor to complete a task before we could leave and a thousand moments that I had to yield to someone while in traffic, getting on an elevator or walking the busy hallways of the airport.
The wishful thinking I often bring to such a trip says that the path from here to there is mostly clear and everything will be smooth sailing! For the most part, my wishful thinking expects none of those other tiny moments of yielding. From that state of mind, every slowdown is a problem that fuels my “hurry-up-itis”.
As I watched the elevator doors close in the parking garage, leaving me standing there wishing I had drank MUCH less tea on the way to the airport, it dawned on me that life is much more peaceful when I treat those realities as something to be expected instead of dreaded.
Today has had more peace, because I never felt like someone doing something normal was a problem for me.
The moment at the elevator brought into sharp focus how much my state of mind influences how I experience what life throws at me. (I also made a note to self to remember to drink a little less tea on the next trip.)
Wishful thinking not only creates a state of mind just waiting to turn normal into awful; it also shields me from facing realities that really need to be faced.
When Jen was in the early stages of her recovery, I had done a LOT of facing reality. Like facing that my daughter was a drug addict. Like facing that I had played a part in the circumstances that brought her here. Like she could die.
Even after all that “realistic thinking” and progress in her recovery, I found myself easily falling into wishful thinking.
After several years of turmoil, trauma and healing, she was finally on a much better path. She was living near us, going to school and doing all the right things to stay clean. We had learned to set good boundaries and structured her living arrangements so that she had a good place to live. One of the conditions was that she not have a roommate.
I can’t remember what caused me to question it, but one day, I was driving into town and would pass her apartment on the way. I got a feeling. One part of me said “You need to go check it out.” The wishful thinking part of me said “Don’t go. If you find something you don’t like, you will have to deal with it. Better to not know.”
There’s a funny thing about a thought like that. Wishful thinking is often not burdened with the clarity of words. Instead, it’s just a foggy sense of hoping that things are fine. That not doing anything is a good thing. That not knowing means everything is ok. That staying ignorant lets me off the hook.
When the words come into focus, it’s much easier to realize it’s wishful thinking.
Because the words came in more clearly that day, I could look at them and recognize that wishful thinking would not make the problem go away. If there was a problem, I needed to know so we could solve it.
So at the last minute, I turned into the parking lot. My palms were sweaty and the butterflies were fluttering. What if my instinct is right? Once I knew, I could no longer live in wishful thinking. What is my next move? Will I have the courage to make a move? What happens then?
I summoned the will to get out of the car and went to the door. Now I was torn between feeling like I was invading her privacy and defending a boundary. I almost turned back. But once I saw myself actually saying “Better not to know” I knew it was a lie.
After a couple of false tries, the lock finally opened. It was as if the lock was testing my resolve. At that moment, I could have said “I tried to get in but the door wouldn’t open.” Oh well. Go back to wishful thinking. I’m quite sure I’ve taken that path too many times in my life.
When I walked through the door, I was relieved to see an orderly apartment. A quick pass through the rooms told me there was no unauthorized roommate.
I didn’t have a sigh of relief. It was much bigger. My exhale was more like a Cat 3 hurricane. My relief was immense and palpable.
It was only then that I could realize that I really did do the right thing - regardless of outcome. I needed to know.
If Jen had fallen off the path, then she would have been responsible for the fallout created by her choices and actions. My denial would not have served her; instead would have fueled her decline. I would have been soft on her to save her from herself, and in the end, hard on myself.
Seen that way, it changed how I’ve come to approach those moments when I would rather not know. Am I really going to NOT show up for someone important to me to make it easier on myself? Who am I not to enforce the agreements I’ve made with people that matter? And how can I help stop myself from lying to myself?
If you have been watching my love of skiing starting to morph into a love of horses, you are seeing the answer to that last question.
What I’ve learned is that horses don’t lie. If I show up lying to myself (and therefore to them) about whether I’m relaxed and confident, they will pick up on that and show ME how I’m really feeling. That gift is priceless to someone like me who is good at putting on the “I’ve got this” face.
The famous physicist Richard Feynman said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Every time we fall on wishful thinking, we run the risk of creating unintended fallout. Wishing something to be so doesn’t make it so. It just makes us delusional.
Realistic thinking may seem difficult - but it’s the path to more peace of mind.
Where are you relying on wishful thinking to absolve you from solving the real problem? What lies do you tell yourself because you would rather not deal with something? What fallout are you creating for yourself and those you care about by ignoring reality?
Miscommunication happens so frequently. As I write this, I’m still smarting from a post office encounter I wish had gone differently.
I was just leaving the post office with a pile of boxes in my arms. A local gentleman who I know more by sight than personally was moving slowly, and he started to move towards my car. My first thought when seeing him was “Wow, he has REALLY slowed down! I wonder if his health is failing.” Then he started making motions without any words that he would open my car door.
Now I need to share two very important pieces of context. First, my husband was sitting in the front seat. Second, my Doberman is usually sitting at the window of the back seat. It is not a good idea for anyone to open that back door, as Xena will go full on Doberman first, and ask questions later. (This includes family members!)
So, since he was moving very slowly and I move fast and he wasn’t saying anything, I was completely puzzled as to what was happening. Suddenly, he said “Well excuse me for trying to be helpful,” and walked off in a huff. (And oh my, how his anger gave him speed!)
It was only a few seconds later that my conscious brain finally registered that he was offering to open the door of my car to help me with my packages.
I’m sure he picked up on my unconscious thoughts of “Don’t open that door! My dog will bite you!” and the other set of unconscious thoughts to my husband of “Hey, how about opening the door and taking these packages off my hands.” But instead of understanding the mystery dog or otherwise reading my mind, it registered to him as some form of rejection – that I did not intend at all.
I was just too slow to put all the pieces together until after he was inside the post office and I was already driving away.
How often does communication get missed because someone is still putting the pieces together?
We had a “put the pieces together” moment last week during The Clarity Spark. Part of the program was doing a high-pressure activity together. Amongst the many options, including zip-lining, shooting guns, water skiing, horseback riding and adventure hiking, this group had chosen whitewater kayaking – the second most difficult activity.
At our dinner at Legends at Tryon International Equestrian Center, one of the participants realized that it was kayaking, not rafting. What?!?!!?!? I said “You followed the link, right? It described the Upper Green River Adventure as class II, III and IV in your own kayak?” Then it was “Wait? We are in our own boats? On Class IV rapids?!?!?!?”
Well yeah, because you learn more about yourself under pressure than any other time. And how you do anything is how you do everything. But – we will change to a different activity if you would rather.
After a conversation about how the link didn’t work and clearing up the assumptions and missed communication, the group re-decided to stick with the adventure. They really wanted to learn the skills of being present under pressure and how to create REAL change in their lives.
Little did we all know that the need to re-decide would continue throughout the next day. Once everyone had reconciled their minds to the real adventure (vs the one in their imagination), they still had to get themselves ready to show up.
Even getting the life jackets and helmets reminded everyone that this was going to get real. During the pre-trip briefing, we were shown how to paddle, how to get into the whitewater swimming position (hint: it’s exactly the opposite of what your mind intuitively wants to do) and how to get back in a tipped over boat.
It’s at moments like this that you realize there is a HUGE difference between clear communication and embodied knowledge.
The trip guides were very clear in communicating how to handle a kayak. Now we had to get on the water and embody the knowledge. Or we would be in the whitewater swimming position for 4.5 miles in a canyon with only one way to get out.
So, we got into our boats and immediately put whatever paddling skills we had into practice. We quickly learned we had to listen to the water. We had to focus on where we wanted to go or else we were on the rocks – literally. We had to find our balance. We had to make mistakes and correct them. One of the women fell out of her boat in the first few hundred feet.
We had not been on the water very long when the guides sent us into the first eddy (rest area), where we could regroup. Interestingly, the bus driver was standing on a rock above the eddy. His presence alluded to the big decision in front of us.
Here’s what the lead guide said: “Now you’ve had a chance to get a feel for the boat and a few class II rapids. You’ve been able to see how you handle the pressure. This river goes through an inaccessible canyon for the next 4 plus miles until our take out point. Between here and there, it will be up to you to paddle your boat through the rapids ahead. This is your last chance to decide to stay or go. And remember, at the take out point, you will also have to carry your kayak .7 miles up a trail to the bus.”
This was a genuine choice with fallout either way. Whoever bailed out had to live with forever wondering what would have happened if they had gone. Whoever stayed had to show up for themselves. Because on the river, it’s just you and the boat. Yes the guides could help – but only so far.
Everyone decided to show up. It was not easy, and the fear was paralyzing for some at times. But they all showed up!
The river adventure was AMAZING. And terrifying, joy-giving, frightening, exhilarating, and so much more. You’ve never seen such happy people – after it was over. During the trip, what you would have seen were women who were scared and angry and relieved and more. Nothing will test you like a big rapid, and this river had two 15+ foot Class IV drops. The danger was real.
In the end, everyone said they strongly preferred the choice of showing up over bailing out – even though the moments on the river was extremely intense. Learning that they had that level of strength and courage solidified a embodied sense of confidence that will carry into everything they do.
The same skills they used to handle the pressure of the water will translate to handling the pressure of their new responsibilities.
The fear of the unknown was one of the biggest elements to this adventure – and to any change. We ask ourselves “Can I handle this?” “What if I can’t?” “What if I make a mistake?” “What if I completely fail?”
Any real change carries these questions and the real danger that goes with it. All too often in addressing these questions, we often mis-communicate with ourselves. We pretend we don’t care. We either overestimate our abilities or forget what we can do. We treat mistakes like they are the end of the world. We let our fear overshadow the truth.
And the truth was, every one of us made a ton of mistakes on the river. We paddled left when right would have been more effective. We dug in when a light touch would have worked. We spun backwards when forwards would have felt so much safer.
For myself, the big rapids never felt quite as scary as I anticipated. And my mind and body read that as a mistake! So, I wanted a redo – until I realized that I was in the boat, not swimming. No need to beat myself up over success! All that mattered at that point was the next moment, or I would be in the water.
Every endeavor we do is the same. It never feels the way we anticipate.
Any goal worth having is an accumulation of successes and mistakes. We get there because we keep paddling, not because we are perfect at every step.
Where are you miscommunicating with yourself? Where are your successes not feeling like success? Where are your mistakes causing you to beat yourself up rather than doing what needs to be done next? Where are you showing up for yourself? What makes you bail out? What are you doing to build your internal capacity to be strong from the inside out?
Early in my career, I’m pretty sure I was tone deaf.
I KNOW I was tone deaf as an elementary school kid, trying to be in the church choir. After the first rehearsal, the choir director asked me to stay behind. I don’t know about you, but I have never really liked getting called onto the carpet. Being asked to stay behind at choir felt like there might be trouble coming.
I don’t really remember how he started the conversation; what I do remember is his patience, as he asked me if I had ever tried to match my voice to the sound coming from the piano.
He gently encouraged me to hear what he heard. He would play a note and ask me to make my voice match the note. We went up and down the scales, as I learned to hear and respond with matching sound.
Before this session, he could hear me NOT matching the notes among the other voices in our little choir. In fact, I think it was so bad that he would have been hard pressed to call the sounds coming out of my mouth singing.
Choirs share beautiful harmonies – they make music no single voice can do alone.
If our little choir was to live up to its potential, little Lynn had to learn to hear. So I got to be the one to stay behind that day. The choir director let me stay in the choir and we eventually did a performance that was heard by hundreds of people.
Much later in my career, I found another way to get called on the carpet. These were less surprising sessions, as they were called Performance Reviews. The boss would schedule them and tell me how I was doing in my job. Sometimes there would be 360 feedback from the people I worked with, also telling me how I was doing my job.
Throughout all the years I got feedback, there was one major theme. “Lynn”, they would say, “you need to learn to listen.”
I was tone deaf - and will probably never be able to count the cost of not being able to listen and hear what people were trying to tell me, especially when the messages were subtle.
How I wish I could tell you that all that feedback made me change. But I was tone deaf about being tone deaf.
Learning to listen has not been a flip of a switch for me. It’s been more like a dawning awareness of all that I was missing.
Thanks to having a series of coaches and teachers, I have learned a variety of ways to slow myself down and start paying attention to what’s happening right in front of me. When I came to realize the stunning array of subtle signals I was missing, listening suddenly became an interesting skill to learn.
For example, when I learned “getting on the balcony” from Ron Heifetz, meetings were never the same. Instead of paying attention to the words in a conversation, I started noticing the “music" under the words. Instead of judging people as right or wrong, I started getting curious about what was behind the behavior I disliked. Instead of focusing on what people were saying, I listened for the message they were sending.
In the almost invisible world I had been ignoring, a whole new world opened up for me.
Then I started working with horses and the world got bigger yet again.
Almost two years ago, I was riding on the trail with a friend when I got thrown off the horse. (The whole story will be told another time.) After that experience, I had a choice: Never get back on the horse or start over and really learn how to ride.
I’ve chosen to get back on the horse.
In one of my early lessons, Bruce Anderson, my teacher of “Natural Humanship” started me in a round pen. I’m in the middle and the horse gets to be where ever he wants to be. My assignment was to do achieve “movement” with the horse. At the first sign of movement. I was to immediately turn my back and let the horse be.
I won’t bore you with all the ways I had at my disposal to achieve that goal. It doesn’t matter anyway -- because I WAY overshot the goal. The horses ear twitched and then he raised his head and I kept going. Pretty soon I had him walking along the rail. After a couple of minutes. Bruce stopped me and asked me how I did. I was so proud of myself. After all, I had that horse MOVING, thankyouverymuch.
Then he asked me to review what had happened and the signals I had missed. “Did you see the ear twitch?” “Did you notice his head come up?” “Did you notice him shifting his feet before he started walking?” Weeeellllll...Maybe?
“Did you not count the ear twitch as movement? Or did you not think you caused the twitch?” Truth be told, I was waiting for the kind of human signals that conk me over the head.
What has become apparent to me in working with horses is that they are sending signals all the time. And all the signals are important. The day I was thrown from the horse, I missed a hundred signals telling me something was up. Plus I sent signals that were totally conflicting.
My lack of listening told him he couldn’t trust me to hear him. Why then, should he trust me to be on his back?
In the context of being on a horse, the consequences of not listening are suddenly much sharper.
I’m coming to realize that the consequences of not listening are greater than I ever knew. Getting my point across is not nearly as important as understanding who is sitting in the room with me and what matters to them.
But here’s the difficult part: hearing means changing. With the horse, I had to stop pushing so hard. With people, hearing means I take heed to what they are saying. It can be a scary, vulnerable place to actually let it in.
When talking a corporate client through a disappointing negotiation, a sales call that failed or a team meeting gone wrong, we almost always discover that mood shifted way before the bad news was delivered.
We get so caught up in the visible, the provable, the incontrovertible that we forget that much of what matters happens in the invisible world. We have to learn to read the signals and then test them out. We have to be willing to change.
We can either be like the choir sharing beautiful harmonies that none of us can do alone, or we can be like the choir with voices that can’t match the notes. To create the beautiful harmony, we have to hear the subtle tones. We have to see the ear twitches. We have to notice the mood shifts.
It only works if we listen.
Where are you superbly tuned in to listening to the notes between the notes? Where do you need to listen more deeply? What must you change in yourself to allow yourself to hear?
When I was an adult, I went back to taking piano lessons. This was not some long-held dream or bucket list item. No, this was more of an accidental way to deal with my lack of patience.
We had an old player piano that was way out of tune. It was something my new husband brought into the marriage against my wishes. In fact, I’m pretty sure I stood at the front door trying to keep him from bringing this old dirty thing into the house. It was REALLY old and dusty - and out of tune.
We got it cleaned up and every now and then, I would sit down and play. As a child, my parents forced me to take piano lessons. I could still play a few things, but they sounded terrible on this old thing. What was surprising to me as an adult was how much I enjoyed playing. Believe me, as a kid, nothing made me want to play, especially when my Mom nagged me (and nagged, and nagged and nagged ) to practice. It was an obligation. Yet here I was as an adult liking it.
One day I decided to call a piano tuner. After he finished getting that old piano as tuned as it could be, he played. And oh, how he played! It was nothing like the classical music that had been forced on me as a child. This was the blues and I was in awe!
We started talking and I learned that piano tuning was a side gig for him. In his real life, he was a professional musician and he had played with many well known people. He also gave piano lessons. He could teach me to play the blues!
Right then and there, I signed up. Here I was as an adult choosing to play piano. I practiced and practiced and practiced.
When I was a kid, I never played anything perfectly. I didn’t care. As an adult, I really wanted to play perfectly. Notwithstanding my love of the blues, soon my goal was to play Pachelbel’s Canon without missing a note. I was seeking perfection. Every day, I sat down to play. When I would make a mistake, it stopped my rhythm and I would start over. I was so proud of myself for trying so hard! So much was going on in the background that I didn’t understand at the time.
To start with, what I was calling pride in myself was actually me trying to please my piano teacher from childhood. As I was playing along, I would miss a note. Instead of continuing to play, I would freeze for a second and get mad at myself. Then I would start over from the beginning. My desire to be perfect was an exercise in proving myself to a teacher that had been dead for 20 years.
Difficult passages in the music created an even bigger dilemma. I didn’t have the patience to break it down and really learn the notes. Interestingly enough, it was lack of patience that brought me to the piano. My husband would often keep me waiting before we would go somewhere. Rather than nag him to hurry up, I started playing the piano to keep my hands occupied.
So thanks to striving for perfection and my lack of patience, I limited myself to the easy pieces of music. Rather than learning and improving, I lowered my sights to a domain where I could prove myself worthy.
During a lesson one day, I noticed that my new teacher was really pleased with something that wasn’t perfect. I told him it wasn’t good enough - ha! Me the student had higher standards than the teacher! I even mentioned that as a professional, he was so much better than me. Of course, he was perfect when he played. Then he said something that has stuck with me all these years. “I’ve never played a perfect piece in my life and never will. What we professionals have learned how to do is play through the mistakes. Every performance has a mistake. We just don’t let our mistakes knock us off our flow.”
He went on to say “I want you to learn to be a better musician, not to be perfect. Music is not about playing all the notes in the right place and at the right time. It’s as much about the space between the notes. You can only improve your skills when you are willing to feel your way through the mistakes and keep playing."
In seeking perfection, I was losing proficiency. All my energy was going into proving myself instead of getting better and learning. When I gave up striving for perfection, I became a better musician.
Perfectionism runs rampant in Corporate America. Even in cultures that have the mantra “Done is better than perfect”, individuals within that culture often struggle when they make mistakes or see others make mistakes. For many people, being asked to let good enough be good enough is like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard. It goes against everything they stand for. Even without external pressure, they feel internal pressure to get it perfect. The Perfection Game is essentially a way of life.
I’m still learning to let my perfectionism go. The habits are so deeply ingrained. It’s a life long journey and worth it.
Better is better than perfect.
Where do you struggle with mistakes? What do you say to yourself when you want perfection and fall short? What one change could you make to strive for proficiency instead of perfection?
Driving down the road this week, I was listening to an interview, where Tim Ferriss asked Naval Ravikant what he thought was the most important skill of all. Naval’s answer was quick: Learning to learn. And the follow up to that was that the best way to learn was to read books. A LOT of books.
While I agree with his point, this insight went even further for me. For years, I’ve been working on shifting my mindset from proving to improving. In other words, I’ve been working on creating the “growth mindset” that Carol Dweck talks about in her book Mindset.
I spent much of my career in the ‘fixed mindset” and it’s no wonder. Our school system, with all its tests, makes good test-takers like me heroes. Give me a test and I’ll pass it. But passing a test and being effective in real life are very different things.
With all the change we have today, being a learner is critical. Jobs are changing faster than the people in them can change. The only answer is to keep learning. And learning means you might fail.
That’s where the idea of reading went deeper for me. Yes, reading books is great, but very few people I know in their high pressure jobs have time to read extensively. Plus, applying what is in the books matters more than having “knowledge.”
It takes another level of reading that can only be done through practice to be successful. There are many other forms of reading. One of them involves parsing what matters from what doesn’t.
Learning to read signals vs noise is vitally important today. With all of the distractions and demands on our attention, it gets extremely difficult to distinguish the data that matters from the static that can safely be ignored.
I often hear my clients call this the ability to see around corners. It’s a well-honed sense of which dots to connect.
The most important element of this skill is learning how to check out the assumptions that underlie your dot-connecting activity. As humans, we have a propensity to make up stories that are more informed by our past and habitual patterns of thinking than they are the present moment.
So how does one learn to tell the difference between a signal and noise? It’s a huge question - but I’ll give one example that addresses a super common situation.
Pete was presenting to his boss and team a new and different approach to the work they did. He knew his proposal was a pretty big stretch for the group and the company. But Pete had done a lot of research and reflecting on it and decided it was worth the risk to elevate their contribution to the company.
As he was standing up doing his presentation, he was dual processing. He was both making his points and reading the room. The picture was not very pretty, especially as he saw his boss Don with his head in his hands. Now, a signal Iike that can mean a lot of different things. Maybe he has a headache. Maybe he’s hungry. Maybe he just got a bad news text.
But in this context, to Pete it meant just one thing: “He hates my idea.”
This is the point where a lot of people go into the “Homeless Sequence”. That’s where we say “I’ve made a mistake and that’s a bad thing and they won’t need me if I keep making mistakes so I better fix this quick or I will lose my job and if I lose my job I might not get another job and then I will run out of money and if I run out of money I will be homeless.” This happens in an instant and often ends up informing our actions in ways that end up making us defensive or fearful.
Pete was aware that Don was giving him a signal; luckily in this case, he decided to check it out rather than go straight to the Homeless Sequence.
He called a break and pulled Don aside. He simply said “I’m noticing some body language from you and I’m curious. What are thinking about this idea?”
Don’s answer almost floored him. Don said “Well, we need to do everything you are saying. I’m just trying to wrap my head around the implications and how I’m going to sell this to my boss.”
Pete’s team did go forward with his proposal. In talking about this story with me later, he realized that he could have gotten defensive instead of curious in that pivotal moment. If he had gone the “proving” route, rather than seeking ways to listen to his boss’s feedback, he believes the project would never have gotten off the ground. Had he been pushy, or tried to justify, it would have given Don a way out. Instead, his curiosity sets the conditions for Don to decide to take the elevated, yet more risky path.
Reading signals is about much more than seeing a data point and thinking we know what it means. Curiosity sets you up to make sense of signals in a way that makes you more effective.
Cultivating curiosity keeps us in a learning mode. For a test taking “hero” like me, curiosity feels very uncomfortable. Almost by definition, knowing feels better than not knowing. And to be curious requires you to “not know.”
To be curious also requires you to become attuned to the signals you can ignore so that you can tune in to the ones that matter. I will be the first to say this isn’t easy - and there is not a formula for it. It’s a lifetime of learning.
Oh great – I get to keep being uncomfortable!
What signals are you tuning into? Where are you ignoring signals? How do you decide which signals are worth paying attention to vs those you can safely ignore? What are you doing to keep yourself in learning mode?
We are halfway through 2019! Reaching milestones like this can make you thrilled - or set you up for dread. It all depends on how you see it.
Here’s one thing I’m sure of: in some ways you’ve done more, and other ways less than you hoped.
If by chance you HAVE done everything on your list for 2019 and are completely satisfied with your progress for the year, you can stop reading now. Or consider resetting your goals!
Chances are some things have worked and some things have not worked. If you have spent any time reading this blog, you know I strive for proficiency rather than perfection. So things not working is just fine.
The question is: what are you going to do now about your setbacks, shortfalls, and most importantly, your mindset?
If I’m not mindful, I go the “I’ve blown it” route which then leads me to give up. Every goal worth achieving will have setbacks. If you treat these “mistakes” as a normal part of the process, it’s much easier to stay the course.
Here’s a quick way to get back on track with any goal:
So embrace the halfway point. Or consider it a brand New Year. Frame it however you need to make it work for you. ‘
Just don’t quit.
Years ago, I was working on a huge project at a bank that touched thousands of people. My team was counting on me for daily decisions, my boss looked to me constantly to put out some raging fire, and my peers and I were desperately trying to row the boat in synch with each other.
Every day, (and with the heaviness of intense guilt) I stretched day care to the limit, leaving behind my daughter Jen who just had ONE mom to take care of her.
As I would walk to my car, feeling horrible and guilt-ridden for leaving work with everyone else working so hard, I would remind myself that the bank had thousands of people to take care of their customers - Jen had one mom.
Even with that reminder, I would sometimes feel like I was holding up the project and my household at the same time. (Think maybe my ego was getting a little out of control there?)
One of my coworkers was an even bigger piece of the project. Without him, we didn't know what we would do. He seemed indispensable to the project we were working on.
Then he didn’t wake up one morning. Everyone on our project was mystified at how we could go on without him.
He was certainly much more important in the scheme of things than me – or most of us. He probably felt that himself every day.
Yet within two days, things were “back to normal.” It was as if he had never been there - at least as it related to the work we needed to do.
All he left behind were the memories of him as a person. There were plenty of people who could do the work.
Seeing this poem reminded me of that time in my life.
It reminds me of time in general. It’s so easy to think we have all the time in the world. It’s so normal to think that others can’t live without us. And so it’s natural to think we are indispensable.
What you are you doing with your precious time?
The Indispensable Man
Sometime when you're feeling important;
Sometime when your ego 's in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted,
You're the best qualified in the room:
Sometime when you feel that your going,
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions,
And see how they humble your soul.
Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that's remaining,
Is a measure of how much you'll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you'll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.
The moral of this quaint example,
Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There's no indispensable man.
by Saxon White Kessinger
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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