I love making progress. When I was an avid tennis player, I wanted to move from being rated a 3.5 to 4.0. In my various jobs, I always wanted the next promotion or big assignment. On the potter’s wheel, I’ve pushed to create ever taller forms. In water skiing, I’ve been on a multi-year quest to speed up the boat and shorten the rope.
In my mind, progress tends to involve the next measurable milestone much more than cultivating deep mastery.
While I appreciate mastery as a concept or theory, actually putting it into practice has been something I have avoided in order to achieve my beloved “progress.” To me, mastery is boring. Why? Because it involves the subtleties of doing the same thing over and over, improving slowly and carefully, filling in the gaps that are easily glossed over with my need for speed.
This fall, I had an experience that has wakened me to the a different need: rather than move on, I need to move deeper. It was revealed with the one-two punch of falling off a horse (landing me in the hospital) and then having to take several months off water skiing right after I had achieved a previously unattainable milestone. Having to sit still in my recovery gave me to time to reflect.
My extreme lack of mastery contributed to the fall from the horse. While I had many important takeaways from that experience, perhaps the most profound was this: knowing how to stop a horse in theory does NOT translate to embodying the energy, mindset and physical actions to stop a horse that would rather run.
When it came time to put my theory into practice, all the knowledge in the world meant nothing. Without having practiced and learned to connect my knowledge to real skill, at the moment of truth all I could do was hold on and hope for the best. In this case, I was wearing a helmet and went down on relatively soft ground. It could have been much, much worse.
I had a good part of the winter to reflect as I healed on the difference between knowledge and skill and mastery. I realized that in many areas of my life, I have substituted knowledge for real skill. And nowhere have I undertaken the journey of mastery. As a result, I end up holding on and hoping for the best. When my skills fall short, the consequences are not usually as severe – so I’ve gotten away with it – with consequences.
When it was time to get back on the water ski, I started by slowing the boat down a little bit. Of course, this went against everything I typically do, which is try to make progress (even though in water skiing my progress is usually baby steps.) A wonderful thing happened. First, I could still ski! This is an intense sport and anytime you come back from a long time off, there is this question: Can I still do it? Second, I moved deeper. In this case, moving deeper meant that I was able to feel things at the slower speed that I couldn’t before. My coach said this: “I’m not trying to say that it was good that you got injured – but it’s giving you a chance to build a better skiing foundation than you had before.”
In that moment, I realized it was time to move deeper.
So I am. Moving deeper that is.
I’m slowing down and trading progress for depth. Rather than claiming my prize of achieving the goal, I’m deliberately practicing the actions that lead to the goal. Moment by moment, I’m moving deeper.
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Washing windows during spring cleaning, I was feeling all happy and proud that I found a perceived shortcut using my new microfiber rags. Cleaning the windows seemed as simple as wiping them down. No visible streaks at all. Until there was light. Once the sun shown on the “clean” windows the next morning, streaks and spots covered the entire surface. In the light of day, it was evident that the windows fell far short of clean. It simply took the feedback of the sun to reveal the shortcomings.
It became apparent to me that the only way to truly get windows clean is to have the feedback of good light. No matter the technique, if you can’t see what you are doing with the sun shining through, the windows will always have some spots and streaks. Now I am not some clean window perfectionist. But I did come to the conclusion that cleaning windows without truly looking at them will leave me with windows no one wants to look at-especially in the light of day.
There was a time when I wanted only one kind of feedback. It looked something like this: “That was great!” or “You were wonderful!” When I first learned to facilitate programs in my banking days, we handed out evaluation sheets where participants could rate us 1 to 5 on a variety of factors. I liked getting all “A’s”. My schooling had programmed me to want “A’s” and a 5 rating brought back lovely memories of being a good student.
When I decided I wanted to be better, however, the “good grades” left me wanting. What exactly could I do better? Where could I have been clearer? What would have helped the people in the room better grasp the topic? How could I be more effective in achieving the goal? As a result, I began to crave real feedback. Growth could only happen if I learned what was effective and what was still lacking. Like my windows, I needed the light to be shown on my “streaks and spots” in order to continue getting better.
Since that experience, I’ve begun to seek real feedback…light of day feedback… the kind of feedback that helps me perform better even if it stings at bit or reveals the streaky spots. What made this possible? What if someone “hurts my feelings?” Inch by tiny inch, I’ve come to realize that I am not my skills, actions or even thoughts. I can choose not to get my feelings hurt. I can choose to assume positive intent. My performance can become better; who I am as a person is off limits to feedback or comment. That part of me is just fine, thankyouverymuch.
I’m still learning that feedback helps me improve, and that I don’t need to take things personally. It sounds so simple in theory. It’s the journey of a lifetime in practice.
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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