Category Archives: Productivity

Professionals

I remember when I was a young boy, sometimes in the summer my father and I would walk down to the baseball field in Cleveland Circle to watch a men’s amateur league game. We’d stand right behind the backstop, and I vividly remember the terrifying velocity on those fastballs, and I can hear in my head the deafening wham of the ball smashing into catcher’s mitt, and I recall watching hitters barely flinch when a pitch went zinging by, and I remember the exact feeling I had watching all this. I thought, “These guys are so incredibly, inconceivably good. And they’re not even professionals.”Collings guitar

In my 20s, I actually played in that men’s amateur baseball league and enjoyed several good years pitching for Avi Nelson Club. But even the best players among us were not nearly good enough to play at the lowest levels of minor league baseball. There were no scouts at our games. We were all amateurs. Happy amateurs.

I was reminded of this amateur-professional idea last Wednesday night, when I had the good fortune to accompany my friend, songwriter Dan Page, on guitar and background vocals at his show in New York City. Dan is widely admired in music circles, and about fifteen of his musical friends (including the amazing Mark Nadler and many members of the extraordinary Sullivan family) came from all over the country to perform in this show, which featured Dan’s most enduring compositions. Dan asked me to back him up on two songs – the first two songs of the show – and, humbled and honored, I quickly agreed.

The thing is, I was the only amateur musician who participated. Everyone else that plugged into an amp or sang into a mike that night was a pro. And, my God, was I out of my league.

I played all the chords just fine, and I sang my harmony nicely. But I had prepared only for things to go exactly as we had rehearsed, and that’s rarely the way things go when the show is on. The order of verses can get switched without warning, the bridge can get skipped, the pause before the final chorus can get extended, etc. Pros handle these “invisible blunders” with grace and ease. I think they actually love it when things don’t go according to plan. I may have risen to the occasion last Wednesday night, but I sure didn’t feel like a pro when the surprises came along.

The bass player that night, Ritt Henn, was a true pro. He was reading the sheet music for all of these songs for the first time, on stage, and not only performing the songs flawlessly, but adding flourishes at just the right moments and rolling with all the “invisible blunders” of the guitarists, pianists, and vocalists with which he shared the stage – and doing it all with a big smile on his face. (I wrote to Ritt and referred to him as “the Derek Jeter of bass players,” and he wrote back, “Hey, wait a minute…you guys are Red Sox fans, right? Is that some kind of insult or something? (insert appropriate smiley faced icon here) Thanks for the kind words…it’s fun winging it, and it was a kick playing with all those different folks, and thank you (and the entire Red Sox Nation) for recognizing and admiring Mr. Jeter’s prowess…. y’know, the year you guys won, I was actually rooting for you.”)

Trot NixonPerforming with Ritt Henn and all those pros was like being asked to play right field for two innings of a Major League Baseball game. I thought, “I can catch a fly ball. I’ve done this a million times.” But in real games, easy flies are intermingled with screaming line drives in the gap, violently bad hops, jeering Yankee fans (see photo), and split-second decisions about which base to throw to. Pros react to these unpredictable challenges as though they expected them — because they’ve practiced for the unexpected their whole lives — and even in the most unusual situations, they execute flawlessly. A pro hits his tee shot into the sand on the 18th hole at Augusta National — and still saves par.

That’s what I learned last Wednesday night in New York. I may know how to play those chords and sing that harmony – I may know how to catch a fly ball – I may know how to drive a golf ball into the fairway – but I’m an amateur. A happy amateur. (Although it sure is fun to hang out with and learn from professionals…)

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Never Say “I Could Have Done That”

Creative ideas.

Images of a different, better future.

We all have five or ten compelling ones every day. Sometimes they hit us in the shower. Sometimes while we’re driving. Sometimes when we’re sitting in a meeting oMJ on the Baronsr while talking with a friend. Sometimes they wake us up at 3 in the morning.

And I bet at least one idea we have per day is one that, if acted on, could make a quantum, dramatic difference in our lives or the lives of others. It’s one that could help define our lives and our purpose on this planet if we could execute it. If only these gem-like ideas could be highlighted for us, and we could be guided by a higher power to follow-through on them immediately….

Frequently, I see the work someone else has done – the book or song they wrote that I know I could have created as well, the product they invented that I had the concept for a few years ago, the eye-opening presentation they gave at the conference, the physical condition they’ve gotten themselves into and the accomplishments they’ve achieved because of this – and my impulse is to say, “Well, I had could have done that, too.”

But I didn’t, and that is all that really matters. I may have had the idea. I may have had the ability. I may have had the desire and even the intention. But all the credit goes to the one who takes the idea and, at the very least, strives to forge it into a real thing, a real accomplishment, a real victory, a real process, a real piece of art, a real conversation, a real relationship, a real habit, a real action.

The line between “having an idea” and “executing an idea” is thin – and yet the difference in value between the two is infinite. An idea or goal that stays in your head is as good as an idea or goal that never existed.

I love the example of Michael Jordan’s short baseball career for two reasons:

1. Michael says he always dreamed of being a major league baseball player and believed he could compete at the highest levels in that sport. Most of us forget that he retired from the NBA as reigning MVP in order to follow through on this dream and start a new career in baseball. Is there a better example of never saying, ‘I could have done that?’ That was one of the most inspiring career leaps I’ve ever seen.

2. M.J. never made it to the majors, but you won’t hear Michael say, “I could have done that,” while watching David Ortiz or Ichiro Suzuki hit a 97-mph tailing fastball for a game-winning hit. He tested out his idea and learned that baseball was much harder than he imagined. But, at least with regard to this single idea, Michael can sleep at night knowing he didn’t let it die in his head.

Then there’s my sister-in-law, Christina Harding. She heard about the Antarctica Marathon a couple of years ago and said to herself, “I never want to just say, ‘I could have done that.’ Therefore, I must do it.” Last week, she competed in the Antarctica Marathon. Like Michael Jordan, she can now say, “I followed through on my idea.” Unlike Michael Jordan, Christina can also say, “And I reached the pinnacle.” Because she won, defeating all other female entrants in the race and passing two competitors in the race’s final two miles of glacier-covered terrain. Incredible.

I have learned to never say, ‘I could have done that.’ Because I didn’t.

Swamped+Exhausted=Happy

climbing cliffI am swamped. Work. Family. Volunteer work. Creative projects. It’s a feeling of overwhelm that keeps me awake at night. There’s a fear that originates somewhere in my large intestine that whispers, “You can’t get it all done in a ‘good enough’ way – you can’t be everything to everyone you’ve committed to.” This is a level of busyness that can squeeze exercise, sleep, good eating, and thinking time right out of my life – for a period.

But I chose this. This is what I signed up for. Would I change my situation at work? No. We’re talking exciting, challenging projects with smart, interesting, talented people. Would I change my family situation? Are you kidding? I am blessed and my family is my greatest joy by far. Would I change my volunteer commitments? No way, I’m involved with great people at great organizations making a one-of-a-kind impact. Would I dump my creative projects? Well, these would be the easiest things to clear off my plate, but creative projects are the icing on the cake. Do I really want to scrape the icing off my cake? No.

The truth is, this feeling of overwhelm and exhaustion is a pure form of happiness. Winning the lottery wouldn’t hold a candle to this state of challenge, usefulness, connectivity, creativity, synergy, and struggle. This is what we live for. I’m in the middle of the soccer field with the ball rifling towards me and other players yelling my name. The game is on, baby.

The Origins of Expertise

boy practicing tennisWe can all point to clear evidence showing that elite performers – in all areas – possess innate strengths that give them an edge over the rest of the crowd. For example, Shaquille O’Neal’s body gives him an edge in professional basketball, and composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven obviously had musical talents that set them apart from generations of artists. But is “talent” really the core ingredient of expertise and elite performance?

An interview entitled, The Expert on Experts, from Fast Company’s November 2006 issue, illuminates “expertise” in a different light, and suggests that my examples above are extreme exceptions to the typical evolution of expertise. The interview’s subject is K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the 918-page Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Ericsson says:

“With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level….Elite performers aren’t genetically superior. They spontaneously do things differently from those individuals who stagnate. They have different practice histories. Elite performers engage in what we call deliberate practice – an effortful activity designed to improve target performance….. In general, elite performers utilize some technique that isn’t well known or widely practiced.”

I was recently reminded of this Fast Company article when reading Brad Gilbert’s book, I’ve Got Your Back: Coaching Top Performers from Center Court to the Corner Office. Gilbert is a former top-ten tennis pro who later coached #1 players, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. As a youngster, Gilbert was always a good player but he never stood out as a future star. He received a tennis scholarship to a junior college, eventually transferred to Pepperdine University, joined the ATP tour, and slowly worked his way from #180 in the world to his peak ranking of #4.

It was this paragraph from Gilbert’s book that struck me:

“I guess a couple of things made me different from other up-and-comers on the tour. Sure, I had resilience and foot speed. But other guys had those traits. What set me apart, maybe, was my eye for the game, my memory of how people played it, and my drive to pay attention. Almost every other guy on the tour, when he was finished with his match, couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there – to go back to the hotel room to watch TV, or go pound a few beers. Call me nutty (and a few people did), but I loved to hang out at the venue: watching matches or practice, shooting the breeze with guys in the locker room or training area. And whenever I was watching tennis, I was taking notes. I kept a little black book on every guy I played, and every guy I saw playing…. if you know the other guy’s weaknesses, you have a huge leg up.”

Later in the book, when Gilbert explains how he helped Andre Agassi improve from a #30 world-ranking to #1, the “black book” technique is featured once again.

Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner (authors of the interesting book, Freakonomics) wrote this about Ericsson’s expertise book in The New York Times Magazine:

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers – whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming – are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.”

I find it amazing – and thrilling – that good performers can become elite performers through “deliberate practice” and “utilizing some technique that isn’t widely known or widely practiced.” And I find it fascinating that, since natural talent isn’t the central reason for superior performance and any of us can become an elite performer in an area that deeply interests us, we aren’t all among the “elite” in something.

Clearly, everyone has a choice: to become an expert or elite performer in an area of our choosing, or to be a generalist. (And while “generalist” implies mediocrity and dulled impact, we can always turn to Benjamin Franklin and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, two “expert generalists,” for stunning counter examples…)

In Pursuit Of The Zone

“When am I in the zone, and how will I double the time I spend in the zone in the next 12 months?”

Entrepreneur and author Raj Setty has been publishing “Quoughts of the Day” on his blog since late December, 2006. (A “quought” is a question that provokes thought.) Back on January 13, I wrote about Raj’s excellent “quoughts” series and suggested three quoughts of my own. Since then, Raj and I have become acquainted via email, and today he has published my quought at LifeBeyondCodeBlog.

I’m a big fan of “being in the zone.” I believe we all do our best work when we’re in the zone. Almost all really, really great work is produced by people in the zone. Entrepreneurs. Athletes. Teachers. Writers. Doctors. Salespeople. Musicians. Architects. Chefs. Gardeners. Artists. Preachers. Mothers. Fathers. Students. CEOs. Auto Mechanics. The elite ones get “locked-in” when they’re practicing their craft.

I believe we need to spend at least a few hours every day in the zone, or we’re depriving the world (and ourselves) of our most valuable stuff. I worry about people I love who don’t appear to spend any time in the zone during the day.

Christian LaettnerWhen in your lifetime, including when you were a kid, do you remember being in the zone? (If you’re Christian Laettner (left), you remember being in the zone on the night you took this shot, with 0.2 seconds left, after catching an 80-foot pass from Grant Hill, to win the 1992 East Regional NCAA Tournament game in overtime against Kentucky, 103-102. Laettner was 10 for 10 from the floor, and 10 for 10 on free throws in this game. That’s some serious zoneage. The story of this game is here.)

Can you pepper your schedule next week – and for the rest of your life – with more “zone-time?”

“Work is my obsession but it is also my devotion…. Absorbedness is the paradise of work.” — Donald Hall, poet and essayist

The Cost of Praising Intelligence

It’s common sense that a good parent should frequently seize opportunities to tell his/her children that they are “smart,” isn’t it?

Not so fast.

Po Bronsoncub scout has written a fascinating article in New York Magazine, entitled, How Not To Talk To Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise. The article describes a recent study of 400 New York City fifth graders that shows that children who are repeatedly told they are “smart” shy away from challenges where there’s even a slight risk they might not succeed. On the other hand, kids who are consistently praised for their hard work or effort are more self-confident, more inclined to seek out challenging projects despite the possibility of failure, and less inhibited by concerns about how their work will be “graded” in the end.

Carol Dweck, the psychologist who led the study, writes, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” She continues, “Emphasizing effort gives children a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

It turns out that teaching kids that their innate intelligence is the key to their success actually sends a damaging message to them by diminishing the importance of effort – which is, in fact, the ONLY thing over which they have any control!

Clearly, this study is hugely important for all parents, teachers, and coaches. And it reminds me of two baseball t-shirts my oldest son owns. One says, “Just give me the ball and let me do the rest.” The other t-shirt says, “Champions are made in the off-season.” One motto emphasizes ability, the other practice and effort.

I never did like that “give me the ball” t-shirt, with its arrogant, anti-teamwork, talent-focused slogan. And now that I’ve read about the impact of highlighting effort,  I love that “champions” t-shirt all the more!

(By the way, the cub scout in that photo is not my son – I actually have no idea who that is.)

Rules vs. Results

We were all trained as children to “follow the rules.” But should our teachers have taught us how to decide when to break the rules? (Yes.)

Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal spent years studying managers and seeking out the habits and characteristics that separate “purposeful managers” (only 10% of all of them) from the frenzied, dTiger Woodsetached, and procrastinators. Their findings are collected in A Bias For Action (2004).

One of their most interesting insights is that successful managers know when to “break the rules” to reach critical organizational goals.

They write:
“Purposeful managers take an active stance when it comes to formal regulations and informal rules developed through cultural norms, habits, and shared expectations. Not only do they question rules that they deem outdated or inappropriate, but they also break or circumvent the rules when it’s absolutely necessary for achieving their goals.”

Sometimes, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I getting paid to do things the way my boss and her boss would like me to do them, or am I getting paid to give my boss and her boss the results they want to see?” Bruch and Ghoshal’s research reveals that the most successful 10% of managers prioritize results over following protocol.

What rule – either formal or informal – are you letting stand in the way of your optimum performance?