Possibilities for Growth

My voice changed early. It dropped an octave or two long before any of my peers. When it was time to learn new hymns in chorus, the solution from the nuns was to tell me to be quiet. My takeaway was that I had no natural talent for singing. My voice was not worthy.

I pushed that interpretation a bit further, concluding that I was not to be heard in public. Quips and side commentary in class could be a fun game, but using my voice at volume was not.

Come high school I was pushed into situations where I was expected to speak up. Whatever natural reservations I might have had about public speaking were amplified by this history. Writing was fine, just don’t ask me to stand up and share.

Late in my high school career, I started into the science fair thing. The research and writing part was fun. Then I found out I was expected to talk about my work as well. Much less fun. Fortunately, my teachers and advisors were not interested in whether I was having fun. Nor did they consider public speaking to be a matter of talent but one of skill. And practice. So I practiced and I got feedback, Then I practiced some more and got still more feedback.

One of my classmates and I took the top two spots in the St. Louis region and traveled to Huntsville, Alabama to present our projects. More rehearsals. More feedback.

Repetition plus feedback builds competence.

Competence begets confidence.

Today we have the notions of fixed versus growth mindsets. Those didn’t exist in 1971. But Benedictine monks had their own notions of what young men should be able to achieve given motivation and feedback. Nor were they particularly interested in the opinions of the young men in their charge. Their expectations ruled, not yours.

Since those days, I’ve been on lots of stages and in front of many audiences. Life is more interesting if you subscribe to the notion that growth is possible. This is true whether it’s your own growth or that of others.

Learning to See

“Pics or it didn’t happen.”

The updated version of an older quip; “I’ll believe it when I see it.” A study of human perception or any familiarity with today’s media environment, however, should convince you that “I’ll see it when I believe it” is more accurate and more illuminating.

When I was about eight, I began to complain that I couldn’t see what was written on the blackboard. The nun’s simple response was to move me up a row in the classroom. When I continued to complain after reaching the front row, someone finally thought that a trip to the optometrist might be a good idea (this was circa 1961 when routine vision screening wasn’t the norm in elementary school). A few weeks later I had my first pair of glasses with a strong prescription.

I recall marveling on the drive home. It had never occurred to me that you were supposed to be able to read street signs from inside the car. The wider world wasn’t fuzzy after all.

I was doing just fine in school. If I hadn’t mentioned something, who knows how much longer it might have taken to discover my weak eyes. Nobody could see the problem until they believed what I was saying.

Although I was doing fine, I was working harder than I needed to. I was overpowering the problem rather than solving it effectively. Can’t see the board, move closer. Still can’t see it, move closer still.

What’s been on my mind lately is what lessons did I take away from this experience without seeing them at the time.

There’s the obvious lesson that effort is rewarded. Most of our systems hammer this lesson home. I think there’s a second, more subtle, lesson. If the results are good, then the effort was well spent. Because effort is worthy it’s hard to ask what can be accomplished with less effort. Powering through is an easy strategy to understand and to implement. “Working smarter” makes for a nice slogan but is much more difficult to put into practice.

I’ve certainly been guilty of trotting out the slogan. I suspect I still have a lot to learn about putting it into effective practice. I did take a look at this quite a while back with a look at how we might go about balancing diligence and laziness. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at the question of how to put in less effort.

Laying Down a New Rhythm

Many decades ago I was a pretty fair track and field athlete. Not world class, but competitive within my environment. Put a finish line in front of me and I would often be the first to cross it.

I was a sprinter. The promise of a finish off in the distance wasn’t good enough. I needed to see the finish line.

There was craft and technique to learn and to practice. I can still remember my father’s lessons in how to make sure my energy was focused and directed on moving forward rather than wasted in extraneous movement. And coaches helped break down the components of a race, from getting out of the blocks to running through not to the finish line. But the essence was to attack the goal in front of my eyes.

This simplicity took me a long way on the track and much of my professional life as well. As long as I could see a finish line, everything else was easy. As the world and my life got more complex, I was able to find suitable finish lines to focus on. And to seek out environments and coaches to help with craft and technique.

That simple strategy has run out of track. I’ve always hated the adage “it’s a marathon not a sprint.” I still long for sprints but it’s long past time to take a deeper and broader look at how to run the races that I now face. Starting with the recognition that race is the wrong metaphor to build on. It’s too thin a slice of all that is going on.

Rhythm and cadence are the words I’m thinking about now. What can or should I be doing to establish a cadence of doing the things that will more consistently lead to outputs and results that please me? Over the next several weeks, I’ll be placing myself in an environment to help me work through these questions.

The goal is not simply to cross the finish line of this particular race. It’s to engage in the first few iterations of what I hope will become a sustainable rhythm.