Doing the right thing poorly

I was halfway through reading the book Flying Without a Net by Thomas J. when I came across the following brilliant insight: in order to improve a particular skill, we have to first start by recognising that however we are performing that skill may not be the best way of doing so, and that to improve some changes may need to be made.

In short, to do the right thing well we may have to start first with doing the right thing poorly.

DeLong used the story of Tiger Woods to illustrate this idea very well:

Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, by twelve strokes. It was such an overwhelming victory that Augusta National redesigned its course to increase the odds that Woods would not repeat the feat. Yet after woods won the tournament, his coach, Butch Harmon, told him that, while he had played superb golf for four days he had a problem with his swing. He suggested that Woods needed to rebuild his wing from the ground up. Harmon admitted that woods could win sporadically without a change but would never challenge the greats like Jack Nicklaus.

I remember that incident well. Back in the late 90’s, Woods was a rising superstar. Being young and extremely dominant in the sport of golf he single-handedly made golf “cool” — and like many other younger golf fans, I started watching golf because of him.

When Harmon made those comments, many sports journalists were critical. Changing a winning formula? You got to be kidding!

I, too, felt that change was the last thing Woods needed.

In the months that followed it seemed as if the changes that Woods was making did more harm than good, and I wondered when he was going to say, in effect, “screw it!”, and get back to playing great golf again.

But he didn’t.

He soldiered on and went on to win a great many more tournaments, becoming even better than before. (Until his relatively recent marital problems, which has had a detrimental effect on his performance and career.)

Here’s the diagram that DeLong shared in the book:

We start from the top left-hand quadrant. This is our comfort zone; it’s whatever we’ve been doing and things we’re probably already pretty good at doing. In the context of work, it’s going to be whatever we’ve been doing to get to wherever we are at.

Sometimes, the outcomes from doing these “wrong” things aren’t that bad. But in this context, we’re really looking at peak performance. Often, we know that the outcome may not be optimal, and we suffer anxiety because we fear we’re losing our edge.

In order to get to the quadrant of “doing the right thing well”, i.e. the top-right, we have to move down to doing the right thing poorly. This is where it takes “courage and vulnerability”. When we first start changing the things we do, we’re probably not going to be particularly great at it.

We’re going to need to ignore the naysayers and just grind it out, continually practising our new behaviours. Eventually, all that practice will lead us to start performing these right things well.

The problem many of us have is that when we’re doing the wrong thing well, and getting results that may not necessarily be considered “poor”, changing isn’t always easy. The courage and drive to want to get into the next level of performance needs to be stronger than the anxieties we may face to maintain the status quo, especially since short-term results are likely to be poorer.

I did some analysis on my life through my writings from the early 2000’s till present, both personal and public, to see if I had encountered this anxiety-regression-progression movement, and I found that I had.

Whenever I’m trying something radically new like starting my national service in the army,  studying overseas, starting my Master’s degree, changing jobs, getting married, or having a child, I’m always in a state of high anxiety.

During this period I’m constantly asking myself if this is the life I want, wondering what’s going to happen, or second-guessing my job or university choice. What follows though, if I lean into these challenges or life changes, are often periods of my greatest personal and professional growth.

The things I fear the most often turn out to be the very things that shape who I become.

(PS: If you’re interested in Woods, read also this article on swing changes that Tiger Woods had made over the years. The “Harmon” change wasn’t the only one.)

Winning first place without ever being first

Or: what I learned from playing too much DiRT Rally (one of my favourite rally racing games.)

So here’s the context: I’m playing “career mode”, in which I buy a car, hire a couple of engineers, and go out to race. In order to win the championship, I have to have the best time across six “stages” or legs. Each stage is located in a different place so they all have their peculiarities: different areas of easy and difficult sections, some more suitable to the car’s set-up than others.

The thing about the game is that unlike real life, you have an unlimited numbers of do-overs – if you crash your car or get a time you don’t fancy, you can simply restart the stage.

When I first started playing this game that’s what I did. A lot.

I was intent on always finishing first for each stage. If I didn’t manage to finish first I would restart the stage. At times I found myself playing each stage close to 30-50 times; some stages I would spend an hour or two on and still not have the fastest time.

Then one day there was a stage in which I just couldn’t be the first for no matter how many times I tried.

I gave up. For that stage I ended up 5th and I accepted it*. The following stages were not much better either, with me ending up no better than third.

* (Side-note: actually my saying I “accepted it” is not really true. It was more of just getting the championship over, closing this chapter of my life, and uninstalling the game.)

Of all six stages of the championship, I ended up winning none.

And yet *drullroll please* I won the championship.

“But how?” I asked myself. “How??”

I couldn’t quite believe it but the overall time I had was faster than all my competitors. I won by virtue of consistency and not completely fouling up. Those who had won a stage had performed poorly for at least one of the others.

To me this was revolutionary and extremely zen: I won by not winning.

The Cloths of Heaven

One of my best friends got married over the weekend. The first of my close friends whose wedding I attended, and it might be a little unmanly to say it but I was actually quite moved by it.

Last night, as I was reading through the compendium of beautiful poems by Garrison Keillor aptly named Good Poems, I came across a poem that I fell in love with back in my University days at UWA (the University of Western Australia): The Cloths of Heaven, by W. B. Yeats:

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The poem reminded me of the speeches that the bride and groom gave over the weekend, which to me felt were beautiful not because they were polished, but precisely because they were the opposite of that: raw; slightly apprehensive; and yet absolutely sincere.

Here’s wishing you all the best Mr. & Mrs. Ng. May you both tread carefully on each other’s dreams for a long time to come.


31 Oct Bonus: I was (re)reading one of my favourite books (Words I Wish I Wrote by Robert Fulghum) when I came across this piece that I felt too apt not to share, and which encapsulates so wonderfully how I hope we all treat out significant others and/or close friends:

“Where’s home for you?” a stranger asks a fellow traveler on a plane.

“Wherever she is,” comes the reply, as the man points at his wife.

Claiming my life back

It’s been two months since I last updated hasn’t it? Quite unbelievable really. I haven’t gone this long without an update since… maybe ten years ago? (I always made it a point of one update each month, at least…)

But I’ve been busy. Busiest time of my life perhaps. Work and school have absolutely consumed me.

But I’m hopeful my schedule’s clearing up somewhat. Having just completed the capstone project of my Master’s course, it’s time I got back to the things I’ve missed like…

  • my runs
  • writing
  • leisurely reading
  • early morning strolls
  • relaxing weekends
  • family.

A poor workman blames his tools

There is this idiom that goes something like this: a poor workman always blames his tools (a Google search reveals this might be better known as a bad workman always blames his tools, but I digress).

Having grown up with the idiom oft-repeated to me by my mom, its grown to be such an innate part of me that I never quite questioned it — it was just true  and any evidence to the contrary was simply a cop-out, an easy way to push the blame away from one’s lack of skill.

But today the meaning of that idiom changed for me somewhat. Because today, after almost three years of hopelessly chasing a typing speed record on typeracer, I finally came to within a whisker of breaking it. And with so much ease!

It all started when, on a whim, I decided to take a break from work and quite absentmindedly pointed my browser to the typeracer website. It was a game I loved (because I was good at it and because typing is a beautiful skill to be great at) but started to despise due to worsening scores.

(A little aside: the worsening scores started about a year ago after switching to an ASUS Zenbook, a beautiful laptop with an awful keyboard; I’d migrated after my MacBook Pro 2010 conked out and being a little crash-strapped I couldn’t bring myself to splurge on another MacBook (which, by the way, was both beautiful and had an excellent keyboard). I felt the ZenBook’s keyboard was worse, but thought that it was all a matter of “getting used to it” – being a strong believer of the “a poor workman always blames his tools” I just blamed myself for my worsening typing scores: I’m getting old, I thought).

So, as I was saying, I was working on my office computer, a Dell Inspiron E6230 (a seriously serious laptop that looks a tad too pragmatic, like a North Korean computer), when I decided to take a break on typeracer.com.

Within the first few games I played I noticed something different – with relatively ease, I found myself typing above all-out efforts on my Zenbook. My accuracy was up, and so was my raw typing speed. Boom! and boom! Accuracy and raw speed? No way!

Within 10 races I was up to my old MacBook speeds. And within 20, I was above my old MacBook speeds. The keyboard made a huge difference.

And then it dawned on me. It might be true that a poor workman always blames his tools. But that doesn’t mean a great workman cannot blame his tools when it’s called for!

Programming in Python

Did I mention that I am learning (and have learned) to program in Python at Codeacademy and am loving it? (Unbiased plug: if you want to learn to program, doesn’t have to be Python, try Codeacademy!)

Sometimes I think that I’m such a nerd: reading programming books in the train; programming for fun at night; cracking a “have you heard of Excel Slicers” joke when asked to cut a cake.

I suppose I always have been sort of a nerd, but now I actually feel alright coming out as one.

Feeling Sorry for Yourself in this Complicated World

I was feeling sick. I mean really sick. Walking five steps would leave me gasping for air. My throat felt like murder (:bad). My head throbbed like a discotheque.

But I had work to do. Work I didn’t feel like doing, but which my professional self wouldn’t let me off not doing.

Let me share with you a little bit of my work ethos using one of my favourite quotes from Will Smith:

I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories.

But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

So I got to work. While working away through my illness though (whatever it was; or actually still is, because I’m still feeling its effects two weeks after), I couldn’t help but think if it was all worth it. This wasn’t change the world stuff; and I wasn’t being compensated enough to make up for that fact.

In fact, I started feeling quite sorry for myself. So sorry that I started googling for help: quotes on self-pity

And came across this little gem from D H Lawrence:

I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.

Which reminded me of the Will Smith quote and helped me carry on till most of the stuff I needed to do were done.

On my walk to school yesterday though (I’m back to school for a Masters in Tech, by the way), I passed by a bird. That bird was chasing down a worm, pecking at it. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the worm, though I knew very well it was just the natural order of things.

And I realised that the reason why wild things never felt sorry for themselves could well be the reason why we do: because we are not wild; because we feel pity not just for ourselves, but for our fellow living beings.

How complicated our world is!