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.)

The Use of Worry

“Worrying doesn’t get you anywhere.” Or so they say, “they” being the anonymous group of trolls in my head that churns out stuff like that.

But worry does have a use. It urges me to take action. Because of worry, I do things today that I’d ordinarily put off to tomorrow.

I admit, worry makes today (and all preceding time before the event of which I am worried about) potentially nightmarish — the anxiety I feel in the grips of persistent worry isn’t particularly pleasant. But that might be a small price to pay in being as prepared as I can be in anticipation of that worrisome event.

The more I prepare, the less worried I get; till I know that I can prepare no more. That’s when worry ceases to be useful, and itself becomes a cause for concern.

The problem with following the habits of “successful people”

I was reading an article on what “rich people do” that implied that if you wanted to become rich, you should do what they do.

The problem with these sorts of articles, as I’m sure has been explored many times before, is manifold. Firstly, they’re talking about what rich or successful people do now. That is, after they’re rich or successful. Secondly, it could be more a case of correlation as opposed to causation (does eating more healthful foods really make you rich?) And thirdly, they ignore the hordes of people who may already be doing what “successful” people do and yet, as luck would have it, remain unsuccessful.

For example, in the article I cited above:

  • If you’re rich, you tend to eat less junk food — maybe it’s because better food makes you think and behave in ways that will make you rich, but maybe it’s just that when you’re rich you’re able to have access to better food?
  • If you’re rich, you tend to keep your cards closer to your chest — maybe it’s because saying what’s on your mind causes people to think negatively of you. But it could also be a case of “what got you here won’t get you there” — who knows if it might well be that keeping your cards closer to your chest while in the “lower rungs”, so-to-speak, will prevent you from being noticed from the corporate bigwigs?
  • If you’re rich, you tend to set goals — maybe setting goals does get you rich. But it could also be a case of looking at the past and fabricating a cohesive narrative from a haphazard life. I have a hypothesis that goes like this: if you set a goal and failed, you’re more likely to forget having set that goal than if you’d set a goal and succeeded. This would mean that goals leading to success (whatever that is) may be overrepresented?

I’m not saying it’s entirely worthless to study what rich and successful people do, but certainly not in the way it’s currently popularly done.

Rich people tend to drive nice cars. If that’s an activity that’d get me rich, I’m all for it.

On Finding Work We Love

I once saw a mattress ad that argued that choosing the right mattress was the most important life choice you’d have to make after choosing a spouse. The basic premise of that ad was that since you’d be spending a third of your life sleeping, splurging on a good mattress would be money well spent, almost as good as that of splurging on your spouse (just ask my fiancee).

Though I do not agree that you necessarily have to spend good money for a good night’s sleep, it’s certainly good sense to focus on areas of your life you spend your most time on doing — what is one’s life but the making of choices regarding what we do with our time? Time, it can be said, is life.

For most of us, few other things take up as much as time as work does. The funny thing about work is that even though most of us know it takes up “a lot” of time, we often underestimate just how much time we give to our work. Many of us only think about the official hours we clock on the job, forgetting to take into account the time needed to prepare ourselves for work; for the commute to and from our place of work; for the necessary “unwinding” after a hard day’s work; and the time to “get away” from “it all” through vacations, with “it all” often meaning the distress we feel because of work.

How important, then, is it for us to  find work we love and enjoy, work we feel good about? If we find work “bad”, life is likely to be the same.

It is not uncommon to see people take up a job because of slightly better pay or because some company made them an offer first, not because it gave them a better chance to do more meaningful work or what they loved. After spending some time at the job, many of these people may find that they actually dislike what they do, but continue grinding it out day after day because of apathy and fear. Hey, I may hate this job, but at least I know I how much I hate it. Other jobs may be even worse!

Always thinking about whether a change would be better or worse, we decide to take our chances at our current jobs because at least we know what to expect.

It’s like the story the man who dropped his keys in the dark. A passerby approached the man after seeing him searching frantically under a streetlamp and offered to help, asking him where he’d dropped the keys. The man pointed to an unlit portion of the street and said, “over there.” Curious, the passerby asked the man why he was searching under the streetlamp if he hadn’t dropped his keys there, and the man replied, “because at least here I can see what I’m searching for.”

How many of us are tolerating “good enough” jobs we already know too much about, hoping someday, against all odds, the meaning, fun, and enjoyment they sought would suddenly turn up? Should we not expect out of work as much as work expects out of us?

On Ignorance and Information Search

I’m not a person who takes not knowing lightly.

If someone asks me a question and I’m unable to find the answer off the top of my head, chances are good that within the next few minutes, armed with a computer and a good internet connection, I’ll find the answer to that question. Of course this is assuming it’s a question that intrigues me enough for me to do so (but then again simply not knowing something often intrigues me enough to push me to find its answer).

I find ignorance a chosen state; in general, people do not not know something not because they’re stupid, but because they’ve never had a need or want to find out what that something is. Motivation’s seriously understated in education. Teach a man to fish, and if he’s not hungry he may not learn. Teach a man hungry to learn to fish, well, that’s another story.

For me it’s not so important to remember any of the actual facts that I’ve looked up as much as it is knowing how to look up that fact in the first place. For example, I have no idea what’s pi to its 8th decimal, but I do know that if I searched for pi in Google or Bing I’d be able to find out (it’s 3.14159265).

I can think of at least two reasons for placing teaching how to learn and search for information before teaching facts (something most schools are only too guilty of).

Firstly, information search is so much faster and vastly improved now with the advent of the internet and search engines like Google, making the skill of remembering lots of facts redundant — you don’t need to remember a fact you only need to use once or twice as searching it up may well be faster than the time it takes to burn it into memory; and secondly, because many facts in life are dynamic and may have changed since you first learned it (e.g. when I was in school Singapore’s population was at about 3.3 million; it’s over 4 million now, and may have changed by the time you read this).

I’ve always harboured a slight distrust of people who utter the words “I don’t know”, and will always be wondering at the back of my mind whether or not that person had attempted to find an answer. I urge you to never use those words unless absolutely necessary (e.g. if your child asks you what your neighbours were doing in the back of that shaking car). If possible, always answer a question to which you don’t know the answer to with a “I’ll find out” or “I’ll get back to you on that”. And do.

As for what WERE the neighbours doing… I’ll get back to you on that.

Multitasking and conversation don’t mix.

I came across this article (pictured below, with text typed out for your convenience) while browsing through the magazine Psychology Today while at the library this afternoon, regarding why one may feel not truly listened to when the person whom you’re talking to seems to be doing something else, even if that person were to be able to recite what you’d just said verbatim (word for word).

Communication is very much more than just hearing the words and memorising what that person just said. I think it’s quite like when the music on the radio’s too soft to be heard except for the major beats and rhythms — though you may know what song is playing and can more or less make out the melody, the experience of the song is completely flat as when compared to the if the music was turned up just right.

Conversation is not multitask-able
Conversation is not multitaskable

Here’s the text in the article (it’s the kind of article where readers submit their problems and an expert tries to help them out):

Title: MARIE ANTOINETTE MEETS TEXTING

Reader’s letter: My fiance is a wonderful man, and we have a happy life together. But there is one big thing we can’t seem to reach an agreement on. He thinks it’s normal that, when I’m speaking to him, he can text on his cell phone, do stuff on the computer, or play his guitar. He thinks that’s just the way the communication has evolved in our society, and that he’s perfectly capable of doing any of these things while attentively listening. But I feel unimportant, not special, and not very loved. I feel like shutting down. When I ask him to please look at me when I speak to him, he insists I am displaying a “Marie Antoinette attitude” and demanding the world to stop what it is doing just to “drink my words.” I am having a hard time accepting this.

Experts’ response: Do we need to drag out the studies showing that he’s deceiving himself? The thing about multitasking is that it breeds overconfidence in one’s capacities. And passively listening, to whatever degree he’s hearing the words that you utter, is hardly the same as being engaged in a conversation, which is a fairly minimum requirement for intimiate relationships–any relationships. Remind Textboy that personal relationships are “personal” for a reason. If he can’t give that, what else is there? Of course you feel like shutting down when you’re not getting it. By not paying attention to you when you’re talking, he is communicating plenty — that you’re not as important as his cell phone or his guitar. Then there’s the fact that there’s much more to communication than hearing some words; a great deal of information is transmitted nonverbally. I doubt whether Textboy would be so keen on texting if his boss asked him to come in for a chat. Looking someone in the eye is the primary path to being understood, and to do less than that is uncivil and disrespectful. That’s the core problem — the disrespect. That’s why it hurts and prompts you to shut down. The next time he wants to talk to you, be sure to have your cell phone handy and get busy with it, without explanation. A dose of his own disrespect might speak louder than your words. [END]