Open the window shades. Look under more rocks.

Ice from airplane3It was odd. Unnerving. And a little disorienting too. After we took off from Hong Kong to the States, the mapping tool in the airplane that shows where we are in the world wasn’t tracking. The little airplane icon kept showing we were still on the runway in Hong Kong. Which was impossible since we had been in the air for some time.

Hours went by after the meal service. The cabin was darkened and the shades were pulled down, and still the map showed our airplane icon on the runway in Hong Kong. Most people on board were asleep or had their faces lit up by electronics. At some point about six hours after we took off, I stopped a cabin steward and asked where on earth we were. She asked me to wait while she went to ask the captain.

She came back a minute later and said, “The captain said in just a couple minutes we will be passing over the north pole.” Wow. I got up and went to the back of the airplane to the rear bulkhead and there I eased open the window shade. Blindingly brilliant sun light reflected off of the fractured polar ice below. Although we must have been nearly six miles in the air, the clarity and ice detail was astonishing. It seemed high noon on the polar ice cap and the ice detail was crisp and wrapped for miles to the horizon.

I closed the shade and turned back to look down the darkened fuselage of the airplane. Almost everyone was asleep, while we were passing over the north pole. I cracked the window shade again and gazed down at the glittering ice.

The experience led me to learn more about new flight paths over the polar ice cap from Asia and it reminded me of the wondrous moments we can experience when we get curious and seek new experiences.

When we keep our kids up late to lie in the yard and look up at a meteor shower. When we wake early to swim across the lake at dawn just as the birds are waking. Take off the headphones and listen to the conversations in the market. Look under more rocks. Sometimes it’s unforgettable.

There it is again. Weird works.

fosburyIn 1968 Dick Fosbury astonished the world at the Mexico City Olympic Games by clearing 7′ 4″ 1/4 inches in the high jump. His efforts before 80,000 people were an aberration – an anomaly in track and field events. Dick was a gangly 6’3″ athlete who hadn’t excelled at any event in track and field at his Medford, OR high school and he unveiled a maneuver to set a world record. More remarkably, his competitors failed to recognize and adopt his innovative style and lost – not only on that occasion, but for years to come because they couldn’t acknowledge the power of his innovation.

Fosbury’s own coach, who didn’t care for the move at all, called it “a shortcut to mediocrity.”

But it wasn’t, in fact, “unseen before.” Fosbury had been working on perfecting the technique for a couple years. Not only that, another athlete, the Canadian Debbie Brill, had developed an identical style she called the “Brill Bend.”

So how in the world did the lesser athlete Dick Fosbury not only develop a technique to best his rivals, but do so quite publicly while his competitors failed to recognize and adopt the innovation to excel?

The day Fosbury actually unveiled this new technique was five years earlier at a track meet in which he beat his own personal best by a foot and a half. Eighteen inches. High jump improvements are typically measured in inches – or fractions of inches. People should have been paying closer attention instead of ridiculing him. But why? Because it was new, because it was different, because it looked weird, and because no one else had the discipline to bother.

There it is again…curiosity, experimentation and persistence as keys to excellence.

Fake It Until You Become It


“The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.”
– Jim Collins

Earlier this week I met Amy Cuddy. If you’re not familiar, she has a signature expression in her talk: “fake it until you become it.” Moving the discussion beyond “fake it ’til you make it”, she means to convey that whenever we try something new, attempt a new skill, or otherwise leap into the unknown in an act of bravery, there is always a part of us that feels like an impostor. Because it’s not about just “making it”, it’s about showing up, consistently, until we fully inhabit – fully become – the new persona we envision ourselves to be.

When we join a new sport, begin playing a musical instrument, pick up yoga, or take on a new job, there is always that little voice of doubt in our mind that says, “You don’t belong here. You don’t know what you’re doing. They’re going to find out you’re a charlatan.” Amy says she spent years of her life feeling like this as she constantly took on new challenges and slowly recovered from a debilitating injury.

I once had a conversation with Vince Poscente, who at age 26 decided he wanted to be an Olympic skier. Just like that. While at the time a fairly middling recreational skier, Vince dedicated four years of constant training, crashes and injuries, to make the Olympic team and compete in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. He didn’t win, but he showed up, every day and locked into his skis to train.

It’s marvelous to watch kids attempt new things naturally, unselfconsciously. Kids will regularly cast themselves into the unknown of new sports, or art, or other acts of joyous bravery. If we bring forth what is within us, with consistency, and sometimes a touch of bravery, we can slowly and surely develop new skills. And over time, hone those skills into real expertise.

Between Not Doing and Doing is an act of bravery

superhero“Annie, Fynn sees through your eyes.”

“What?” says my seven year old daughter Annie.

“When you are leading a horse, you need to actually lead. Fynn sees through your eyes. So, when you call him to follow, you need to look where you’re going and lead him down the path, at your speed, not his. When you turn and look at Fynn, all Fynn sees is himself. He needs to see where you want to go.”

Little Annie learned to lead a horse by confidently looking forward where she wanted to go and asking Fynn to follow. And so a thousand pound horse named Fynn followed my daughter down a path through the woods.

At the intersection of what you have never done, and what comes naturally, is an act of bravery. This is the cusp, the edge, the apex of valor and daring. To cross the divide from Not Doing to Doing, takes courage. This is the essence of bravery. Here it is in action:

Lead with Your Footprints


The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.
– Warren Buffett

Jim Collins has popularized the notion of the “stop-doing list.” Equally as important as your do-list, he argues we need to make room for innovation and growth by ceasing some of the repetitive, mindless, or ineffective activities that can become habitual, but might not be leading us in constructive directions. In a recent presentation, I suggested the “stop-doing” mantra. Afterward someone approached me and said, “OK, stop doing…like, what?”

Fair enough. Here are ten mindless-doing traps we can often engage in, that you might try stopping. For more great ideas to add to your stop-doing list, Joe Calloway has some good advice.

  1. Stop replying to all, and pick up the phone
  2. Stop waiting for someone else to decide, and gather those who are willing to help decide
  3. Stop trying to do everything yourself, others can and want to help
  4. Stop focusing on what you can’t control (see #2)
  5. Stop needing to be right
  6. Stop waiting to talk, and start listening
  7. Stop wishing someone else will change, and accept them
  8. Stop trying to make it perfect. The world needs to see it.
  9. Stop muting conference calls while you do other things (like throw emails around)
  10. Stop having the same conversations with the same people. Comfort conversations are good but try reaching out to a dormant contact and ping someone you haven’t interacted with in a while. When you do, start by giving without expectation.

You might read these and think, “Right! [insert name] constantly does these things.” But here is the killer application of these ideas. The only reliable way to ripple effect these behaviors is to model them. People around you are far more likely to follow your footprints than to follow your advice. I too, am trying to let go of what I can’t control. That, and stop drinking coffee after noon.

Where’s Your Woodshed?

CharlieParkerWoodshedding is an old jazz expression – it means to go deep in isolation to build your chops, get your groove on, master your instrument. As the legend goes, in 1937, when he was only 17 years old, young Charlie Parker – before he became the great “Bird” Parker – would go down to the High Hat Club, also known as “the cutting room” to play with the great session musicians of the day.

One night, after young Parker ran out of breath and ran dry of new ideas in the middle of his solo, the great session drummer Jo Jones unscrewed his cymbal and threw it with a crash at Charlie Parker’s feet. The gesture was clear. Take a hike kid. You’re cut.

The same thing happened to Parker just a couple years earlier, when he was only 14 years old. And when he was that young, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. He was so humiliated then that he quit the instrument for three months and refused to play. But this time he had a different reaction. He was indeed humiliated being cut from the stage, but this time around Parker worked even harder at the instrument. That summer he secluded himself at a resort in the Ozark Mountains to work on his playing. He joined a house band to pay for his roof and bread. But what he was really doing was wood-shedding and playing alone hour after hour each day to develop his virtuosity.

He emerged from that self-imposed seclusion and presented the world with an astonishing contribution to a new developing form of jazz known as bebop.

Here’s what I believe: The key to developing innovation and excellence starts by having the courage to develop our own niche mastery, and to understand and know that our actions make a difference.

First Reach In: Find your most compelling signal in the noise that surrounds us. Find the intersection of your passion and talent, and with perseverance, tenacity, grit, hard work and pluck, take it to the woodshed. In the constant din of noise that surrounds us, we need to understand the power of a mute button to silence the static while we focus.

Next Reach out: to a teammate, friend, colleague, or loved one, with encouragement and accountability enrich them to do the same. Multiply that excellence in others. For remember, a rising tide lifts all boats

The New Reciprocity: Give and Forget

GivingI was listening to a podcast yesterday of Adam Grant talking about his new book Give and Take. If you’re familiar with the book, in it he writes about “Dormant Ties.” Dormant ties are those people whom you have known in your life – professionally or personally – but have fallen off your radar and disappeared into your past. These are also people with whom you can easily kick-start the relationship because you have a long history and can skip the getting-acquainted part of relationship building. They will have an emotional memory of you already.

As Grant writes in his book, researchers working with executives asked them to solicit business advice not only from those close and respected colleagues, but also from former colleagues with whom they had no contact with for at least three years. Once the executives begrudgingly agreed to contact two former colleagues (their dormant ties) and ask a few questions of advice, they discovered it was the dormant ties who offered the most valuable and insightful bits of advice and information, not those closest to them.

This morning I was listening to Ken Coleman‘s podcast in which Tim Sanders was describing his “morning devotional.”  Each morning, before checking email – the electronic debt machine – he pauses to reflect and give thanks to people who have been greatly helpful to him recently. Then he reaches out to two people in his life to help. Maybe it’s an introduction, or a recommendation, or an insight he can offer in their work. Whatever it is, Tim tries to make it relevant and valuable, and never with any expectation of return. He calls this exercise Give and Forget.

Here’s the mash-up idea. Resusitate a dormant tie from your past and instead of asking for a favor, give something: an idea, a recommendation, an introduction, a compliment…and then let go. The point of this exercise is not to trade value with someone from your past, or mine your network. The point is to add value to the community. I’m making a habit of it.

Listen thoughtfully, carefully, mindfully…then do something


Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must first set yourself on fire.
—Reggie Leach

This idea was a kick in the pants. Lately I feel like I’ve been inundated with admonitions to listen carefully, deeply, mindfully…Pick your guru and each will say, start with listening.

  • Stephen Covey: “Pass the torch and listen.”
  • Susan Scott: “Waiting to talk is not listening.”
  • Keith Ferrazzi: “When you ask someone’s opinion, your next job is to listen and give a damn.”
  • Marshall Goldsmith: “Let go of ‘yes, but…’ – stop adding too much value and listen.”
  • Warren Bennis: “Ask a probing question and then listen.”
  • David Whyte: “The conversation IS the relationship.”

We had a conversation last week with Jennifer Kahnweiler, an expert on developing introverted people into powerful (and quiet) leaders. She has a segment in her book in which she addresses the downside of always listening. As she points out, when you are engaged in deep listening, by definition, you aren’t sharing information and knowledge, and you aren’t doing anything. When, of course, it’s the doing that translates into shared value and innovation.

Certainly in a state engaged listening, you are developing a heightened sense of situational understanding and honing your emotional fluency. Yet, if you are constantly operating in a listening mode – mindful or not, Jennifer points out a few pitfalls in her new book, Quiet Influence:

Loss of credibility: If you are constantly listening and not contributing, your colleagues and peers might begin to believe you have nothing to offer or contribute to the discussion.

Conflict avoidance: While engaged in mindful listening, you’ll certainly develop a stronger emotional fluency of your collaborators and can begin to sense divergent ideas, or conflicting mindsets on the team. If you don’t speak up to point these out, you’re losing a valuable opportunity to resolve potential conflicts.

Unproductive conversations: Collaboration needs to be reciprocal. When you fail to contribute based on what you’ve learned while listening, the conversation stalls and becomes unproductive.

Unheard ideas: And of course, you’re going to miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. However ridiculous your idea may be, your collaborator – and the world – will never know your ideas if you don’t speak up.

Take a chance. Ask a question, express an opinion, build a prototype. Fail forward.

No Regrets

NO-REGRETSIf you’ve ever heard Marshall Goldsmith speak, you’ll know he has a signature bit near the end of his presentation in which he asks you to imagine you are 95 years old and preparing to die. But before you die, you can speak to your younger self and provide advice. In his talk Goldsmith advises: Be Happy Now, Focus on Friends and Family, and Live Out Your Dreams. The last one always gets me. It’s a reminder to go after whatever audacious goal you have – play the drums, speak Japanese, scuba in Aruba, or whatever drives your mojo.

I came across this book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, recently. In it Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, recounts spending the final three to six weeks with dying patients and shares what they have to say about living. The following is straight from her website:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Have a Memory of the Game Before it Even Starts

Wayne_RooneyWayne Rooney is widely regarded as an astonishing soccer player – one of the greatest playing the game today. Also mercurial, brooding, even thuggish at times. He was recently banned for a game for intentionally kicking Montenegro’s Miodrag Dzudovic. As a kid he played non-stop – in the streets, in the house, in the backyard. And when he couldn’t play, he dreamed of playing soccer.

Rooney does this today before every match:

“Part of my preparation is I go and ask the kit man what color we’re wearing — if it’s red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks. Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game. I don’t know if you’d call it visualizing or dreaming, but I’ve always done it, my whole life… you need to visualize realistic things that are going to happen in a game.” (David Winner interview)

If you can actually practice, great. But imagining practicing is just about as good. In a well-known experiment Australian researcher Alan Richardson divided about 90 students into three groups. With the first group he asked them to ignore basketball and come back at the end of the month. He asked the second group to come into the gym 5 days a week and practice their free throws for twenty minutes, trying to get better at their shots as best as they could. The third group he asked to come into the gym 5 days a week and for twenty minutes imagine shooting free throws – to sit in the gym and visualize each attempt, to develop a pre-shot routine, “see” and “feel” the ball bouncing and then leaving their hand arcing to the basket. If they missed, they had to visualize an adjustment. They were also asked to be constantly striving to improve.

At the end of the month all three groups had to come into the gym and shoot 100 free throws.

  • Group 1 didn’t improve
  • Group 2 got 24% better
  • Group 3 got 23% better

I had an interveiw with Rich Herbst, VP for Learning and Leadership Development at Teletech, who emphasized the use of simulations to help develop call center operators to perform better on the job. A former F-14 pilot, Herbst described how he had thousands of hours practicing in simulators and on airfields before he actually landed an F-14 on an aircraft carrier. In our interview he described the experience of landing on a carrier:

“I had done it so much that it was like it was kind of like muscle memory. And so you stop thinking about the stress of what you’re doing, and training takes over. And so I think in the best types of training that you have, regardless of what it is that you’re doing in life, if you can get yourself to a place where you’ve learned it so well that when you experience it in real time.”

Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, or get better at. Are you wishing it, or rehearsing it in your mind, and then actively doing it – prepared to fail or succeed but always learn.