Sunday, September 30, 2012

Play Again

Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine (1981 best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner) tells the story of a team of engineers at Data General who design and build a new minicomputer to compete with rival Digital Equipment Corporation's VAX, a product that threatens to put Data General out of business. As the book opens, the "sexy" project of designing the next-generation machine that will save the company (code-named "Fountainhead") has been assigned to a group of engineers in North Carolina, outside the Data General mainstream. The few senior engineers left at the corporate headquarters in Massachusetts have been given the "unsexy" task of maintaining existing products.

Angry that the task of creating the new machine has been given to an outside team, the leader of the Massachusetts group, Tom West creates a skunkworks project (code-named "Eagle") to provide a backup should Fountainhead fail. (Skunkworks are projects conducted by small, underfunded teams who, due to time and budget constraints, must work in unconventional ways to get done on time. Oftentimes the skunkwork is off-the-books, outside-of-hours work performed on the engineer's personal time.)

West indeed does the unconventional. His designers are kids fresh out of college who've never done anything so complex. His technologies are novrl and untried. To make up for lost time and limited budget, the team spends every waking moment designing, building and debugging the new system.

Eventually, Eagle displaces Fountainhead as the company's sole hope of catching DEC.

The story takes place before the Internet boom made millionaires of hundreds if not thousands of techies. It takes place before the IBM PC or the Macintosh were invented. The engineers are not promised bonuses or stock-options for delivering the project on time. They are not threatened with demotion or dismissal should they fail. So the question arises: what drives them to work so hard for so long?

When asked this, West replies that it's like pinball. (Yes, the story takes place prior to the existence of Wii or XBOX.) If you win this round, you get to play the game again.

How much of what you do is like pinball?

Happy Sunday,
Teflon

Friday, September 28, 2012

Staying Motivated

A common challenge facing us humans is that of staying motivated in the absence of external forces to do so.

Now, we're not born hypo-motivated. We start out hyper-motivated with wonderful internal motivators such as curiosity and delight. However, over time, these are inexorably displaced by external motivators such as "have to" and "or else."

As mid-teens we select topics of study based on earning potential; the choice of colleges and degree programs comes down to securing one's future, not pursuing one's passion. The path from intrinsic to extrinsic motivators is the path to maturity; we leave behind selfish, childish motivators and acquire responsible, adult motivators.

It's no wonder that we find it difficult to stay motivated in the absence external forces. As adults we never start with intrinsic motivation, so there's nothing to maintain. You lose weight to fit into that wedding dress. You learn to play songs for an upcoming performance. You mow the lawn because of what the neighbors might think if you didn't. You show up at the parent-teacher meeting because you should or to be perceived as a good parent. You write that term paper just days before it's due. You find a personal trainer because the doctor says, "or else."

As a mature adult you bow to the external motivators without question, at least without questions voiced too loudly. Perhaps something inside says, "Is this all there is?"  You do your best to ignore it.

By the time you retire, your daily motivation comes down to the question "where should we get dinner tonight?"

Sound familiar? Don't you fret! You have the power to change everything.  If you've lost the ability to sustain intrinsic motivation outside of say, for sleeping or eating, the first step is to actually become motivated in the first place (otherwise, there's nothing to maintain). Even if it's been so long you can't remember anything that motivated you instrinsically, you can do it.

I Wonder...
The easiest motivator to discover is curiosity. It's easy because, all you have to do is pursue questions that begin with the phrase: I wonder.

I wonder how... I wonder why... I wonder what would happen if...

If you haven't asked yourself an I-wonder question in a while or find it difficult, just listen to your kids. Follow some of their I-wonder questions to the next step. And then the next one. And then the next one.

Curiosity is easy to maintain. All you have to do is pursue I-wonder to the next step and low-and-behold, you'll find another I-wonder.

Delightful
By far, the easiest motivator to sustain is delight.

To take delight in anything begins with savoring it, slowing down the experience so that all your senses have time to engage and take it in. By savoring, you can learn to take delight in almost anything. Driving to work. Waiting in the doctor's office. Working out at the gym. Preparing your tax returns.

Really, you can.

The key is to fully engage all your senses. Before turning the ignition key, take time to adjust your seat and mirrors. Let yourself sink into the seat as you relax your shoulders. Close your eyes and listen as the engine turns over and purrs. Adjust the temperature or roll down the windows.  If it's smudged or dirty, take time to clean the windshield. Run back into the house and grab that new CD you've been wanting to listen to. Make the time in your car delightful.

See
Curiosity and delight are great motivators because they're immediate and they're intrinsic to the activity. They're necessary to sustained motivation, but they're not always sufficient, at least not initially. Sometimes you need more. A powerful motivator is vision.

Having a vivid and inspiring vision of where you want to go or who you want to become is powerful; however, it can get a bit tricky to manage because it's subject to the vagaries of belief. If you steadfastly believe in your ability to attain your vision, then go for it. However, if your belief in that ability waivers and you place to much weight on the strength of your vision, your motivation can topple.

Assuming that your belief systems are well in tact, then the strength of your vision as a motivator is directly proportional to the audacity of it. If you want to learn to play the piano and would love to perform, then envision yourself on an international tour playing for packed houses everywhere you go. If you want to start a business, then envision one that is so successful that you have the wherewithal to start other business. If you want to lose weight, then envision yourself in such great shape that you can't wait to throw off your wrap and run down the beach into the sea.

In times where delight and curiosity just aren't working for you, your vision (emphasis on the word "your") can make all the difference.

Celebrate
Although you don't want to become dependent upon progress and goal achievement to stay motivated, it can be really useful take time to celebrate how far you've come. If you pursue something with the consistency of someone with intrinsic motivation, you can't help but make progress. Unfortunately, a side-effect of daily pursuit is that you often don't get to fully appreciate it; each step seems so tiny.

It's important to step back and take time to appreciate all the progress you've made. An easy way to do this is to periodically take snapshots of where you are. A snapshot can be a note in your calendar recording how much or how long or how well or what you did. It can be a photo or a measurement or a audio recording or a video. However you create your snapshots, each one will become a benchmark of progress.

Every so often, pull out your snapshots and take time to savor how far you've come.

Are You Motivated?
In the end, intrinsic motivation is a skill like any other. It can be developed or ignored. It can grow or shrink. It may seem that some people are just innately more intrinsically motivated than others; they're not.

Anyone can become intrinsically motivated.

How motivated are you do so?

Happy Friday,
Teflon

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mistaken

The great thing about learning from my mistakes is that I have so many great teachers. I mean, shoot, I might have more than anyone I know.  Or perhaps... hmm... maybe I'm just more aware of them as such. After all, we all make mistakes, right?

Thing is that most of us see a mistake as a bad thing and therefor miss the teacher within. It's a reasonable way to think. After all, by the time we begin to toddle, people teach us that mistake = bad. Sometimes we're taught overtly, e.g., when your dad says, "well that was a dumb-ass thing to do." Sometimes we're taught covertly, e.g., when a well-meaning teacher, trying to be encouraging, overlooks your mistake or feigns not having seen it.

In either case, we get the message (or at least a message). In the former, it's pretty clear and easy to identify: Don't try that again.

In the latter, it's garbled. You know something wasn't quite right, but you're not sure what. The person who seems to know what's going on says, "good job" or "good try", but doesn't point out anything that you did incorrectly. So you assume that what you're doing must be right or that it's so wrong they've given up on you. The words and actions don't resonate with your own sensibilities.

In either case, you come to the conclusion that something is wrong with what you did. Further, no one is pointing out specifically how to learn from it, I mean, other than, "don't try that again."

It's All Good
I gotta say that the first step in learning from mistakes is to start by judging them as good.

Yup, judge them as G-O-O-D, good. It's not enough to "not judge" them as bad. Not-judging only masks a judgment; it doesn't replace it. Nope, the key to learning from mistakes is to judge them positively. Only then can you take full advantage of the learning opportunity.

You might think, "Well, if I don't judge the mistake as bad, what's to keep me from doing it again or making even more mistakes?"

First of all, judging a mistake as "bad" doesn't provide a lock on not doing it again. You may go into mistake-denial and try not to see it as a mistake or you may avoid working to correct it because each time you think about it you get all anxious or queazy. Second, judging it as good let's you see it as it is: a missed note, an overlooked calculation, a too-high cooking temperature, or an overworked triceps muscle. It's not a blight on your reputation or a negative mark on your permanent record. It doesn't mean that you suck or that you'll never get it. It's just a mistake.

That's the starting point. The next is the critical test of your positive judgment. Slowly review what you did with clarity and specificity. Record your rehearsal and then listen to the recording with no reverb, no pitch correction and no time correction. Take a bite of that meatloaf without ketchup, tabasco or mayonaise. Look at yourself naked in the mirror with all the lights on.

The Cringe Factor
If you find yourself cringing, then guess what? That negative judgement that you replaced with a positive one: it's back! Fact is, you're likely not going to replace the negative with the positive in the abstract. You'll only get there by deciding to judge positively whatever you've done, and then practicing judging it positively by looking at it straight-on with no filters until there's not an inkling of cringe.

Once you've done that (it may take a bit of practice and you may end up working though all sorts of issues you never knew about or acknowledged), you'll find that you have wonderful teachers lurking around pretty much everything you do. I know I do.

The crazy part is that it's the people who are most self-assured and confident that are most open to seeing their mistakes. Someone who thinks that whatever she does is great (really thinks it, not feigns it or hides behind it) sees her mistakes before someone who thinks that everything she does is awful. Go figure.

Of course, there's an alternative to learning from your mistakes. Never try anything you don't already know how to do well and surround yourself with people who can't tell the difference or would never point it out. But hey, what fun would that be.

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Type X and Type I

I have been reading a book called "Drive", by Daniel Pink. I had come across another one of his books earlier this year, and found it very interesting. Among the changes I made as a result of that book: I submitted an entry to a t-shirt design competition at work, designed a template for communications on one of my projects, and wrote to a flosser manufacturer when their product didn't work as described. So when I looked up Pink's next book, and checked it out of the library, what I found was another fascinating account - of motivation. His thesis, which he spells out only after going through a large volume of related research on this topic, is that after Motivation 1.0 (basic biological urges) and Motivation 2.0 (rewards and punishments), it is time to develop and deploy a third model of human motivation, Motivation 3.0, which taps into the innate human tendency to enjoy and excel in our endeavors. Mirroring the Type A and Type B terminology used to describe personalities, he proposes Type X (extrinsic) and Type I (intrinsic) categories of motivation, and examines in great depth how each works in different fields and kinds of work.

My personal interest in this comes from parenting. In the last few years, as my two boys have reached 'tween-age', and as questions of homework and chores and "inappropriate" behavior pop up like so many tropical storms in a year-round hurricane season, I've found myself profoundly dissatisfied with the usual rewards-and-consequences system of raising kids. Especially with 'consequences', the thinly-disguised word for punishments, which I found to have almost no redeeming value the way it is commonly implemented. So when I read "Drive", I found plenty of support for a more enlightened and nuanced view of human motivations.

I haven't quite digested the book completely, given the hit-and-run style of reading that I've employed with it so far, but I thought I'd share some tidbits from it here. Most of these are studies (psychology departments in universities around the world seem to have money to study the darndest things), and while I have my own reservations about the whole topic of controlled studies, I'm taking them at face value for now.

1. The study that started it all (though it was ignored for quite a while at first, due to findings that were contrary to established thinking at the time, a few decades ago): two groups of people were given a set of puzzles to solve, in three daily sessions. Conditions were identical for both, except that Group 1 was given a monetary reward just on Day 2. The result: their motivation dropped on Day 3. This was the first time a study found that giving money as an external reward reduces intrinsic motivation for a task.
2. A similar result, this time with preschool students who liked to draw. They were divided into three groups: one promised a reward upfront (Pink calls it the 'if-then' reward), one given an unexpected reward at the end of the activity (the 'now-that' reward) and the third group given no reward. The experiment observed that interest in drawing after the experiment dropped in both the first two groups.
3. Another similar experiment, this time with IT workers in Madurai, India. Three groups were given puzzles to solve, with rewards of 4, 40 and 400 rupees. The group given the 400-rupee reward performed the worst.
4. An Israeli day-care center imposed fines on people arriving late to pick up their kids. Late-comer rates almost doubled after this change.
5. A small 22-person company called Meddius instituted a ROWE experiment: Results-Oriented Work Environment. Employees were only expected to produce results, and all expectations on methods were removed - no work hours, etc. The experiment was so successful that the company instituted it permanently.
6. Pessimists are proven to be worse than optimists at all professions except law.
7. The book also makes a distinction between Performance goals and Learning goals, and how they influence productivity, happiness and persistence.

There's a whole chapter specifically for parents and educators on how to awaken the intrinsic motivation in children. I'm looking forward to implementing those tips at home. There's nothing as satisfying and inspiring as seeing someone taking a genuine interest in a subject and directing their own learning, and nothing as dispiriting as having to constantly monitor and pester and harass someone to ensure task completion.

I would love to hear other experiences and tips on this.
Sree

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why You Don't Achieve Your Goals

Lately I've been hearing a theme that seems to be gaining popularity. It shows up in all kinds of situations. It's shared by all types of people. The theme is: I really want to... but...

Whenever I hear it, my first thought is: "Uh... actually, you don't." 

It's my first response to me whenever I hear myself drifting along the same theme. It's a highly-compressed phrase full of logical sequences that provides me with great economy. It helps me efficiently sidestep the distraction of "I really want to, but" and get down to what's really going on.

Unfortunately, it's a phrase that's lost on others who haven't worked through the process that takes you to another phrase: You can tell what someone values most by what she does, not by what she says. (This is includes you).

Who's First
In the end it's a matter of priority. We do the things that are most important to us. Those are the things we really want. However, it may not seem that way at the time. For example, the thing you want most may be only be indirectly related to your current activity. You may hate your job, but really want the paycheck. You may not particularly care about the paycheck, but really want a nice house. You might not even like your nice house, but like what others think about it. You might not like the others who think about it, but you like someone who does.

The thread can roll on and on until you finally unravel the knot and get to what it is you really want. So sure, the current distraction may not be what you want. However, it's tied to something that you do want, something you want more than "what I really want."

Problem is, we tend never to tug long enough on the thread to get to what's keeping us from what we want. Sometimes we don't tug at all.

Why? Because we feel badly about not achieving or having achieved what say we really want. We feel guilty. We feel as though we've failed. So we give ourselves relief by deciding our not achieving was unavoidable. "It' not my fault. I really wanted to, but..."

Here's another phrase that goes over really well: Of course it's your fault. 

Judge Not
You're in your situation because of choices you've made and (more importantly) are making. If you react defensively to this, you never realize that its being your fault is good news. If your not getting what you want is a result of something that you did or are doing, then you have the power to change it. If you were truly a victim of circumstance, then there'd be little you could do. But you're not, at least never completely.

So the first step to achieving what you want is to put yourself on the hook for not having done so, to say out loud: "No one is to blame for this but me. It's all my fault." 

Stretch out the ALL MY FAULT part, take a deep breath and then say, "Therefore, there's no one better to fix it than me!"

If you say it with clarity and conviction, it'll feel really good. If not, try it again until you do.

The key is to stop judging yourself. It's OK that it's your fault. It's downright empowering. 
If you stop judging yourself and fully accept that it's your fault, then two things will happen. First, you'll no longer hear judgment in the voices of others who ask you about how that project is going. Second, you'll be free to explore paths to success that can actually be followed.

For Example
Let's say that every time you find a free moment to work on your goal, your partner decides it's time to talk. You sigh. You stop what you're doing. You talk. Your time evaporates. 

Who stopped you? Why? What was the most important thing for you at the time?

You might say that it's your partner who stopped you, that he interrupts you and won't let you work. Even if he does interrupt you, how you respond is up to you. Even making yourself available to interruption is up to you. You're a smart person. You can see that. Therefore, there must be a reason that you do make yourself available to interruption. What is it? There must be a reason you don't nip the interruption in the bud. Why don't you?

Let's say that you've reached a point where you feel overwhelmed by all that's required to get to your goal. You just can't deal with it. So you stop. 

Who stopped you? Why? What was the most important thing for at the time?

You might say that the overwhelmed-ness stopped you as if it came upon you like a storm on a ship at sea. You might feel powerless to do anything abou it. However, getting overwhelmed isn't simply an involuntary response to being around things you can't figure out. We're all surrounded by them daily. Instead, it must result from some significance you attach to the specific set of things that are overwhelming you. What are the attachments? Why are they there?

I Believe?
In the end, it all comes down to belief. You respond to your partner as you do because of what you believe would happen if you did not. You get overwhelmed because of beliefs you have about failing. Oftentimes, when you finally dig down to the belief and ask yourself, "Do I really think that?", the answer is "No!"

However, you can't get to the belief until you decide, "It's my fault and no one else's fault. There's obviously something I want more than what I'm saying I want."

So, next time you hear yourself saying, "I really want to... but...", tell yourself, "Actually, you don't!"

Happy Friday,
Teflon

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Just Another Minute

Something just within my field of view catches my attention. It's a handbag dangling from a shoulder strap.

My eyes follow the strap up to the shoulder and then to the face of the shoulder's owner.

It's Iris.

I'm not sure how long she's been standing there.

She dangles her car keys before my eyes.

Oh yeah, we're supposed to be on our way to dinner.

"Uhh...  just another minute", I say. "By the way, what time is it?"

"8:30."

"Oh. Umm... OK. Yeah, I guess that's more than a minute past 7:00."

"Yup."

"Umm... but...  OK, let's go."

We head out the door, my mind still running diagnostics on why the app isn't performing as fast as I think it should.

"Oh", I think. "I know what it is!"

Even as my mind races me back through the door to my desk, my body refuses to go with it, steadfastly maintaining a pace behind Iris as we walk out the driveway to the car.

Just one more minute. Just one more try.

Over the years, Iris and I have learned how to interpret one another. I've learned the subtle differences among, uh-huh (I get it), uh-huh (I only appear to be listening) and uh-huh (would you please stop talking). Iris has learned what "just another minute" means. Even though the words are the same, she can tell whether it means ten seconds, sixty seconds or thirty-six-hundred seconds.

Yup, if you pay attention, you get to know each other.

It's a good thing. Iris' ability to interpret "just another minute" means that she's rarely sitting around waiting for me. Mine to interpret "uh-huh" means that I'm never surprised when Iris fails to do what she ostensibly agreed to.

Of course, either of us could work to change how we communicate. Iris could just say, "got it" or "I'm not listening" or "go away!"   I could provide better estimates.

However, there something quite functional in how we express ourselves that would be lost if we were to do so differently.  For example, I think that "just another minute" may be the key to my seemingly endless persistence.  Regardless of how long something ends up taking, I always have the sense that the answer is just around the corner. If I take just one more step, give it just one more try, I'll get there.

My actual performance doesn't even remotely resemble this belief. However, my experience of working on a challenging problem does. I never feel like, "Shit, I've been working on this for hours and haven't gotten anywhere."  The answer's never been more than a step away.

To drop that and try to provide an accurate time-estimate would pretty much undermine the attitudinal advantage I get from everything being just another minute away.  So, I'm pretty sure that I won't be changing that soon.

Fortunately, Iris knows how to interpret. So, it's all good.

Happy Thursday,

Teflon

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Regarding Just Saying, Sree posted the following...
This topic is beyond fascinating, Tef; thanks for bringing it up. A couple of quick responses:
  1. There are often times when I notice people being inconsistent (between what they say and what they do). That certainly sticks out for me, but I don't always point them out, 'cause I know there are only certain windows of opportunity when people are open to listening, let alone making any changes.

    I might mentally catalog them for future discussion, but I realize clearly that of all the things I want to do with others (tell, ask, discuss, request change, etc), I'm only going to get around to doing a small fraction, so my main mental background calculation is "where does this rank?"
  2. The Golden rule: I think it's a significant step up from "I'll do whatever the heck I like", but I find it can lead us to assume that others like what we like, or work the way we work. I've come across a third axiom, sometimes known as the Platinum Rule, which says "do unto others as they would have done unto them". I kinda like that the best, because it encourages me the most to put myself in the other person's shoes.
I've been thinking a lot about both of Sree's points since I saw them yesterday, because not only are they fascinating to me, but they're also quite pertinent to what I'm working through for myself.

A Matter of Degree
The first thought was one of clarification; I don't point out every inconsistency that I see (who'd have the time). There would seem to be three criteria that combine to define a point-out-able inconsistency.

  1. The degree of inconsistency
  2. The significance that the inconsistent person has ascribed to the factors of inconsistency
  3. How much the inconsistency affects me

Although you might think that the first one would carry a lot of weight, it probably has the least influence on me. People can be crazy inconsistent and I won't say a thing. However, if someone's crazy inconsistent and that inconsistency is prohibiting them from getting what they say they want, then I'll point it out. Similarly, if that inconsistency is getting in the way of me getting what I want, I'll point it out.

So it's never inconsistency for its own sake (unless we're just goofing around); instead, it's the impact of the inconsistency that matters to me. The greater the impact, the more likely it is that I'll say something.

Ready or Not
I like the idea of mentally cataloging something you want to say and then bringing it up when a person is ready to hear it. I like it at least in theory; I've just never seen it actually work.

There are several practical problems with this approach, foremost being that the something never gets brought up. We forget about it. We convince ourselves that it wasn't all that important anyway. We decide that the person simply isn't open to hearing about it or wouldn't change. We mull and bury it. We talk to someone other than the subject of our not-saying. All these are effective techniques commonly used to avoid getting around to it.

The second problem is one of distortion. The further away we get from any event, the more distorted it becomes. The remembered event changes for both ourselves and the people with whom we're waiting to speak. The discussion of something obvious in the moment shifts to whether or not it even occurred. We never get to the effect of the inconsistency because we get caught up in proving its existence.

The third problem is one of waxy build up. This is not an issue for inconsistencies that have no effect. However, if an inconsistency has significant effect and you don't discuss it, well, it has to go somewhere. Some people bury it. Some people gossip. Some people just get angry. Before you know it, you've got all sorts of issues with someone that go back to your never having talked about the source of those issues. Suddenly the timing is no longer determined by the availability of the listener, but instead but the inability to the speaker to hold it in any longer.

The fourth problem is knowing when a good time is. It's quite easy to decide when not-a-good-time is; we do that all the time. However, I'd wager that 90% of the get-around-to-it discussions never find a good time.

So, not having solved these myself, I opt for just saying what I'm thinking and being done with it.

Golden, Platinum or Lead
Sree, I love the Platinum Rule concept. I think it's always useful to put oneself in the shoes of another. I just have some practical concerns about how to implement it. The first is the question of whose shoes to wear: the current person or the future person?

The current person may be defensive and closed; she may want nothing to do with your observations and insights. However, the same person with the perspective of your observations and insights (whether gained through personal experience or from someone pointing them out) may be grateful for them. Which person do you consider when applying the rule?

Certainly with our kids, we teach things for which they see no reason in the moment. Sometimes they get downright rebellious. However, many of those unwanted teachings become a godsend at some later date. Sure, it's easy for this to get out of hand. You see it all the time when a parent wants his child to be this and the child wants to be that.  However, there are times when understanding the reason for learning something only can occur after you've learned it.  Unto which other are do you do.

The crazy part is that those who've benefited from experience often know better what someone would want than the someone. It only gets acknowledged after the fact.

Even then, it's all a guessing game. You never "know" what someone else would have, but you can become a good guesser. I imagine that's why I stick with the topics that the other person has defined as important or the ones that affect me. I avoid assuming that something is important to someone or good for someone just because it would be good for me.

Of course, you can always just ask, "Hey, I just had an insight and I'd like to share it with you if you want?"

Still, the answer would be from the current person. Hmm... I guess that, for me, the Platinum Rule is an ideal, but difficult to effect.

Hmm...
What about you guys?

  • Do you say what's on your mind in the moment or do you wait for the right time? 
  • How do you decide what to say and what to delay? 
  • What's your hit rate on getting around to that thing you meant to say?
  • What's your code of conduct for interaction? Is it golden, platinum or something else?
  • How do you decide what someone else would want for themselves?
  • Which them do you consider, current, past or future?


Happy Tuesday,
Teflon

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hitting the High Notes

I was born to play the sax.

No question about it.

Well, maybe one.

It's one that's baffled me for years, one that I've tried to ignore, one to which I've applied my not insignificant powers of denial.

At ten, just weeks after coming home from school with my new Conn student model tenor sax, I was flying up and down the chromatic scale and playing by ear the melodies for all the top-ten songs being played on WLS in Chicago. By twelve, I was the first chair in the junior high band and playing college level classical repertoire.

By freshman year of high school, I'd campaigned to get the band director to start an after school big band. My parents had traded in my Conn for a Selmer Mark VI and I'd developed "a sound", the mark of sax-maturity. The band director took full advantage of this and started featuring me in most of the songs we played.

One day, he showed up with a new arrangement of Jimmy Webb's MacArthur Park, one that was basically a tenor sax solo with big band accompaniment. He called the band to order and dropped the needle on the record that came with the arrangement. As we listened, I thought, "Hmm... I can do this. Shoot, I think I might have an even better sound than the guy on the record."

Then came the big build up to the high point in the song. I listed off the notes in my head as the melody line rose.

A high D# (No problem).

A high E (Just remember the alternate fingering to keep it in tune).

A high F# (Not a standard note, but I've been doing that since I was twelve).

A high G (Uh-oh, I can only get them sometimes).

And then the big finish: a high A (Oh no, I've never been able to play one of those.)

My face must have shown my consternation because the band director said, "What's wrong Tumo, I thought you'd love this."

"I do."

"Then why you looking like that."

"Uh, well, it's got a high A in it."

"Sure, that should be easy for you."

"Uh huh."

"Don't worry about it. You'll get it."

"Uh huh."

Well, long-story short, try as I did, I couldn't hit the high A. I went to the library to find books on alternate fingerings. I ordered a lesson book on hitting high notes on saxophone. I asked my teacher and other sax players who seemed to have no problem with it. Yet for the entire year, ever time we played that section of MacArthur park with the big build, I had to drop it down an octave so that I could hit the last note.

It kind of sucked.

Forty years later, I still can never get above the G, at least not consistently. I've googled and read. I tried numerous approaches. I changed reeds. I changed mouth pieces. I've changed saxophones. Nothing worked, at least, nothing until last night.

Last night I tried something different. Rather than trying things I'd read or been taught, I simply thought about it. I've been playing around with trumpet lately. The trumpet only has seven finger combinations. So, you have to use the same fingerings to play multiple notes. The notes are defined by the harmonic series based on the fundamental note for the given finger position.

It occurred to me that the sax's high notes (or false notes, as they're sometimes called), must be hidden somewhere in the harmonic series of the fundamental notes.

Since the first octave of the sax includes all the fundamentals and the second octave includes all the first harmonics, it would make sense that the third non-existent octave would be based on the second harmonic of the overtone series.

The harmonic series starts with a fundamental note and then a set of overtones. The first overtone or harmonic is an octave above the fundamental; the second is an octave plus a perfect fifth above the fundamental. So for a D, the first harmonic is the D an octave up and the second is the A an octave above that.

Hmm... it seems all wrong to close most of the keys to get a high note, but nothing else has worked. I might as well give it a shot.

Guess what. Not only did it work. It was easy, like really, really easy.

Forty years of trying to do it hadn't worked, not matter how hard or long I practiced. You think I might have clued into the fact that maybe it was how I was doing it, not how hard I worked it. Thing is that I was doing it the way I'd been taught to do it and I assumed that it was right.

Now I've got not only my high A, but I can go all the way to the A above that. Who knew?

Maybe there's something you've been trying to do and you've been working really hard at it, but it's just not coming. Maybe it's something you've been doing just as you were taught. Maybe it's something you gave up on. Maybe it's time to think about it differently.

Happy Monday,
Teflon

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Just Saying

My daughter Eila texts me after reading yesterday's post, Silly Arguments, pointing out several issues she has with it.

I text her addressing a couple of them.

She texts me.

I start to text her and then just press dial.

"Hi dad."

"Hi Eila."

We talk. Eila explains. I listen. I explain. Eila listens.

Paraphrasing Eila's perspective, it all comes down to two or three things. First, people often don't say what they mean, get used to it. Second, what makes me think I have to point out every time someone is inconsistent in word and deed? Third, why do I have to be so negative?

Again, that's paraphrasing what I picked up on. For all you know, Eila said something completely different. However, forgetting for a moment whether or not Eila actually said those words, I've been thinking about them as though she had and what followed in our discussion.

The first thing (that people often don't say what they mean or are thinking) was something that we both agreed upon. It was the "get used to it part" that I wasn't yet ready to do. It's not that I can't see the benefits of that approach. It would certainly lead to less, um, excitement.

As Eila and I talk, it occurs to me that I wouldn't want someone to do that with me, i.e., get used to it. I would want them to point out when my words and actions didn't gibe.

I mention this to Eila and then think aloud of people whom no one ever takes seriously because they've got used to them. Whenever he talks about his newest plan, they just roll their eyes, never saying anything (at least not to him).

Eila agrees (I think) that at least for her, she'd prefer someone just tell her.

It might be an artifact of my early childhood being strongly influenced by Southern Baptist doctrine, but there's this teaching of Jesus that I've had a hard time shaking. It's referred to as "The Golden Rule". It says, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Anyway, since I'd prefer someone point out my inconsistency...

OK, but what about the negativity part, i.e., judging. Eila points out, "Just because someone is watching TV every night instead of doing this or that, doesn't mean that they don't really want to do or don't care about it."

I agree.

She points out that I don't agree.

I say, "I agree that it doesn't mean they don't care. It just means that their actions are inconsistent with achieving what they say they really want. Instead, their actions are consistent with someone who really wants to watch TV every night."

Eila says, "But you don't know if they're just lazy or they don't care or they're overwhelmed or they feel that they just can't do it."

I say, "I agree. All I know is that their actions are inconsistent with their stated intentions. It's not a good or bad thing, just an inconsistency."

Eila says, "OK, but why do you feel like you have to point it out?"

I say, "I don't. It's just that I would want someone to do it with me."

As I think about it, there's more to it than the Golden Rule. When you really want to accomplish something and your actions are inconsistent with doing so, then seeing the inconsistency for what it is (an inconsistency) can be the beginning of overcoming it.

For example, over the years I've known dozens of people who wanted to leave corporate life and start their own businesses, none of whom ever did. It always came down to one thing: being overwhelmed. It turns out that the constraints and limits imposed by their employers also served to provide structure that offered a sense of safe haven. In the absence of that structure, they would quickly become overwhelmed.

However, you never hear them say that, at least not right away. Instead, you see them doing things inconsistent with "really, really" wanting to start a business. The inconsistency is all the evidence you have. So, you start with the evidence you have and explore trying to get to "why?"

If someone has no self-judgment, it's a quick trip. However, if they judge themselves for not doing all they can to start their business, then pointing out an inconsistency is like leveling an accusation. They get defensive. They feel hurt.

Rather than quickly arriving at, "Look, I'm overwhelmed and don't know where to start", you go round and round. The funny thing is that getting overwhelmed is par for the course. Of course you get overwhelmed, that's OK. You don't have to fix being overwhelmed, just keep working and it will take care of itself.

So, from my perspective, there's nothing wrong, nothing to judge. However, talking with Eila, I can see how someone might take it that way. I guess that's up to them. Nonetheless, I think I'll work on doing a better job explaining why I point out inconsistencies.

Eila says, "But what if someone doesn't want to hear about it?"

I say, "Then they can just tell me. There are things that you've told me that you don't want to hear about, right?"

"Yeah."

"And have I brought them up?"

"No."

I learned a lot talking with Eila.  She's one of those amazing people who can strongly defend an opinion while being completely open to others. She's way better at it than I am.

Do you notice when people are inconsistent? What do you do?

Happy Saturday,
Teflon

Friday, September 14, 2012

Silly Arguments

I seem to get into arguments over the silliest things. It's not the topic of the argument that is silly, but the nature of the argument.

Someone says something, that is wrong by definition or simply self-contradictory.

I point it out.

Rather than considering my point and saying, "Hmm... good point", he gets defensive.

I try to explain that my only point is that he contradicted himself or said something that was definitionally wrong.

He takes my attempt to explain as an assault and digs into his completely indefensible position.

I try different angles of explanation moving from pure logic to metaphor.

He takes one of my metaphors literally and all hell breaks loose.

You see, it's silly. Yet, I'm not sure what to do. I know, there are the obvious things to do like "Don't pay attention to what people say" or "Shut up", but, I don't know...

You know, like when someone says that she's passionate about something, but just can't get herself up for doing it. That's kind of silly, right.  I mean, if you're passionate about something, then the problem is how to get yourself to stop doing it, not start.

Or when someone says something like, "I AM NOT being argumentative."

Or when someone says something like, "I just don't have the time for that", but he still has time to watch TV.

Perhaps it's that my arguments are too specific. Take the time-burdened TV watcher for example. I don't particularly care whether or not he pursues the thing for which he has no time. I don't particularly care whether or not he has time. In his case, my only point is that his challenge is priority, not time. It's nothing more than that. I don't even care that he changes his priority from TV watching to pursuit of his goal.

However, I'm starting to think that he makes it more than that, that he's certain I have an ulterior motive or that I mean more than I'm saying. But I don't.

The ones that always get me are prefixed by, "I really want..." or "I really wish..."

I fall for them every time. I was talking to my friend Mickey about this the other day.

It all started a few months earlier when, one morning at Fuel, Mickey explained to me that he started playing bass guitar years ago and that he'd love to learn to play again. I thought, "Hmm..." and a few days later walked into fuel with a new bass guitar that I gave to Mickey. Then for several weeks following, I offered to give him a bass lesson.

So the other day, Mickey explains to me that not everyone really wants to do what they say they really, really wish they could do.

I understand what he means, but I don't get it.

So, for now, I end up in silly arguments.

Happy Friday,
Teflon

Thursday, September 13, 2012

10 Things

The other day, a friend posted on Facebook a set of quotes from Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  The title of the posting was, "10 Things That You Must Give Up to Move Forward."

As I read the post, I really liked the ideas and, although I'm not on board with all of the, wanted to share them with you. Since, I'm a big fan of moving towards the new rather than away from the old, my first thought was to rephrase the post into "10 Things That You Must Adopt to Move Forward". However, there are times when looking at what you don't want can lead to greater clarity and efficiency. 

Of course, I added a few sub-points of my own (identified with an asterisk). So, here we go...

Ten Things
You Must Give Up
To Move Forward

#1 Letting the opinions of others control your life.
- It's not what others thing, but what you think about yourself that counts.
- You have to do exactly what's best for you and your life, not what's best for everyone else.
- It may surprise you to find that doing what's best for you is actually what's best for everyone.

#2 The shame of past failures
- Your past does not equal your future.
- All that matters is what you do now.
* You are not your past.
* If you never fail, then you must not be trying very hard or doing much.

#3 Being indecisive about what you want
- You will never leave where you are until you decide where you would rather be
- Make a decision to figure out what you want, and then pursue it passionately
* If you find it difficult to pursue it passionately, it's probably not what you want

#4 Procrastinating on the goals that matter to you
- There are two primary choices in life: 
     a) to accept conditions as they are, or
     b) to accept responsibility for changing them.
- The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is now.

#5 Choosing to do nothing
- You don't get to choose how you are going to die or when.
- You can only choose how you are going to live right now.
- Every day is a new chance to choose.
* There are very few choices that can't be undone or changed.
* Every moment is a chance to choose again.

#6 Your need to be right
- Aim for success, but never give up on your right to be wrong.
- Needing to be right compromises your ability to learn new things and move forward with your life.
* Any time you do something truly new, you're going to get it wrong (at least the first few times).

#7 Running from problems that should be fixed
- Stop running!
- Face these issues, fix the problems, communicate, appreciate and forgive.
- LOVE the people in your life who deserve it.
* Lose the concept of blame.
* LOVE the people who don't deserve it.

#8 Making excuses rather than decisions
- Most long-term failures are the outcome of people making excuses instead of decisions.
* Next time you find yourself answering a question with an excuse, just stop it.
* Next time you find yourself excusing the fact that you were answering a question with an excuse...

#9 Overlooking the positive points in your life
- What you see and don't see depends entirely on what you're looking to find.
- You will have a hard time ever being happy if you can't be thankful right now.
* There are always things for which you can be thankful.
* Gratitude is a skill that can be developed with practice.
* People skilled at gratitude tend to be happy.

#10 Not appreciating the present moment
- Too often we get so caught up in accomplishing something big we fail to notice the little things.
- Almost all your life is made up of little things.
* You know what they call all that time spent between destinations? Your life.

Happy Thursday,
Teflon

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Did You Try?

You tried?

Yeah, I tried.

Just how hard did you try?

I tried really, really hard.

Really hard, huh?

Yeah, like really, really hard.

Really hard like you nearly died because you forgot to rest and eat or really hard like you almost missed Top Model?

Uh... well, somewhere in between I guess. I mean... I almost almost missed Top Model.

Mmm... hmm...

What's that mean?

Mmm... hmm?

Yeah, what's 'mmm... hmm...' mean?

I guess it means that I don't think you tried.

But I did.

Perhaps by your definition, but not by mine.

Oh, so you're saying there are different definitions of try?

Yeah, I think I just said that.

Well, who left you in charge of coming up with definitions for words.

I guess I could be asking you the same thing.

What do you mean?

Well, from my perspective, it's you who has redefined the word 'try', not me.

No I didn't, I...  what do you mean?

Well, you say you tried it. In fact, you say you tried really, really hard.  Yet, I don't think that you would consider what you did trying really hard if you were to observe someone else doing exactly as you did.

But I did try... hmm... OK Mr. Know-It-All, how would you define "trying really, really hard?"

Forget a moment about the 'really, really hard' part. Let's just talk about the 'try' part.

Okay by me.

First, to try something starts with intention. You have to intend to be successful in order to try. In fact, to truly try, you must have 100% of your intention wrapped up in succeeding. If there's any part of you that wants to fail, then you haven't tried.

Well if that's how you define it, then, OK, I didn't "truly" try because I was hoping that it wouldn't work so that I could get it over with and watch Top Model.

For the moment, let's say that you did fully intend to succeed.  Then the second part is to fully believe that your intentions will work out. You have to intend to succeed and you have to believe you can.

Hmm... That's kind of interesting because, now that you mention it, I probably didn't intend to succeed because I didn't think it would work anyway. May you have to reverse steps one and two.

That could be. Let's go with that. First, you believe you can: second, you intend to: and third, you put in consistent focused effort over time.

What's that mean.

Well, all five words matter: consistent, focused, effort and over time. To try, you have to work at something every day for at least ten to twenty minutes. The amount of time may very, and you might miss a day here and there, but you get the idea.

Check. Ten to twenty minutes daily.

That's the consistent part. You also have pay attention when you do it. If you're distracted or watching TV, then it doesn't count. That's the focused part.

Check. Ten to twenty minutes daily without distractions or TV.

Next comes the effort part. You have to translate what you want to accomplish into exercises that you can do over and again. Then you have to do them over and again.

Check. Ten to twenty minutes daily without distraction or TV repeatedly doing the exercises.

And paying attention.

OK, and paying attention.

The last part is the 'over time' part. It doesn't count as trying until you've done all that for weeks or even months.

It doesn't?

Nope.

So you're saying that in order to qualify as "trying", I have to do exercises for ten-to-twenty minutes a day without any distractions or television, that I have to pay attention to what I'm actually doing, and that I have to do it for weeks or even months?

Yup.

Then I'm sure glad that you're not the one defining "try".

--------

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Where Trust Begins

I call it "Logan Lifts". It's a form of exercise I developed with my grandson Logan.

What's a Logan lift?

It's quite simple, really.

You and Logan stand facing one another about a foot apart. Logan lifts his hands to sky. You reach down, placing one hand and below each of Logan's upraised arms. Logan lowers his arms and you lift him from the floor as quickly as you can, releasing him in an upward trajectory as your hands pass the top of your head. You catch him on the way down, slowing his descent to the floor and then release him.

Repeat.

Repeat.

Repeat.

I always run out of gas before Logan does. I think I'm up to twenty reps. However reps seem to get more difficult over time. (Perhaps Logan is aging.) Nonetheless, Logan never tires of Logan-Lifts. He can't wait to do more.

The thing that strikes me most about Logan lifts is the degree of trust Logan places in the lifter, a.k.a, grandpa. He never expresses any hesitation, fear or doubt. He never tries to guide me through the lift in order to better ensure his safety. He just raises his hands and says, "Again!"

To me, Logan's expression of trust is the ideal. No hesitation. No fear. No doubt. It's not something that we adults do often. Rarely do we fully drop our guards, even in situations where being on guard would have little effect (e.g., flying in an airplane wondering about the qualifications of the pilot.) Over time we simply lose the capacity to trust. We second guess, double-check and scrutinize with steadily increasing frequency.

The pity of it is that we are most open to learning and growth when we fully trust those around us, at least when those around us think differently than we do.

An unfortunate side-effect of losing the capacity to trust is that you begin to surround yourself with people who think as you think and do as you do. However, when you engage someone who has a completely different perspective than yours and then fully trust her (e.g., do it her way or try what she likes), you open yourself to new experiences that you can experience in no other way.

I would go so far as to say that trust only begins when you do something in a way that seems wrong to you simply because someone else recommended it, when everything inside you is saying, "No", but you do it anyway. It's not really trust when you're doing something someone recommended because you happen to agree with them.

Don't worry, trusting in this way is not a permanent commitment. It's more of a loan. You can lend out trust for a day or an afternoon or just a meal. (Have you ever sat down at a restaurant and decided that everyone would order dinner for the person to her left?)

Also, please note that it doesn't work when faked. You trust or you don't trust; there is no try to trust.

Yeah, trust is a powerful skill.  How skilled are you?

Happy Sunday,
Teflon

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Something Easy

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of doing Something New and how, over time, we become reluctant to take on anything that requires deep learning of something truly new to us.  After writing, I wandered into town and stopped at the Music Store where, not long ago, Iris had purchased a recorder (a wooden instrument that's a cross between a flute and a clarinet).

Iris learned to play recorder along with the rest of her second grade class. She loved it and for years talked about getting a "good" recorder. (For the most part "good" meant one made of wood, not plastic.) A couple of weeks ago, Iris walked into the Music Store and asked Claudia if she could see some "good" recorders. Within minutes she found one that was right for her and bought it.

Talking to people, I found that many were introduced to the recorder in second or third grade. It would appear that the recorder is considered a gateway instrument (an introductory instrument that will pave the way for harder instruments like flute or clarinet or trumpet) and that many school systems introduce it to second-graders as a way to prime their interests in playing music.

As Iris told people about her purchase, almost everyone said that they too had played recorder.  Further, almost everyone saw the recorder as a child's instrument or a toy, something inexpensive that you don't have to worry about breaking.

Turns out that I missed the whole recorder-gateway experience. So yesterday, with all this banging around in my head along with the idea of doing something new, I decided to buy a recorder, you know, to learn something new. I walked into the music store and bought an alto recorder (one that plays in a different range than the one Iris purchased) so that Iris and I could play duets.

Since then, I've been pausing from work every so often that I can learn to play it. So far, I've been amazed that, if you really pay attention, you can make it sound pretty darn good, not like a toy, but like a "real" musical instrument. This morning I wondered if there were any really good recorder players. A bit of googling and YouTubing and voila: there are!  Like, they're really, really good.

Then it occurred to me. Wow, recorder would be a great way for anyone to break-out into something new. It's inexpensive. It's easy (second graders do it). You can learn it along with your kids. It has no limits in terms of what you can play.

Here are some links to some of the YouTube recordings I found.

Jazz Wave (a bass guitar and recorder duet)
Green Dolphin Street
Funk/Jazz Jam
Some Skunk Funk

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon




Monday, September 3, 2012

Something New

Okay, this is important.

Well, not like super important, I guess... I mean... well you know, like in the grand scheme of things.

Forget "important". This is about what I was thinking about this morning in the shower.

It all culminated in the question: "When was the last time you learned something new?"

I don't mean, "kind of" new; I mean, "really" new.  You know, like learning a foreign language or snowboarding or public speaking.

And I don't mean, "kind of" learn; I mean, "really" learn. You know, like becoming a translator at the UN or qualifying for the Olympic snowboarding team or going on a speaking tour.

Given that context, I repeat: When was the last time you learned something new?

The question came to mind as I contemplated people in my life who seem reluctant to learn new things. In these cases, the "new" isn't all that new and the "learn" not all that deep. Yet reticent they are and their reticence is cramping my style or at least holding me back.

By "holding me back", I don't mean to say that they're stopping me from doing what I want to do. I mean that they're stopping me from doing what I want to do when I'm with them.

I used to think that it was simply an issue of cost-benefit analysis, that each person didn't see the benefit in learning the new thing or that the benefit wasn't worth the effort. That made sense to me; why would anyone undertake a task with no upside or that was simply too much work for she what she got in exchange.

Seeing this, I took the most obvious course of action; I launched several campaigns designed to prove the cost/benefit of learning what I had in mind. Unfortunately, all were to no avail. Well, that's not exactly true. There definitely were points where they availed responses like "Just drop it!"

Surely after my thorough explanations, the question of cost/benefit could have no longer be the issue. There must have been something else.

Not to be deterred, I determined that the "something else" was simply not knowing where to start. I thought, "Perhaps I should just start showing each person how to do what I'd like them to learn to do?"

In some instances, this required that I first learn what I wanted her to learn. So, I go into learning mode and learn. Expecting the response, "Shoot, if he can do it, then certainly I can do it", the next time we get together, I show her what I learned.

That didn't work, either. In fact, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Rather than inspired, she'd feel diminished. Sigh...

Next, I tried boundlessly enthusiastic encouragement.

Nope, that didn't work either.

Contemplating all this in the shower, I came to the question, "When was the last time you learned something new?"

My new theory is that all my specificity about the item to be learned, (its cost/benefit analysis and demonstrating how to go about learning it) doesn't get at the heart of the issue. It's not about specifics; there's a more general and pervasive phenomenon where people simply stop learning.

It's like a cancer that goes undetected for years and is only identified when it's spread everywhere. At first the decline in learnability goes unnoticed. You see it only when you cast it in high contrast (hence the "really"). However, it slowly spreads making it's way from big, deep learning to tiny, shallow learning. Before you know it, just learning to get up on the other side of the bed each morning seems too much.

I tend to prefer the "moving towards" approach to the "moving away from" approach, but perhaps my efforts would be enhanced by taking the latter and pointing out the short- and long-term side effects of cancer of the learning. I could even put together a presentation including before and after pictures.

Okay, maybe this is important. Hmm...  Time for a learning MRI.

When was the last time you really learned something really new?

Happy Monday,
Teflon