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Four Problems with Action Learning (and lots of other methodologies)

19 Feb

There are a lot of group-process methods out there, but I’ve always had a soft spot for something called “action learning.” If you don’t know anything about it, I don’t blame you. In fact, not knowing isn’t the problem…the problem is people assuming they know, but they actually have no idea what you’re talking about. Having been involved in action learning for many years (and becoming a certified coach, and writing my dissertation on it), I can say, with some authority, that there are some problems.

The problems though are not with the method. I love the method. I think it’s great. (learn more here). The problems are with how we talk about action learning. In fact, I think there are four overlapping issues with action learning that I want to share. I think many of these issues are shared with other methodologies as well.

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The first problem is the roller coaster problem. I call it the roller coaster problem because no matter how many words I put to describing what riding a roller coaster feels like, you still won’t really know what it is like until you experience it. The solution to this problem is almost always to have people participate in a program themselves. Obviously, this makes it hard to spread the word about action learning. All we can do is spread the experience. In fact, usually we’d always provide a demonstration whenever we are introducing an audience to the concept. Obviously, this doesn’t make it easier to share the power of action learning outside of word-of-mouth, which so far has worked pretty well (….so far….).

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The second problem is what I call the “Michael Jordan” problem. The image above has two absolutely true statements. Michael Jordan loves basketball AND Michael Jordan never played a single day in the NBA. How is that possible? Well, that’s because…

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Yes, in fact, the Michael Jordan I was referring to was Michael Hakim Jordan. Michael-Hakim Jordan was unfortunate in that his name is shared by the greatest basketball player of all time. No doubt this has caused a lot of confusion and teasing for him, in fact in 2010 he officially changed his name. Well, unfortunately “action learning” cannot change its name so easily. But like Michael-Hakim Jordan, action learning was born with a name that has caused a lot of confusion. Reg Revans coined the phrase “action learning” in the 1940s to describe the process he was using, but since then the words “action” and “learning” are used so much that they’ve lost their resonance. Personally, I don’t think that the Michael Jordan problem is not going away. “Action learning” simply doesn’t catch your ear. So there is a branding issue that I think the World Institute of Action Learning helps resolve, but the issue remains. From previous experience, people often think of “Active learning” or “project learning” when they hear “Action learning,” which just causes all sorts of confusion.

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The third problem is what I call, “the two rabbits problem.” This applies to action learning because the methodology does two things simultaneously….it improves learning AND it improves performance. This is a good thing, but clients aren’t usually accustomed to that type of methodology. They tend to think that an intervention is EITHER a problem solving tool for business results and innovation OR it is a learning and development tool. It can be difficult to convince them that the real value in action learning is not just that it does BOTH of these things….but that it does both of these things simultaneously. On a more practical level, decisions about purchasing innovation interventions versus leadership development interventions are often made by two different people.

My solution to this problem is based on observation….and it’s the same advice I would give the hunter in the situation….he needs to pick one of the rabbits. In this case, I suggest that you should start with learning and development. This may be because learning and development is more of my area than say “business process improvement,” or “design thinking,” but from what I’ve seen you can position action learning as a comparable learning intervention to instructor-led training courses, case-studies, coaching, and other leadership development interventions.

Now, there are plenty of examples of “business action learning” or problem-focused action learning in which the purpose is solely to create new ideas and solutions. In this approach learning is often considered a secondary outcomes or not considered at all. That is fine too. It just depends on who is using it and what they are trying to achieve. I would argue that the true value proposition of action learning, as compared to other problem-based or project-based learning approaches, is much easier to describe when you are talking about organizational development or leadership development interventions. Although I should note that, historically, research bears out that balancing learning and problem-solving tends to yield better results for BOTH rather than focusing on just one.

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Finally, we have the “Frosted Flakes” problem. In the early 20th Century, ready-to-eat cereals were developed as a health food to replace heavy breakfast foods like sausage, eggs, coffee, and biscuits. They were to help patients recover in hospitals, but over time they developed into sugar-coated treats for kids. The Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek Michigan, who helped developed the ready-to-eat cereal wrestled with this issue from the very beginning. People want to be healthy but they also want something that tastes good. John Harvey decided to develop the medicinal cereals, while his brother, William decided to purpose the commercial market by adding sugar and flavor.

This same dynamic shows up in action learning. Action learning can be a transformative practice, but not everyone or every organization is ready for transformation. Change…especially significant change doesn’t necessarily taste very good. It requires vulnerability and discomfort. It may require you to challenge some deeply held assumptions. So, we try to sweeten it up. So, we take the real, unique, and powerful value of action learning and we “sugar it down”…by reducing it to nothing more than project-based learning. We talk about project work and the real solutions that will be generated and we shy away from being honest up front….this might not be the best intervention for you.

And I want to be clear here…I am not saying that it’s bad to use frosted flake approaches to solving problems. If they work well and give people what they need, then that’s fantastic. The problem I’m talking about it…is when tell people they are buying something that is good for them, when in fact they just bought some candy. The problem I’m talking about it when we conflate action learning with project-based learning, because we think it will be easier for people to understand. When ironically, the actual impact of that sales strategy is that it often makes action learning HARDER to understand.

So, a lot comes down to how much critical reflection the action learning program demands. I would argue that if you completely take out the critical reflection piece, then that is fine, just don’t call it action learning, please just call it “project-based learning” instead.

So, that’s my rant for now. Four problems and four ways that they impact our ability to talk about these really interesting transformational methodologies. I don’t have a lot of wisdom about how to offset them, but the first step is just acknowledging them. Or as an old professor of mine used to say “problematize” them.

*special thanks to myself for recycling slides from a presentation I gave last year.

 

 

 

In Defense of Ego

18 Feb
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A modern mystic, Thomas Hubl, seems like a good dude, but his message just didn’t really resonate with me

Last night I went to a talk by Thomas Hubl in downtown Washington DC. He is an interesting guy and as a modern mystic, I certainly value his perspective on his experience of consciousness. I like attending events like this because they tend to open me up. Expose me to new ideas and new people. However, while I value that exposure, it isn’t always pleasant. And last night I was reminded why I had avoided the “integral community” for so many years.

Although we may share the same interests in learning and exploring spiritual, mystical, or consciousness-based experiences and ideas, we approach that interest in very different ways. I ended up feeling like what I was seeing was spiritual materialism at its finest. Now, I did like Thomas’s talk and I thought he had a lot of good ideas to share, but the most value I got out of the experience was in a flood of ideas of my own. When ideas come this fast and easily, I am prone to think that they are coming from deep inside me rather than my overly-analytical mind (of which I am skeptical). Even though I have several other draft blog posts in the cooker, I feel compelled to share this one immediately. I decided that the easiest way to share this would be to just quote what I wrote in my journal during Thomas’s talk and go from there. I am calling it, “In Defense of Ego.”

— Feb. 17, 2014—

I don’t understand this! He is talking as if the mind/ego was something bad. “We need to bring this consciousness to light in the modern world,” he says. We “need to!?” Huh? I mean, of course we “need” to, but that is just a function of our own drive to create and there is no way for me to tell if YOUR drive to create is coming from ego or from spirit. How or why would I even try to judge it? Of course, I am doing the exact same thing to Thomas right now, judging his words, so I’ll let them be. Clearly people are getting something out of them. For me though this isn’t about the exteriors being “bad” and the interiors being “good.” In fact, language itself is just an exterior. It is an exterior, mind-created, ego-driven tool that we use to communicate and self-reflect. We needed to create language as a scaffold to develop the interior, so how can we make a value judgement on it? We need the exterior to build the interior…but where did language come from? The interior!!! So, they are co-emergent. They are interdependent. It is much like the particle/wave theory of electrons. They are BOTH at the same time, it is only our perspective that seems to have the conflict with reconciling these two things. This is why having a non-dual awareness is so important. That is why we NEED the ego. The ego isn’t bad. The ego is just an exterior. Haha! Badness is using the qualities of a wave to judge what is acting like, in that moment, as a particle. OR using the values of the interior to judge the exterior (or using the exterior to judge the interior). Of course it causes a contraction/tension!

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Wilber’s AQAL model for anyone not immediately familiar with how I am using the words, “interior” and “exterior”

Ego/mind/etc., or whatever word one wants to use to describe something “bad” or “negative,” when it is used in that way…doesn’t actually point to anything. That is, the word exists as a signifier…a sign post….but there is no signified. The sign points in a direction, but if you were to go there, you would find that nothing exists. In this way, ego has no content. It does not exist! It is so simple. We have a word for it, like we have the word “unicorn,” but that doesn’t mean that they signify something that exists in the real world. “Ego,” then doesn’t really exist in the way people use it to mean something negative or bad. In fact, what they are experiencing is the misattunement of TWO things that DO exist. How then do we bring those different rhythms into alignment? Well, I think through radical acceptance. Awareness is great. Awareness. Awareness. Awareness. Now try to accept. See if you can accept it as well. Create a new exterior. Create a new object. That that which was subject to you and make it object. Make it an exterior (that is, make it part of “mind/ego”). As an exterior, it may help you OR….maybe it is already an object…and you’ve divorced yourself from that object. These are the things that you need to bring into radical acceptance.

So, more simply…the “pain” or “resistance” or “contraction” or “tension” that we feel is NOT a result of a single entity (like the “ego”), but of a dynamic PROCESS between two entities (more akin to “friction”). Those two entities are exteriors and interiors. Existences and essences. Gross forms and subtle forms. The cure for these frictions depend on which way the energy is trying to flow. If energy is trying to create an exterior from an interior, then you need radical awareness, because you are trying to create something in the gross realm that previously existed in the subtle realm. However, it is equally likely that you are experiencing friction because something from the Gross realm is trying to enter the subtle realm (the equally important, but less acknowledged move from mind-body to spirit). In this case, as was my experience, the cure seems to be radical acceptance. That is, accepting everything even the things that you don’t accept. Or for radical awareness….radical awareness is being aware of what you are not aware of. This is why religions often talk about the masculine and feminine…big mind and big heart. Not just because these two THINGS exist, but because they represent two MOVEMENTS. Movement in one direction or another between exteriors and interiors! Masculine and feminine are horizontal types that describe movement between horizontal dimensions (exteriors and interiors). It is actually quite simple when looked at this way. So, to say that “ego” or “mind” is bad….as it feels like most people in this room are doing…just doesn’t make sense to me.

So, again, the one thing that we don;t really think about is that it is not the exteriors or the interiors themselves, but the MOVEMENT from one to the other. If there is friction in this movement then we experience suffering. This suffering can be cured with either radical acceptance or radical awareness depending on which direction the energy is trying to flow. Ok, so now we are cooking baby! 🙂 What is this movement? HOW the hell can you move from one to another? Well, we do that in the ground of being. That is…the movement can take place because we can stand outside of either two positions and “outside” those two positions is simply the background of all reality (both subtle and gross). Now, this ground of being is actually very boring, so I won’t talk about it because talking about it is a bit silly, but it is important to mention it because it is the third element….the causal realm. So, mystics claim that individual consciousness can directly experience this casual realm and I think that is fantastic. Good for them. Good for you if you can. Nothing wrong with it at all. Sounds like a magical place to live. But, for me, by definition, this causal experience doesn’t really mean much. That is because any experience is still just that….experience (even if that experience is non-experience…if that makes sense). So, then it is not something to strive for…it is something that people get access to or they do not. There is nothing great or grand about it. It is. Just like form and ego. They are. All of this stuff….is just hanging out. Now, don’t get me wrong the creation of something out of nothing is extraordinary….what could be more amazing!? But from my perspective, there is also nothing more mundane (again….it’s like a particle and a wave….causal is BOTH majestic AND mundane).

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A particle AND a wave

So, when we talk about the gross (exterior), subtle (interior), and causal (ground that allows us to move from one to the other), we are just talking about the interplay between these two crazy characters. It is like some sort of stage play. Two characters battling it out. The two actors and the stage on which they stand…those three things make up what we call reality. This is why horizontal development is, in many ways, much more important than vertical development. Because the movement from left (interior) to right (exterior) is the ENGINE of development. These frictions, moving and moving and moving, can spark movements upward as appropriate to the challenges that you face. In fact, it is actually more like overcompensation. As that friction creates sparks, your subtle and gross mental fabric evolves. Just like how the fibers of your muscles strengthen through exercise. After lifting 100 pounds your muscles get bigger so that next time you can lift 115 pounds (since you clearly could ALREADY lift 100). So, the engine of vertical development is in fact horizontal movement.

Growth is about awareness and acceptance because “the bad” parts are simply friction that restrict movement. Resistance is only ever about the friction of movement which does NOT get better if we continue to value “spirit” over “ego.” In fact, it makes the problem worse. It creates a spiritual materialism in which a large portion of reality is denied and judged. Of course, this friction is exactly what we need. How else could it exist? Is = ought. So, from a non-dual perspective, there is nothing wrong. There is no point to changing anything. “So you’re miserable. Great! That is what you should be. You will be miserable until you are not.” I’m writing. You’re reading. So what? We are fine. Given that we are….and everything we do is okay, then let us continue talking and reading. If everything is OK, then it is also OK that we think things need to change.

So, there you go. That was the out-pouring of thought that I had. It was helpful for me in thinking it, I can only hope that it is helpful for you in reading it.

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You Have to Work

17 Dec

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Twelve Virtues of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky

10 Nov

I found this piece and loved it. It was written by Eliezer Yudkowsky who, despite having no formal education in computer science or artificial intelligence, founded the nonprofit Machine Intelligence Research Institute (formerly the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence) in 2000 and continues to be employed there as a full-time Research Fellow. He writes on “friendly” artificial intelligence and decision-making.

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Twelve Virtues of Rationality

The first virtue is curiosity. A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth. To feel the burning itch of curiosity requires both that you be ignorant, and that you desire to relinquish your ignorance. If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction. Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself; there is no curiosity that does not want an answer. The glory of glorious mystery is to be solved, after which it ceases to be mystery. Be wary of those who speak of being open-minded and modestly confess their ignorance. There is a time to confess your ignorance and a time to relinquish your ignorance.

The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.

The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims. For you cannot make a true map of a city by sitting in your bedroom with your eyes shut and drawing lines upon paper according to impulse. You must walk through the city and draw lines on paper that correspond to what you see. If, seeing the city unclearly, you think that you can shift a line just a little to the right, just a little to the left, according to your caprice, this is just the same mistake.

The fourth virtue is evenness. One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.” If you attend only to favorable evidence, picking and choosing from your gathered data, then the more data you gather, the less you know. If you are selective about which arguments you inspect for flaws, or how hard you inspect for flaws, then every flaw you learn how to detect makes you that much stupider. If you first write at the bottom of a sheet of paper, “And therefore, the sky is green!”, it does not matter what arguments you write above it afterward; the conclusion is already written, and it is already correct or already wrong. To be clever in argument is not rationality but rationalization. Intelligence, to be useful, must be used for something other than defeating itself. Listen to hypotheses as they plead their cases before you, but remember that you are not a hypothesis, you are the judge. Therefore do not seek to argue for one side or another, for if you knew your destination, you would already be there.

The fifth virtue is argument. Those who wish to fail must first prevent their friends from helping them. Those who smile wisely and say: “I will not argue” remove themselves from help, and withdraw from the communal effort. In argument strive for exact honesty, for the sake of others and also yourself: The part of yourself that distorts what you say to others also distorts your own thoughts. Do not believe you do others a favor if you accept their arguments; the favor is to you. Do not think that fairness to all sides means balancing yourself evenly between positions; truth is not handed out in equal portions before the start of a debate. You cannot move forward on factual questions by fighting with fists or insults. Seek a test that lets reality judge between you.

The sixth virtue is empiricism. The roots of knowledge are in observation and its fruit is prediction. What tree grows without roots? What tree nourishes us without fruit? If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? One says, “Yes it does, for it makes vibrations in the air.” Another says, “No it does not, for there is no auditory processing in any brain.” Though they argue, one saying “Yes”, and one saying “No”, the two do not anticipate any different experience of the forest. Do not ask which beliefs to profess, but which experiences to anticipate. Always know which difference of experience you argue about. Do not let the argument wander and become about something else, such as someone’s virtue as a rationalist. Jerry Cleaver said: “What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It’s overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball.” Do not be blinded by words. When words are subtracted, anticipation remains.

The seventh virtue is simplicity. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Simplicity is virtuous in belief, design, planning, and justification. When you profess a huge belief with many details, each additional detail is another chance for the belief to be wrong. Each specification adds to your burden; if you can lighten your burden you must do so. There is no straw that lacks the power to break your back. Of artifacts it is said: The most reliable gear is the one that is designed out of the machine. Of plans: A tangled web breaks. A chain of a thousand links will arrive at a correct conclusion if every step is correct, but if one step is wrong it may carry you anywhere. In mathematics a mountain of good deeds cannot atone for a single sin. Therefore, be careful on every step.

The eighth virtue is humility. To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors. To confess your fallibility and then do nothing about it is not humble; it is boasting of your modesty. Who are most humble? Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans. Because this world contains many whose grasp of rationality is abysmal, beginning students of rationality win arguments and acquire an exaggerated view of their own abilities. But it is useless to be superior: Life is not graded on a curve. The best physicist in ancient Greece could not calculate the path of a falling apple. There is no guarantee that adequacy is possible given your hardest effort; therefore spare no thought for whether others are doing worse. If you compare yourself to others you will not see the biases that all humans share. To be human is to make ten thousand errors. No one in this world achieves perfection.

The ninth virtue is perfectionism. The more errors you correct in yourself, the more you notice. As your mind becomes more silent, you hear more noise. When you notice an error in yourself, this signals your readiness to seek advancement to the next level. If you tolerate the error rather than correcting it, you will not advance to the next level and you will not gain the skill to notice new errors. In every art, if you do not seek perfection you will halt before taking your first steps. If perfection is impossible that is no excuse for not trying. Hold yourself to the highest standard you can imagine, and look for one still higher. Do not be content with the answer that is almost right; seek one that is exactly right.

The tenth virtue is precision. One comes and says: The quantity is between 1 and 100. Another says: the quantity is between 40 and 50. If the quantity is 42 they are both correct, but the second prediction was more useful and exposed itself to a stricter test. What is true of one apple may not be true of another apple; thus more can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world. The narrowest statements slice deepest, the cutting edge of the blade. As with the map, so too with the art of mapmaking: The Way is a precise Art. Do not walk to the truth, but dance. On each and every step of that dance your foot comes down in exactly the right spot. Each piece of evidence shifts your beliefs by exactly the right amount, neither more nor less. What is exactly the right amount? To calculate this you must study probability theory. Even if you cannot do the math, knowing that the math exists tells you that the dance step is precise and has no room in it for your whims.

The eleventh virtue is scholarship. Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you consume makes you larger. If you swallow enough sciences the gaps between them will diminish and your knowledge will become a unified whole. If you are gluttonous you will become vaster than mountains. It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory. But these cannot be the only fields you study. The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion.

Before these eleven virtues is a virtue which is nameless.

Miyamoto Musashi wrote, in The Book of Five Rings:

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.”

Every step of your reasoning must cut through to the correct answer in the same movement. More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory.

If you fail to achieve a correct answer, it is futile to protest that you acted with propriety.

How can you improve your conception of rationality? Not by saying to yourself, “It is my duty to be rational.” By this you only enshrine your mistaken conception. Perhaps your conception of rationality is that it is rational to believe the words of the Great Teacher, and the Great Teacher says, “The sky is green,” and you look up at the sky and see blue. If you think: “It may look like the sky is blue, but rationality is to believe the words of the Great Teacher,” you lose a chance to discover your mistake.

Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that. Ask whether the sky is blue or green. If you speak overmuch of the Way you will not attain it.

You may try to name the highest principle with names such as “the map that reflects the territory” or “experience of success and failure” or “Bayesian decision theory”. But perhaps you describe incorrectly the nameless virtue. How will you discover your mistake? Not by comparing your description to itself, but by comparing it to that which you did not name.

If for many years you practice the techniques and submit yourself to strict constraints, it may be that you will glimpse the center. Then you will see how all techniques are one technique, and you will move correctly without feeling constrained. Musashi wrote: “When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally. All this is the Way of the Void.”

These then are twelve virtues of rationality:

Curiosity, relinquishment, lightness, evenness, argument, empiricism, simplicity, humility, perfectionism, precision, scholarship, and the void.

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Sometimes the Choice is This Simple

31 Oct

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The Big Man Complex

25 Oct

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We are all familiar with the “Little Man Complex,” a term used to describe a short man who is overly aggressive or ambitious to compensate for his height. But you don’t hear a lot about the “Big Man Complex,” which is just as prevalent and can teach us a lot about how and why we put limits on ourselves. Let me start with an example.

Wilt chamberlain is considered one of the most dominant athletes of the modern era. He was over 7 feet tall and, when he was playing with the Lakers, was over 300 pounds of muscle and agility. Yet, despite his enormous size and power, he consistently lost to his rival, Bill Russell, who was significantly smaller. Why? Well, obviously the teams around them had something to do with it, but I’d like to suggest that one of Wilt’s primary weaknesses as a player was simply that he was afraid of his own power.

Here is what Wilt had to say in this candid 1997 interview (feel free to watch the first two minutes, but I’ve got the important part below).

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Bob Costas: They used to say about you, though you were by far the biggest and strongest man in the league, uncommonly skilled for a Center, that you did not have a “killer instinct.” And I don’t mean that competitively…you could have hurt guys. You could have slammed guys to the floor. You could have looked to pick fights. You didn’t do that.

Bill Russell: That was one of the saving things about playing against the guy that physically imposing… is that I cannot recall even hearing anything about him trying to hurt anybody.

Wilt Chamberlain: That’s good and bad though. You know what I mean?

Bill: You know you could wrap him up and he wasn’t going to hurt you.

Wilt: That’s good and bad though.

Bob: Did you need more killer instinct?

Wilt: Yeah, you know….it could be said (nods)…it could be said…but also remember that when you’re my size, you know, and you try and figure out…also there was a little bit of emotional stuff going on there…because I knew I was bigger and stronger than everybody else, I wanted to also show them that I was skillful. I wasn’t out there to really try to show that I could just knock people over and whatever…

Bob: And you didn’t just want to play into the image of brute strength.

Wilt: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

The takeaway message is….who can’t relate to what Wilt is saying here!? He doesn’t want to get pigeon-holed. He doesn’t want to play into the stereotype of this dominant physical player. Sure, in his given profession, he can completely dominate everyone around him, but that doesn’t make them feel very good. And it isn’t in keeping with the true spirit of the game. And yet, from a basketball perspective, you have to use every advantage you have. He had a huge advantage that he didn’t exploit. He had put a speed limit on himself. He couldn’t beat Bill because he felt like his power was a liability.

Now, you might be thinking, “why in the world would someone do that?” (or you’re thinking, “oh, I see where you’re going here…”), but either way, I’m going to share a little story of my own that hints at an answer. When I was growing up, me and my friends were really into fighting games. Street Fighter 2 was our game of choice and we enjoyed countless hours competing against each other.

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There was a problem though. I started practicing more and more and eventually I got to be really good. I quickly learned that this wasn’t a good thing. At least not if I wanted to hang out with my friends. If I won too many matches or if I won too convincingly, they would complain and eventually quit playing all together. So, I learned that if I was too good at something, then I needed to find a way to hide it…or at least balance it just enough so that I wouldn’t disrupt the relationships around me. I learned that being good at something can make other people feel bad. And when you make other people feel bad, they don’t want to spend time with you. I have a hunch that Wilt experienced the same thing in basketball.

So, what does all of this mean? Well, I think the “big man complex” is simply when you hide your natural gifts because its makes other people uncomfortable. You downplay who you are and what you can do because you’re smart enough to recognize that while the world may recognize and reward greatness in general, when it’s someone they know, the world is much more likely to get pissed off and walk away.

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So, what can we do about this big man complex? Well, I can share my experience. I think there are two things you can do. First, get some new friends. Seriously. No, really. I’m being completely serious. Get some friends who will genuinely take pride in your accomplishments and will support you when you are struggling. Families aren’t always great at that, but it’s easier to change your social group than it is your family, so I would start there. How, you ask? Go to meetup.com, facebook, linkedin, etc. and go to some meetings and events. Meet some new people who are into the same things and have the same passion. Trust me, if you’re passionate about being awesome at something, then it won’t take long to find others who are too.

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Second, I would stop buying into your own bullshit. I mean seriously. We can be amazing if we want to be. And I’m not pushing that same old generation Y BS that says “you’re already amazing no matter what you do,” I’m saying that if you dedicate yourself to something then the only limits on you will be your own. Sure people won’t like it. That’s natural, but that’s not your business. That is their business. Those are just their own limits and fears bubbling to the surface and being thrown at you. If you really want to stop this cycle, then make a conscious effort to take pride in what others accomplish. How many compliments or congratulations did you give out this week? It doesn’t matter. Do it more. And don’t forget to include yourself.

I think that the big man complex is actually something we all struggle with. Obviously, the little man complex is there too. We are just as likely to hide our insecurities with bold claims and aggression, but we need to remember the subtle forces that work against us as well. Sure there are people out there who will read this and think, “yeah, see everyone is just a hater. I’m going to make it!!” even though they have done absolutely nothing and still haven’t realized that it’s the process not the outcome. But I’m hoping there are at least a few people who can relate to this. I’ll leave you with a far more eloquent version of my thesis. If you know this quote, then I hope it’s a good reminder. If you’ve never heard it before, I hope it’s a wake-up call.

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– Marianne Williamson

Beware False Decisions!

21 Oct

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In July of 2009 I was driving home from Rockville, Maryland and I was seriously stressed out. I was wrestling with a very big decision; should I leave my current job? It’s a question that a lot of us will ask. In my case, I had just seen an interesting job post and I was already sensing that it was time for me to move on. A lot of questions bounced around. Should I even be looking for a new job right now? What would the commute be like? Would I jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire? Would the culture be any better? Would I have more or less opportunity? Should I pivot a bit and go for a smaller agency in which I could have more influence? And since I really didn’t know the answer to any of these questions and I started feeling really stressed out.

After about an hour of this agonizing thinking, something very profound occurred to me. I was not actually making a decision. In that moment, there was actually no job offer to accept. I hadn’t even applied! Here I was stressing out about a decision that literally did not exist. It was all a fantasy…and it was a fantasy that was stressing me out! 

The only decisions I actually had to make were about my immediate next actions. Not any potential issues way down the road. In that moment I realized that all of this stuff about my career….these deep internal questions…had suddenly emerged in the guise of a decision. That is what was stressing me out. What seemed like a decision was actually just a trigger telling me that I needed to take action. When I realized this, it was very clear what I needed to do….apply for the job, talk to my boss, buy a book on decision making. Suddenly, within about 15 seconds, I had three practical steps that I could take. No stress. No decision. Just action.

Now, obviously at some point down the road I had to make that decision, but when I did, I had all the information I needed. My priorities were clear and the right choice was actually pretty clear. So, my advice is that anytime you ask yourself, “should I…” and that questions feels stressful, it’s probably because you’ve set up a false decision. It’s quite possible that you’ve fallen into the trap of believing, “I should have control over something that I can’t control.” It’s no wonder that we stress ourselves out.

Eliminate all of the potential decisions and focus on the next immediate action. That’s all you can do anyway. No matter how much you stress out about it, no amount of stress, deliberation, or agonizing will give you control over the future. So the only decision that actually matters is…what can I do right now?