What’s your 15-minutes a day?

You’ve heard of the 10 000-hour rule to becoming an expert. What the 15-minutes-a-day rule to to create long-lasting results?

15 minutes = 900 seconds

15 minutes = 900 pushups, situps, squats, jumping jacks

15 minutes = Learning to play chords on a guitar in two weeks

15 minutes = 900 long moments of reflecting on your feelings, thoughts, spirit

15 minutes = A plan for the day and what is most important to do

15 minutes = Sharing gratitude, love, affection for someone who has helped you

Some things can’t be done all at once, but rather a little bit over a long time.

Once upon a time of a leader’s journey (Part II)

…continued from Part I…

He felt the roots of the trees
Pull him into the earth.
Reality dissolved into dreams.
Thoughts became elusive fantasies.
Louder and louder
The dead screamed and howled
Until he thought he would go mad.

With this wonderfully amazing human brain, we have received the gift of consciousness. But as Joseph Campbell suggests, we pay the price of two realizations. One, the revelation that one day we, individually, and all we care for will die. And two, that society to whom we owe our upbringing existed before us and will continue to exist after we die.

Yet somehow in our Western civilization have become fixated on the first realization such that we have an almost obsessive fear of death. Looking younger, living longer, or having more becomes the only reasonable balms of life to avoid the frightening specter of death. Surely, death alone makes a poor source for meaning.

In other cultures, ancestors are often celebrated and revered giving expression to that second realization of humanity… where our lives are part of a bigger story played out by our ancestors and our children. Shouldn’t individual and community be connected as well as the past and present?

Then he caught the faint hint of a word
Then another word and another.
Straining to hear, he heard whole phrases
Until he realized each tortured spirit
was crying out its story
filled with such pain
that brought the adventurer to tears.

If we were to listen carefully to the voices of the dead then we might discern the lessons of past and discover who we are. Initially though, we may recoil in horror at the ghosts of civilizations buried in the ancient strata of the earth. What would the howls of the Easter Islanders, the Mayan, and the Vikings say to us? The same ones who spoiled their own nest and thus destroyed themselves in the process?

The hard truth is that in every story of genocide, war, or poverty, we learn about a part of us that is real today. It takes a bold heart to hear them and not die from guilt or despair. But is it any better to ignore them to repeat our ancestor’s mistakes?

He steeled himself to listen
To each spirit one by one.
Each told their story
In tortuous detail.
Every time his mind would wander
the story would turn to howls
Until he could find focus again.
Years passed by in the telling
And when the last spirit
shared its wisdom,
all was serene
once again.

Like opening Pandora’s box, one may find, among the terrible stories of the past, a small but resilient strand of hope. And the source of the hope is our capacity for wisdom.

However, wisdom does not come to those who listen passively. Instead, every ounce of deep learning must be extracted with blood, sweat, and tears. Wouldn’t you be suspicious of wisdom attained effortlessly? Psychologist Herbert Simon suggested that it takes ten years of intense effort to develop mastery in any field. How long then would it take to develop mastery over ourselves? How long to understand our time and place in history?

Epictetus said, “When we remember that our aim is spiritual progress, we return to striving to be our best selves. This is how happiness is won.” When we remember, all is serene again.

The traveller cracked open his new eyes
Tearing off the moss and the ivy that had grown over him
He stood.
He stretched.
He breathed.
The forest was humble and at peace.
Seeing for the first time
he saw leaning against a tree
An ancient sword
Carrying the magic of all the ages.
With humility he claimed the hero’s sword
Ready to continue on his journey.

I find that when I recover from the flu, the day after is a glorious day. I feel as if I am breathing for the first time and the world seems more vibrant, more alive. To be touched by a wise spirit be it through a book, a movie, or a conversation, feels much the same way. Too often, we imprison ourselves in a few safe stories not realizing that freedom lies in exposing ourselves to a wider breadth of the human experience.

The magic of all the ages is in our ability to pass on to each other a strand of what was, what is, and what might become. Although we have lost much of our oral traditions, we have also gained new mediums for seeing the world… an image of the earth from space, video news from around the world, or a rare book from an unknown author.

He left the forest in search of the dragon
And found it feasting on a goat.
The fiery traveller reached for his sword
But the moment he touched it
The sword dissolved into dust.
Abandoning that plan, he waited instead.
For weeks, he tracked the dragon
Until he found its lair
where the dragon would sleep.

How often do we hope that the one answer, the playbook, or one relationship will resolve all of our problems? The hero’s sword, the newest technology, or the latest fad cannot be the silver bullet for our dragons.

I am reminded of the story of Prince Five-Weapons and the Ogre Sticky-Hair. The prince had used all five weapons against the ogre to no avail and found himself stuck in five places to the ogre’s hair. Yet, he remained undaunted. When the ogre asked the prince why he was not afraid, the prince replied, “Ogre, why should I be afraid? For in one life one death is absolutely certain. What’s more, I have in my belly a thunderbolt for a weapon. If you eat me… it will tear your insides into tatters and fragments and it will kill you.” [Hero with a Thousand Faces]

The prince was the future Buddha and his weapon was the weapon of knowledge. Although we might have all the world’s resources at our disposal, it is ultimately the sword within us that will see us through.

The dragon slept soundly for many nights.
The tracker watched and searched
But found no weakness he could discern.
Suddenly, he was startled
as a rock tumbled over the cave.
The dragon awoke with a fury.
The tracker dove into a dark corner
Just as the dragon flew by
Shaking the cave with a violent rumble.

Hours later, the dragon returned with a bloody maw
And went back to sleep once again.

The tracker spent the days following
clearing the loose rocks.
Weeks passed and then months
Still the dragon remained asleep.
Years followed years and he came to be known and worshipped
in the surrounding lands as
the guardian of the dragon.

So often, we rush in to “fix the problem” without stopping to wonder what the problem might be. When the UN sprayed DDT in Borneo to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes, they successfully reduced incidents of malaria but created unintended consequences of a rat-infestation which threatened to unleash a plague of typhoid. What they didn’t know was that the DDT crept up the food chain and killed the cats which previously controlled the rat population.

Had we the patience to stop and observe and think, the solution might have been very different. This much is certain. The bigger and more dangerous the dragon, the greater the patience and investigation needed.

The hero’s sword, then, is in our ability to take find the patterns that live beneath the surface and decipher the clues to find a fruitful way forward. So should we decide to search the patterns in our lives, in our relationships, and in the world around us, we might find a better pattern to live by.

One day, the guardian fell and hurt his leg.
For a full day he could clear no rocks.
Worried that one day his strength would fail him,
He travelled the nearby villages to find help.
Few believed his incredible story.
Even fewer would dare take his place.
And the few brave souls left
Sought only the glory of killing the dragon.

It is the nature of those early pioneers to be the Cassandras of society. They dove too deep into the nature of things to be understood by those who haven’t peered into the depths. The Wright Brothers first flight barely drew any attention. Rachel Carson was denounced for claiming DDT was toxic. Galileo was imprisoned for challenging the church. Cultures are more powerful than individuals and more often than not an individual doesn’t have the power to change it.

Despondent, the guardian cleared the rocks one last time
and journeyed back to the home he once knew.
His return was greeted with awe and wonder.
Who had he become?
What stories would he tell?
What riches would he bring?

He shook hands with his father
And though his father was proud,
he knew not his son.

Returning from the depths is like returning from long travels… you see for the first time how much you have changed. Expatriates returning to their native land often experience “reverse culture shock” where their home no longer feels quite like home. Although everyone may be happy to see you, they also cannot possibly understand what you have gone through. They take five minutes to flip through photographs that took you a lifetime to experience.

In his room once again,
The son who became a man,
Who found the hero’s sword,
Who helped the dragon sleep,
Picked up his pen to write
Another chapter in the loremaster’s book
About the dragon and the rocks and the hero’s sword.
From then, the story-teller traveled the lands
To fill children’s minds with rich lore.
Hungrily they would listen
Until their parents would drag them away
from such nonsense.

While the glorified hero may inspire a fire here and there, a cultural shift inspires whole generations. The hero must instead find a way to embed their lessons into the society through organizations, through stories, through documents, through the many ways that culture is passed on. Consider Raphael Lemkin’s creation of the word “genocide” and his lifelong quest to have it explicitly banned by the UN. Although he could not see the results of his work while alive, today his word and work has made it possible to begin tackling the crime with no name. To transform a society requires patience beyond measure, yet it is possible.

The seasons turned. His parents passed away.
The story of the guardian became a myth.
The dragon returned and fear was rampant once again.

Eventually there came a day
In the story-teller’s old age
When four youth declared to him,
“We want to conquer the dragon!”
With a grim and serious eye,
He looked at the young adventurers
And after thinking long and hard he said,
“To defeat the dragon, take this book
and find the hero’s sword
in the Forest of the Dead.”

And so it came to pass
that the hero would
see the youth off on their adventure
with greater hope for a new future.

Some live to see the days of freedom like Mandela did, but only to find new dragons in the form of HIV / AIDS. Thus the journey is simultaneously carried by ourselves and all of us. In the words of Tolbert McCarrol:

“You are a guardian of the seeds for the world to come. All that has gone before and all that is yet to come is within you. Through you passes humanity’s saving fire. You are running in a relay. This is the moment you have been chosen to hold the torch. You cannot refuse to run.”

And I think it would be right to say: to be a true leader, remember to help others carry their torches and remember that one day you, too, must pass on your torch.

Six Places to Give Up

Most of us grew up taking classes, doing homework, and passing (or failing) tests. Then we found a job, got trained for the job to do the job and we succeed in the job! Schools are good that way. They train us to be good trainees.

There is another kind of learning however where you have to design your own course, make up your own homework, choose your own standards and hope you survive reality’s tests. Whether we’re forced to do it on the job or we are thrown into an unexpected crisis or we choose to start our own pioneering project, there are no clear teachers and no clear direction let alone a clear path. Worse, success is chancy and giving up is a real temptation.

School does not train us for this kind of learning.

If you are on an important new adventure with a murky destination and doubts about your ability to get there (wherever there is), the path you will follow will look very different from what society normally teaches us. Not to worry… you are not alone. Others have explored the frontier before. Although the details are different, their struggles have a similar feel to them that will help you become more aware of the types of challenges you will face.

Based on the patterns identified by the Action Studies Institute research on adaptive persistence, here are six places in the pioneering journey where you might run into trouble and give up.

I. The Splat Start

For the most part, someone usually tells you where to start. Teachers provide us with the textbooks. Companies provide the job description. Society shows us how to behave. And it can be a good thing because it is more efficient to learn from someone who has done it already.

If on the other hand, you are starting something new, there’s a good chance you’re going to start in the wrong place. It can be deflating to be so excited about your new adventure just to trip before you get out the door! You’re passionate about this new business idea, but it gets shot down right away. You envision the career you want, but you don’t know how to get it going. You catch on really quickly to a new skill and then you realize you’re really not that good. Splat, splat, splat… this is the easiest and most common place to give up. After all, nothing has been really lost by this venture except our expectation of a quick and easy success.

Recovering from Splats
The Wright Brothers spent eight years to design the plane they envisioned. Edison went through thousands of prototypes. Newton took twenty years to develop his theory of gravity.

The story behind these commonly quoted examples is that false starts are a necessary part of early exploration. You don’t know what you don’t know… and that includes not knowing what you want.

Instead of being the adult who must get everything right the first time, be the newborn baby who flops around the first hundred attempts at walking.

Every flop is another little muscle learning how to do it right.
Every splat is another reason to learn and try again.

* * *

Things I’ve said during a false start…

I tried five times, five different ways. It doesn’t work.
I was so excited to get started but when I did, it wasn’t what I expected.
Well, I never really wanted to do it anyway.

* * *

II. The Cold Realization

The real work begins when you realize the actual effort it would take to get started. It is like when you get to the base of that mountain and you look up. You may have prepared for the hike and planned for it, but nothing quite prepares you for the sight of it. This is also a place where you can turn back. You might not be prepared to start. But then again, you might be as ready as you will ever be.

Recovering from the Cold Realizations
The sooner you face the actual amount of effort you need to put in, the sooner you can prepare for it and get started. So often we do everything else to avoid the thing that most needs doing.

Serial entrepreneur Martin Eberhard admitted, “If we had faced reality three months earlier, we’d be much further today”. If a successful entrepreneur like him can make mistakes, then surely we can forgive ourselves for not always facing reality.

Look into the demon’s den,
Be prepared,
Take a deep breath,
Enter knowing that the unexpected will always find you
But also have faith in your capability to understand.

* * *

Things I’ve said when I realized how much work it was going to be…

Ha, ha, ha… I signed up for this?
This is going to take a lot more work than I thought.

* * *

III. The “DOH!” Experience

A “DOH!” experience is spending hours putting together IKEA furniture, realizing you misplaced one piece, and needing to take apart the whole contraption. A “DOH!” is spending a year investing your heart and soul into developing a product and finding out that people wanted something different. “DOH!” is a setback in your journey forward that stops you cold.

You can give up here too… when the pain of losing, of being rejected, or of failing yourself can be too much. Will you stay broken at the bottom or will you find the will to get back up?

Recovering from Setbacks
Consider that soccer players spend 95% of the time on the field NOT scoring and hence messing up. With every failed play, athletes exercise the ability to recover and return to playing the game. With every setback, we have the opportunity to exercise our ability to bounce back and continue.

There will be this incessant voice that tells you how you disappointed yourself and disappointed others. Take a moment to acknowledge the disappointment, but then ruthlessly close the door on that voice. Open instead the door of learning.

Banish the voice that accuses you.
Find the supportive voice that encourages you.
Together explore the ruins of your setback.
Take what you need and return with new power.

* * *

Things I’ve said because of a major setback…

…. <stunned silence> ….
This cannot be happening to me.

* * *

IV. The Never-Ending Prairies

Grade-school science taught us that if you add heat to ice at sub-zero temperatures, it will steadily rise in temperature until it hits zero degrees. Then it will stay at zero even as you continue to add heat until finally the ice melts into water.

There are many kinds of learning where we see great gains initially, but then our apparent progress flattens out even though we’re putting in the same amount of work. Weeks at the gym does little to improve strength, months of marketing yield few if any new customers, or years of research produce no breakthroughs.

The lack of results may cause you to give up, or you might look for an easier way and change tactics before the previous ones became effective. Or you might be lured into complacency where things do not get any worse, but they do not improve either.

Recovering from the Prairies
Like the germination of a seed, there may not be any visible results for weeks or months, but that does not mean progress has stopped.

Jim Collins (Good to Great) discusses how Alan Wurtzel spent nine-years developing the concept of Circuit City before it exploded in growth generating stock returns greater than Intel or Wal-Mart. From the outside, it appeared as if nothing was happening in those nine-years. On the inside, the idea was being nurtured, tested, and grown. Like the ice, the inside was being transformed!

When you find yourself on the plateau of life, the question “Am I getting anywhere?” is only one kind of measuring stick for progress. Try some other ones on:

“Am I being complacent about my own development?”
“Am I strengthening my abilities and skills?”
“Am I building the roots for the next phase of life?”
“Am I improving the quality of my character and conduct?”

Find the right questions for your journey.

V. The Boom and Bust Cycle

As much as we enjoy variety in our lives, we generally don’t enjoy chaotic instability. Imagine that just as you have finished climbing your way to the top, you find yourself sliding back down… and this repeats itself on and on and on. It is as tiring as a volatile economy that oscillates between prosperity and recession, plentiful job opportunities and layoffs.

Instead of continuing, you may crave stability or something to grab on to. You may get off the roller coaster ride altogether. It’s not the first setback that gets to you. It’s the hundredth one.

Recovering from Boom and Bust
An effective way to exercise your cardiovascular system is through interval training (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interval_training) where you alternate between sprints and walks.

Boom and bust cycles are like interval training for your life. It forces you to adapt to new situations and stretch your capabilities.

Ride the chaos with glee,
Take a break when needed.
To create your calm centre
Do something you’re good at,
Be with good friends.
Meditate in nature.
Then return to the venture.

On the other hand, the boom and bust might indicate something you are not paying attention to.

VI. The Arrival

The event you spent months planning is now done, but the joy of finishing it never quite measures up to the work you put into it. Somehow we expect that arriving at the destination will fulfill everything. The exhausted and hurt soul that arrives can decide it isn’t worth the sacrifice and give up on all future projects.

Recovering from Arriving
One can glibly say that it is the journey not the destination, but what does that mean? Two men from different eras speak to this question.

Seymour Tilles, a Harvard Business School professor, wrote in the 1963:

“If you ask young men what they want to accomplish by the time they are 40, the answers you get fall into two distinct categories. There are those—the great majority—who will respond in terms of what they want to have. There are some men, however, who will answer in terms of the kind of men they hope to be. These are the only ones who have a clear idea of where they are going.”

Meaning to say that what you want to have cannot be a guiding light for who you are. Surely it matters whether you build a business that enhances the human spirit rather than tears it down. Epitectus from over a thousand years ago describes this and more:

“True happiness is a verb. It’s the ongoing dynamic performance of worthy deeds. The flourishing life, whose foundation is virtuous intention, is something we continually improvise, and in doing so our souls mature. Our life has usefulness to ourselves and to the people we touch.”
– Epitectus The Art of Living

Just as no single frame of a film makes sense without seeing the whole film, no single point of time in our lives is more important than the entire flourishing life.

So when you arrive, take a moment to celebrate the person you have become rather than only the final outcome. Celebrate all the false starts, the setbacks, the ups and downs, and plains that has made who you are. Above all, remember Churchill’s declaration “Never give in!” and like all famous quotes, don’t forget the rest of the message:

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
– Winston Churchill in Speech to Harrow School (1941)

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

When did you last embrace failure?

If it has been awhile, it might be worth trying it out. In order to be masterful or grow as a person or even raise children, failing is as critical as success.

Sure, failing is full of negative connotations: “you failed this test”, “you are a failure”, “failure is not an option”. What is failure really? It is simply not getting the expected results. In this light, then failure presents an opportunity for deeper understanding.

Here are some ways you can take advantage of failure.

I. Learning happens at the edge

Think of what it was like to learn to ride a bike. You got on it. You fell and scraped your knees. You learn. You try again. Eventually with a little help, encouragement, and practice you’re riding easily and naturally. It is in that moment of risking injury where that great leap of learning is possible.

But so often we are satisfied with just being good enough at something. For some things, it makes sense to leave it at “good enough”. Unfortunately, when all of life is just “good enough”, we lose our ability to grow.

Real learning requires challenge. Real learning happens at the edge of our ability. And thus real learning happens at the point where we might fail!

For example, we can drive decently, cook well enough (some of us), write reasonably… but what would it take to become better at it? Try driving in the crowded streets of Taiwan or cook a five-course meal for a party, or write and publish a book. Likewise, a big life requires a big challenge.

The point is not to arrive at greatness. The point is to live greatly through a never-ending push to the edge.

II. Masters seek failure

I had a “martial arts” instructor who is a master of his field. Sparring with him was a lesson in helplessness. However, what made him a master was his ability to learn exponentially greater than any student or teacher I know. What separates him from the crowd?

Asides from his dedication and hard work to his craft, he also had the ability to seek failure. He would often purposefully and intentionally puts himself in situations which challenged his abilities. He might spar using only his right jab with a student or he might work with professional fighters in other fields. World-class athletes must find ways to challenge themselves to continue their growth.

Studies into the nature of expertise show that taking on progressively more difficult challenges is what separates an “expert-learner” from a average learner (see Surpassing Ourselves).

If you want to be masterful, then find the nearest edge, push it back, and learn from it.

III. Children should be praised for pushing at the edge

Exploring the edge sounds good in principle, but failing is not well accepted by our culture.

In studying the performance gap in math between students in the U.S. and students in Japan, Stevenson and Stigler watched a Japanese boy struggle with drawing a 3-D cube on the blackboard for forty-five minutes. The boy made repeated mistakes much to the anxiety and discomfort of the researchers. The boy, however, was oblivious to this. Eventually he succeeded to the applause of the class (see Mistakes Were Made).

The researchers determined that American culture was far more likely to see math ability as innate rather than the result of hard work and learning through making mistakes. Later research showed that children who are praised for their efforts rather than their innate ability were far more likely to see mistakes and criticism as useful information.

It is hard to appear stupid, or face embarrassment in front of our peers, or let ourselves down, but those fears get in the way of reaching towards mastery.

IV. Give your failures a hug

Loving your failures can be difficult, but consider the injustice of not owning them, of not seeing them. Then consider what new powers or abilities you can develop by seeking out new challenges. So take a moment now, and thank all the times you learned from a broken relationship or a business idea that flopped or a design that failed. They deserve a hug.

Questions to reflect upon:

  1. In what area of your life would you like to develop more capability?
  2. What is the “edge” of your capability in that area?
  3. What learning is possible if you stretch yourself beyond your capability in that area?
  4. Will you embrace the learning?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in significant life challenges.