Category: Peak Performance

The Failure of Failing Forward

Mooki FAIL

(This article is based on a talk I gave today at Nonprofit Boot Camp in San Francisco.)

Haunted By Failure

A few years ago I led a program at Craigslist Foundation called LikeMinded. It was part of a high profile suite of projects funded by a major foundation. Like 9 out of 10 web initiatives, it didn’t catch on.

It’s almost three years later, and this is the first time I’ve written about it publicly. There’s a taboo around talking about failure, and I’m ready to defy that taboo.

LikeMinded failed for all sorts of reasons, including the most important one: the world decided it wasn’t essential.

What I’ve been learning recently is that what is essential is a real relationship with failure.

We all fail, and failure hurts. I invested years of my life leading this initiative for Craigslist Foundation and traveled more than 100,000 miles learning from community members and partners. When it didn’t take hold, it was disappointing. And when Craigslist Foundation didn’t last long enough for us to learn from round one and try again, it was doubly frustrating.

We don’t have to share our failures publicly, but sharing them has an important role. It helps us move forward. It helps us get the disappointment out in the open so we can process the emotions and grow from the experience.

I grew from my LikeMinded experience. Leading the initiative expanded my skills, and I discovered that they were exactly the type of skills that help me in my current role as a peak performance expert and leadership coach.

The Real Stakes of Failure

failure is cool

This summer I went to a talk about failure. For our name tags, everyone was asked to answer the question: “How do you handle a moment of failure?”

Almost every answer was a variation on: “move on,” “fail more,” or “fail bigger.”

These answers come from a concept called Failing Forward. Originally, this was a great concept. It connected people to the idea that we don’t need to be stopped by failure, and in fact failure might be the pathway to bigger victories.

But somewhere along the line, Failing Forward got corrupted to the point where failure became the badge of honor instead of moving forward. Rather than being a tool, failure has almost become the end. That’s not cool.
Continue reading

Creating Deep Mastery from Repetition: Problem Solving

Repetition Opens Up Elegant Solutions

This is the fourth and final article about using repetition toward deep mastery. So far, we have explored discipline and expertise and expression. Repetition can take us to an even deeper level when we integrate it with problem solving.

LEVEL 4 – REPETITION CREATES ELEGANT SOLUTIONS

It’s easy to be expressive when things are going right. Things are flowing. We’re in a rhythm using our skills, connecting it to how what we want to express.

Then shit happens.

Have you logged enough repetitions that you can adapt? Level 4 is about getting past challenges.

At first, simply continuing when problems arise is hard. We don’t even know what to do when things go wrong. We get confused. We panic. Most of us need to experience an emergency to know how to get out of one. Pilots use flight simulators for this. They use traditional classroom and book instruction to learn the solutions in different scenarios. Flight simulators make the scenarios real. Their repetition is about learning to stay calm under pressure. They fail and learn from it. In some ways, it’s a repeat of Level 2 – learning the skill of fixing things.

Becoming adept enough to find solutions is good, but the beauty of problem solving is when it goes beyond fixing to elegance and creativity.

Being calm under pressure is valuable. Being creatively calm is invaluable. It’s what lets you land a plane in the Hudson River.

Raw, undirected talent dismisses mistakes. At Level 4 we notice their potential. Creativity is the goal of repetition here. Turning accident to advantage.

This is where Picasso decides it’s a problem to draw a bull the same way over and over again and reduces it to 9 brushstrokes.

This is where Bode Miller skis himself off the downhill race course and uses the netting on the side of the course to ricochet back into contention.

Without comparing myself to Picasso or Miller, I’ve been fortunate to experience this area of Level 4 often. In fact, the entire idea of freestyle at its highest level is to create the biggest problem for ourselves to see if we can elegantly get out of it. Sometimes there is an elegant solution, other times a clumsy mess. The more I give myself big problems to solve, the more elegant solutions show up.

When my team prepares for the world championships, I’m on the lookout for fortunate mistakes. Some of the most memorable planned moments start as mistakes. “Wait, that wasn’t supposed to happen, but it would be cool if we did it on purpose.” We shift course and use repetition to create something fresh out of the mistake.

Many people are uncomfortable in chaos. Most businesses have low tolerance for chaos. They want clarity, a focus on the known, predictability. And they are rarely the businesses known for innovation. Innovative businesses leave space for chaos. Allowing staff to fumble around with new concepts and search for better answers includes a risk of failure and also opens up space for big breakthroughs – seeing new markets, inventing new approaches to treating disease, finding better ways to talk to one’s customers.

The deepest mastery is courageous in its curiosity and experimentation. It doesn’t settle or shy away from the unconventional. It’s about uncharted territory. It is both discerning and playful. While engaging in this level of repetition can feel terrifying, it’s just as likely to be exhilarating and fulfilling.

If discipline is where we become skillful. Expertise is where we become solidly competent. Expression is where we become memorable. This territory of problem solving transcends all of them. This is the level where we have a chance to be legendary.

Creating Deep Mastery from Repetition: Expression

Repetition Creating Expression

In this series, we are exploring different ways repetition can lead us to mastery. So far we have looked at discipline and expertise. This time we go one step deeper, to expression.

LEVEL 3 – REPETITION CREATES EXPRESSION

Level 2 of DEEP mastery – expertise – is about fixing flaws. It’s about pursuing perfection. Learning new facts. Acing the test. Putting our skills to work in different circumstances.

Level 3 is where we set aside perfection.

By the time we get here, we know we can be nearly perfect. We also know perfection is not where the real growth is.

In the hands of masterful talent, flaws can be magical. Listen to the best violinists. Their precision is so amazing that they can create intentional imperfection in the performance. Waiting a fraction of a second longer for one note. Rushing another. Stretching the tones. Their imperfection has another name: interpretation.

Our Level 2 repetitions let us perform perfectly. And we don’t want that. Perfect is boring. Perfect is sterile. Introducing variations or flaws makes our creation more compelling.

The aesthetic of wabi-sabi is about appreciating the beauty of the imperfect.

The beauty in imperfection

A basketball player might notice he has enough airtime to dunk the ball with style instead of make a utilitarian score.

Athletic Expression

A project manager might be so versed in timelines and process that (s)he can find quality, cost savings or efficiency by refocusing on the individual strengths of the team.

Casting Perfection Aside

At first, it’s about doing it right. Am I showing up? Am I doing my reps? Am I performing this skill well? Perfection matters. And then it doesn’t.

In Level 3, we put our personal touch on the skill by letting it stray from perfect – and in doing so we might just redefine perfect. Here, creativity is paired with repetition. We add personal expression, and our distinctive style emerges. We become memorable.

The biggest learning comes from failure. We can refine and refine through repetition, but it only gets us so far. We might become perfect, but we lack distinction. We might be consistent but perform far below our potential. We may even be seen as the best in the world but be sacrificing an opportunity to expand what’s possible.

I struggle with that borderline between expertise and expression. While my team has won the last two world championships in the Pairs division, I would love for there to have been even more risk and expression in our performances. We nailed the consistency we needed to win, and in doing so sacrificed expressing ourselves through a wider variety of catches. I am proud of both performances, and the level 3 part of me yearns for more expression in each performance.

When repetition is in service of expression, we pursue perfection so we can embrace chaos.

The errors, the goofs, the rough sketches, the failures. Those are where bigger breakthroughs lurk. In fact, the farther we take our skills, the more we scoff at perfection because it holds us back. Being exceptional happens by finding the spaces that invite expression and in seeking out chaos.