Tagged: experimentation

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.

5 Things I Did Not Expect to Learn from Woody Allen

I’m not a Woody Allen fan. While I have enjoyed a few of his movies, most of the time I find them uninteresting, unfunny and contrived. His latest film, Blue Jasmine, is set here in the Bay Area and had some word-of-mouth, so I gave it a chance. And it was bad.

I’m not surprised that Oscars voters gave Allen a screenwriting nomination this morning. He gets a lot of free passes. I’m sad for the writers whose quality work was passed over in favor of Allen’s reputation.

Look for the Cate Blanchett

Blue Jasmine is a mess except for exceptional acting performances, primarily from Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins. Blanchett and Hawkins give Blue Jasmine its strength, and I was happy to see their Oscar nominations. In the midst of what is otherwise a train wreck, their performances redeem the experience.

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic. It’s elusive to define, but one way to think of it is beautifully flawed. Cracked pottery. A vocal solo that becomes unforgettable because of the cracks in the singer’s voice. Wabi Sabi. The beauty in the flaw. Finding the Cate Blanchett in a Blue Jasmine.

Seeing Blue Jasmine made me want to write about how wrong the movie is and about how generally wrong Woody Allen’s filmmaking is, but it became more important to find the Wabi Sabi of Woody Allen. What can we learn from this depressing, strange man’s success? What is Woody Allen doing right and wrong, and how can we use those lessons?

Lesson 1: Persistence

Allen makes roughly a movie per year. He’s released 44 films since 1966. Most of them make little impact and disappear, but he has built a reputation that allows him to continue making films in spite of repeated failure.

Every five to ten years, he makes something good that amplifies his legend. The clunkers are forgotten. The hits are remembered.

It’s about persistence. If a success rate of 1 in 10 is enough to become legendary, then we should plug away. We should create often. We should brush off failure and keep grinding forward.

Lesson 2: Be Economical

One of the things Allen does well is operate on a budget. He’s built his reputation such that people will waive their normal fees to work with him. By keeping the costs of each project low, each failure matters less and each success has bigger upside.

The lesson here: take lots of smaller risks and run with the successes.

Lesson 3: Know Your Audience

Woody Allen is not writing movies for me. He’s been fortunate to find a niche audience, one that’s almost big enough to make his movies profitable. He found them, and he keeps speaking to them. Tyler Perry’s done the same thing on a much bigger scale. Both filmmakers release at least one movie a year and speak unapologetically to their niche audience.

It’s a cool thought that all of our freaky endeavors may have an audience among the 7 billion people on our planet. All we have to do is figure out who they are and reach them with something valuable.

Lesson 4: Use Your Team

We all need a support system to reach our peak level of performance, and most of us don’t cultivate the kind of support we need. Behind the scenes, Allen uses his team well for logistics. He has a well-oiled production team that puts all pieces together so he can focus on writing and directing.

Where Allen doesn’t use his team well is quality control. The people around us – our team – are one of our greatest assets. Used actively, they can build and refine good ideas. They can connect us to those who can help us reach our goals. They can keep us on track when we’re off the mark.

In Blue Jasmine, Allen’s quality control was absent. We learn that a large portion of San Franciscans talk with New York accents and that San Francisco is a sunny and warm city with no wind, fog or rain. We learn that there are no gay people in San Francisco – or Latinos or African Americans except when used as menacing set dressing. Something I never knew until seeing Blue Jasmine was that mid-level jobs in the diplomatic corps are lucrative enough to pay for multimillion dollar Marin homes.

Strange and distracting messages. If Allen weren’t operating in a vacuum, his support system would have guided him to small changes that could hold his film together. Which leads us to lesson 5.

Lesson 5: Be Real

Being real binds an experience together. It’s grounding and sometimes uncomfortable. And it can take work. Without realness, we’re out of touch and things get unconvincing and distracting.

I rarely find Woody Allen’s work real. In Blue Jasmine, a story about losing touch with reality, Allen is disconnected from the real in all the wrong ways. I’m not sure whether Allen cuts corners because of the pace of his filmmaking or whether he just doesn’t care about details. There’s a lot of comedy and absurdity about life in San Francisco, but Allen walked away from bountiful comic material and chose to cast New Yorkers as San Franciscans and have them act out a nonsensical plot. The locations look familiar but the people have nothing to do with the city. They don’t ring true. They’re not real.

So how do we stay real? It seems a lot like balancing. We’re always being pulled away from the real, but we have to actively draw ourselves back toward it. Knowing ourselves is key. Otherwise we won’t know when we’ve been pulled away. That support system is important too. Trusted friends can keep us in line.

Just Five? Okay. Here’s An Easter Egg

This post is about what we can learn from Woody Allen, and it’s also about me shifting from venting mode into learning mode. So there’s actually a bonus lesson here, an Easter Egg.

The hidden secret sixth lesson is about Wabi Sabi and Cate Blanchett. It goes something like this. Being real means you get to have an opinion about things – like for instance that Blue Jasmine is a crappy movie. It even means you get to share that opinion. But the sixth lesson is that over-focusing on what’s wrong is a distraction. Writing a blistering movie review is not what’s important in my life. Dwelling on all the many faults of the film nearly distracted me from the larger takeaways I’ve written about here. The secret sixth lesson is about learning. It’s about looking past the emotional reaction and seeing what’s useful. Finding the genius in the flaws. Few of us are good at the secret sixth lesson, but it may just be the most important one.

A Footnote

In writing this, I stumbled on a James Altucher piece from a few years ago. Same Woody Allen theme with some different perspectives. Worth reading.