Sunday, January 29, 2012

Visualization + Determination = Success

 Arnold Schwarzenegger has achieved the unthinkable.  Moreso than being the seven time winner of Mr. Olympia, star in multiple Hollywood movies, or elected governor of the 8th largest economy in the world, Arnold has become so famous that his last name is in the Microsoft Word dictionary.  This is particularly symbolic because when he was an aspiring actor, critics told him his name was too long for people to remember let alone spell.  Arnold has faced opposition in every one of his endeavors and there is something simple yet powerful about his life which has been responsible for his success.

First find your dream, despite the environment
From an early age, Arnold had to fight to hold onto his dreams.  He grew up in a strict, Roman Catholic household.  His family was never well off, and he still remembers the day his family was able to buy a refrigerator.  He lived in a time when he felt suffocated by his parents’ expectations, financial austerity, and the aftermath of WWII/socialism.  Despite feeling caged, Arnold was able to visit the local movie theater where he was inspired by films of bodybuilding legends like Reg Park, Steeve Reeves, and Johnny Weissmuller.  Arnold reflected, “As a teenager, I grew up with Steve Reeves. His remarkable accomplishments allowed me a sense of what was possible, when others around me didn't always understand my dreams.”  The films he watched inspired Arnold to become a bodybuilder and eventually an actor so that he could emulate Clint Eastwood and John Wayne who were also his idols. 

Combine your dream with lots of hard work
Arnold is truly among the 1% of people because he was not only able to dream impossibly big dreams, but also dedicate himself to those dreams relentlessly.  One of Arnold’s early girlfriends commented on his determination, “He's as much a self-made man as it's possible to be—he never got encouragement from his parents, his family, his brother. He just had this huge determination to prove himself…” Whether that determination manifested itself in working out 5-6 hours a day while working a side job, to thinking outside the box and taking ballet lessons to help him gain an edge over the bodybuilding competition, Arnold’s approach could best be described as Machiavellian.  Arnold knew he had to answer to the most important critic in his life—himself. 

 “It would make me sick to miss a workout ... I knew I couldn't look at myself in the mirror the next morning if I didn't do it."

 Application:  (Difficulty: Hard)
1.  “What would you try if you could not fail?”  Silence all the critical voices in your head and list all your dreams as quickly as possible.  Once you are done, take the one which resonates with you the most and flesh it out with as many details as possible.  Visualize yourself achieving your dream.  What do you see? What can you hear, smell?  How do you feel? 
2.  Break your dream down into actionable short and long term goals.  Review your dream and track your progress weekly.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Do More by Doing Less: How to improve your FOCUS

In the past few years research has been steadily accumulating in favor of doing LESS multi-tasking in order to be more efficient.  It's fairly common sense that it goes without saying: you are less effective when your mind has to juggle several different tasks.

Imagine if all of your attention was a giant pie.  If you were to cut it into thirds you might consider doing three tasks at 1/3 your normal efficiency.  However, in reality dividing your attention between tasks actually decreases it incrementally.  Furthermore, some tasks can actually become distractors when they don't get our full attention.

Research from the National Academy of Sciences corroborates the fact that being unfocused can have both short and long term consequences.  They found that mass media consumption resulted in poorer performance on a standardized attention study even in the absence of previous distractors.  In other words it is likely that you will remain distracted long after you turn off the TV, log off facebook, get off the phone, or turn off your computer.  

The good news is that the brain can learn to ignore distractions and improve focus:
  • Guard your heart.  Barbara Fredrickson, psychology researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, believes that a 3:1 balance of positive to negative emotions results in better team dynamics (calculated using mathematical modeling by collaborator Marcial Losada).  
  • Remove distractions.  Examples include setting a set time during the day to check email, facebook, or surf the internet.  
  • Segregate your work/rest/play cycles.
  • When faced with unexpected distractions, pause and consider your options.  Choose to focus your attention rather than react automatically.  Over time it will become easier to resist distractions.
  • Take scheduled breaks during work.  Also, set stop times for tasks that will take a considerable amount of time and energy.  I find that I work better knowing that I have an end point.
  • Shift attention to other projects when you feel yourself fading.
Try to do one thing this week to help you be more focused!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Speed Reading: Stop talking to yourself

All of us were taught to read by listening to the sound of words and copying them.  If you watch beginning readers in elementary school, you can see them mouthing words to themselves.  You are unaware of this but you are probably still sub-vocalizing while you read.

Until you break this habit you will always be limited in how fast you can read.  One way to practice this to read faster than you can form the sounds of words in your head.  As you practice, you will be able to take in and process information more quickly than before.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Are bad habits becoming your IDENTITY?

"Because the more we continue to make the same mistakes, the more we ingrain the ineffective behaviors into our lives. Our failures become our rituals, our rituals become our habits, and our habits become our identity. We no longer experience an unproductive day; we become unproductive people." -Peter Bregman, "Are you training yourself to fail?" (Harvard Business Review Blog)
Is your reflection this nice?
When I read that paragraph, a chill went down my spine. When I've had a rewarding, productive day I like to think that I'm building upon a chain of consistent behavior.  What is more unsettling is that I've often turned a blind eye to all the times just this week where I've let momentary laziness and distraction keep me from doing the things that truly give me joy.

Emotions play a strong role in why I get side-railed.

I've played out this pattern so many times:
...Wake up in the morning, having hit the snooze button one too many times.  No time to eat, no time to start the day by doing the most important thing first (eg., spending time to read, pray and calm my heart and mind).  No time to prepare for the day ahead

...A long day at work.  Not eating properly makes it harder not to be grumpy, sluggish, impatient.  As the day goes by, I feel more physically, emotionally drained.

...I get home, feeling tired and unmotivated.  It becomes harder to not get distracted on the internet. After a few clicks, I look at the clock and wonder where the time went.  Tired, I regret not having any more time left to do things that I wish I could be doing.  I go to bed not looking forward to starting another day.

This doesn't happen every day, but it does happen often enough that I fear that this is becoming a part of my identity.  As uncomfortable as it may be, I encourage you to analyse your own "bad days."  Keep a record if you need to and try to identify patterns ...and possible interventions.

The following things have helped me.  I hope that they can help you as well:
  • Start the day right (whatever you need to do to keep the right perspective and stay grounded in your principles).
  • Take care of yourself.  Carry energy dense, portable food like nuts/berries. Drink plenty of water. 
  • Set an hourly chime on your watch to stretch, take deep breaths, refocus on the big picture, and your life purpose.  Benedictine monks used to use the sound of hourly bells as reminders to pray throughout the day.
  • Take advantage of momentum.  Chain little steps to keep moving towards the life you want to live.  
  • Celebrate your victories and reflect at the end of the day.  
  • Don't stay up too late at night.  Tomorrow starts the night before. Go to sleep in peace.  

1.  Keep a record of all your worst days this coming week.  Is there a pattern?  Does one decision snowball into several others?
2.  Using your log, what interventions can you implement to avoid your common traps?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Speed Reading: Never look Back! (literally)

Being able to digest vast amounts of information quickly is a skill that will rapidly set you apart from others.  US President Theodore Roosevelt used to read a book a day--before breakfast.  John F. Kennedy was reported being able to read 1200 words per minute. Current and past Presidents have been able to scan a policy paper and face a panel of reporters with intelligent, informed responses.  It's incredibly humbling to consider that the most harried and stressed individuals in the country are able to read recreationally as well as professionally.

The average reader reads less than 240 words per minute, stopping to go back and re-look at words 10-11 times for every 100 words read.  These are known as regressions.  A CONSCIOUS regression is the result of not understanding something particularly well and wanting to reread it.  An UNCONSCIOUS regression is the result of conscious regressions becoming habitual.
Simply eliminating regressions will improve your reading rate by at least 10%

One method is to use a pacer.  Many speed reading coaches advocate using a pencil or fingertip to keep your eyes moving fast enough so that they cannot perform unconscious regressions.  Conscious regressions are also reduced because using a finger will focus your attention and improve comprehension.

The challenge is to pick a pace that is fast enough to keep your mind from getting distracted while not so fast that you cannot understand what you are reading.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A zebra's stripes: Learning to stand out by who you are

As a child, I loved to read animal and nature books.  Every weird trait, interesting factoid, strange pattern of living fascinated me.  The more I looked, the more I loved the uniqueness of every plant and animal.

At the same time, I was also being steeped in the subtle message that as people we need to conform and fit in as "nicely" as possible.  School was and continues to be focused on remediation: You are deficient in this way (Fix it).  Rather than focusing on how my peers and I had different personalities and strengths, we were measured by a common ruler that incentivized convergent thought and behavior.  

A zebra's stripes no longer evoked powerful emotive responses (daring contrast, unashamedness...).  Over time I could no longer see the stripes but only the herd--what was once a completely right brained experience became conditioned to become an exercise in categorization, and value for the whole and not the individual.  

Likewise, many of us have been conditioned over time to lose or suppress some of our greatest strengths as individuals.  Over time, we pick and choose when to express certain traits or quirks when we think they are appropriate for the environment, rather than finding an environment where we can be more of our true selves.  

Warren Buffett, is a paradigm of someone who has persevered in his values and unique identity.  He is notoriously patient, practical, and trusting--not necessarily what you would expect from one of the richest and greatest investors of the world.  Being patient and practical, Buffett invested in only companies he could forecast the business future for the next 20 years.  Buffett carefully vetted the senior managers of companies he invested in and trusted them to run their own businesses.  His careful, long term approach (coined "value investing") was the outwards manifestation of his unique and enduring traits.  

More than the billions of dollars he has generated, Buffett's greatest satisfaction comes from being able to enjoy his work.  At the University of Nebraska, he told the audience of college students, "I am really no different from any of you...if there is a difference between you and me, it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do every day.  If you want to learn anything from me, this is the best advice I can give you."  

1.  Are you aware of how you are different than other people?
2.  What ways can you apply those strengths to your CURRENT work/school environment?  Remember, Buffett was able to make a significant impact on the world by carving a niche in a seemingly incompatible environment.
3.  Close your eyes, visualize waking up and being excited to start your day.  What would your perfect work/school day be like?  How can you use those details to CHANGE your current work/school environment?

[Note: Buffett is also an example of someone who hasn't been corrupted by ludicrous amounts of money.  He is among a group of wealthy philantropists (Giving Pledge) who have pledged to donate more than half of their net worth in order to make the world a better place.  Despite his wealth, Buffett also continues to drive a used pick-up truck to work, living with the same Omaha, Nebraska values that helped him become successful in such a turbulent profession.  His son, a corn and soybean farmer, was recently named to replace Buffett and will act as the guardian of the company's values.]

Sunday, January 8, 2012

John Wooden: True to values = true success

John Wooden was an accomplished American basketball player and coach. He won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period.  At one point his teams had won a record 88 consecutive games. He was named national coach of the year six times.  However his greatest accomplishments live not in the pages of record books but in the lives of the players he coached and the people he touched.

If you have ten minutes, I would strongly recommend reading ESPN's tribute to John Wooden to get a glimpse into this man's life and impact.

Wooden defines success as:
"peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort do the best of which you're capable...And I don't think others can judge that.  I think it's like character and reputation.  Your reputation is what you are perceived to be; your character is what you really are."  
Principles didn't just guide John Wooden through life and coaching, they made up his character, and all his players knew that he had internalized the values he thought were most important to life.

Wooden's father gave him a "Seven Point Creed" upon graduating from grammar school.  Wooden carried it with him since.  He later went on to develop his pyramid of success which was the result of his own experiences, trials, successes, and failures.

What's important is not taking and applying Wooden's principles but taking the time this year to establish what success means to you.  From the time we start school to the workplace to our private lives, we often find ourselves conforming to what people expect or demand from us.  Yet ultimately, if we are to live a life without regret we need to determine what is most important to us and act in a way that reveals our priorities.

If you want an excellent article on this concept, head over and read Clayton Christensen's "How will you measure your life?"  Since when it was posted in July for the Harvard Business School class of 2011, this post remains consistently in the top five read articles week after week.

As another year approaches, let's not forget too quickly about the year that passed--and how we can use our own life lessons to make 2012 more personally meaningful and rewarding.

1.  Do you agree or disagree that there is a universal definition for success?
2.  How would you define success with a few short sentences?
3.  Are your current priorities (including the use of your free time) helping you achieve that definition of success?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dan Pink: "Drive-The surprising truth about what motivates us"

I want to pose one question and present two ideas inspired from Dan Pink's presentation on what motivates us. 

Question: What structure exists in today's workplace to motivate job performance? 

If you're like me, much of what comes to mind are monetary incentives to do more, be more efficient, cut waste, etc.  Other rewards include personal identity--either with the work or with coworkers, a feeling of personal satisfaction from the nature of work, or a sense that one is contributing to society as a whole.

Most of us agree that such incentives either are too scarce or do not work very well.

1.  Pink reveals research showing that increasing monetary rewards resulted in better performance at mechanical tasks but WORSE performance when subjects were asked to perform even rudimentary cognitive tasks.  This test was repeated and the counter-intuitive results were reproduced in industrialized countries as well as developing nations like India suggesting basic tenets of workplace motivation transcend socioeconomic and cultural lines. 

2.  Instead he posits that we are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  As examples, he points to the widespread impact of organizations like Linux, Wikipedia, and Apache--organizations which are for the most part generated by people who contribute their time, talents, and energy without monetary reimbursement.  The rise of Mozilla, creators of popular web browser Firefox, is yet another example of highly skilled people with other jobs who decide to use their limited free time to serve a bigger purpose.

Whether that purpose is to challenge the existing status quo, or to be " the cause of making the world a better place," (Skype) or to "put a ding in the universe," (Steve Jobs), we find that we are all in search of something that makes us happy and feel like we are fulfilling some purpose. 

1.  What would you say that your purpose is in your current workplace?  Do you know what the organization's mission is?
2.  Regarding autonomy, mastery, and purpose, what is the easiest change you can implement at your workplace to be happier?
3.  What purpose do you think would motivate and give you energy this next year?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Henry Cho: Finding a niche with "Clean Comedy"

What's impressive about Henry Cho's comedy is that it is so different than the rest of his competition.  He summarizes, "Do you know why I make money?  Because there's a market for it." Cho is in the unique position where he is paid not despite but because his personal ideals are in line with his business practice.  

1.  Looking ahead, what values do you want to define and direct your work life?
2.  Are there any ways that you feel your work stifles or stamps out these core values?  What ways can you hold onto those values while still performing your job?  
3.  Try brainstorming for 1 minute as quickly as possible on a blank sheet of paper for ways you can bring more of who you are to the work you do. 

Steve Jobs: Looking inside to look ahead to 2012

In his biography, Jobs recalls two disconcerting discoveries as a young child:
1.  Being smarter than his parents (knowing that he was special)
2.  Being adopted (knowing that he had once been abandoned)

These themes formed Jobs' early personality and persisted through the rest of his adult life

Lance Armstrong, in his own autobiography, talks about how the most competitive athletes not only had but required personal demons to motivate them to the highest level of performance.  (Armstrong grew up in a single parent household with limited income.) 

Taking the time to understand where we come from helps us understand why we are the way we are--and what we can do to be better. 

1.  Take five minutes to list some of the most powerful memories, experiences in your life.
2.  How can you connect or thread those events together to the present day?
3.  Are there areas that you wish you could forget or never experience?  What can you do this year to forgive yourself/others and live in a way that is healthy and productive in 2012?
4.  How can understanding the powerful themes in your life help make difficult decisions this year?