All you can do is all you can do.
“The scientific nature of the ordinary man is to go on out and do the best you can.” -John Prine
I’m an ordinary man. Very ordinary. Don’t mock me. You’re ordinary, too. That’s not a bad thing. Not doing our best is a bad thing, but today we’re going to work on that. That’s right. Today we’re going to try to fix that. At least for a little while. Who can be sure if it’ll stick or not. I mean, that’s the weird thing about inspiration. It doesn’t last long. An hour from now you’ll likely have already lost any traction I hope to help give you. If you’re really tenacious and determined…you might be engaged with your new found inspiration from today’s show for 4 hours. After that, it’s like hydrocodone…you’ll need a new dose.
That little kid in that graphic is my grandson. One of them. Cute, isn’t he? I used him for today’s episode for one big reason. Okay, two if you count his cuteness (and I do). The other reason is because he’s just one representative of the most important people on the planet to me. You’ve got people like him. I hope you’re blessed to have some little people like him. But if not, you’ve got some older people who matter a great deal to you. That’s important to the show today because it’s about us doing the best we can. It’s really about why we go out and do our best. And why we sometimes fail to do our best.
You know what happens. It happens to you. Regularly. Just like it happens to me.
We lose focus. Our concentration slips. Selfishness kicks in. We forget these people who matter the most to us. Foolish choices – self-centered decisions – bring about bad behavior. Sometimes, shameful behavior. We don’t do our best. Instead we do our worst only recognizing our foolishness after the fact.
We focus only on ourselves and even though we may be surrounded by people we love – and who love us – we’re lonely in that moment of our stupidity. Not doing our best.
“Ain’t hurtin’ nobody,” is a far cry from doing our best. Foolishness makes us consider it synonymous, but we all know better. The dad who hits the bar after work says it. Tell that to the wife and kids waiting at home. The mom who has to go out twice a week with the girls to party while some teenager baby sits the kids. Just two examples of failure to do our best by and for the people we claim to love.
Oh, you’re wanting to focus on doing our best when it comes to accomplishments? No, that’s not the point. Not today. See, we’re ordinary people doing ordinary things. Sure, we’re pretty good at some things. Not so good at other things. This isn’t about excellence. Or proficiency. It’s about living our daily lives and doing the best we can.
I’m presupposing that you’re not world-class at anything. That’s okay. We can’t all be world-class. Doesn’t mean we can’t do our best.
That little boy up there doesn’t care if I’m world-class or not. Fact is, he wouldn’t know the difference anyway. Think about the world’s best anything. Go ahead. Think about it. What you thinking about? An athlete? A doctor? A scientist? An artist? A musician? It doesn’t matter. That person can be esteemed highly by society and everybody in the world, but back home some little face may not see it. The little face may just be constantly disappointed while the world looks on with admiration. Is that being the best a person can be?
There are too many days that I’ve been a bad boy. I’ve not done the best I can. Neglect. Procrastination. Avoidance. These are some of the biggest distractions we suffer.
We can tell ourselves that we’re going to do better. Tomorrow. Or even later today.
But when the day is done, we’ve been a bad boy again. It becomes our way of life. A habit.
Failing to do our best is every bit the habit that doing our best is. Only worse. Much worse. The inertia has a direction. We’re the captain, setting sails. Steering the rudder. It just doesn’t feel like we’re the captain. It feels like other people are. Or our circumstances are. Or our upbringing. Our best isn’t possible because we’ve got too many people and too many things hindering us. At least that’s what we sometimes tell ourselves because we enjoy excuses. It makes us feel like a victim. Things are beyond our control. That way we’re not responsible. It’s random luck – in our case, bad luck.
We’re not ready to let go of the constraints, the distractions. We grow comfortable with our complacency. Do you ever wonder what it’s going to take for you to get ready to give it up and start doing the best you can? Yeah, me, too.
The best – our best – is hard to compute. Knowing what we want to hang onto is much easier. And in the moment, it feels more comfortable than being challenged to improve to do our best.
Sometimes I hear a voice in my head saying, “I’m not ready.” What it take to be ready? What do we need to do get ready? What’s it going to take to figure things out?
Time alone helps. For awhile. Self-awareness requires time spent with ourselves. It’s really not just time though. Intentional, purposeful time thinking about our life, abilities, challenges, opportunities and relationships is way more than just spending time alone with our thoughts. Most of us aren’t in the habit of doing that. We’re far more habitual about worrying and fretting. I’m suggesting we stop doing that. It doesn’t help us. Whatever pleasure we get feeling sorry for ourselves is short-lived. Instead, set aside some time to think about, and write.
Write down what’s going well in your life. List what you’re thankful for – gratitude is something we can all incorporate more into our lives. I’m starting with the good because it’s counter to how we usually operate. We jump straight to the problems, the worry points. Don’t. Instead, focus on the upsides of your life. Embrace it for a good long while. Dwell on it.
I’ve found it helpful to not confuse alone time. If you’ve spent 30 minutes or more embracing gratitude and concentrating on what’s going well in your life…avoid jumping straight to something else. Either keep going with those good vibes or end your time alone to do something else. I’ve found it ruins the work I’ve done to jump straight to thinking about my problems. Table that. Resist.
Don’t rob yourself of the benefits of holding in your head all that good work you’ve just done – work to focus on the things going well. Just because your time alone session is over doesn’t mean you’re not going to benefit from the work. It’s an investment in being your best. Like any investment account that delivers a return, your time dwelling on the good stuff will continue long after this session. The more often – and the longer we can hold a good thought, the more habitual it can be for us to think in ways that can fuel our improvement.
Confidence is a major benefit of this practice. Not just confidence in ourselves, but confidence in our lives. I’m not discounting skill or even luck, but in most things – not in everything, of course (like things very technical, or athletic) – inner strength or confidence makes an enormous impact on our best. Belief doesn’t change until we put in the work. It takes more than some cute phrases written on our bathroom mirror, or some self-help audio.
Holding these thoughts – these truths – of what’s working well in our life (even if it’s things that don’t seem entirely like our own doing) gives us strength. For example, my relationship with my wife is a top tier positive thing in my life. I don’t really think of my marriage, or my wife, as an accomplishment – even though it sort of is. But thinking of how grateful I am to have her can’t help, but make me stronger! And the more I think about how grateful I am for her, the more thankful I am for her. That’s how these things work. Hold those good thoughts and you’ll fuel having more of them. I guarantee you’ll become stronger if you adopt this habit.
I know you’re anxious to jump to your problems because you think by dwelling on those you’ll figure out better solutions. If that’s true, then why hasn’t it always worked in the past? Because obsessing about problems doesn’t often help us figure them out. That’s why when we physically and mentally go somewhere else we experience some breakthrough thought. “I get my best ideas in the shower,” is a common refrain. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s such a staple idea we all know what it means. It means when we stopped thinking about the problem, the solution came – or came to us more easily.
Of course, many of us think about our problems in the context of wishing things were better. Or feeling sorry for ourselves. Or moaning about our situation. Self-pity isn’t a solid solution for doing our best. “He’s a world-class complainer” isn’t exactly what we hope others will say about us. I know some world-class complainers. They seem to enjoy it, but they’re not fun to be around. Neither are you when you embrace the crutch of feeling sorry for yourself. It’s a ridiculously selfish behavior, too. You scream at the world, “Look at me. Feel sorry for me.” Some will. Most won’t. Because we’re all busy with our lives and trying to figure out our own problems. You think I don’t have enough of my own that I need to know all the details of yours?
That’s not productive toward doing our best. What can be productive is thinking about solutions. I know, it’s much harder to do. Which is probably why most of us don’t do it as often as we should. It’s just easier to dwell on what’s broken than to think of how to best fix it. So we start wishing and thinking “what if?” thoughts. We say to ourselves how wonderful it would be if this spectacular thing would happen, or if that thing would suddenly come our way. Suddenly our problem isn’t being considered in the light of a real-world solution. Instead, we’ve embraced hoping something good would land in our lap.
I’m not using hope as the opposite of hopelessness. I’m using it in the sense of wishful thinking, that passive activity that occupies so much of our lives in the place of putting in the work.
Now it’s time to get our brains engaged with ideas of what we can do to fix what ails us. But first, let’s inventory what we’ve done up to this point to fix the problem. We want to do our best, but we’re not doing our best. So what are we doing? What have we done so far to remedy this?
I don’t care how systematic you are with this process. The value is going through the process! The process centers on first taking inventory of what you’ve tried so far because it hasn’t worked. If it had you wouldn’t still have the problem. By seeing what you’ve tried you’re now open to consider what you’ve yet to try. Consider possibilities because that’s all they are at this point. Until you try them, they’re all possibilities. Don’t talk yourself out of anything. Or into anything. Write them down. All of them. The things you’ve yet to try.
There’s no way to know which one will work. Or which one might work best. This much is likely though – by trying something different you’ll improve. Even if it doesn’t work you’ll learn something. This is about doing your best. The only way to find that is by trying things until you figure it out. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe not.
Remember, this is about going out and doing the best we can. It’s not about doing better than somebody else. Or about finding wild success. You can’t likely control those — and many other things. You can control your effort. You can control how hard you work at doing your best.
You know I’m a hockey fan and we’re now down to the final 4 teams – the Eastern Conference Finals and the Western Conference Finals. Each team has the talent to win the Stanley Cup. Only one team will win though. And it won’t be because of the X’s and O’s of the game plan. They’ve all got a solid game plan in place or they wouldn’t have made it this far. We’re way past the competence phase of the game. Now, it gets down to more basic, fundamental things like fitness, health and will. You’ll hear these NHL coaches talk about their team’s effort.
They don’t just focus on that because it sounds good. They do it because it’s true. And because they know it’s the one thing that separates winning from losing — and because they know each player can control it. Players can’t control lucky or unlucky bounces of the puck. Puck luck happens — just like all other forms of luck. Teams don’t rely on puck luck to win the Stanley Cup though. Instead, they rely on all their experience, training and skill. Mostly, they rely on their own determination and will. They know if they out work the other team they’ll likely find success. Along the way, they’ll wrestle with confidence ebbs and flows, but if they persist in giving it all they’ve got…their confidence will find a height sufficient to play their best.
When you start to seriously, intentionally survey your life’s performance examine your actions in light of three simple statements – each of them consisting of 2 words each:
That’s how you’ll find your path to do the best you can.
The story is gaining popularity even though it’s who knows how old. I heard it when I was a young man. Now I’m old. Until recently I never checked it out to see if it was even true. Turns out, it is.
Maybe I heard it because I was born in Oklahoma, a state with quite a bit of native American history and heritage. As a boy I remember being fascinated whenever we’d find an arrowhead. The story likely came from that Indian culture I was around as a kid. I can’t be sure. Either that or it may have been because Oklahoma is also smack dab in the middle of tornado alley. Thunderstorms are a way of life around these parts (Oklahoma and north Texas).
The illustration is powerful. It deals with buffalo and thunderstorms. For those who may not know, thunderstorms travel from west to east. Whenever the dark clouds start rolling in, signifying a coming storm, cattle and buffalo both react. The cattle run east, away from the storm. The buffalo run west, directly in the path of the storm.
Question: Which animal is in the storm the longest?
Answer: The cattle…because they’re traveling with the storm.
The moral of the story is to behave more like a buffalo. Lean into your problems. Run into the storm. Don’t hide. Fight. We all have to endure the storms. It’s up to us how long we endure it. We can be like a cow running away from it, hiding. It just means we’ll be in the storm longer. Or, we can be a buffalo and fight. Face our storm by charging into it knowing that our time there will be much briefer than we ran away from it.
Storms are coming. I don’t know what they’ll look like, but the clouds are rolling in. Wave after wave. Some darker than others.
Springtime in Texas means thunderstorms and possible tornados. Lightning and hail are ordinary when the clouds are really dark.
Our life storms are no different. Some are violent and threatening. Others ramble a bit with thunder, but don’t produce much wind or rain. Some are predictable and forecasters appear to have prophetic powers. Others pop up suddenly, catching us off guard. Around here, you have to be prepared. When the sirens sound – warning us of a tornado sighting – we know where to go inside our house (or to our storm shelter if we’ve got one).
Damage depends on the severity of the storm and the preparedness of the people enduring it. When winds approach 100 miles an hour, you’re not going to prevent damage to your house, but you can stay safe. Houses can be rebuilt, new roofs can be installed and cars repaired or replaced. When you know what’s coming – and you prepare for the worst – you can survive. Battered maybe. Even bloody perhaps. People in these parts want to do what we can to survive. Mostly we do – as evidenced by how few people are killed in big storms.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself as I am wont to do. The storms that happen in our lives aren’t exactly like those that happen in nature. Sometimes we create our own storms. We make choices that results in thunder and lightning and significant damage. Overcoming our own stupidity can be difficult at times depending on the degree of our stupidity prowess. Some of us have extraordinary skills, brought about by years of experience in doing one stupid thing after another. Jumping off that stupidity merry-go-round can be a hard thing for some. I know. I’ve had my own struggles with it. You?
Life has options. Always.
Maybe not the ones we most want, but still — options. I’m a big fan of options because I like freedom. Freedom is being able to choose.
Walk through the aisle of your local Piggly Wiggly supermarket and you’ll clearly understand freedom. Okay, we don’t have more Piggly Wiggly stores in Texas. How sad is that? We’re no longer afforded the freedom to “dig the pig.” It’s enough to feel like a prisoner with no choices.
Okay, you get the idea — go visit your local grocery store. Pick something…some category of food item. Jam. Cookies. Cereal. Crackers. Bread. Mustard. Ketchup. It can be anything.
Now go stand in front of that category and count the different varieties you can purchase. There’s likely dozens from which to choose. That’s freedom. You have a choice to make.
Now you may look at the selection and think, “I’m not about to pay nearly $10 for some little jar of mustard.” Again, that’s your choice. You can tell yourself, “I can’t afford $10 mustard.” Again, you could choose to eat $10 mustard if you cared more about mustard. What’s that drink in your hands right now? How much did you pay for that?
That Venti Starbucks was likely over $5. It’s a one-time beverage. That jar of mustard might last you an entire month. Don’t tell me you can’t afford $10 mustard. You could if you cared more. But it’s okay that you don’t. Again, we’re talking freedom to decide – to choose what matters to you. Coffee is worth more than mustard to you. Me? I care way more about mustard than coffee ’cause I don’t drink coffee. My choice. My freedom.
No, I don’t care about mustard enough to buy $10 mustard. I just care about it more than coffee. It doesn’t mean I’m crazy for mustard. But I am crazy for Nilla Wafers. Sure, you can eat those generic “vanilla wafers.” But they’re not the same. Nilla Wafers are worth the extra money to me – if I’m going to eat vanilla wafers! Freedom.
We’ve got choices when it comes to the storms of our life, too. For the sake of our little story at the beginning, we’ve got two choices: we fight, or we run. We stand. Or we hide.
Scientists tell us we have a flee or flight mechanism that protects us. I call it having a brain. When we’re in danger we react based on our assessment of the situation.
If I’m walking down the street and somebody comes up behind, sticks what seems to be a gun in my back and yells, “Give me your money” — I’m faced with a split second choice. I’m free to run, hoping it’s not a real gun. Or hoping the robber won’t pull the trigger. Or hoping he’ll miss if he does.
I could turn around and knock him in the head. Or try. I’d likely miss.
I could scream like a girl. That’d be my first instinct. The moment he opened his mouth I think I’d automatically go to screaming.
I could empty my pockets while pleading for her to not kill me. That’s right. My robber is a girl. I’m free to make this story go any way I want. Your robber can be whoever you want. I want to be robbed by a girl. Maybe my screaming will make her laugh and leave me alone. Maybe my rugged good looks will distract her long enough for me to get that gun away from her. You never know. It could happen!
Okay, you get the point. Trouble comes and we can give in, give up or we can fight back. For today’s show, I’m going to boil it down into two very different reactions. We can either run away and hide. Or we can run into it, determined to get through it as best we can. We can be a cow. Or a buffalo.
As usual there’s irony. Or is it paradox? I’m not sure. Who can know?
I do know that buffalo and cows are about the same size. More or less. Both are from the bovine species. Yet they choose very different directions when thunderstorms hit. Cows run one way. Buffalo just the opposite.
Maybe we can’t know why, but I have an answer (you knew I would). Cows get scared and run away. They want to hide. It doesn’t work out for them. By running with the storm they just endure a lot more time in the storm. Are they stupid? Maybe. More stupid than buffalo? Perhaps. They think they’re doing the right thing. Why else would they do it? Surely they believe that running from the storm is the ideal option. That’s why they do it.
But they’re wrong. Maybe they’re too busy protesting people eating beef. They’re holding up their “Eat Mor Chickin” signs while the buffalo are being brave.
For whatever reason that maybe they don’t even understand, cattle hide. They’re cowards. And that cowardly behavior results in far more time in the storm than if they had just stayed put. That’s right. They could have just remained in that field with that thunderstorm and they’d have been spared the time in the storm, but the skies grew dark and they got worried. So they made the wrong choice.
It’s the worst option possible for the cattle. Like us, maybe they confuse movement with proper action. Maybe they’d feel foolish just standing there while a storm blew in. So rather than feel foolish they feel better about themselves by running away. They might be saying to themselves, “At least we’re running.” Who can know what they’re thinking or saying? We just know it doesn’t work out to their best outcome.
Buffalo could also decide to stay put. That would make them wiser than the cattle running in the same direction as the storm. But buffalo aren’t content to stand there being pelted with rain, hail and possible lightning. They’re evidently wired enough like cattle to want to get out. Maybe it’s instinctive or maybe they’ve got better weather forecasters than the cattle. They know getting ahead of the storm is futile. I mean, what are you going to do? Run and run and run…until the storm peters out? That could be many miles of running. You can’t know when the storm will play out, or how?
The buffalo seem to know that storm has a beginning though. Back through the dark clouds somewhere is blue sky. The buffalo seem bent to find it. Sooner than later. They know if they run hard enough, fast enough and long enough — that the someday soon the clouds will part and the sun will shine again.
Cattle and buffalo know somethings wrong. They may not know what exactly it is. Well, maybe they do. For all I know they sense barometric pressure and notice when it’s dropping. I guess I should have interviewed some cattle and buffalo in preparation for today’s show. It just seemed like too much work so instead, I decided to make some assumptions and record them as fact.
I’m going with these facts. The cattle know something is wrong. They just don’t know what. Their recognition isn’t all that keen. At least when it comes to thunderstorms. Frankly, I don’t know if they have any solid recognition skills other than knowing if folks ate more chicken then more of them might survive. But that seems futile really because where are they going to go. What will they do to survive? You can’t make a living wearing a Chick-fil-A sandwich board.
Buffalo seem to know WHAT is wrong. By recognizing the event as a thunderstorm, they react with greater wisdom. It helps to have a clear understanding of what’s wrong.
Have you ever seen a crowd know something is wrong, but not know what…and react poorly? In 1987 the State Treasurer for Pennsylvania, Robert Budd Dwyer, committed suicide in front of TV crews. He had been accused of bribery and all sorts of criminal behavior, which he denied all along. A local TV photographer came to my office on the day of this event, popped into my VCR a tape and announced, “You’ve got to see this.” Not knowing what I was about to watch I saw Dwyer conduct a press conference where once again he denied any wrong doing. After reading a prepared statement he grabbed a manilla envelope, took out a pistol and told people to get back. I remember hearing some woman screaming that he had a gun and it was evident she thought he was about to kill some people in the room. She didn’t recognize what was about to happen. (Yes, you can find video of this online to this very day)
He said a few more things, put the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. TV crews caught the whole thing. Turns out the primary witness against him later admitted he lied to get a reduced sentence for his own crimes. Turns out, Dwyer may have been innocent after all. Talk about lots of failure in recognition. It was rampant. Things aren’t always as they seem.
Cattle are like that woman who ran out of the room screaming that Dwyer had a gun. She was convinced he was going to go on a murderous rampage. Who could blame her? But she was wrong. He had no intention of hurting anybody other than himself. I remember thinking how suddenly it had happened. One second he’s talking to the crowd, the next second he’s laying on the floor dead.
Dwyer had choices. Turns out he was pretty calculated in his choice. By dying in office he insured his widow got the pension of over $1 million. Was it his best option? Not likely. Maybe he could proven himself innocent. But for some reason he made his choice to end his life. I don’t think it was buffalo behavior. The storm of his life – a pending lengthy prison sentence – was seen as something he couldn’t overcome or endure. Death was the ultimate run away tactic. A permanent way to hide. No, not the wisest choice. Suicide is never the wisest choice, but I admit I have a faith bias. Our life isn’t ours to take. No human life is ours to take. Proof I guess that we’re all free to choose foolishly.
Seeing clearly is what’s necessary if we’re truly going to know what’s wrong. Keep in mind, knowing what’s wrong doesn’t necessarily imply that we know what to do about it. We can know what’s wrong and still be very unsure of what we ought to do. Today, I’m focused on knowing what’s wrong though because if don’t, there’s no way we can react properly — or with wisdom. So it’s a first things first deal.
By running away and hiding we display fear. Nothing more. Just cowardly fear.
We bury our head in the sand. We hide from our problems. We avoid dealing or confronting our circumstance.
We hope we can stay a step ahead of the storm. We hope things will work out. We hope up ahead are clear skies. Rarely, if ever, are we right.
Hiding and running away almost always lead to a more devastating outcome. There’s a benefit in pre-thinking it and making up our mind in advance. There’s benefit in thinking it over.
Each of us can determine which critter will typify our behavior. We can decide that ahead of time.
We all know storms are coming. Maybe you’re in the middle of a doozy right now. You know you’re not going to be able to avoid them all your life. Nobody does. Money won’t prevent them from hitting you. Good health won’t either. Family and friends can’t protect you from never experiencing them. They’re just part of life and they’re coming.
What are you going to do when they roll in? That’s the only question. Pre-think that and figure out what you’re going to do. Consider the cost of behaving like cattle or behaving like buffalo. Both of them have a cost.
When it comes to time in the storm, the cattle endure a longer experience. But in the moment when they run, the cattle likely feel pretty good. Maybe the buffalo a bit more scared knowing the storm is going to be hitting them directly in the face, sooner than later. Maybe they had a few moments of dread. They face the storm anyway. It’s the price they’re willing to pay to get through it quicker. Bravery always has a cost. But so does cowardice.
Stop running. Quit hiding. It just makes matter worse. And it prolongs the storm. That’s the morale of today’s show. Decide you’re going to get through whatever storms come your way as quickly and without any more damage than is required. You’re going to get wet. You’re going to hear some thunder. You’re going to see some lightning. It can’t be helped.
See the storm for what it is — an opportunity to exercise wisdom in real-time, a chance to learn and grow — and a time to prove to yourself and those you love, that you’re a buffalo!
“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
Earning your spot is your responsibility.
“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
What a couple, huh? The Roosevelts had some collective wisdom, and pithy quotes.
Excuse making has been elevated to a world-class art by people otherwise unsuited for success in much else. They’re too busy finding people, circumstances and situations to blame for their inability to find success, much less mastery – or really getting good at something.
“Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.” — George Washington Carver
And it is a habit…making excuses. It’s easy. Common. And a way too convenient truth. Well, a truth that we think is true. Never mind that it’s not true.
Your ability to get good at something – to accomplish something or to achieve something – isn’t because of somebody else, or something else. It’s up to you.
I want to begin by focusing on YOUR spot. This isn’t about earning THE spot, or THE TOP spot. Talent has a lot to do with that. I’m a 6 foot white guy who has never been able to leap. Had I been fanatical about playing basketball (and I never was), playing in the NBA just wasn’t going to happen because I don’t have the natural ability to do it. Never mind that I didn’t have the desire. There are likely many young men who do have the desire, but just lack the talent necessary. Even though their moms keep telling them they can be anything they want — moms can be quite delusional. More so than most perhaps.
There’s also luck. I’m not going to neglect acknowledging the presence of luck. Call it random chance or serendipity or anything else you’d like, but it does exist. Only the most arrogant successful people would deny it because they prefer to think they’re just that much better than the rest of us. Maybe they are, maybe not.
Ecclesiastes 9:11 “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
Sure, time and chance happen to all of us to some degree. Doesn’t that just irk you when you hear yourself saying, “Life isn’t fair.” Of course it’s not. Never has been. Never will be.
Crooks sometimes prosper. Honest, hard-working folks often never find success. Failure is always an option. Success is never guaranteed.
Earning your spot isn’t about whether or not we’ll be wildly successful. Nor is it about recognition or acclaim. It’s not even about being world-class. Mastery is the goal.
Mastery is about putting in the work to become comfortably competent.
You hear lots of music here. These artists are often incredible. They’re accomplished musicians and singers. Many of them are relatively unknown – kinda like me as a podcaster. They’re more talented at their craft than I am mine, but still – after nearly 10 years of podcasting I’m confident, comfortable and competent. Comfortably competent.
Mastery’s enemy is sustained focus. Too many of us dabble. We play around with an activity or endeavor. Then something else catches our eye and we shift focus off that activity to pursue something else. The cycle continues. Oftentimes it requires stumbling onto something that so captures our attention – we break the cycle. Life can require something drastic to get our attention — or to help us figure it out, which may mean just helping us get our act together! Other times we stumble into something that is ideally suited to us and we’re in our element.
Until we settle down and concentrate on truly learning something – learning it well enough to be comfortably competent at it, then we’ll never master it. Mastery isn’t elusive because we’re stupid, or because we lack the capacity. Most often it’s because we simply haven’t put in the work necessary.
Our natural aptitude has to match the endeavor if we’re going to truly master it. Steph Curry could no more be an NHL All-Star than Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars Captain) could make the NBA All-Star team. Both men are playing the sport they’re ideally suited to play. We’re no different. I suspect quite a lot of us are pursuing or stuck in some arena that’s not ideal for us. Few things impact mastery more than putting ourselves in the best situation. That requires a heightened sense of self-awareness. As the ancient Greeks fondly preached, “Know thyself.”
Speaking of Steph Curry, I read a Washington Post article the other day with this headline, “The hidden price Steph Curry pays for making the impossible seem effortless.” According to the article Curry shoots around 2,000 shots a week. He takes a minimum of 250 a day, plus another 100 before every game. The guy works at it. Hard. He knows he’s got the natural aptitude, but he also knows he’s got to put in the effort to improve. Being good is hard work.
Knowing yourself is also hard. A worthwhile endeavor – maybe as important as anything we could do in order to reach toward mastery – but crazy hard. And not something that comes naturally to many. In fact, I suspect most people have no idea how to even begin to really understand themselves, and what they’re best suited for. That’s why you can Google “assessments” and get 110 million results in a little over half a second. We’re curious about ourselves. For good reason.
Don’t mistake perfection for mastery. The road to mastery is filled with failure. Lots of it. Pushing through that failure is key. I talked about it in episode 4010 where I talked about the value of the process. We instinctively know this, but life and the world has a way of beating it out of some of us. As children we crawl around until we suddenly decide we’ll try to stand up. We’ve watched everybody around us standing up, walking around. Why can’t we do that, too? So we try. And we fall. But we try again. Again, we fall. Until we succeed. Then we keep doing it until we don’t think about it. Walking becomes automatic and our competency is eventually comfortable.
Expectations are a problem. So is consumerism. Chasing stuff instead of accomplishment. Feeling like a failure when we don’t have fast success.
Too much social media. Too much input. Too much noise. Story after story with claims of wild financial success. Dreaming of high achievement, it’s disappointing when it doesn’t happen quickly. “It shouldn’t be this hard,” is a common refrain. Well, it is hard. We’re fooled into unreasonable expectations for our endeavor or pursuit.
It’s especially true in making money. Let’s consider this art – podcasting. I’ve been in this arena for many years. Weekly I hear brand new podcasters (or those who have yet to record a single episode) talk about how they’d like to earn a full-time living podcasting. The same could be said for photography, voice over acting, writing and a host of other pursuits. “You too can earn $100,000 or more a year!” Lots of promises drive up expectations which drive down mastery!
Plenty of articles have been written that expose the phoniness of some reality TV shows. It’s just one example of how we can’t really trust things to be as they appear. No matter that millions of people believe it. Modern deception practices have reached full mastery. Funny, huh? Our own pursuit of mastery is foiled by a different mastery – telling lies. Selling false hope. It’s an old craft, but it’s never seen this current level of mastery!
There’s no doubt about the level of dishonesty in the world. Enron. Bernie Madoff. WorldCom. Freddie Mac. AIG. The scope and scale of modern deception has proven more lucrative than any in history helped along how how fast word can spread. No way Mark Twain could have known just how true his statement would turn out to be.
A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
Except today, it can travel much faster than that. And it can be nearly impossible to correct, or persuade people that something isn’t real – especially if they already believe it is. Con men, phonies and liars occupy every segment of human pursuit making earning your spot even more difficult as you attempt to figure out what’s real.
So here we are in our quest for mastery stumped too frequently by deception – our own self-deception and failure to really know ourselves coupled with the deception imposed on us by others who have dishonest motives. Boy, how can we ever hope to become good at something?
Brace yourself because it’s really not so tough to figure out. It will require self-discipline, but getting good at anything requires that. If your self-discipline sucks then mastery is the least of your troubles. Staying out of prison, or off drugs, or keeping a job — those are the bigger issues you face.
Patience is no longer seen as a virtue. Instead, the patient are seen as those who don’t have enough hustle. They’re not hungry enough. If they were, then they’d be so dissatisfied by their lack of instant success that they’d pay whatever price is necessary to find it. Only real hustlers climb fast.
Speed and our need for more of it have eroded our patience. Even that laptop with a solid state drive can’t boot up fast enough for us. We expect web pages to load in a millisecond. The drive-thru at StarBucks or Chick-fil-A can drive us nuts. “Come on, come on,” is our collective battle cry. Our internal clock starts ticking in our head before we ever hit the button on our remote controls, but we’d like the buttons to know we’re going to press them before we do. Maybe one day. But not today. Today, we have to wait – albeit nanoseconds.
As for mastery, well, if we can’t achieve that by the top of the hour, then what’s the use? We no longer believe mastery takes time because we’re busy comparing ourselves to the stories we hear. And measuring ourselves against the fake results we’re always hearing about.
Plateaus are part of getting good at something, mastery. That’s where many people stall. Most quit. Seth Godin calls it the dip. It’s been called lots many things – the brick wall, the hurdle, a speed bump – but it’s that place where we just don’t seem to be making progress. We can describe it as being stuck. It’s part of growing toward mastery.
Don’t try to convince yourself that it’s not a plateau. Accept that it is, and that it’s part of the process to help you get to mastery. This is when you really need to focus on patience because if you’ll keep at it you’ll reach a new level of performance.
Forget that hockey stick trajectory that we all hope to achieve. That’s rare. An outlier. Besides, when you talk to people who do experience that, they’ll tell you it’s got challenges all its own. Rapid growth can also turn south in a hurry. Why don’t we see more child prodigies grow up to be wildly successful?
Instead, most mastery occurs when we maintain sustained efforts over time and experience bumps of elevated performance. Growth and getting good just take time. And that’s okay.
Let’s focus a bit on the verb “earn.” Earning your spot presumes you’re putting in all the effort required. But there’s more to it than that. It’s a cause and effect thing. What we do causes the results we want. Okay, to be fair, what we do contributes to cause the results we want. Good fortune, timing, serendipity and other factors certainly play a role, but we can’t always impact or affect those. We can control how hard we work. And we control how much we try to know enough — and learn even more. That’s what I mean by earn. It’s our effort to help get the result we want.
Sunday afternoon I watched Jordan Spieth – clearly a master at golf – lose a fairly comfortable lead at the Masters (see what I did there). He played well on the first 9 holes, but turned into a completely different golfer on the back 9. It’s like a different golfer inhabited his body. Such is the fragility of mastery. It’s the ebb and flow of performance. It’s why we open our businesses again each morning, and why the games are played. Competition is always breathing down our neck, chasing us down and hoping to overtake us. Jordan was overtaken Sunday afternoon in Augusta, Georgia by an Englishman named Danny Willett.
The first 9 matter, but they can’t make up for a poor finish. Mastery’s best performances demand a good start and often demand an even better finish. In the span of 50 minutes Speith lost a 5 shot lead. How quickly things can turn, huh?
Marshall Goldsmith wrote a classic book entitled, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful. What’s done is done. If it was good, like Jordan’s first 9 holes…great. The human mind can grow comfortable. And while mastery is comfortable competence, meaning these Master’s quality golfers are the most capable golfers on the planet – able to do things with sheer muscle memory – there can be BIG moments of uncomfortable disappointment. Speith realized his mastery couldn’t be taken for granted when he shot a 7 on the 12th hole of the biggest golf tournament on the planet. Worse yet, it was his tournament to lose. And he did.
It’s happened to us. No matter that it’s not at the Master’s in Augusta, Georgia. We’ve had our own platforms where we failed. Times when we had a win, but fell on our face. Part of mastery is the ability to overcome those moments, refusing to let them define us.
Have you seen the TV spots promoting the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs? I’ve inserted it here so you can watch early video of some of today’s biggest stars. It shows them learning to skate as little kids. The key message is powerfully simple: PUSH, FALL, RISE, REPEAT.
Never. Give. Up. Not on a dream you really believe is achievable. Not even on dreams you’re not quite sure about. I’m realistic. I’m not your momma. I don’t believe you can be anything you want to be. You have limitations just like all others. You have strengths and weaknesses. That’s why up front I talked about self-awareness. You have to understand and have a very accurate assessment of what you’re best at – so you can properly identify opportunities that give you the best chance for the biggest success. You want to find out where you can really soar – not just where you can sorta win.
I don’t believe good is the enemy of great. I think good is the pathway to great. First, you’ve got to get good. Too few of us are committed to getting good as we’re too busy chasing great. When we fail to reach greatness we can disappointed and sometimes we give up too soon.
What’s wrong with a strong quest to get good at something? To earn your spot?
But we tend to listen too much to the idiocy of BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals). Aim higher, we’re told. Go big, or go home. Yada yada yada. Garbage.
First, get good at something. Then devote yourself to getting better. Getting better may be incremental. Likely it will be incremental, but like compounding interest it will add up big over time.
Think of something you may be able to do with moderate success. Maybe it’s playing an instrument. Or it might be painting or sculpting. Maybe it’s working with wood. Or coding a website. You know how to do it, but you don’t yet do it well.
Have you ever thought about what might have happened if you had given yourself more fully to improving that skill. Thoughts like, “Man, if I had practiced that more 10 years ago I could likely be really, really good.” Have you ever thought things like that? I suspect nearly all of us have.
Had we just made up our mind to growth, improvement and accepting the fact that getting good takes time — then by now we could have been good at any number of things. Instead, we chased our tail. We bought into the big lie that if you don’t find fast success, then you’re wasting your time. Worse yet, we may have thought we’re a failure or that something must be wrong with us because it seems others are finding wild success while we struggle.
The fact is, sometimes our victories feel like failure because that’s what the collective noise tells us. We’re living in the fog of illusion. Thinking that mastery – getting good at something – is beyond us. Or that we’re not part of the lucky DNA club. Enter all that head trash, self-doubt and funk of failure.
Earn your spot by stopping your ears to the collective noise of fast success. Blind your eyes to the scenes of people who claim they lived in their car last year and this year they’re driving a Ferrari. Stop paying attention to what others tell you to do…until you have a clear idea of who you are, and what you are. Until you know those 2 things, you’re susceptible to all kinds of hogwash.
Own your reality. Take control – and responsibility for your own life. Don’t give in and don’t give up. Earn your spot. Aim at getting good – really good – at something you know you can become good at. Start with something you’re already good at, and now aim for being great at it. A bit at a time is just fine. It’s preferable. You’ll learn tons of priceless lessons along the way. Time and experience are great teachers. Don’t spurn them.
After all, it’s your life. It has to be your reality.