Start where you are, and practice.

I was a bit nervous when I came into my first week of coach training a few years ago, feeling excited but self-conscious and wanting to make the right impression with this new community. I had come to this place through a long, meandering path of circumstances that seemed to be steering me along a path, but I still had some elements of fear and doubt about whether I would fit into this new arena. I’m intuitive and I pick things up quickly, so I have a tendency to slip into student-expert mode in these settings, to be the pupil with the compelling insight and demonstrate my competence in order to validate my presence. In effect, I trap myself in this space of feeling the need to be seen as expert even from the outset.

Near the end of the first day we broke out into small groups to conduct our first supervised coaching sessions. We each took turns coaching one another using the techniques we had learned that day, receiving feedback from the other students and the instructor. Our particular group was supervised by Eddy, one of the program’s founders.

Now, the thing to know about Eddy is that he has a presence unlike that of anyone else I’ve ever met. He’s got a way of speaking that makes even the most mundane comment seem profound, and there’s a certain sense of playful and knowing mischief about him. His deep voice and soothing Zambian accent convey his wisdom with such immense gravity, like a combination of James Earl Jones, Yoda and Mr. Miyagi.

So as we all filed out of the room after the practicum session ended, I found myself walking next to Eddy trying to think of something clever to say that would sufficiently impress him.  There I was, walking next to the sensei and laboring over my thoughts, when he turned to me and said, “you know, not everyone goes on to hang a shingle and become a coach.”

I was absolutely clear on what he meant; that there are many ways to use the skills and discipline of coaching in the world beyond the path of simply going into business as a coach. But what I heard in my head was something more along the lines of, “you know, you may not be cut out for this. You don’t belong here. Your “I’m an expert” routine isn’t fooling anyone and you should probably just give up. You’re going to die broke and alone living under a bridge with nothing to show for your whole miserable failure of a life.” I don’t recall what I said to him in response, only that I had a feeling of being utterly lost and deflated in that moment.

Later that night I sat in my hotel room reflecting on the day. Should I just give up? Was I trying to go down a path that didn’t fit me? It had all felt so right leading up to this moment, and yet there I was facing this moment of peril. Slowly, it dawned on me: I had been so busy trying to manage everyone’s perception of me that I had failed to fully show up. What had led me to this experience was having a connection with my heart and mind manifest in a sense of purpose. What I was doing now that I was here was pushing that aside in order to try and look the part. I was a measured, muted version of myself in the classroom and it was undermining my success. I had a serious gut-check moment and realized that if I were to have any hope of success I would need to stop trying to manage the perception of others and simply be present in the moment, in all my uncertain, unknowing, imperfect glory.

The next day I had  a moment to bring this up with Eddy. I told him about my realization and that I had fallen victim to my desire to seem like an instant expert. He looked at me, and with so much kindness and insight said, “Why do you want to be an expert? You’re a beginner.”

I can not overstate the value of that simple statement.

Beginner’s Mind

The concept of beginner’s mind is not new or novel. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki wrote about it in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in 1970. The concept itself is far older. The idea is that as a beginner, we are in a pure state of experience. We have not accumulated the cynicism and disappointment or preconceived notions that come with time spent at any endeavor. We are able to absorb new information with objective curiosity and wonder, like a child when they first come into contact with each new experience in life. Everything holds the potential to be fascinating and wonderful. It is only our judgment that makes one experience better or worse than another.

With this beginner’s mind comes a particular kind of power. When we enter an experience with clear eyes, we are open to every option. Often, it’s the beginner or the newcomer who offers the innovative solution or the profound perspective. They are not bound by the structure of perception that forms around us as we progress deeper into our work. The beginner has an objective authority free of the corrosive effects of politics, agency and expectation. To attempt to bypass this stage of our development is to disrupt our own potential and leave possibility untended.
Practice makes more practice

While all this talk of remaining in a beginner’s mind is lovely, at some point we do need to begin to seek growth and move toward a more expert level in our leadership. As leaders, our role is not simply to become experts or authorities in our own right. To truly lead, we must seek to increase the expert capacity of our people and organizations. We want to inspire and provoke change, growth, and mastery at both the individual and collective levels. But how do we go about this?

Change is not a singular event, nor is it a result. In any context, change is an ever-evolving process that can often be more circular than linear. Whether the change being sought is personal, professional, singular or implemented across a large system, the value of consistent practice is perhaps the most crucial element of any effort. That consistency of action is best incubated in miniature and consistently modeled. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that we will not make mistakes. The very nature of practice is that we will take missteps on our path to mastery.

If we want to create a pattern of consistency, we as individuals must learn to be consistent.  A simple enough concept, but one that can quickly become challenging if we lose sight of our beginner’s mind. We blow things out of scale, make them daunting by causing them to seem too big, too overwhelming. If I want to make a change, I have to become a CHANGE EXPERT, if I intend to create consistent behavior in my system then I must be UNFAILINGLY CONSISTENT IN EVERYTHING I DO.

While these bold ideals may be admirable, they’re really just excuses. They serve as roadblocks and escape hatches that excuse us from achieving progress.

“I can’t start now because I haven’t mastered it.”

“I’m not an expert, maybe I should just quit.”

“Changing my system is hopeless. It’s not working now, and it probably never will.”

The power of consistency isn’t derived from our ability to apply it unilaterally across every domain of our lives. It is much simpler, much more subtle. Consistency is simply about doing one thing repeatedly until it becomes habitual and produces predictable results. It’s true power lies in our ability to use this practice to intentionally normalize our experience so that we can better understand and develop ourselves and those around us.

Practice does not necessarily make perfect, but it gives us data. When we experiment we have an opportunity to test our ideas. When we experiment consistently, we become more comfortable with the nature of innovation. With a beginner’s mind approach, we can actually reroute our neural pathways to associate experimentation not with fear and uncertainty, but with hopeful curiosity and excitement. We can program our brain to be comfortable with the uncertainty of the beginner’s stance, and to use that as a platform for robust learning and development. We must practice so that our practice becomes consistent.

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Start where you are

There are many ways to establish an attitude of consistency. One that I’ve found particularly useful involves a simple daily practice that can be done in just a few minutes when preparing for the day. You can do it with no training or experience, and you can start exactly where you are right now. It involves finding your message, building a sort of mantra.  It should be simple, and it should represent the principles that resonate with your heart.  It can be conceptual or tangible: “embrace uncertainty” or “eat more vegetables.”  It doesn’t matter which, as long as it is meaningful to you and supports your goals in developing mastery.

Once you’ve found your message, say it aloud.  Make it yours; by voicing it you give form to the thought.  Commit this message to your awareness for the day. Then, at various times throughout the day when you find yourself with a moment, recall your mantra.  Close your eyes, take a deep cleansing breath and speak the words in your mind (or out loud if you’ve got some privacy and it won’t make anyone think you’ve lost your marbles). Remember your intention.  What do you wish to be on this day? What are the principles that guide you? Where are you in your process?

While this kind of self-affirmation exercise may seem like a bunch of new age foolishness, it has been proven to be effective in lowering stress and improving problem-solving ability. I consider it a sort of on-the-spot meditation practice, allowing me to bring an element of focus forward into my day. It brings me back into the moment of what I’m doing, reeling me in from the unproductive stresses of projecting myself into the future.

So if you’re at the beginning, start at the beginning. Be the best beginner you can – ask questions, try things, make mistakes and try again. Don’t waste your time rehearsing poses for your victory photo; start by being in position when the starting gun goes off. When you take one step toward the universe, it takes ten toward you.  Start each day with just one step in the direction you wish you were going.  Before you know it, the view won’t be so far off on the horizon as it once seemed.

Lessons from the road: Where you look, you go.

I am not a perfect motorcyclist.

I got a late start compared to many, first swinging my leg over a bike at the ripe old age of 31. Growing up, motorcycling was always something that other people did. It seemed cool but I had never been exposed to it or had an opportunity to learn, and it wasn’t something that I was curious enough about to look into.

When I finally did discover riding as the result of a three month staring contest with an old ’72 Honda CB350 I found stored in the shed of an apartment I moved into, my life was revolutionized. It seemed to open a door to a part of me that I didn’t realize had been waiting to come to life. It also filled everything with more possibility, more joy and depth. Routes I had been driving on auto-pilot for years suddenly became pathways to brand new adventures. The hour-long drive to visit my parents became a favorite weekend passtime. I would get out of work, fire up my bike and just take off with no destination in mind, riding only for the sake of the ride. Every spare moment was one to be savored with two wheels underneath me and the wind in my face.

In the course of all this, I discovered things about myself. I also learned some valuable lessons that followed me into my work. In leadership it is imperative to draw from the full scope of our life’s experience if we are to be of maximum effectiveness. The lessons learned on the road are no exception.

They don’t look out for you. You look out for them.

It’s no mystery that people are at perhaps their most self-involved when driving. We feel entitled, we have no patience, and we’re quick to get hot under the collar if things don’t go our way. What’s more, a sort of silent competitiveness comes out on the road. Ever try to pass someone who’s clearly not going as fast as you are only to have them gun it when you pull up alongside them? Or roll up to a four-way stop with no light and watch everyone try to get into the intersection at once like they don’t know who got there first? Pretty dangerous, and even more so on a motorcycle.

Think about your leadership in the same way. Not in a paranoid “everyone’s out to get me” sense, but to the extent that you’ve got to stay focused and watch for danger and opportunity. Learn to read the landscape and the competition. If you’re operating with this in view, being mindful of their moves and learning to predict your own opportunities to pull ahead, you will find yourself in a much better position. If you focus solely on your own path, you may miss the danger coming up behind you. If you focus only on where everyone else is going, you’ll miss your chance to set yourself apart. The strong leader will develop a balanced view that takes the whole picture into scope.

Ride your own ride

Whether riding in a group or just on a popular route with a lot of other traffic, it can be tempting to push yourself harder than you’re used to in order to keep up or to not feel like a newbie. While riding with more experienced mates can be a great way to learn and improve your own skills, it’s important to always stay in touch with your own instincts and purpose. Just because they’re going fast and taking chances doesn’t necessarily mean that you should follow suit.

Even as a leader it may be tempting to run with the pack, to see what our competitors or more seasoned colleagues are chasing and set our sights to match, even if we may lack the skill and experience to keep pace. Ego creeps in, we don’t want to seem less capable than our peers.

You may work for an executive who approaches things in a certain way and think, “well, that must be how it’s done around here” even though their behaviors and attitudes may not feel quite aligned with your own sense of purpose. Do you follow the actions they have modeled, or do you define things for yourself? Using those around you as a benchmark is often necessary and not always the worst thing if you stay true to your goals and values, but if you’re competing just for the sake of pride you may want to reevaluate.

Stay in tune with your vision. Build habits that help you to maintain your objectivity. Working with intentionality and a competitive spirit is a good way to grow. Wearing yourself out and compromising yourself  in an attempt to keep up is a good way to get hurt.

 

When I ride, I ride.

One of the things I love most about motorcycling is that I get to experience the world in a way that isn’t otherwise possible. It isn’t just about the adrenaline rush that comes with running full-throttle through a series of technical switchbacks or discovering how fast my bike can go on a deserted straightaway. Don’t get me wrong, those things are fantastic, but they aren’t the whole picture. On a recent ride I was on just such a road – a long, straight, unpatrolled swath of California blacktop pointing out into the desert. I opened up to a pretty good speed, but not so fast that I couldn’t take in my surroundings. The sun was at my back, just past its apex and falling perfectly on my shoulders. My nostrils were filled with an intoxicatingly subtle combination of desert scrub brush, dry red earth, and the faintest hint of expended fuel. The sky was a perfect blue, and at one point a hawk took flight off to my left and soared along above me for several miles. It was magical, not because of where I was going but because I was present to the details of the journey.

In our work lives, things can happen fast. We’ve got to think strategically, focus tactically, and navigate effectively all at the same time. So much of the focus is on the outcome, the results, the ROI, that often we overlook our love for the craft itself. We lose awareness of the little details that make up the landscape of our leadership, and when we do we begin to burn out.

The greatest gift a leader can give themselves is to create and maintain the space to stay present and appreciative of the process. There is an endless stream of talk about mindfulness in leadership these days, most of which I agree with.

When the going gets tough, the tough calm down.

One of the things that makes motorcycling so rewarding is the constant challenge. It requires you to engage all your senses, motor skills, coordination and instinct as you navigate your chosen route. The stakes are obviously high, and the margin of error is very slim. When you’re weary from a long day’s ride and you come across yet another technically demanding stretch, the tendency is to tense up. I’ll start to feel it in my shoulders first, then maybe I’ll notice that I’m gritting my teeth or clenching my hands too tightly on the grips. I start fighting the bike harder than I need to, which only compounds my increasing fatigue. Each new turn becomes a battle of will, one in which I’m focused on my stress, fixated on the fight rather than engaged in the greater context of the ride.

In the most successful of these moments I will pause and recall the bits of wisdom I’ve gleaned from other riders. Treat the grips like two small birds. Don’t crush them, hold them lightly. Apply only as much pressure as is needed to maintain control of the bike. Loosen up the hips, don’t let the shoulders from creeping up around your ears. Relax. Trust your instincts, and remember what you love about what you are doing.

What we look for in these moments of stress is a way to reconnect with our state of flow, a concept perhaps most frequently associated with the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s a state of connectedness, of being at one with one’s experience and environment and thus achieving a seemingly effortless state of mastery. If we can access this flow, we retain the ability to elevate ourselves above the stressors of the moment and maintain focus. We can actually use these experiences to increase mindfulness and reduce power stress  to lead from a healthier state of objectivity.

Where you look, you go.

The concept is simple enough – look all the way through the turn, keep your eyes and head pointed toward the farthest edge of the spot you’re aiming for. If you’re making a slow U-turn, turn your head to look over your shoulder in the direction you want to go and the bike wheels itself around almost effortlessly. But if you’re nervous and don’t look all the way around you won’t make the turn. Your balance may falter, you’ll swing wide or possibly even lose it all together and have what I affectionately refer to as a “set down” – the non-catastrophic but highly embarrassing parking-lot case in which the bike’s weight tips past the fulcrum and you have no choice but to lay it on it’s side, as gently and nonchalantly as possible. And of course the stakes get exponentially higher as you take this principle up to cruising speed. If you’re shuttling along at a respectable pace when you come across a stone or a pothole or an especially tight corner, the natural tendency is to fix your eyes on it while thinking as hard as you can, “do NOT hit that!” 9 times out of 10? Bang! You hit the rock, or the hole, or have to break harder than you planned because you’ve taken the turn wide. And if you’re the wrong combination of fast, unlucky and off course, you’ll find yourself in much greater danger.

It took some time to learn to ignore my default reaction of looking directly in front of the bike and focus instead on the horizon. It didn’t come naturally, I felt that if I was looking out ahead I might miss something in front of me and veer off course. It took practice and patience to learn to entrust the immediate path to my peripheral vision while keeping focused on the longer range target around the next corner.

When your primary focus is the danger, you’ll go toward the danger. If you can learn to see and acknowledge the risk but focus primarily on the goal on the other side, your odds of success increase dramatically. The same is true of leadership. As discussed in much of the research in contemporary positive psychology, there is a stronger stance and greater potential in working toward a goal than there is when putting energy into avoiding an obstacle.


These are just a handful of the many lessons learned on the road. And “on the road” can mean something different for each of us. For me, it’s on two wheels with the wind in my face and the world spooling out before me in an endless lattice of new adventure. For others it may be standing on the banks of a bubbling stream with a fishing rod in hand, or free climbing the stone face of a towering mountain. The method itself is less important than the ability to connect these aspects of our experience to our deeper truths and bring these out in the work we do as leaders. These lessons serve to move and fuel us, and in turn create more resonance in our ability to inspire growth in others.

What’s your “road”? What has it taught you that you about leadership and service? Comment below or email me at info@executiveinspiration.com – I’d love to learn more about what moves you!