Sunday, August 9, 2015

How to set your mind to achieve anything - 5 techniques

Last week, I broke down 3 types of organizational tasks to help you understand how you can be better positioned to be outstanding in what you do.  Building on that, I want to focus on shifting your mindset for achievement.

Just a Thought

What’s the big deal about your frame of mind?  Isn’t it all about the technique or about having the right resource to achieve your goals?  Or what about connections you may or may not have?

I hear you.  Hey, remember that scene from Men in Black, where Will Smith’s character, agent J, complains to agent K that it is no time to keep their special weapons hidden (because there are alien battle cruisers approaching earth).  Agent K responds:

“There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillan Death Ray, or an intergalatic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they DO NOT KNOW ABOUT IT!”

Ignorance is bliss?  Not really.  So, let’s get on with it and lift ourselves out of ignorance and get our minds working for us.

Mind Aid Techniques

1. Use the mental shelf

Sometimes, you can’t help it.  It’s not your fault.  

Life is good.  You’re enjoying the sun.  Then, suddenly thoughts of your ex pop into your head.  Maybe you had associated sun with your ex (or some other thought trigger).  Either way, you’re suddenly feeling regret and remorse.

You now have a choice.  You can dwell or pass on that thought.  You can have a pity party for yourself, or you can choose to be strong and move on.

I call this two shelves, but it could be two paths.  Either way, you can go one way or the other, but not both.  It just takes a split second decision, and then you’re on that path.

Use the mental image of the two paths or two shelves.  Good thought?  Add it to the positive shelf.  Crappy thought?  Just chuck it to the discard bin.

2. Finite resource reminder

I don’t exactly know how many heart beats my heart will beat, but I know it’s not infinite.  Remembering that helps me apply rule #1 with consistency and urgency.

Those finite heartbeats mean that you’ll also have a finite number of thoughts in your life.  So, remember not to waste it on past too much.  Sure, you may have to reflect on your failures to learn from it, but like the multiplication table, knowing it once will be enough.  You don’t need study it over and over.

Or in the context of work, leave no room for negative thoughts.  You can either choose to say ‘that’s hard, I can’t do it’ or ‘yes I can, now how shall I go about it’?  

Very different thoughts, and very different outcomes.  And it depends on how you view that limited resource called your energy and thoughts.  Make the right choice, and it will grow.

3. Positive Affirmation

Hey Siri, who’s the fairest of them all?  (Try, “tell me I’m good looking.”)

Well, there are many scientific and non-scientific writings about the physical impact of a mantra.  It is mind over matter stuff.  I won’t go deep into it, but I’m sure you’ve experienced the feel-good of someone giving you a compliment.

The neat thing is you can compliment yourself.

Suffice it to say that successful people apply their personal mantras of success and happiness: people like Tony Robbins (the motivation and performance guru) and Oraph Winfrey.  They believed in themselves even when others didn’t.  They kept on believing in themselves until everyone else did, too.

You can do it, too.  Believe in yourself, and not only that, say it out aloud.

4. Make it incremental and automate it

Cool.  #1 - #3 are basically exhortations to positive thinking.  But, you know that things are easier said than done.  It’s stuff that you already knew, but it still doesn’t translate into results.  

What gives?

One of the messages that I keep iterating is that you want to find ways to break your goals down into small steps, and then make an incremental progress (like the turtle in the tortoise and hare story).  For example, if you know that there is an environmental trigger that starts you down a negative path, take steps to begin to dull that trigger, however small the step.

Another message is to save yourself from yourself.  I mean, automate things when you can.  How?  For example, I wrote about how you’re a product of the five people you surround yourself with.  

If you stick with good budgeters, you’ll become a good budgeter, even if you naturally suck.  If you stick around vegetarians, then you’ll suddenly find yourself killing less cattle.  It just works.

(And the ultimate ways to get automation working for you is to build good habits.  People like James Clear and Tim Ferriss - in his 4 Hour Work Week blog - write extensively about this.)

5. Dig deep, and remember that day

There’s no doubt that in difficult times, it makes the world of difference to have a strong anchor.  Often, when things aren’t going well, we can rely on a trusted friend or advisor or family.  We can whine, we can vent, we can seek counsel.

At other times though, you’ll want to keep in your mental reserves those times when you were superb.  Whatever it was.  Maybe the time you won your high school sprint.  Or the time you made someone’s day.  Whatever is meaningful to you.  You can draw on these memories when you are down to turn things around from I can’t to I can mindset.


Honestly, I’m no Oprah or Tony Robbins.  And I don’t want to be.  So, I won’t quit my day job.  But, I hope you’ll experiment with these and other mindset techniques to help yourself into the path of achievement.  Good luck!

As I mentioned previously, starting next week, I want to start writing more concrete stories, specifically reflecting on my own career.

I first want to reflect a little bit about power and presence with a post about that time I thought an intern was a VP and the story of David and Goliath as my dad told me.  Then, I want to talk about taking the long-view and taking incremental steps, and how to do it.  I’ll also tell you about that time that I thought I needed to learn to code, and why I was wrong.

Till then, may the Force be with You!

Further Reading

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Three kinds of learning for a team player

Do the best you can be in small things.  While it is a powerful advice, it is one of those things that sound good to say, but is really hard to do.

Your intentions are good, but the reality often falls short.

In this post, I want to help you with that.  If you’re busy, feel free to skip ahead to “possibility thinking” section at the bottom.  I really want to know your take on it.

First, about doing the best, what was Lyndon Johnson’s approach to it?  He believed that if he did “everything that you can do, then you will win.”  And by everything, he meant the brute force way, knocking on more doors, calling on more people, campaigning in more cities, and so forth.  

Sadly, I don’t think that’s a plausible strategy for the majority of people.  It certainly isn’t for me: I get too tired to do everything.  I’m sorry, but I’m lazy.

If I get in the ring with Mike Tyson, I’m going to lose.  Every single time.

I think the trick is instead to figure out where and how you can do your best work.  Where can you apply leverage?  In an organization, it takes some reflection to figure out where that is.  Let’s put it into the context of different types of tasks and see how you can approach them.

3 Task Types and Your Role

Simple Sequential

During Renaissance, a master painter often painted only the faces and hands in a large fresco.  His apprentices would paint the backgrounds and clothing of characters.  Those objects were easier to paint.  Faces and the emotional expressions are exceedingly hard to paint well.  Only a master could do them well.

But for the master to put his finishing touch, the painting had to be outlined and painted first.  An art masterpiece took shape in a sequence.


In an industrial age, the assembly line has replaced the craftsman master’s studio.  But, the idea is similar.

In this context, you have a tool and a specific tasks you are expected to do a well.  But, like the mechanical pieces in the assembly line, you’re an interchangeable part.  If you get sick (or defective), they can bring in another part (faster, younger, cheaper).

Don’t dwell here.  If this is all your skills allow you to do, work hard to add a layer to your skills.

Layered Sequential

Take a child who is learning to play the violin.  In the beginning, the child plays simple scales to build and associate muscle memory with musical notes.  Scales can seem repetitive and boring.  That’s by design.  Without these foundational exercises, a violinist will be unable to handle more complex passages.

Once a violinist masters the basic mechanical aspects of playing, she can focus on nuances of interpretation.  Where should the sound rise and fall to elicit the proper emotional response?  What is the texture of the sound that she should produce here or there?

In reality, the foundational layer and more complex layer improve in tandem, and not in sequence.  The more she practices, the more she appreciates the finer distinctions of both the difficult and easy portions of a musical passage.  She will notice new faults and opportunities that she had not appreciated before.

The musician makes time for these exercises (etudes).  The runner puts in the mileage.  The boxer spars and punches the punching bag.  The firefighters drill.  This is the way of things.

Complex Network

Finally, as you master sets of simple skills through practice and exposure, you can begin to formulate more complex skills.  

Using the musical analogy, you can think of the conductor’s skills.  The conductor must listen to the many different lines of music simultaneously.  She will craft textures of sounds of music and draw out colors from the orchestra.  Doing so without a foundational knowledge of melodies and and harmonies would be impossible.

You probably are in a profession where complex problem solving skills are important.  Often, you do not have pre-defined parameters or solutions.  Rather, drawing on your knowledge of your environment, and using a deep experience, you can craft a unique solution to a problem.

Possibility Thinking

Sequential thinking is thinking inside the walls.  The walls are the rules and expectations imposed by those around you.  It is the violinist who plays only the notes she sees on the paper.

Complex and network thinking helps you transcend such boundaries of social convention.  It helps you break down the wall of “this is how we have always done things.”

I still meet many people who are locked into sequential thinking.  One college graduate I met talked about how competitive a graduate program is, citing admission statistics and average test scores of the entering class.  However, the reality is that standardized admission processes exist as much for reasons of fairness as they are for convenience.  

For those inventive enough to get to know the admissions officers in person and prove to them their capabilities, the application process becomes a mere formality.

Next week, I’d like to dwell more on positive thinking, specifically outlining some techniques you can use to talk your mind into helping you see possibilities and achieve big things.  In everything, those incremental small efforts will pay off, but understanding the larger context will ensure that you will be more successful.

Then, in the following weeks, I’d like to reflect on some stories about advancing your career.  I mean, I’ll talk about my own experiences, because that’s what I know.  Some will be tactical, some strategic, and I hope they will be helpful.