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.


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