Know Better – Do Better – Get Better

Tips & Tactics for Personal Development

Monthly Archives: November 2011

Setting goals requires both a “What” and a “Why”

Setting goals is a key practice in the process of improving your life. Most of us can easily come up with a list of things that we want to be different in our lives. We want more money, more time, more friends, less stress, a nicer car, bigger house and more satisfaction. I’m all for keeping a list of things that would make life better. But in my experience making lists rarely leads to change.

Why is this? At least part of the reason is that every “what” also needs a “why”. We need to know the reasons behind what we want, because the “why” drives the “what”. For example, if I want to change careers, it’s important to define what my new career should look like. It’s equally important to know why I want to make this change. If my “why” isn’t very strong, it’s unlikely I’ll achieve my “what”. If all I want to do is escape my current situation, I’ll probably give up after I have a few good days at work. But if my reason for wanting a change is to have the chance to take on new challenges that I can’t find in my current job, or to work in a completely new environment, then I’m more likely to follow through on making the change.

So make sure you know the “why” (or “why’s) behind all the “whats” on your wish list.


4 tips on benefiting from critical feedback

As I mentioned in my last post, no one likes receiving criticism. It often hurts to hear it, and our instinctive reactions to it are nearly always negative. We shut down, we argue, we get angry and stomp off. What we frequently don’t do is learn to put up with the discomfort long enough to see if there is value in what is being said. So here are some tips I have found useful when facing critical feedback.

1. Assume good motives. It’s very easy to assume that people who criticize us don’t like us. This may not be the case. They may actually want us to do better in the future, so they are offering us directions on how to grow. If we assume that all criticism comes from nasty motives we’ll miss any good information because we are too busy trying to defend ourselves.

2. Say thank you. I learned this one from Marshall Goldsmith. He explains this more fully in his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Even if you don’t agree with what it being said, show some gratitude for the fact that another person is trying to help you. It’s really disarming for the other person, and can help both sides relax and focus.

3. Be aware of your own emotional state at the time. If you are upset over something, that’s probably not the best time to listen to someone criticize you. Ask to meet again at a later time and explain that you want the meeting to be effective, but this is not a good time.

4. Ask how the criticism will help you perform better. Ask for specific examples of what you need to do differently. It’s no help when someone says you need to show more empathy. They need to be able to give you specific examples of how to do this effectively. Telling someone to be nice is insulting, as most people don’t generally set out to be mean, although they may not be aware of how their behavior impacts others.

If we learn to live with a little discomfort when facing critical feedback, we can benefit from it and also build stronger relationships with people who are in a position to help us. In the long run my goal for myself is to have strong enough relationships with the critical people in my life that giving and receiving critical feedback ceases to be traumatic, and that it happens in small doses or minor course corrections on an ongoing – even daily – basis. Turning a critic into an ally is a huge win for both sides.

I don’t mean to criticize but…

I don’t know anyone who likes to be criticized. Even if we know that we need to improve, we don’t necessarily want to hear from others how they think we should do this. On the other hand, having another person’s perspective can be very valuable. So how can we get the benefit of another point of view without the distress that so often accompanies criticism from others?

I believe the key to resolving this paradox involves three key factors: Genuine concern for the individuals involved, an awareness of one’s own emotional state, and a clear sight of the goals that need to be accomplished and how any criticism aids in reaching this goal. Let’s break these down further.

Genuine concern for the individuals who are receiving the criticism means respecting them as human beings with strengths, weaknesses and goals of their own, and as valuable contributors to the group. It means that before we try to give them feedback to help them improve, we take the time to find out what they are working on in their own life, where they are struggling, and where they lack the skill or drive to improve. It may be that they are not ready to benefit from our words of wisdom, and in this case we’ll need to learn more about them before our feedback can truly help them. Giving critical feedback without first doing this can be very harmful, and will severely limit their ability to hear what we say.

An awareness of our own emotional state means that we don’t allow our own emotional discomfort to drive the conversation or influence its timing. If thinking about giving feedback to someone makes us feel distressed, we can be sure that this distress will be transmitted to the other person and will undermine any help we might otherwise offer. If we are initiating the conversation, we need to be in an balanced emotional state before we begin. If this isn’t possible, we need to be upfront with the other person about how we are feeling, let them know that we have something that needs to be said, and schedule a later time to meet.

A clear sight of what needs to be accomplished and how giving feedback to an individual will assist in reaching this goal means that we think through what we are planning to say and deliberately tie it back to the individual or team goals. The person needs to see how the feedback will help them be a better team player. If they don’t see this clearly, they may well take your feedback as a personal attack.

Those on the receiving end of critical feedback also have a responsibility to make these conversations as effective and painless as possible. More on that in another post.

Here’s a blog entry by Tony Schwartz that got me thinking about this topic:

Beware the “Can Do” attitude

While I am all for enthusiasm and drive, I’m suspicious of people who are too “gung-ho.” I’ve seen too many situations where someone was too quick to take action to solve a problem, and their actions actually made the situation worse.

A recent example was a situation I observed where a customer service agent was so intent on helping a customer that she never actually listened to what the customer was saying. Her solution not only failed to satisfy the customer, it also upset them, since what the customer really wanted in this case was to have someone listen to their complaint and assist them in choosing the best option for resolving it. Instead the customer was left feeling run over by the agent’s good will and drive.

I think that this attitude is often driven by our desire to solve problems as quickly as possible, because we can’t stand the discomfort that an unresolved problem causes us to feel. In addition, if we don’t take the time to properly assess a situation, we are unlikely to come up with sound solutions. Good problem-solving requires time and planning, and experienced people know this and make time for it.

Ask yourself how you would react to the following situation:

You have been given a task that needs to be completed in 30 minutes. How many minutes would you use to plan how you are going to solve the problem, and how many will you use to actually do the work involved?

Real artists ship

Steve Jobs reportedly said this to some programmers who were reluctant to stop working on their code and allow the product that included their code to ship to Apple’s customers. Seth Godin focuses on this in one of the chapters of his recent book, Linchpin. Says Godin, “The purpose of starting is to finish.”

Real artists ship. And determined people change.

Anytime we set out to make a significant change in our  lives, we need to make sure we know when to ship, that is, when we need stop analyzing what we will do and actually do it. I have found that people (including myself) can put an amazing amount of thought and energy into planning and talking about what they are going to do to improve their lives or start a new venture. But they never ship. They never set a goal together with a timeline and actually start. And if there is no pressure to ship your product, there’s also no urgency to change. It’s just an intellectual exercise.

So learning how to ship is vital, both for individuals and for companies. We can all learn how to set a goal, make a plan and set milestones and deadlines for evaluating our progress. And if you are having trouble shipping, it can be very helpful to get a partner and share with them your plan and timeline so that they can help you stay on course.

And remember that there is no such thing as change in the future. Change only occurs in the now.

The importance of self-knowledge

Self-knowledge is a vital factor in your path to success, because your skills, talents and experience are the foundation of your success. There is no point trying to be succesful in an area where you lack the ability to excel. As an example I’m not good at conceptualizing things; I’m much better with physical objects I can manipulate. However I know a young man who can understand  abstract concepts instinctively, and he is going to be a very successful architect. I’m not. However when it comes to manipulating data or writing, I can beat him hands down.

So how do we acquire accurate self-knowledge? That is a very good question, since we are often very aware of our shortcomings and perfectly blind to our talents. Here are a few easy ways to recognize your own skills and talents:

1. People compliment you on your ability to do something well.

2. You choose to do it on your own time and with your own resources.

3. Someone is willing to pay you to do it.

4. You lose track of time while you are doing it.

5. You can’t understand why other people find it so hard to do.

So if you do nothing else after reading this, try writing down your top 3 skills or talents – things that you can do easily. My 3 are:

1. Analysis

2. Writing

3. Public speaking

Once you know your key skills and talents you can then start to look for opportunities to use these. You will find more satisfaction is situations where you can use the skills and talents you possess. So take the time to find out what drives you, and then go find situations where your skills are in demand, and where people appreciate you for what you can offer. And if you are in a job or situation where you are not feeling motivated, it could very well be because you can’t use the talents that make you effective and allow you to contribute.

Never be in a hurry to lose

No one likes losing. So why rush into situations where you may lose?

You say you don’t do this? I’ll bet you do.

Do you ever let your emotions – especially anger or pride – get the best of you?

Do you try to win arguments when in fact there is very little at stake?

Do you take a “stand” on issues and only back down when someone with more authority tells you to back off?

Do you become obsessed with reaching a specific goal in a hurry – and ignore other, more important tasks?

Do you like to tell people why their ideas won’t work?

When you do these things, you are setting yourself up to lose. You are daring people to find a way to kick your feet out from under you. And many will take you up on this dare.

So what can you do to prevent this? Here’s one trick I use:

When you are in situations where your emotions are getting away from you, ask yourself if what you are trying to accomplish will matter in 5 years. If it will make a difference, but all means go for it. But in my own experience there are exceptionally few instances where this is the case. We may like to think this is the case, but emotions distort our perspective. And when we are temporarily blinded by emotional stress, we can get stupid very quickly.

So give the situation 24 hours and see if you still feel as strongly about it. I’m willing to bet that your decisions after 24 hours will be much clearer.

It never pays to be in a hurry to lose. As one author said, “Hurry is not from the devil. Hurry is the devil.”

Stop playing the victim!

In my experience most people don’t realize that they are playing the victim in their life. They see their life and circumstances as predetermined, and often blame past events or their circumstances for their problems. As long as they have this attitude, they are not open to change.

How do we know when we are playing victim?

Listen to the ongoing conversations you have with yourself. Are you regularly making excuses as to why you can’t do something? Are you blaming others for making your life difficult? Are you setting limits on what you will try to do in life? Are you constantly whining about how hard your life is?

Anytime we allow something other than ourselves to control our mental life and choices, we are giving away our power to change. The essence of playing victim is giving up the power to choose for ourselves what kind of life we will live.

The first step in choosing not to be a victim is to accept that you are in charge of your life. This doesn’t mean that you can instantly change your life for the better. It does mean that you can control your actions and your attitude, regardless of how things turn out for you, and that you can succeed despite the obstacles in your way. As one author put it, “The person who will not be defeated cannot be defeated.”

Making this choice may sound easy. But I can tell you from experience that it is not. It’s a choice you have to make over and over again until it becomes a habit. It requires both persistence and patience.

So here’s an exercise to see where you are playing victim in your life: Over the next week pause once or twice per day and scan your thinking for any thoughts where you are consistently making excuses, whining and blaming others. Don’t try to change these thoughts or argue against them, simply notice that they are occurring. If you do this consistently you will see patterns in your thinking where you repeatedly play victim. Once you see these patterns, you can develop tactics to counteract them.

The key here is to get these unhealthy thoughts out in the open where you can examine them and decide if they are helping you live the life you want or standing in your way. Once you see the thoughts that are hindering you, it can be easier to address them and become more aware of how they are undermining your attempts to become a better person.

Suggested reading: Unbeatable by Jack Schropp. His chapter on being a volunteer rather than a victim is outstanding.

Find out what doesn’t work; then don’t do it.

The goal of all learning is to improve your ability to do something. So it’s not surprising that many success strategies claim that by learning something new, you can change your life. And in some cases this is true. For example, learning how to drive does change your life and give you the freedom to take advantage of opportunities that were not previously available to you. Learning to speak a foreign language opens your mind up to new ways of thinking. So there is something to this strategy.

However there is another strategy that I believe is equally effective. It is summarized in the title above: Find out what doesn’t work, and then don’t do it. When we are trying to change our lives, it is often hard to begin and then maintain the new habits that are required to make the change permanent in our lives. I believe this is because we have not first removed the thoughts and habits that stand in the way of our making these changes.

So let’s say you want to change how you deal with a difficult person. You can try new tactics, but I believe that until you stop doing the things that aggravate the relationship and distort your perspective, these new tactics will be only minimally effective. Before you can strengthen the relationship, you have to first stop doing the things that make the relationship unpleasant. If you want to listen more, you have to first stop speaking and focus on the other person and their needs. If you want to understand the other person’s perspective, you have to first stop planning your responses to them while you are listening and actively listen to the other person.

In other words, you have to first identify and acknowledge the actions or habits that stand in the way of improving the relationship. Then you have to actually stop doing them.

This may not sound as glamorous as trying out some new and trendy tactic. But I believe this is actually easier and more effective than simply changing your behavior. In fact, I think that unless you first get rid of the habits of thought and action that are undermining your attempts to change, these ingrained habits will ultimately trip you up, no matter how determined you are to use the new tactics. The challenge is often identifying one’s own habits that so often subtly undermine efforts to change.

So don’t give up trying new strategies. They do add value. But make sure you also weed out the old habits that are holding you back, so that the new strategies can take root and become your own.

Learn to read; read to learn; read to lead

Reading as a skill has been displaced in our modern world. While electronic media certainly have made our lives easier, their dominance has also degraded certain other skills. I believe that reading is one of these skills, and that its loss has undermined our ability to communicate with each other, and to learn from and teach each other.

Full disclosure: I am an avid reader. I read anywhere from 20 to 30 books per year. Just so you know where I am coming from.

It’s been said that those who don’t read are no better off than those who can’t read. While this is perhaps an overstatement, I think there is some truth in it.

Reading requires time and discipline. Both are in short supply in our modern world. However the payback can be enormous.

Reading allows the reader to control what they learn and how they learn it. It also allows for reflection, for thinking over what one has read and forming new ideas and conclusions from what they have learned. Reading provides perspective.

Reading is free. I don’t know of any other training program that provides so much for free.

Reading requires discipline at the start, and teaches discipline of thought as one reads. 2 for 1 here.

So why don’t more people read?

I honestly think it’s because they don’t see the value. If they knew how much the successful people around them read and thought, and how this made them successful and disciplined, they might be more inspired. But until we advertise the benefits of reading, we will continue to think that life consisted of tweets and e-mail, and we will miss the much larger universe of human thought that has inspired generations of people to think for themselves and make better choices in their daily lives.

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