If you want excellence, choose struggle.
It looks so easy: Jerry Douglas steps on stage with his resonator guitar and unleashes a cascade of notes so beautiful my jaw drops. I want to do that. When I play a resonator guitar for the first time, my head is full of Jerry’s playing. The room is full of my playing, which is…different than the sound in my head. Different as in much, much worse. Painfully worse.
I have a choice to make.
You hear great speakers all the time. People who seem to have others in the palm of their hands. You go to class, you learn some great techniques. When you try the techniques, they backfire.
You have a choice to make.
I can choose my past as a pretty good guitarist, or I can choose an uncertain future playing the resonator guitar. You can choose your past as a bon vivant, a sensitive guy, a good listener, or you can choose an unknown future, possibly as a communication superhero.
The path to your new future is paved with new skills, not just new information. New skills are grown using 3 very specific, very doable steps*
1. Make it smaller. Then make it tiny.
Being a communication superhero is a composite skill, made up of many smaller or component skills. That’s why getting inspired by someone really good doesn’t translate to an increase in your skill: You see the glorious whole, but the specific skills that make up that whole are invisible to you.
You’ve got to chunk it down. Find the tiniest unit of performance, the one that’s easy to improve. Find the moment you veer off course, and build in a course correction. This is critical: You’ve got to find something so tiny, so easy to improve that you can do it no matter what.
I got better at asking open-ended questions by writing down sentence stems on a 3 x 5 card and taking it with me everywhere. (“What do you think about …?” “How do you see…?” “What if…?” How might…?”) I found that my mind went blank because I was anxious, and the sentence stems got me over the hump.
2. Stick with it.
Repetition is what builds myelin, and myelin is skill. It’s not the flash of insight, or the new factoid that creates the excellence we love. It’s attentive, patient repetition. That means every time, everyday. You want to practice the new skill, not the old one. You’re either building myelin around the new pathway, or you’re building it around the old one. There is no myelin-neutral path.
I carried around those sentence stems until they were inside me. When I couldn’t speak the questions, I wrote it down for the practice. I didn’t let anything get in the way of firing that neural pathway. When the questions became a part of me, they generated a flow of new and better questions. That’s how I knew I’d made a quantum leap.
When you feel the gap between what you want to be and who you are, it’s frustrating. That’s fantastic! Taking up residence in the gap between how you want to be and how you are is what makes the circuit fire strongly enough to attract myelin. The more you feel it, the better. Pick a target, go for it, fail, analyze your failure; rinse and repeat.
I didn’t want to ask good open-ended questions, I wanted to be the kind of consultant that changes lives. Mastering open-ended questions is a component skill of changing lives. It was painful to stay in the awkward phase of asking good questions, and that’s what made it so effective.
The brain responds to struggle. Choose that.