Posts Tagged effort

Going Back to the Woodlot to Find Success

I cut a lot of firewood when I was a kid. Well, I didn’t actually do the cutting. Because I was too young and clumsy to handle the chainsaw, my job was to carry logs to the truck. These logs ranged in weight from those I could carry with one hand and toss into the truck from a few feet away to those that I rolled to the truck and tried to coax in without smashing my toes. None of them were labeled with their weight, so I didn’t always know if I was strong enough to move the log in front of me, but I always had to try. A scowling father with a revved-up chainsaw cast a pretty large shadow over any self-pity I could muster.

I don’t move logs any more. I move weights around the gym, and they are all marked, so I can stay in my comfort zone. While clearly marked weights are obviously a necessity in the gym, I’ve recently noticed that the convenience of knowing the weight also makes complacency very convenient too. I know what I can lift, so I lift that. When I was lifting logs, I didn’t know what I could lift without trying. In the woodlots, I pushed myself out of necessity. In the gym, I don’t have to push myself, unless I really want to.

I discovered this on a machine designed to work upper back muscles. Someone left the machine without unloading their weights, which is a huge pet peeve of mine, unless, of course, they leave the machine with the exact weight I want. Usually, that doesn’t happen though, and it didn’t happen the other day on that machine. Whoever was there before me left ten more pounds than I wanted on each side. After swearing at the unidentified offender under my breath, I started to take off the extra weight, but then caught myself. Maybe it was time for me to challenge myself with a little extra weight. Maybe God had put on his strength coach hat and wanted me to push myself.

I left the extra weight on the machine and predictably struggled through my sets. Whereas I could regularly hit my rep goals of 10-10-8-8 with my old weight, I struggled to reach half of those reps with each of the four sets. I had invited defeat into my workout, and it was uncomfortable – uncomfortable but not unproductive. Sooner or later, if I keep pushing myself, I expect to handle the extra weight.

As often happens as I daydream between sets, I started thinking about how we face similar challenges in everyday life. Maybe a client or boss expects more effort than we anticipated, yet we proceed stubbornly in our comfort zone, predictably falling short of our potential. Maybe we have the opportunity to volunteer for something new, but decline because we’re not sure if we’re capable of the effort. Maybe a friend or family member needs our time, and we fall short because we don’t want to add any more responsibility to our schedule. When we limit ourselves to our comfort zone, we limit our potential.

I tried to stay in my comfort zone at the beginning of my first sales job, and had predictably poor results. I only wanted to call on prospects who I was fairly certain would buy from me, and I insisted on exhaustive research before I called them. I also wanted to be an expert on my product, so I could dazzle my prospects with my product acumen. Research and product knowledge are important in sales, but not as important as persistence and risk-taking to a new sales rep in a new industry. When you are trying to build your clientele, you want to make as many contacts as you possibly can, establish a rapport and solve their problems with your products.

By researching prospects who never bought from me and spending selling time studying my product, I didn’t make as many contacts as I needed, and I earned many meetings in the sales manager’s office where he would tell me exactly that. Meanwhile I watched colleagues with a tenuous at best knowledge of their prospects and our products hit their goals and cash fat commission checks. Finally, the light went off, and I switched from weight-room mode to woodlot mode, and started lifting logs that could smash my feet. Before long, I was closing deals that I never would have found if I stayed in my comfort zone.

Back in the weight room, I had grown complacent, using my age and physical condition to excuse my sub-par effort. Now, when I encounter an extra, but not unreasonable amount of weight on a machine, I accept the challenge. This means I fail a lot more, but I know that I’ll benefit from the challenge, if I don’t give up.

Try that the next time your comfort zone is challenged. Lift that log, even if it might smash your toes. It’s the only way you’ll grow.

“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson


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Good Enough?

To earn an undergraduate degree, a student must complete a specific number of credit hours at or above a specific grade point average in several specific categories of classes. Academic advisors guide students through this process, ensuring that they are on the path to earning their degrees.

Partially because I was indecisive and changed majors and schools at the midway point, and partially because I enjoyed education and saw it as a path to success, I finished my undergraduate education with 170 credit hours, when I needed only 125 to graduate, and I graduated with academic honors and with two degrees. Because I knew that I would run out of money if I stayed in college too long, I was very good at executing a plan, and I completed all of this in four years. What I wasn’t very good at was critical thinking. I directed all of my effort at fulfilling requirements and “good enough” results that kept me on my path to a four-year graduation.

Four years later, when I decided to pursue a master’s degree, the 36 required credit hours didn’t seem daunting at all. That would take me under a year to accomplish at my undergraduate pace, I told my academic advisor, who simply smiled and told me that one three-hour course, especially since I was working full time, was plenty for my first semester. I quickly learned that the workload for that one three-hour class was roughly equivalent to four undergraduate classes. Not only that, but I was expected to perform at a much higher intellectual level, if I hoped to become a master with a master’s degree.

The first paper I wrote for that class came back with a C on it, and comments that told me that my level of effort and thinking was not “good enough” to earn a master’s degree. In fact, my professor told me that I should consider challenging myself and rewriting my paper. It was quite the eye-opener for the guy who thought he was a pretty good writer, and felt that he had already extended sufficient effort to earn an A.

Good enough is a term that we use a lot. I hear golfers declare that a putt within a few inches of the hole is “good enough.” My son tells me “good enough,” when I ask how clean his room is. “Good enough” is what my recruiters will occasionally say when I ask how well they know their candidates’ intentions. When my wife calls and asks me if the house is clean, “good enough” is my typical answer.

What does good enough mean? Most of the time, it means “to the point where I have decided not to expend any more effort.” Sometimes, it means “the best I can hope for.” Though neither point is ideal, somewhere between those two points is where excellence is achieved, for it’s in the TRUE quest for the ideal that we maximize our performance.

Unfortunately, human nature often impedes progress toward the ideal, as the principle of least effort surreptitiously sabotages us. The principle of least effort, sometimes called Zipf’s Law, holds that humans instinctively search for solutions which require minimal effort. First applied by library scientists, the principle of least effort isn’t always a bad thing – it’s pointless to continue searching for different ways of finding a book in a library when you have already located it – but it can blind us to the possibilities that extra effort might reveal.

Applied to library science, researchers learned that humans cease information-seeking behaviors when they have reached a minimally acceptable answer. George Kingsley Zipf, a Harvard linguist, applied the principle of least effort to human communication. As with library science, Zipf believed that human nature always seeks to conserve effort, and he studied how humans minimize language when communicating. This became known as Zipf’s Law.

Minimal effort resulting in a “good enough” outcome can be a good thing. There is a reason that African lions focus on vulnerable easy prey over healthy adult prey in the dry hot African Savannah. If they spent all of their energy in difficult pursuit of prey that they were unlikely to catch, they would likely starve to death. Likewise, if we spent all of our time and energy trying to look just right in the mirror before we left for work, it wouldn’t be long before we didn’t have a job to go to.

The flipside of this, though, is incomplete effort or stopping short in the pursuit of excellence. Though a minimal effort for an minimally acceptable result is understandable when raking leaves in your yard, it’s not when you are performing open heart surgery.

It’s usually just a very small amount of increased effort that makes the biggest difference.

I accepted my professor’s challenge with my first graduate school paper, and I rewrote it. In fact, I polished it to the point where she recommended that I submit it to the field’s preemminent peer-reviewed journal. They accepted it, with the provision that I work with one of their editors to address its weak spots. Over the course of the next year, I did further research and expounded more specifically on my key points. It took several rewrites, but my paper, which was originally not “good enough” for graduate level work, was published alongside work from the top scholars at the time.

My IQ didn’t grow over that year, but my extra effort took me to an entirely new level of thinking and work. Consider putting in that little extra effort in at least one aspect of your life, and do it consistently. I guarantee that, before long, you will notice a difference and start thinking about what extra effort might do for other areas of your life.

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Recovered Resolutions

Gym regulars call them tourists – all the haltingly eager new faces who show up at this time every year, propelled by New Year’s resolutions. We call them tourists, because most will be gone after a few weeks or maybe months. By summer, only the hardcore remain.

Fitness clubs rely on reluctant, uncommitted members like Alaskan bears rely on spawning salmon. Each year, especially during certain seasons, new members show up at the clubs and provide a burst of revenue, while taking up very little space. Once the resolve of these new members expires, their attendance at the gym wanes and then ends altogether. Fortunately for the fitness clubs, many absent members are tied into contracts or are too embarrassed to admit that they no longer have the resolve to commit to exercise, so they keep paying, even though they no longer use the facilities. One club owner told me that absent paying members are essential for a club to stay in business. If only the people who used the club paid, there would be no club for them to go to.

If an entire industry can survive on abandoned resolutions and weak commitment, these are obviously common struggles. I know that they have been for me at certain times in my life.

I’ve begun each year with grand expectations of myself, only to slowly lose my grip on the efforts required to meet those expectations. I rationalize my failures and postpone my efforts, telling myself that unexpected challenges – surely not my resolve – impeded my goals and promising myself that I’ll get back on track next week . . . next month . . . next quarter. By the end of the year, I set the same unrealized goals for the next year.

It’s a cycle that many repeat year after year, until they give up making resolutions, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If we are honest with the obstacles standing between us and successful resolutions, we give ourselves a much better chance at success.

The most common obstacle in successful resolutions is familiarity. When we set a resolution, we resolve to do something unfamiliar to us. If our goal is to lose weight, we either have to alter our diet and/or exercise more frequently. Both of those activities take us to unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable territory.

If you’ve ever seen a shy child on his first day of kindergarten, you know what I’m talking about. He sees this bright loud (and somewhat enticing) world in front of him, but it’s so different from the comforts of being at home with his parents that he resists entering and instead clings to his mother’s leg, begging to go with her when she leaves. The person who is trying to lose weight, though not perhaps as dramatically, feels that way when they get off the couch and head to the gym. They know that they need to go to the gym, but the comfort of familiarity is hard to resist.

Habit needs familiarity to survive. Ask any current of former smoker for evidence. When someone is trying to quit smoking, they must identify the triggers that make them crave a cigarette, such as drinking alcohol or coffee, and plan for how they will conquer the impulses triggered by those activities. If they fail to plan, it’s very hard to resist the temptation to return to familiarity.

Planning is key to successful resolutions. We can’t simply say that we are going to get to work earlier in the morning. We have to look at our entire morning routine to identify why we struggle to get to work earlier. It might not be as simple as getting up and going to bed earlier; you might need to examine your pre-sleep routine to ensure that you are setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep. Likewise, are there tasks, like setting up the coffee and packing your bag, that you can do the night before?

It’s important to plan for the execution of your resolutions, but it’s also important to note the small ways that they improve your life. What does getting to work earlier do for you? Do you enjoy less traffic on your commute? Do you feel more relaxed and ready to take on the day? Do you achieve more in less time? It’s important to allow yourself to enjoy these small victories, because they provide motivation to continue your resolution.

We set resolutions for a reason – we want to improve ourselves and our situations. We fail at resolutions because we fail to plan for success and then forget to celebrate small victories along the way. Consider looking at your current resolutions and getting yourself back on track, if you are falling short. If you don’t have any resolutions, don’t make yourself wait for 2013. Start today.

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