Great to meet you all on Wednesday in Wellington.
Here's the key points from my presentation without the waffle. To download click on the button below.
Here are some additional notes
The notes here expand or repeat some of the main points that I made.
- Step 1. Creating a sense of urgency
- Step 2. Getting emotionally engaged
- Step 3. Dealing with my concerns
- Be clear about the goal
- Get a plan (trying isn't planning)
- Commit to your goal (trying isn't committing)
- Consider a challenging goal
1. Face the Flinch
In this section I talked about dealing with the sense of overwhelm and dread that you can face when you get set, or try and set yourself a big challenge.
You will recall that I started my story talking about a 'slump' or 'quarter life crisis' that I went through. I was unhappy with where I was at and trying to figure what I should do next in life. The problem was that I had this really unhelpful attitude. Whenever I came up with an idea to change my situation or go a different direction I would focus only on what was hard and risky about the plan and so would veto any move forward. This went on for months.
The first step to getting out of it, was ...
Step 1. Creating a sense of urgency
In Harvard professor John Kotter's classic 'Leading Change' - , he sets out his 8 step framework for implementing change in organisations. The very first of which is 'Create a sense of urgency'. I couldn't agree more.
In my case there was more than just the All Black story I mentioned.
I was in a taxi and a song came on to the radio. It was a cover of a recent hit. I complained to the driver that it was too recent for a remake. He said, “No man, that song first came out twenty years ago.”
I made an appointment to go to the gym and the young woman on the phone said ‘We’ll put you on the treadmill and wire you up and do a fitness test’. I said ‘You mean like the start of ‘The Six Million Dollar Man.’”
She said, “Who?”
I realised that just waiting around for the universe to lift me up out of my situation was taking a lot longer than I thought. I was starting to run out of time and opportunities were starting to be taken from me. Now I could see the cost of my procrastination.
At this point, as you remember, I decided to quit my job, leave my girlfriend, sell my house and go back home and live with my Mum.
And after that spasm of decision making I sat on the sofa, ate a lot of fast food and put on a lot of weight while I watched a lot of day time tv eating fast food. Ok. It was a very humble start - but at least it was a start. I had created a sense of urgency. I really needed to do something.
Unfortunately I was still plagued by the same unhelpful attitude. Every pathway out of my situation seemed too difficult and too painful. Like taking part in the trans-Atlantic race. The idea of rowing across the ocean seemed quite romantic, until I found out how difficult, painful and possibly deadly it was.
But tired of the way I was shooting down every idea I was having I tried instead to give this one a second chance. I tried to shake off my pessimistic approach by being more 'rational' - and so I put together a pros and cons list. All that did was show me how easy it was to come up with a list of pretty convincing reasons for not taking on the race!
My mistake wasn't lack of reason. It was lack of emotion. There’s huge power in getting excited with the possibility of achieving your goal. That's what I had to tap into first.
Step 2: Getting emotionally engaged
Prof. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at USC studied people who had very specific brain injuries which meant they couldn’t experience emotions but could otherwise function normally.
You might think that these people would be brain surgeons, contract killers, or fighter pilots or currency traders because they have no emotion to cloud their judgement.
Far from it. In fact, they are terrible decision-makers. Most would spend hours deliberating over irrelevant details, such as where to eat lunch. Then whether to have chicken or beef.
Damasio’s research, among many other studies, shows it is emotion that enables us to make up our minds and take action.
I’m not saying that you should be irrational about making decisions. Far from it - nothing beats a good impartial spreadsheet - but when it comes to taking on a big challenge if you’re EXCITED about the potential results you’re going to be much more resourceful in your problem solving. You are going to be much more balanced in your critique.
For me, you will recall that, getting an image of success was a very powerful way to get myself emotionally engaged. Also meeting people who had done what I was thinking of doing.
Step 3: Dealing with my concerns
The next step was dealing with my main fear about rowing across the ocean - and that was dying at sea. Being tossed from the boat in a storm just like the other dozen people who had perished trying to row across the Atlantic.
My fear largely evaporated when I asked the trekker about the cold in Antarctica. His reply - 'You know it's going to be cold. You take mittens' - really threw me for a loop. What he was saying was so simple yet so profound. If you can foresee what's going to make your challenge difficult, or painful or hard, then why not do something about it?!
With this realisation I could go back to my pros and cons list and then quickly deal with all of my 'reasons' for not taking part in the race.
You don't have to do a pros and cons list. You just need to list your fears and and then write down how you might prevent them from taking place, or repair the damage if they did.
I really recommend taking a look at this TED talk from lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss about 'Fear Setting' - which is similar to what I did and possibly more practical. TIP: Skip the long preamble about stoic philosophy and skim directly to 6min. This is a fantastic technique if you find yourself procrastinating about taking on a challenge.
Look, at the end of the day not every idea you have is going to be viable or practical. But by using these methods above you're at least going to create a level playing field to assess them appropriately.
2. Choose to win
One of the first things I did, after thinking I might take part in the race, is to go and see a sports coach (the inimitable Jon Ackland) to lose some weight and get fit. I walked up into his office and on his desk he had a large sheet of paper with lots of little boxes on it. It was my training plan, and he was filling in the days with how many hours of which exercise I needed to be doing. He looked up and said ‘Oh Kev, I just need to know for your training plan. Are you going to win the race or just take part?’
I was a bit taken aback and how early this question had come. After all I had only just thought I was going to be in the race so why would I know if I’m going to win it or not? So I thought for a minute and then said, “Look, I’m going to try really hard and see what happens then.” - which seemed a reasonable answer.
But coach Jon seem horrified by my response and said, “No no no! That’s completely wrong! The only way you’ll have a chance of winning this race is if you DECIDE to win. Then everything about the way you prepare for this race will change.” He went on, “I don’t care what it is but I need to know now. Are you going to win? Or just take part?”
Crikey. So what is he saying? What’s he doing?
Well in his unique way he’s trying to stop me from making a few mistakes that are going to hamstring my performance.
He sees me:
- Not clear about what my goal is (either take part or win)
- Setting a goal that’s probably well within me (so not getting the best out of myself)
- Not committing to the goal (thinking that just trying is good enough. Not understanding the difference between ‘must’ and ‘should’)
- He sees me with unrealistic beliefs about what’s going to lead to a good performance (planning is much more effective than ‘trying’)
Lets break down each of these points.
1. Be clear about the goal
If you don’t have a clear goal it means that you’re not going to know if you’ve succeeded or not.
You also don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the distance between you and your goal reducing. The point of a goal is that it motivates you. And motivation really loves progress.
You can set an improvement goal, for example, “I’m going to lose a few kgs”, and measure distance from your start point but typically it’s not as effective. If you’re running a marathon would you rather know how far you’ve come or how far there is to go?
How clear should a goal be? Well a third party should be able to tell if you’ve achieved it or not. If your goal is 'work less hard next year', then how will you know.
2. Get a plan (trying isn't planning)
Wanting to achieve a result isn’t enough (but its a surprisingly common trap) you need to plan and then prepare, to deliberately develop your skills and ability over time
Coach Jon genuinely didn’t care if my goal was to win or take part, he just wanted me to realise the need for a plan. That ‘winning’ or achieving your goal (whatever it is) will require preparation.
He went on to explain that at the start line there would be three types of crews. Those that were just trying to get across, those that said they were going to win (but hadn’t really done the preparations) and those that had planned to win and had done the work. The winner was going to come from the last group.
There’s the story of two guys at the start of a marathon. One runner drops to his knees and says a prayer, when he gets back up the other runner says, “If you haven’t done the training even God can’t help you now.”
This is particularly true if your goal has any degree of one-off performance. That is - you turn up on a certain day and have to do your thing. When this is the case then relying on some massive amount of effort to somehow lift you above the pack is unlikely to work.
‘I’m going to try really hard and see what happens’ might work fine on the day, but it’s a terrible attitude to take to the preparations.
As Jon said, performance is all about the preparation, and everything changes about the way you prepare depending on what you’re focused on.
Whatever you’re taking on you need a plan. And that plan shouldn’t be ‘rely on a bunch of last minute discretionary effort’!
Trying won’t work by itself - you need a plan. Planning won’t work unless you’re committed. Which brings us to the next point.
3. Commit to your goal (trying isn't committing
John would often like to quote Yoda, ’Do or do not - there is no try’.
A goal is born into a difficult world. Very soon your goal starts jostling elbows with your other priorities. You cannot do all things, you will prioritise. Where are you going to prioritise this goal?How many of the ‘should’ things on your to do list do you actually do? Compared to how many of the ‘must’ things?
Of course you can just ‘try’, it’s just going to be less likely to work. Any goal that’s about best efforts is unlikely to be successful. I must make my mortgage payments, I should remember my cousins’ birthdays. Which one do you think happens every month?
I think we ‘try’ at goals to avoid judging ourselves if we fail. If you just try at something then you’ve baked in an excuse - a way out. If you want to experiment you can still experiment. You can still do a test. But you have to be committed to the test.
Committing means seeing through to the end, and taking all necessary steps. It doesn’t guarantee winning but it does hugely increase your chances.
Being clear and committed about your goal makes the business of trade-offs so much easier. And there are always trade-offs that need to be made when taking on any challenge.
Here is real trade-off I had to make. I could have a seat built out of plywood that would cost a few hundred dollars. Or I could have a seat built out of carbon fibre for over a thousand dollars. Ouch. If your goal is to take part then you’re going to choose one option, if your goal is to win, you’re going to choose another.
4. Consider a challenging goal
So as well as pointing out the folly of just ‘trying’ at a goal. John is challenging me to take on a really difficult goal - winning the race. A bit of a tough ask given my lack of experience in all things rowing and nautical. Ummm, why would I want to do that? Why not just cruise? Why do I have to face down failure?
There’s a couple of reasons:
Because you want to take on a worthwhile, satisfying goal and they ALWAYS involve the risk of failure.
To get the best out of yourself you need to commit to a hard goal
Can you think of a worthwhile, satisfying, exciting goal that is also easy and simple. I don’t think they exist. To be exciting and satisfying a goals is very likely to be outside of your competency zone (at least initially).
Let me give you an example of what I mean - last year I was thinking about entering a 100k running race.
In this one you run from Rotorua to Kawerau. To do this race would have been a huge stretch for me. I had run a marathon a few years ago, but this is nearly 2.5x longer. I really didn’t know if I could do it.
But I was poking around the race website and I saw that I had actually missed the deadline for this event. I couldn’t enter but I could to go on the waiting list. That suited me just fine. Now I could casually mention to my friends that I was going to do a 100km run, but not to actually have to train for it because I was only on the waiting list.
Then one night just 2 mths out I got an phone call from the race organisers saying my number had come up, I’ve got 24 hours to decide, am I in or out? What do I do ? I was really torn. Do I take on this goal when there was a pretty reasonable chance I would nose over into the mud half way round?
So I went to the website and the FAQ section and it turns out that one of the very first questions was “I don’t know if I can do this?!” and there answer?
‘That’s the point.’
I liked this very much. Why take on a challenge that’s well within your current ability? One that you know you can do? That’s just making a cup of tea or planning a holiday.
So I decided to join the race and here I am crossing the finish line after just 14 refreshing hours. Looking only slightly manic.
There’s another reason for why you want to commit to a hard goal - and it's about how to get the best out of yourself.
Coach John was obsessed about winning. We would have conversations where he would say “You’ve got to win, its all about winning. Participation is for pussies. There’s no second place there’s only first loser!’ Ok I might be paraphrasing a bit but you get the idea.
I was taken aback by his dogmatic approach. I argued that it can’t be ALL about winning. What if you were in a marathon race and you only won because your main opposition wasn’t there?
Or you lost because you swerved to save a small child?
Or you lost because you slipped a yard from the line?
Winning can’t always be everything. Losing can’t always mean failing.
And we went back and forth about this until finally he said something that made a lot of sense. He said “Of course winning isn’t everything. The best that you can do is the best that you can do. But you can’t get the best out of yourself unless you commit to a difficult goal.”
So when coach John asked me if I was going to win or take part, I shrugged and said, “Ok I’ll win.”
It was as lame as that.
But I DID commit and he was right, everything did change, from the amount of planning and preparation that I did, to the amount that I spent trying to shave a few grams of weight off the boat, to the amount of time I spent trying to get experts to help me out. And I know that if I had just ‘tried my hardest’ I would have made a lot of unconscious compromises between that point and the point that I put the boat in the water at the start. Not to mention the tactics we used in the race. Did I get the most out of myself? Absolutely I was pushed well beyond what I would have thought I was capable.
You don’t have to choose to ‘win’ every challenge you take on. But you do need to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve, and then work backwards from that goal to develop a plan and prepare diligently and thoroughly. Just ‘trying’ is unlikely to cut it.
3. Play as a team
When you think about it - a team just needs 4 things to function.
A clear, common purpose
Agreed rules for how you're going to treat each other
- A way of fixing things when 1 to 3 go awry!
Research on the benefits of diversity can be found here:
And in chapter 6 - ‘The Power of Difference’ from ‘Team Genius - the new science of high performing organisations’ by Rich Karlgaard and Michael S Malone.
I also mentioned the research that Google did looking at what makes effective teams. There is a very good summary of the research here and the concept of ‘Psychological Safety’ – in a NY Times article called "What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team" written by Charles Duhigg, the author of ‘Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business’
It's really worthwhile going through a process where you list out the qualities of a great team mate (and/or look at what makes a bad team mate) and turn that into a list of rules for how you should treat each other.
Here's a template that can help you through this process.
The Energy Rule
That's what Jamie and I were doing when we saw that it turned into something quite simple. – The Energy Rule. Feel free to use or adapt.
It turns out that we had put our finger on something.
There’s a relationship researcher in the US called Dr John Gottman. He and his team have perfected the art of predicting if married couples will break up. In fact they can predict whether or not the couple will divorce within the next 5 years with 94% accuracy.
All his team does is watch a 15 minute argument between a couple and keep score of the number of the positive and negative interactions that take place.
A couple with a strong relationship might have a ratio of positive to negative comments/interactions – of about 5:1. A couple that is going to divorce has a ratio of less than 1-1.
‘Negative comments’ and interactions cover a whole range of things – but the worst of these are
- Contempt, so acting superior
- Insults, you’re a jerk, you’re so lazy not putting the rubbish out.
- Defensiveness and withdrawing from the discussion.
Research has shown that this is true in the workplace as well where the same ratio of about 5:1 positive to negative comments is seen in the best performing teams.
That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree. Negative view points are ok, if they are presented in a way that is rational, objective and calm. What doesn't work is being sarcastic, Or trying to justify a personal attack under an attempt to be 'honest' or 'constructive'.
For more on this here's a blog I wrote on 'Is there a magic ratio of positivity to negativity?'
The Three Bastards Rule
I believe that the main reason that we don't address problems in teams, or are unsuccessful when we do, is because we assume that the reason that this person is doing these annoying things is due to something permanent about them. Some permanent flaw, or personality disorder or evil agenda, or let's face it, brain damage. So 'The 3 Bastards Rule' is very useful to remind yourself not to trust your assumptions.
The 5 C's
When you've got your head right and it's time to have that conversation then you can use the 5 C's.
Chill - the person may not react well and/or get defensive. Are you so poised that you can handle the emotional poo that's going to come your way.
Context - if you don't start (and even finish ) with some positive feedback they will think that everything they are doing is bad.
Collaborate - Ask questions like 'How are we going to solve this?'
Contrast - If the person tries to come deflect or even attack then you can bring the conversation back on track by using a sentence in the form 'I'm not saying X, I'm saying Y'
Check - That you finish agreeing with what the situation is and what the next steps are.
If you would like to find out more about this topic then I strongly recommend reading this book.
'Crucial Conversations - Tools for talking when the stakes are high' by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny.
4. Deal with Setbacks
The moral of 'sea anchor' story is that there is a powerful way to reframe adversity. If it's tough for you, it's tough for everybody else. If you can keep on persevering then it just might be an opportunity for you. Here's the story again.
The 3 P's Method for Dealing with Setbacks
The Japanese have a saying, 'Fall down 6 times, get up 7'. Whenever you take on a challenge there are going to be setbacks that will potentially derail you. This method doesn't suddenly change your emotion and change you from sad to happy. But it does allow you to get a little distance from the situation, focus on what you can change and speed up the recovery process.
I was very lucky that when the preparations for the trans-Atlantic rowing race were really getting on top of me I came across a powerful book called 'Learned Optimism' by Prof. Martin Seligman. Seligman had worked on a very famous and unpleasant, psychological experiment where animals (and then people) could be made to feel ineffective - a phenomenon he called 'Learned Helplessness'. However, there were some animals (and humans) that never gave up and this became the inspiration for a life time study of why when faced with adversity some people sink and others swim.
The following is an adaptation of the system set out in the book.
Whenever something goes wrong - particularly something that you've had a hand in or you feel responsible for, there is a process that you sent on. You get knocked out of your happy place into the depths of despair. But then eventually you reflect, you get wiser, and slowly with the passage of time you float back up to the surface.
But you know that in real life, depending on what has happened, you can go very deep and spend a long time down with the shark before you finally float back up to the surface.
Wouldn't it be great if there was a better way? You are still going to have bad things happen to you, but then when they happen you don't go down quite so deep, don't spend so long, and even stick it to the shark on the way through.
Turns out that there is a way.
Whenever something goes wrong- particularly something that you've had a hand in - there's three things that you ask yourself.
- How much am I to blame?
- How long will this last?
- How big a deal is this? How much of my life is affected?
You might think that you don't ask yourself questions, but you do. Here's proof, if something has gone wrong and you're beating yourself up about it and I was to ask you why you were feeling this way, you would give me reasons.
The answer that you give yourself from each of these will be on a dimension. From personal to external, from permanent to temporary and from pervasive to specific. That's the 3 P's by the way, 'personal', 'permanent', 'pervasive'.
If you want to make yourself feel worse next time something goes wrong, then say to yourself:
- 'Its all my fault'
- 'It's never going to get any better'
- 'This is a huge deal'
And if you are feeling bad about what has happened, almost certainly you'll be thinking one or more of those things.
Here's the important bit
The interesting thing is that - without changing any of the facts about what has happened - there is usually another equally valid and more empowering interpretation of the events. I want to stress this point - the facts don't change and the other interpretation is just as valid as the way that you are thinking now. Of course it doesn't feel like that at the time. It feels like there is only way to feel and that is the way you are feeling.
Let me see if I can show you what I mean with this exercise.
Choose the answer to this question.
You won Lotto. Is it because:
A. You picked the right numbers
B. You were lucky.
So which one is it? Did you get lucky or did you pick the right numbers? I'm guessing whichever one you chose you feel strongly about it. Now ask around until you find someone else who chooses the opposite answer and convince them how wrong they are. You will find that they are quite stubborn. They are wrong though aren't they ... or are they? What makes you so sure that you're right?
In a given situation it's possible to become
- aware of the way that you're explaining it to yourself, then
- throw a few stones at those explanations and see if you don't want to choose another more helpful explanation.
You might be convinced right now that it's all your fault, it's never going to get any better and it's a huge deal. But after you reflect on why you feel that way - what the quality of your reasons are, then might find yourself deciding that you were just a part of it, this too shall pass and everything else in your life is going fine.
Here's a list of five ways to double check your explanation.
Is this explanation helpful?
We believe that we feel the way we do because its the CORRECT way. Sure, maybe it's correct - but is it helpful? Lets say for example I'm standing outside in the rain trying to get inside my house, banging on the door wondering why my wife isn't answering and finding myself getting madder and madder. Clearly my wife is being inconsiderate. There's no good reason for why she isn't coming. Possibly - or is there a more helpful explanation?
Would I teach this explanation to someone else?
This is a great test. We might be ok with the crazy in our head but we can sound pretty silly when we let it out. Should I turn to my four year old son and say 'The reason why we are getting wet out here is because your mother doesn't love you.'
What does my brain want me to learn?
Our emotions are a primitive and instinctive reasoning system. It produces pleasure when it wants us to do more of a behaviour and pain when it wants us to do less. It's not very sophisticated though, which is why we eat a lot of sweet things and get fat. This also means that it can be mollified.
I was in Las Vegas recently and lost a bag of cash in a casino. No I didn't gamble it, it fell out of my pocket. I was extremely grumpy about this and doing a lot of self flagellation. The least of which was 'You idiot'. Then I started thinking - what could I do to stop this from happening again? This was more helpful.
What good has come from this?
Back in Vegas I actually started writing down a list of the good things that comes from losing a bag of money. I surprised myself by getting to about nine. It certainly made the day of the security guards when I asked them if anyone had handed in a bag of money. Again, you don't suddenly feel transformed, but it does stop you sinking and puts a little more oxygen in your lungs so you can float back up a bit quicker.
Do I have this in perspective?
Yes it's time to pull out 'famines in Africa'. Truly terrible things happen every day around the world, and often people bear them with more poise and grace then you're doing. Whatever has gone wrong, I expect that you have a lot to be thankful for. If you don't have anything handy to help put your problems in perspective, then try watching this 20 second clip.
The Story of the Sea Anchor
The start of the start of the trans-Atlantic dawned, hot, sunny and most important of all – calm! As we rowed out of the harbour of La Gomera I was anxious to see what the state of the open ocean was going to be like. Turns out it was flat and calm. Waterskiiable.
As we spent the rest of the afternoon rowing the land off into the distance and then the big hot tropical sun which had been beating down on us all day started to cool, and then the night exploded into a thousand tropical stars. I thought rowing across the ocean was going to be amazing.
Turns out that Day 1 was the best day of the trip and Day 2 was going to be the worst.
From early in the morning of day 2 we started to get tiny puffs of breeze directly into our backs. During the morning the wind grew and grew, and with the wind came the waves. Directly from where we wanted to head.
By lunchtime it was all we could do to stay in the same place, with both of us at the oars. And we could tell that’s all we were doing because the GPS on the bulkhead would just flicker around ‘0.0 knots’.
And because you’re not making any ground it becomes very hard to steer the boat. The rudder only works when you’re moving forward. So if a wave knocked the bow of the boat then you would inevitably end up doing a big circle to bring the boat back around into the wind and waves. The strain was enormous. It felt like the bones in your arms were bending with the effort and you could hear the oars creaking and groaning and I was wondering, as we were pitched from side to side what was going to break first. The boat or us?
What makes it worse is what is praying on your mind is that you don’t have to keep on doing this. You don’t have to keep rowing, you can always put out the sea anchor.
It’s too deep at sea to put out a normal anchor but a sea anchor is like a large parachute of nylon which you lay out the front of the boat, and tie off onto the bow. As the boat backs away the rope goes tight and the chute inflates and holds the bow of the boat into the wind and waves. So now you are kind of safe and can abandon the rowing positions and get into the back cabin, shut the waterproof hatch and ride the storm out.
The only problem is that while you’re doing that you slowly drift backwards.
Now we knew that there were some really tough teams in the race. In particular these two guys from Auckland who had won the race last time it had been held and were back for one reason only – to win the race again. If they weren’t going to stop then we couldn’t stop so Jamie and I made the decision to keep on rowing.
We rowed through the rest of the afternoon and into the darkness, constantly being tossed and pitched from side to side. With the oar handles at one moment high above our heads and then the next slapped down on our knees. It was long, gruesome, exhausting work. But finally the dawn broke and there was a hint that the worst of the weather was over. By lunchtime things had calmed down just enough for me to be able to get out of my seat and go into the back cabin and grab the sat phone.
We were mad keen to find out how we were doing compared with the rest of the fleet. Each boat had a beacon on it that pinged its location back up to the race organisers every twelve hours. So our shore crew could go online and see the locations of the boats.
So I called them up and before I could even say anything they said
“Guys! Guys! keep it up!”
“Because you’ve got a 25 mile lead on the rest of the fleet!”
“They’ve all put their sea anchors out!”
And when we got to the end of the race and we put our sea anchors out did you want to guess how much we won by?
That's right. 25 miles.
It wasn’t until I was under a palm tree at the end of the race thinking about what we learned on Day 2. It was as simple as this.
All of the crews were facing the same seas. All of the crews were facing the same storm. The only difference between us and them was a decision that we made that any of them could have made and that was to keep on rowing.
That’s what made all the difference in the end.
There were days when it was flat and calm, and we made 80 nautical miles towards the end – but we didn’t gain a single yard on our competition. The two days when we gained the most (it happened again near the end) was when the weather turned bad and the other crews put out their sea anchors, and we kept on rowing.
That’s how we won.
IN just 5 seconds you could improve your cosmic karma
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