“Best Practices” are like fingernails on a blackboard. I’m physically uncomfortable when I hear people blindly promoting best practices. And we’d all be better off if it made everyone uncomfortable. There are two major difficulties with the idea of Best Practices.
Who says what’s best?
Who is the authority and by what standard does anyone say what’s “best”? Who can say what’s best: in the world; in the world for all time; for our small local organization at this point in time; in what culture? Best for what, who, when, where?
David Creelman, writing in PeopleTalk magazine says, “Outstanding companies often have unorthodox HR practices.” Best to be unorthodox? Not in all cases I’m sure. But it’s certainly not an not an argument for “same”.
In 2005, Vancouver cardiologist John Webb developed a procedure for replacing defective heart valves with a catheter rather than with open heart surgery. Best Practice in 2004 was no longer best in 2005. What will be best practice next?
Which leads us to the second issue.
We’re OK, we’re following best practices
“Betterment is a perpetual labor”, says surgeon Atul Gawande in his book, Better. In October, 2010 The Globe and Mail encourages workplaces to try out “a single new idea”; to experiment “with just one idea”.
The idea that there is a Best Practice tempts us to relax while continuing to develop is exactly what’s called for.
Best Practice? Get rid of the idea of best practices. It’s more like, best-we’ve-seen-for-us-so-far-at-this-point-in-time-and-we’re-continuing-to-experiment practices.
Warning: adult content; some disturbing ideas.
Your bet on life has already been made – and it’s not a bluff. You likely don’t recall making the bet, but due to some confluence of luck and circumstances you’re here in life. And, if you’re reading this, you have learned to read or you’re sufficiently alive to have someone else think it’s worthwhile reading it to you.
Most people don’t live like:
1. They are in and of life.
2. Life is much bigger than them and will continue after they are no longer here.
3. They do not know when their part of life – their opportunity to contribute to life and others – will end.
The sand is running through the hourglass of your life. You can measure what has accumulated in the bottom but you never know how much sand is left to run through… or how many lumpy bits are left… or if one of those lumpy bits could block the rest of the sand (that you hoped was there) from running through. The very next tick of the clock could be the last one you hear.
You’re in life and the clock is ticking. It’s like the movies with all the wires coming out of the bomb and the red numbers counting down in the digital display. Except for each of us the numbers are counting up, not down. We don’t know how much time is left on our digital timer. There may be lots; or there may be very little. It may be lumpy or it may be smooth.
You are “all in” with life. Stop living like you don’t know this. There is no “pause”, there is no “wait a minute”, there is no “redo”. There is, however, an “off” switch – you just don’t know when the switch will flip from “all-in” to “off”.
How therefore shall you live? What will be your approach to life? There are many horses that you could bet on in this race to the finish line (what’s your hurry?) Some supported by multi-billion dollar marketing campaigns, some virtually unknown long-shots and many in between.
You could bet on the briskly prancing acquisition strategy with the purple saddle cloth. Cars, houses, money, fancy new wives, yachts – get as much as you can in the time you have left.
Another good looking one is the smartly decked out bucket list mare. Instead of acquiring things, acquire experiences: sky diving, bungee jumping, swimming with the sharks (the real ones), Machu Piccu, Stonehenge.
Or you could bet on an unknown horse starting on the outside – listed in the program as fulfilling life with What-2-Honor in the saddle. There are several others in the field but these seem to be the most attractive ones.
Your bet is already paid – you are going to pay with your life. Spread your bet around and you get a disheartening ennui.
The question is, On which horse are you betting with the rest of your life?
A regular reader asks…
“There are tons of books on finding your passion. They assume you know what you want. Maybe the idea of passion is flawed.”
Tons of books, millions of words and so little wisdom. For the lasting value produced, many of those books would have been better left as trees absorbing carbon dioxide.
The idea of passion is flawed and it’s not personal; it’s cultural. People have been led to expect that their passion is something that will descend on them from the heavens with angels singing. And you should already have had that experience. Like the song says, it’s looking for love in all the wrong places.
You know you’re in the neighborhood of your passion when things that would occur as difficulties for others (like burning yourself on the hot manifold or accidentally deleting a file) are minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of what you are up to. Why else would you keep going?
“People don’t know what they need to be fulfilled.”
You’re absolutely right!
And the problem is embedded in how you’ve stated it. It’s backwards. People relate to fulfillment like something they will get – not something they will provide. They don’t “need” anything “to be fulfilled”; to experience fulfillment. It has been turned into a thing; an object to go searching for and found, like lost car keys. People search for fulfillment and expect to find it or get it. Not just expect like anticipate, but expect like a right. Someone or something outside me should fulfill me. My role is to judge whether or not that is occurring. This leads people to say things like, “that doesn’t fulfill me.” While it might be a “common sense” orientation; it’s wrong-headed. Worse, it’s torture if you buy into it.
Fulfillment is always available to everyone, now. There is something next to fulfill in front of everyone; fulfill that. Bring your strengths and gifts to the opportunity or challenge in front of you – the one that’s calling to; the one that interests or excites you; the one that annoys you. No one promised fun or easy so don’t confuse that with fulfilling something. Your job is to fulfill what life is calling from you next. Fulfill that and you experience fulfillment. When you are fulfilling something that requires everything you think you’ve got… and then a little bit more, fulfillment shows up. When we stop searching and start engaging to accomplish something worthwhile the world occurs differently. Fulfillment: you only experience it when you’re providing it.
Do you really give a sh*t about anything?
However, just to cover off a couple of back doors you might try escaping through, consider this: if you are truly indifferent then why care about your passion? You’re equally interested, fulfilled or engaged no matter what you’re doing. So if you don’t care what you do; drop the question and stop bothering yourself.
And, if nothing in your life has ever interested you, lit you up, had you go the extra mile because you wanted to, or had you so engaged that you lost track of time (Wow, it’s that late already!) it’s time to seek professional help.
When you can tell that you’re not indifferent, just notice where you invest your time, money and energy over time. It may be part of your job or maybe not. I’m not a professional photographer but I’ve been fulfilling an interest in photography for over 50 years. Or it could be something that you notice in hindsight. When I switched careers from IT to developing people and teams, others didn’t see the fit. I knew that developing people was the most enjoyable part of my IT jobs; so don’t worry about whether others can see it.
And don’t worry about whether your job is your passion or your passion is your job. Listen to Penelope Trunk as she suggests that, “One of the worst pieces of career advice that I bet each of you has not only gotten but given is to ‘do what you love.’”
“I don’t know how” is an excuse to let yourself off the hook. After all if you don’t know how, how can anyone hold you responsible; how can it be your fault? What can you do about it… you just don’t know how.
If “I don’t know how” also includes “yet”… as in “I don’t know how yet” well that’s a different story. But in today’s world it seems to pass without question when people say, “I don’t know how.” If the pioneers said, “I don’t know how” they might as well have been saying, “I’m dead”. When Kennedy committed the U.S. to getting to the moon and back safely; he didn’t know how and neither did anyone else.
Do you really think “I don’t know how” carries much weight when you have so many resources at your finger tips? I don’t know how to solve quadratic equations. Want to learn? I don’t know how to transfer apps to my new iPhone. Really? I don’t know how to change the transmission in a ’57 Chevy. Do you want to know? And how about your Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, Amazon books and Google searches?
I’m reminded of a Dilbert cartoon where Wally says he does good work when he puts his mind to it. Asked if he’ll put his mind to it now, he replies, “Wow. Good follow-up question.”
“I don’t know how” needs a few good follow-up questions. Here are some to get you started:
Will you find out how?
Who can show you how?
When will you find out how?
What makes you think that it depends on “knowing how”; what if it depends more on your commitment, openness to learning and developing along the way?
What if no one “knows how” and it will require some courage, experimenting and debriefing to discover what’s working and what’s not?
Someone told me the other day that they didn’t know how to be more intentional. Which, of course, is nonsense. Any 5 year old knows how to be intentional. They keep working at it, keep asking, keep trying different strategies, keep practicing until either they either ride that bike or let it go for now. Surely you haven’t taken steps backwards since you were five.
What if it has nothing to do with knowing how and everything to do with your interest, courage and commitment? What if it has more to do with practice? What if your assessment of whether you “know how” is based more on your ridiculous expectation that you should be able to become world class on your third try?
Where are you stopping yourself from trying because you don’t know how? What will you do about it?
Are you open to the possibility that what you think you see isn’t what’s really happening?
I finished reading The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb a while ago. I purchased it because I was intrigued by the phrase “the impact of the highly improbable” on the front cover. This book takes pot shots at our assumptive blindness, offering dry humor, deep and rigorous thinking, provocative insights, and historical perspective.
The content that interests me the most is what Taleb calls “the triplet of opacity”:
1. “The illusion of understanding” in a world more complex than we believe;
2. “The retrospective distortion” that occurs as we try to make sense of the past; and
3. Overvaluing factual information and pre-determined categories created by experts.
Early in the book, he makes the distinction between “no evidence of disease” and “evidence of no disease.” You might have no evidence that you have cancer but that’s not the same as evidence of no cancer.
Thinking that they are the same can cost you your life. Taleb illustrates this with a story about the first thousand days in the life of a turkey. For a thousand days, until the day before Thanksgiving, this turkey has unfailing evidence that humans are here to feed it and do no harm. There is abundant evidence of good will and no evidence of harm. Yet, when you enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner, you know that’s not the same to the turkey as evidence of no harm.
Consider this at the organizational level: no evidence of development is not the same as evidence of no development. No evidence of development could lead you to give up on some people; however, I often see people developing in work situations where others don’t. Your lack of evidence confirms nothing. Don’t give up. On the other hand, evidence that your organization is making slow progress in changing its culture is not evidence that it won’t all suddenly come crashing down.
Don’t be a turkey. Stay open to the possibility that what you think you see is not what’s really happening. Don’t put too much faith in your smart explanations. The past is just prologue — until it isn’t. Stay skeptical, stay nimble, and keep experimenting around the edges.