Let It Go

You’ve made mistakes.

That’s okay; it’s inevitable. You’re going to make a bunch more. My father once gave me some great advice: “You can’t avoid making mistakes; just try not to make the same one twice.” In other words, learn from it and move on.

I’ve written before about trying to maximize the benefit you get from failing, but today I want to talk about the other side of that coin – minimizing the harm. Mistakes by their very nature do some damage – damage to your plan, or your day, or your project, or something else.

But here’s the good news: they don’t do nearly as much damage as you think they do.

Sure, there are times where single mistakes can be fatal. If you’re a heart surgeon, for instance. Or maybe a fighter pilot. But 99% of the time, your mistakes are pretty small and low-impact in the grand scheme of things. What often does the most damage is the way we cling to those mistakes. Ask yourself honestly, have you ever done one or more of the following things:

  1. Have you ever apologized for a mistake more than once, to the same person?
  2. Have you spent more time beating yourself up about the mistake than you spent making it?
  3. Have you spent more time feeling guilty about the mistake than it would have taken you to start over?
  4. Have you lowered your own view of yourself for a single mistake?
  5. Have you abandoned a task, project, etc. because you made a mistake early on in the process?
  6. Have you hidden even successful accomplishments because of mistakes you made along the way?

Chances are good you’ve done at least one of those. Maybe more than one. I know I have. All six, in fact.

Don’t. Own the mistake; take responsibility for it and for fixing it. If you need to apologize, do so – sincerely, including your plan for fixing it. But once you’ve done that, don’t apologize for it again, and don’t tolerate being made to feel guilty by anyone – including yourself. Accept the changes that need to happen in order to improve, and then act. Make all steps positive ones, away from failure and towards success.

Don’t dwell. The mistake isn’t nearly as damaging as these behaviors. Don’t quit or beat yourself up for inevitable, normal things that happen to 100% of all humans.

Ty Cobb had the greatest career batting average in Major League Baseball history. He had a career average of .366. That means he hit the ball a little over one third of the time. In other words, he succeeded a little over a third of the time, and didn’t succeed almost twice as much.

Missing the ball might be a mistake, but making twice as many hitting mistakes as successful hits didn’t stop Ty Cobb from being a legend. You’ve got a lot of room for error in your life – don’t waste any of that time dwelling on mistakes that don’t matter in the long run. Just let it go.

Followship

In response to my post yesterday, soliciting requests for topics to cover, I received an excellent one. One of my readers asked me to cover how to be a better follower – it seems like there’s endless articles, think pieces and op-eds about how to be a better or more effective leader, but a dearth of such writing on following.

The reality is, you’re going to be a follower far more often in your life than you’ll be a leader. My first piece of advice: That’s totally okay. In fact, it would be insane to think otherwise.

No one is a leader 24/7. Even if you’re the CEO of your company, you’re not the CEO of your neighborhood soccer league or your buddy’s weekend barbecue. Sometimes you have to play a role on a team, and you should aim to do that as well as you would aim to lead when it’s your time to do so.

The best leaders come from the best followers. A take-charge personality is great, but nothing is worse than the person who’s constantly trying to take over when they lack expertise, support, or any of the other necessary traits. And a six-person team made of six alpha-types who all want to lead is a recipe for disaster. You end up with six guys who all wanna be Mr. Black. (I’d normally support that reference with a link to the relevant scene from Reservoir Dogs, but I try to keep this blog PG-13. It’s a great movie, go watch it.)

Just as much as good leadership is a skill that takes effort to develop, so is good “followship.” (By the way, I thought I was so clever coming up with that word, but it turns out I’m not the first. Oh well, I’m running with it.)

What does it take to practice good followship? Here are my thoughts:

  1. It’s NOT about blind obedience. It’s about trust – and it takes a lot of it, in both directions. Your leader has to be able to trust you, so you have to always come through, or make sure they know before you don’t. If you can’t complete a task because you need more resources, more time, more knowledge – make sure they know that well in advance of the task’s deadline. If you know that you’ll only make the deadline if everything goes perfectly, then the time to call on your leader is the very first instance where something doesn’t. That’s the way you build trust – if your leader knows “I haven’t heard from Jim on this project, so I know 100% that everything is fine, because I know 100% that if it wasn’t he’d already be on the phone with me,” then you’re being an effective follower.
  2. The “Hit By A Bus” Test. What would happen to your team if you were hit by a bus (Heaven forbid) and could immediately no longer work or even communicate? Did you leave enough documentation for someone else to easily pick up your slack? Were you so on top of your responsibilities that your replacement isn’t starting 12 steps behind? Then you’re doing an awesome job. Way too many people strive to be “irreplaceable.” They want to keep their work a mystery so they can’t be dispensed with. Guess what – everyone is replaceable. All you do by being cagey is separate yourself from your leader and your team.
  3. Timing. Being a good follower means not only following, but making your leader better at leading. That means giving them information in the most effective ways possible. Don’t come to them with every little thing, but don’t hide information either. Create a pattern of regular check-ins, and recognize that they might be more constrained on time than you. Create documentation of your work that they can check when they have time on their schedule, not on yours. They might be pulling some long hours, but if they can read a detailed and accurate report about your work at 11 PM on their own time instead of having to have a 30-minute meeting with you every week, they’ll love you for it. That also ensures that they have the information they need from you neat and organized, instead of having to rely on their memory during hectic and stressful times.
  4. Public praise, private complaints. Don’t undermine. If you have reason to doubt your leader’s decision, approach it privately (and follow step 3). Don’t call your leader out in front of the team and start a whole thing. The majority of the time, their decision might make sense given information they have but you don’t. And even if they’re truly a bad leader or making bad decisions, you still don’t do yourself any favors by being antagonistic publicly. If you’re in a meeting where team input is welcome, then go ahead and ask clarifying questions if you need to. But even then:
  5. Offer solutions & alternatives, not pessimism. If you disagree with a decision, you have an obligation as a good follower to come up with at least one potentially viable alternative before you bring it up. If a plane is hurtling towards the ground and the pilot is desperately but futilely pulling up on the yoke, you’re not helping if you say “that’s not going to work” to the pilot. Unless you have a better suggestion to avert disaster, your comments aren’t helpful. “I think this is a bad idea, and we shouldn’t do it,” needs to be followed up with “I think this alternative will work better to get us to our stated goals. What do you think?” Note that it’s perfectly fine to offer “do nothing” as an alternative – if “nothing” is both possible and a legitimate strategy. Sometimes nothing is not an option, like when the plane is hurtling towards the ground.

Everyone can’t be #1 all the time, and there are going to be times in your life – probably a great many – where you have to be a follower. You’ll improve any team as well as your own life if you’re good at it. Don’t just think of it as some chore you have to complete on your way somewhere else. Think of it as a skill to master. Even if you don’t want to ever be a leader, I’m sure you’d still rather work on teams with less stress and greater efficiency. And if you do want to become a leader, it will be much better for you if you don’t arrive in your leadership role scratching your head at why those you’re leading aren’t good followers. The best leaders teach their followers how to follow well – and how can you teach what you don’t know?

Help Me Help You

I love helping people. It’s one of my favorite things – to have someone ask for my advice, for me to have actual advice that can help, and then for that person to find success as a result. Gives me the warm fuzzies all over.

The problem is that life is chaotic sometimes. There are occasions where someone will ask me something – for advice, a favor, etc. – and I really, really want to help, but am just swamped. I work a lot, I have three kids, and it just isn’t always possible.

My problem isn’t that I can’t say “no.” I have no problems setting boundaries and saying “I’m really sorry, but I’m just too swamped to get to this, but if it’s not urgent we can circle back in the future.” That’s not my problem – my problem is that I genuinely wish I could help more. It’s not just out of altruism; like I said, I get a big sense of satisfaction from it, so there’s personal benefit to me that I love to claim.

There’s good news, though! This blog has been really, really helpful in that regard.

Yesterday someone tagged me on Twitter and asked me for advice and insights on a topic that is 100% in my wheelhouse. But I was very busy, and even though I immediately thought of all the things I would say, I just didn’t have time. Then I realized – those things came to mind easily because I’d written them before, in a prior post on this blog. So I was able to send the link and send the advice, all in about 30 seconds.

That’s just one more benefit of making the time every day to put these thoughts down. It’s so worth it.

So I want to increase the likelihood that I can do more of it! This blog is mostly a “my thoughts, at random, as they come” sort of blog, but I also want to make it known that I’m very open to requests. If there are any topics you’d like me to blog about, let me know! I’ve always said that if you have a question, chances are very good that you’re not the only one, so anything you ask me that I answer publicly may help more than just you. It will definitely help me.

Notes

Welcome back to the semi-regular segment of “Johnny listens to music and shares it with you.” No rhyme or reason, no pattern. Some new music, some stuff I’ve been listening to for years. Just good stuff.

Kingfish” by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. This is an absolutely incredible blues album. He’s so talented, and to listen to him you’d think he’d been down and out for sixty years, but this incredible guy is only 20 years old. Go listen.

“Sweet Weaponry” by Cruiserweight. I have such a huge weakness for angsty pop-punk female vocalists. This is a great example.

“New American Language” by Dan Bern. Absolutely incredible singer/songwriter folk stuff. Upbeat driving music mixed with really soulful stuff. “Black Tornado” and “Thanksgiving Day Parade” are particular favorites, but the whole album is gold.

As always, I love hearing about new music! Tell me what you’re listening to!

When In Doubt, Work

Even the most ambitious and decisive of us will have plenty of moments in our lives where we’re not sure what to do next. We want a change, and we’re not sure where to go. We’re in a rut and don’t know how to get out. It happens.

I don’t know all the answers to how to deal with that. But I know one thing that always helps: work.

Do something difficult and productive. Don’t worry about maximum efficiency or value; don’t worry if you’re working for free, giving away what you made or even making something of low importance. Just work. Fix a fence, volunteer at an animal shelter, pick up trash along a road, write a blog, anything.

Keep the momentum going. Keep your brain away from the quagmire of dwelling on not doing what to do. Put energy in a positive direction.

The worst case scenario is a bunch of small improvements to your mood, attitude and maybe environment or health. You also might give yourself inspiration on what to do next, attract positive attention, or make friends – all good positive side effects. The worst thing that can come out of it is that you waste a few hours, but if you were feeling really indecisive I guarantee you were going to waste those hours anyway if you were to dwell on it.

There are certain things that are universally good in this spot. You can always grab a marginal benefit by working out, or cleaning something, or completing a project.

The wrong thing to do in that situation is leisure activities. I think leisure activities are good for the soul and you need them! If you want to watch a movie, play a video game, etc., you shouldn’t feel bad. But use those as rewards for jobs well done; as balance to the accomplishments you make. Don’t use them to fill in the gaps when you don’t know what to do, because that’s the path of sloth and inertia is a powerful force. Don’t let yourself say, “I’m feeling dissatisfied and I don’t know where to go, so I’m going to veg out in front of the TV/computer for a few hours.”

When you’re happy and things are good, take your leisure. But when in doubt, work.

I’m No Expert

But expertise is overrated.

When you want to learn something, you don’t have to seek out the most knowledgeable person in existence on that topic. You don’t need the foremost experts in the field. Heck, you don’t even need someone who’s more knowledgeable than you! You just need someone who knows something you don’t.

If I decided I wanted to learn to do magic tricks, I don’t need to learn from Penn & Teller or David Copperfield. I just need someone who knows a trick I don’t know.

This is wonderful news, because it means your pool of knowledge sources just expanded tremendously. You don’t need a guru or a thought leader. You just need someone who knows something you don’t – and that’s everyone.

Even if you’re far along in your journey on a particular topic, you can learn from a wide variety of people. You might know a hundred times as much about the Civil War as someone else, but they could still have some knowledge about the topic that you don’t.

Now you might be thinking, “Sure, I could learn from anyone. But people who aren’t experts might also have a lot of false knowledge, things they think are true but aren’t. If I learn from them, I might be learning the wrong stuff.”

Absolutely true. But I’m going to let you in on a secret – that’s also to your benefit.

Why? Because everyone might be wrong, and you shouldn’t trust anyone 100%. You should always think critically and have a framework for evaluating the information you receive against other sources, your own intellect, independent research, etc. But when we learn from “experts,” we often ignore that advice and trust blindly. But experts can be wrong for years about things (for example, see: all of history, pretty much – but the food pyramid comes to mind as a recent example), and even people with correct information have agendas and motivations. So you should be in the habit of critical inquiry anyway. If reducing your reliance on experts helps you remember to put on your thinking cap, then so much the better.

The flip side of this is also very encouraging – if you don’t have to learn from experts exclusively, then you don’t have to BE an expert to bring value to the table! It would be silly for me to claim that within my industry, I’m the best of the best and have no room for improvement; that I know absolutely everything. That’s preposterous. But I don’t have to – I just have to have knowledge that my clients don’t have, which is useful to them. And I definitely have that!

So if you’re feeling a little self-doubt the next time you have the opportunity to help someone – if you’re thinking “I have no business speaking on this topic, I’m no expert” – get that thought out of your head. You don’t have to be. You can share the knowledge you have and provide value in doing so – and pick up a little knowledge in return while you’re at it!

Improving

I think I’ve figured out what the hardest thing about improving yourself is.

It’s not the effort involved. It’s not the challenge of learning or doing something new, it’s not the risk of failure, and it’s not the time you spend on it. It’s not the self-doubt or anxiety about success. None of those are the biggest obstacles to starting a journey of self-improvement.

It’s admitting that we need to improve.

Whether it’s to yourself, to your inner circle, or to the world, we so often fall into a way of thinking that tells us that we have to already have it all figured out. “We should have all of our ducks in a row by now,” we tell ourselves, regardless of whether “now” in this context is age 25 or 60. Admitting we don’t have everything down perfectly yet is like admitting we’ve failed, as if somehow not being perfect represents a failure on our part.

We think this way, despite the fact that it’s obviously absurd. There’s no age where you get it all right. You never get it all right.

When you think about a journey, sometimes we fall into a trap where we don’t judge ourselves on the destination or even the journey itself, we judge ourselves based on the origin point!

We want to start a health journey, but we think “if I admit that I want to get healthier, that’s like admitting that I’m overweight and unhealthy now. I don’t want to do that.”

Think about every time you’ve ever seen someone do that, though. Hasn’t the result always been an outpouring of support and encouragement? People shouting “good for you!” and “you can do it!”

I don’t mean to downplay the emotional risk. It’s hard. But you absolutely can do it. If you’re ashamed of the starting line you’re on now, just remember – the very second you say “I need to improve,” you’ve taken a step off that starting line, and you’re no longer there. And every new step takes you farther away from it.

And you’ll already have done the hardest part.