The key to growth - be a bit less bad

Blog - less bad.png

I’m bad at a lot of things. 99.9% of things one could possibly be bad at.

I can’t sail a boat, I can’t throw left handed, I know nothing about quantum physics, I’m not a great cook, I can’t speak any other languages and I’m a truly awful singer. You get the idea - the list could go on for months.

But none of this really bothers me. I don’t define my sense of self-worth based on how good I am at karaoke. In fact, I’m pretty happy to laugh about it.

Conversely, I actually take pride in cooking a nice meal, however long it takes me, and regardless of whether or not it would be worthy of a Michelin star. The mere fact I’ve tried, and achieved something, is a source of both fulfilment and progress.


Obvious? Less so than you’d like to think.

This seems obvious, however it’s remarkable how quickly this sentiment disappears when we look inside organisations and into our working lives.

All of a sudden, the fact you don’t feel completely competent in any area does become an issue. You do let this affect your sense of self-worth, you do look for benchmarks, and you are absolutely not happy to laugh about it.

This idea is backed up by science. Harvard Professor of Adult Developmental Psychology, Bob Kegan, says that the biggest loss of value in organisations is people ‘playing around their backhand’.

That is, rather than accepting that we all have weaker areas (our backhand), and then trying to work on or develop them, instead we actively spend time and effort hiding these weaknesses.

We run around to play the shot on our forehand, force fitting a problem or scenario to our strengths – as if at work we have two jobs, our actual role, and making ourselves look good.

If we take just a second to consider this, each of us can think of when this happens, normally as a result of our limiting beliefs – “I’m not a numbers person”, “I’m not ‘techy’”, “I can never sell my ideas to people”, “I can’t present to large groups of people.”

And therefore we do our very best not expose ourselves to these situations.

This is the very enemy of progress, of growth, of development.

In mindset terms, it’s also the epitome of a fixed mindset – my capabilities are fixed. “I am good at ‘x’ I am not good at ‘y’. And that’s not changing”.

You probably already recognise an area where this is true for you. And already that area seems like a mountain.  Growth then, can be intimidating.

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Success is not just the peak, it’s putting your boots on in the first place

In reality, of course, there is no peak to the mountain. No one moment when the clouds open, light floods through onto the glorious summit and we’re anointed a master of Excel.

So how then, should we define success? Well, in reality, success is the fact you put your walking boots on in the first place. The fact that you are less unprepared than you used to be.

But to truly accept this, and stand a chance of it actually sticking, we may well need to realise where we self-sabotage.

We tend often to discourage ourselves by comparing ourselves to something external, either;

  • Horizontally – we look at other people and think “unless I’m as good as her/him then I’m not good”

  • Vertically – unless I can achieve immediate mastery then I’m a failure

Either way, the focus becomes not our own progress, but external benchmarks of what we believe we should be. And inevitably, we come up short against the benchmark of instant perfection.

But this perception of failure is of course of a complete red herring. The fact that you are less bad than you used to be is significant. Because linking together moments of being less bad moves us very quickly to notable achievements.

And so our focus should be internal, incremental progress.

Stephen Duneier’s excellent TEDtalk illustrates this point perfectly. Focussing on simply ‘the next right step’ is a powerful tool for generating momentum in growth.


Disproportionate progress

So what is the result of all this learning?

Well, we know multiple generation defining success stories such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, attribute their success to continual learning.

In fact Musk is often held out as a prime example of the benefits of ‘learning transfer’ – learning so widely that you see patterns between different disciplines, therefore allowing you to apply ideas from one area into a completely new and separate area.

This is now being recognised as increasingly important amongst professionals.

No longer is it enough to simply be a subject matter expert. You need to be a change managing, tech savvy, team leading, creative, subject matter expert.

This means you are able to see multiple perspective, using multiple skillsets and significantly reduce your ‘unknown unknowns’ – the gaps you didn’t even know you had. Doing this means you are supercharging your ability to solve problems and create outcomes.


Leading a team of multi-skilled professionals

This concept of being less bad has a powerful effect on leading teams.

Think about the impact of the message you send by saying to your team “I’m not going to judge you on how good you’ve become at something, I’m simply going to ask you to be less bad at one thing, and I’ll praise you for trying”.

From the dopamine hit of being praised to the development of a growth mindset, this is powerful, sustainable improvement, grounded in the idea that the only goal is growth, and the only failure is remaining as bad as you already are.

Soon you’ll have a team that seek out opportunities to learn entirely different disciplines and can bring them together to solve your most complex issues.


Your challenge

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably realised by now that you too have a lot of backhands. Let’s not be coy – you’re awful at a lot of stuff. So here’s your challenge for growth for the rest of 2019.

What are you going to be less bad at? And what are you going to help others be less bad at?

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Andy Pope