I am a sucker for a well-crafted motivational phrase. That’s actually how “Go Forth And Be Awesome” got started. But not all motivational phrases are created equal. Some go too far for the cute analogy and miss the point altogether.
It’s hokey hokum.
Today’s egregious example is about aiming for big goals. When I was researching it, I found two distinct versions. Let’s dispense with the wrongest of the wrong first.
“If you shoot for the stars, you’ll at least hit the moon.”
No, that’s not how the universe works. I can’t tell you “Pick up a dart and aim for a wall because at least you’ll hit the bullseye.” You absolutely COULD, but the geometric probability is astronomical. In fact, humankind is especially good at aiming for stars and NOT hitting the moon. As of January 2017, there have been 314 space flights with people, and only 6 of those landed on the moon. Zero of which were by accident. That gives you, at very best, a 1.9% chance of hitting the moon. Hardly an “at least” scenario.
On to the most prevalent version…
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, at least you’ll land amongst the stars.”
You miss the moon but you’re still in space. Not what you were aiming for, but it is kind of neat. Who says you only get to aim once, though? This isn’t basketball, it’s rocket science! NASA doesn’t aim just once and neither should you. Shoot, check, adjust. Translating that to Lean Startup vocabulary gives you “build, measure, learn”.
It is a well-meaning phrase at its heart. No need to jettison it into space. We just need to give it a little corrective push into effectiveness.
“Shoot for the moon. Check your path. Adjust as needed.”
Not as snappy, but it will prevent from people realizing they aren’t headed on the right trajectory and just accepting their lonely drift into space.
I remember watching Bob Ross paint his happy trees and powerful mountains and just being in awe of his calmness and lack of fear of “happy little accidents”. When I painted “accidents” usually involved large splotches of the wrong color paint. They didn’t qualify as “happy” or “little”. Bob Ross just made it seem so easy as he pulled palm tree branches out of a single line of black paint.
Recently I learned the picture he painted on television was not the first time he painted it. Bob regularly painted the scene once before, which was kept off-screen as a reference. Now honestly, the difference in the level of skill between Bob Ross and I was huge, but I was at another disadvantage.
I was comparing my first try to his second.
There is a ton of learning that happens between tries. Lines become smoother, decisions are easier, and you have better command of the paint on the brush. And this is something we do all the time. We compare our beginnings to the middles of others.
“Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” – Jake the Dog
You’ve got to give yourself permission to fail, to not be good at something. At one point, all experts struggled with the basics. There was a time when Albert Einstein didn’t know his ABC’s. As Laozi said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, and often that first step is more of a stumble. And that’s ok. We’re chasing something new, something better. We don’t have to be perfect at it yet; we’re learning.
As we learn, we’re a bad judge of our own skill. It starts with the “I can paint that!” bravado of someone who’s never painted, an over-estimation of abilities that is part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Beyond that peak is a deep valley of doubting your own ability. This is where the Impostor Syndrome lives and it can shake you off the pursuit of learning something new. This is the where most of the beginning to middle comparison happens, and when it is the most damaging.
You have to remember that you are learning and maybe you haven’t mastered it yet. But the key word is “yet“. You determine your own finish line. You can even determine your own starting line. Instead of wishing that you had learned something earlier in life, get started! Now is better than tomorrow.
Just from the act of trying something new we have the ability to practice the beginner’s mind (Shoshin). Without years of practice or knowledge, our eyes are untainted with preconceptions or the “ways things have always been done”. If we let ourselves be openminded, we can see the forest AND the trees, instead of only one in lieu of the other. This is a time when we might find new ways hidden from the experts, when we might challenge even the most foundational tenets, when we might ask “Well why not?”.
Get out there. Start painting trees on your landscape. They may not be the best trees but you’ve got the power of “yet”. And always welcome happy little accidents on your journey to learning something new.
I’m in the middle lane of a three lane road, on the last leg of my school drop-off delivery. Just one of my kids left to go. A car in front of me has their right turn signal on. Flashing their intention to the world adjacent and slightly behind them. They kept going straight; no merging, no lane changing.
The car immediately next to them was unaware of their directional desires and held their ground. The car in front of me never sped up nor slowed down. Never made any other display of their intention. They just kept their speed, blinker blinking, until at the very last moment they slammed on their brakes in order to slide behind the next-door car and into the lane they wanted.
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu
Too often companies use their turn signal towards innovation, yet never adjust their business plans to make it happen. “We want to be innovative industry leaders in X” is heard in more boardrooms than not. But their SUV of a company moves on unfaltering, in the lane they’ve always been in, while still signaling. It’s all about walking the talk.
In order to be innovative, there has to be some change in your current velocity. Physics tells us that acceleration is a change in an object’s speed OR direction. It would make sense that in order to accelerate towards market-leading ideas, an organization (or individual) would have to speed up, slow down, or start fading into the new lane.
Speed up the generation, prototyping, and validation of disruptive ideas.
Slow down the status quo and start preparing for some change management.
Merge into new procedures, culture, and atmospheres.
“Remember: It’s not innovation until it gets built.” Garry Tan
The business superhighway is littered with cars that never managed the merge to innovation. Blockbuster watched Netflix fly by in the fast lane. Xerox had the ability to change lanes thanks to PARC, but never made the move. Borders tried to let Amazon signal the lane change for them, but still kept their steady trajectory.
And as the driver ahead of me was able to finally get in the lane they needed, it wasn’t without last minute, emergency maneuvers. Often, even those are unsuccessful. Because change and innovation aren’t just things you can say you want to do. It takes commitment and dedication, adjustment and planning. You can’t just signal that you’re going to turn and magically end up in the correct lane.
I learned something that I already knew but never knew when I read the book, “Make the Big Time Where You Are“, by legendary football coach, Frosty Westering. He called attention to the often-overlooked, magical third side of any and all coins.
A coin is nothing more than a squashed cylinder. It has two circular faces we call heads and tails, but it also has some thickness that becomes the third side. THE EDGE! Coach Westering would use the analogy of the coin to explain how the edge is used to go from “doing your best” to “being the best”, but we’re going to borrow it for a slightly different purpose.
Imagine you and your brother are flipping a coin to see who gets the last dinner roll. Picking heads, you’ve predetermined that one side of the coin is success, while the other is embarrassing failure. As it floats in the sky, moving slowly through its parabolic arch, you salivate thinking about the melted butter on that last roll. And in this moment, the coin becomes kind of like Schrödinger’s cat’s coin, existing in a state of heads and tails at the same time. Both success and failure.
But let’s remove more variables here and not flip the coin in the air. You and your brother decide to stand the coin on its edge, and when it falls, whomever’s side is up, they get the roll.
The coin balances on its edge like an Olympic gymnast on the balance beam, and it sits. Here we are, like with the coin flying through the air, perched between success and failure, and it all rests on the edge.
There are all kinds of things you can do when the coin is resting on the edge to encourage it to fall your way. You could blow on it, tap the table, try to create some distinct movement in your favor. But why?
When the coin is on its edge, there is still a chance for victory.
Life, my friends, is a coin on the edge. You are constantly between success and failure everyday and the worst thing we can do is sit idly by and watch others take our dinner rolls.
Well not today buster.
This is just like the prototype that we want to test with our early adopters. Every prototype (no matter how ugly, how duct-taped together, or how functionality barren) has a chance of success. You’re setting your success metrics early and you know if you epically fail, at least you’re failing forward and learning. You let your prototypes live on the edge of the coin, why not you?
If you felt you had control over your success, wouldn’t you tap the table, scoot your chair, do anything you could to create enough movement to have the coin fall in your favor? Yes you would. So stop feeling like success or failure is written in the stars, or the deal of a deck of cards. Life is a coin on the edge, and you have to power to make it fall your way.
On a foggy night, he started his run 95 minutes behind schedule. He was determined to never arrive late vowing to “get there at the advertised time”. Illinois Central’s engineer had the tough task of making up over an hour and a half between Memphis and Canton. The engineer’s name was Jonathan Jones, but he went by Casey.
Casey Jones’s heroic tales were reimagined in the 1950 Walt Disney Studios animated short, The Brave Engineer. In the cartoon, Casey Jones at one point jumps onto the front of the train to save a woman from the tracks. This was based on a true story where real-life Casey rescued a child in the same manner. Perched precariously on the cow catcher, his outstretched arms would scoop up the child who was frozen in fear on the tracks. Another exploit of animated Casey shows him ripping every part of his train down, from the cab to the caboose, and throwing it into the furnace of the locomotive… all in an effort to arrive on time.
We all have our own furnace inside of us. It powers our drive and brings our motivation to a boil. We do not have the convenience of a coal car that carries our fuel with us and Casey Jones had to tear down his own baggage car to get more out of his furnace. What can we do?
At the center of the furnace is a fire and fires in their own right are pretty great. You can build a camp fire and it will bring you warmth and light. If your fire is strong enough, others can gather around your fire. Go check out FAKEGRIMLOCK’s post about being on fire at FeldThoughts. The article is old by internet standards, but so is fire.
It boils down to this. You take the successes that you have and you take the failures that you have, and you use them as fuel. They help your fire burn stronger and brighter. But a fire on its own can burn low or the spark can go out. That’s why you can’t just feed it successes. Your fire has to burn off of the failures too. Especially in innovation where you will fail many more times than you will succeed.
Use failures as learning and fuel.
I don’t want my fire to just be sending energy out into the dark night. I want to use those Joules (unit of measurement for energy.. thanks Physics!) to make myself, my prototype, my blog, my quilting club better.
A furnace puts your fire to work.
Envision a furnace door mounted on your stomach. When you pull the door open, your internal fire can be seen. This is where you are going to toss in the successes and failures of your work. As a side note, I’m not saying to ball up your failures deep inside so that no one can see them. Hardly. I’m saying let those failures burn in your internal fire so that you have more Joules and you burn brighter. Then every one can say “Wow! You sure are glowing today!” to which you can reply “THAT’S BECAUSE I AM EMPOWERED BY THE EMBERS OF MY OWN FAILURE AND SUCCESS!” Or, you know, something to that nature.
Feed your furnace
When you feed your furnace, as Casey Jones did, you pick up steam and momentum. When your furnace is heated, your purpose starts to percolate. Purpose is one of the key components to motivation and when its is vaporizing because of the heat of your furnace, everything you do becomes more powerful. Sure you may need to pivot and persevere, here and there, as you fail and succeed with your innovations. However, neither one will be able to slow you down. You are an iron horse pulling 85 tons of ideas down the track of tomorrow. You’ve got a full head of steam and nearby towns can hear your whistle coming.
Just keep feeding the furnace.
Identify some places that you may have failed or succeeded.
How can you leverage them as fuel and keep moving forward?
I have never met anyone that didn’t have at least one quote that spoke to them deeply. I was lucky enough to be raised in a community of football coaches, so you could say that I have been marinating in motivational mantras my entire life. One that has been with me for as long as I can remember is one I attribute to my dad, a football coach. He may have not been the first person to say it, but I can close my eyes and see it hanging, clear as day, on the wall near his office.
Try your best, you will be glad you did.
I’m going to wait just a second and let that sink in. Just roll your brain around in that quote for a little bit. On the surface, it speaks to something so simple and sincere. Why wouldn’t you be happy that you gave it your all? Yet, the true power is in what the quote doesn’t say.
It does not have any mention of success or failure. There is no outcome tied to the emotion and why should there be? This has to be one of the paramount philosophies you have to learn when prototyping. You will have failures. You will have successes. Yet how you feel about what you do can not be linked to end result of a tested hypothesis. Both results end in learning, and some would even say that failure teaches you more than success does.
What I am saying is that happiness should hinge on your effort, and effort is something you can control.
Yes, there will be some days that are plain nasty and out to get you. No matter how much mud and muck those days sling onto your path, you got to hike your pants up and give it your all. You can’t let a murky path detour you from giving your best effort. It’s all about grit and you’ve got a ton of it inside you. You may slip and you may fall face first into the muck, but wipe your eyes clear and keep going. At the end of the day, your conscience will tally how much effort you gave. Any left over effort that you didn’t use fades away. There is no roll-over extended effort; you use it or you lose it.
Try your best, you’ll be glad you did.
Notice that it doesn’t say it will be easy either. We have to assume challenge is going to be a part of our daily lives if we want to be really innovative. To innovate is to go against the grain, explore out past the edges… where we’re innovating, there are no roads. We’re ok with that because we’re going to try our best and we’ll be glad that we did.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of Flow State. The abridged version says that if the amount of challenge is too low compared to our skill, we’ll get bored. If the amount of challenge is too high compared to our skill, we’ll get frustrated. Yet there is a sweet spot that fluctuates, where our skill encounters just enough challenge. In this Flow State we become deeply engaged. When we try our best, we’re doing all we can to get ourselves in this Goldilocks zone where the challenge isn’t too low or too high. It is just right.
In fact, let’s talk quickly about the Goldilocks Zone. The Science Masters call it the Circumstellar Habitable Zone and it is this Magical Region of Awesome (MRA) amidst all the universal variables. If a planet exists inside that MRA, it is capable of sustaining life. As innovators we are our own little planets, spinning wildly on our axis. Our thoughts and prototypes are our lifeforms; little idea creatures migrating, learning, growing. Don’t be one of those planets where ideas go to die. Try your best to keep that orbital velocity up so that you stay in the MRA, where your idea creatures can prosper and thrive.
Try your best, you’ll be glad you did.
The last thing I want to point out is that the quote doesn’t say anything about any one else. Nope, this is all about you. If you are extrinsically motivated, you may prefer “Try your best, your boss will be glad you did”, but I don’t know your boss. I’m certainly willing to try to get them to add that clause to your contract? But boss approval only lasts so long anyways. Soon the boss will be replaced or another task hits your inbox and your boss will have a fresh set of expectations. Seems to me like you should really be trying to impress the one person who can’t be replaced, who has been with you every day until now, and will be with you every day forward.
You. I’m talking about you.
You know you better than anyone else. Take some time during the day and ask yourself “Am I trying my best? Will I be glad with how I did today?” and then adjust if needed. Even at this, we can’t be perfect. All I am asking you to do is to try your best at trying your best so that you can be glad. Win or lose, validated hypothesis or not, successful innovation or a heap of junk, we must link our happiness to effort. When we’re able to do that, we’re able to extract learning and growth from even the most catastrophic of failures.
Push yourself into that Goldilocks Zone of Innovation, face the challenges and muck with your own brand of grit so that your idea creatures can flourish, and be happy with yourself regardless of the outcome when you give it your all. Try your best, you’ll be glad you did.
Think of a particularly difficult task ahead (maybe a prototype that needs testing).
What are the epic ways it can fail?
Put a square next to each of these.
What are the spectacular ways it can succeed?
Put a triangle next to each of these.
Most importantly, what are all the things you can do before the task? Where can you apply effort?
Put a circle next to these.
Turn all circles into smiley faces because when you accomplish these, you will have done all you can and that’s going to make you glad.