Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fighting the Hero's Urge

I have a tendency, when I don’t like the progress I’m making in some area of my life, to make bold pronouncements to myself about the fixes I’m going to make. I will correct--pronto--everything I believe to be broken in myself.

I don’t stop there, of course. These things aren’t magically gonna fix themselves because I, at one time, willed them to.

I make urgent plans. I give myself pep talks. I set ridiculous timetables.
I behave, in other words, like a complete loser.

Successful people understand, even if it’s not entirely conscious, that sporadic fits of heroic action don’t make for a successful life.

Our guidance systems, when we’re in a panic, tend to underperform.

I’ve read the book Wooden on Leadership a couple times, and a major theme of John Wooden’s* leadership is the idea that there are no big things. There are only a whole bunch of little things that, by accumulation, add up to something much larger.

The man is famous for, on the first day of practice each year, teaching all the new recruits how to put socks on correctly and how to tie their shoes. Many of the players he coached assumed it had to be a joke when they first had the experience.

The idea is that you must get all the basics--all the little things--right in order to be a successful basketball team. Socks incorrectly applied lead to blisters, which hinder performance.

And how do we choose which little things we will pursue?

They must be the building blocks of a much bigger goal. Building blocks that ultimately make something we value.

If I were, for example, trying to lose 30 pounds, I wouldn’t make a loud proclamation that I’ll have it done in 30-days and begin with a fast to launch the endeavor. Instead, I might toss the Ho-Hos I have stacked high in my pantry and choose to start eating my cereal out of the smallest bowls in the house, even throwing away the larger ones, if necessary.

The first approach involves hopeless magical (heroic) thinking, the second breaks the problem down to tiny, unintimidating actions. Which path is more likely to succeed?

Consistency in all these well-chosen little things ultimately--and often in less time than we imagine--will take us where we want to go.

One beautiful side-effect of this kind of attack is that it erases the need to conjure some kind of giant magical cure for your ills. It removes the need for the heroic entirely and turns self-improvement into an exercise of making incremental, approachable changes that move you in the direction you want to go.

We aren’t heroes, and we aren’t magical. Pretending to be only guarantees failure and self-loathing. We can, however, reasonably hope to make what seem smaller, even mundane changes in pursuit of our goals.

The point of self-improvement is to create sustainable progress. Heroic efforts aren’t sustainable; magical ones aren’t achievable in the first place.

So consider starting with how you slide on your socks in the morning. And then get the shoes correctly tied. Let the hero off the hook for today; Metropolis may need saving.

Good things are bound to follow.

* for the uninitiated, he was the finest college basketball coach who ever lived and legendary for being an impeccable gentleman the whole way.

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