Improving on Our Worst-Case Scenario

There has been a lot of interest in and writings on “grit” over the last few years, especially in the education realm. Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” gave the idea some legs with her research data and recommendations. However, some have found her conclusions to over-reach what the data said, and there is still another camp that believes grit is not really a good predictor of success nor can it be taught.

So what is grit and can we learn it?

In my opinion, grit is your capacity to persevere, endure, and possibly even triumph in a worst-case scenario. Can it be learned? Sure – the hard way. No six-week on-line course is going to really teach you how to stand up to and get through the emotional, physical, or mental hell that you have to face in order to survive to the other side. Most people don’t voluntarily sign up for something like that. Who voluntarily puts themselves through something they’re not entirely sure they’re going to get through without significant damage being done to them somehow?

Not many.

That’s why grit is still appreciated when we see it in action in others because most of us admire them for taking those challenges on. And who are some of these folks where we can see this in action? Our armed forces serving in operations around the world; our law enforcement officers; our first responders; those rescuing, saving, and helping in crisis; those overcoming tremendous personal issues or challenges that help blaze a trail for others to take heart and follow when their time comes, to name just a few. Gritty situations can be epic dramas that everyone sees or small private battlegrounds for you alone, but either way, it’s a scary no-man’s-land that has no guarantee of survival, much less success.   I don’t see too many people signing up for that course. That’s why we are in awe of those who do. So where does that leave the rest of us? How do we “up” our grit? Is there a way to start slowly or do you just jump and pray? Well . . . yes to both.

As a running coach, I’ve always told my athletes that one sure way to improve your performance is to improve your “crap” end – the worst-case scenario. How do you perform when EVERYTHING goes wrong? The weather is the worst, your gear falls apart, you’re sick or injured on the appointed day, you’ve just received terrible, world’s coming apart news as you step off – every bad thing AND the kitchen sink. How do you perform? What can you count on yourself producing in that context? The answer involves one part character and one part training. What – training? Yep.

Where we can’t learn it in a traditional way – classrooms, books, papers, and tests – we can learn it in small ways by putting ourselves into those situations we don’t excel at, those situations where we doubt our ability, those times when we’re a little scared of coming up short or just flat out failing. In training, we push limits, try new tactics, and simulate worst-case scenarios, practicing our response to them both physically and mentally. Courage goes hand in hand with grit, and whether we’re taking on hill repeats or learning something new, every time we push the limit of what we think we can do, take on, or master, we’re increasing our grit. No, maybe not in epic world changing ways, but each one of those hard, scary, uncomfortable challenges we voluntarily meet head on teaches us more about ourselves – what we’re capable of, what matters to us – and it gets us prepped for those truly epic moments we never see coming. But you have to jump in and try – that takes some courage and grit right there!

I’ve had my share of those moments – we all have. At the time, I wondered how I was ever going to survive in tact to reach the other side of the crisis. The truth is – I didn’t survive in tact; I changed. And THAT’S the key to grit. In the digging deep, the humbling of failure, the embarrassment of screwing up, the wonder in getting it right, the awe in triumphing in the end – somewhere in the midst of all that persevering and trying and failing and succeeding, I learn more about myself, and it changes the narrative I tell myself about myself. I learn and I change.

So when the next gritty situation raises its ugly head, I might still feel like my insides are about to fall out, but . . . they’ve fallen out before and I KNOW I can stuff ‘em back inside and succeed because I’ve done it before. Now I tell myself “I KNOW I got this” because I’ve trained myself to “get” this. I recognize the situation or the set-up when it happens so I can stay calm, activate the plan, and tell myself to push through because I’ve already done this before. I don’t go forward because I’m no longer scared; I go forward because I know what to do while it’s all falling apart AND I’m still scared. In that moment, the narrative I tell myself about myself changes my response to the situation. I’ve gone from helpless to hopeful and from surprised to resolved.

So can we learn grit? Sure. If we’re brave enough to look inside and face the biggest obstacle any of us ever really faces – ourselves – and have the courage to rewrite our own narratives about who we are and what we can do on our best – and our worst – days. That’s some true grit that even The Duke himself could appreciate.

Never Assume Anything

I was reminded of this piece of wisdom earlier this week while I was reading an article in a professional publication. I was reading along about the value of coaching – for both newbies, veterans, and everyone in between – and was happily surprised to see my school district featured in the article. The author made good points and her suggestions for how districts can continue to grow in this area were solid. The only unfortunate part was that she stopped short in her research and questioning about our district and drew the wrong conclusions about our policies and program. Because her data was missing some key pieces of information, she came up with possible next steps and solutions for problems we don’t actually have. Great ideas but they were completely irrelevant for us, and the article now paints an inaccurate picture of our district and the state of its coaching program. What a missed opportunity to get it right.

But it got me thinking – how many times do I miss those same opportunities because I fail to question or verify what I KNOW to be true (so I don’t have to question it)? When was the last time I verified what I’m just CERTAIN is true? Is it still true? How do I know? What if it’s not true anymore? Wow – just thinking about that makes my stomach do a weird little flip. When I think about the things in my life I KNOW are “True” and then pause to think about what if they aren’t . . . that kinda makes my whole world tilt on its axis – and not in a good way. Perhaps that’s why we tend to assume some things and shy away from periodically verifying them. Verifying just opens up a whole Pandora’s box of possibilities that we really don’t want to face. Verifying is potentially terrifying. However, when I think about the alternative – just going along with my head in the sand and assuming I know all the facts and have them right – makes me feel more than a little uneasy. What if I’m like that author and I’m coming up with good solutions and drawing reasonable conclusions but it’s all based on faulty data? That would mean I’m wasting my time and getting nowhere, wondering why nothing’s working. Hmm. Been there, done that more times than I care to think about.

The perfect example of this was my family’s latest escape room adventure. It was all four of us again and this time we were finally really working well as a team. We put all our past lessons and experiences to work for us, divided up the work and played to our strengths. We were doing great and got to what we were pretty sure was our last puzzle in 40 minutes. It was a math problem, but it was pretty straightforward. We got the answer, solved the puzzle to get the code to the lock and voila! Nothing. What?! We all tried solving the problem separately, and we all got the same answer. Try again. Nothing. Immediately we all started doubting the facts that were in front of us and went off on different tangents. We got a clue from our external observer that said we got the right answer. Use a muscle on the lock! All three guys tried and couldn’t get it to go. They concluded it was broken. The observer said the lock wasn’t malfunctioning. I was determined we weren’t going to lose because of a damn lock! I got mad, grabbed the lock and hit it on the counter HARD. Sure enough – it popped open! Success!! The guys were like “Really?! Mom? We’ll never live this down.”   A good laugh was had by all, but there was a moment of truth in that. Why did we assume that we were ALL WRONG? We had the facts in front of us and yet we were willing to believe that it must be wrong because the solution wasn’t working immediately, rather than thinking maybe we just weren’t applying it right.

Bottom line take-away this time? Never assume anything and stop assuming all the facts you have are all the facts there are.

So how does this play out in the rest of the areas of our lives? For me, although it sounds like being a cynic, I tend to question everything already – that’s the researcher in me. I’d rather live with the truth than base all my decisions on more palatable lies. But if I don’t question and verify everything, then who’s the one living in la la land? Me. But if I’m being honest, there are TRUTHS I shy away from verifying because I’m pretty sure I just don’t want to know if the facts don’t add up. I’ve turned over a lot of those rocks in my life and too often they tend to yield answers I wish I didn’t know. On the other hand, many times they confirm that my faith was placed correctly and things really are the way they seem or I believe them to be. And those are the moments I live for because it confirms that the effort – and the courage to ask – was worth the answer. I guess I’ll just have to keep turning over those rocks – and hoping I find pots of gold and not Pandora’s box.

Am I the Obstacle? The Results

And I’m back! It was an active and interesting two weeks to do my impromptu action research. In my last post, I was sharing research around formatives vs. summatives and questions to ask to get meaningful feedback on how to move forward. That got me wondering if maybe I was the obstacle getting in the way of a solution within my own environment at school. I decided to do a little action research on my own for two weeks and see what the data says. Here’s what I discovered.

My first task was to listen more for understanding – with compassion and without an agenda – and less listening to give people an answer. What I discovered was that when I just listened – really listened –I learned that most people just want to be heard and know that someone understands their point of view. When I listened without an agenda and without thinking about a solution, but just for my own understanding, we learned more about each other, strengthened our relationship, and clarified things for each other. Many times they actually answered their own questions, sorted their own feelings, or even solved their own problems without needing or wanting anything from me other than just being there to listen and support. I missed that previously so when I stopped talking, I learned a lot. My key take away – listening increases understanding and strengthens relationships. 

My second task was to stop assuming my way was the only way or was THE right solution. What I discovered was that good compromises and solutions emerge when you speak last. I have to admit – this one was hard for me. I’ve been in such a mode of triaging and moving from situation to situation this year that it has felt like I don’t have time to wait for others to come up with a solution; it’s just faster if I do it myself.   However, faster or more expedient isn’t always the best OR the only way to get things done. Sometimes, you have to slow down to go faster and more heads thinking through a problem definitely produce better results than one frazzled head trying to come up with everything on her own. And, when I got out of the way and let others take the lead on an idea, even if it doesn’t work out exactly the way we planned, we learned a lot from the effort and my input – when it came – was received more as one of the team’s and less as coming from a supervisor. We all felt more like we were in the work together, collaborating, rather than giving and receiving orders. My key take away – patience and sharing the lead is never a bad response.

My third task was to keep supporting our staff however I could. What I discovered was that being in the work with your team, side by side, means more than you realize. I know from my own past experience that those moments are the ones that end up defining you and binding you to others because of your shared experience. Relationships, trust, and commitment are woven together one moment and one experience at a time. I learned this at my grandmother’s side while we pulled weeds, cleaned dishes, folded towels, and she’d drill one of her favorite sayings into me – “Many hands make light work” – which was right up there with – “Do what you oughtta, not what you wanna.” I heard those so many times growing up that now she’s the voice in my head when I just want to flake out, procrastinate or just walk away. I can’t. Don’t get me wrong – I try! I’m just not successful going up against that voice. Those moments of shared work, shared focus, shared laughs, and sometimes shared sweat built up a strong bond between us over time. What I hadn’t realized is that works just about everywhere with everybody. Staff members have shared their appreciation for my support and sweat equity and I appreciate being able to help and be “in the trenches”, so to speak, with them. We’re building bonds through this shared experience and I hadn’t really noticed that until now. My key take away – commitment is built one moment and one experience at a time; it can’t be rushed or forced.

As I sat back and reflected on these results this past week, I realized it looks a lot like the recipe for a good marriage. Nice symmetry since last weekend was my husband’s and my 28th wedding anniversary. Hard to believe it’s been that long. I literally feel like a blinked and here we are. But those key words – listening, patience, and commitment – make up the foundation of our marriage. And like anything valuable, it was hard earned. We’ve tried, failed, and tried again to get those ideas right, and if we’re being honest, it’s the epitome of life-long learning. Just when we think we’ve gotten it mostly right for one season or reason of our lives, things change and we have to revise and grow with our new knowledge and circumstances.

Which brings me to my last thought: even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there. Life itself is a work in progress so you’re never “done” until it’s over. That being said, you have to keep checking in on yourself, your work, your commitments to see if things are still tracking or not. Take some data, do some reflecting – even if it reveals something unpleasant – and take some action.

So what do you want to check on? Pick a topic, do some action research, and see what you discover!

Am I the Obstacle?

We had two more winter weather days this week (ice – yuck!) so more days off from school. However, it gave me a chance to catch up on some professional reading. I was reading some recent research on whether formative data or summative data is more beneficial to improve individual performance. Multiple research studies agree that formatives provide better actionable data than summatives (check out Viktor Nordmark at the Hubert Blog for the inspiration for this post). In other words, collecting data, analyzing it, and acting on it in very short cycles – 2 to 4 weeks at most – gives you better information to act on and improve – in real time – than waiting until the end of something and reflecting when it’s too late to improve anything. Makes sense and most teachers and coaches know this almost instinctively, relying on observations, hard data, and experience to constantly update their “read” on where their students are in relation to attaining their goals. I love it when research supports what our gut already told us was true!

As I read through the rest of the article, all the data pointed to the conclusion that the best kinds of formatives ask simple questions, get to the heart of the matter, and give us clear, actionable information. One of the oldies but goodies that jumped out at me was this 3 question formative:

  • What should I start doing?
  • What should I stop doing?
  • What should I continue doing?

Wow. Three very simple questions but the thought process they trigger is powerful.   I love that this works for just about any context – teaching, coaching, training, life goals, leading – you name it, these questions help you get there. And if you put these questions on a consistent schedule or cycle of “pulse checking” your progress, you’ve got a pretty sturdy rudder helping to steer you to your ultimate destination.

Of course, I started thinking about my own contexts and reflecting on these questions in relation to them. I found I could come up with a lot of “start doing” items, but I began to falter when I tried to come up with “stop doing” things. As I kept thinking about it, it occurred to me: what if I am the obstacle to the solutions I’m looking for? What if the things I can’t bring myself to do (or stop doing) are the very things that are getting in the way of further progress? What if I’m getting in my own way, or getting in the way of someone else’s progress? Hmm. Now that’s got a ring of truth to it. Bad word.

So I’m going to give this formative a go in my own life. My plan for the next two weeks is to “start” listening more to those around me; “stop” getting in the way of progress because I’m too committed to doing it my own way; and “continue” supporting the work of those around me any way I am able.   I’ll let you know what I discover in two weeks. Action research – I love it!

Have you done a similar cycle with yourself?  What have you discovered?  I’d love to hear what you learned!