I recently wrote about the purpose of having a purpose and how it provides clarity in decision making. In response, I received a question about how one goes about going from Point A to Point Z when nothing seems to be working.
I used to adopt a lone ranger mentality, whereby I would insist on figuring out the right approach by myself. I probably had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and felt like I had something to prove.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve let go of that and have focused on being more pragmatic. Who else has figured out how to get from Point A to Point B in the fastest, easiest, lowest risk, most proven way? What can I learn from this person to adapt to my situation?
For example, these days I’m reading or listening to a book (or audiobook) at the rate of at least one per week. I don’t read every book I buy, as I sometimes use an 80/20 approach to figure out what I need to know in only 15 minutes. But the point is, I’m constantly looking to learn from others.
To successfully use the “learn from others” instead of a “figure it out yourself” approach, you need to leave your ego at the door. Quite often the best teachers are not always the people socially designated to be high status.
For many years now, I’ve found that my circle of teachers and mentors consists of about 33% Ivy-caliber educated people, 33% from schools I’ve never heard of, and 33% high school or college dropouts.
Practical experience and expertise doesn’t always correlate with degrees or educational institutions.
Let me give you an example of this that happened to me a few days ago. It’s terribly embarrassing, so I hope you appreciate that I’m “taking one for the team” here — for your benefit.
The other day I was at the community swimming pool with my three daughters. Since I live in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle area) where there’s rain 200+ days out of the year, the pool is indoors. To compensate, it has fun activities to make swimming more interesting than just swimming laps.
One of the features is a rope swing. It’s a big thick rope that hangs from the roof and allows one to swing to the halfway point of the pool. At the halfway point, there is yet another rope hanging from the rafters.
The object of the exercise is to swing from the first rope, and while flying through the air, jump to the second rope.
My oldest daughter had been trying several times to make the leap, but kept falling into the pool. I decided to attempt to make it across.
Well the first attempt, ahem... umm... did not go so well.
I swung through the air, flew off the first rope and while I made contact in grabbing the second rope, I missed and basically fell backside first, right into the pool.
It must have been an epic wipeout because even before I hit the water, I could hear my girls giggling like crazy. Apparently, my epic flop made such a big noise that it caught the attention of not one, not two, but threelife guards.
One lifeguard just shook his head. The other was doing his best not to smirk — but he did.
And just in case the noise of my body getting slammed into the pool didn’t do it, the small “tsunami” caused by my landing caught everyone else's attention.
And just in case anybody in the entire facility didn’t see it, my three girls laughing like crazy surely would have caught their attention. The giggling was so loud that I could even hear them giggling under water.
Yes it was that bad.
Okay, so I swam aside, licked my wounds, but now I was determined to figure this thing out.
So over the next hour or two, I watched probably close to 50 people attempt the same exercise. They all failed, except for one person. He was a boy, probably 10 years old, and he made the leap successfully 4 out of 5 times.
This got my attention.
He wasn’t the tallest person. He wasn’t the strongest person. He wasn’t the oldest. He wasn’t the youngest.
But what he WAS, was the most consistently successful person.
So I studied his behavior to determine what he was doing differently than everyone else — including me.
After some study, I think I finally figured it out.
I decided to test my hypothesis... at stake was my already bruised ego (and having to endure the endless giggles of three little girls).
So I leapt off the platform with the first rope, got to the middle of the pool, and then...
I nailed it... and leapt to the second rope, and swung across nearly the rest of the pool just like Tarzan swinging on a vine from one tree to the next.
It was a beautiful arch that resulted in my letting go and entering the water — feet first — in an elegant entry.
I was pretty excited.
My girls were cheering (they can be a tough crowd, but when daddy pulls off a feat, they are generous cheerleaders too).
So what was the secret?
That was the question I kept asking myself during my analysis phase.
There’s always some secret, some shortcut, some insight, some technique difference, some mindset shift that distinguishes the successful from the unsuccessful in any endeavor.
I clearly didn’t know what it was, but was determined to figure it out (or more accurately, to find someone who already figured it out and to learn from him).
There’s a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
I personally feel that such an approach leaves too much to chance. I say that when the student is ready and actively seeking out a teacher, the student might actually find one.
In my case, it was a scrawny little 10-year-old kid who could effortlessly swing like Tarzan through the jungle.
Sometimes the best teachers come from the most unlikely of sources. I try to avoid judging the package, and instead pragmatically focus on what the person knows.
So what was the secret?
Here it is:
When swinging on the first rope, do not let go of the rope with your legs until after your hands have already gotten a good grip on the second rope.
That’s the secret.
It’s the secret that 98% of those who attempted the exercise failed to grasp.
Let me explain.
What 98% of people (myself included) do is they swing on the first rope and then completely let go of the rope with both their hands and feet in an attempt to try and catch the second rope.
I call this the falling boulder strategy because basically anyone who tries this approach becomes the equivalent of a big rock flying through the air hurling towards the pool.
I never took physics in high school and college, but I did some conceptual math and figured out the problem with this approach.
I lift weights and I am probably strong enough to pull my body weight up a climbing rope without my legs. I can do that when my body starts at a standstill on the floor.
When I’m trying to catch a rope while in a complete free fall, the force of my weight and velocity creates a momentum that requires much greater force to counteract than climbing up a single rope outside the pool.
I wasn’t sure how much more force that was, but given I had gotten both of my hands on the second rope in my first attempt, and how I just couldn’t stop myself from a free fall, I figure there’s a fair amount of force at play.
What the 10-year-old kid did differently (that I subsequently emulated) was that he supported his entire body weight with his legs on the first rope. As he grabbed the second rope, his hands didn’t have to bear his body weight in free fall.
Once both hands were securely attached to the second rope, then and only then did he let go of the first rope with his legs. His hands, now firmly gripped to the second rope, only had to support his semi-stationary body weight for just a second or so — just enough time to get his legs secured to the second rope.
So once I studied what he did, why it was successful, I simply emulated his technique and in one attempt succeeded.
The old me would have felt like I had something to prove. I would have “brute force” learned the right way by making dozens of trial and error attempts until I figured it out all on my own. While this definitely does work (if you have enough time and are willing to fall flat on your face enough times), I was looking for a shortcut… and I found it from the most unlikely of sources, that scrawny 10-year-old kid.
So to the person who wants to know the secret to successfully going from Point A to Point B in your life, career or business, my answer is that the secret is to find the person who knows the secret (and to be open-minded enough to learn from him or her).
On a related note, one of the problems I’ve focused on addressing in my own life is overcoming very low self-esteem. I’ve been learning from a great many unlikely teachers and mentors in addressing this personal challenge.
At some point I will be sharing the details of what has worked for me in my own path. If going from low to high self-esteem is of interest to you (or impacts someone you care about or work with), just let me know via this link and I’ll notify you if I ever decide to share what I’ve learned in this journey: Improving Self Esteem