When 7-Year-Olds Are In Charge

Imagine this: You’re around 7 years old. You are in a classroom. Your teacher asks you to come up to the blackboard to spell a word: Antidisestablishmentarianism. You’ve never heard of it, and have no idea how to spell it. How do you feel? Probably embarrassed at your lack of spelling chops, humiliated that you have to expose your ignorance, angry that you’re being put on the spot, afraid of being laughed at or yelled at….

Fast forward. You’re now an adult, in a business meeting. The boss has been hearing from the same three people for half an hour and needs a new perspective on the thing they’re discussing. They (I’m going to say ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ because it’s easier and I don’t want to imply all bosses are either ‘he’ or ‘she’ by picking one. I’m sorry for the singular/plural disagreement.) call on you. How do you feel? Maybe you don’t think anyone’s idea is particularly good, but you don’t have a better one to offer. Maybe you haven’t been listening because it’s been the same stuff over and over, and you’re thinking about lunch. Chances are good that your inner 7-year-old will take over – you’ll feel embarrassed to be put on the spot, humiliated that you have nothing to offer, angry that you had no warning, afraid of being laughed at or yelled at….

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The thing is, the boss had the best of intentions. They wanted to hear from more people, get more ideas, even the beginning of an idea to start a new conversation. But the person being called on is suddenly in fight/flight/freeze mode and can’t come up with anything intelligent to say. Everyone feels frustrated. No ideas come out. Another meeting wasting more time with no outcome.

Does this sound familiar? I know my inner 7-year-old comes out at times. Often when I need to do something very adult and responsible like call clients or speak on stage. I feel afraid and embarrassed and very, very young. It can be a real challenge to remember that I’m an adult now, that I’ve got this, that my inner child is safe, and my adult self can handle whatever comes my way.

In the meeting example above, often the person being put on the spot doesn’t have the chance to collect themselves before needing to respond. What can a meeting group do to help them out?

I’m so glad you asked! First of all, treat all questions and comments with respect and lightness. That is – if the boss yells at people for asking dumb questions, no one will ask questions. If group members grumble that their precious time is being wasted answering dumb questions, no one will ask questions. Then, when a single question could change the course of the company, no one will ask it and the company could go under. It really is that dire. Every question needs to be treated with respect – no put-downs, no grumbles, have a real honest desire to answer seriously. However, some questions are veiled grumbles or put-downs themselves, and these don’t need to be taken seriously. But you can’t put them down either, or the more 7-year-old-inclined of the group will retreat. So humor and compassion are key.

Next, reassure the person who is staring at you like a deer in the headlights that their answer isn’t life or death. Ask them to start a conversation, not have complete answers. That’s what the team is there for – to come up with a stronger answer together than anyone can do on their own. Is anything feeling off for you? Do you have any concerns? What sounds right about this plan? In your experience, will this work? Tell us about your doubts. We can help flesh it all out.

Note how different this is from: if you see a flaw in the plan, it’s your responsibility to fix it. Or, if you think there’s something wrong, what do you think is the right thing? These types of responses make people much less likely to say anything. Too much pressure, too much responsibility, too much extra work.

Another strategy: assume any problem or mistake is just data, not failure. People do NOT like to fail. Having one’s mistakes scrutinized is very painful and likely to bring out the 7-year-old in us. Having one’s mistakes seen as information about what works and what doesn’t takes some of the sting out of it. And seeing that data as a piece of a new brainstorming session can help move it into a positive new idea.

Leaders who are sensitive to the emergence of our inner 7-year-olds can make a world of difference to the people who follow them. People who assume everyone around them is as tough as a Navy Seal will squash new ideas left and right. People are just grown-up little kids, at least some of the time, and having our inner children be respected and not humiliated will bring out loyalty and great new ideas. I pinky promise.

Practice Makes Perfect – Or Does It?

My father is a professional musician. He always told me that only perfect practice makes perfect. If you practice your mistakes, you get really good at making those mistakes!

This makes sense for anything where you are training your fingers or body to do something the same way over and over. Musicians, dancers, martial artists, all want their muscles to think for them from having practiced until perfection is innate.

What about other arts? I think practice makes easier, in a lot of ways. My husband is a professional artist, and he says everyone has 10,000 bad drawings inside them, so you’d better get started drawing to get them out. The more you draw, the more you learn about drawing, and the easier it is to draw next time. The more you perform, the more ease you have with performance.

I read about a ceramics teacher who divided his class in half. The first half he graded on quantity – they’d get an A if they used enough clay and made enough stuff during the semester. The second half he graded on quality – they’d get an A if they made really good stuff. What he found was that the half that made a lot of stuff kept practicing, learning from mistakes, trying something new, and getting better and better. The half that focused on making really good stuff spent a lot of time talking about it and planning it, but the stuff they made wasn’t that good.

So, another reason practice makes perfect is that practice allows you to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It lets you try out new things in a safe space.

The problem comes when all you do is practice. Or theorize. Or talk about it. At some point you have to do it. Experience comes from doing.

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I took a class with Caterina Rando, and she doesn’t like the idea of practice. She says just go out there and do it. The doing is practice of a sort, in that you get better and better the more you do it. But if you spend all your time trying to get perfect before putting yourself out in the world you’ll never get anywhere.

The thing is, mistakes teach you something. No one will ever get to be so good they don’t make any mistakes – and if they did, they’d be boring and stunted. You risk mistakes to try something new. You risk mistakes to get bigger, brighter, and more amazing. But if you don’t risk it, you stay small and dim.

Mistakes aren’t the enemy. Staying stuck is.

In improvisational acting, mistakes are celebrated. People feel like they failed and are encouraged to say Yay! Mistakes are a sign that someone stretched. They tried for something. They learned something. This is a cause for celebration, not demonization. It takes courage to fail, loudly, publicly, and on stage. But if it’s not actually a failure, if it’s a sign you’re human and striving and it gives permission to everyone else to be human and striving too, that’s a victory.

So, practice scales. Practice tai-chi. And then get out there and dance. Wildly, imperfectly, and perfectly you.

The Gremlins Of Change

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I am trying to change, and wow is it tough.

There is a part of everyone that wants things to stay the same. I know I’m not unique in this – there is comfort in knowing what to expect. Part of the process of change is being willing to be uncomfortable. And oh, how I long for that comfort sometimes! Enter the gremlins.

I want to step fully into my power. I want to live and breathe the values I bring to my clients, finding the path forward through play and creativity and community. And the gremlins in my mind say if I’m this uncomfortable, it must be wrong. I must be false.

I want to support my family on what I make in this business. I want to let my husband off the hook of having to support us and take a job he might not love. The gremlins say if I haven’t been successful yet, I never will be. I can’t be. I’m not capable, I’m not worthy of success, I’m fooling myself to think I can be more than I am.

Choice itself is difficult. Everything I choose means something I did not choose. I have so much trouble choosing I usually have all the desserts rather than picking just one, and then I feel bloated and sick. I often stay stuck. The gremlins on all sides chatter at me, making a case for every thing, settling on none.

But look at that new growth. It couldn’t be there if the limb had stayed.

The life force is strong, it wants to find a way. And I keep finding myself doing the things to move my business and my life forward. I walk every morning. I network with new people. I find places to speak about my business. I blog. And the gremlins are also strong. I overeat. I hide in the house. I don’t make the phone calls I’m supposed to make.

What I’m coming to learn is that sometimes I can’t trust my own thoughts. I need outside input to figure out which branches to prune to make room for new growth. I need someone else to identify which thoughts are gremlins and which are healthy (if uncomfortable) progress. For any change to stick, I need a tribe of people who believe in me and can see the change before it happens. People who have been through their own transformations, or who are going through them now. When all I can feel is the stasis of a tree trunk and the grief of a missing limb, they can see the new growth sprouting and the huge potential there.

Thank you to all who are part of my tribe. I couldn’t grow without you!  May your gremlins subside and your new growth thrive.

Creativity, Inc.

Last night I finished reading the book Creativity, Inc.; Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. It has a lot of great stuff to say about nurturing creativity in the workplace. I’m going to talk about a couple of his topics here, because I think they matter quite a bit. In any company, not just a “creative” one.

First, I want to talk about failure. What is your organization’s approach to mistakes? Do the higher-ups look for someone to blame? Do they spend a lot of energy trying not to make any mistakes, and then fire people who do make them? Or do they trust their people to clean up any messes they make, and believe that they are all on the same team working for the same goals? One of the directors at Pixar, Andrew Stanton, is quoted as saying “be wrong as fast as you can,” and “fail early and fail fast.” Why? Because you won’t waste valuable time dithering about which choices to make, you’ll keep moving forward and learning even if you realize you have to change direction, and you’ll still have time to fix the inevitable mistakes. If you know you’ll have mistakes, might as well make them as soon as you can so you have the maximum amount of time to fix ’em, right?

That doesn’t mean it feels good to make mistakes. Anything that’s labeled failure is going to be embarrassing and painful. It’s up to the leaders to set up the company culture to allow for playing with new ideas. “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.” (p. 111)

Daniel Pink, in one of his recent books, posited that anything that can be automated is being automated, and anything that can be sent overseas is being sent overseas. What American companies have, that can’t be done more cheaply or more automatically, is innovation and creativity. But companies have their bonus structures based on how much money a project brings in, and who wants to risk their bonus, and the bonuses of everyone on their team, on something unproven? Who wants to tell the investors that they tried something and it didn’t work? That is no fun. But what if everyone understood that some things just don’t work out? That’s part of the cost of R&D, or some other investment in the future. Artists don’t know which piece will be the one that catches someone’s eye, scientists don’t know ahead of time which experiments will be successful or economically useful, musicians don’t know which sound will get hits on YouTube. They have to try things, and see what happens. That’s the nature of doing something new. If you really believe that what your organization does is worth exploring and expanding, you’re going to have to try something new. Fail early, learn, change direction, keep going.

Part of the job of the leadership is protecting new ideas from too much scrutiny before they are ready, but they also need to give honest feedback about the ideas when the time is right. And here Pixar is also ahead of the curve. They’ve got their “Braintrust,” a group of directors who have developed an understanding amongst themselves about giving and receiving feedback. One of the smart things Pixar has done is to recognize what works in this, and to let them keep doing it. And to fix it when it doesn’t work as well any more.

The Braintrust works for a few reasons. For one, everyone in that room is viewed as a peer, not as someone who knows more or less than anyone else. In fact, they are usually other directors who have been through what the current director is going through, and thus their advice is usually appreciated. It’s harder to take critique from marketing, for example, who might be more interested in making money than in an artistic vision. And, more importantly, no one can force their ideas onto anyone else. It’s always left up to the director how to fix the problems that the group identifies. The philosophy is that every idea is better when it’s tested; no one attacks each other, they just push on ideas; and they also know that the director can probably come up with a better solution than they can for the problem. But the director might be too close to the project to see that something isn’t clear to the audience, which is where they can help.

This seems to me to be part of the fail fast system – all things creative start out ugly before they become great. But you can’t wait til something is pretty before showing it around. It has to be tested all along the way, so that it’ll grow strong and true. In your company it might not be a movie – but you can still prototype something quickly to see if it has any value. Don’t wait to show it around, but be careful of who you show it to. While a certain critical eye is necessary, too much criticism can sink a new idea before it learns to float.

Pixar has had a long string of creative, emotionally-authentic, entertaining, box office hit movies, so they’re doing something right. And they’ve now imported their ideas to Disney Animation, which has started making some exciting new movies on their own. So it’s not just a lucky combination of people that makes it work. There’s more to the book, and to what Pixar does to make their movies work, than what I’ve talked about here. But it can be interesting to look around at the rest of the work world. How does your work place compare?

I’m going to leave you with a couple more quotes:

“Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.”

“Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. If you don’t always try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”