When Strengths Become Weaknesses

Any high performer knows that to get into the “zone” or a state of flow, they have to forget about themselves. The concerns they have when they are identified with their “story of me” must fade away in favor of a state where they are fully immersed in their activity.

This winter my wife and I have taken up classic, cross-country (Nordic) skiing. Although we are active summer hikers and active winter hikers (snowshoeing), we have no Alpine and very little Nordic ski experience.

Bretton Woods, in the shadow of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, has beautifully groomed trails and a fine 12K loop for beginners. Even on the beginner trails there are hills, and we soon realized that if we were ever to progress to intermediate trails, our hill negotiating abilities would have to improve.

So, we scheduled a lesson to learn about skiing on hills. After hearing how inexperienced we were, the instructor thought it wise to begin at the beginning by teaching us the basics of striding. I quickly realized that my self-taught basic stride was wrong. I was holding my poles in the wrong position, my arms were bent at the wrong angle, and so was my body. I was expanding far more energy and moving slower than if I were to use the correct technique.

I was surprised by this revelation. Even with my incorrect technique, I had been moving faster than most of the other classic skiers on the beginner trails.

Later that day I did some reflecting. I noticed that with regular long-distance hiking and a routine of bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and pull-ups, I have strong arm and leg muscles. I was able to fall quickly into bad form for classic striding because I used my arm and leg strength to overcome the inefficiencies caused by my bad form.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson has made a career of studying the elements of what he calls deliberate practice. Psychologist Carol Dweck has carefully distinguished the elements of what she calls a fixed mindset. Dweck’s mindset theory and Ericsson’s ideas on practice are quite complementary.

We engage in deliberate practice when we identify the elements of our “game” that we not good at, and then we repeatedly practice what is difficult for us.  Deliberate practice is not merely practice. Ericsson has observed that a significant amount of the practice time of Olympic ice skaters goes towards elements of skating that they find difficult. In contrast, skaters below Olympic levels spend the bulk of their practice time doing what they think they are already good at. Ericsson’s observations explain why, in most occupations, mere experience does not result in improved performance.

Dweck has observed that we can have either a fixed or a growth mindset about learning. If we have a fixed mindset our preoccupations of avoiding failure and looking good makes it difficult to learn something new.

During my Nordic ski lesson I was surprised to observe just how fixed my mindset was. I didn’t consciously know it when I arrived, but the real purpose I had given to my lesson was to add a few tweaks to my existing skill set. When I saw that was not to be, I instantly became uncomfortable. As the instructor began to show us the correct way to stride, I was just as concerned about looking good as I was about following his directions. As other skiers went by us, I mentally said to them, “I don’t ski as bad as I look right now.” I knew my thinking was absurd, I knew I was not getting the full benefit of the lesson, yet I continued to entertain the dysfunctional thoughts as they arose.

By the time we got to the hill for training, I was eager for the lesson to be over. I had psyched myself out. I was so lost in my fixed mindset thoughts that I was literally unable to execute a single direction correctly.

Because I was unwilling to be an incompetent beginner, I could not take full advantage of what was offered to me. But all was not lost; after the lesson, my wife and I did our normal loop. As we continued to ski and my mind began to clear, I did indeed notice that I was remembering to use the correct form that I had just been shown. As I did, I was astonished to see how much less energy I was using.

Ericcson’s and Dweck’s work is easily misunderstood. For example, my students often comment, “Of course, I have a growth mindset; I am completing my MBA.” Perhaps so, but one can approach the MBA the same way I approached my ski lesson: How can I improve the strengths I perceive I have already and look good in the process? If that is our purpose, that is all we are likely to receive.

Right now, collectively, America seems to have a fixed mindset. Our national psyche can be no more or no less than the sum of our individual psyches. Our strength—our great national wealth—became our weakness. We threw money at perceived problems, spent recklessly, and now we seem unwilling to explore and learn from current realities.

As a nation we seem to be collectively unable to return to the beginner’s mind that a growth mindset demands.  We are so caught up in the story of our specialness that the great founding principles that promoted liberty and prosperity have largely been forgotten. Like us, our politicians would rather look good than engage in serious study and contemplation. So, they hire media consultants who help them perfect still further their ability to look good while saying little in thirty second sound bites.

We see in politicians the false idea that all that matters is raising enough money to swamp their opponents. How else do we explain the fact that Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is promoting ethanol in order to stay in good graces with the corn lobby? Principles don’t matter, looking good while spouting inanities and raising money is what matters.

Gingrich is not unique of course—our current crop of national leaders with their fixed mindsets seem constitutionally unable to do anything but strengthen their “strengths”—raise money and talk glibly, but without principle.

When I return to Bretton Woods, I will try to help contribute to our national recovery by being more conscious of my mindset. There is nothing wrong with spending a day in the great outdoors hacking away; but to go to the next level, there is no way for me to avoid the clumsy, awkward beginner’s stage. And as Ericcson’s work shows, that clumsy, awkward stage never fully ends for those who are really at the top of their game in any field. There are always new things to learn and new ways to be a beginner.

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