Dave is visiting Dair’s office for a coffee (soy latte of course, no milk) and a chat. Over the past months his constant global touring schedule has meant this has become a rare treat. However, the small talk very rapidly turns to a topic that has been playing on his mind recently: failure.
“People very quickly brand themselves as a failure. They think the things that they want to, or should, achieve are out of reach and so they don’t look at the tools of trying to get better at the margins. And the concept of margins goes out of the window once you consider yourself a failure”.
I sense Dave is about to embark on what we refer to in the office as ‘doing a Dave Alred’. In essence this means you move from chatting casually about a given topic to rapidly immersing yourself and your audience into an in-depth and impassioned diatribe. When you’re with the man himself it’s advisable to simply jump on and enjoy the ride. However, it’s not the way to prepare an article – at least one that approaches readable, so I yank on the reins,
“When you say ‘the concept of margins’, what do you mean exactly?”
Dave is happy to oblige with his explanation,
“Let’s just say someone goes into the gym and they want to get stronger. She bench presses 25kg but then her friend pushes 50kg. She’s distraught. She goes for 50kg and of course, she fails. Rather than saying at this point of time, ‘my level is 25kg so I’m going to work towards 27-28kg’, she focuses on the 50 kg. She is judging herself against her mates’ numbers and making them hers. This is ironic as her friends’ ability has zero relevance to her own. In focusing on the 50kg she becomes blind to her own margin”.
I chip in, “So the margin is about incremental improvement?”
If you are striving to be a little bit better than your previous self then you’re in the Ugly Zone and you’re winning. That’s the recipe for improvement
“Improvements always happen at the margin. Everyone can be successful at their own margin. The margin is the Ugly Zone. If you are striving to be a little bit better than your previous self then you’re in the Ugly Zone and you’re winning. That’s the recipe for improvement”.
Here’s the thing. As humans, we obsess about outcomes. We constantly compare ourselves against, often unrealistic, outcomes and the outcomes of others. And where we don’t do that, institutions impose it on us. We’re so driven by the ‘result’ that our very language has become infected with failure. Dave explains,
“As a coach there are two ways I can deal with results. I can tell you that you got 7 out of 20 or I can tell you that you got 7 right. If you get 8 right the following week that’s an improvement on your previous self. That should been classed as success. Unfortunately we want to rank people, particularly kids, to label them, put them in boxes. The challenge is that we potentially destroy them by constantly grading them against a higher figure. Eventually, many start off by thinking ‘I can’t do something’ as a protection against the perceived failure. That’s a tragedy. It can affect every aspect of someone’s life”.
I know what Dave is talking about. Working with and around some of the world’s best coaches makes you a shocking attendee at your child’s parents’ evening. A week on and I’m still seething at the institutionalised self-limiting construct that is the British Governments’ examination system. I could see it in the pained eyes of the teachers, forced to push everyone towards grades that elevate the school in the National Rankings. Dave, once a teacher himself, has deep rooted concerns about the long lasting impact on kids going through such systems,
Marking something ‘out of’ is destructive
“Marking something ‘out of’ is destructive. The external criteria for ‘success’, i.e. ‘20 out of 20 is the goal’, ends up creating an internalised expectation. The kid concerned measures themselves against 20 not against themselves. Anything less is a ‘failure’. It’s very easy to infect people with a failure mind-set. There was a fascinating experiment in States. Two groups of students were given the same test. One group was told the test was difficult and the other told it was easy. The kids who were told it was easy gave up when they started to find it tough; they thought shouldn’t have to be in their ugly zone. The others just got down to it and considerably outperformed the ‘easy'”.
“All that should matter, the only thing that should matter is you improving on your previous self”.
Imagine the impact if we all shifted our focus from ‘winning’ and just started to focus on improvement? In elite sport the mantra is, “goal orientation, process focus”. It’s not too far from the old chestnut, ‘look after your performance and the result looks after itself’ . As Dave puts it,
“Even if you’re chasing someone else or some big goal you can only get closer to them through your own, incremental improvement on yourself”.
Dave’s keen to stress that big goals have their place, but the means of achieving them has nothing to do with obsessing about them. The human brain doesn’t respond well to constantly falling short: failing.
This makes me think of another side to all this and, though I’m not proud to admit it, it’s a side I have on occasion slipped into. It’s this; If I don’t put my ‘all’ into something then I have a fall back: a kind of self-esteem insurance so whatever anyone else says, I know I could always have done better. It’s OK because I didn’t really try. Dave nods vigorously when I mention my occasional reaction to being judged by external criteria,
“If you don’t put everything into something and fail then you’re giving yourself a safety valve. That’s understandable, it’s a learned reaction. Think about it, if you put everything into something, but you fail and that failure is mishandled; be it by a teacher, coach or boss then that can be devastating. If that happens on repeated occasions, it doesn’t take long to build your own self-defence mechanism, which is stay well and truly in your own comfort zone – where you don’t make mistakes”.
Of course, those self-same defence mechanisms only serve to further limit our ability to improve. More irony. I’m starting to feel slightly depressed and say so to Dave. He chuckles,
Instead of thinking about failing, consider that you’ve simply not matched your intention. Most important, you have been successful because you committed to a process and task. That in itself is the opposite of failure.
“Failure is a hard, hard word. Instead we should re-frame it. Instead of thinking about failing, consider that you’ve simply not matched your intention. Most important, you have been successful because you committed to a process and task. That in itself is the opposite of failure”.
It’s an important point. Apply yourself to working at the margins and over time you will improve on your previous self but learning and improvement does not happen in a straight line. Some days we plateau, some days we improve. Sometimes we need to go backward to go forward. Success comes from committing to a process and a task. I make the point to Dave, “Isn’t it critical that we have a solid sense of where we were, to understand how far we’ve come?”
Dave is now at his most animated,
“Absolutely! Recording how your facts is crucial. And when you achieve improvement at your margin you have to celebrate it. Allow yourself to feel good about yourself. Write it down, by hand. Keep a diary of the good stuff: facts that show your improvement. Focus on achievements and simply observe your challenges. You won’t answer every challenge straight away but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. What matters is capturing ‘What was good about today’.
I can almost feel the cynicism oozing from some reading this so I reluctantly and temporarily take up their cause, “Isn’t there a danger that this becomes all a bit, well, ‘happy-clappy’ ?”
Dave fixes me with a stare and I hold up my hands, making the poiunt that I’m just trying to look at things from all sides. He’s winding me up. He faces this type of objection all the time,
“Definitely not. First you must recognise what you have achieved each day but remember you need to substantiate with that with facts. Your facts. What have you actually done?11 press-ups instead of 10? Amazing. A better run through on your piano scales? Incredible. Ten minutes running without stopping two days on the trot? Awesome. The nature of the goal is irrelevant. Record what you do after every session, particularly every ‘first’ because they are the moments when you actually improve and extend your own margins”.
“What about when you don’t improve or plateau?”
“When you hit a plateau you keep recording but it might be time to be creative. Come at things from a different angle. Play with your options. Maybe 11 minutes running is too much. Can you do two runs of six minutes each with a rest in between? Then you’ve managed 12 minutes running! Whatever you’re doing think about how you can re-work the challenge”.
It’s no good beating up on your performance if you’re not preparing your body, mind and emotional self properly.
Another thing to note: hygiene factors. Don’t expect performance improvements in anything; physical, intellectual or skills based if you’re suffering from lack of sleep, poor nutrition or you have the flu. Dave picks up the theme,
“It’s no good beating up on your performance if you’re not preparing your body, mind and emotional self properly. That’s something else you should be recording too. It’s at times like this you need to re-set. On occasion we all go backwards. By writing it down it gives you the perspective and confidence to carry on – even if your starting point is behind where you first started. All that means is that you’ve adjusted your margins”.
Knowing my own shortcomings I mention that it’s a lot of writing to do. Dave gives me a pained look,
“But how will you know how far you’ve come? Most of us are vulnerable to looking at ourselves through filters that are tinted by any number of influences, from being tired to having an argument. If you’re capturing your personal facts then you are able to assess yourself objectively – and provide evidence to yourself that, yes, you have improved. Writing it down is like depositing money in the bank, it’s a reward not a chore. It’s a great way to take care of yourself”.
Take care of ourselves? That’s a novel idea. We should try it. We deserve it.
After all we’re a success now. And we’re only going to get better.