BE THE CHANGE: Embodying Skills

September 6th, 2011

During my holiday, I tried to finish a book that’s been on my shelf for some time, The Anatomy of Change, by Richard Strozzi Heckler. This is one of those books that contains really great insights and resonates so well with the concepts I teach, but sadly I can’t recommend it because it’s so difficult to read. (Kristen Linklater‘s Freeing the Natural Voice is another one in that category.) Now, I’m no book critic, but when a smart guy who likes to read, and loves to learn, struggles to get to the next page, something tells me it’s the writing.

Now that I got that off my chest, I’ll share one quote from the book that keeps resurfacing for me in the middle of lessons.

“At the time of the race, the runner must let go of the [training] and concentrate fully on the race. He must be in union with the things he has practiced, because he is no longer practicing. He now needs to be those things.”

I love this concept, and of course it’s true for any kind of performance, including public speaking and presentation. It’s not enough to know what you’re supposed to do. It has to be in you at that point, part of your being. Yes, “conscious competence” is one stage of learning, and there’s nothing wrong with being at that stage. But it’s not the end of the road. You aspire to “unconscious competence”. When you’re at the front of the room, and all eyes are on you, it’s too late to be thinking about grounding, breathing and resonance. You have to be grounded, breathing and resonant.

How do you embody skills?

  • Practice. Time and repetition help to change muscle memories.
  • Feel what you’re doing. Don’t just think about it.
  • Go slowly. Give your body a chance to absorb what’s happening.
  • Focus. Pay attention to one thing at a time.
  • Enjoy it. If it feels good, you’re more likely to retain it and return to it.
When I’m in the middle of a breathing lesson, and my client asks, “Do you breathe like this all the time,” I can only smile and say, “When I’m thinking about it, yes. When I’m not thinking about it, I hope so.” Embodying skills is the journey of a lifetime.

BEING PRESENT: Noticing the Details

July 27th, 2011

I was in the middle of a training session the other day, introducing an exercise I’ve been through hundreds—maybe thousands of times. Sometimes in those moments, I must confess, there’s a part of me that whispers, “Oh my God, gimme a frying pan. I wanna smack myself on the head, right now.” It’s so tempting to shift into AutoPilot and go through the motions.

Of course, the professional side of me whispers back, “Get a grip! This isn’t about you. This is about your client. It’s completely new for them. And besides, they’re paying for your undivided attention.” Oh, right…

You know what I do in those moments? I focus on the details. I raise the bar on my own performance. As I’m speaking, I ask myself, “Is every vowel sound vibrating fully? Is every consonant sound articulated cleanly? Is every word spoken with openness and connection? Am I practicing whatever technique I’m preaching at this very moment?”

Then something interesting happens. I get present. I get out of my head and into the room. I’m truly with my client again, fully available. Not because of the self-talk. Certainly not because of my discipline. Just because I focused on the details. Paying attention to details heightens my awareness, sharpens my focus and restores my capacity to be attentive to the person in front of me.

I realize I’m essentially talking about my own experience of mindfulness in the context of my work. Mark Williams (The Mindful Way Through Depression) writes that “slowing things down and deliberately paying attention to each aspect of our sensory experience can reveal things that we may have never noticed before.” That’s important for anyone who wants to experience life more fully. It’s even more important for those of us who aspire to any level of excellence and expertise in our work.

PRACTICE: Getting the Feel of It

July 25th, 2011

I normally won’t touch the term “projection” with a ten-foot pole, since, for most people, it implies working harder and pushing one’s voice to the back of the room. But I do teach Kristin Linklater’s concept of “sound forward”—at least, I think it originates with her—this idea that every last vibration of sound is moving forward, flowing away from the speaker.

But that’s not what this post is about.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when we get to “sound forward” exercises, clients start to get uptight and over-think the process. They start to hesitate, make more mistakes and apologize, saying, “I’ve got too many things to think about.”

And that is the problem: trying to mentally control what’s happening. Once we reach a certain level of complication (and believe me, speaking and presenting can get very complicated) our brain starts dropping balls, as it were. A juggler knows they can’t think about the steps. That would be disaster. They must know how it feels.

When we become preoccupied with the result, “getting it right,” we start thinking about what we’re doing. By thinking, we become less attentive to sensations. So when we focus on getting the “right” result, we forfeit the pleasure of the action. We become tense. We lose our flow. We become frustrated. We actually trigger an avoidance response to the task. We’re fighting a battle instead of enjoying a discovery.

If we can put aside our need to “get it right,” and immerse ourselves in the sensations connected to an exercise, it becomes pleasurable, a feel-good activity. That creates a powerful learning experience. In no time, our bodies absorb and memorize that feeling. We want more of it. We’re able to repeat it again and again, easily and with joy.

When we know and enjoy how it feels, the desired result becomes effortless and authentic.

Quality feels good

March 30th, 2011

Several days ago, I had the privilege of viewing, Between the Folds, a documentary about the art of origami. If you thought origami was about peace cranes and paper frogs, think again. The state of the art, today, is mind boggling! The level of technical complexity and depth of soul in the work must be seen to be believed.

Paul Jackson, a well-known origami artist working in Israel, observed, “The process of making is the point of it. The object looks good if the process felt good. This needs to be a kind of ballet.”

When he said that, I thought, “Oh, that’s so true of public speaking.” When we approach presentation as content and delivery, words that need to be spoken to listeners, delivery techniques that have to be flawless, it never feels good. So the speech doesn’t look good, sound good or engage listeners.

Great speakers love the process of communicating. They’re working from their center, flowing with their passion, living what they’re saying. It’s a feel-good experience. Then the magic happens. We take their experience and turn it into our experience. We feel what they’re feeling. From a public speaking standpoint, they might make every mistake in the book, and we won’t care. Because they’ve gone beyond words and presentation techniques. They’ve started a conversation, formed a relationship and enabled us to feel something new.

SMART PRACTICE: Moving from Mundane to Mastery

November 17th, 2010

Are you wasting your practice time? Everyone knows practice is a critical component of skill-building and behavioral change, and author Malcome Gladwell has popularized the fact that we need at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery in any area. But there’s a catch: it has to be smart practice. Skating around an ice rink for thousands of hours won’t make you a champion figure skater. Since, it’s hard to make time for practice, how can you be sure you’re using that precious time most effectively?

Pay attention. Mindless repetition doesn’t deliver results. In his wonderful book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge asserts that paying close attention is essential to long-term change. Learning with divided attention doesn’t lead to lasting change in your brain maps. It’s not just repetition that leads to improvement; your ability to notice what’s happening while you’re performing the task enables you to recognize obstacles and reinforce gains. Stop daydreaming, get focused, and notice what’s happening.

Be curious. Expecting immediate results puts you in the wrong frame of mind for effective practice. It’s tempting to treat an exercise like a vending machine: you do the exercise and you get a result. It’s common to hear someone say, “That exercise didn’t do much for me.” As if it’s the fault of the exercise… In reality, an exercise is more like an experiment: it’s a chance to observe and learn something, and there’s no way to predict what that might be. Get curious. Give yourself permission to explore. The discoveries you make will open doors for real change.

Be patient with yourself. Focusing on “doing it right” is a distraction and a recipe for frustration. When your attention shifts from “what am I observing” to “am I doing it right” you are no longer learning. Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “You become discouraged with your practice when your practice has been idealistic. Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this, we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.” Give yourself permission to fail, because failure reveals what you need to learn. It’s a guide, not proof that you can’t succeed.

Focus. Trying to practice everything will prevent you from perfecting anything. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 1,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 1,000 times.” Focus on one thing at a time. Don’t worry about the other mistakes that may be happening. Good practice requires that you allow one thing to fall apart while you focus on another. Trust the process. Know what specific skill you’re practicing. Give it your full attention. Spend time absorbing one thing, and it will most likely be waiting for you when you revisit it.

Top performance does not stem from innate talent or genetic advantages. It comes from diligent practice of clearly, carefully defined skills. Making your practice hours count requires focus, patience, curiosity, and attentiveness. The ability to practice effectively will impact every aspect of your life, personally and professionally. It will ultimately distinguish you from your peers and put you at the top of your game.

SPEED TRAP: Go Slower and Improve Faster

October 18th, 2010

I once attended a martial arts seminar in a large university gymnasium. Participants were positioned across the space according to rank, beginners on one side, intermediate students in the middle, and advanced students on the far side. On signal from the sensei, the entire group would execute one of twelve kata, a proscribed pattern of movements. From my vantage point (among the beginners) I viewed the entire class and observed the beginners tended to finish first. It seemed counter-intuitive. I expected the advanced students to perform with more speed, but they usually were the last to finish. I realized they were focusing on fundamentals while the beginners were busy cranking out a result. I’ve noticed the same tendency in my clients. Beginners tend to do exercises too quickly, and this is a real barrier in the learning process. Speed is the beginner’s trap.

One important element of skill building is motivation. Working at an appropriate level of difficulty, getting immediate feedback and being rewarded for progress strengthens motivation and enhances the learning process. Practicing too quickly makes it difficult. Your failure rate increases, leading to more frustration. Rushing reduces the amount of pleasure and satisfaction you experience in the activity, so you become less engaged. It also limits the amount of useful feedback you receive, so the depth of reinforcement diminishes. Speed kills motivation.

Another important component of skill building is retention. If we hope to retain well, we must learn well, and that requires observation and attention to accuracy. When you move through an exercise too quickly, the details of your experience become blurry. It’s hard to observe anything, so it doesn’t really make an impression on your brain and body. Furthermore, you become less accurate when you go too fast. You perform below your potential because you’re not giving yourself time to be precise, and you end up reinforcing a lower level of performance. Speed undermines retention.

How can you avoid the speed trap? Be curious, not demanding. Treat the activity as an experiment, rather than a test. “Getting it right” is not as important as being observant. Be willing to linger over the process and see what you discover. Curiosity counteracts speeding.

Notice detail.  I once had to write a two-page paper on a piece of ancient Egyptian sculpture. I arrived at the museum, eager to finish, only to be confronted by a very dull, crudely fashioned image of a warrior. My heart sank. How was I ever going to write two pages about this boring piece of driftwood? At loss, I decided to make detailed notes on the statue’s appearance, then go home and figure out what to write. So I started at the top of his head… Two hours later, I found myself not just engrossed but inspired by this remarkable work of art. It seemed ready to come to life in front of me. The report was a breeze. My biggest challenge was writing only two pages. That was a profound lesson I’ve never forgotten. For the first time, I realized that if you really care to learn something you have to take time and look closely. Noticing detail naturally slows you down.

Pay attention to sensation. Through extensive research, Dr. Michael Merzenich demonstrated that only by paying close attention do you create lasting change to your brain maps. When you move through an action quickly, you don’t feel much, and so you don’t learn well. Conversely, by cultivating a high degree of physical awareness you tend to slow down, focus more, and learn better. What are you trying to feel? Anything. Sensations of warmth or coolness, heaviness or lightness, softness or hardness, contraction or relaxation, breathing, these are all possibilities. Beyond tactile sensations, you could also notice what you see, hear, taste and smell. The more senses you involve in the learning process, the more attentive you become, and the more effective the process becomes. Feeling discourages speeding.

It’s no secret that haste undermines your appreciation of life. The advice about smelling roses may be clichéd, but it’s still true. The troubling implication is that speeding prevents you from learning well; it keeps you from achieving important objectives. It’s an obstacle to excellence. Telling yourself to slow down rarely corrects the problem since speed tends to be rooted in habit. Giving yourself a simple task like noticing some small detail or feeling some new sensation, will engage you in a new experience. That will encourage new behaviors and ultimately generate real change. Lowering the speed limit raises your potential.

Inaction Drains Energy. Action Empowers

September 10th, 2010

I recently completed a project that had been on my plate for a year or more. Only procrastination and minor details prevented me from getting started. When I finally rolled up my sleeves, enlisted some assistance and finished the job, I was amazed at how energized and alive I felt. Only then did I realize my inaction had been sapping my energy that whole time.

If you have an idea, either act on it or drop it. The action you take doesn’t have to be large, it may simply be doing some research or hiring help. Or maybe your action might be to postpone action for six months, but do it deliberately.

Small actions generate power way out of proportion to their size. And ideas neglected are like a slow leak.