The Perks of Being an Amateur


Another fabulous post by Caitie Whelan of Lightening Notes
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I like knowing stuff

I like knowing the ropes, talking shop, having the answers.

I like being right.

I also like Ray Bradbury.

Mr. Bradbury didn’t go to college. He never got an MFA in writing. Never lived in the literary metropolis of New York City

He went to Los Angeles High School. And he went to the library. He loved libraries. Loved reading: L. Frank Baum. Edgar Allen Poe.

“The library,” he told The Paris Review, “has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”

And it was through his interpretations, his discoveries that he brought Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes into the world.

On paper, Mr. Bradbury didn’t do the right things to be a writer: He didn’t have the pedigree, didn’t know the ropes, didn’t talk shop.

But off paper and in person - the dimension that matters most - he had conviction unconstrained by convention.

It’s one of the perks of being an amateur. And it’s easy to forget when we’re thinking about plunging into something new.

We can sit on the diving board, looking at all the swimmers. And we can think, “No way can I stay afloat in this pool. I don’t have their know-how, their credentials.”

That may be true. But it’s not the only truth at the pool yard.

Because what got us to the diving board, what got us peeking out into the unknown are a curiosity and a desire to know more of the world than we know now. It’s the same thing that got Mr. Bradbury to the library.

And that curiosity, that desire is just as true as all the swimmers and all their know-how.

So, when we find ourselves on the diving board, we must choose the truth we answer to: The conventional narrative saying, “No way. No how. You have no clue how to do this.” Or that still, small voice in us saying, “Go. Do it.”

That voice will upend and unsettle our status quo (which Deb encourages us to question anyway). It will hurl us beyond the world that we know. Hurl us out where we don’t know the ropes or the answers. Out where we’ll be wrong more than we’ll be right.

But if we listen to that voice, we will have chosen to take the shape of our lives into our own hands. Rather than let society shape it for us

We will fumble. And we will fail. Such is the amateur’s territory. But we will earn our fumbles and our failures knowing, as Joan Didion knew, that “people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes.” And self-respect is one of the finest perks of  being an amatuer.

I carry Mr. Bradbury’s story close. To remind me of the person I want to be.

I know what it’s like to walk away from the diving board. To walk away from that still, small voice. To disqualify myself because I’m inexperienced and uncredentialed.rush to discover it all.

Which brings me to the last - though by no means final - perk of being an amateur.

It forces us to grow.

When we don’t know the waters, we can get torn open by vulnerability, the rawness of being out of our nest.

And growth, that uncomfortable, incredible force where we rebuild our torn selves anew, is how we move ourselves and how we move our world forward.

Life’s a whole lot bigger than having answers and being right.

Life - real big life - is about living with conviction unconstrained by convention. It’s about self-respect. And kindness. It’s about growing every bit of our brains and our heart that we can grow. And life is about being an amateur again and again and again.

On this subject, Mr. Bradbury gets the final word:

“Jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.”

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Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features striking ideas and great stories to remind us that we matter and improving the world is our matter.  Prior to The Lightning Notes, she was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress, co-founded a school in India for lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Caitie is a 2007 Truman Scholar from the Great State of Maine. 

Trust Trumps Everything

Innovation Excellence graciously shares my chapter in Luis Solis's book, Innovation Alchemists: what every CEO needs to know to hire the right Chief Innovation Officer.  

"Successful Chief Innovation Officers give their employees room to experiment, providing air cover for them, running interference, and in general respecting, trusting and supporting them...(read more)"

"The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them" Ernest Hemingway

Paradoxical Oxymorons of the 21st Century

Does it seem like the 21st Century is the century of oxymorons and paradoxes? Sure does to me and I love these words because they challenge our thinking, our beliefs, our feelings and the status quo.

Look at a few of the ones we use: Job Security, Jobless Recovery, Criminal Justice, Great Depression, Graphic Language, Organized Chaos, Budget Deficit (and many government related ones for the “realistic cynics”). Saul Kaplan tweeted one of my favorites “Being an innovator is both a blessing (always finding a better way) & a curse (job is never done)”.

It’s the denotation, not connotation that makes these phrases oxymorons. We use them unwittingly – not really thinking about the inherent paradox, and implications, in our every day language. We have become inured to the real meaning. But does this translate to how we approach innovation or strategy? Rarely! When looking at innovation opportunities, oxymorons and paradoxes are used as barriers: how can we really put a process & discipline to innovation? How can we support open innovation and retain our intellectual property? What we miss is that inherent is an oxymoron or paradox lays the opportunity to innovate! It’s the AND, the BOTH, not the Either/Or.

One of my very dear friends is my archetype for oxymoron and paradox. Matt is the 3rdgeneration running his family’s business, Thogus. He has created amazing new business models, new approaches to existing and new markets, fired customers that didn’t fit the new paradigm, sees the world as it could and should be and is making that real. He doesn’t hesitate to try, experiment, prototype, iterate unceasingly. He embodies invention and innovation in how he manages the business, including how he defines management itself (see Chapter 11 of Radical Management by Steve Denning). Result? Matt has doubled the business and dramatically improved the culture since he took over from his mother 2 years ago. Pretty radical huh? And he is. And every morning, Matt has the same breakfast, gets to the office the same time, drives the same way – lots of ‘same’ in his life. Matt is a paradox – he is extremely innovative and creative AND very tied to, dependent upon, daily habits and patterns. It’s hard to argue with either of these traits and its successes.

What are the oxymorons and paradoxes in your business? Your organization? You? How can you embrace them, find the opportunities within them, celebrate them, make more of them? Please share your thoughts and comments here or email me if you want, but let’s start collecting some of the great oxymorons of the 21st Century!!!

Your Greatest Asset? ROF: Return on Failure

Innovation and failure go hand in hand.  So, what is failure? When things don’t go according to plan or expectations, ending up with unexpected and/or undesired outcomes.  The key is ‘undesired’ – because if they were desired and not planned or expected, that would be great!  But, as we will see, failure is a terrific way to learn.  Maybe we could measure learning as Return on Failure: ROF.  And many of these learnings are intangible, but as the 21st Century is proving, it’s the intangibles that matter.

We’ve heard the phrase “fail often, fail cheap, fail fast” or “it’s ok to make mistakes, just make different ones.” So, can we do a better job of learning from failure?  We’re not built to do this easily, either by learning from others’ failures or our own.  There are many ways to learn from failure, so what I’m suggesting is just one way.

One way we could start learning from failure is through a simple 3-step process (bear in mind, simple ≠ easy!):

  1. Identification of the Failure(s)
  2. Analysis of the Failure(s)
  3. Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping based on the learnings from the failures

So, and check my ‘math’, ROF = Failure Identification + Failure Analysis applied over (and over…) Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping.  That’s the framework (for now).

Failure Identification is proactively identifying what went wrong, what failed.  Systems and processes can help capture this information for sharing with those who need to know now and in the future.  Feedback loops with employees, customers, and suppliers are also important (and who else?).  Most companies are complex entities which make getting and sharing information difficult.  Also, most cultures don’t tolerate failure too well so we learn to play the blame game.  And of course, there are a lot of other reasons we’ll get into in further posts.

Failure Analysis is not playing the blame game but discovering the Why.  When a plane crashes, the NTSB goes over every inch of the site.  They don’t blame; they use a formal, objective process to discuss, analyze and learn.  Try a model like this.  Be objective, don’t personalize or blame (not as easy as it sounds).  Organizations also succumb to confirmational bias; we become inured, not realizing we’ve fallen into that trap.  The “blame game” makes doing the necessary forensic work challenging because it can be hard to trust our colleagues.

Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping involves creating a well designed experiment so we can limit and test the variable (ideas) and prototype.  Test where we think we could fail, try what does and doesn’t work.  The more we experiment, the more we learn, the greater the chances of success.  Do small, inexpensive experiments and prototypes (they don’t have to be grand).  Do virtual and thought experiments.  There are many ways to experiment and prototype today that are not expensive or lengthy so try it.  Why don’t we? How many organizations are structured for experimentation? Not many (remember the scientific method? Bet not).  And culturally, we don’t incent, reward, recognize our people to experiment – we incent being right, not trying to be right!

What do you think? Does this make sense? Are you trying to learn from failure in your organization?  What have you learned that you’ve been able to apply?

Don't use Best Practices, Just Practice!

One of the central tenets of 20th century business was "best practices." Let’s dissect this veritable oxymoron:

  • Best: highest quality, standing (at a point in time, place and context)
  • Practice: a habit or custom (noun) or to do repeatedly to acquire proficiency

Admittedly, and importantly, there are things to learn from others successes and failures. But one of the big mistakes companies make isadopting “best practices” instead of adapting them (to their own culture).

Companies will succeed in the 21st century by out [best] practicing their competition to exceed their customers’ and employees’ needs - by turning practice into a verb instead of a noun.

Those who develop a core competency in experimenting, prototyping, learning, applying, iterating – from success AND failure, will be the ones who provide the most meaningful, valuable offerings to customers and employees.

That’s what I call practicing! And that’s not an oxymoron.

What can you start being the best at practicing tomorrow?

Treating Start-ups like Adults? Wait!

Humans are one of the few mammals whose babies are not fully developed at birth. Unlike horses, whales, etc., human babies can’t stand, walk or forage on their own at birth. They are totally dependent upon adult humans for constant, continual support just to live.  We are used to this, we accept it, we don’t expect anything different.

Yet, when we discuss the birth and development of innovations and companies, it’s totally different. We expect an accelerated path from birth to adolescence to adulthood. It doesn’t need to as long as human development, but it’s rarely Google-speed.

We know innovation and entrepreneurs need nurturing and support, but usually just pay lip service. The similarities, and therefore lessons learned, between newborn babies and innovations/ideas are seldom applied.

Within companies, many innovations aren’t given the time or support (e.g., prototyping, experimenting, testing) to ‘prove’ their worth – they are subjected to processes (e.g., stage-gate) and reviews prematurely and are not given a chance to try to crawl let alone walk. While vetting is critical, vetting too early can be fatal to the company as a whole longer-term.

For startups, entrepreneurs usually have to grow up (too) fast if they want to get the funding to nourish their growth. As a mentor to startups, my role is paradoxical - to nurture and advise but also help push out of the nest.

As a partner in Glengary LLC, an early-stage VC firm, we provide the necessary support and network AND hold them accountable for milestones, without asking for meaningless data in business plans. It is always a balancing act.

So, as you are involved in innovation and with entrepreneurs, apply some of the lessons learned from raising your kids, if you have. Provide a path providing sufficient nurture and nourishment for growth that teaches self-discipline and self-sustenance for independence.

It isn’t easy to do as parents, and it isn’t easy to do in business, but few rewards are easy.