Category Archives: Character

Two Ways to Think about Self-Improvement

Photo by Kevin Miller

Photo by Kevin Miller

A few months ago I realized I don’t like setting goals. However, I admire people who work this way. “I’m preparing for a triathlon next summer.” For some people, a triathlon next summer is the best way to run on the treadmill today.

If you like to set goals, you are outcome-focused. The outcomes are explicit; the actions are implicit.

The alternative (and my preference) is to focus directly on daily, weekly, and monthly actions and habits. “Read a good book every day.” “Visit the gym three times per week.”

If you like to focus on habits and routines, you are action-focused. The actions are explicit; the outcomes are implicit.

But without a goal, how do you know your gym time will make you ready for a triathlon? I don’t know. But that approach doesn’t work for me. Incidentally, I don’t signup for triathlons. (But it sounds like a fun mindset if you have it.)

Outcome focus is top-down. This is Stephen Covey’s approach in Seven Habits where he describes “beginning with the end in mind”.

Once you have that sense of mission, you have the essence of your own proactivity. You have the vision and the values which direct your life. You have the basic direction from which you set your long- and short-term goals. You have the power of a written constitution based on correct principles, against which every decision concerning the most effective use of your time, your talents, and your energies can be effectively measured. (pp. 108-109)

Action focus is bottom-up. This is David Allen’s approach in Getting Things Done:

I have discovered over the years the practical value of working on personal productivity improvement from the bottom up, starting with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments. Intellectually, the most appropriate way ought to be to work from the top down…. The trouble is, however, that most people are so embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired. Consequently, a bottom-up approach is usually more effective. (pp. 19-20)

By the way, does the action focus cause more discouragement? What if I want to read a good book everyday, but I didn’t read yesterday? I prefer to think of goals, of any type, as prospective not retrospective. Goals drive your future behavior. They’re not a stick to beat yourself with.

Both approaches lead to what you are becoming. “I want to be an avid reader.” “I want to be a patient person.” No matter what approach you take, it seems important to focus on what you are becoming.

Thanks to Kevin Miller, James Miller, and Brian Henderson for conversations that led to this post.

Independently Strong

Three years ago I read a weight training book that was more influential on me than I expected.

Muscle

According to the book, called “Training for Mass” by Gordon La Velle, weight training is best done at high intensity. You might think all weight training is high-intensity. High-intensity training (HIT) is a particular flavor of weight training that advocates deliberate, intense action, in a short workout, to stimulate muscle growth. While some people who lift weights may spend hours at the gym, several times per week, with multiple sets per exercise, Training for Mass says this is overkill. It’s unnecessary at best, and may cause burnout or injury at worst. What’s needed is just one “work set” per muscle group, once per week. But it must be very intense.

“The higher intensity, the greater the growth stimulation. Within the realm of weight training, where muscular growth itself is the objective, the ability to generate a high level of intensity is the most critical factor under your control.” (p. 33)

Source: Flickr user mjzitek

Source: Flickr user mjzitek

Contrast the objective of muscular growth with the objective of appearing strong. If my goal is only to appear strong, there are certainly ways to fake it:

  • Assisted repetitions — An assisted repetition is when your friend helps you lift the bar. “If someone is helping you lift the weights, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in physics to deduce that the weight you’re lifting is equal to the mass of the weight minus the force being applied by the helper….” (p. 111)
  • Cheating — Cheating is to use bouncing, or momentum, or a change in your body position to lift more weight than normal. Not good. “[There] should be no bouncing, swinging, or using any other deliberate technique meant to increase the momentum of the lift. Any momentum present in the lift should come only from the simple linear movement of the weight.” (p. 107)

(Technical note: There is a place for assisted reps and cheating — on the very last repetition. Because it’s harder to raise weight than to lower weight, our muscles burn out on the raising part of a repetition (“concentric contraction”) before they burn out on the lowering part (“eccentric contraction”). When you can no longer lift on your own, assistance or cheating, if it can be done safely, can be used to raise the weight one more time, and then you should lower the weight entirely on your own.)

If your goal is muscular growth and you’ve been using assists or cheats (for more than the last rep), it’s better to reduce the weight, and the *appearance* of strength, and use a weight you can actually lift on your own.

“Why don’t these lifters just go lighter and lift the weight themselves, at least before reaching failure? This seems like it would make a whole lot more sense. Inflated egos might be the culprit here, since the lifters may want to appear to be lifting heavier weights.” (p. 111)

Source: Flickr user Pete Bellis

Source: Flickr user Pete Bellis

Character

Suppose we think of our character as a muscle. How could the above principles change our mindset about the development of character?

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from D. Todd Christofferson:

“[God] is endeavoring to make us independently strong — more able to act for ourselves than perhaps those of any prior generation.”

To me, “independently strong” is different from “appearing to be strong” or “strong when assisted.” I don’t know that we can expect to have character that’s chiseled and solid without actually lifting heavy weight. When the weight is heavy and it feels like there’s no Trainer assisting, maybe that’s on purpose.

A friend recently told me that 2013 has been the hardest year of his life. If we had been leaving the gym, and he had said this was the hardest *workout* of his life, I would have congratulated him. Maybe hard days and hard years are cause for congratulations. If you’re having the hardest year of your life, maybe you’re becoming the strongest you’ve ever been.

UPDATE on May 17, 2014: Elder David A. Bednar has an excellent talk on burdens: Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease

More Important to Teach Principles than Facts

This week I read The Leader in Me, Stephen Covey’s new book about teaching the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to elementary school students. Schools in North Carolina, Alabama, Illinois, Guatemala, Singapore, and elsewhere have successfully incorporated 7 Habits into their curriculum.

As an outsider to education, what most interested me were the chapter on teaching effectiveness principles in the home (chapter 10) and the following thoughts on curriculum.

Parents, teachers, and business leaders recognize that simple transmission of facts is no longer a sufficient education, as it may have been many years ago. This is what makes teaching effectiveness principles so attractive. Principles and habits transcend facts.

While factual information remains a key factor for survival in today’s world, it is no longer sufficient. With the massive spread of the internet and other digital resources, facts that at one time were closely guarded trade secrets and only available from the top universities can now be accessed in most every nook and cranny on the globe at the click of a mouse. As a result, many of the so-called elite professions that once required extensive schooling are today being passed on to computers or to people at far lower education levels and wages across the planet. Factual knowledge alone is thus no longer the great differentiator between those who succeed and those who do not. (Stephen R. Covey. The Leader in Me. p. 7)

What’s needed, in Mr. Covey’s opinion, is a greater emphasis on “meta” skills such as being proactive, setting goals, resolving conflicts, and listening well. (I previously wrote about “intellectual self-sufficiency”, which I believe is one of these meta skills that is larger than other academic skills.)

Perhaps we could teach better by teaching less:

“It is time to recognize that the major flaw in the de facto curriculum of American public schools is not that schools do not do enough, but that they attempt to do too much. Even though American students have fewer school days each year than their Asian and European counterparts, they are expected to learn far more curriculum content. Confronted with a curriculum that is ‘a mile long and one-half inch deep,’ teachers have become preoccupied with ‘coverage.’ They feel unable to teach for student mastery of knowledge and skills because of the race to cover content. One of the most meaningful steps a school can take to promote significant improvement is to develop a process for identifying significant curriculum content, eliminating non-essential material, and providing teachers with time to teach the significant curriculum.” (Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker. Professional Learning Community. p. 165. Quoted in The Leader in Me. pp. 197-198.)

“U.S. mathematics textbooks address 175 percent as many topics as do German textbooks and 350 percent as many topics as do Japanese textbooks. The science textbooks used in the United States cover more than nine times as many topics as do German textbooks and more than four times as many topics as do Japanese textbooks. Yet German and Japanese students significantly outperform U.S. students in mathematics and science.” (Robert J. Marzano. What Works in Schools. pp. 26-28. Quoted in The Leader in Me. p. 198.)

I’m not saying these are magic answers for education, or even that they’re new, but I thought they were interesting. As the internet makes it easier to connect with people and access any information, I see wisdom in learning and teaching better personal effectiveness skills.

Eric Hoffer said, “It is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

You’re Already in the Best of All Possible Situations

Last month I finished reading Bonds That Make Us Free by Terry Warner. Though I found it repetitive in some spots, overall I liked it. My favorite concept from the book was that you are currently in the “Best of All Possible Situations.”

This idea might be traced to Søren Kierkegaard’s parable of The Two Artists:

Suppose there were two artists, and the one said, “I have travelled much and seen much in the world, but I have sought in vain to find a man worth painting. I have found no face with such perfection of beauty that I could make up my mind to paint it. In every face I have seen one or another little fault. Therefore I seek in vain.”

On the other hand, the second one said, “Well, I do not pretend to be a real artist; neither have I travelled in foreign lands. But remaining in the little circle of men who are closest to me, I have not found a face so insignificant or so full of faults that I still could not discern in it a more beautiful side and discover something glorious. Therefore I am happy in the art I practice. It satisfies me without my making any claim to being an artist.”

…the second of the two was the artist.

Referring to our forgiving the offenses we sometimes take from friends, family, and coworkers, Mr. Warner puts it this way:

Unless we change in our hearts toward the people we struggle with here and now, we are condemned to struggle with whomever we may find ourselves associating with.

It doesn’t say that our situation could not be better. Many of us have serious needs, like too little to eat or broken health; even those of us who are fairly comfortable could benefit from positive changes in our circumstances. What the principle says is, in matters that affect our happiness, we are in the best of all possible situations.

We cannot be liberated from our burdensome feelings toward certain people unless we forgive these very people; without this, we leave unfinished the task by which we ourselves can be transformed. For wherever we go, we will remain accusing, self-excusing individuals who, fantasizing, think a change of circumstance will make a fundamental difference. Instead of leaving our problems behind, we will take them with us.

When happiness is the issue, the best possible situation for us is the one we’re in now, and the people around us are the best we could be with. (pp. 307-9)

You’re an artist if you realize that you’re already in the best of all possible situations.

Saying No

I received a phone call that impressed me. It was like this:

“Richard, I’m afraid I can’t help with the project like we had planned. Some things have come up, and I no longer have the time. I just wanted to let you know. If I can help in the future, I’ll call you again.”

Flakiness is so common, but here is a guy who didn’t flake out. He communicated “no” just as clearly as he had communicated “yes”. I no longer had to wonder.

“No” isn’t mean or rude. If you can’t realistically commit, “no” is courteous.

“No” is a way of prioritizing. If you say “yes” to everything, you haven’t prioritized.

As someone who tends to say yes and overcommit, I’m impressed by this example of saying no.