I am finally giving in and writing my first list post, ugh! But I promise this not some shallow list designed for social media virality. I have been storing away notes and observations on this topic for quite some time. Many of these observations come from my personal experience over the past two years with crossfit – a program and community that is dramatically disrupting the health and fitness industries. Other observations derive from innovations in the start up community and social media. The significant overlap between these seemingly disparate domains serves as evidence that these are real trends rather than passing curiosities. The eight principles:
Learning By Doing & Incrementalism
These two go hand in hand. During slower times it might have made sense to map out educational goals and curriculum years in advance. In a rapidly evolving world it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty what knowledge you will need years in the future. At the same time, the diversity of possible directions any individual might choose to pursue has expanded dramatically. Consequently, rigid multi-year bets on education, in the absence of real world experience, no longer make much sense. As the sub-title of one of my favorite books states:
Small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion.
The future of education will look much more like the prescriptions being developed by the start up community: experiment, test, evaluate, iterate. Work and education merge together and become a perpetual search for purpose and direction.
Coaching and Mentoring Replace Teaching
The explicit information we all learned in school is ubiquitously available on the internet. The traditional teacher who lectures to a group in order to convey this information is obsolete. In environments that encourage learning by doing, we need coaches rather than teachers. We need people who observe us in action, correct our mistakes, and point us in the right direction. We need mentors who have the experience to help us formulate the questions we don’t yet know how to ask.
Safe Failure Environments – Part 1
Too much fear of failure discourages participation and risk taking. Too little encourages excessive risk taking and lackadaisical attitudes. Obviously it is critical to find the right balance. Less obviously, the correct balance shifts over time. Expectations must be allowed to naturally increase as experience and expertise increase. When scaled correctly, this dynamic creates environments in which new participants gradually “become the type“.
This is readily apparent in the crossfit community. Many people join based on simple ‘new years resolution’ type goals – losing weight, exercising more, or whatever. Inital expectations suit these goals - come in, work hard, go home. Over time, people who stick with it become the type…they start to see themselves as the type of person that lives a healthy lifestyle, eats well, sleeps enough, and practices correct form. It’s not exactly that they fear failure more than the beginner, but their expectations have grown…and by that point those expectations are deserved.
Safe Failure Environments – Part 2
Balanced attitudes towards failure encourage experimentation and thereby help participants discover weaknesses and grow. This is not only a matter of the level at which expectations are set, but is also a matter of how failures are characterized. This brings us back to the incrementalism described in the first point. When people are judged on the basis of infrequent imposing tests, then failures can be crushing. When success is seen as a process of constant experimentation and iteration, then a failure is but one more challenge to overcome…one more lesson to learn, one more limit to push.
Both crossfit and the start-up community place a heave emphasis on tracking results. This might seem at first blush to create excessive pressure, but when everything is tracked no specific result takes on undue importance. Results become feedback rather than judgements. One of my former coaches once described crossfit as diagnostic. You are tested in so many ways that you discover weaknesses in areas you’ve never even thought about before. These weaknesses don’t indicate failures but instead opportunities to grow.
Variety Keeps You Humble and Hungry
Walk into any meathead gym and you will easily spot the person who does nothing except lift heavy everyday. This character lives a comfortable existence knowing that no one in his little pond will ever outshine him. His problem is that he has become utterly complacent.
Facing varied challenges forces the adoption of a growth mindset. You may be the strongest person in the building, but if you are asked to run a mile chances are you won’t do so well. That result is both feedback indicating an opportunity for improvement and motivation to break through the complacency. Embracing varied challenges and stimuli capitalizes on the Pareto principle - 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
Promulgators of shallow wisdom will suggest that we should therefore focus only on the 20% and ignore the 80%. (Un)Fortunately, we do not live in a static world. The 20% today is not necessarily the 20% of yesterday. Besides, such a strategy would only lead back to complacency. The solution is perpetual growth-inducing variety that continually redirects attention towards the current 20%.
Short Bursts of Intensity Trump Prolonged Willpower
The crossfit program is premised on the idea that short bouts of exercise at maximum intensity (usually less than 20 minutes) are significantly more beneficial than extended periods of lighter exercise. The body adapts more readily to a short series of all out sprints than to an hour of jogging.
The same logic applies intuitively to education. The vast majority of the information we “learn”, formally and informally, is glossed over or quickly forgotten. It is the infrequent moments of clarity, the epiphanies, that stick with us and impact the remainder of our lives. It is the surprising discoveries that we research manically, whether due to need or curiosity, that we actually put to use.
This is a somewhat subtle point. I don’t mean to undermine the importance of persistence. The question is what should we persist at, a constant low level of muddling through or a series of oscillations between high intensity output and recuperation? I vote for the latter.
Encourage Postive Sum Competition
Combine all of the above and what you end up with is positive sum competition. Positive sum environments are those in which competition provides motivation and inspiration rather than threats and rivals. Peers are both competitors and collaborators. Competition demonstrates what is possible and provides context for goals and expectations. Collaboration helps everyone share knowledge and improve more rapidly. Neither is an end in itself. Both are tools to help each individual tackle the challenges that he or she has chosen.
Organize Around Intent and Purpose Rather Than Goal or Cause
This is the final key to positive sum competition. In my lexicon a goal or cause relates to a specifc outcome. Intent and purpose are more general notions of direction. The problem with specific causes is that they are rigidly defined and therefore avail themselves to equally rigid doctines. This type of organization encourages people to bicker over best practices and jockey for leadership positions.
Organizing around purpose or intent suggests the pursuit of parallel goals. Start-up incubators have demonstrated that dozens of potentially competitive companies can easily coexist in collaborative environments when each is evaluated individually on its own merits. Each company shares the same purpose but not the same specific goal. Have the same companies compete for a fixed pool of investment capital and the competition would not be nearly so congenial.
The key them to many of these principles is to expand the perceived sphere of possibilities. A static and predictable world leads naturally to one set of strategies. An uncertain and rapidly evolving environment favors an alternative set of practices. As we shift more towards the latter the traditional models will increasingly be disrupted by new approaches that acknowledge the changing reality…
What have I missed? What should be added to the list? What did I get wrong?