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Bring Your Vision to Life

June 17, 2015

Hello, Trailblazer!

It’s raining again in north Texas. This isn’t idle chitchat about the weather. We had so much rain two weeks ago that the nearby lake is overflowing the spillway and has flooded out some city streets. The Trinity River that runs through Ft. Worth and Dallas has filled the flood plain. If it goes higher there good be serious damage. The remnants of a tropical storm moved in yesterday evening and dropped a few more inches of rain, with more on the way. Worse flooding is possible.

Drips, drops, and deluges
Nearby Grapevine Lake was over ten feet low for several months because we’d been in a low-level drought for a while. Drought is actually a typical part of our weather pattern, but the length of it was not typical. At first we hoped the heavy rains would bring the lake closer to a full level. Then we rejoiced when it went above full into the surplus range and hoped that meant it would stay full for a long while. Then our jaws dropped as we saw pictures and videos of lakefront buildings submerged, street signs barely sticking out of the water, and major city streets closed because the lake was covering them.

It had taken a long time for the lake to drop. Previous rains that we had hoped would raise the level seemed to have no effect or only raised it a few inches, so we thought it would take several episodes of rain over several months to get back to full. The amount of water rushing into the creeks and rivers over just a few days was staggering.

Without experience guesses can be wild
Turns out we, meaning pretty much everyone in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and probably most places, are really bad at estimating the amount of water in an episode of rain and its effects. We were surprised when a long steady rain barely affected the lake level. We were stunned when a longer, heavier rain overflowed the lake. It may be the case with many things in life that we aren’t good at guessing what level of effort is negligible, what level is enough, and what level is overwhelming.

Tuning the Power of Incrementalism

If you’ve ever taken a tour of a cave and looked at the stalactites hanging from the ceiling and the stalagmites growing from the floor, you have seen the power of incrementalism. The slow drip of mineral rich water over millions of years builds the formations, micro-layer by micro-layer, as the minerals settle out of the water.

You can see the incremental erosion caused by water around creeks and streams. Rocks and rock formations may have troughs or channels in them dug by small amounts of water dripping slowly. Large boulders may be cut in two by faster moving water flowing over them. Whether the water is a slow drip or a fast rush, it is removing layers of mineral and reshaping the rock.

You can see this effect multiplied when you put a spray nozzle on a water hose to wash a car or wash off the side of your house. Water directed under pressure can blast off things you would otherwise have to scrub loose.

Maybe you’re familiar with the nature of incrementalism from cooking with a gas cooktop. Twist the knob and the flame rises higher, heating the pan more quickly. Is it simmering too fast or frying too quickly? Turn the knob down and the flame drops, reducing the heat.

However, if you turn the knob to the lowest setting, the flame may have little effect. It may even go out because it’s so weak. Turn it to the highest setting and you may warp your pan if you have a high capacity burner.

Fire, Water, and Goldilocks
Water and fire are both very effective tools. But both can be destructive if not well controlled. Flash floods can wash houses downriver and carve new paths in the earth. Wildfires can wipe out hundreds of acres of forest. But both can also have an effect at the level of a trickle, where it will be hard to see the impact and easy to think nothing is happening.

The key when using water or fire as a tool is to find the right level of flow. Somewhere between an ineffective dribble of water and an overpowering spray, there is a level that produces useful results. Somewhere between barely warming a pan and being able to warp it is the range of temperatures for cooking food and then keeping it warm.

Goldilocks is a moving target
Finding the sweep spot on the dial with a spray nozzle or a gas burner is fairly easy with a little practice. Finding the sweet spot with other activities can be tricky.

Imagine that you have a goal of improving your physical fitness and hear people talk about doing one hundred pushups per day. You haven’t done pushups in decades so you know you’re a long way off but decide to aim for that goal. How can you get there by building up your strength and endurance?

One way would be to start with one pushup per day for a week and then add another pushup each week. The second week you would do two pushups per day, the fifth week you would do five per day, and so on. At the end of the year, you would be doing fifty-two pushups per day. Eleven months later you would be doing one hundred per day.

Mathematically this works. But in terms of human nature it’s likely to fail. It might be novel at first so you’ll try it, but one or two pushups per day could seem very silly, adding to your resistance. The lower numbers could seem insignificant, so you might easily blow off your “workout” when it’s only three or four pushups, figuring it won’t matter in the long run. But cumulative reasons not to persist can conspire against you to stop you before you make much progress. The bar is too low to notice. The flame is barely on. The nozzle is dribbling.

You could decide to start with ten pushups, which may seem like a safe number, and then add ten more each day. By the tenth day you would be doing one hundred pushups! The problem with this approach is that ten may be your safe number and twenty may be “pushing it” a bit (enjoy the pun), while thirty is a real struggle. If you can’t finish thirty pushups on day three, or really struggle to finish, you might feel like a failure. You might energize a lot of negative self-talk, your inner critic, beating yourself up for getting out of shape. Because of the high level of challenge, you are likely to give up and be upset with yourself.

The bar is too high. The flame is wide open. The spray nozzle is making the hose dance around the yard.

Goldilocks would enjoy the playlab
One of the keys to success when trying out anything new is to bring along a lifelong learner’s curiosity and a growth mindset. Be open, inquisitive, and playful. I use the term “playlab” to combine the ideas of play, in this case practicing new skills in a fun and managed-risk way, and a lab, where experiments are run to test hypotheses. In the playlab, things are tried out in a managed-risk, fun way and adjusted based on the results.

Incrementalism as a tool works great in the playlab. If you started with one pushup per day for a week, in the playlab you would recognize when it became boring and adjust the plan to add to the challenge. Maybe you would add one pushup per day, monitoring to see if that added enough challenge without getting difficult too quickly. If you started with ten pushups and added ten per day, on day three when you struggled to finish you would chuckle at yourself and decide to try twenty per day for a couple more days and then add pushups at a slower rate.

Manageable steps and motivation
With any project, any goal, or any change, the key is to break the path forward into manageable steps and then maintain the motivation to take those steps. “Manageable” is the reminder to keep the challenge from being too high, where you will give up. “Motivation” is the reminder that there has to be a level of challenge that is enticing and progress that is meaningful or you will lose interest.

Application: When implementing a change, notice when you’re getting bored with the simplicity or the repetition and notice when the challenge seems too difficult. Think of the dial on the burner or the trigger on the spray hose and what it would mean to adjust the flow to a level that is challenging but not overwhelming.

Question: What is something in your life you are trying to change that would respond well to playing with the dial in your own playlab?

Remember, without experience, all guesses can be wild. Any time you’re venturing into something new, you’re venturing into the unknown. Go ahead and guess, but test those guesses and learn how to make more accurate, more educated guesses in the future.

May you be agile on your trail.

Take Care,

Stephen Coxsey, MA, PCC
Professional Certified Coach (ICF)
Leadership and Empowerment

About Steve Coxsey

Steve is a supportive ally to people in charge who carry the responsibility for results in a variety of roles. They have a compelling vision of what they would like to create or accomplish and are committed to turning it into reality. To do this, they build the elements of self-determination and leadership – guiding self, guiding work, and guiding others – by engaging in whole-self development.

Steve collaborates with clients to design and implement a customized plan for success, well-being, and fulfillment for themselves and the people they lead. They thrive on a personally meaningful path and instill a culture of thriving in the communities they lead.

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