How Many Seeds in an Apple?

It’s spring and my old apple trees, planted by settlers in
this valley, are in full blossom.

I admire the extra work that pioneers made to improve life
for those who would live generations after them. They remind me of mentors who
willingly contribute to others.

Think of someone who has made a significant investment in
your life.

  • Why did they invest in you?
  • Do you think they invested in others too?

When I consider these questions, I think of Professor Steven

My first literature class with him was a surprise. He was
young; I assumed he was a Teaching Assistant. (Later, I found out he was Chair
of the English Department and got his Ph.D. from Harvard at 24.) He was smart.

His openness as a professor was legendary. He would often
say, “I have never thought of that,” or, “That is an insightful point”—unique
for a someone who “knows it all.” He was perennially voted “Professor of the
Year” for good reasons. I took as many of his classes as I could. The engaging
way he taught and learned from his students had a profound impact on me.

It was when I applied to an MBA program that I really needed
him. A year and a half out of college, I prepared myself to call his office and
ask (beg, plead) for a letter of recommendation. It was unlikely that he would
even remember me, but he was my best chance to make it into any program.
Honestly, I was a long shot.

I rehearsed what I would say and made the call. I couldn’t
steady my nerves. With a breaking voice, I introduced myself. Before I could say
another word, he jumped in and said, “Oh, Craig. It’s so good to hear your
smiling voice.”

I was speechless. He was gracious.

Not only did he help by writing a letter of recommendation,
he took extra time to proof my “well-intended” essays. His mentorship came at a
critical and vulnerable time. I have spent my career trying to “pay forward”
his impact on my life.

Steven Walker is an amazing example of someone who saw
potential and endless possibilities in others: “It’s not the seeds in an apple,
but the apples in a seed.”

Tiny Triggers, Huge Habits

it, your brain is lazy.  It’s not you,
it’s your brain. 

its many strengths, one of the most primal is the ability to conserve
energy.  While not as critical today,
this survival instinct prevented our hunter/gatherer ancestors from running out
of energy on a hunt and becoming the prey. 

faced with cleaning the room or sitting on the couch, the brain will vote couch
every time.  So, if you’ve decided to
begin a new habit or routine, your brain needs help.

creating an easy “on ramp” to the highway of habit.  This would require identifying a “tiny
trigger” that is a remarkably small action that directs the brain’s focus to a
new habit or behavior.  While it is
insignificant by itself, it triggers a domino effect of actions needed to
engage in a new routine.

I decided (the easy part) to build more core upper body strength, I set a “tiny
trigger” which would be super easy for my brain to agree with: “Do at least one
sit up daily.”  (Nothing scary, nothing

that’s my trigger, “If I have finished running, then I will do at least one sit

one sit up seems insignificant (and it is), this is our ‘edge on evolution’
that our hunter/gather ancesters didn’t have, our ‘foot in the door’ technique.
Starting with one makes it easy to trigger more by tapping into something
similar to Newton’s First Law, an object
in motion stays in motion.
It’s almost easier to keep going than it is to

sit up turns into five, six or seven. 
Before you know it you can crank out seventy.  Before you know it, you can add just one push
up…and just one pull up.

Failure- Building Blocks or Stumbling Stones

Why does failure bother us so much?

We know that trial and error is part of the formula. Intellectually we accept trial, but not so much with error. Here’s where it gets personal (Ego) or professional (Craftsmanship):

  • Ego perspective–when we fail we let the shame of being a “loser” shape our identity. And our ego hates that. Failure becomes a “judgment” against you, one that reinforces your fear of not being “good enough.” You are an imposter that just got busted.
  • Craftsmanship perspective–failure is a building block to success. Just another detour on the trip to success. Frustrating, yes, but expected and manageable.

Your perspective will decide which trajectory you experience. Not from a simplistic Positive Mental Attitude approach, but from a core and visceral level of drive and motivation.

People who are committed to the relentless journey of improvement see something different when they fail. Consider Peter Sims’ (Little Bets) capture of how one of the most successful animation studios in the world “un-sucks”:

When Ed Catmull (President, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios) sums up Pixar’s creative process, he describes it as going from ‘suck to unsuck.’ Pixar film ideas begin on rough storyboards that suck until they work through thousands of problems throughout the process in order to take films from suck to unsuck…

Of course, just failing is not the key; the key is to be systematically learning from failures. To be closely monitoring what’s working and making good use of that information.

Nick Saban is Head Coach of the University of Alabama’s football team and one of the most successful coaches in NCAA football history. His advice:

“Don’t waste failure.”

His encouragement is to get technical about what you need to do to improve to prevent another failure. Always in the context of what you did, not the other person. Because that’s the only thing you can improve. That’s how you win because of failure.

I’ve had my own brilliant disasters. And I have been deeply challenged in how I would interpret them.

My Junior year in college I lost the general election for Student Body President. It was such a fantastic failure, especially when it’s so painfully public. The day before the election I greeted everyone with a smarmy thumbs up, the day after I tried not to make eye contact.

I learned a lot about intestinal fortitude from that loss. Though not as consciously as I wish I could have. (It’s strange, years later I can remember the votes it would have taken to change the outcome.)

I adopted a new mantra gleaned from that experience: “NTC” (Nothing To Chance). I used that blistering experience to steel my resolve to get a post-college job on Wall Street (as an English Major, no mean feat) and into Business School for an MBA.

Failure can become fuel for growth, (however painful) or a damning judgment that stops us in our tracks. And how we view it matters.

Josh Waitkins, (The Art of Learning) calls this process of learning from failure as “investment in loss.” This requires a beginner’s mind and is the ultimate in humility. Easier to do when there are no expectations of you, harder when others expect performance and production.

I learned this lesson the hard way coming off a successful stint as General Manager in a publicly traded company. Having proven a Midas touch, I was ready to start my own company.

The fact that I had no entrepreneurial, industry, or venture capital experience didn’t slow me down a bit. I literally bet the farm (our entire life savings) on my success. After eleven months, we never got a product to market or secured the funding we needed. It was a complete crash and burn.

While very painful, the experience etched new lessons into my psyche. My new steppingstones (learned from failing) when starting a business would be:

  • Play to your strengths
  • Stack the deck with winnable games
  • Choose complimentary partners
  • Let quality drive quantity

Choosing to “invest in loss” changed how I approached my next entrepreneurial opportunity. While my first was a complete “break down,” my second startup was a “break even,” and my third was finally a “break out” success.

“Pixar directors understand what seasoned entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and agile software developers do: The faster they fail, the faster they will discover promising opportunities.”  – Peter Sims

I make a conscious choice to have the humility to see failure for what it is: Building Blocks of success.

Call to Craftsmanship:  What is keeping you from paving over your stumbling stones of failure?