You know the old joke. A musician walks up to a New York cabbie and asks, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
The cabbie, a cigarette pasted to his yap, gives him the once-over and replies, “Yeah, practice!”
Sure, that’s where the joke usually ends. But wouldn’t you know it, the cabbie, being a typical know-it-all New Yorker, then whips out a dog-eared copy of an old August 1994 issue of American Psychologist. “Hey look here, Maestro, I got proof for ya. Sez right here that a couple of shrinks studied a bunch a you guys studying at these fancy-pants academies. Guess what, pal? They found out that top-rated violinists practiced 10,000 hours by the time they turned 20. The second-level guys, they only practiced 7,500 hours, and the lowest guys on the totem pole practiced just 5,000 hours. Hey, I wonder if these two shrinks are the same guys that helped my brother Murray get over thinking he wuz a chicken. Ya know, since I started watching my cholesterol I don’t need the eggs no more!”
That’s good news for anybody trying to get to their own version of Carnegie Hall. Practice really does make perfect. It’s not some God-given talent that makes someone a natural. It’s practice. Violins aside, just imagine the great potentials in sports that would go unfilled without practice. The 1904 Olympic gold medalist in the marathon, for example, couldn’t run fast enough today to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Yet thousands of amateurs make the cut. Sure, maybe we eat better today and wear $150 Nikes. But even top runners at the turn of the century trained just a few months right before the event. Today, the average runner is out practicing — most often just for “fun” — most every day of the year, every year.
The importance of dedicated, long-term practice — in many ways, the practice of practicing — is what came to my mind as I edited this month’s batch of columns. At the end of last year, I asked our columnists to share their ideas about New Year’s resolutions. As with most New Year’s resolutions, not one of our columnists’ suggestions sounds like a quick fix. But they definitely do offer a chance to break from old habits, and make a change for the better.
So how do you, as Maurice Maio suggests, sell more service agreements? Practice. How do you, as Paul Ridilla says, wear out the TQM phrase “partnering?” Practice. How do you master one to-do in the year ahead, as Julius Ballanco advises. Definitely practice.
Sticking With It: Getting started, particularly at the start of a New Year, isn’t usually a problem. It’s inevitable, however, that one or two months down the road, you’ll feel the strong urge to quit.
This is good news and bad news. The good news is we have a natural resiliency to change. We’re all programmed, for example, to run at 98.6 degrees. Any change in direction up or down, and we immediately snap back to the status quo.
The bad news is that we can’t distinguish bad status quo from good. Our innate sense of equilibrium simply wants things to stay as they are even if they really aren’t very good. Let’s say, for example, that after 20 years of sitting on your duff you decide to put the beer down long enough to jog around the block. After maybe 10 strides, something horrible happens. Your heart feels like it’s going to pound right out of your chest. You’re breathing so fast you’re getting dizzy. And what’s that pain in your shoulder? Heart attack? A fire alarm might as well be going off your head as your mind commands: “WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU DOING? GET BACK ON THE COUCH, IMMEDIATELY! AT LEAST WHILE YOU’RE UP, GO GET SOME MORE BEER ... AND POTATO CHIPS ... THE SOUR CREAM AND ONION KIND!!” And so another New Year’s resolution fades away.
So how do you make a change for the better easier? How do you make a change for the better last? Here’s a few guidelines to keep in mind:
1. Don’t sabotage your own best efforts. No matter what you set out to do, fully expect resistance. As we’ve said, it’s par for the course. It’s not going to feel natural at first to sell service agreements, if all you did before was fix a broken pipe and hurry on to the next one. You’ll probably feel anxious and tongue-tied at the notion of “selling” something. But just because you feel nervous, don’t conclude that you’ve made a bad decision. In fact, your discomfort means that you’ve definitely made a change — which is what you wanted to do in the first place, wasn’t it?
2. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. By negotiate, I mean neither bulldozing your way over your adversary’s objections nor backing off so you can just be friends. In either case, your adversary is someone I hope you know a little about — yourself. Whatever it is you plan on changing this year, you’re likely to be discontented with your short-term results. Only you can figure out how to deal with this frustration. But you’ll burn out if you simply try to bull your way on. And if you back off and quit, then you’re trading in an old model of frustration for a shiny, new model with more options.
3. Learn something ... anything! The more you know, the better you’ll be at negotiations. Between burning out and backsliding lies education. Use your dissatisfaction as a guide to figure out what you need to know. Attend a class. Read a book. The more “book smarts” you have, the more motivated you’ll be about going on to graduate work in the School of Hard Knocks.
4. Stick together. I hope you can gather everyone for some regularly scheduled meetings to discuss what’s going on. These pow-wows usually can take the sting out of defeat. And one person’s inspiring tale can lead others on to greatness. In the world of sports, Roger Bannister is famous for breaking the four-minute mile mark. But what’s not so well known is that 45 runners broke the mark over the next 18 months. Did they practice more? Well, they certainly didn’t practice any less. But I think that what put the extra pep in their step was the knowledge that someone just like them had done it so they could too.
Read on to find out what you might consider doing differently in 1997.