To Prepare or Practice?

If you didn’t make it through my first post in this series, I don’t blame you. What was supposed to be a 300-word post turned into 2000. Long story short, I have an assignment to publish a blog a week for the next 14 weeks based on the readings in my Introduction to Entrepreneurship class at BYU-Idaho. Those assignments are being published on my blog.

There are 2 competing ideas that were presented in our readings for class this week. I always enjoy coming at an issue from multiple angles, but I land pretty squarely on one side of this coin.

Let me start by presenting the 2 main concepts we read about this week

We cannot afford to waver in any way. We should always keep in mind that we are trying to prepare for missions, temple marriages, and activity in the Church and to be examples for good so that others will be influenced by the way we live. – N. Eldon Tanner – First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

This is very strongly worded guidance that our entire life is a series of goals that we need to be very careful not to stray from our goals. Contrast that to the book we are currently reading for this same class:

In a nation obsessed with the achievement of goals, devotion to the goalless journey might seem incomprehensible if not bizarre. But behind the slogans you read on the sports page and in the business section there’s a deeper reality: the master goes along with the rhetoric about scoring and winning, but secretly cherishes those games filled with delicious twists and turns of fortune, great plays, close calls, and magical finishes – regardless of who wins. … The truth is, they love to practice-and because of this they do get better.  – George Leonard – Author of Mastery

This second quote fits into a broader context where the author is teaching us that aikido is not a series of goals, but a lifelong practice that one never completes. This contrast to me felt so striking when I first read each piece that I knew I had to comment on it this week. If you don’t remember already where I stand on this position based on the first post in this series, let me tell you a couple stories to help you understand my thoughts.

Roughly 9 months into my tenure at Bluehost Mat Heaton, the founder and CEO, walked through the support floor and tapped a few people to come have a conversation with him. I remember very clearly nervously sitting at the table in the executive break room with several of my peers and superiors while Matt made small talk waiting to begin. Matt started the conversation by trying to understand how well we thought we knew and understood several technologies that were key to our business. He asked us to rank our own knowledge of each area on a scale of 1-10. 1 being barely familiar with the technology, 10 knowing pretty much everything there is to know about that topic.

As others began to answer the first question, I was quickly filled with dread. The founder of our company is sitting here with me, wanting to know how much I know about how to do my job! If I answer too low, he will think I am a fool. Who knows what impact that would have on my reputation with him. If I answer too high, he will see through my over confidence, and know I am lying.

‘8’ answers the first person at the table, a senior technician who has been with the company a number of years.

Now I have an upper limit, clearly he knows more about this than I do, he has is the one I go to with questions when I don’t know how to fix something.

‘9’ answers the next. Another senior technician who frequently helps me and the first guy when we get stuck.

Now it’s my turn, but what do I say? I am still trying to weigh the options in my head when i almost instinctively blurt out “4 or 5, I’m not sure”. A 4? Really? I just told the founder of our company that I know less than half of what I should know about this critical technology to do my job! What was I thinking?! Several more of these questions came around, the first 2 all giving similarly high marks for themselves while I gave middle of the road answers. I didn’t say anything higher than a 6 through that whole series of questioning.

While the rest of that conversation is a story for another time, I have often reflected on my responses to how to rank myself in terms of knowledge on any specific topic. I have been asked similar questions in interviews and conversations several times in the last 15 years and have given very different answers from that 20-year old kid in the Bluehost break room. As I have grown in knowledge, confidence, and success in my career, my default answer to that question on a topic that I am very familiar with is ‘3’, with a qualifier that I am familiar enough with that topic to know that there is so much that I don’t know. I may have more than sufficient knowledge on that topic to be effective at my job, but I recognize that almost any topic worth learning about has such depth and complexity that I would never be able to know more than about 30% of the knowledge on that topic.

On the other hand, if I feel like I do have a pretty good grasp on a large percentage of the topic in question, I am more likely to answer with a 1 or 2. my assumption there, if I don’t know enough about the topic yet to recognize that there is a lot that i don’t know, then I clearly don’t know enough to consider myself an expert on the topic, and should scale back by self-ranking.

 

My second story on this topic restates some of what I recounted in the first post for this blog series of this class. Growing up, both in school and in the LDS church, I was always told to prepare for the next thing. Elementary school was preparing me for middle school. Primary was preparing me to be a Deacon. High school was preparing me for college. The young men’s program was preparing me to server a mission, which would prepare me to get married. College would prepare me for a job. There seemed to be an endless array of preparations, but I was anxious to start living my life.

Imagine my surprise when I finally did get married and started a family. There was now nothing left to prepare for. No prize at the end of the year. No graduation, or ordination, or celebration of another preparation completed. This must be that ‘endure to the end’ part that we always talk about. While that lack of goals could seem a little jarring, honestly, it was very freeing for me. Every day I now wake up with the goal to be a little better than yesterday. A little better husband, father, employee, leader, follower, etc. In the concepts of George Leonard, I am now bettering my practice of life every day.

I think those stories both illustrate well where I stand on this dichotomy presented at the beginning of this article. Life to me is so much more than a series of goals that we check off the list, it is a process of continual progression that is never really done. The concept of eternal progression resonates deeply with me, as we continually grow into better and better versions of ourselves.

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