June 5th, 2014

Attached to the Outcome Means You’re Going to Fail

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I’ve failed a lot in the last year. I have failed to:

  • Remain calm in the face of losing $10,000
  • Publish a book
  • Not use the word “umm” in a presentation at Stanford University
  • Not break a bone
  • the list goes on

As I’ve reviewed these and many other example it is interesting to see that there is one primary cause behind all failures: the outcome. When we are fixated on a predetermined outcome we’re likely to fail. As always, I’m going to use my current physical study (ballet) as exemplar of this concept, but this principle applies far and wide beyond the relatively narrow scope of motor learning.

First though, I’ll introduce my current nemesis, the pirouette:

Attached to an Outcome? Doomed to Fail.

In my daily ballet class there is a one student exemplifies fixation on an outcome. Every time she goes for a pirouette, she attempts a triple. There are many people in my class who can do triple pirouettes with ease, but this woman can’t. She can barely complete a double. And she is so fixated on getting a triple that she has stopped improving. You don’t need to understand the pirouettes for this process to sound familiar. We have all wanted an outcome different than our current reality so much that we tried to deny the current state of things. I see this denial among special needs parents, with athletes, and in companies who want a different reality. And I certainly recognize it in myself. It is understandable, and I’m excited to say that there are new opportunities available.
If there is one pivotal difference that I see between children who overcome their setbacks, athletes who make quick progress in fitness, or companies that tackle their challenges, it is mindset. Mindset is so rudimentary that most everyone’s reaction is “of course!” but when I coach or mentor, this is the single area where I see the greatest (and easiest!) lasting difference.

Robin’s Triple Pirouette

Returning to the discussion of ballet, I’ve recently achieved something I have been working on: my own triple pirouette. I’m not quite as capable as the current world record holder, but a few weeks ago I stuck my first three spins. Then, the worst happened. I broke a toe. This would have been ignorable when I was studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but now I am trying to spin on a broken toe.

Take a moment to think about how quickly your body adjusts when you stub your toe. Immediately, you shift your weight away from the injured foot. I’ve been trying to do that while simultaneously forcing myself to use that foot. (There’s also this much deeper discussion of what is actually happening in your nervous system when you stub your toe.) Understandably, I’ve been getting frustrated. I’ve been particularly annoyed because I was making so much progress before the injury. Now I’ve hit a wall.

Learning isn’t Just an End Result

Even though we may want a specific end result (more sales, better performance from a child, a fitness goal) there is always a progression from where we are to that end goal. It is easy to overlook the progression, and the most frustrated (i.e. desperate) someone is, the less likely they will be to want to go through all of the stages between the current state and the end goal. The reality of the situation is this: we have to learn from where we are to get to where we want to go. And learning happens in steps.

Pass or Fail?

There are a myriad of studies of ball sports that suggest that regular and constant feedback actually impedes the learning process. By giving “yes” or “no” feedback after every iteration (tossing a ball, doing a pirouette, learning to walk) we interfere with progress by 1) Distracting the learner from the process 2) Focuses on the end goal, not the steps 3) Makes pass/fail the ultimate determiner of progress.  Maintaining a pass/fail mentality means that we aren’t open to variations which facilitate learning.

Do It Right & Don’t Ask Why

When we are attached to a specific outcome we are focused on that single end goal. Of necessity, this limits the variety of opportunities that accompany any learning experience. By singularly focusing on my triple pirouettes, I ignore questions such as “What could I do to more quickly overcome my injury?” or “What can I practice despite the broken toe?” Any act of learning is not just the end result. It is also about the process of learning towards that end goal. By fixating on a specific end-outcome all of the steps and discoveries along the way are gone.

Brain Science of Punishment

When we are attached to a specific end goal there are some really interesting things happening in the brain. For example, similar to how a person in pain has less neural activation, someone with an end goal almost always has only one way towards accomplishing that end goal. This means that the steps to resolution are assumed (and usually wrong). Nevertheless, the learner pushes through in an attempt to reach the end goal. This creates in essence an internal state of punishment, which means less neural activity. The longer this loop continues the more frustrated the learner, the less creative activity in the brain and the slower any improvement.

As for me, I’m excited to report that I’m no longer frustrated at my broken toe and have resumed making progress. There are a number of simple shortcuts that anyone can use to let go of the outcome and quickly grow beyond the plateau. I’ll detail those shortcuts next week!

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