Autism is a topic near and dear to my heart. Though I haven’t discussed on the podcast to date, for many years I ran Move Autism, a consulting company working with children with autism and their families around the world.
In May I gave a presentation at Ignite to a packed theatre on the tools I use to help parents of children with special needs around the world. But there was a catch: the presentation was limited to 5 minutes and 20 autoforwarding slides.
The talk was on the simple tools that account for improved performance. What I’ve found from my years working with children with disability is that the tools that can help kids are simple, and applicable to everyone.
Autism is not simple. It is not just a genetic disorder, an eating disorder or brain damage. Autism is a whole host of different factors and I love working with children with autism for exactly this reason.
Most children, even with severe disabilities, prefer to spend time with other human beings. They like to interact. They enjoy being looked at. They enjoy being touched. Children with autism (often) don’t!
With children with autism there is often trouble with eating or digestion. There are movement difficulties. Autism has so many different factors to learn about, to discover and – best of all – each one is radically different between children!
I can see one child who’s very highly functioning – maybe Asperger’s – and they will not eat pasta. Another child – a little boy I work with, Zach, is amazing at taking a pen and flipping it and flipping it three times in the air and catching it and catching it on the same side each and every single time. I could train that for years and I might be able to get as good as he is.
People on the autism spectrum have such amazing and specific quirks! They have unique preferences that it is a new puzzle each time. Every timeI see a child, even somebody I know, I get to learn about a new child. I have to start with them exactly where they are and I can’t assume. If I come and I assume that the child I’m working with today is going to be like the child that I worked with last week, there’s no moving forward. It’s such a fun reset, such a neat and intriguing and useful way to start. I get to practice my own internal, mental, emotional and physical flexibility because one child might not want to come into my door and one child might want to leap on me and, right, have a piggyback ride. Because there are so many contributing factors I could see this situation as difficult, but actually it is a lot like the rest of our lives! Our family and friends aren’t always feeling the same way. We do assume that they are how they usually are. We can usually get away with our assumptions. But how much more kind, more respectful not as assume we know where someone is. I practice with kids with autism.
Autism is a dynamic system. To engage with a child with autism I’m required to bring more of myself to table, be the best that I can possibly be. But instead of viewing this as a difficult, I view it as a learning experience and fun.
I am thrilled to announce that Move Autism (that’s me) is sponsoring the first ever San Francisco Son-Rise Essentials Program®! For those who aren’t familiar with the term, I’ve talked about the program before and you can learn more here. This will be a three day course in San Francisco, April 25-27th with a follow-up “Next Steps” program July 25-27th! Learn more at http://www.sonrisesf.com.
Beginning what I’m sure will be a theme over the next several months, in this post I’ll discuss my experience with a single element of the Son-Rise Program®, called joining. Before I dive into a definition and my own personal experience, I’ll say a few words about the intersection between autism and learning. What I look to accomplish with children with autism is actually quite similar to what I look for with athletes or book authors – next steps. Autism is a complicated issue with diverse social, environmental, movement and other factors affecting each child. But what I do with individuals, regardless of diagnosis, is similar.
Step 1: Assess where and who they are, getting familiar with their habits and patterns. Step 2: Form a common bond and connection. Step 3: Invite them towards something new – be that backflips or more typical child-like behavior.
What Is Joining?
Joining is the term used by the Autism Treatment Center of America to describe a way of developing commonality with children (step two), long before inviting them into something new.
This post is about using a growth hacker’s creative and analytical mindset to radically change the launch and long-term success of the book Autism Breakthrough by my friend Raun Kaufman.
For background: Raun Kaufman is the son around whom the Son-Rise Program was created. The Son-Rise Program has since been run by thousands of families with children with autism around the world and helped kids recover from autism. Raun is the Director of Global Education at the Autism Treatment Center of America. For more information this fascinating study examines the efficacy of applying the Son-Rise Program with special needs children.
Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph.
I was immediately struck by the similarities to what I have always done. Maybe its just that I’ve never had a big budget or that I was taught young not to spend money if I wasn’t sure of a return. Regardless, analytics and creative problem-solving have always been part of my work, whether for Move Autism or in any of my previous positions. I’ve always asked about processes with an eye to improving them.
Movement has always been at the center of my pursuits and practices. I now have the honor and privilege of taking more than two decades work of experience and applying these skills to children with special needs. Through an understanding of the basic science of human motor learning acquisition – or how people learn to move better – I apply the skills I have acquired to help children learn to move better.
I’m a fan of the author Tim Ferriss. He published a recent book called the The 4-Hour Chef, which teaches his theme of skill hacking through the medium of cooking. I’ve never looked for outside help with cooking – in college my quiches received rave reviews and my sister teaches cooking professionally at hip cooks – but I love Tim’s story-telling, flair for the dramatic, and most of all his simple, practical ideas.
One of the tools I’ve implemented since reading The 4-Hour Chef is Tim’s “prescriptive 1-pager.” The prescriptive 1-pager is essentially a next-steps reminder for the things we want to learn or implement within a given area. For example, I’m currently studying tango:
I like lists. Not just for the grocery store but also of the tools and skills I need in order to master some large goal. Recently, I do lists differently. The above picture is the Tango prescriptive 1-pager I wrote up for myself upon my return from an autism outreach in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This page doesn’t cover everything there is to know about tango. It isn’t meant to. What it does is serve as a quick reminder for all of my current areas of focus. I glance at this page before a night of dancing and choose 1-3 areas that I am going to focus on for the evening.
“Does it make a difference with children with special needs?”
These are among the most common questions we hear. To begin to answer some of these we’ve compiled stories from the March 2013 Free Children’s Clinic of parents and children discussing their experience.
I love autism! This sentence begins my first book (an ebook to be sold via Amazon). I know it isn’t a typical idea or a normal philosophy. I’m sharing this idea because it is useful!
In the beginning, I think the notion of celebrating autism rang true for me because I’d been “poor baby”ed so many times in relation to my own injuries. People pity those affected by autism and then avoid them. The idea – in short – is that having a child with autism is terrible and there ends the conversation… with an awkward silence. I am just side-stepping the issue. It isn’t a matter of the “truth” about autism, whether it is hard or not, but of the outcome of these two different view points. Let’s look at what happens when we view autism as devastating and a disaster. As soon as we say “It is unfortunate that…” we get unhappy! We want our neuro-typical children to keep up with their peers, excel at music or math, and graduate Harvard with honors. Why? For our satisfaction and happiness. So we can know with joy or pride that our progeny will succeed!
I choose love and joy with autism because it is more fun, more efficient (I am always for efficiency) and there are more options available. Of course, there is a lot of learning and effort necessary to care for of a special child. And as soon as autism is an opportunity we get to ask the question “How is this good?” and a whole world of opportunities open up.
Let’s take a look at how we benefit from viewing autism as an opportunity:
I get to learn so much about what works for me whenever I work with a child with autism. When something changes everything changes. In my life when I started new physical activity I change physiologically to match that activity very quickly. If I start swimming today, two weeks from today my body will be measurable changed to accommodate for swimming. I wasn’t always able to recognize these changes but through working with children on the spectrum have learned to watch for and appreciate all of our capacity for dramatic, dynamic change.
A child with autism is such an amazing way for us to see ourselves more clearly and to learn about ourselves. Autism is an amazing mirror. If I turned up frustrated, the child – lacking our social standards and relying on attitude – is going to move away from me. If I am going to be effective with a child with autism I have to turn up loving and accepting them because that’s the only way it works. In working with these children I get to practice being loving, present, and non-judgmental.
There are so many factors to consider: digestion, social behaviors, physical self regulating behaviors, what we can guess of their mental states. As we look at and work on any one of these factors all of these factors are affected.
Every child with autism is different. Additionally, a child on the spectrum can be radically different day to day. Every moment is a new experiment with what works with this new individual and their brain at this moment!
I can spend a couple of weeks with one child working on a specific movement pattern. Not only does that pattern become much smooth but other factors, seemingly unrelated, change too. Social behavior improves. Or digestion is impacted. What is going to change is not predictable but that there is going to be change is nearly certain. This is true for all humans but because the characteristics of autism are so pronounced and because we are all so focused on all of these characteristics in our desire to change them, the changes are very noticeable.
So try something new: celebrate autism! Why not try it?
I’m really excited! I am going to be teaching an autism-focused experiential workshop. I’ve been looking for ways to teach parents the principles of the Anat Baniel Method and the Option Philosophy when I am not seeing their children. I also want more practice teaching groups! Thus, I am offering a ninety-minute workshop on the principles of learning applied to autism. There will be movement for you to do, exercises to practice at home, a unique combination of the Option Process and the Anat Baniel Method, and time spent addressing your particular challenges and questions.
What: Autism Workshop incorporating Option Philosophy & Anat Baniel Method Where: Metronome Dance Studios, 1830 17th Street, San Francisco, CA When: Saturday, Oct. 13th at 4pm Who: This will be a workshop for parents so this time please leave your children at home. Do invite anyone and everyone you think might be interested. Parents, practitioners who work with special needs children, new parents (the tools offered will be relevant for neuro-typical kids, too), and the general public interested in Option Institute and/or Anat Baniel Method. Have you been looking for a way to teach your friends and family about your special child? Bring them! Cost: Free!
I hope you can make it! I will be teaching more workshops in the future and I’m not sure how many of them will be open to the public. (Plans include teaching at UCSF and Google!) Do you know of other organizations or groups who might like for me to teach similar workshops? Please let me know! Call if you have any questions.
In conducting my annual review, one of the things that became clear was the importance of a week that I spent in Puerto Rico in June 2017 co-teaching a workshop based on tools that I practice daily but rarely ever speak about or teach.
For background, in the Fall of 2008, I met Anat Baniel. At that time, I was about a year into a very severe neck injury resulting from landing on my head on a trampoline and was looking for ways to recover. I was also fresh out of college and looking for a path forward. I did my undergraduate research – a year long research project culminating in an oral defense and 150 page published dissertation – on how people learn movement. So, in retrospect, it was oddly fitting that I spent several years after college trying to learn again how to move without pain. In meeting Anat, it was immediately obvious to me that this woman knew a lot about how we learn, and I was determined to study with her. While the majority of my college peers went on to their PHDs (Reed College has the highest number of PHDs of any University in the country), I spent four years practicing very subtle movement, first on myself, and then with a wide variety of clients, and then with children with special needs.
As I began to practice with clients, I recognized a need for verbal tools as well as the non-verbal physical coaching that I was providing and ended up studying at the Option Institute for an additional three years. There I learned a form of socratic dialogue and the practice of being completely present with another human being regardless of what they are going through, and how to ask them loving questions.
I’ve continued to practice and refine tools I learned from these organizations, my study of behavior design BJ Fogg at Stanford University, and more tools I’ve picked up over the last decade.
Fast forward to June of 2017, where I taught a small group leadership training on retreat in Puerto Rico. This was the first time that I had taught these tools in public.
When I conducted my annual review, I was surprised to find that the Puerto Rico training stood out even among the many other personal and professional successes of 2017, and I’ve decided to double down on fitness education for the 21st century.
Thus, it is my great pleasure to announce the release of my new podcast, Zander Strong: The Future of Fitness, where I teach tools for cultivating physical health and mental resilience.
These podcasts are short, under 30 minutes, unlike my long form podcast, The Robin Zander Show. Each episode focuses on a specific tool or tactic that you can apply to improve your physical or mental performance.
Please enjoy Zander Strong and subscribe to the show on iTunes.
The progressions that Mark described were well considered. After attempting spheres, he taught some practical applications of drawing circles.
While my spheres aren’t world class, by immediately putting into function simple tools like spheres and shading, I was more confident and eager to apply future lessons. I moved into drawing perspective, which, of course, began very modestly.
In the last 12 months I have failed to launch two separate books. It has been a process of being eaten to death by ducks, which I consider to be a somewhat humiliating way to die. While I am proud of how I have handled myself in the face of numbers difficulties, I have regrets for the impediments to action.
In November 2013 I was preparing to launch a Kickstarted publication containing worksheets and tools for special needs families. I postponed this launch (perhaps indefinitely) to better be of service to my friend Raun Kaufman’s book launch.
In April 2014 I was preparing to launch a free e-book consisting of interviews with special needs parents. Days from publication I canceled this launch at the request of a lawyer. Regardless of legal right, I preferred to maintain cordiality with the organization that I was promoting.
It has been an amazing process and I have discovered deep love of writing, publishing, and promotion. What I will examine, though, is the underbelly. The reasons behind why I failed twice in six months to publish resources that I see a need for in the world. I hope these will be useful to inspire others towards learning new things, and help avoid mistakes and especially the fear of failure.
Eaten to Death By Ducks
There is no one moment that I can point to and blame. There is no person to blame but myself. Each decision was my own and it is useful to see where decisions lead. Instead of tiny steps towards the end goal, in the last weeks before launch I took tiny (unintentional) steps away. There was a conversation with a friend where we discussed postponing by a week. There was a conversation with a lawyer where I had to consider my next moves. All decisions and responsibility rested with me, but by taking tiny steps away from the end goal I was eventually subsumed by minutia and failed to launch.
Set Dates, Stick to Them
I am extremely self-motivated. When I set out to do a thing I get it done. And one of the problems I have discovered with self-publishing or internal deadlines is that then I am responsible only to myself. By having no one outside of myself monitoring the launch dates of my Kickstarter, of example I was arbiter. By having no one else dedicated to a specific date it was well within my jurisdiction to postpone. If, instead, I had had commitment to backers, my clients, etc. it would have been harder or impossible to postpone.
Work With People You Enjoy
This is one of my greater mistakes. I have studied with several amazing teachers and mentors, but have been limited by what is available within their protective umbrella. Unfortunately, some of these teachers have also been very protective of their specific domains such that when I go to promote their work through unusual means or create under their auspices, I have been readily shut down. We are social animals and it is important to collaborate with others on projects bigger than ourselves. But I have learned to choose more carefully the people with whom I want work and the projects that I will work on.
Do Work You Love
I love the study of how humans learn movement, and practical philosophies that can expedite the learning process. As a result the topics of all that I was writing about and promoting fit within my domain of expertise. While my enthusiasm for specific projects waxes and wanes, my dedication to the overall studies that are summarized in my works has never faltered.
I recently did publish my very first book “How To Do A Handstand.” And I have more on the way. I suggest staying staying tuned via my mailing list, where I send out periodic updates and a monthly learning challenge I’ve tackled.
I am always cross-training. I’ve just returned taking letters to the post-office, meaning that I ran there and ran back. I could have used Shyp or driven to the Post Office but it took less time to run, and besides, I was cross-training.
I don’t mean cross-training in just the traditional sense. While I do find it valuable to run in addition to studying ballet, I was actually doing a lot more. If we could have fMRIs while I was running we would have seen a lot more activity than from just my running circuits. I was training. Specifically, I was training jeté en tournant.
I cannot actually do jetés nearly to that degree, but I was mentally rehearsing even while running. A little like the scene in Billy Eliot where he is leaping down the street, whatever it is I am doing, I am always practicing.
There are always more obstacles, bigger challenges. You’re always fighting uphill. Get used to it and train accordingly.
There is always going to be someone more talented than me. So I practice getting used to it, and train accordingly. I didn’t start dancing ballet at 8 years old like most professional dancers, or drop out of college to work for entrepreneurial titans like marketer Ryan Holiday. Consequently, to make up the time, I think critically and hustle.
Cross-training doesn’t just mean doing an activity that complements a primary purpose, like running might complement ballet. It also means thinking hard about specific directions you’d like to go. Though I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a new company, I haven’t done so because I’m not convinced that doing so is the best use of my time, talent and resources. Instead, I’ve begun to advise several other companies, simultaneously learning, cross-training a skill-set applicable for my own business, and helping out. All for a few hours a week.
As a result of a talk I gave at Design For Dance, I’ve begun to explore Design Thinking. Instead of spending $40,000 and two years in school, I’ve begun to get acquainted with the domain by readings – a lot! I might found another company company in the future and I might go back to school in design. Right now, I’m thinking about what I’m interested in and looking for the connections across disciplines. In other words, cross-training.
Over the last 6 months of daily training I’ve changed a lot of little daily habits. This month I made one new change that surpasses all of my other experiments. The new addition? Music.
Simple things like arriving to my ballet class 15 minutes early to mentally prepare have made a huge difference in my ability to perform at a high level. Now that I have seen the impact of small changes, I’ve begun looking elsewhere for practices that will expedite efficiency in other aspects of my life. Here are a few that I’ve experimented with:
How I get out of bed in the morning
First activity upon rising
Last thing I do before sleep
Exact times I eat meals
Earlier this month, by happenstance, I played one song on repeat for my 10 minutes drive to the dance studio, and as I walk from my car. The result was immediate. By hearing the same, energizing song over and over I arrived at ballet ready to perform. I had one of my best ballet classes ever. After this singular experience, I questioned what made it so impactful. Here’s the song that I originally used to trigger my performance:
Throughout my experimentations, I have been giving a lot of thought to mindset: the most useful mindset for parents with kids with special needs, an athlete about the start performing, or the CEO of a company in the midst of a heated meeting. Today I’ll be detailing how I’ve begun using music to effectively trigger a performance-ready mindset.
Your Mindset Matters
A few words about mindset: it matters! When I am entering ballet or my office, if I’m in any way distracted or distraught it can take me minutes to acclimatize to the new environment. In professional dance those minutes can mean the difference between being warm and lose, and getting injured. In business that can mean the difference between closing a sale, and going bankrupt. I have discussed the mindset necessary to perform well but I’ll spend a moment specifically on the idea of presence.
I was on the dance floor, having repeated the steps half a hundred times. The beautiful woman opposite me was still smiling, but it wasn’t just my imagination: the corners of her mouth had started to turn up into a sneer. The teacher to my side, said “No, like this!” and demonstrated one more time. It was a simple dance movement, a Swing dance step that thousands of people know by heart. I tried, and failed – again. I just couldn’t get it.
I went to bathroom to splash some water on my face. I had come out to try a new type of dance as a fun experiment, and here I was stressed out and making zero progress.
The Attitude that Works is how I describe an attitude I bring to my coaching with special needs children, and try to apply everywhere, in any learning environment. The attitude consists of three parts:
For background, I’ve been developing an attitude that works for years. When I talked a guy down from jumping off a bridge in college, this is what I was using. This philosophy is what makes me effective in coaching children, and also throughout my physical studies. I am by no means perfect – far from it – but formulating guiding principals has been extremely useful as a reminder of what creates an effective environment for learning.
When I began working with children with autism I discovered that they often lack the social standards that we take for granted. I found that the only way to work with these special children was through being completely compassionate to their experience, even if I didn’t know what that experience was. These children rely on their sense of those around them – their intuitive feel for the attitudes held by others – instead of just the social niceties. It turns out that we all sense the attitudes held by those around us, whether we recognize them or not, and that these attitudes profoundly shape how we behave. When we are compassionate or loving with someone else we are much more inviting to that person, and more likely to foster a connection. The rule holds true for ourselves, as well: when we are compassionate with ourselves our brains are literally more available to process new information and form novel connections.
In line with my goal to write more regularly this month I have been making a red X on my calendar for every day that I write at least 500 words. Last week I made a strange and wonderful discovery that more than quadrupled my writing output. I usually struggle to put pen to paper (or keys to keyboard), but last week, in between bouts of hands-on coaching with a little boy, I found myself completely immersed in my writing, coming away with as many of 4000 words in an hour, when I normally average about 500. What’s more, the content is clear, concise and insightful. (I’ll be posting it everyday on the Move Autism blog for those interested.)
It just so happened that as I was working so prodigiously I was also spending a lot of time commuting, which meant time to catch up on podcasts. Somewhere during the week I listened through an interview of Steve Kotler on the James Altucher Show.
Steve Kotler is among the word’s foremost experts on Flow, having himself recovered from lime disease through enter flow states while surfing. For background, flow is a term in psychology that describes a heightened state of performance, accompanied by energy and complete immersion. As I understand it (and please comment if I have anything incorrect!) flow is characterized by the release of seven different neurochemicals, of which dopamine is just one. Simultaneous, and perhaps because of this release, the brain exhibits alpha-theta waves and is termed to be in a “flow state.”
I’ll delve more into the background and science of flow another time. For now, I’m more interested in making these big idea applicable to all of our daily lives.
First off, these are some of the aspects that I find appealing about the various physical activities I study (including gymnastics, handstands, riding motorcycles, jiujitsu, muay thai, ballet, tango, and others):
Challenging, but not impossible.
There is no perfect point at which the art is “done.” Performance can always been improved.
The stakes are high. Not always life threatening, but high.
I am currently training ballet, which fulfills all of these characteristics.
While there is nothing that I do daily in my practice of ballet that is physically life-threatening, I have intense self-judgement around many different aspects of the dance form. One of the reasons I continue to training is to go through the process of overcoming those fears. (I also simply love to dance!)
The scope of the art form, especially when I am dancing alongside dancers from the world-renowned San Francisco Ballet, is not easy to ignore. I have a lot of experience in training dance, but did not begin my training until 19 years old and haven’t practiced regularly over the last decade. I am dancing alongside people who have trained every day of their lives for over 30 years and are among the 0.01% best in the world.
Performance Can Always Be Improved
Ballet can always be done better. It can more easily measured by what can be improved, than by an objective scale.
These three aspects are essential elements to entering a flow state. Challenge, increasing complexity, and high stakes are essential to triggering the release of neuro-chemical cocktail and entering “flow”.
Kotler also discusses the amount of challenge required within a given activity. It is not effective to demand a many-fold improvement over what is currently possible. As I’ve discussed before, had I tried to do a gymnastics giant on my first try I would have landed, literally, on my head. For those of us who are over-achievers, it might actually be best to try for less rapid growth because the most successful range of challenge is about 4% increase on what is already possible. If I can do handstands for example, then perhaps a next step might be to do a handstand on a horizontal bar just a foot off the floor?
Given my current levels of ballet dancing, it is pointless to aim to keep up with a dancer from the San Francisco Ballet. Instead, I am identifying my own areas of improvement and working on those.
The elements I’ve discussed so far also fit align with how I coach children with special needs. The little boy I was working with last week had periods of stillness amidst very rapid and somewhat uncontrolled running around the room. While I did not try to forcibly change his behavior, I did encourage him towards stillness and more focused attention. Expecting him to adhere to our own capacities for attention just aren’t realistic. Instead, the question I asked myself was: “What are his next steps for learning to concentrate?”.
During my work with children I often enter a state of intense focus, where I am not substantially aware of what’s going on around me. Many of my software developer friends speak of entering this level of concentration when solving an exciting problem. This concentration isn’t necessarily anything more than what we all feel when reading a really good book. (But as an aside, that concentrated attention focused on a child almost always results in the child increasingly interested in me and our activities. If you want someone to pay attention, given them your concentrated attention and see what happens.)
Last week, when I came out of those periods of intense focus with the little boy, I drove to a local coffee shop and settled down at my computer. When I looked at the clock again I found that I had written many thousands of words, completely lost track of time, and had little memory for anything other than my writing. I don’t know for sure that this state of enhanced performance is the same as that experienced by TRX bikers flying down mountains, but it was a different kind of attention that I have ever experienced before while writing.
I’ll be continuing to pay close attention to my behavioral patterns around physical and creative practice in the near future. My goal is to regularly duplicate last week’s performance!
Do you have experiences of flow to share? Share your stories in the comments!
I recently gave a talk at Ignite San Francisco. The presentation was well received and fun to deliver. Below are my slides from the talk. In this post I’ll break down my process for becoming one of the speakers (hint: just ask!) and how I built my talk.
If you don’t know Ignite, take a look at some of these. I learned about Ignite from my friend Karen Cheng, who had given talk previously. I asked for an introduction to the organizers and asked Karen’s advice on how to get chosen for a position among the speakers.
Ask For Help
Which brings me to the first things I learned from this experience: Ask for help! Even if you don’t need it, but especially if you can use it – ask people you respect for their thoughts and opinions. When possible, ask from a place of excitement rather than desperation. I’ve been on both sides and know that asking from desperation or being asked from a desperate person are both no fun. Karen gave me two pieces of advice. The first was an introduction to the organizers. The second, which I would never have thought to do myself, was submit three talk requests to be considered. I don’t know which of these made a bigger difference, but together they worked.
This idea is tossed around a lot but my experience of speaking at Ignite reinforced the idea. Having a friend on the inside, of course, means I’ll be more likely considered for a speaking position. This isn’t biased and unfair treatment, it just makes sense that the organizers are busy, have limited time, and are more likely to choose someone who is, by affiliation, not crazy, than someone they don’t know.
Scratching For An Idea
I take the word “scratching” from Twyla Tharp, who discusses scratching as a part of the creation process in The Creative Habit. My scratching looked like this:
When you think of sales what comes to mind? For me it is the combination. My grandfather going door-to-door selling vacuums in California’s Central Valley in the mid-1950s. I think very highly of my grandfather and he did well by his family. But I don’t think of knocking on doors in the 100 degree Summer Fresno heat as my ideal way to earn a living.
The second image that comes to mind when I hear the word “sales” is a guy in a shiny but none-too-high-quality suit selling sheet metal roofing. Why sheet metal roofing – no idea. But in my mind this salesman is extremely pushy, aggressive and doesn’t give a damn if I even have a house that needs a roof. He is going to persuade me to get his roofing, no matter what.
The final image that comes to mind when I think of sales is this video clip. I am among the most persistent people I have met, in my learning projects, in relationship, or with myself. But I don’t ever treat others or want to be treated like this. I view this hard-nosed desperate selling as pitiable.
And guess what? I am learning sales. If you know me at all you probably know that I love learning – be that gymnastics, dance, handstands, Spanish, questioning or autism. Right now I’m learning sales because being comfortable asking for a sale is going to be a part of the contributing factor to the success of my current big project.
Me being me, I am not going to do sales like any of the images that come to mind when I think of selling. I am learning to sell very differently.
There are a lot of new and exciting changes in my life. Over the last 2 years I’ve gone out social dancing 6x nights a week, training gymnastics until 10 or 11pm some nights, and working early into the morning hours. It was a not uncommon occurrence for a flatmate to be getting up for breakfast and find me fixing myself a 5am pre-bedtime snack. Well, that’s changed…
I am currently organizing the biggest event I’ve ever put on. We are organizing a thousand person workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area for The Son-Rise Program®: Essentials workshop – a transformative three days workshop for parents and professionals with children with autism. There are some free upcoming talks, here.
Additionally, I’ve switched from dancing Blues/Fusion and Argentine Tango to ballet. I am currently taking ballet class at LINES ballet six times each week.
These changes make me harder to find than I was just a couple of months ago. I am used to seeing a lot of people regularly on dance floors around the Bay Area and won’t be, for the foreseeable future. So I’m instigating a new, weekly (free) event. I have been certified to practice the Anat Baniel Method, a modern variant of the Feldenkrais Method, and a gentle style of movement education that I’ve used to overcome some severe injuries. This is the same sort of thing I do with autistic kids. I’ve done a lot of movement in my life – from founding a dance company to trying a dozen martial arts in a week. I have studied with some amazing teachers. And I’ve never met someone with a more thorough applied understanding of human motor learning than Anat Baniel. I want to continue to learning with you…
I have spent most of the month of January refreshing my study of the Option Process Dialogue, a form of socratic questioning which I have found invaluable in my practice, personal life, and physical training. If you haven’t heard me discuss questions before then by way of introduction, I suggest reading my post Ask More Loving Questions.
In a world full of people willing to give advice, there is a scarcity of good questions asked without a directive intent. Thus the Option Process Dialogue, an incredible way of being present with another person and asking them questions. I completed a recent course alongside these five fabulous certified Option Process Mentors, each of whom have put in their 10,000 hours refining their practice and understanding of this process.
I have read Socrates’ thoughts on the purpose of questions and seen many fine examples of well-honed questions used to extract information, assist someone in hard times, or convince of a particular viewpoint. (For an amusing recent example of two world-class questioners take a look at this interview of Neal Strauss by Tim Ferriss.) While I don’t generally conduct playfully combative interviews, I recently practiced asking questions on a live stage…
Stretching for a Couples Dialogue
One scene from these last weeks stands out. I am in front of a room full of people, facing two friends – a couple. I am the “mentor,” responsible for asking these two questions and aiming for a non-directive, following attitude. Years ago, when I began my study of this dialogue process, it was a struggle to just be present with one person for 5 minutes at a time. Last January I acquired the requisite skills to maintain this presence for 50 or more minutes at a stretch, with few or no momentary lapses.
In the room with my friends this last week I stretched even further. I was asking both of them questions and switching back and forth between them based on my momentary decisions, best judgement, and trained instinct. The system for asking questions is straightforward. While there are many sub-components, it is loosely designed to help the “explorer” uncover beliefs, following an ABC for Adversity -> Belief -> Consequence model for understanding human behavior. We call it Stimulus -> Belief -> Response.
While I find the technique of questions equally fascinating, what actually makes ours unique and useful is the attitude with which we ask questions.
I have given a lot of talks in the last couple of years. I’ve used the same set of public speaking skills to give presentations ranging from autism to how to learn handstands and how not to stretch. I am currently attending a course on public speaking and group facilitation at the Option Institute in Sheffield, MA and decided to put down some of these tools in writing.
Most of the time when I give a short speech I have two goals:
For many introductory talks I am the content. Even when giving a talk on advanced topics what makes the content stick is my personal stories. The content is only relevant to the extent an audience can connect with the speaker. Throughout my life I get many of the same questions. Probably most people do. “What do you do for work?” And for me: “What did you do in the circus?!” A short presentation designed to share a story from my life is a chance to share the answers to a lot of those basic questions so that I can rapidly move relationships on to some more advanced topics and areas of play. I’m happy to talk about my dance company or a workshop I am putting on. And if I can get the basics out of the way in a group it saves us time for more juicy topics later.
The ask is a bit more complicated and depends on the audience and the context of my talk. Almost always when I’m giving a talk, though, I have a clear purpose behind the situation, something that I’d like to get, teach or contribute. When I have a clear ask I usually save it for the end to give my audience something clear to remember when they think of my talk.
Recall is heavily weighted towards the combination of the beginning and end. Thus, I like to start out my talks with something pretty hard-hitting about myself (when that’s the topic of the talk) and end with a clear ask (when I have one). What comes in between established authority or context for my talk, tells the story.
I am a scientist by training. In college I spent my time in the psychology lab teaching rats to press levers and studying how humans learning new skills. I never expected that I’d come to apply those same scientific principles to my own business development.
In my first year of freelancing I tried to appeal to everybody. I was a personal trainer, project manager, facilitator and efficiency expert. As a result of this broad-spectrum approach, I didn’t make significant differences for my clients and struggled to get by financially.
Flash forward four years: I’m just back from a two-week trip to Argentina during which I gave 40+ lessons to children with special needs, consulted with families, taught a seminar, and managed to reserve two day just for my practice of Argentine tango. I earned enough in this two weeks to pay for the trip and a month’s worth of expenses, and will spend the rest of the month dividing my time between practicing my Spanish, training in gymnastics, and applying Lean Start-Up methodologies to families affected by autism around the world.
His hands were tied behind his back and he was standing on the outside of the bridge railing, preparing to jump. As I moved towards him, he shouted over to me: “One step further and I’ll jump!” He sounded hoarse and it was clear he had been crying. I stopped and stood, waiting.
This occurred six years ago, in the middle of the night, in Portland, Oregon. I had been biking along the river, taking a break from a college all-nighter when I came across this man.
I stopped, as instructed. And as I stood there I had an amazing experience. It was as if I was at the center of a deep, wide pool. His shout and threat were like a pebble hitting the surface and I was so deep down in the pool that they made no impact. Inside I felt quiet and still. “How are you feeling?” I asked him, calmly.
“Thinking is just the process of asking and answering questions.” -Tony Robbins
Today I make a habit of asking this sort of question. These questions sometimes sound a bit odd but provide the person I’m with to examine themselves in a way not otherwise available to them. I can only ask such questions by intentionally falling into that calm attitude that I found so many years ago on the river in Portland. In that state of mind, anything – and I do mean anything – that someone says is okay. In that mindset I am completely accepting and totally nonjudgmental. This is a mindset that I trained on my own and then later at the Option Institute. In what follows I’m going to detail a number of different reasons we ask questions and discuss what makes loving questions unique.
In my experience there are four different types of questions, each with its own purpose.
Questions that Judge
“Why did you do that!” (We often leave the “you idiot” left unsaid.)
The question “Why did I eat that pint of ice cream when I know I feel sick after eating ice cream?” is really a statement of self criticism. What I am actually saying is: “I’m dumb for having eaten ice cream. I should have known better!”
Questions to Learn
Imagine a reporter interested in your story. Reporters, and all of us, ask directive, inquiring questions to gain information.
Questions that Teach
Teachers ask their students subtle or even blatant leading questions like “Why do you believe that is the best answer to this math problem?” or “How would you go about solving it?”
Questions to Explore
“Why didyou do that?”
That night on the bridge I used what I’ve come to think of as exploring questions. These are the rarest of questions in that they are non-directive and completely accepting. I have studied what is formally called “The Option Process(R) Dialogue” which teaches how to use these questions to help explorers come to their own conclusions. With the man on the bridge these are the sort of questions I asked. Guided by instinct and luck I asked the bridge jumper how he felt and then later why. I don’t know what would have happened if I had told him not to jump, or tried to teach him that he shouldn’t. I can speculate that things might not have gone so well.
For the record, I spent three hours with the man on the bridge. He ended up sitting and crying with me. The next morning he called his sister and I left him in her care.
Why Ask Loving Questions
Everyone has opinions and most people are willing to share them. What people don’t do, though, is set aside their personal biases and become completely present with another. Instead, meaning well, most people judge or try to fix. By providing the person questioned with the option to discover answers for themselves, we provide a safe space to step forward and, if we so choose, come to our own conclusions.
These are the four components of a loving question. These four make up what is termed the “attitude” by the Option Institute. I have called it the Attitude That Works.
This is what distinguishes these questions from all others. To ask these questions the questioner must completely let go of the belief that they know what’s best for another.
To ask non-directive questions the questioner must be completely present with the person being questioned. Otherwise, it is not possible to follow where they lead.
Often loving questions are asked in the face of self-judgements. It is essential to not buy in and engage with those judgements.
Of all four this is the most important. Having compassion for another is fundamental to asking this sort of question.
I don’t always ask loving questions. Not even most of the time. But I have the capacity to sit across from someone considering suicide or crying over heartbreak or jumping for joy, follow exactly what they say, and then ask them what they are thinking, what they feel or why. I’m not unique and anyone can learn to do this. The more I ask such questions the better I get. And as an added benefit: it feels great to be there for someone in this way.
So here’s my advice: next time you or someone you care for is in a slump, don’t try to fix them or solve the problem. Ask just one loving question. It can make a world of difference.
My taxi driver was gesticulating wildly, swerving in and out of traffic, as he impressed upon me his opinions of Argentine politicians. I was very silent in the back seat.
I have been warned to avoid discussing politics with Argentinians, but I was silent for a completely different reason: I was too scared to talk. Growing up in California I was exposed to a lot of Spanish and have a good ear for the language. So long as we are speaking slow and in the present tense, I have about the capacity for conversation of a precocious 4-year-old. The reason I was silent in that back of that taxi was that I was more scared of speaking poorly then I had interest in engaging in the conversation.
I’ve just returned from two weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina and in this post I’ll share my fears of language learning and the newly launched Start-Up 100, which I’ll be using to overcome that fear.
I’ve talked before about one of the reasons I love working with autism. Kids on the spectrum are constantly violating my assumptions and in order to be effective I have to continue re-evaluating my beliefs and discarding what doesn’t work.
This week I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina working with several families with special needs children. And I’m experiencing a whole new model for breaking down my assumptions. Growing up I was taught that it was useful to travel because it “expands horizons.” I never really questioned that that means. On this trip I’ve come to see why traveling can be extremely useful and how expanding horizons actually works. To make a long story short – it can be hard, but it is very worth doing.
First off, my work can be challenging. I am work with children who may bite or scream or both. (Theyareincredible, too.) But on this trip I’m also in a new city, speaking a non-native language, and practicing tango. The number of challenging factors has increased by several exponents! So let’s look at how exactly this is a good thing…
The more time I study learning the more I realize that the tools which improve performance apply across disciples. Everywhere we look there are struggles and every-day heroes overcoming those struggles: athletes achieving record-breaking feats, regular people losing that last 10 pounds and children with autism self-regulating, tantruuming, and improving.
I make a study of the commonalities (and differences) between seemingly unrelated disciplines. What does the Gymnastics Giant and curing autism have in common? It turns out there is method to the madness and more commonality than difference among disparate paths.
I’ve rarely taken taxis in San Francisco, generally preferring to walk, bicycle or drive myself. But with the recent abundance of peer-to-peer ride sharing in San Francisco I couldn’t help but be impacted and eventually get involved. Among my peer group I am a middling adopter of new technologies so it was only after Lyft had been in San Francisco for well over a year that I asked my housemate about the pink mustaches on cars throughout the city. “That’s Lyft!” he told me enthusiastically. My other housemate chimed in: “I meet great people and they drive me home!” I was still further intrigued when I saw advertisements that Lyft with hiring drivers and paid up to $35 an hour. I charge much more for my work with autism, but sometimes have slow months and driving my car around the city for pay seemed like an interesting thing to try. It has turned out to be much more than I would ever have expected.
I’ve driven 20 hours this last week and given rides to 50 different people. In that time I’ve had the opportunity to chat with a venture capitalist from Greylock Partners, a woman who raised $30,000 on Kickstarter to fund her café on Bernal Hill and been invited home by a drunk customer – to show off my backflips and/or have sex with her housemate (I declined on all counts). I have had several fabulous discussions about parenting, learned about Bangalore, India (where I have work schedule in February) and a group of Business School “bros.” offered me beer on the job.
I plan on continuing to drive when my schedule allows it, just for the social aspect of the job. I like meeting new people, asking them questions and gaining some new insights or perspective. Here are a few of the reminders that I’ve taken away from this last week of chatting with strangers: