Resilience, dedication and grit are the ingredients of mastery and such was the life of Maya Angelou
In Search of Mastery?
“We may experience many defeats but we must not be defeated” – Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou passed last Wednesday. She will be both fondly and sadly missed, and will long be remembered for her resiliency, grit, her profound poetry, her dancing, acting and compelling life stories. Dr. Angelou’s passing was ever the more meaningful for Joe and I as we were coincidentally in one of Maya Angelou’s favorite towns — Asheville, North Carolina when we heard the news. We were attending the Annual Meeting of the Law School Admissions Council at which Joe is a delegate.
Seeking resilience through the gift of failure was the theme of keynote speaker Sara Lewis’ presentation at the Conference. In her book “Rise”, Ms. Lewis looks for resilience in the stories of many of our iconic leaders who have overcome many failed attempts to finally arrive at genius. How do you push through your fears and road bumps, to arrive at your own mastery?
Thomas Edison is quoted having said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work!” Martin Luther King received “C”s in Public Speaking when attending “Crozier Theological Seminary” according to his academic transcripts. Rock Bottom is the solid foundation on which Maya Angelou wrote her poem “Still I Rise”.
Sara Lewis describes the gift of the ‘near win’, suggesting there is an incompletion with mastery. “It is how we spot the mountain and strive for more”. Professor Lewis’ research suggests that it is having ‘true grit’ to push through the near misses that leads to mastery. She talked about the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”, which is a cognitive bias where people who know a lot think they don’t know much, and people who know a little think they know a lot!
This research explains why you may hear a person spout on and on in social settings as expert at ‘everything’, with little personal insight, attention or care to how wrong they might be. This can be contrasted with people who know quite a lot, but actually tend to say less because they fear themselves to be an imposter. They tend to sit back, say nothing and strive to get better… all the while acquiring more and more knowledge and eventually guess what, mastery!
Ms. Lewis talked about Olympic Games competition where you see the silver medalists standing on the podium with all the signs of dejection on their faces. The person with the bronze is visibly much happier. The near miss of the silver medal will push the silver medalist to strive for gold and reach mastery!
What Professor Lewis called ‘counter factual thinking’ is when you consider what might have been if you hadn’t slightly failed. If you miss a plane by 5 minutes you’ll never miss another plane. But if you miss a plane by 30 min, there will be no change in future behavior. My husband and I are currently sitting at the Chicago airport, waiting for our next flight, and I am recalling this research remembering our first trip to Italy when we just missed our plane. We were 3 hours early today before departure time, so I’m finally getting around to writing this blog today (having missed a couple of weeks)!
So what is the trick to get back on track when you have your own near miss? Go to Asheville or read Sara Lewis’ book “Rise”? ☺ We were so surprised to find this little artsy town Asheville. Almost everyone you encounter there seems to ooze creativity, music, and art. There is even a drumming circle every Friday night in the center of town. We saw Lucinda Williams rocking out some blues tunes from her album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road in concert at the Orange Peel. Music really does soothe the soul and especially because it gets you moving and shaking up your spirit in a language everyone understands – PLAY and freedom of expression.
The Mayo Clinic, world renowned for its innovation, knows how to lighten up. To overcome perfectionism or the tendency to be risk averse, Mayo developed the “Queasy Eagle Award” to acknowledge unfinished projects. What they found is that this led to huge advances in innovation as researchers took on a sense of fearlessness of trial and error. Give yourself permission to try things out and that possibly that you might fail the first time. Follow your intuition.
Believe in yourself. If you can’t believe in who you are, how can you believe in anyone else? As Maya Angelou once said “If you can’t love yourself, how can you love anyone else?”
So what is the take away thought here? Play and curiosity is the new vitamin D. Approaching all of life with one foot in play and one foot in knowledge will help you to keep your creativity and resilience high. Dare yourself to get better at what ever you do.
Sara Lewis talked about how people are working more playfully in science. Andre Geim, Nobel Prize winner (2010) in physics, is known for his playful style. He suggests, creativity rises from things that make you laugh and then make you think. “The Ig Noble Prize”, an award to celebrate the unusual was recently awarded for the innovation of a Wasabi Alarm Clock! On another occasion it was awarded for the discovery that swearing reduces pain!
Andre Geim, is also known for his Friday night experiments, where he encourages his researchers to think playfully. If the research team can adopt this mindset, they will be more likely to gain breakthroughs in their field of research. One example is their work with a flying frog and the discovery that with magnets researchers could actually make a frog levitate. (Poor frog) They also discovered the Gecko Feet, a new application of good old scotch tape technology whereby you really can climb walls like Spider Man.
If you give yourself childlike permission to see possibilities, your brain will become innovative to its max. As Sara Lewis says, play is not the opposite of work. It is the opposite of depression! “Remember it is not research.. it is ‘search’ and discover”.
Professor Lewis suggests that you should believe that what got you where you are, is what will take you where you want to go. But you need to think outside of the box, and not rely entirely on your past. Being innovative is to see things differently. And to see things differently you need to feel free to ask questions. Breakthroughs come from wandering through your thoughts. You need to create a space in your day to do that. Is it time to start your own Friday night lab?
If you want to get your mojo going as you work towards mastery in your own life, here are some things that I suggest might help you:
1. Meditate for 10 minutes in the morning. Breathe in, let go. Breathe in, let go…One foot in play, one foot in knowledge…one foot in play, one foot in knowledge.
2. Go to yoga. It is such a helpful way to be in your body and get out of your head.
3. Get 20 minutes of heart pumping cardio some time in your day, every day this week. Invite a friend along so you can talk out your anxieties.
4. Eat well. Avoid sugary, high carb foots that give you energy dumps.
5. Drink lots of water to help flush away cortisol, the stress hormone.
I just realized why I love running…it IS my Friday night lab. It is when I do my most creative thinking and stream ideas. And when I run with my girl friends there is full permission to say what ever comes to mind because we follow a policy of what we call our OMERTA.. (aka) ‘what is said on the trail stays on the trail’. It is our own search and discovery time.
So for those of you who ‘almost’ got that promotion, ‘almost’ made that grade, keep on keeping on… If Professor Lewis and all of her research is accurate, your own mastery is just a practice away.
How will you achieve your own mastery?