Stop Getting Better at Doing Easy Things

I was a springboard diver as a kid. I was good, but I was never great. I understand why now. There are two principles that make the difference between good and great in any endeavor.

When you learn to dive, you start with the easy stuff, of course: front dive, back dive, maybe a single front somersault. Every dive has what’s called a “degree of difficulty,” or DD. We used to jokingly call it the “probability of death.” Any dive’s score is determined by taking the total of the judges’ scores and multiplying this times the DD. So if you do a front dive with a DD of 1.3 and get three five’s from the judges: 15 times 1.3 gives you a total score of 19.5. You do a certain number of dives, add them all up, and the diver with the highest total score wins.

I won nearly all of my meets in my early teens by doing easy dives really well. I had natural talent and didn’t have to work hard to keep my toes pointed and hit the water in a straight line. But natural talent only gets you so far. Like many people with natural talent, I got lazy.

Over time, though, the brave kids learned harder dives with higher DDs. In the beginning, I could beat them with my easy dives because they performed their difficult dives badly.

My coaches goaded me to learn harder dives, and I constantly resisted. I was winning, after all. There was no need! Besides, the harder dives were scary as hell and painful to learn. When you watch the masters on television, they make it look easy. You don’t see them hit the board and break knuckles or toes, or smack the water so hard they get welts on their backs—but they’ve all been through that.

I remember the first time I tried a front 2 ½ somersaults from a three-meter board. I belly flopped so hard that I couldn’t see for about ten minutes. It was like getting stung by a thousand bees.

When that happens, you somehow make it to the edge of the pool, then you shiver and cry waiting for it to pass. Not fun. You can imagine what happens next. You finally drag yourself out of the water, and your coach says, “Okay, let’s try it again.”

I never tried that dive again. That was my worst smack ever, and the end of my three-meter career. Eventually, I did eventually learn the same dive from the lower board, one-meter, but I never scored better than 3s. I let that dive torture me, and I began to dread going to practice. Even worse, I began hating the sport.

When I look back on my seven-year stint as a diver now, I’m amazed how little training there was about fear. “Get back on the horse” was the extent of the support. My coaches tried to get me to push myself. They threw around words like “talent” and “potential.” One of them even made a signed, written agreement with me to have a specific list of dives to compete by the end of the season or else I wouldn’t get to compete in the championship meet, which I’d won for five straight years.

I agreed and then forgot about it, hoping he would, too. I broke the deal, and when he confronted me a few days before the final meet, I called him an “a-hole.” He stared coldly into my eyes and tore my entry form in half. He benched me.

When the time came for the meet, I apologized and he ended up letting me dive. The points I won for the team were more important than the lesson, apparently.

But I couldn’t learn the lesson then, anyway, and here’s why: I didn’t care. I didn’t actually want to be a great diver. I won as much as I wanted to serve my teenage ego, and I saw no good reason to push myself any further. In other words, the fear was bigger than my self-interest.

How do you get someone to want more for themselves? How do you get someone to realize the potential you see in them? How do you get someone to move beyond their fear?

You do this by engaging their self-interest. Here’s what no diving coach ever said to me:

“Josef, you have natural talent, and it has served you well. You can keep winning most of your meets and have a good time, without putting much work into it. If you want to do that, that’s completely fine. Really. You’re a good diver. But you’re not great. Greatness, if you choose to pursue it, requires facing your fear of the harder dives. I know they’re scary. I know learning them can be painful. So you’re probably wondering, ‘If I’m mostly winning, what’s the point of going there?’

And that’s the right question. If you want to dive in college, you’ll have to face this, especially your fear of high-boards. But after that you’re done, right? Even olympians don’t make a living as a diver for very long. So forget diving for a second. That’s not what this is really about.

What I’m really talking about is your relationship to fear. It will follow you for the rest of your life, in everything you do. You have the opportunity to address it right now, in diving. Face it now, and you’ll make yourself a stronger person. If you don’t want to, I can’t force you. But I guarantee you this same fear will limit you somewhere else in your future: interviewing for jobs, public speaking, asking girls out, living on your own, having to earn money, or a hundred other ways.

It could be that diving just doesn’t matter enough for you to use it to learn about fear. That’s okay. Why don’t you think about this for a while, and we’ll talk again soon.”

Life constantly presents us with ways to get better at the easy things rather than facing our fear of doing hard things, doing them badly for a while, and enduring that pain. But the path to greatness in anything lies on the other side of productive failure.

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If you’re a manager, trying to get someone to move through fear in order to do their job better just doesn’t work. They’ll tell you they love their job, just like I told people I loved diving. They might even believe that lie. What’s truer is they like some parts of their job and hate others. Unless they see the personal benefit to them, they’ll stay in their comfort zone and never get to great.

So your job is to help them figure out where their personal interest lies, within the context of their work. What can they get better at that will serve them everywhere and forever? Healthy self-interest is the path to engagement, and engagement is the path to excellence.

This is why I created Clear and Open. It’s a professional development model that helps you get better at the things that matter most to you. When you focus on what’s important, you’ll improve in your job performance and even better, you’ll create greater fulfillment everywhere your life. Does that sound like something you’d like to achieve?

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