Jeff, I’ve often heard you use the analogy of swimming to shore against a strong current to describe the role of leadership. Can you say more about what that means?
The origin story is that I was on a family vacation down to the Outer Banks of the Carolinas, and I have a history of doing dumb things. And in this particular case, I thought, You know, I used to really love to swim, and I love the ocean. So let’s ignore the fact that I’m 54 years old and terribly out of shape. And let’s give this a shot. So I swam way, way too far out, got exhausted, treaded water for a little while, and then looked back at a distant shore – disturbingly distant – and I thought, okay, well, now I’m gonna swim back. What kind of idiot thinks this is a good strategy? But anyway, like any good thinker, I thought, Well, I have to pick a point because it’s a big beach and I don’t want to have to walk miles home. So I’ll pick that house right there. I’ll put my head down and swim towards that house because I’m already exhausted and I don’t want to die out here. And so I put my head down and started swimming, and distracted myself with showtunes or whatever I was thinking in my head.
And so I swam for a long time – for at least as long as I swam out – and I picked up my head and found that I was not very close to shore. In fact, I was still very far from shore. I realized in that moment that the current was moving downshore and carried me, so I was swimming the hypotenuse of the triangle, rather than swimming the direct line. I eventually ended up like a mile or so down the beach and had to walk back home. Just happy I’m alive, by the way.
At some point, you’re going to have to share with us which showtunes got you there, but we’ll save that for another time.
Well, of course, anything Hamilton.
So what did I learn from this? First of all, don’t be an idiot and swim that far out into the ocean when you’re out of shape. But the other thing is, when you’re tired and you’ve got a goal that’s pretty far away… How do you achieve that goal when you have to deal with the reality that we’re constantly swimming in unknown currents and unknown waters? Our mental models that predict the future and help us navigate that uncertainty aren’t super reliable most of the time, because when you haven’t been through something before, you probably don’t have good strategies for getting through that thing now.
And so what I quickly surmised is, what felt intuitive was to put my head down, swim, swim, swim, and eventually get to shore – and what felt counterintuitive is swim twenty strokes, pick up my head, and repeat. This feels counterintuitive because it’s exhausting. Picking up your head is hard relative just keeping your head down. And secondly, it feels interminable because it’s a long swim. But when you’re in the midst of these currents that are carrying you downstream, you have to constantly adjust.
So when I tell people to synthesize to shore, I’m trying to help them come up with a strategy that they can pick their head up, and say, is this working or not? Am I just getting carried downshore? Or am I actually getting towards my goal? And how am I doing? That’s the other thing that was a terrible strategy on my part. I find this in a lot of achievers – you’re really good at ignoring pain. You get really good at ignoring your emotions, ignoring all these signals, because you just got to achieve and get to shore. And that means at the point you realize, wow, I’ve really messed this up – because you put a lot of energy into going as far as you can – your ability to metabolize the information you’re getting from the synthesis at that point and make a course correction is diminished.
First of all, you’re fully invested in what you’ve done, and it’s really hard to change it at that point (sunk cost fallacy). And the second thing is, you’re pretty spent, and so the thought of having to recalculate everything and walk back or swim back feels daunting. Typically when people are exhausted and still out at sea, rather than recognizing they need to take a different approach, they tend to double down on the behavior that got them there. And so they drown.
You have to constantly learn and evolve and adapt in these uncertain waters, but what most of us will do is pursue strategies that actually can be terminal, and hurt our ability to achieve our goals, and hurt our ability to build a great company in the midst of everything that’s happening to us.
What are some of the questions that a leader might ask herself? As she’s picking her head up and synthesizing, where am I relative to my goal? How do we make this practical for people?
It’s a great question. Here’s a basic principle or truism: if your intuition is positive, be skeptical; if it’s negative, be attentive. So if you’re picking your head up, and you’re thinking, “I’ve got this” – be skeptical. Ask yourself what you’re missing. Because it’s probably not going as well as you think it is. We have biases where we think, Oh, I sank the last two free throws, I’m definitely gonna sink the next three. Those are actually independent events, but our mind confuses them.
If you have a negative intuition, and things feel like they’re not working, be attentive. What’s behind that? Is it that you doubt yourself? Okay, well then we can deal with that, we can talk about that in coaching, we can talk about that with friends, mentors, etc. Or are you sensing something’s going wrong? Are you sensing that the storm clouds are coming out, or the waves are getting bigger, or you’re farther from shore than you originally thought? What’s that signal that actually can be invaluable information for you to adjust course?
I see all the time that what people do is the exact opposite. When they have a positive intuition, they’re attentive. They invest more behind it and they’re super excited. And when they have negative intuitions, they’re skeptical. Mostly what they are is doubtful, and at Talentism we differentiate between doubtfulness and skepticism – doubtfulness is actually a fear-based activity, and skepticism is a logic-based activity. When you have these negative intuitions, you start to get fearful, and you start to think, That’s not true, I’m going to ignore that or, winners never give in, or I’m just going to keep going. And so you ignore the signal right at the time when you should be stepping back and asking, I wonder what this is really telling me.
So being skeptical when you’re at a high point is a great strategy for figuring out what you’re missing. Being attentive and curious and open, and frankly, showing yourself some self-compassion when you’re at a low point, saying it’s going to be okay and asking: What can we get out of this? What are we learning? What are the things I’m sensing that can be valuable to me achieving my goals? That’s what you do.