Pieces of a Puzzle

I’ve been learning to play the bass guitar for just under a year, and although I’m not very good right now, I’m really enjoying the process.  It’s like putting a puzzle together.

Each new concept I learn about the bass guitar is like an individual piece of a puzzle.  There are so many “pieces” of knowledge needed to successfully make music with a bass guitar.  For several months, I felt like I’ve just been collecting pieces of this bass guitar puzzle.

Lately, the learning process has become much more exciting, because I’m now seeing how some of the pieces of the puzzle I’ve been learning are starting to fit together.   Scales make more sense now because I understand how they are used regarding keys and triads.  Those pieces fit together with the concepts I’ve learned regarding improvising and composing.  It’s fun to see my understanding grow as the picture gets clearer with each piece I acquire.

I think it’s like that with any new experience we undertake.  The process seems to be:

  1. Collect pieces of the puzzle in the form of knowledge and understanding
  2. See how these pieces fit together
  3. The picture becomes more clear
  4. We go back to step 1 and repeat the process

If you’re trying to learn something new and are getting frustrated with the progress, perhaps you should change what you’re looking at.  Instead of looking at the completed picture of what you’re trying to accomplish, why not look at how the pieces of what you have learned fit together to give you a glimpse of where you’re going.  And keep in mind, with every new piece, the picture becomes a little clearer.

Vantage Points

“Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain.  An occasional glance toward the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point.  Climb slowly, steadily, enjoying each passing moment; and the view from the summit will serve as a fitting climax for the journey.”          ~Harold V. Melchert

It’s much easier for me to become focused on a result rather on a process.  Whether it’s reading a book, working on a project, learning to play the bass, or learning to use new software, my mind easily slips into thinking primarily about the completion of these things rather than enjoying the process of coming to the completion.  While it’s good to be focused on a goal or outcome, I think it’s also important to enjoy the process of getting there.

This year I started learning how to play the electric bass guitar.  I’ve been at it about 8 months now and I’m not very good.  However, I am MUCH better than I was at the beginning of the year!   It’s encouraging when I stop and think about what I know today that I didn’t know a few months or weeks ago.  Stopping to enjoy my progress makes me want to keep working to get better.

If I were only focused on the end goal of becoming a good bass player, without considering the significant progress I’ve made, I’d be rather frustrated right now.  And frankly, I’d likely give up.

If there’s something in your life you’re working to achieve or become, be sure you’re taking time and enjoy the vantage point from the progress you’ve make thus far.  It will encourage you to press ahead.

I’m Ok With That

Two and a half months ago I started a position with a new organization as a Data Analyst.  I’ve been extremely happy with the change and continue to be excited by tall the opportunity.  The only thing I wish were different was that I was further along in the learning process.

I love learning new things.  To gain knowledge and successfully apply it in a real life situation is exciting and causes me to be eager to go to work every day.  However, two things I have to continually remind myself are that:

  1. Learning is a process that takes time and consistency
  2. I have to be ok with that

When it comes to learning, I’d always like to shorten the process and spend less time fumbling around as new concepts slowly become familiar, so that I can start contributing sooner.    The reality is that I can never gain understanding or mastery of a topic if I’m not comfortable with the discomfort that comes during the learning process.

If you’re currently in the process of learning something new (which I hope you are) and perhaps you’re frustrated with process that may be slower than you’d like, be encouraged, because you’re on the right track!  Just know that your commitment to the learning process will pay off in understanding, if not mastery, of the topic.  And if it takes longer than you’d like, be ok with that.

Trust the Process

Wednesday night was really frustrating.  I was scheduled to take a professional certification exam the following morning, and from my recent experience on a couple of practice exams, all indications looked like I would go down in flames.  My frustration came from the fact that I had been consistently studying every day for several weeks and it felt like it would have been for nothing if I failed the exam.

Thursday morning I woke up, completed my normal morning routine, reviewed the material I had been studying and took the exam at the scheduled time.  I was thrilled when I learned I had passed the exam with an 83%!

After the exam, I was reflecting on how I had wasted the previous evening with feelings of frustration, disappointment, and worry when I should have trusted the process I had been following.  The process is the same one I follow for any event where I need to deliver.  The 3 step process is simply:

  1. Do my best to adequately prepare
  2. Give my best effort when it’s time to deliver
  3. Take any next steps, if necessary

Although I had done Step 1 well, my poor results on the practice test caused me to momentarily doubt the process and start looking ahead to what to do when I failed the exam.  This kind of thinking rarely enables us to give our best effort.  Fortunately, I was able to get back on track and focus on completing Step 1 so I would be able to perform well at Step 2.

During the test, I gave my best effort in the form of focus, thinking, and trusting what I had done in Step 1.  The result was a solid passing score and no need to retake the exam.  However, even if I had failed, all I’d have to do is simply adjust my studying, (Step 1) and repeat the process.  Not a big deal.

It’s easy to lose trust in a process, and start doubting when things get challenging.  When those moments of doubt and frustration come up, I’m trying to get better at reminding myself how often the process has served me well, to quickly get back on course, and to continue to trust the process.

5 Steps to Making Improvements

It’s easy to decide to change.   The challenging part is actually taking action.

Sometimes we want to take action, but we’re immobilized because we don’t know where to start or what the next step is that we should be taking.  Below are some steps I’ve taken at work this year to change my contribution so I could start using the talents and skills I possess to better serve my customers and have a more fulfilling work experience.  These steps have worked well for me, so I thought I’d share them with the readers of this blog, in hopes they will do the same for you.

Step 1.  Identify what skills you have that you want to develop and use more, and begin improving your knowledge in this area.

For me, this was in the area of data visualization.  I enjoy turning data into useful interactive information that helps business people make better decisions.  Therefore, I began reading and learning about best practices and techniques to do this well.

Keep in mind that the process of building your skills and increasing your knowledge is an ongoing process of learning.  As you move through the other steps, you’ll continually be coming back to this step.

Step 2.  Identify a need that your skills can fill or a problem they can solve.

Here is where you begin looking for opportunities where you can apply your skills to solve a real problem.  For me, this was in the area of displaying our operational data in a visual format that was clear and easy for business people to access and understand.

Step 3.  Begin applying your skills to create a solution to the problem you’ve identified.

This is where your knowledge gets stretched and where you rapidly grow your experience and begin to master the skills you’re applying.  Once you start applying your skills, you realize, there’s a lot you don’t know, so you learn as you go.

I dove right in and started using a tool called QlikView to build applications that displays our data in a clear interactive format that would give people a view of our business, through operational data, that they’ve never had before.  I often refered to books, the Internet, or other colleagues for information and insight in order to solve the numerous problems I encountered.

Step 4.  Share your initial solution with others and get their input. Make changes based on the input you receive and then present those changes back to them.

Once I had an application built, I showed it to the business users.  While they liked what they initially saw, they had suggestions of what they really would also like to see that I hadn’t included.  I went back, made those changes, along with some others that were sparked during our conversations.

This is an iterative process.  Continue until your solution is complete.

Step 5.  Go back to step 1 or 2 and repeat the process.

Once I had created a solution for one area of our business, I looked at other areas that would benefit from similar measurement and visualization tools and repeated the process as described above.

This has been a great year for me at work, as I feel I’m making real contributions that are positively impacting my organization and helping people get more clear answers than they’ve ever had before.

If there’s an area in your life, be it professional or personal, that you want to make a change, try employing the steps listed above.  They provide a flexible guideline that will create order and direction.

The only thing required from us is action.

Do the Things That Are Easy to Do

We tend to think greatness and big achievements come from huge effort and doing things that are hard to do.  Actually, the effort and degree of difficulty it takes to achieve something significant is usually quite small… and easy.  More important than the degree of effort, is the consistency of the small effort that’s put forth doing the things that are easy to do.

Suppose we have a goal of losing 20lbs.  There is not Herculean effort you can make in one day that would enable you to lose those pounds.  Instead, what’s required is doing things that are easy to do, and then doing them on a consistent basis over a period of time, like eating smaller portions, drinking fewer sugary beverages, and getting your heart rate up every day.  These aren’t difficult things to do. In fact, they are rather easy!  What we need is to do them every day and we are practically guaranteed to see results, as long as we are consistent.

The results may not come not come right away.  In the beginning, it may not feel like your efforts are even making a difference.  However, if we consistently do these easy things, we will begin to see results.  Probably sooner than we think!

The problem is that these small things that are easy to do are also easy NOT to do.  It’s easy not to exercise.  It’s also easy not to have a glass of water, but to have a soda instead.  The truth is that you won’t really notice if you exercise or not… at least today.  However, after several months or years of drinking soda instead of water and failing to exercise, you will notice.

The point is that the things we need to do to cause something to happen that we desire in our lives, like lose weight, build wealth, start a business, or improve our relationships, are actually quite easy.  They just need to be done consistently over a period of time.

What easy things do you need to begin doing consistently over time in order to take your life in the direction you want to go?  What would you be able to achieve by doing so?

For more on this topic, I’d recommend reading The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson.  The concept and principles are so simple and so effective.  We need only apply them to see significant results.

There’s Only Learning

Like a lot of people, I love learning new things.  There’s something cool about starting out not knowing anything about a topic, spending time learning about it, and then having an understanding that I didn’t have when I started.  What’s even better is applying what I learned and seeing positive results.  That’s the true value of learning.

But what about failure as it relates to learning?  Have you ever thought of failure as a necessary step in the learning process?  No one likes to fail.  It makes us feel clueless, ignorant, worthless, or a whole host of other self-defeating feelings.  I would guess that many people don’t even risk applying what they learn, or even attempt to learn new things, in order to avoid failure and all those negative feelings that come with it.  We potentially miss out on so much because we’re afraid to fail.

What if we change our mindset to view failure not as a shameful and defeating event, but instead see it as a form of learning?  Multiple times in the past several weeks I’ve heard the phrase “There is no failure, only learning”.  That’s powerful!  When we first set out to learn something new, we already know and accept the fact that we are clueless, ignorant, and worthless in that subject.  And we’re fine with that.  Why?  Because we know that is the starting point of all learning.  We show up with nothing.  We also know that, as a result of learning about our chosen topic, we won’t be that way for very long.  As we begin to apply what we learn, we soon find that we are becoming competent, knowledgeable, and valuable in our chosen topic.

Isn’t failure just part of the learning process, helping us discover what works and what doesn’t?  If so, shouldn’t failure be seen as a crucial part of the learning process?  I think so.

Don’t let the fear of failure keep you from attempting to cause something to happen.  See it as a natural part of your learning process.   And always remember, there is no failure, only learning.

What’s Essential?

Why is it so easy to get distracted from pursuing our goals?  Even more so, why does it often seem like our progress is moving at glacier-like speed, leaving us feeling like we’ll never get where we’re trying to go in life?  I think it’s possible that we’re concentrating our efforts on tasks that won’t yield the high level of results we’re looking for.

I was reading Pamela Slim’s book “Escape from Cubicle Nation” recently (yes, I’m planning an escape!) about a person who was gaining control over their finances.  When asked what the most important thing they did to gain control over their finances was, they responded with, “Simplify to identify what’s essential, and then eliminate as much as possible everything that isn’t essential.”

That makes perfect sense in the context of personal finance.  It also got me thinking about how this same principle could be applied to the pursuit of goals.  I find plenty of examples in my own life where my focus is on something that is non-essential to an objective I’m trying to achieve.  The result is usually wasted time and delayed results.

For example, I recently signed up and created a user profile on a social networking site for voice overs.  As part of creating my profile, there was an option to add a photo.  A photo wasn’t required, it was optional.  Stated another way, it was non-essential to creating my profile.  Would you believe I wasted close to an hour trying to decide on the right photo to use?  What’s wrong with me?!  I had plenty of other essential tasks to do, instead of wasting time on this non-essential task.  (In my own defense, I learned this concept AFTER the incident I just described)

It’s amazing how quickly an hour can be lost to a non-essential task.  Imagine doing several non-essential tasks over the course of a day, a week, or a month.  Carry that out a year, and it’s staggering to see the negative compounding effect of wasting time on things that aren’t essential.

If you really want to cause something to happen in your life, start identifying what’s essential and what’s not.  Strive to spend the large majority of your time on essential tasks, and seek to eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, the amount of time you spend on non-essential tasks.  You’ll notice a marked increase in the progress you make toward achieving your goals.

Don’t Shortcut the Process

High school Spanish class seemed like an eternity ago.  Probably because it was!  At the time I wasn’t motivated and I really couldn’t see the value in learning a new language.  It wasn’t until several years later, in 2011, that I decided to learn Spanish at the local community college.  This time I was motivated, because I had more opportunities to use Spanish than I did in high school.

My thought was that I would quickly pick up and be speaking Spanish semi-fluently in a few short weeks.  After the first class, I realized it was going to be a longer pursuit than I thought.  There was no quick fix for learning Spanish, short of total cultural immersion.  Even that would have taken significant time.  I was presented with the realization that learning Spanish is a process.

Most worthy pursuits in life are like that.  There is a process to their achievement and mastery.  A shortcut rarely exists.  How, for example, would you shortcut the process of raising healthy, productive children?  Could that be done over a couple of long weekends, or in a few short days?  What about earning a degree or becoming proficient at a skill or profession?  Does a person earn a college degree in a week?  Are significant weight loss goals achieved in a couple of hours?  Hardly.

So why then are we surprised that our big goals, dreams, and desires should take any less time?  Are we so hungry for instant results that we’ll ignore known processes for success because they take commitment over an extended period of time?  Sure, we read about the individual or business that seems to have “made it overnight”.  What you’ll rarely hear about are all the countless weeks, months, or years they repeatedly followed a process in order to become an overnight success.

I’ve learned that you can’t shortcut a process.  You can take steps to speed up the process, like devoting more time to practice and preparation.  You can avoid common mistakes by talking to people who have already followed the process and can point out common pitfalls.  You can even give up on the process; deciding that it’s just too hard.  (If you’re reading this blog, I don’t think that’s a choice that sounds very appealing to you.)  The one thing you can’t do is reach your goals by short-cutting the process.

The process is the road we travel as we pursue our goals and dreams to reality.  It’s continually making the choices that move us in the direction we want to go.  We build this road daily by repeatedly causing something to happen that will move us closer to our goals and dreams.

As you set out to do great things, realize that there is a process to get there.  Embrace it, and don’t attempt to shortcut it.  You’ll be amazed by the power of the process.