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  • Most of us go through life trying to do our best at whatever we do,

  • whether it's our job, family, school

  • or anything else.

  • I feel that way. I try my best.

  • But some time ago, I came to a realization

  • that I wasn't getting much better at the things I cared most about,

  • whether it was being a husband or a friend

  • or a professional or teammate,

  • and I wasn't improving much at those things

  • even though I was spending a lot of time

  • working hard at them.

  • I've since realized from conversations I've had and from research

  • that this stagnation, despite hard work,

  • turns out to be pretty common.

  • So I'd like to share with you some insights into why that is

  • and what we can all do about it.

  • What I've learned is that the most effective people

  • and teams in any domain

  • do something we can all emulate.

  • They go through life deliberately alternating between two zones:

  • the learning zone and the performance zone.

  • The learning zone is when our goal is to improve.

  • Then we do activities designed for improvement,

  • concentrating on what we haven't mastered yet,

  • which means we have to expect to make mistakes,

  • knowing that we will learn from them.

  • That is very different from what we do when we're in our performance zone,

  • which is when our goal is to do something as best as we can, to execute.

  • Then we concentrate on what we have already mastered

  • and we try to minimize mistakes.

  • Both of these zones should be part of our lives,

  • but being clear about when we want to be in each of them,

  • with what goal, focus and expectations,

  • helps us better perform and better improve.

  • The performance zone maximizes our immediate performance,

  • while the learning zone maximizes our growth

  • and our future performance.

  • The reason many of us don't improve much

  • despite our hard work

  • is that we tend to spend almost all of our time in the performance zone.

  • This hinders our growth,

  • and ironically, over the long term, also our performance.

  • So what does the learning zone look like?

  • Take Demosthenes, a political leader

  • and the greatest orator and lawyer in ancient Greece.

  • To become great, he didn't spend all his time

  • just being an orator or a lawyer,

  • which would be his performance zone.

  • But instead, he did activities designed for improvement.

  • Of course, he studied a lot.

  • He studied law and philosophy with guidance from mentors,

  • but he also realized that being a lawyer involved persuading other people,

  • so he also studied great speeches

  • and acting.

  • To get rid of an odd habit he had of involuntarily lifting his shoulder,

  • he practiced his speeches in front of a mirror,

  • and he suspended a sword from the ceiling

  • so that if he raised his shoulder,

  • it would hurt.

  • (Laughter)

  • To speak more clearly despite a lisp,

  • he went through his speeches with stones in his mouth.

  • He built an underground room

  • where he could practice without interruptions

  • and not disturb other people.

  • And since courts at the time were very noisy,

  • he also practiced by the ocean,

  • projecting his voice above the roar of the waves.

  • His activities in the learning zone

  • were very different from his activities in court,

  • his performance zone.

  • In the learning zone,

  • he did what Dr. Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice.

  • This involves breaking down abilities into component skills,

  • being clear about what subskill we're working to improve,

  • like keeping our shoulders down,

  • giving full concentration to a high level of challenge

  • outside our comfort zone,

  • just beyond what we can currently do,

  • using frequent feedback with repetition and adjustments,

  • and ideally engaging the guidance of a skilled coach,

  • because activities designed for improvement

  • are domain-specific,

  • and great teachers and coaches know what those activities are

  • and can also give us expert feedback.

  • It is this type of practice in the learning zone

  • which leads to substantial improvement,

  • not just time on task performing.

  • For example, research shows that after the first couple of years

  • working in a profession,

  • performance usually plateaus.

  • This has been shown to be true in teaching, general medicine,

  • nursing and other fields,

  • and it happens because once we think we have become good enough,

  • adequate,

  • then we stop spending time in the learning zone.

  • We focus all our time on just doing our job,

  • performing,

  • which turns out not to be a great way to improve.

  • But the people who continue to spend time in the learning zone

  • do continue to always improve.

  • The best salespeople at least once a week

  • do activities with the goal of improvement.

  • They read to extend their knowledge,

  • consult with colleagues or domain experts,

  • try out new strategies, solicit feedback and reflect.

  • The best chess players

  • spend a lot of time not playing games of chess,

  • which would be their performance zone,

  • but trying to predict the moves grand masters made and analyzing them.

  • Each of us has probably spent many, many, many hours

  • typing on a computer

  • without getting faster,

  • but if we spent 10 to 20 minutes each day

  • fully concentrating on typing 10 to 20 percent faster

  • than our current reliable speed,

  • we would get faster,

  • especially if we also identified what mistakes we're making

  • and practiced typing those words.

  • That's deliberate practice.

  • In what other parts of our lives,

  • perhaps that we care more about,

  • are we working hard but not improving much

  • because we're always in the performance zone?

  • Now, this is not to say that the performance zone has no value.

  • It very much does.

  • When I needed a knee surgery, I didn't tell the surgeon,

  • "Poke around in there and focus on what you don't know."

  • (Laughter)

  • "We'll learn from your mistakes!"

  • I looked for a surgeon who I felt would do a good job,

  • and I wanted her to do a good job.

  • Being in the performance zone

  • allows us to get things done as best as we can.

  • It can also be motivating,

  • and it provides us with information to identify what to focus on next

  • when we go back to the learning zone.

  • So the way to high performance

  • is to alternate between the learning zone and the performance zone,

  • purposefully building our skills in the learning zone,

  • then applying those skills in the performance zone.

  • When Beyoncé is on tour,

  • during the concert, she's in her performance zone,

  • but every night when she gets back to the hotel room,

  • she goes right back into her learning zone.

  • She watches a video of the show that just ended.

  • She identifies opportunities for improvement,

  • for herself, her dancers and her camera staff.

  • And the next morning,

  • everyone receives pages of notes with what to adjust,

  • which they then work on during the day before the next performance.

  • It's a spiral

  • to ever-increasing capabilities,

  • but we need to know when we seek to learn, and when we seek to perform,

  • and while we want to spend time doing both,

  • the more time we spend in the learning zone,

  • the more we'll improve.

  • So how can we spend more time in the learning zone?

  • First, we must believe and understand

  • that we can improve,

  • what we call a growth mindset.

  • Second, we must want to improve at that particular skill.

  • There has to be a purpose we care about,

  • because it takes time and effort.

  • Third, we must have an idea about how to improve,

  • what we can do to improve,

  • not how I used to practice the guitar as a teenager,

  • performing songs over and over again,

  • but doing deliberate practice.

  • And fourth, we must be in a low-stakes situation,

  • because if mistakes are to be expected,

  • then the consequence of making them must not be catastrophic,

  • or even very significant.

  • A tightrope walker doesn't practice new tricks without a net underneath,

  • and an athlete wouldn't set out to first try a new move

  • during a championship match.

  • One reason that in our lives

  • we spend so much time in the performance zone

  • is that our environments often are, unnecessarily, high stakes.

  • We create social risks for one another,

  • even in schools which are supposed to be all about learning,

  • and I'm not talking about standardized tests.

  • I mean that every minute of every day,

  • many students in elementary schools through colleges

  • feel that if they make a mistake, others will think less of them.

  • No wonder they're always stressed out

  • and not taking the risks necessary for learning.

  • But they learn that mistakes are undesirable

  • inadvertently

  • when teachers or parents are eager to hear just correct answers

  • and reject mistakes rather than welcome and examine them

  • to learn from them,

  • or when we look for narrow responses

  • rather than encourage more exploratory thinking

  • that we can all learn from.

  • When all homework or student work has a number or a letter on it,

  • and counts towards a final grade,

  • rather than being used for practice, mistakes, feedback and revision,

  • we send the message that school is a performance zone.

  • The same is true in our workplaces.

  • In the companies I consult with, I often see flawless execution cultures

  • which leaders foster to encourage great work.

  • But that leads employees to stay within what they know

  • and not try new things,

  • so companies struggle to innovate and improve,

  • and they fall behind.

  • We can create more spaces for growth

  • by starting conversations with one another

  • about when we want to be in each zone.

  • What do we want to get better at and how?

  • And when do we want to execute and minimize mistakes?

  • That way, we gain clarity about what success is,

  • when, and how to best support one another.

  • But what if we find ourselves in a chronic high-stakes setting

  • and we feel we can't start those conversations yet?

  • Then here are three things that we can still do as individuals.

  • First, we can create low-stakes islands in an otherwise high-stakes sea.

  • These are spaces where mistakes have little consequence.

  • For example, we might find a mentor or a trusted colleague

  • with whom we can exchange ideas or have vulnerable conversations

  • or even role-play.

  • Or we can ask for feedback-oriented meetings as projects progress.

  • Or we can set aside time to read or watch videos or take online courses.

  • Those are just some examples.

  • Second, we can execute and perform as we're expected,

  • but then reflect on what we could do better next time,

  • like Beyoncé does,

  • and we can observe and emulate experts.

  • The observation, reflection and adjustment is a learning zone.

  • And finally, we can lead

  • and lower the stakes for others by sharing what we want to get better at,

  • by asking questions about what we don't know,

  • by soliciting feedback and by sharing our mistakes

  • and what we've learned from them,

  • so that others can feel safe to do the same.

  • Real confidence is about modeling ongoing learning.

  • What if, instead of spending our lives doing, doing, doing,

  • performing, performing, performing,

  • we spent more time exploring,

  • asking,

  • listening,

  • experimenting, reflecting,

  • striving and becoming?

  • What if we each always had something

  • we were working to improve?

  • What if we created more low-stakes islands

  • and waters?