The Art of Mastering Transitions

Tim Ferriss has produced some outstanding content on his podcast and his talk with Josh Waitzkin stands out as one of my favorites.

Josh’s early life as a world class chess prodigy is the true story behind the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Josh continued his pursuit of mastery after his chess career by becoming world class in Tai Chi. He discusses his learning strategies and techniques in his excellent book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.

A new chapter in Josh’s life has opened up with the study of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, an art which he is pursuing by partnering with and learning from Marcelo Garcia, the ‘Michael Jordan of martial arts.’ Josh describes Garcia as the most kinesthetically gifted person he’s ever met. In talking with Tim, Josh explores a fascinating line of thought on transitions that could apply to a number of disciplines.

Say you and I are looking at a situation. In your mind, there are three positions, but in my mind, I’m constantly training at the transitions between these positions. These transitional frames actually expand and become their own positions. If I’m seeing 100 positions when you’re seeing two, I can play in your blind spots and seem mystical to you because you haven’t trained there. And that’s what Marcelo does. By spending all of his time in transition, he has cultivated the art to play in the in between.

Josh is talking about brazilian jiu jitsu, but it’s a beautiful idea that has application among so many things. The brilliance of Roger Federer can be similarly analyzed. While his forehand, serve, and footwork are master class, that is also true of many other top players. Instead where he exceeds all others is his subtle transition between shots and the fluid anticipation of where the ball and his opponent will be before it happens.

Essentially, the masters excel at things you can’t put a label on. It’s an artful creativity and understanding that average people cannot comprehend. Most spectators watching golf will routinely see professionals hit shots that require the kind of vision and feel that no amateur can even comprehend. The degrees of variation available to an elite golfer when facing a challenging pitch shot are on a much higher order than a regular player. The same is true watching Stephen Curry navigate the lane for a layup or softly shed a defender and drain a three.

Application to Business

In thinking more broadly about this concept, you can make some interesting links to business. Seth Godin has an extremely important book called Linchpin
in which he provides an assessment of the modern business landscape. The era of finding a high paying, secure, process oriented job is long gone. Anything that has a rule book or clear definition can be outsourced or destroyed with technology.

Linchpins today are the people who do the things you can’t put into a job description. They solve problems a company doesn’t even know exist yet. In the accounting and finance staffing world, these are the people I see succeeding every day. They’re the ones who take pride in learning things they’re not required to learn and teaching people they’re not required to teach.

These people are mastering the transitions. They’re not only good at the specific, codified responsibilities they’re supposed to perform, but also the ability and understanding to do what’s not written down. As Waitzkin says, they can play in other people’s blind spots. Anyone who’s diligent enough can learn and follow a clearly written rule or responsibility. Getting good at those things can make you successful, but it doesn’t truly separate you from the field. What separates people is the art and thinking required to get good at things that other people would never even conceive to try. By cultivating this type of thinking and action, you can open up a whole new skillset that is invaluable in a business setting.

What do I mean? Just because you’re an accountant doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the pain points of a marketer or an engineer. It’s not written in your job description, but take some time to learn what makes them tick and what stands in the way of their success. Take them out to coffee. Ask them what you can do to make their lives easier. Maybe you’ll end up brainstorming a solution that more fully integrates accounting and IT. And more importantly, you’ll cement a professional bond that will enrich your network.

How Artists Work: Productive Mornings, Daily Walks, and Excess Stimulants

Mason Currey has been fascinated with how artists work for a while now. It started harmlessly enough when he (a writer himself) came up against a bout of writer’s block. He went online to explore the process other creatives use to push through the blocks and get their best work done. This was his first step on an unforeseen path that led him to write Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

This compendium chronicles the detailed daily lives of composers, writers, poets, painters, and directors such as Ernest Hemingway, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, and dozens more. Currey takes you inside their heads and homes to provide a window into the strategies used by each artist to get their best work done.

Some takeaways that seem to be common threads, even among artists who lived centuries apart and from distant nations:

  • The best work is done in the morning: With a few exceptions, most get their creative juices flowing early, just after rising and having coffee and/or a light breakfast.
  • Caffeine is a must: Without fail, almost all of the artists, whether from the 18th century or 20th century, consume a huge amount of coffee to spark their productivity.
  • Walks are a key part of success: A large percentage of artists would take midday walks either alone or with friends and family to spur on bursts of creativity.
  • The amount of productive time available in a day is fixed: This one is really interesting to me and was fairly common. Many of the most brilliant writers in history would work for only 3-4 hours per day in the morning and then take the rest of the day off.

These common threads have some interesting implications for how we live today. Though some of the artists would torture themselves over their craft and be consumed by their work product, a number of them were able to set boundaries in their life.

In many ways, these artists were polar opposites to a number of us today. They spent 3-4 hours of intensely focused, uninterrupted time on creative work and then spent the rest of the day relaxing, socializing, and convening with nature. Contrast that to our days today which can include 8-12 hours of heavily interrupted, non creative work and leisure time that can’t be fully enjoyed since we’re still plugged in.

It’s a fascinating little book and one that can be revisited often without having to read it cover to cover. Check it out and I’d love to hear others’ impressions of Daily Rituals.


Make Better Sales Calls by Knowing Your Inflection Points

One of my recent reads is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s a great book that made me really re-examine some of the ‘automatic’ habits that I engage in on a daily or weekly basis. In a nutshell, habits are designed to make us more efficient. Through learning and repetition, we’re able to automate certain processes so we can perform them without using excess energy, attention, or brain power. Even though I’m writing this at 6:30AM, I’ve already done half a dozen things on autopilot today…brushing my teeth, making coffee, tying my shoes.

Typing right now is an automatic habit for me. I don’t have to think individually about where to find each key on the keyboard. It’s so ingrained from all the habitual repetition starting with the first time I started to learn where the keys were when I was 8 years old. Now the words flow straight from my brain onto the screen without any hitches in the process (for the most part).

Inflection Points and How to Make Habits Stick

One of the key aspects to making a habit stick is understanding inflection points. Put simply, an inflection point is a temptation to quit. It’s a pain point that would typically cause the unprepared individual to give up for the day.

For anyone trying to build the habit of an early morning workout regimen, that inflection point could be something as innocuous as putting your shoes on. If the dread and exhaustion is high enough, those shoes will never make it on your feet. But if they do, you’re off and running (literally). The key is to find a way to push yourself through this inflection point, such as putting the shoes as close to your bed as possible.

Application to Sales Calls

In recruiting and sales, the first few phone calls of the day definitely serve as an inflection point for the habit of selling. They set the tone and set the rhythm for the day. One easy strategy is to make a few very warm calls early in the day. Once past the initial pain point, it’s easy to keep up a head of steam. The key is to make sure they’re always made at the same time if possible. Once this begins to ingrain, it becomes easier and easier to do with less mental energy. Less value and meaning is placed on each and every call, which makes rejection a much easier proposition with which to deal.