Another great article in the NYTimes this week, this time regarding the power of brutal self-awareness.
The story revolves around David Chang, award-winning chef, restaurateur, and owner of the Momofuku Group. As the article reads:
“He [Chang] says he worked himself to the bone to realize his dream — to own a humble noodle bar.
He spent years cooking in some of New York City’s best restaurants, apprenticed in different noodle shops in Japan and then, finally, worked 18-hour days in his tiny restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Mr. Chang could barely pay himself a salary. He had trouble keeping staff. And he was miserably stressed.
He recalls a low moment when he went with his staff on a night off to eat burgers at a restaurant that was everything his wasn’t — packed, critically acclaimed and financially successful. He could cook better than they did, he thought, so why was his restaurant failing? “I couldn’t figure out what the hell we were doing wrong,” he told us.
Mr. Chang could have blamed someone else for his troubles, or worked harder (though available evidence suggests that might not have been possible) or he could have made minor tweaks to the menu. Instead he looked inward and subjected himself to brutal self-assessment.”
It’s when Chang did this that the restaurant, and his goals, began to change course. Instead of worrying about what a typical noodle bar was supposed to be serving, Chang and his team scoured the greenmarkets for unique, inspiring items to incorporate into their dishes. They created things they themselves wanted to eat, “wild combinations” of ingredients that garnered attention, brought in crowds, and ultimately, gave the Momofuku name its fame.
This honest assessment of self is, according to Professor Chris Argyris, an example of double loop learning. During the 1970s, Argyris was a business theorist at Harvard Business School. It was at this time that he began researching what happens to organizations and people when they find obstacles in front of their paths.
“Professor Argyris called the most common response single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.
Less common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we — like Mr. Chang — question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.”
In Fishbird, we often use sports as a common reference point for participants to support their understanding of concepts. For the most part, sports seem to be a universal language that everyone can relate to, no matter where they’re from. So it made sense to us to highlight this NYTimes article that pinpoints some basic characteristics of all star athletes and how they train:
Natalie Coughlin, Olympic gold medal winner in the 100-meter backstroke, used to daydream during her endless hours in the pool. It was a way for her to “manage the boredom of practice.” When she got to college, however, she realized that daydreaming was only helping her put in the miles. It wasn’t doing anything to support her reaching her potential. From then on, she started to concentrate every moment of practice on what she was doing, staying focused and thinking about her technique.
“That’s when I really started improving,” she said. “The more I did it, the more success I had.”
In 1988, Steve Spence was admitted into the US Long Distance Runner Olympic Development Program. As part of his acceptance, Spence was able to meet with David Martin, a physiologist at Georgia State University, to assess his diet and overall progress. During dinner with Spence one evening, Martin gave him this advice:
“There are always going to be runners who are faster than you,” he said. “There will always be runners more talented than you and runners who seem to be training harder than you. The key to beating them is to train harder and to learn how to most efficiently manage your energy pie.”
Energy pie? All the things that take time and energy — a job, hobbies, family, friends, and of course athletic training. “There is only so much room in the pie,” said Mr. Spence.
Dr. Martin’s advice was “a lecture on limiting distractions,” he added. “If I wanted to get to the next level, to be competitive on the world scene, I had to make running a priority.” So he quit graduate school and made running his profession. “I realized this is what I am doing for my job.”
Before winning four Ironman championships and three 70.3 championships, Meredith Kessler used to coach herself. During this time, she had no particular training plan. She simply did whatever she felt she wanted to do. Although she loved the training, she wasn’t winning any races this way.
Finally ready for a change, she asked coach Mike Dixon to support her in putting together a training plan. Dixon stressed the importance of every workout having purpose. “I had not won an Ironman until he [Dixon] put me on that structure,” said Ms. Kessler, 34. “That’s when I started winning.”
4. Path vs. Goal
Helen Goodroad began competing as a figure skater in fourth grade, with her dream to be in the Olympics. But she didn’t fit the normal body type of a figure skater. At 5 feet 11 inches, she felt like she was twice the size of her competitors.
At 17, her coach decided to work Goodroad out on a rowing machine. He was blown away by Goodroad’s natural ability and strength. “He [Goodroad's coach] told me, “You could get a rowing scholarship to any school. You could go to the Olympics.” This would mean giving up everything that Goodroad knew (the path that she’d been on) and jumping into a completely new sport.
Goodroad decided to jump, keeping her commitment to her goal.
It was hard and she was terrified, but she was recruited to row at Brown. In 1993, Ms. Goodroad was invited to train with the junior national team. Three years later, she made the under-23 national team, which won a world championship. (She rowed under her maiden name, Betancourt.)
It is so easy to stay in your comfort zone, Ms. Goodroad said. “But then you can get stale. You don’t go anywhere.” Leaving skating, leaving what she knew and loved, “helped me see that, ‘Wow, I could do a whole lot more than I ever thought I could.’ ”
Great new article by Emily Esfahani Smith on The Atlantic site today about purpose and happiness. The article focuses on prominent Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who was arrested in the fall of 1942 and sent to a Nazi concentration camp along with his pregnant wife and parents. When the camp was finally liberated in 1945, most of his family — including his wife — had died. Yet Frankl himself had survived.
The following year, Frankl wrote of his experiences in the bestselling Man’s Search of Meaning. As Smith notes, “Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life.”
Smith continues: “As he [Frankl] saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl believed this focus on meaning was at odds with American and European culture. “It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
According to recent Gallup polls, the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high, with 60% of Americans feeling happy without much stress or worry in their lives. But the Center of Disease Control also notes that 40% of Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. As Kathleen Vols explains, “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.” In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.”
Which brings us back to Frankl, right before he was arrested. Smith writes it best:
With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.
As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”
When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.
Frankl’s story is yet another powerful insight from a horrible human event: happiness, like all emotions, is fleeting. But true purpose can sustain us for a lifetime.