"What I learned from my TED Talk", a great insight on how to learn and improve at anything from Nilofer Merchant

by Nilofer Merchant

This spring, I got invited to do a talk at a prestigious event — TEDGlobal. And so, I wrote the idea, created a script, polished flow, created slides with a designer, and then worked on the cadence by rehearsing and rehearsing, right up until that final moment of delivery.

And I walked out on that stage. And I flopped. Well, not quite flopped — but I did not deliver a seriously kick-ass talk. I stood on the red-dot of the international stage, and delivered just a "so-so" talk. Something was missing. Why am I admitting this — even though my speakers' bureau will hate it, and some people who have me booked to speak may start to question their own judgment? Because admitting it is the first step, of a long road to getting better.

Getting better at something is thought to be about learning. First you crawl, then you walk, then you run. Or first you learn addition and then subtraction, multiplication, division — on and on to calculus and beyond. Learning is understood as the path to perfection, of being right, and knowing more than others. You proceed linearly until you reach the pinnacle. Learning accumulates, like bricks being laid neatly on top of one another.

But many things are not linear and neat. Markets change. Today, there are few "barriers to entry" and the value chain is more like a value flow. What worked when we had an largely uneducated workforce doesn't work in a knowledge economy. And certainly, any of us parents can attest to the fact that as soon as we think we have stuff figured out in parenting, the situation changes and we become flummoxed. And so it is at work and home: change is the only constant and most of the challenges we face each day are messy.

Which is why one "rule" of my recent book on the Social Era is: "Learn. Unlearn. (Repeat.)" Rather than viewing change as an aberration, we need to understand it as a natural part of life and work. Adaptability is central to how organizations and people thrive today. Our goal today is to learn our way into the future. Instead of viewing strategy as a set end point, it becomes a horizon to aim for. Instead of asking employees to each simply man their own oar, we must encourage their capacity to navigate, to tack and adapt as conditions shift. Instead of perfection and getting it right the first time, innovation can be continuous, and core rather than episodic.

So how does one unlearn? I'll use the experience of my disappointing speech to dissect the process, because the same steps are involved in both personal and organizational unlearning.

The first step is to admit something is wrong. Now, this is never easy. Not on a personal level, not on an organizational level. We'd rather believe things were great. At TEDGlobal, lots of people said incredibly nice things after my talk, and I wanted to believe them — even though something felt off for me. So, I asked my husband to watch the DVD of my talk while I listened from across the room. My husband cannot tell a lie, and he didn't need to say much to confirm my suspicion. Something was wrong.

The second step is to ask what specifically went wrong — and get help if you need it. I could have easily said "It was jet lag" or "I was over-committed and tired from trying to finish my second book." Both of those were true. I see the same impulse all the time with companies who sense something is wrong but then write it off to particular market conditions. This is understandable, but it abdicates responsibility, and undermines learning.

To figure out what went wrong, we often need an outside perspective. This is why consultants can add value. Knowing I didn't know what went wrong, I brought in a performance expert and asked her for clear, actionable feedback.

Then, listen. Defensiveness is a natural response — it's our ego's way to protect itself. None of us want to be imperfect, or go back to being a "student" once we've reached a certain level of accomplishment. We like the feeling of "knowing" more than we like the feeling of "unknowing." Most of us spend a lot of time trying to be smart. This plays out inside our organizations, too. The reason companies have a hard time undoing a mistake in the marketplace is because they don't want to admit they were imperfect. But all people, even shareholders, have the ability to forgive if you tell them the truth and your path forward. Look at Apple with its map apology or Netflix with its DVD market shift as corporate examples of what happens when you listen — albeit slowly. We can also see a counterexample in the less productive response of RIM. I wish I could say I was a great listener, but I probably spent half the time fighting my coach's advice before circling back to listen to it. It's seriously hard to hear feedback, but listen we must.

Begin the process of undoing. For any of us to pick up anything new, we have to be willing to drop some old baggage. That tired old idea we've used to shape our strategy. That part of our identity that no longer works. Old muscle memory around how something "should be". As I discussed the talk with my relentlessly honest coach, I realized I had built up a whole set beliefs about how I had to act to be "respectable" on this big stage. Where I am normally less "perfect' and perfectly willing to be so, standing on this stage — the TED stage — made me want to be flawless. But trying so hard not to say the wrong thing, just made me sound stiff.

In trying to deliver the perfect line and perfect idea, I was buying into a mythology of perfection. And to a degree, I believe that a lot of what many of us are taught is tied to this notion of perfection, and that it can warp our ability to keep sight of our goals. On the TED stage, speakers are taught to stand still on the red dot and not move so the camera can catch them correctly, which leaves us feeling robotic and self-conscious. On Wall Street, the focus on making profit results down-to-the-penny accurate has shifted the conversation away from delivering value over time. In entrepreneurship, a lot of focus goes into pitching to VCs but not the work to build the company. It takes great discipline to realize that what matters to the value creation process, is not the same as how we measure things.

And, this is crucial to realize: The beliefs we are using to guide us are often a tacit thing — something we can't see because we are so close to it that we actually can't see it as a "thing"; it has become something "true", an assumption that frames every decision. Chris Argyris wrote in 1992 that a major impediment to learning is that most organizations "store and use" information in tacit, versus explicit, forms.I've come to see that this is true for both personal and organizations situations. And without being able to name the thing, you can't change the thing. But by naming it, any of us can and will see it as something we can question and only then can we unlearn it. When I unlearn that "perfection must rule on big stages", I will return to connecting deeply. This carries a risk of course: It may turn out that I'm less "appropriate" in future talks, and my imperfections and flaws may not resonate. Yet, I have to trust — as all people need to — that they can and will learn and adjust and be flexible enough to adapt to ever-changing conditions.

It is actually easy to learn about doing. It is harder to learn about being. If you're learning to use calculus or to fly an airplane, you don't want to have to start from scratch; you want to learn from others and follow the road already paved. But most of life is about learning to be ourselves, and to "learn to be" is about figuring out what we take as a truth — those ways we just "know". To unlearn, we need to get good at seeing and naming those ways. Unlearning is harder than learning, but it's crucial to do ... because innovation and creativity are rarely about doing more of the same.

We have to be willing to reinvent. To not fall so in love with something that we're not willing to let it go. And so unlearning becomes our life's work.

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