Situational self-leadership: Raising the ceiling and floor of performance

How high of a standard do we hold for ourselves? …and how does that standard help or hamper our ability to succeed at whatever aspect of our life we’re looking to improve?

The following graph depicts a unified theory of Situational Motivation… or better yet, let’s call it Situational Self-leadership. This graph is about how successful people drive themselves to exceptional results, and how struggling people lift themselves from the worst of circumstances:

Situational Self-Leadership and Motivation Model

Situational Motivation – high level (technical, geeky) description

The curved line of the graph describes how improving our efforts and/or circumstances (x axis) can improve the quality of results that we experience (y-axis). The values on each axis are subject to the person’s own values – in other words “100%” means different things to different people, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

There are five tangible areas labelled within the frame of the graph, ranging from Personal Best to Personal Worst.  There are also two theoretical areas labelled outside of the frame: Ideal Vision and Rock Bottom. These latter two areas are labelled outside the frame because the curve within the frame is asymptotic – a person never quite reaches the absolute top or bottom. Within the frame, a person can decide to stay in place (“There is no relevant ideal, other than being satisfied with where I am”) or to keep striving for better (“I want to be the best possible version of me.”). They might even decide to wallow somewhere on the lower end of the curve.

The art of successful living is to know where you are on your own personal curve and to know what motivational strategy to use for yourself, given what you value most.

Situational Self-Leadership – detailed (narrative, fun) description

Let’s dive into this graph and see what it can do for us, top to bottom…

Ideal Vision, aka, “You are 99%? Why not 100%??”

The very top of this graph – the 99% to 100% range – represents an area of the Ideal Vision. People can motivate themselves by setting their mind towards achieving an ideal, inspiring vision, whether that vision is possible or even (seemingly) impossible. It’s the thing that allows the “ceiling” of performance to be continuously raised.

As a person gets close this zone of 99% it seems to slip away, becoming ever-higher… many people perceive the asymptotic nature of this zone and decide to avoid it, or decide to remain satisfied just below it. Others strive too hard for the Ideal Vision and become overwhelmed with frustration by the lack of perfection in the reality they see. The archetype of this is the nervous breakdown of a Type A personality, or the all-consuming wrath of a zealot. In those two cases, the Ideal Vision has been misused, and its motivational power has been misdirected.

An Ideal Vision can be eminently useful, as seen in the following boxer’s poem:

“The most beautiful fighter in the world today.

He talks a great deal, and brags indeed-y,

of a muscular punch that’s incredibly speed-y.

The fistic world was dull and weary,

But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary.

Then someone with color and someone with dash,

Brought fight fans are runnin’ with cash.

This brash young boxer is something to see

And the heavyweight championship is his des-tin-y.


When I say two, there’s never a third,

Standin against me is completely absurd.

When Cassius says a mouse can outrun a horse,

Don’t ask how; put your money where your mouse is!


- Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., 1964 (later known as Muhammad Ali)

The drive towards being the greatest – whether in strength, wisdom, enlightenment, glory, whatever the value – is powerful indeed-y… especially when it (1) involves a higher purpose or service, and (2) is communicated in a motivating manner (such as this motivational speech), coupled with authentic self-talk on the part of the listener.

The key word there is “authentic,” especially when the person delivering the speech and the person listening to the speech are the same person.

Self-talk is the narrative in the head that says, “I believe what I’m hearing is totally true / mostly true / sort of true / may or may to be true or untrue / sort of untrue / mostly untrue / totally untrue.” (You may ask yourself whether self-talk truly operates using a seven-point Likert scale… but you may prove the point in doing so.)  Self-talk is self-predictive. Self-talk creates a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Except, of course, when it’s not.

Sometimes pesky reality gets in the way of even the most authentic self-talk.

So, what happens when we are not the greatest?

What happens when we are defeated?  …especially when we are defeated by our most debilitating enemy, aka, ourselves?

Going for the Personal Best

The path towards 100% exists within the 90% – 99% range, the range of something called Personal Best.

At the very peak of Personal Best there can be an overlap with the Ideal Vision (hence, the range of Personal Best is not written 90-to-98.999 repeated… besides, that would be annoying). Yet, the idea of Personal Best is different than Ideal Vision because a Personal Best doesn’t require any external reference points. There is no vision of perfection and no perfect role models. There are only the visions of continuous growth and role models who exemplify continuous self-improvement.  This is the zone where I say, “I love the process, and I love the product.”

Some people (perhaps wisely) eschew the Ideal Vision and strive only for Personal Best. Others use Personal Best as a strategy for approaching the elusive Ideal Vision, because with just a little bit of patience and flexibility, the Ideal Vision can provide a guiding star, a point on the distant horizon which attracts and pulls us forward, helping us incrementally raise the ceiling of our performance as we make progress.

If we are afflicted with perfectionist or Type A tendencies, we can find comfort and safety in the zone of Personal Best. Perfectionists who get too hung up on an Ideal Vision will inevitably get knocked down to the ground by reality. If they focus their effort toward Personal Best, they can stay motivated and driven with reduced risk of melting down.

With the concept of Personal Best, we use an internal reference point – we provide the measure for our own greatness.

Even still, it is a reference point that establishes a high water mark, which suggests that there is something below that mark.

Which brings us to the next area of the graph…

Less than our best, but Strong Performance nonetheless

Below the area of Personal Best there is the area of Strong Performance. In the zone of Strong Performance most other people may be fooled, but we’re not. We know we can do better. Here too, some of us may decide to be satisfied, while others would be dissatisfied.

Do you consider a Strong Performance a highly desirable outcome, or a minimum requirement?

If you are in an achievement-focused environment (e.g. working at the desk in a Fortune 500 company), a Strong Performance is likely considered as table stakes for holding onto the job.

If you are in a learning-focused environment (e.g. in a training room of a Fortune 500 company) a Strong Performance is hopefully considered as evidence of progress towards the next level of the job.

Of course, sometimes we don’t get a Strong Performance. By definition, the idea of “above average” means that there is an “average,” i.e. an area of mediocrity.

Mediocre Moments

For a person who sets their sights towards an Ideal Vision or even a Personal Best, the zone of Mediocre Moments is infuriating. Yet mediocrity is a statistical inevitability.

My advice: Don’t pay too much attention to mediocrity… don’t settle for it, but don’t get upset by it.

Keep practicing, focus on your strengths, find what will make you stand out as exceptional.

Also, keep in mind that this entire graph is a self-imposed illusion… especially so when it comes to the definition of a Mediocre Moment. This is because the perception of an average performance is simply the sum of perceptions of all previous attempts, divided by the perceived number of said attempts.

Or to put it more simply:  You cannot have a Personal Best without having a Personal Worst.

You will, by definition, achieve your worst personal performance during any period of time that you happen to consider.

So let’s now consider what happens when we dive more deeply, down into colder waters…

Weak Performance

So you had a cold, weak performance… warm it up, but please don’t sweat it.

Change something and try again.

Note that this is the area of traditional performance management – fixing deficiencies and addressing weaknesses. While traditional performance management can be helpful, I don’t recommend giving too much focus on Weak Performance. If we focus on avoiding something to much, we tend to get more of it.  Set your sights higher. Imagine a better result.

That said, we know that every once in a while we are worse than weak.  Every once in a while we sink into the danger zone…

Personal Worst

Down near the bottom of the graph there lives the worst kind of disappointment: personal disappointment.

When we find ourselves in this place, it’s a good idea for us to self-examine and work on the basics, in order to raise the “floor” on our performance.

Without some degree of discipline we may lose the basics. The basics include the core of whatever our task entails. The basics include how we treat and take care of ourselves and others. The basics are things like dinner and a movie, please and thank you, compassion and integrity. Keep those basics and the floor will raise itself.  Keep those basics and what you consider to be average others will consider to be exceptional.

But is there anything worse than a Personal Worst?  Oh yes, there is…

Finally, we reach Rock Bottom

Just as there was a 99-100% Ideal Vision zone above the Personal Best, so too is there a zone below the Personal Worst. This is the dark place of less than one percentage point… the abject failure zone of Rock Bottom.

Here at Rock Bottom we have the opposite of inspiring idealism and hope – it is the place of crushing pessimism and despair.

Sometimes we feel like we’re getting pushed into this area by the situation we’re in, or by the people we’re with. Sometimes we just find ourselves going there by ourselves. Indeed, the more we dwell in a place that we think is Rock Bottom, the more likely it becomes our “new normal” and we discover caverns of depression even lower still.

The lesson of Rock Bottom is —  at the very least — an understanding that things could always be worse.

There is also a lesson here of patience, humility and dignity.  As one former prisoner wrote,

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

This is the bedrock on top of which all other stable motivation can be built: If nothing else, take responsibility for your response-ability. If nothing else, be patient, wait for the storm to pass and find the opportunity to climb out… and never ever forget the guiding star of the Ideal Vision, because that’s the light that helps you get out of there.

In Summary: Own the Curve, Choose the Swerve

When it comes to personal motivation and inspiration, there are multiple and seemingly contradictory messages. “Go big, or go home!” “Be all that you can be!” “Focus on your strengths!” “Get back to basics!” “Practice makes perfect!”  “Failure is not an option!” “Pick yourself up and try again!” “Focus on others!” “Focus only on what you can control!”   …and so on.  There is truth in all of these messages, but if you try to follow all of them you will twist, turn and swerve in too many directions. Crash. Bam. Thud.

The art of living is the art of choosing which message to tell yourself, given where you are on the curve of this graph.

It’s also about knowing that the only person who defines the curve is you.

Exploring privilege versus luck – a classroom game analogy

What’s the difference between being “lucky” versus being “privileged?”  The two terms may be similar in their meanings, but feel very different in their emotional and moral implications. The latter term is showing up increasingly in social and political commentary.  Given the current headlines in the U.S. and the imminent holiday of American Thanksgiving  – a holiday that is all about expressing gratitude – it’s helpful to explore the nuances of these words.

We’re going to do that by unpacking and re-packing a classroom exercise.

A friend posted a link to a simple classroom game which was designed to help students understand the concept of “privilege.” Here’s the link (ht AmyP) …and here’s the exercise in a nutshell:

Throw the paper in the bin - dont tell I put some adhesive on the outer edge of mine

EXERCISE SUMMARY:  Students must throw a crumbled up piece of paper into a bin while staying seated in their chairs. The students in the front row have an advantage but usually don’t realize it… at least until the students in the back row protest their disadvantage. Debrief. 

According to the link, the moral of the story is for the students in the front row to advocate for the back row.

Advocate for what, though?  If it’s advocacy for a single, giant front row then that makes for a terrible classroom design doesn’t it?

The obvious lesson for an instructional designer or classroom facilitator is to consider changing the chair configuration and/or the rules of the game.  Cue the debates on government structures, policies, taxation, etc.

Wait, stay with me on this.

For example, there can be a reasonable discussion about whether it makes sense to reconfigure the seating as a circle or a U-shape with the bin in the middle… or even as series of small table “pods”  (typically better configurations from the learning experience point of view, just sayin’) with separate bins for each table.

The debate on chair configuration will require an analysis of the total demand vs. the capacity per classroom and the number of available classrooms. Seating in rows allows you to fit more students into each classroom, but with less overall participation.  Indeed, autocratic and hierarchical systems are often more efficient with quantity of results but less effective in terms of quality of results.

Or we could change the rules a bit and give students turns where they each can sit in the front row?  Does that completely kill the analogy? Hmmm… or do we descend into a quarrel over whether to adjust the seats to account for the length of each student’s arm? …or the amount of previous paper-throwing practice they’ve had?  I’m not sure how fun that would be… though maybe that’s the point:  In a world of individual differences, at what point do we consider individual advantages as being “fair?”

Note also that in the original version of the game there is an unacknowledged anti-lesson about habits, choices and effort… because although those front row students may feel bad for the back row students, some of them may realize that they have a good habit of choosing a front row seat. As a general strategy, they put themselves in a position to be engaged in the lesson being taught, regardless of what it is about or what game will be played.  Apart from the student who came late and could only find a front row seat (lucky day for them!), students in the front row likely made an effort to be there. As an instructional designer, I try to avoid creating anti-lessons.   (Or maybe the instructor wants to spark a debate about work ethic, social mobility, immigration, etc. …um, yeah, no.)

How about we preserve every aspect of the game – the same seat configuration and rules – but randomly shuffle and re-assign students to seats for each round of the game?  That eliminates the habits/choices/effort anti-lesson. Of course, it also turns the front row into less of a “privilege” and more of an instance of “luck.”

With that in mind, what exactly is the difference between “luck” and “privilege?”  Is it just about the line between “fair” and “unfair,” or is there something else? …and where does “effort” factor into it?  What are the implications for an individual with advantages resulting from any or all of those things?

I leave you, the reader, to think about that… and if you’re celebrating it, Happy Thanksgiving.

Photo essay: In China, down by the river

China is a place of visual delights and olfactory offenses.

Particularly when it comes to rivers —  murky and polluted by day, sparkling and glowing by night — the traditional Chinese penchant for over-the-top, bright colorful displays comes to play in the evening hours, washing away the grim grayish green realities of unchecked rapid industrialization.

01 - Yangtze Smogeye View

Yangtze river, smog’s eye view

Here are some views from three of the cities that I visited last month:  Shanghai, Suzhou, and Zhenyuan… each a special place, each with its own approach to lighting up the night.

Let’s start with sparkling Shanghai, looking at Pudong from the Bund side:

02 - Bund side view of Pudong over Huangpu

Make way for the magical Huangpu river disco boat!

Make way for the magical Huangpu river disco boat!

…and here’s a panorama showing the two sides of the Huangpu river facing each other. Note the dimly lit romantic Bund promenade, with the comparatively subdued (but in any other city, bright and fabulous) up-lighting on colonial era buildings.  London ain’t got nothing on this.

05 - Bund looking across both sides of the Huangpu river

These pictures are taken on an iPhone instead of a “real” camera and so the night time shots are grainy and overexposed. That said, it’s nice to be able to snap a picture in the spur of the moment in order to capture the overall atmosphere of a place. For Shanghai at night, it’s all about the city lights bouncing off plate glass, marble floors, plastic lanterns, crystal chandeliers, taxi cab doors, wine glasses, retail shop windows, and blinking roller skate wheels.  These next two pictures show the nocturnal borrowed views that show up everywhere this city, with windows framing collages of scintillation.

Chandelier Reflections Bund

Humble Bartenders Borrowed View of Pudong

All of these electric lights require lots of electricity, which in turn requires lots of coal-fired plants. The same river that sparkles at night also provides an easy avenue for a non-stop (really, non-stop… literally, all day long) parade of boats carrying loads of coal, ore, and everything else needed to keep those turbines turning and high rises rising.

07 - Pudong Looming over Huangpu

06 - Huangpu Coal Boat Parade I

07 - Huangpu Coal Boat Parade II

While I was there, the official smog index reached somewhere in the orange-to-red “unhealthy” zone… at times my eyes hurt when walking around outside. At least it’s better than having, say, over 16,000 dead pigs mysteriously float down the river for the better part of a month. But hey, who’s counting?

Smog Flag

In complete contrast to the flash and frenzy of Shanghai, the placid canals of Suzhou offer a more relaxed and soothing atmosphere, apropos of one of China’s most famous scholar towns.  During the day, it looks like this:

Suzhou Canal 1

Suzhou Canal 2

Suzhou Canal 3

At night, it looks like this:

Suzhou Night Canal 1

Suzhou Night Canal 2

A series of tyrannical emperors helped nurture the heritage of Suzhou by having the masses dig out the Grand Canal, one of the greatest civil engineering projects in world history. The city did very well with its canal system providing easy transport of people and products… although sometimes the visiting people decided to sack the city, here and there. In the last century, single tyrant almost wiped out Suzhou’s heritage by having the masses launch the Cultural Revolution, one of the most violently self-destructive moments in world history. All of that history and turmoil translated into a deeper meaning for this place, and a beautiful patina on its walls.

Suzhou’s stone and clay brick construction readily reveals centuries of flooding, wear, tear and war. I could stare at these buildings for hours, reading the stories imprinted onto them, noting the traces of prior occupants and different uses that accumulated over time.

Suzhou Building Stories Rustic Wall 1 Suzhou Building Stories Rustic Wall 2

Here’s what Pingjiang Road road looks like from water level, in the early evening. Crouching down on the river steps had a bonus effect: I could avoid the pervasive smells of nearby food vendors, their shellfish and fried tofu searing my guallo nostrils.

Crouching Canal Hidden Boatman

Onwards to Guizhou province, to the remote town of Zhenyuan,a former nexus of the southern Silk Road.  This yin-yang shaped city is home to unique blend of local and not-so-local cultures, the religiously eclectic temples of Black Dragon Cave, the crumbling edge of the Miao Southern Great Wall, and many dramatic views of the Wuyang river cutting through the limestone karst landscape.

Looking Downstream

Zhenyuan also provides a fine example of how the rest of China can live well, outside the bustling metropolises. The Wuyang river defines the life of this town, by day…

Black Dragon Cave - Riverfront View

Riverfront Bridge

…and by night:

Evening Riverside Panorama

Boats Under Bridge

“Less is more,” said Mies van der Rohe. “Could we get some more rotating colors in those LED bulbs?” said Zhenyuan.

The ridiculous amount of lighting on the riverfront of Zhenyuan Old Town – these photos barely capture the sheer luminescent fervor – creates a vibrant, welcoming and festive feeling. Music and laughter echo along the shores well into the night… and it’s not even a weekend night, just an ordinary working evening. It’s not unlike the vibe of the Christmas season (or Winter Holiday, if you prefer), except all year long and in a more casually civic spirit.

Here are some square dancers – a group of locals doing open-air aerobics in a manner that resembles a flash mob.

Zhenyuan - Evening Riverside Scene

You can find groups of people doing this everywhere in China, often under highway underpasses within the bigger cities. In Zhenyuan, the electro pop tunes of the square dancers combine with the din of street vendors and restaurants serving up shellfish and fried tofu.

What’s the price of all this?  Once again, tragedy of the commons be damned, or should I say, dammed. The flow of the Wuyang river slows to a halt in Zhenyuan, where it accumulates into a mirror-like sheen of algae, and gives off the musky scent of rotting wood planks… but I guess the downstream hydroelectric dam is better than having yet another coal plant.

stagnant river

China’s network of rivers – the winding watery dragons that give this land its powerful fertility, productivity and central control – provide views into the opportunities and challenges of its past, present and future. Where Shanghai is glitzy and glamorous, Suzhou is subdued and solemn.  As for Zhenyuan – a genuine gem of a town – I hope the ever-changing China can keep and nurture more places like it.

Quote du Jour: Simplify

The ability to simplify

means to eliminate the unnecessary

so that the necessary may speak.

- Hans Hofmann

Baby Bjorn at Gooseberry Falls Lake Superior Baby Bjorn at Lake Superior Baby Bjorn

Close the Gap – Creative Perseverance

A short and sweet video pep talk for aspiring creative types, by Ira Glass:

A creative person is often a sensitive person — a person who is keenly aware of all of their senses, all of their feelings and thoughts. This is because creativity is linked to a refinement of the senses.  Want to become more creative?  Start observing more carefully what you see, hear, touch, smell, taste and think.  It’s a process of improving discernment and mindfulness. Yet, this sensitivity comes with a risk:  To be able to produce great work, a creative person must not be so sensitive that they can’t tolerate the pain of initially producing crappy work.

(Corollary for Managers of Creatives:  To develop your team’s talent, you have to be patient and encourage them to persevere through disappointing output.) 

Tolerance of Pain

The Kalenjin tribe of Kenya dominate the world in long distance running competition. According to some authors, this tribe has been environmentally, culturally and genetically optimized for long distance running… optimized not just in physical skill, but also in mindset. The tribe has longstanding rite of passage which select for pain tolerance. If you can’t tolerate extreme pain, you’re kicked out of the tribe.

You'll have to knock a bunch of these down at first... and yeah, it's gonna hurt.

You’ll have to knock a bunch of these down at first… and yeah, it’s gonna hurt.

To become a strong athlete, a big part of it is learning to overcome physical pain.  If you can overcome that pain, you can stretch your goals and continually improve.

To become a talented creative, a big part of it is learning to overcome mental pain of disappointment in your own work. If you can overcome that pain, you can keep practicing and eventually produce something inspiring.

Ultimately, it’s about overcoming the false dichotomy of  being a strong versus a sensitive person  — be sensitive to the product and strong in the process.



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