Coaches, coaches everywhere

One coach.
Everyone dreams about achieving great things.  In reality, very few people ever become world-class at anything.  What a bummer.

Obviously, most of us get stuck at mediocre because we give up.  Let's be honest, practicing is hard work and takes time; it's so much easier to pack it in and watch T.V.  I've been there.

However, many people - including myself - are willing to do the work.  For example, I'm committed to being a great scientist, it's my full-time job.  I crave improvement because my entire career rests on my ability to improve.  In fact, success may require that I am the very best in my field.  Because of this, I eschew the plateau. I must improve as fast as possible, for as long as possible.

On the one hand, I could always work harder, log more hours, and be more focused.  Yes, all of that contributes to my development.  But what really gives me pause is the possibility of a metacognitive blind-spot.  What if I'm not even aware of my weaknesses?  I'd be meta-clueless: clueless about being clueless. Egads.

In this purely hypothetical situation (*wink), my problem is that I don't know how to get better; I'm out of ideas for how to improve.  As Atul Gawande argues in his recent New Yorker piece, that's when I might benefit most from a coach: someone with expertise and a fresh perspective who can "tweak" my performance and allow me to break through a sticking point.

Many coaches.
A coach is particularly valuable because the feedback is often novel; ideas we might not have generated on our own.  Our coach's fresh perspective generates new ways of thinking about the "problem" of improving.

Unfortunately for most of us, and as Gawande points out, getting a coach is not a possibility.  Either we can't afford one, it would be a cultural faux pas, or a dedicated coach may not even exist (although, in my case, I was surprised to find an example of scientist-coaches).  So, what are we to do?  How might the rest of us improve if we have reached a plateau?  If we knew the best strategy for getting better, we'd execute.  The value of a coach, that fresh set of eyes, is not something we can provide for ourselves.

At its essence, coaching is feedback.  A coach examines our performance and provides feedback about how we might improve.  To that end, I propose a distributed model of coaching.  Instead of resting our hopes and dreams on a single, capital-C Coach to lead us to the promised land, why not think of each interaction as a mini-opportunity for coaching?  All our peers, mentors, subordinates, and colleagues can provide fresh perspective on our performance, no coach needed.  Often, to get this valuable perspective all we have to do is ask.

In practice, this process of seeking feedback from all types of people is easier-said than done.  In future posts, I will explore some of the challenges, and strategies, of effective feedback-seeking behavior.  I'd love your feedback, dear reader, so please post your thoughts in the comments!

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