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Top Down and Bottom Up Trust

Last weekend, I headed out to New York for a $2000 course that I didn’t really know much about – just that it was going to be a small group of 15 folks working on growing their businesses.

Why would I do such a thing? Especially when I barely knew what the course would entail?

Some of it was probably related to the application process – I had to record a short video answering some questions and was selected from an ostensibly large and competitive pool of applicants.

Ask any good social science researcher about effort justification in initiation rituals – there’s a reason fraternities have elaborate hazing rituals. The difficulty and discomfort inspires participants to create a narrative justifying their effort, which increases their buy-in once they’ve made it through whatever blindfolded, sexually charged initiation process they’ve been subjected to.

Also, Ramit Sethi – the proprietor of the course – has built tons of trust with me over the years through his blog, his email list, his books, and his online courses. We’ve implemented many of his systems and tactics for marketing and copywriting at South Loop Strength & Conditioning and seen great results.

So, it was a no-brainer to swipe my credit card for the course and book tickets out to New York, even though we have construction going on at the gym, and the South Loop Games are coming up in just about a month.

During the weekend, I had a breakout session on “How to stand out in a crowded niche.” Legion Strength & Conditioning – our online coaching company – plays in the saturated and overcrowded competitive CrossFit coaching space.

I’m often extremely frustrated by the nonsense from prestigious coaches in our industry that masquerades as solid training principles. I’d love to do my part to stamp out the misconceptions and myths that pollute our market – but Legion doesn’t have enough trust in the marketplace as a whole to be able to combat the bad ideas that are out there.

That trust that I have in Ramit? To fly to New York and spend thousands on a course that I don’t know much about? We need to figure out how to build that.

And, unfortunately, the dense, nuanced discussion of abstract ideas that I enjoy is not necessarily the best way to build that trust. Once you have trust – great. Go down the rabbit hole, get detailed, and get after it.

Until then, there are probably better strategies for establishing a foothold in the marketplace.

I had a 5-10 minute conversation with Ramit after the course that was worth the trip alone.

Side note: As someone who is often in a position where people are lurking around me and attempting to monopolize my time to ask me lots of questions (often while I’m trying to focus on something else), I’m very sensitive to trying not to do that to other people. So, I was hesitant to approach with my self-interested questions, but I’m happy that I did 🙂

We discussed this trust building process, and here’s my distillation of those lessons:

There are top down and bottoms up ways of building trust.

In the market of competitive CrossFit coaching, the “top down” model is coaching or working with “famous” athletes. This is a somewhat unpredictable process, since it’s not enough to coach athletes who are really good – these folks also need to have struck whatever je ne sais quoi results in them becoming “influencers.”

I liken the process of becoming a “famous” athlete to that of becoming a “famous” pop star. Quality is only loosely coupled with the actual success in the marketplace. Take a listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” and tell me that isn’t one of the 10 best pop songs of the last decade. But, guess what – it only has 756k views on YouTube and wasn’t even released as a single. And CRJ already had built-in attention from her breakout breakout mainstream success with “Call Me Maybe.” What the hell!

So, anyone playing in the competitive CrossFit space should probably be trying to stumble into whatever serendipity they can that will push them over the tipping point into some sort of influencer status.

However, that’s a relatively unreliable business plan.

Fortunately, there’s another road that is probably more under your control.

This is the “bottom up” method of building trust.

To succeed here, you need to deeply understand your market and the problems that they are struggling with – and provide them very tight, crunchy, low-barrier to entry solutions to those problems.

Then, when they actually test drive the advice that you give, they have a quick win, are surprised at their success, and start to build trust.

In Ramit’s case, he opens his book I Will Teach You to be Rich with word-for-word scripts on getting credit card fees waived in the first chapter. This is a very low barrier to entry, tactical tip that will work almost all of the time.

And, once someone sees a late payment fee waived with 60s of work on a phone call, they start to build trust – and are much more willing to engage in the higher barrier to entry behaviors Ramit recommends like setting up automatic investment into an index fund.

This is tricky in fitness since most things that actually work are nuanced and take weeks – if not months – to produce results.

And, most of the things that people say they want are not what they actually want.

“Yeah, I’d love a meal plan.”

“A six week accessory work program would be awesome.”

“I’d like videos on proper form.”

Bullshit! All of them!

Not that these things aren’t valuable and some people don’t utilize these kinds of resources, but these solutions are way too ambitious for most people.

They love the idea of a accessory work and think it sounds nice, but there’s no way they’re actually printing off the PDF of their accessory program from some company they don’t really know about, taking it to the gym, and following it for six weeks. And, most people are lucky to consistently accomplish their main training goals in a given day. Very unlikely that they’re going to spend additional time in the gym doing accessory work.

So, how do you create a tactic that is low barrier to entry and gives nearly immediate results? And actually solves a problem that people know they have and that is a burning pain for them? I don’t really know but I’ve got some ideas.

(If you think of anything, please email me as well.)

Projecting Confidence as a Leader while Maintaining Intellectual Humility

I recently listened to an episode of my favorite podcast EconTalk focused on the concept of balancing intellectual humility with the confidence and authority that is expected of a leader.

The guest on the show was David Deppner, who is the CEO of Psyberware and an EconTalk listener – and the episode grew out of a Q&A session at a live EconTalk session.

Anyone in a leadership position will often get questioned or challenged about the future of their organization – especially if they are operating in a highly competitive industry or undergoing the turmoil and rigamarole of something like fundraising.

We had many dark moments throughout the history of South Loop Strength & Conditioning where we were just one bad break away from shutting it down – leases falling through, shady business partners, losing in the market to more established competitors, etc.

What should a leader say during the dark times when clients or employees are asking for reassurance?

Folks with a penchant toward intellectual honesty may want to acknowledge the fact that they’re kind of winging it and that, at any moment, everything could fall apart and the business could crater.

However, this message does not exactly inspire those around them to dive in, work hard, and keep pushing forward.

This kind of behavior is anathema to the type of person considered with intellectual humility we are discussing – and they probably couldn’t even pull it off if they tried.

So, what should they do instead?

I think the key distinction here is understanding why things seem uncertain to different folks.

For the leader, everything is uncertain and fuzzy because they have a very high resolution view of their organization, its strategy, and the threats facing it.

They likely think in probabilities and understand that – even with perfect planning and execution – there are all kinds of long-tail events that could completely change the course of their business.

They see the emergence and complexity in both the markets and in the layers of their own organization that magically results in their business staying afloat, and they recognize that much of how these systems organize is out of their control.

This high-resolution view is not terribly comforting, but most business leaders have probably grown comfortable with it since it’s a constant overlay of their reality.

For employees and clients, their uncertainty comes from a low-resolution view of the situation.

They don’t understand the strategy of the business.

They don’t have an awareness of the competitive landscape of the marketplace.

They don’t have comfort with the layers of management and accountability in an organization that magically keeps things chugging along.

So, a detailed and “honest” answer about the uncertainty of the business doesn’t serve them since they don’t have the framework to appreciate the nuance.

They see low-resolution uncertainty and would need to have a high speed upload brain upload to learn kung fu appreciate the high-resolution uncertainty view.

So, it is totally fair to communicate to someone at the level that they’re at. You don’t need to lay out all of the conditionals, all of the threats, all of the long tail events that could either make or break the business.

This doesn’t mean being a bloviating huckster peddling an unrealistic vision – it just means adjusting your communication to be appropriate for your audience.

The Delegation Doldrums

Many people who are growing their businesses have some understanding that they should be “delegating.”

Maybe you’ve read The 4-Hour Work Week. Maybe you’ve read The E Myth. Maybe you’ve heard some dork on Instagram talking about how you need to work “on” your business not “in” your business (which is from The E Myth anyway)

While delegation is, in fact, key to any sort of growing business, it’s rarely as simple as people think it is.

When you delegate something, it’s not like you suddenly have massive amounts of free mental bandwidth with which to create new ideas, work on more important tasks or engage in excessive leisure.

Instead, even though you are no longer responsible for explicitly completing your taks, you are now responsible the myriad of creative ways that your employees will find to do the task incorrectly or otherwise miss the point.

It’s insufficient to simply have a standard operating procedure and to assign the task to someone. Instead you must:

•Have mastery of the task yourself
•Have a documented and repeatable procedure to complete the task
•Document regular troubleshooting issues and contingency plans for when the task goes wrong
•Develop some sort of quality assurance process for the task to make sure that it is not just being completed – but that is being completed at an acceptable level
•Ensure that it’s not just the “letter of the law” that is being followed, but also the spirit
•Give regular performance communication and feedback to the person to whom you’ve delegated the task

In many cases, delegating the task is in fact more work than simply doing it yourself – at least for several weeks (if not months).

However, once you’ve made it past the tipping point, you will find that employees will start to offer insight about better ways to do things.

Through delegation, you are also creating opportunities for employees to be engaged and learn. So, even if it is a hassle to attempt to delegate and have things constantly go wrong, you are also increasing the buy-in and the teamwork of the organization by spreading responsibility amongst multiple individuals.

Why the quest for efficiency makes people inefficient

I’ve learned that our quest for efficiency is often one of the things that makes us the most inefficient.

Many people in management or coaching positions often get sour on the folks who they work with – claiming that they’re lazy, unmotivated slackers.

While this can be true, I’ve found that people are often putting forth a solid effort and doing the best they can, but are victims of two types of errors:

•A confused and improper focus on “efficiency” (which results in cutting corners, relying on willpower to create behavior change, and failing to set up long-term systems that are actually sustainable)

•A lack of skills to deal with obstacles, barriers, or questions that come up when attempting to engage in a new behavior.

I will discuss these issues from a management perspective, since I often find myself getting much more frustrated with employees than I do with coaching clients. (I have a healthy emotional distance from coaching clients, while I often regularly take mistakes employees make as a reflection of me in a way that is not always helpful).

In running a gym, I’ve found that one of our biggest issues as we’ve scaled is that – at each tier of growth – we have to relearn and refocus on the basics of each role within the organization.

This could be the basics of coaching a class (Give everyone in the class at least two pieces of individualized feedback – and use their name while doing so), the basics of setting someone up with a membership in our system (Please please please take their picture and have them fill out a membership agreement), or the basics of coaches communicating schedule changes for class coverage (Until the class is formally taken off of your schedule, it is your responsibility to make sure that someone shows up for it).

As we add employees and members, we tend to lose the thread of executing on these fundamental building blocks of our business. There’s more clients in the gym so classes get busy. There’s more front desk staff with a tiered management structure, so the way that we communicate and hold staff accountable is constantly shifting. There’s more to do in general, so it’s easier for things to slip through the cracks.

Over the last year, I’ve focused most of my effort on creating systems to make sure that we are not missing out on the fundamentals.

These include systems that track new members so that we can follow up on them consistently.

These include systems that track the recurring front desk tasks that need to be completed during each shift.

These include systems to make sure that all new members have all of their information entered into our software correctly.

And, as anyone who has tried to roll out systems like this in an organization, a lot of people just flat out don’t use them. Which results in a constant stream of mistakes, forgetting and oversight which can drive a high conscientiousness individual mad.

It can sometimes seem like people are actively ignoring my efforts to clean up all of these messes in an attempt to be “lazy.”

But, I really don’t think this is the case.

From conversations with employees and partners over the years, I’ve found instead that people are often searching for “efficiency” and a better way to do things.

Many of the solutions that I’ve come up with can seem overly optimized and like a waste of effort.

It can seem easier to “just remember to do it” than to create a to-do list system.

It can seem easier to “just remember your appointments” than to keep a detailed calendar.

It can seem easier to “just scan your email periodically throughout the day” rather than having structured times to handle your entire inbox.

And, in fact, it is easier to do each of those things. In the moment.

However, it’s not actually easier in the long run – neither for yourself nor for the organization that you work for.

Most people never make it past the initial difficulty of using a new system or a new protocol since it is often slower and less efficient the first several times you do something a new way.

It can still be purely self-interested behavior to develop systematic, repeatable ways of doing things. If you don’t have to remember how you did something last time, if you don’t have to rebuild the same email template every time, if you’re not constantly scrambling and cleaning up messes from things that you forgot to do…you tend to be a happier and more productive person.

And, if you do care about the organization that you’re a part of, developing systems has multiple benefits:

•The things that you’re doing can be more easily taught to a colleague – allowing you to focus on other areas, or allowing someone to cover your responsibilities if necessary.

•Systems make it easy to communicate throughout the organization what has been done and what needs to be done next.

Lets use a seemingly trivial example.

I’ve made a Google Sheet for our front desk that has a variety of recurring tasks on it – things like “fold towels, refill chalk buckets, empty trash on main gym floor, etc.”

Each task is categorized by the shift that it’s supposed to fall under.

The tasks also link to an internal wiki article that explains how to do the task.

The checkboxes automatically uncheck themselves on regular intervals relative to when the task needs to be repeated.

Tasks use conditional formatting to show when they’re due, overdue, and complete.

This ostensibly makes it very easy to keep track of what needs to be done – removing the the pain point of confusion between desk employees regarding which tasks are done, which are not done, and which need to be passed off onto another shift.

What’s not to love?

Well, it’s taken quite awhile to get front desk employees in the habit of consistently checking tasks off the list – even if they’re done.

It seems easier to just do them. Who cares if the tasks are checked off if they’re done?

It seems easier to just remember what tasks need to be done during your shift and take care of them. Why bother looking at the task list – it’s not that hard to remember to fold towels.

But, it’s not actually easier.

That’s a false sense of efficiency gained by skipping over the task list that is really a tax on the organization whenever a task is repeated prematurely or left incomplete past its due date – and it’s also a tax on your future self since you are often spending mental energy remembering what to do and how to do it (that could be externalized to a system) as well as spending time and energy cleaning up the messes that your lack of systemization created.

Or, more likely, one of the other employees or managers ends up cleaning up after you.

So, quit looking for efficiency in the wrong places. You don’t get more efficient by doing less.. You get more efficient by doing more work upfront so that you can trade in the mundane problems of forgetfulness and miscommunications and actually work on something interesting.

Do your email newsletter subscriptions stress you out?

Do you like subscribing to email newsletters…but hate having a cluttered inbox?

Do you like reading your e-mail newsletters – like mine hehe – but hate when you’re just trying to soak up some #content and you’re getting hammered with work e-mails?

Well have I got a solution for you:

Just make a new e-mail address only for newsletters.

A lot of people have some sort of throwaway e-mail address (like an old AOL account or something) that they use to sign up for stuff that they don’t want to receive.

But, why not have a separate e-mail address for things that you do want to receive?

This way, you have an e-mail inbox that’s almost like an RSS reader – just content that you want that you actually subscribed to.

I typically use the Gmail mobile app on my iPad to read my stories. I don’t have my other email accounts signed in on my iPad, so there’s a high barrier to entry to impulsively start checking in with work stuff. This works out very nicely for me. Hopefully this helps you, too.

Do you get tired of checking your e-mail constantly?

I’m probably not the only one in the world who has an e-mail problem.

I’ve experimented with a lot of different e-mail workflows over the years, and there’s been one consistent problem that I’ve never been able to solve.

Here’s my dilemma:

Checking my e-mail is a stressful time waster. 

Everyone who has read anything about productivity understands the value of batching tasks.

They also understand the energy-wasting dangers of constant task switching (beginning to write an article, then checking your e-mail, reading five messages, responding to two, then checking your to-do list, then going back to the article that you’re writing, then remembering you need to reschedule a meeting so going back to your e-mail, then responding to a few more e-mails that have come in…)

The idea of “batching” e-mail seems like a no-brainer. 

“Only check e-mail at allotted times,” cry the productivity experts. Every time you go into your inbox, clear out the entire thing – either by responding, archiving, or converting the e-mail into an actionable task in your project management system.

Sounds great.

However, I often need to access information in my e-mail while doing something else. 

I need to look up something a podcast guest sent me, download an attachment, or confirm a scheduled time.

So, what happens?

I go to my inbox and immediately get stressed out at the inbound communication. I either start reading and responding to e-mail (which means I’m not doing what I was supposed to be doing).

Or, I remain disciplined and only briefly pass through my inbox on my way to the information that originally brought me on my expedition through the digital hinterlands of my inbox.

However, in either case, I now have a corner of my brain devoted to thinking about all of the unread e-mail I just witnessed – foreboding subject lines, surprising senders, or files that I’ve been waiting for to complete some of my projects.

Turns out, a lot of people have this problem, and so folks have crafted some creative browser extensions to help. One of the better ones is the “Inbox When Ready.”

And it works great.

Your inbox is blocked when you go to it.

Only problem is that all you have to do when you visit your e-mail is push a single button to view all of your messages.

When you’re exposed to powerful, variable rewards like an e-mail inbox, it can be nigh impossible to avoid the impulse to push that button and see what’s hiding.

And, once you’ve pushed it enough times, you start to develop a habit so that your mouse is moving in the direction of the “Show Inbox” button no sooner than you’ve finished typing “.com” in your mail’s URL.

While my inbox is ostensibly hidden, I still view my unread messages just about every damn time I go to my e-mail anyway.

So, here’s my solution (which has been working fantastically):

I have “Inbox When Ready” installed on two separate browsers.

I use Chrome for most standard web-based tasks. In this browser, I set an “Inbox When Ready” lockout timer to last all day. 

I can still go to my e-mail to search for messages and find information that I need, but I’m blocked from clicking the “Show Inbox” button.

When I actually intend to process e-mail, I use Firefox (but leave it closed the rest of the time).

So, in order to actually check my e-mail, I have to fire up and entirely separate browser.

This is enough of a barrier and a hassle to prevent lapses in judgement or willpower resulting in getting lost in e-mail. And, my synapses are far less often occupied with admin tasks that are not exactly urgent but are time sensitive (updating client’s memberships, rescheduling appointments, etc.) that are best handled in a solid block of time a few times per day.

I’ve been really happy with this change in my workflow – and hopefully this helps someone else out as well!

The Repugnant Conclusion and why it Violates our Moral Intuitions

The “repugnant conclusion” is an uncomfortable bit of philosophical reasoning first presented by Derek Parfit.

For a detailed discussion of the repugnant conclusion, check out this article from Stanford philosophy.

Here’s a quick summary.

Consider a population where we can measure “well-being” which aggregates everything that makes life worth living into one, rolled-up measure.

(People often get tripped up here, so consider that this includes everything in one aggregate measure. This measure is not quite the same as “happiness.” Pain, loss, sorrow, profundity, fulfillment, pleasure, etc. are all included here – as are the trade-offs between doing something unpleasant to achieve a positive outcome, etc. Any sort of Malthusian population dynamics are also accounted for in this aggregate measure of well-being, as are any amounts of individual dissatisfaction based upon inequality. You may dispute that a single measure can capture all of this information, but, for the sake of this thought experiment, assume that it can.)

Assume we have a population A with a given well-being (the height of the rectangle is the total well-being, and the width of the rectangle is the population).

Then, assume we have a population A+, which is the same as population A, except we are adding an additional population with lower well-being than population A (although everyone still has a relatively high well-being).

Population A+ seems obviously “better” than population A (or at least not worse), as there are more people with positive lives – and the total well-being of the entire group is higher.

Then, assume that there is a population B with the same number of people as population A+.

However, their well-being is averaged across the population such that the total well-being is the same as A+. Rather than having two groups with different well-beings, we now have one group with the same well-being.

This seems to be better (or, again, at least not worse) than A+, which is better, or at least not worse, than A.

If we continually perform this operation, we end up with a population Z with very low well-being (but still net positive lives). 

So, we’ve show that a very large population with lives just barely worth living is preferable to – or at least not worse than – a smaller population with a much higher well-being for each individual.

Feels rather repugnant, doesn’t it?

There have been a lot of attempts to reason around the repugnant conclusion, but many of these attempts themselves result in bizarre conclusions themselves (termed the “sadistic conclusion” and the “absurd conclusion” – see the Stanford article for further discussion.)

I think that the best way around the repugnant conclusion is by questioning the additive properties of well-being. This is touched on here in the Stanford article.

If you asked how many ants would have to have perfect lives to make it acceptable to kill one human being, most people would say “none.” In effect, they are saying that no number of ant lives is worth one human life.

If we frame this in terms of well-being, we can say something like, “Some amount of ant well-being is probably worth sacrificing some amount of human well-being. However, there is a threshold of human well-being below which no amount of increased ant well-being can justify the trade-off.”

I think we can have a similar understanding of the “well-being” of human lives. A single life above a certain threshold of well-being is worth “more” than any number of lives below that threshold of well-being. Below certain thresholds, we cannot simply add lives to get a better outcome.

Think of this like Class A and Class B voting shares in a corporate structure. We could theoretically create an organization such that, while Class B shares are able to vote, they cannot change the outcome of a decision if the majority of Class A shares vote in a certain direction.

We can imagine “tiers” of well-being that are created based upon something like diagnostic criteria for complicated syndromes and disorders. Something like the Beighton score for joint hypermobility – if you have 5 of these 9 criteria, then your life and well-being cannot be offset be anyone with less than these numbers.

While I think this is sufficient to avoid the repugnant conclusion in a philosophical sense, I don’t think that this is why most people find the repugnant conclusion so repugnant.

Instead, I think our intuitions follow something closer to a desert-based approach to human well-being.

Simply by virtue of being human, each individual deserves a certain quality of life.

So, imagining all of these people with net positive lives that are just barely worth living violates our intuitions.

Here’s a more detailed explanation in the Stanford article.

This approach, however, doesn’t quite avoid the repugnant conclusion. Instead, it just moves the line for what we would consider a “net positive life.”

So, now we just have a different threshold above which lives must exist in order to be “positive,” and we can still run through the operations to generate a repugnant conclusion.

However, instead of imagining a huge population of people existing on “potatoes and Muzak,” we are now imagining a huge population existing on – I don’t know – slightly burnt toast, watery coffee, slow WiFi and Trapt.

While maybe not quite as repugnant, I think we now just have a “distasteful conclusion.” Still, I do think this is why most people’s moral intuitions are immediately violated when they first understand the repugnant conclusion.

Coaching the Complicated vs Coaching the Complex

As coaches improve their skillset, they become more adept at pattern-matching and quickly being able to diagnose flaws in someone’s movement or approach to a training session

They also develop more “soft skills” in communication, approaching clients, dealing with emotions, and generally navigating the interpersonal issues surrounding coaching.

We often talk about “best practices” – meaning that there are in, in fact, “best” ways to assess our clients, prescribe a program, and engage in ongoing communication.

However, after reading a bit about Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, I think that the domain of “best practices” is not necessarily appropriate for thinking about coaching.

When a coach is getting start, they must go through the process of learning how to handle “simple” scenarios. 

If clients are rounding their backs on deadlifts, tell them to stop rounding or go lighter. If clients are going out too fast on long workouts, tell them to back off and slow down. If clients are struggling to put their arms over their head, have them foam roll their upper back and do serratus wall slides.

Each of these scenarios can be put into a basic flowchart of decision-making.

However, everyone who has been coaching for awhile recognizes that this kind of simple decision-making is often inadequate and, in some cases, can be counter-productive.

A lot of these scenarios are “complicated” – meaning that there is a right answer somewhere, but it may be difficult to get to and often requires deep knowledge and expertise. 

And, there’s often more than one way to get to a correct answer.

Why can’t someone get their arms over their head. 

Let’s dig into their breathing patterns. Let’s have them do a variety of different scapular motor control exercises. Let’s have them work on repositioning their ribcage. Let’s have them get soft tissue work to release facilitated and inhibited muscles. Let’s have them try both unilateral and bilateral movements.

The underlying issue could be any of these things, none of these things, or some combination of all of them.

An expert is able to conduct a thorough assessment and come up with a plan that will ideally end with the “correct” outcome for the individual.

A lot of movement correction falls into this bucket.

But, as we move up the layers of abstraction into coaching an individual rather than just fixing a specific movement issue, we are now playing with complexity

Rather than thinking of the human body as something like a Ferrari where you have a schematic and you can figure out the “broken” piece and repair it in order to get everything back on track, we are now have a dynamic system with emergence, bidirectional causality and many layers of competing systems.

There is no schematic, every change you make to the system causes multiple different feedback loops to kick in, and there are huge contributions of randomness and chaos to the actual outcome of coaching someone.

So, what is our role as a coach in such a complex system?

How do we help individuals stick to a workout routine and change their behavior surrounding nutrition?

How do we help athletes maximize their potential in sport – especially when the competitive landscape is constantly changing?

How do we navigate the self-sabotage, lack of consistency, deception, and self-deception typical of working with both every day people and high level athletes?

So, coaches need to “probe” through conversation and try out different prescriptions to see what is working and what is creating buy-in, then attempt to execute on that.

Coaches must also enlist clients to do their own probing to figure out what works for them and to more accurately characterize the obstacles that are holding them back – not just from an exercise perspective, but, more importantly, from a behavioral perspective.

And, when we make changes, we must also recognize that inputs into the system change the system itself, and that there is also always the lurking specter of black swan events like injuries, overtraining, and large life events outside of the gym.

So, some coaches live in flow charts:

Don’t round your back when you deadlift.

Eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.

Push your knees out when you squat.

Some coaches live in nuanced assessments and detailed program design:

Here’s your two week testing period to figure out your relative strengths and weaknesses.

This is a 12 week squatting progression with accessory work meant to strengthen your upper back and improve your front squat relative to your back squat.

These are your macros. Make sure you weigh and measure all of your food, and we will check on that every week.

But, the highest order coaches combine the flow charts with nuanced assessments and detailed designs – and also enlist the clients themselves to probe at what is working and what’s not working so that the real challenges can be uncovered and solved through bottom-up behavior change rather than top-down design.

The Optimal Blend of Luck and Skill in Competition (And at the 2019 CrossFit Games)

The CrossFit Games just wrapped up, and – with the large numbers of competitors from national champions increasing the field from 40 athletes to ~150 in both the male and female divisions – a series of aggressive cuts were added to the competition this year.

The field was quickly whittled down to 10 athletes with about half of the competitors being cut from the field after the completion of each of the first six events.

This has resulted in some controversy in the CrossFit community, as many perennial podium contenders and fan-favorite Instagram celebs did not make it into the top 10 athletes that completed the majority of the events over the weekend.

While I think that some people are upset about not getting to see their favorite athletes compete, I think that most people who are upset are reacting to the addition of more “luck” into the outcome of the event.

The results of all sports and games are dictated by some blend of luck and skill.

People find games that rely almost entirely on luck to be tedious and unfulfilling (Candy Land). 

[That said, people do seem to love gambling on Super Bowl Squares, which is totally insane to me.]

Within most sports that people watch and compete in, they prefer there to be an outcome that is mostly dictated by the skill of the competitors but that has enough of an element of luck or chance that there is potential for both suspense and surprise relative to the final result.

While everyone loves a Cinderella story, an underdog, and a come-from-behind victory, these narratives are only compelling if there is a framework in which the “better” players usually win by virtue of their skill and their better use of resources.

If there is too much chaos in outcome, it’s difficult to build narrative, and our instincts of meaning-making are flouted.

We want to see stories that make sense. We want to see hard work rewarded. We want to see up-and-comers have surprising performances and “level up.”

If there’s too much luck, the outcomes of the event dissociate from the narratives we build to understand and follow sport, and it becomes less fulfilling and exciting to follow.

However, in “real life,” luck is a huge part of any sort of success. While most podcasts and articles detailing the life stories of business owners, athletes and creatives focus on their upbringing, their work ethic and their moment of surprising insight, we never see the countless businesses that were bit too late or a bit too early, musicians who never got a break, athletes who suffered a debilitating injury early in their career, people passed over for promotions based upon office politics, victims of discriminatory hiring practices, and people born in areas with no economic opportunity. [I ranted about it on the podcast recently, though.]

We don’t want sport to imitate life too much, though.

We like sport to have clear rules, and we like those rules to weight things heavily towards the skill of the competitors in terms of dictating outcomes.

We like the outcomes in sport to be mostly dictated by skill, with just enough luck to keep things interesting.

In the CrossFit Games, luck has historically played a role not just in terms of the happenings on competition day (Did you come down with a virus leading into competition? Did you get a judge holding you to a different standard than the rest of the field? Did your opponent rip their hands on their first rope climb?), but also in terms of the selection of the events.

While athletes understand that they have to be “good at everything” in order to succeed, most athletes could easily draw up a “best case scenario” for themselves and a “worst case scenario” for themselves in terms of programming. 

In order to get better as a CrossFit athlete, your goal is often to train such that the set of “worst case scenario” programs becomes smaller and smaller, since weaknesses are punished harshly based upon the scoring of the sport.

So, I think that many of the people who are upset about the changes are upset about the addition of “more luck” into the programming since now it is not just the events themselves that dictate the outcome, but the order in which they are released.

This changes the dynamic of the scoring even more – weaknesses are already punished more than strengths are rewarded. But, in the past, athletes have been able to mount exciting comebacks from early mistakes or poor performances. Now, however, a bad event sends people home early in the competition.

If you watch the post-Games, press conference, you can see Dave Castro react somewhat aggressively to questions about the cuts

How does Dave think about the role of “luck” in testing?

I would guess that Dave thinks of the test of the CrossFit Games as something more akin to “real life” testing rather than “sport” testing.

Meaning: do you have the capacity to deal with anything that comes your way, whether or not you’ve prepared for it or whether or not you think it’s “fair”?

Based upon this, early cuts, event selection, and other factors are irrelevant – the fittest are those who are able to handle whatever is thrown at them.

And, in fact, an important part of the testing is the ability to respond to the psychological adversity of a changing landscape and unknown events – and still perform at an elite level.

Those who are not up to the task are not just “victims of bad luck,” but have also demonstrated a lack of preparation, a tendency to wilt under pressure, and a propensity for making costly errors in high-stakes situations.

Mat Fraser, Tia-Clair, and CrossFit Mayhem would have probably each won their respective divisions almost no matter how the event was structured – provided it looks anything like what we consider to be “The Sport of Fitness.”

The rest of the podium and the athletes making each of the cuts would have probably changed based upon the order of the events.

So, what is the role of the CrossFit Games? Is it to find the fittest?

What is the optimal balance of luck and skill in terms of dictating the outcome?

Will athletes be willing to devote as much energy and as many resources to training if the outcome of their season is further decoupled from things over which they do have control?

My biggest concern is that – while the fittest will almost certainly figure it out and be fine regardless of the structure of the season, the qualification process, and the cuts at the CrossFit Games – those who are on the margins of different ability levels will become overly frustrated at the lack of clarity surrounding what the sport looks like.

For the long-term health of the sport, we don’t just need to “find the fittest,” we need to also have an ecosystem of athletes, events and sponsors that are all bought in. It seems that the transition to Sanctionals will likely push in that direction. But, there are a lot of “role players” in the competitive CrossFit landscape, in their experiences can’t be discounted. 

While Tia is probably the CrossFit Games champion in just about every imaginable scenario, she needs to have 150 other athletes to compete against who are almost as good as her in order to make the sport compelling. If too many of those athletes throw in the towel because their experience at the highest level is too chaotic and they are treated as second-class citizens, then the sport as a whole loses out on the talent pool necessary to make the competition exciting and develop future talent.

Why Everyone Recommends Reading…Even Though Books Don’t Work

Most people have a vague notion that they should be reading more.

That successful people nearly universally recommend reading as crucial to their accomplishments.

That there’s information out there explaining how to do just about anything that you want to do – not just in books, but in full-length university level classes available for free as well as via entrepreneurs selling their expertise and their systems through their on online businesses.

Anecdotally, I’ve found reading and attending seminars to be one of the best investments of my time, and I’m constantly updating how I run my businesses and how I operate as a coach based upon information that I pull from books, articles, podcasts, and courses.

However, it seems pretty obvious that reading is a really bad way for people to absorb information. (I think I’ve recommended Andy Matuschak’s excellent article on “Why Books Don’t Work” previously in my newsletter.)

What gives?

I think we’re seeing a bifurcation of the population.

For the folks with the cognitive habits necessary to integrate abstract information from books and lectures into their actual work, reading is one of the best possible uses of their time.

For others, it’s boring and results in very little behavioral change.

One of the biggest challenges in learning is the “transfer problem” – someone can seemingly learn information in one context and even do well in activities like testing, recall, etc. but completely fail to execute on the new information in the context of their actual skill being practiced.

We see this all the time in our coaches at SLSC. We will discuss a concept in our coaches meetings like understanding how faulty hip stability patterns can result in certain types of technique flaws in squatting. We will go over a variety of examples – watching videos and breaking down clients’ movement, having coaches demonstrate the movement flaws, having coaches come up with theoretical cues and hierarchies for making corrections, and writing progressions on the board for corrective exercises and future re-assessment protocols.

We have a lively discussion and everyone is engaged. People offer insightful comments and relate the material to their own experiences coaching.

Then, as soon as someone is struggling with a squat in an actual coaching scenario, coaches default to their standard advice of random ankle mobility drills and stretching the hamstrings – completely ignoring all of the more nuanced and more effective material that we’ve discussed in our meetings.

While this does drive me nuts, it’s an example of the transfer problem in action.

Taking insight and knowledge from one area and applying it in another – especially an area in which you have ingrained habits and behaviors – is shockingly difficult.

In Andy’s article, he discusses the necessary meta-cognition for people to be able to process information that they’re reading effectively and get around the transfer problem:

Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily. Readers must learn specific reflective strategies. “What questions should I be asking? How should I summarize what I’m reading?” Readers must run their own feedback loops. “Did I understand that? Should I re-read it? Consult another text?” Readers must understand their own cognition. “What does it feel like to understand something? Where are my blind spots?”

These skills fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them. Worse, even if readers know how to do all these things, the process is quite taxing. Readers must juggle both the content of the book and also all these meta-questions. People particularly struggle to multitask like this when the content is unfamiliar.

So, why do successful people seemingly read all the time – and recommend that others do the same?

I think we are seeing another example of selection bias as well as the aforementioned bifurcation.

Those who have the cognitive habits necessary to integrate information that they read into their actual practices are probably much more likely to be successful for many reasons. I imagine that this type of metacognition tracks with other “positive” traits like intelligence, conscientiousness, and expertise.

If you are an expert, you probably had to have a certain amount of intelligence and conscientiousness to achieve your expertise. Then, once you’ve achieved expertise, you have a much more detailed map of your subject matter and can more easily test new information against your map of the world and integrate it into your actual day-to-day actions.

Based upon this, those who develop the cognitive habits necessary to integrate new information can hit a “runaway” threshold where they are able to access constant streams of new skills, techniques and insights through reading and rapidly level up. Why wouldn’t they want to spend all of their time reading if they are immediately getting better at their chosen craft?

However, the portion of the population that struggles to integrate new information ends up stagnating and is not able to learn and iterate as rapidly resulting in a dynamic of “haves” and “have nots” where the information rich get more and more information rich.

I know some folks with expertise in education and learning read this blog. How – if at all – can we teach meta-cognition (assuming that we have an at least moderately motivated individual looking to learn)?

Or is it simply better to rely on prestige and social copying? Is this what companies mean when they are doubling down on culture? The most effective way to translate behavior through an organization is not documentation, policy and procedure – but rather execution and signaling by high status individuals and constant feedback.

The Delegation Doldrums

Many people who are growing their businesses have some understanding that they should be “delegating.” Maybe you’ve read The 4-Hour Work Week. Maybe you’ve read

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