Be humble. Always seek to improve.

Feb 28, 2010 by

I thoroughly enjoyed this short Harvard Business Review blog post detailing some of the lessons that can be learned from snowboarding sensation Shaun White. While people are all different, there are many ties that bind us together. More specifically, while we all work and play in a wide variety of domains there are principles that are universally applicable. We all deal collectively with many of the same fundamental problems. It’s just our contexts that differ. While it’s natural to look towards fellow disciples when seeking solutions to the problems we encounter in our work, I’ve found that some of the best inspiration can come from people working in completely different disciplines.

The point in the article that really resonated for me was the importance of being humble. Author Vijay Govindarajan wrote: “The more humble you are, the more you know what you don’t know; you seek to learn.” Great performers constantly improve their processes in the pursuit of higher levels of performance. They do it not just because they are forced to respond to change but simply because they want to improve. In reviewing their performance in retrospect, people only need ask themselves such simple questions as “What worked well?”, “What didn’t work well?” and “How can we do better or avoid those problems in the future?” Software development teams can perform such retrospectives at the conclusion of an iteration or after reaching a particular milestone. Jazz musicians are constantly trying to improve their level of performance and their process of playing and engaging with others. They will ask themselves such questions as “How can I play more in tune?”, “How can I ‘lock in’ better with everyone else?” and “How can I make my solo more engaging or meaningful?” This process of continuous improvement is so automatic that the musicians often don’t realize they are doing it. The same is true of any performance athlete such as the pitcher on the mound who is thinking about what he or she can do differently to get that next ball past the batter and into the catcher’s mitt. As Govindarajan points out, this process begins with having the humility to accept that you can do better.

When people dedicate themselves to giving their best and then constantly improving each performance, they are capable of not only delivering great results once but again and again, even in the face of changing conditions. In sports, just as in the arts and in business, the truly successful people are not the “one hit wonders” that deliver a single great performance but those that deliver repeatedly with consistent results.


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  1. Bob Lambert » Blog Archive » Thoughts on the Jazz Process - [...]  The two concepts I particularly like are the importance of developing a technical base and the need for humility.…

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