On reinvention and doping in sports

Elite athletes, by definition, have followed the master’s path to achieve their elite level. And we all know that the better you get at something – anything – the harder it is to continue to make gains. The plateau gets wider and wider, and the improvements at the end of the plateau get smaller and smaller.
I’ve been giving the question of doping in sports a bit more thought since my post on the subject this past Monday. Actually, it was something that I wrote on Wednesday that kind of pulled it together for me:

It is all too easy for anyone at an elite level of achievement to believe, and act as if, there is nothing they need to learn from anyone else. Sometimes, though, to break through the inevitable wall and leave the plateau, you need to reinvent yourself, even if that means admitting to others that you need the help.

Unfortunately for these elite athletes, who are used to being on top of their field, reinventing yourself often results in a reduction in your performance. A runner, for instance, trying a new stride will quite likely run slower than usual for a while. Maybe for a whole season.

To many elite level performers, who are used to always winning, always breaking records, this slip – no matter how temporary – is simply unacceptable. At the same time, they are unwilling to accept the ‘permanent plateau’ that inevitably results if they change nothing. It is at this point that the irresistible lure, the siren song, of performance enhancing drugs takes hold.

The problem, of course, is that aspiring young athletes who have not yet found the path to mastery see performance enhancing drugs as a short cut to the end of that path. They don’t understand that for the elite athlete this is but a slip from the path, but for themselves it is a detour from which may never find their way back.

Jim McGee on Reinvention

Following on my closing thoughts on re-invention yesterday, I’d like to point you to some thoughts on the subject from Jim McGee earlier this year. Back in February, Jim wrote Get Better at Reinventing the Wheel, which carried the subtitle To succeed with knowledge management, organizations should focus on getting better at reinventing the wheel instead of avoiding it.

Jim contrasts two approaches to reinvention – the lazy way and the intelligent way – as hinted at in this introductory paragraph.

Taking the notion of reinvention superficially, the result is more likely to be a plagiarism support system that atrophies and fades away. Succeeding with knowledge management depends on thinking deeply about reinvention and how it contributes to meeting the demand for more organizational innovation. Done right, reinvention should be a key driver of innovation and doing reinvention right requires a different approach to knowledge management.

Contrary to the common mantra for many knowledge management initiatives (“we don’t want to reinvent the wheel”), Jim believes – as do I – that “instead of something to be avoided, reinvention becomes a skill to be developed and a process to master” to help foster true innovation.

Jim also posted an update of his thoughts on reinvention to his blog McGee’s Musings over the summer that provides a little more insight into why he wrote the piece in the first place.

Finding inspiration in the mastery of others

While mastery in one area isn’t necessarily transferable to another, experts in different fields can quite effectively share their expertise to help each improve. The story A Hospital Races to Learn Lessons of Ferrari Pit Stop (subscription required) in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal tells the story of how surgeons at Britain’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children adapted pit crew procedures to reduce complications during the ‘hand-off’ phase of surgery and how other hospitals are looking at similar ways to improve operations (and thereby reduce complications).

While most people focus on the big mistakes that obviously lead to bad outcome, those are the easy mistakes to see and fix. What the hospital had realized was that the small mistakes often went unnoticed and unrectified, leading to a strong correlation with bad outcomes. What they didn’t know how to do was fix the problem.

Until, that is, two doctors watching a Formula One event saw a similarity in what happened in the pits and what happened during a patient handoff. They realized that someone had already solved the problem they had discovered for themselves, and that they could adapt that solution for their own purposes. Fortunately, the doctors and their colleagues don’t believe in the “not invented here” syndrome, and greatly improved the care they provide their patients.

That last point is a key one in thinking about mastery, especially when you reach a certain level of achievement. It is all too easy for anyone at an elite level of achievement to believe, and act as if, is nothing they need to learn from anyone else. Sometimes, though, to break through the inevitable wall and leave the plateau, you need to reinvent yourself, even if that means admitting to others that you need the help.

More from BEST (Boosting Engineering Science and Technology)

On 3-4 November, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith hosted the 2006 Frontier Trails BEST Regional competition. (You may remember that a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the success of the Robohobos at the St. Louis hub event, Billiken BEST.) I’d like to extend my congratulations to all of the winning teams, but also to all of the teams that participated and especially to our home town Robohobos (who earned a third place award for their web site).

As someone who thinks that entirely too much money is spent on athletic programs in schools (at least in relation to the amount spent on other, non-athletic programs), I was heartened to see the incredible level of support from parents and other students, and to a lesser degree from the schools themselves. I’m not sure what I expected when we went to the competition, but it wasn’t like anything I had imagined.

Thirty teams competed in what, at times, seemed more like a high school sports event than a demonstration of engineering and academics. The Stubblefield Center at UAFS was filled with a cacophony of drums, horns, electric guitars, cheerleaders (yes, you read that right) and screaming fans. If I had been smart, I would have accepted the ear-plugs offered at the front door. I’ll know better next year.

When the pursuit of mastery goes bad

At what point does passion (typically seen as a “good” thing) become obsession (typically regarded as a “bad” thing)? At what point does the achievement of mastery lose its value because you’ve “cheated” to get there? And why are some things considered cheating (for instance, performance enhancing drugs) and some are not (for instance, performance enhancing equipment)?

These were just a couple of questions that came to mind while listening to The Case Against Doping on today’s edition of Fresh Air.

Former athlete and president of the World Anti-Doping Agency Richard Pound talks about his new book, Inside Dope: How Drugs Are the Biggest Threat to Sports, Why You Should Care, and What Can Be Done About Them. Pound is also a 25-year member of the International Olympic Committee. In 1960, he participated in the Olympics as a swimmer from Canada.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers to share, at least not yet. I’ve thought about the question of doping in a generic sense, such as when Major League Baseball was called before the US Congress to address steroid use, but I’ve not given it a whole of thought in terms of the pursuit of mastery.

Having said that, though, it seems to me that the use of performance enhancing drugs is more about achieving specific, short term goals than about achieving long term mastery of an activity. In its own way, this is just another battlefront in the ongoing war against mastery.

Fighting back against assaults on mastery

While visiting my in-laws this past weekend, I was flipping through some old copies of Birds and Blooms magazine, looking at some landscaping ideas (and the excellent bird photography). On the inside back cover of one issue was a story by a woman who recounted how her grandmother had taught her how to get birds to eat seed out of her hand.

It was a long (several day) process, that required patience and a lot of ‘failure’ before the birds were comfortable approaching the woman (then a little girl) and eating from her hand. Though not exactly a tale of ‘mastery’, it nonetheless embodied key aspects of the master’s path.

In my last post, I alluded to what George Leonard refers to in Mastery as “America’s War Against Mastery:”

If you’re planning to embark on a master’s journey, you might find yourself bucking current trends in American life. Our hyped-up consumerist society is engaged, in fact, in an all-out war on mastery….

The quick fix, anti-mastery mentality touches almost everything in our lives. Look at modern medicine and pharmacology. “Fast, temporary relief” is the battle cry.

I was pleased to see that mastery, or at least the ideas of mastery, were fighting back in this war. The grandmother, obviously a true master of birds and blooms (sorry, couldn’t help myself), passing on her knowledge and wisdom to the next generation. Unfortunately, I was quickly disappointed and realized that the assault on mastery is still in full force.

The article ended with, and indeed turned out to be a prelude to, an advertisement for a ‘patented bird attraction’ system that guaranteed you would have birds eating out of hand “within minutes, on your first try.” Ack! Phbbt!

In the closing sentence of this chapter Leonard writes:

In the long run, the war against mastery, the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results, is a war that can’t be won.

This may be true for the ‘big picture,’ but I still have faith in individuals to carry on the good fight.

Mastery on the dance floor » Hobby Turned World Record

Achieving mastery can take a long time. This is especially true if you are pursuing mastery in something other than your profession, when you have only limited time to dedicate to the ‘hobby.’ As a result, many people look for a “quick-fix” to achieve final results without actually learning anything.

So it was nice to see Paolina’s post at Green Chameleon about her pursuit of mastery in salsa, and the unexpected rewards that pursuit brought her way.

When I first started to salsa in 1998, the result of my sister having won two free passes for 6 lessons, I was immediately hooked on the dance and after those 6 lessons, signed on and went faithfully every weekend to dance class for 2 years. Since then, there has been the occasional salsa workshop or choreography I would do, or performance at events, as a hobby.

Little did I expect the highlight of my salsa experience to involve having my name in the Guinness Book of Records.

Dance, like the martial arts, is one of those areas where you can learn some steps, learn a routine, and perform it relatively well, but not be able to actually apply that routine to another situation. You haven’t really learned to dance, you’ve learned a dance.

This is reflective of how organizations go about knowledge management: Some want to manage their knowledge, and some want a knowledge management system. The latter is easy to do, anyone will sell you a knowledge management system. Actually understanding what your organization knows and being able to use it to further your organization’s goals, on the other hand, is a master’s journey that, unfortunately, too few seem willing to take.