Anne Wotring – Dare to Think

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Doing Your Best

October 4, 2011

“The great challenge in performing is listening to yourself,” Itzak Perlman told writer and surgeon, Atul Gawande, in this week’s October 3 New Yorker magazine, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches, Should You?” http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande I highly recommend it.

Gawande writes an engaging narrative about his interviews with professionals from various fields – sports, teaching, music and writing – on why they have coaches. He also shares especially interesting insights from his own experiment being coached a highly respected surgeon colleague. He explains how his first “twenty-minute discussion [with my coach after he observed me in surgery] gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years…. I’d had no outside eyes and ears” since he had established his private practice 8 years earlier.

All those interviewed agree that coaching helps because human beings can’t perceive what others’ perceive of us. It’s impossible to hear or see yourself as others do.

We really can’t perceive ourselves as others do because we have built in blinders that prevent it. And we don’t naturally seek feedback because our culture is based on reward and punishment rather than on learning. Instead of opportunities to improve and correct ourselves, we get graded. This eventually slows and stops our natural inclination to try and learn new things. Although Gawande’s assertion seems true about why people don’t seek feedback — “human beings resist exposure; our brains are well-defended,” I disagree. A well-defended brain is not our nature. Our brains defend us because our reward and punishment culture conditions us against learning, against this hurtful and embarrassing cultural exposure. Reward and punishment is anti-learning; whereas, a learning approach supports and produces people who are not afraid to try new things.

Gawande beautifully describes how learning happens with a supportive rather than punitive teacher or coach: “Coaches help you go from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.”

I give Gwande the last word. “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Yet the allegiance of coaches is to the people they work with; their success depends on it.” Yes, sir.