I was walking along the beach with my wife (that’s her in the photo above) when I saw a man skipping stones on the top of the water. He was the best I have ever seen. The stone flew out of his hand and powered across the water and bounced well over 10 times. It was mesmerising to watch. What was even more interesting was the he didn’t know how he did it! So how do you replicate brilliance? Here are 5 lessons that enabled me to learn from him.
Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to look foolish
I have felt gripped by seeing this man bouncing his stones off the water. I have felt that wonder with stone skipping once before. I was about 8 years old. I was with my family, and we had gone to the outdoors as part of our church community. One man was at a river skipping stones. Despite it being so long ago, I remember my boyish sense of wonder like it was yesterday. It seemed to defy gravity. I remember asking him how he did it, and he kindly showed me. Ever since then whenever I see water, I start looking for flat stones, I don’t care whether it is a river, the sea or even a bath…my wife gets very upset! Well perhaps not the bath, but you get the point. I would say I am good at skipping stones, better than most and I’ve done it for years.
Lesson 2: Don’t let your ego get in the way of your growth
You can imagine my surprise when, 32 years of experience later, I saw someone significantly better than me. We might have an impulse to save our pride, but we can’t learn that way. I immediately went up to him and asked, how do you do that? He looked embarrassed and said, “I get a flat stone”, I replied “I skip stones too, and I already do that”. He said, “well I hold the stone against my finger, so it turns when you release it”, I said “I do THAT”, pointing to how he held the stone, but my stone doesn’t do THAT”, pointing to where I last saw his stone skipping across the bay as if it was going to hit Norway. He looked embarrassed, “well I don’t know then.” I said, “I’m going to watch you…if that’s ok.” I’m not sure it was ok. He was looking quite awkward, but he relented at least, and I was happy with that. I needed to know.
He selected a stone and walked to the water. As he pulled back his arm, I was stood next to him staring very intently. I had never met him before in my life. Poor guy. He flung the stone forward and it gloriously skipped across the water. It must of looked amazing, but I was too busy to notice. I was looking at his technique and I spotted something that excited me. I noticed lots that I did do. But I was not looking for that, I was looking for something that I didn’t yet do, but that I could do. I saw an upward arc at the end of his arm swing. I watched him throw another 3 stones and got more excited as my theory became more concrete.
Now obviously I could see the stone go further than mine, so I knew what to look for. In the business world it is not always so clear cut. It takes effort to look for the better ways. I remember talking to a manager that rules by fear. He said, “I had to leave my career of 30 years because I just didn’t like myself.” He sadly had gone somewhere else and kept doing the same things. He was a nightmare to be around. Another leader I talked to said a similar thing, but his dissatisfaction led him to personal growth and discovery. He became a better person.
Lesson 3: All the analysing in the world makes no difference unless you try something new
I excitedly told my new found hostage…I mean teacher, what he was doing differently to me. I selected my own stone. I felt it’s smooth feel against me skin. Placed it in that comfortable well-worn place between my fingers and thumb and pulled my arm back. I threw my arm forward and at the last moment let me arm lift as I launched the stone. I followed it as it flew towards the water and bounced again and again and again. Inexorably reach the horizon until it finally sank beneath the waves to form part of the landscape. I was exhilarated. It had gone further than I had ever skipped a stone. Much further. Perhaps 3 times further. Still not as far as his, but I had another 32 years to hone the skill before I found my next victim.
Lesson 4: Allow others to be the hero
Whilst I was making him uncomfortable, my wife had been standing next to his wife, she had said “that will have made his day.” She related that he had just been telling his wife and kids that he used to win competitions for stone skipping at school and then some stranger told him how amazing he was, confirming to his kids that they had an amazing dad. Even after I had done reasonably well, I continued to praise him and thank him. It is amazing how little praise people need, yet they often get none. When I am leading teams, my focus is on praising what needs to be praised and immediately dealing with what needs to be dealt with.
Lesson 5: Be careful who you promote: Experts don’t always know what makes them experts.
What was fascinating in my stone skipping example, is that he didn’t know why he was so good. He just knew he was much better than average but couldn’t teach even his own children to be as good as I was. If his skill was sales instead of stones, he would have likely been promoted, having no clue how to teach others to do what he did. With a bit of time with me, he now knew what made him different so he could teach others. Maybe now he could make a good stone skipping manager.
I’m not saying I was amazing in my role to help him because I was selfishly looking for how I could improve, but it is interesting that just because you can do something well, doesn’t mean you can teach someone else. The ability to break apart your own, or another’s process is itself a skill. Find the people that can do that, they will make really good managers. They will have the ability to not try make themselves the centre of attention, but rather they will be constantly looking to promote what works best. At the very least, when you promote someone, make sure you also help them find a coach and a mentor. I’ve seen competent nice people, become absolute nightmare managers because they were given no help. I’ve seen competent, nice people become amazing because they had amazing mentors.
Let me know your best tips for replicating success!