About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

16 May 2014

Amateurs Teach Amateurs to Be Amateurs

In early 1980, while vacationing in Palm Beach, FL, I stopped in at PGA National Golf Club one day in search of someone who could help me with my golf game. At the time, I was a decent golfer, but I had plateaued; I had been shooting in the mid to low 80's and high 70's since my early 20's and no matter how much I worked to get better, it just wasn't happening.

The first place I stopped was the driving range. I figured I'd hit a bucket of balls to warm up before I headed to the clubhouse to schedule a lesson with someone ... anyone. When I went inside the shack to purchase the bucket, I was greeted by a friendly gent who was manning the cash register. I figured he was an early retiree who had moved to Florida to get out of the cold, and was working to make a extra few bucks a week so he and his wife could take advantage of the early dinner specials for seniors put on by every other restaurant in town.

After smiles, a handshake, and the exchange of first names - his was Mike - he started asking questions. He wanted to know where I was from and what had brought me out to PGA National that morning. He asked me about my golf game. He was curious as to why I had come to the range to practice that day, instead of teeing it up and playing 18 holes.

I had answers. I told him I was from Minneapolis, MN. He said he loved Minneapolis. He played in the 1959 PGA Championship at Minneapolis Golf Club. He shot 67 in the first round and was tied for the lead at that point. He didn't do so well in the second round and failed to make the cut. I was just a pup in 1959, but attended that tournament. I didn't remember seeing him there, but I started to wonder just who this Mike guy was.

Next topic. I said I'd come to PGA National to take a lesson from a pro. He asked me why I thought I needed one. I explained my predicament. I hadn't improved in 15 years. I'd read all the instruction books. I'd tried all their suggestions. I'd asked my friends for advice. I'd hit hit thousands of range balls. I'd prayed. Nothing.

At this point, a young lady came in to take over behind the cash register and Mike suggested we head up to the main golf shop to continue our conversation.

When we walked in, he pointed the way to his office. Office? Yup. And, his name was on the door: Mike Krak. PGA Professional. Director of Golf. Hmmmm.
I sat and we talked. Or, rather, I talked and Mike listened. He was trying to understand my golf swing problem from my point of view. He later explained that knowing how my mind worked would help him communicate with me in a way I could understand. Toward the end of our conversation, I glanced up at the wall behind his desk and saw a quote etched on a plaque. The words struck me:
"Amateurs Teach Amateurs to Be Amateurs."
I asked him about it. He told me a story. He had been giving golf lessons for over 30 years. He had given 10-15-20 thousand lessons. He had worked with pros - including some who were on the PGA and LPGA tours - and amateurs ranging in handicap from scratch or better to the sky's the limit. He saw a huge difference in how the pros sought to improve their game and how the amateurs did it: the pros sought advice and took lessons from highly qualified golf professionals - folks who make a career teaching the whys and wherefores of the game; almost all the amateurs got their advice from well-meaning friends and family members - folks who claimed to know the game, but didn't. And, when they finally decided to get some real help, they had developed so many bad habits that it was too late to hope for much of anything in the way of real improvement.

This was the first lesson I learned from Mike. If you're a golfer looking to improve your game, take lessons from a pro. I am always reminded of this when I see a man - it's almost always a man - out on the practice tee trying to give lessons to his wife, or kids, or girlfriend, or whatever. I watch and listen. He hits a shot to demonstrate the proper technique. Wrong. He hits another. Wrong again. It's obvious now that this guy has never broken 120, and he's acting like he's Tiger Woods - or maybe Tiger's teacher. He drones on. He gives one piece of bad advice after another. The person he's trying to teach is hitting one bad shot after another ... things are quickly getting worse instead of better. There are many times I have been tempted to walk over to one of these wannabe golf gurus and say, "You idiot. You hack. You have no idea what you're talking about. You are going to ruin this person for life. Just stop, already." I never have, though. I figure it's better to keep my mouth shut than to have a golf club wrapped around my neck.

This advice is good in other areas of life, too. If you have personal or family problems that need solving, don't go running to your mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, or your good friend who took Psychology 101 a hundred years ago and rushes home to watch Dr. Phil every day, find a good therapist. If you are in business and are looking for your very own executive coach to help you develop your strength in a certain area, don't just hire the first person who comes along with a piece of paper that says Certified Coach; find someone who's an expert in the area you want to develop and let that person help you chart your course.

Following our conversation in Mike's office, we headed back down to the range. The first thing he had me do was hit a few balls to warm up. I remember being nervous the whole time. Why? Because as I was whacking away at the first few balls, I remembered a story I heard about Joe Sodd, a teaching professional I knew from Minneapolis. I was hoping that what happened to one of Joe's students at his first lesson with Joe wouldn't happen to me during my first lesson with Mike. Here's the story.

The scene is the driving range at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, MN. A high-handicap - and rather wealthy - amateur is waiting for Joe, Interlachen's teaching pro at the time, to arrive to give him a lesson. Joe arrives at the appointed time. He asks the amateur to hit a few balls so he can figure out what he needs to work on. The amateur obliges. He puts his head down. He keeps his eye on the ball. He keeps his left arm straight. He whiffs the first ball. He tops the second. He slices the third. He does more of the same. In time, he looks up to ask Joe a question. Joe is not there. He looks around and spots Joe heading up the hill toward the clubhouse. He yells at Joe and asks him where he is going. Joe looks back at him and says, "Give it up. You should have come to me 30 years ago." He keeps on walking. Joe Sodd does not suffer fools gladly.

When I finished warming up, Mike was still there. Whew! He wanted me to hit some balls for real. Here's our conversation:

Me: "I'll start with my 8 iron."
Mike: "What are you aiming at?"
Me: "The big tree at the end of the range."
Mike: "No you're not."
Me: "Huh?"
Mike: "You're aiming 40 yards to the right of it."
Me: "Huh?"
Mike: "Let me show you."

At that point, he moved me aside and placed his feet exactly where mine had been.

Mike: "Stand behind me."
Me: "Okay."
Mike: "Where am I aiming?"
Me: "You're aiming 40 yards to the right of the big tree."
Mike: "And ...."
Me: "Hmmm."
He went on to explain that proper alignment is the key to good golf; that if you can consistently line your body up with your intended target, you can create a foundation from which you can craft a sound, consistent golf swing. He finished with these words:
"If you can't, you'll never be a player."
Ouch! I built my game around alignment after that, and became a pretty good player. Instead of shooting in the high 70s or low 80's, I got to the point where my average score was in the low to mid 70's.

There's an old saying:
"If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."
It means that unless you have a clearly defined target - like the tree at the end of the range - you're journey will take you somewhere, but exactly where is up for grabs.

But, while knowing where you want to end up is necessary, it is also insufficient. You must know how to square yourself with your target before you take the first step of any journey you plan to take. Why? Because in business or golf or life for that matter, a small misalignment at the beginning ends up as a huge miss at the end. There is a quote I like that summarizes this idea quite well. It's from chess grandmaster Alexander Kotov:
"It often happens that a player carries out a deep and complicated calculation, but fails to spot something elementary right at the first move."
I took a few lessons from Mike every year after that for at least a dozen years. And, every year we started the same way; he'd ask me where I was aimed. There's more to golf than aiming, of course, and he taught me all the ins and outs in due time.

One final point. Teachers are in great supply, but great teachers are rare. Advice is in great supply, but great advice is not. It's important to understand the difference.

  • Who are the gurus - the teachers or advisers - in your life? How did you come to pick them? Are they great? Are you sure?
  • Have you ever taken advice from someone you thought was able and honest only to be disappointed or defrauded? How did it happen? What faulty assumptions did you make? What steps have you taken to make sure it doesn't happen again?
"Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both yes and no." - J.R.R. Tolkien
"There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly." - Buckminster Fuller
"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - Hunter S. Thompson, A Generation of Swine
"Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion." - Jack Kerouac
"The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second is listening, the third memory, the fourth practice, the fifth teaching others." - Solomon Ibn Gabirol

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