If you want to perform better, you’ve got to try harder. That may well be one of the central tenants of western culture. If things aren’t going your way, you need to double down on your effort. The problem must be a lack of grind, motivation to push forward, or caring. From the athletic fields to massive corporations to start-ups to our schoolyards, giving more effort is often seen as the solution to all our problems. There’s little doubt that hard work is important, but what if it sometimes gets in the way?
It is no secret that the United States school system lags behind many of our western peers. If you wander into your local elementary or high school, you will certainly see effort. Teaching is not your standard 9-5 job. Recent reports suggest that, on average, teachers spend 54 hours per week working. Staying late, correcting papers on weekends, tutoring, and more. Meanwhile, administrators love to test and track, collecting an inordinate amount of data on students. They are clued in on when a child is falling behind in reading compared to their peers, and in the best cases, ready to pounce with extra resources to catch them back up. Schools have certainly adopted the data revolution. No matter where you look, there is certainly effort.
Now, compare that to the much higher-ranked schools in Finland. Are they tracking everything, comparing which schools and teachers are successful versus not? According to an educational report by Google, this isn’t the case. Finland takes the opposite approach: autonomy. As a Finnish advisor to education declared, “In Finland the teachers are trusted. There is very little supervision of teachers, very little evaluation of teachers, we don’t compare our schools, the schools don’t compete with each other and this has very much to do with teacher appreciation.” There’s no standardized testing or arbitrary target; individual teachers do their own assessment of their students. This wasn’t just rhetoric, it was true. As the Google report concluded, one of the takeaways that the US needed to adopt was far more autonomy for teachers.
The key wasn’t just providing freedom and autonomy. First, the Finnish schools hired good people. Finland spent years making teaching a high-status job in their society, unlike in America, where teaching is often viewed as a backup career and treated as something that anyone could do (in no small part thanks to poor compensation for the massive work and responsibility being put in). In Finland, teaching is closer to how we view a doctor or lawyer in American society.
Hire good people, get out of their way. Trust them to do their job. Let go of over-controlling.
Letting go and trusting instead of controlling runs counter to our ingrained ideology, but sometimes letting go is what frees us up to perform our best. Consider elite runner Sara Hall, who set the American Record in the half marathon this winter. Before lining up to race, she let go. After the race, she explained, “We decided instead the goal wasn’t a time but ‘the feeling’…Flying along, stride fluid, flanked by amazing women, loving finally getting a cold day. Sometimes you have to reframe your goal, because I never want to have a goal that’s stealing my peace ripping me out of the present, and keeping me from loving the people in my well.”
Or consider the conundrum that the fastest sprinters on the planet face. If they dig deep and try harder, they actually run slower. As my mentor and the former coach of Carl Lewis Tom Tellez liked to tell me, “To run fast, you need to relax. It should feel easy.” Tellez isn’t the only coach to understand this. Famed coach Bud Winter even put out a book about it, called Relax and Win.
Letting go doesn’t mean that you stop caring. It means you get out of your own way. You let go of the tension and unease. You allow your body and mind to do what it knows how to do. This is no easy feat. It goes against every bone in our body. When something is on the line, when we care about the outcome, the tendency is to try to control every aspect of the endeavor we can. We micromanage, we look over the shoulder of our employees to make sure they are doing it right. But often, all this leads to is more tension. And tension leads to mistakes. It shifts our motivation from being intrinsically driven to a sharp focus on an outcome. And if there’s anything we can learn from decades of research on motivation, it’s that intrinsic motivation is much more powerful over the long haul.
If humans running down a track at upwards of twenty-seven miles per hour have to let go to run faster then maybe it might be the key for you, too. It might seem strange to let go of outcomes or to stop trying so hard. But in athletics and in education, it seems like the best of the best are doing just that. Maybe it’s because it takes a deep-rooted security to let go. Insecurity drives into the false hopes of over-controlling, micro-managing, and over-trying, as if it offers the certainty of improvement. But sometimes it’s better to simply have faith in yourself or your people—the kind that is born out of confidence from knowing that you put in the appropriate preparation—and then let go.
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