How the Feedback Light Gets In

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“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

-Leonard Cohen, Anthem (1992)

Let’s call him Bill.

I met Bill at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) academy in Bangkok, Thailand. For those who don’t know, BJJ is a martial art that may, on the surface, remind you a bit of wrestling.

Bill and I attended the same class for many weeks, and after watching the instructor demo a move, Bill and I seemed to always be paired to practice it together.

During practice, Bill was excellent. He would practice the move on me as instructed, then we would switch and I would practice on him.

At various points throughout the class, there is what’s called open or live rolling—basically, you pair up with someone and spar rather than engage in the back-and-forth practicing of moves.

Something strange happened when Bill went live.

He couldn’t.

With what seemed like a superhuman grip, Bill would grab his partner’s uniform, pull it as tight to his body as possible, and essentially remain frozen in that position for however long the live roll was—sometimes 5 minutes or more.

Bill’s partners would complain, or they would look around the room and get sympathetic smiles from everyone else who had experienced this with Bill.

One day, while Bill gripped my uniform as though hanging on to a branch extending over a cliff, I called the teacher to ask what I should do.

“Bill,” the teacher said. Bill didn’t hear it. All his resources were being used to hang on.

The teacher then tapped him, “Bill, Hey Bill, I need you to think of this as play. Neither of you will be able to learn unless both of you think of this as play. Cameron is ready to play. We’ve got a minute left. Can you play with him?”

What happened next was incredible. It was as if Bill had gone from being put on time-out to being given his favorite toy. He had permission now.

Bill released his grip and began working hard to practice the move we’d learned earlier. I now had a chance to practice defending this move. Though it was all expressed in our bodies, we both now had a chance to give and receive feedback—to let that feedback light in so we could improve.

As I saw it, Bill became paralyzed with fear at the mention of live rolling. Going live meant being vulnerable, trusting your partner, and generally understanding that, unlike the practice drills from earlier, you could no longer present as perfect.

In protecting himself in this way, Bill also protected himself against learning. And because BJJ, like feedback, takes being in relationship, Bill also limited the learning of those he engaged with.

In my work helping others improve their feedback skills, I see many Bills and I get plenty of opportunities to reflect on those times when I am also Bill.

Because here’s what I’ve come to understand over the years. Pursuing anything close to a perfect performance involves an endless and relentless willingness to open up to imperfection, to see vulnerability and mistakes not as weaknesses but as play.

I see this at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between.

Many newbies think the illusion of perfection will help them climb the ranks.

Many experts and executives in leadership positions think maintaining their elite status means maintaining the illusion of perfection.

Both groups hold onto the illusion with the same kind of grip as Bill.

Those who keep growing are those who, even in their high status as elite leaders, are able to loosen the vice-like grip of vulnerability, let the light in, and see what blossoms. As I learned from Bill, when I’m able to step into that vulnerability, it also enables the growth of those around me.

Yes, things will break. Yes, at a time when we and perhaps others expect us to put on perfect performance, we will stumble and falter.

But with the right mindset in those moments, we can Move Fast and Fix Things, as Frances Frei and Anne Morriss advise.

In the playful fixing, beauty and strength can arise. I’m reminded of kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing broken ceramics with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold.


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