Saturday, February 2, 2008

Training BS

I am a professional trainer and speaker. I stand up in front of people and teach them useful skills for living and working more effectively. It used to be that people who did this were said to be part of the “Self Help” business. Now it is the Personal Development Industry. Whatever.

I love this business. I love the look that I see in my students’ eyes when they realize that the have just accomplished something they did not think possible. I dig it when a student tells me a story about how what I taught them helped them in some way. My mission is to give people tools to help them to live better lives, and it gives me great satisfaction.

But I gotta tell ya, there are a lot of things about this business that drive me batty. Today, my pet peeve is the “urban legends” of my business. These are stories and illustrations that you will find widely quoted as fact in books, CD’s, seminars and presentations. They are quoted as fact, but as far as I can tell, they have no real basis anywhere. Could be that I’m just missing something, but I don’t think so. In fact, I think I’m smelling something pretty stinky around these stories.

The first is the story of the Bamboo Tree. The story has is that when a bamboo farmer (is there really such a thing as a bamboo farmer?) plants a bamboo, he waters it and tends it for 10 years with no visible results. Then in the 10th year, the plant suddenly shoots out of the ground and grows at some astronomical rate, like a foot a week or something. The moral is that much of our work is like this. We plant and water and tend to our business, and the results are slow in coming. But if we are faithful, and don’t give up, the results will be spectacular. Good story. I think, however, that it is a total load of crap. I have been unable to find any documentation of the growth cycle of bamboo that supports this story.

Second is the widely reported statistic that 97% of our communication is non-verbal. I first heard this in college in my Introduction to Communication class. It is generally accepted fact. Yet I have found no studies or documentation to actually support the claim. How do you measure it? What’s the methodology that came up with that number. The general concept may even be true, but it ticks me off that this is probably just a made up thing that has worked it’s way into the collective psyche.

Third is the widely referenced Harvard University Study on Goal Setting. The story is that “once upon a time” Harvard Business School did a study. They asked a sample of people if they had goals, what they were, and if they had written them down. Only 3% had written goals. 30 years later, they looked up the same people and guess what they found? The 3% who had written down their goals now rule the world. The rest of the sample now live in poverty in Bangladesh. OK, that’s not exactly how it goes, but close enough. I cannot find any such study. The only specific thing I can find is that it happened at Harvard. No year, no publication, no authors. Nothing. I think it’s a load of bunk. Again, it may be true that people who set goals and write them down are more successful, but why must we resort to lies to teach the truth?

I am currently reading Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. I have tremendous respect for Tony and his work, and I’m really enjoying and learning a lot from the book, but one thing in he wrote really rubbed me wrong. As an example of the power of constant and never-ending improvement, Robbins cites basketball coach Pat Riley. Robbins relates this story, that took place at the start of the 1986 season with the Lakers.

He convinced the players that increasing the quality of their game by a mere 1 ercent over their personal best would make a major difference in their season. This seems ridiculously small, but when you think about 12 players increasing by 1 percent their court skills over 5 areas the combined effort makes a team that is 60% more effective than it was before.

Ok, I’m not a math whiz so I can’t explain why in technical terms, but the logic here just seems wrong to me. A one percent increase in 5 separate areas for 12 players does NOT add up to 60% overall improvement. The categories are mixed up. This sort of noodling with the facts just drives me bonkers. Aren’t there enough REAL stories to illustrate the point. Can’t you use actual logic, rather than made up pseudo-math?

Stories and word pictures are powerful and useful for helping people to grasp the concepts involved, not just cognitively, but emotionally as well. That’s why speakers like to use stories like these. When people change behavior, it is almost always the result of some sort of change in emotional state, not a logical decision. Stories and images tap into emotions much more effectively than facts. The power of facts often comes from the emotional weight granted to authorities like Harvard.

I believe that goal setting is indeed a powerful tool for living an intentional and purposeful life. I agree that we should persevere even when results seem to be delayed. I am certain that how we say things is often more powerful than what we actually say. And I believe that constants incremental improvement can add up to dramatic progress over time.

Yup. I believe all these things. But I don’t buy the stories. Not for a minute. I wish my colleagues would stop spouting nonsense, even in the service of truth.

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