Frank Coffyn's auto wrecked in Central Park, March 21,1912. Bain News Service, via Library of Congress.

Transitions To Higher Levels Mean Having To Build New Habits, And That’s Hard

Forrest ChristianCareers, Change, Learning Leave a Comment

Paradoxically, habit is both the product of learning and the escape from learning. We learn in order not to learn. Habit is efficient; learning is messy and wasteful. Learning that doesn’t produce habit is a waste of time. Habit that does not resist learning is failing in its function of continuity and efficiency. Buildings keep being changed until they get to a point where they don’t have to be changed so much. [Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, pp. 167.]

Although Brand is talking about buildings, the lesson generalizes. We can even apply it to the working life. If you think about it, the problem of levels transitions is that the habits that you have formed to effectively work at one level have to be jettisoned and new ones learned, whenever you transition to a new level. Since most people only make one or two transitions over the their working life, these can be handled fairly

Most of what you learn about working, you try to encapsulate into habit. You need this so that you can stop worrying about certain things. Even “simple” elements of worklife like expense reports or timesheets need to be habitual, so that you can stop learning them and simply integrate them into the habit of the day, like getting a coffee in the morning.

Which is why changes to expense systems (or the office coffee machine) can be so jolting: you didn’t know what you already knew, nor remembered how long it took to learn how to use them effectively.

As a long-time external (I started while in college), I know the inefficiencies of having to learn a new system because I had to do it every couple of years. (I worked longer projects than most externals.) It takes a long time, you waste time trying to get something done right — it always come back a few times — and you wonder how much money got wasted paying you to fill out paperwork.

All of which made me wonder today: how often do Hidden High Potentials (HHPs) have to adopt new habits? Since this affects you more than it does normal people, it’s worth touching on.

Hidden High Potentials make more transitions to higher work levels because they are on steeper developmental trajectories. Part of the transition change is the feeling of everything breaking down, that all the systems that you had developed and come to rely upon start to fail, become worthless. This is in part because the systems are accomplished learnings: you learned how to accomplish this or that and that learning became ingrained in habit. As you spend time and succeed at your current worklevel, you ingrain these habits further and further into what is called tacit knowledge. This is the heart of any quality organization, which enshrines learning into habits called “procedures”, which save the next guy from having to go through all that messy learning it by hand.

As you enter a level, the habits (learned behaviours to accomplish this or that goal) become useless because they no longer help you accomplish. You have to learn new solutions, which over time will be enshrined in new habits for this work level.

Most folks who are normal have someone help them through this process because the transition is predicted and predictable. They fit the dominant model, or the right career ladder.

HHPs don’t, and that’s what makes it harder. You have to do everything yourself. Each time you transition (and some of you do it almost continuously throughout your worklife) you have to learn new ways of being. That’s what this really is. At each new level of capacity for work, you must abandon what has worked before and adopt a new set of rules. The ways, systems and core beliefs that worked in the old level may not work at the next.

This leaves you scrambling to put together a new way of being. New rules of behaving with others are required. Habitual ways of friendships can all apart. Family existence has to be renegotiated, too. Atmospheres that were once so soothing and warm now become grating or unwelcoming.

All because you tripped up a level.

Learning these new ways takes time. If you were a normal, you would have people around you to support you who understood what you were going through. But you’re not a normal and you most likely don’t. You’re longing for someone to understand you is in part this exhaustion from spending your entire life figuring everything out on your own.

But the problems of the transitions aren’t all bad.

A large-church pastor who is familiar with Elliott Jaques’s levels of work put it this way in a conversation with me a few years back:

When I transitioned from level 4 to level 5, it was as if I lost everything I believed in. But it’s also as if I never knew God until now.

His ways of belief, core to both his personal life and his work, fell apart. The systems that he developed didn’t work at Level 5, including the systems that he created to support his personal faith. Yet, the move gave him an entirely new appreciation and experience of his God, something that he felt outweighed the loss of the systems.

So don’t look down on people who have the benefit of habits to support them. I’m looking into what the habits are for you, because there should be some. It’s all part of the basic research of the Secret Rules for Hidden High Potentials, and it’s research that’s worth doing.

Image Credit: Frank Coffyn’s auto wrecked in Central Park, March 21,1912. Bain News Service, via Library of Congress.

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