July 21, 2008

In Defense of Ass-Kicking

I recently got an email from a reader who said the best thing about the manifestowas that it kicked him in the ass and made him get back to working on what mattered to him.

I laughed and wrote back, “No problem. We all need a good ass-kicking sometimes.”

That’s exactly what I’m going to tell you about today—why being kicked in the behind can be a significant benefit for your productivity and focus.

I recently thought back on the areas in life I am somewhat knowledgeable about. Specifically, I thought about working with groups, writing, travel, and generally finding my own way to do things.

There is a very long list of things I know virtually nothing about—home improvement, car maintenance, higher math, oh, it could go on and on—but in a few specific areas, I’ve earned some decent qualifications over the years. The funny thing I realized while thinking about this is that with each of the areas of relative skill, the process of learning has usually been somewhat painful.

More often than not, I have learned far more from failure than from success… and I suspect that’s true of most people.

Consider this quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

The principles and big decisions behind this statement have a lot to do with being remarkable, fighting against mediocrity, and so on. But they also have a lot to do with accepting challenges that are difficult by their very nature.

Getting your ass kicked is not only a result of serious failures. It also comes about through constructive feedback from people you respect.

In fact, the best leaders are the ones who regularly provide constructive feedback.

In my various professions of nonconformity—entrepreneur, jazz musician, aid worker, group leader, writer—I have always learned far more from people who have said, “Chris, you’re doing great, EXCEPT for this one thing” than from people who have said, “Great job!”

I haven’t ever had a real boss in the sense of having a real job, but I’ve worked with enough groups to know that there is a real leadership vacuum if no one is giving out constructive feedback.

If the band leader only says, “Nice job, guys” when everyone is playing badly, no one will ever improve. Instead, the undeserved compliment will reinforce a subculture of mediocrity. At best, the group becomes inefficient. At worst, the group falls apart because no one is holding up the flag of excellence and keeping people focused on the right goals.

Whether through failure or constructive criticism, ass-kicking reminds us we’re not alone in the world.

If people care about you getting your stuff done, that’s a good thing, because it provides effective reinforcement for the finished product. On the other hand, if no one notices or cares, you begin to feel as though you might as well not do it.

In my case, some days I am hopelessly distracted. The Gmail window is open, and I’m eagerly watching for any sign of the next message. There it is! Oh… it’s just a notice from a mailing list. Then I go over to CNN.com, which in many ways is worse than being completely uninformed, to spend more minutes reading the latest non-news.

This is called WASTING PRECIOUS TIME. I could be doing all kinds of productive stuff like writing and planning my world takeover. Instead I am reading the same things over and over and daydreaming about my Frequent Flyer miles.

(I also check the FailBlog, but that’s totally worth it. I swear.)

Mass Accountability

There’s a lot of you reading and sharing your own ideas through comments, emails, and other blogs, so I figured that you could be the best reminder of what I’m supposed to be doing.

So go ahead, hold me accountable… here are my goals for the next few months.

  1. Get the book contract and start writing the book
  2. Write a second manifesto that will be released in January
  3. Keep writing quality essays three times a week, at least 750 words each time
  4. Run the Portland Marathon on October 5th
  5. Visit Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Qatar, and 5 other countries

If I don’t do these things, you have full permission to kick my ass, online or off.

Disclaimers

I thought about putting this section at the beginning of the article, but I decided if anyone was offended earlier, they probably wouldn’t make it to the bottom. So here it is, for those of you who stuck it out.

A lot of what I write is deliberately provocative. Some people appreciate this and others don’t—that is just kind of how it works. I wish I could tell you that there is room for everyone at the table, but trying to target everyone effectively means you end up targeting no one.

In most cases, I am the one who needs the ass-kicking most of all… but I suspect I’m not alone.

If the shoe fits, you know what to do. If not, I’m not offended if you find other sources of inspiration out there on the internet.

But for those of you in pursuit of your own significant goals, I’m writing for you. Do you agree that failure teaches more than success? What important projects are you working on that could benefit from a good, swift kick?

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Ass-Kick Image by gorupix

Comment on this article

37 Responses to “In Defense of Ass-Kicking”

  1. :nodding vigorously:

    That’s completely right!

    Many times, I ask for feedback on something that I’ve done, and get a milquetoast, “it’s very nice”, without any constructive information…. HOW is it “nice”? What part makes it “nice”? WHY do YOU think it’s “nice”?

    :crickets chirping in background:

    “I just think it’s nice, that’s all!”

    :bangs head on desk:

    Which is why sometimes the critics get listened to more often; THEY at least will say what they think is wrong (even if it isn’t true), giving you a starting point of sorts.

    I like your writing… it fills in those very important ‘unspoken’ principles that we need to keep in mind as we set and reach for our goals. Keep it up :putting padding in backside area:!!

  2. I have to say, as soon as I saw your essay title, I was like “Rock on!”

    And then I read it, and it reinforced “Rock on!” in a totally different way. One of the serious “ass-kickings” that I remember of my life was my mom accusing me (when I was TWELVE) of acting like my aunt, who is an alcoholic and hasn’t done a day’s work in at least ten years. I actually was a pretty lazy kid, but THAT pissed me off to the point where I got a work ethic and basically got my act together. Ass-kickings can be a good thing, and I typically appreciate them (in retrospect, usually).

    As for important projects, I’m still fooling around with writing novels – I’ve got FOUR in various stages of projects. At this point, I am focusing on the most recent. Hopefully I’ll have it done by November. (November is National Novel Writing Month, at nanowrimo.org) I need to break the work down into stages, which I’ll do this weekend. Thanks for the needed boost!

  3. Great Post, but it could focus a bit more on the psychological aspect of it rather than the obvious nature. Constructive feedback? :)

  4. I set out to be a writer and am now an accountant, so I darn well hope failure teaches something! My current project is to leave accounting for freelance writing. I do need a kick. I have an actual, honest-to-goodness prospect (for pro-bono work, but at this stage, who cares?), and I haven’t called her. I’ve been telling myself I’ll do it “tomorrow” for over a week. Yep, kick me.

    -Linnea

  5. I think we learn from struggle as well as from failure. If everything is handed to you or if everything is easy, there is little motivation to excel and it is easy to stagnate.

    I know that I frequently don’t try due to lack of confidence and it can be easier to do nothing. I just keep telling myself that it’s ok to make mistakes and that while not trying might be more comfortable I will ultimately be happier when I strive.

    Thanks again for another great article.

  6. An unchallenged life is not worth living.

    Those of us who only do things that are easy to us will live to regret it on our death bed. What really engages us and motivate us to live to the fullest and grow is not our successes, but our challenges. Fortunate are the ones who found vocations and lifework that deserves their life time in pursuit yet never ceases to be difficult and challenging.

    To me, music is such a pursuit. You can pursue and become a master but you will never run out of room to get better. I will always find difficult things to do in that realm.

    I would say ass-kicking is not something we need once in a while: I need it all the time. It keeps me on my toes and helps me to remain vigilant in my life. I owe much of that to my lovely wife, who is my master ass-kicker. I tell ya, I’ll never be lazy as long as I’m married to her! ;-)

    ari

  7. Hi all,

    Nice to see comments on a Monday night (I posted this essay later than usual). A few short replies here:

    @Nazim,

    Yeah, that makes sense. Agreed.

    @Sara,

    Well, there was another section, but I ended up cutting it… hopefully it will be used later. Good luck with those novels!

    @Ari,

    That is a great comment and really made me laugh. “Master ass-kicker,” well said.

    @Linnea, Laveda, Kim,

    Thank you. :)

  8. Chris, Overall great post. I enjoyed it.

    From the perspective of providing feedback; I have been many other people’s boss for many years. I was lucky in that when I first started managing people I had a boss that “forced” me to be straight with the people on my team and also had a woman on my team that demanded criticism so she could grow. It took me a little while to learn how give criticism. I’ve also taken some lumps from people that apparently had never been told they weren’t perfect.

    As for your post… overall excellent. You have a consistent tone across your posts and I like your examples. In this post the band leader example hit home for me.

    You do have a tendency to wander a bit. In this post, the section about wasting time didn’t tie in for me. I guess we’re supposed to kick your ass and remind you of your goals the next time we run into you waiting for an g-mail in the bus terminal? It took too much thinking on my part to make that connection – if that was your point at all.

    Keep it up. I enjoy your work.

    peace, Rick

  9. That’s a great attitude, Chris. I don’t know about learning more from failure than success, because success rarely comes without failure, but I have to say I learn and grow faster from failures and my critics. :)

    Here’s a little feedback from me: Being a visual person, I prefer if all your interesting travel excerpts have pictures you’ve personally taken (no matter how small they are) attached to them. I was curious about how an enormous stack of 1 million Zimbabwean dollars looks like! :p

  10. Think of Padraig Harrington today, when he stated that fear is his main motivator on the golf course. Kind of like Ari’s “all the time” ass-kicking.

    If we are wasting what little time we need, we deserve a little ass-kicking. Get goin’, man!

  11. Chris, I meant to write, “what little time we have”. :) Couldn’t figure out how to edit my post.

  12. Sometime you find the ass kicking, sometimes the ass kicking finds you. A lot depends on your post ass kicking perspective to define further actions. Give some, take some, pass it along and enjoy.

  13. I enjoy reading your blog. Yes, it is very informative. I am glad to see that you set goals–an undertaking that I believe is sorry needed by other professionals.
    Keep up the thought-provoking entries.

  14. Great post! This is one of the most valuable things you can have in a coach or mentor. Someone to give you the kick….

  15. It’s funny Chris, but I used the same term (a kick in the ass) to describe what happened when my girlfriend of 7 years broke up with me. She said that I had gotten complacent and no longer seemed to try both in our relationship and in my personal life (meaning career, and personal growth). The breakup gave me the kick in my ass that I needed to realize that what my ex said was true.

    I started pruning away the activities in my life that served no purpose and started to reach out to people that I had ignored, including friends. My life and my direction are now much more tightly focused. I do wish that my ass kicking hadn’t come about in this way (I loved her so), but nonetheless, it did snap me out of my funk/rut that I was in.

    Sometimes, like you mentioned, a failure in one part of your life provides the much needed ass-kick. I just wish it wouldn’t hurt so much at times, as needed as it was.

  16. “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb- that’s where the fruit is”
    I will join you in the pursuit of world domination, although mine is in the area of a marriage movement. I can put off the book writing with the best of them.
    Thanks for the swift kick this morning.

  17. I went to a dance class once – thinking “I’ve danced my whole life – I know what I’m doing” and an hour an half later found out I knew next to nothing…the style was so out of my range of experience – I drove home in tears. After much blood, sweat and tears I became (at the age of 29) a professional dancer.

    Lesson learned: if it’s out of my comfort zone it’s good for me. That also goes for broccoli, Chinese and traveling solo. My mom used to say, “The strongest swords are put through the hottest flames and the coldest waters.”

    So – thanks again for the reminder and keep it coming – you know if I don’t get my essays I’ll be writing you to ask where it is – right? ;-)

  18. Chris,
    You’re doing great, EXCEPT I’d like to hear more about what you do to keep yourself productive. Since you’re self-employed and literally on your own much of the time, I suspect you have to do your own ass-kicking much of the time. Other than posting your goals on a website, any other tips for keeping yourself focused?

  19. Chris,
    Last night I was in the hospital with my son and his lovely bride as they brought forth their first child and my first grandchild. There are not many activities more physically demanding than incubating a child and giving birth, and the reward is eternal.

    There is nothing mediocre about the effort and nothing greater than the reward.

    Thanks for the post, you hit a sweet spot this morning as I reflect on the newness of life after giving it your all.

    Here’s to life!

    Richard

  20. This is my new favorite article. I’m frequently in need of an ass-kicking. I spend WAY too much time on the internet doing nothing to further my progress on my goals. Damn that FailBlog and the cats on I Can Has Cheezburger.

    I’ll have to post this up near my computer so I can do something productive when I get home from work. =)

  21. No doubt at all that failure can be a great instructor. That is why I am working so hard at getting over my fear of failure. Somehow that got ingrained in my around my teenage years and I know it has cost me dearly. I really want to learn to fail.

  22. Sometimes a little bit of “time wasting” is just a prelude to attack. And sometimes we have to have some “necessary down time” to recharge.

    You cannot run full out 100% , 100% of the time…

    The key is to know when to stop stalling and get on with it.

    I have no doubt you will do it, but I shall make a note of this post. In return? Ahh, return the favor s’il vous plait. I am embarking on a challenge myself.

    I may have to print out an image of Teddy Roosevelt charging up a hill…
    Smiling as I write. Good show Chris, good show.

  23. I definitely agree – I think this is why people hire mentors.

    On learning more from failures than successes, I know it is true in most cases, but I have to say I have learned an awful lot from my successes. For example, I was a college student studying computer science (wow – go figure that a CS guy would be reading a blog), and on a lark applied for literally my dream job in research. It was working on cutting edge virtual reality technology. I had no experience but intense desire. In the end, I got the job with only a year of college completed at the time (I went back later) and on the promise that I would work night and day to keep up. This success was life changing for me, and I learned that I did indeed have the ability to reach far beyond what I thought possible. And it wasn’t because I failed that I arrived at that conclusion.

    So that is my version of ass-kicking for ya – I am challenging you to defend the assertion that the old, “learn more from failures” concept is actually true, when weighed against true successes….

    (And in this process, I may be opening the rear hatch for my OWN serious ass-kicking……… :) )

  24. July 22, 2008

    redrabbit

    About a year into my current job I was fired over a misunderstanding. I was promptly rehired once the truth came to light but that was my wake up call to stop living by the status quo set by my predecessor. With an “I’ve got nothing to lose now” attitude I started making changes and putting out ideas that have reaped great rewards for my company. That was eight years ago but it is a lesson not forgotten.

  25. July 22, 2008

    Svetlana

    I know one aphorism, it sounds like: “A kick in the ass promises delight of flight”
    Trying to be honest I’m really that ass-kicker sometimes,
    but need a kick too.
    You can check out Despair.com, it’s similar the FailBlog

  26. I just discovered your blog via David Usher. Great stuff!

    The ass kicking comes at just the right time. I was reading some posts from Umair Haque about the need to have entrepreneurs start focusing on the bigger problems. Here is a link to one of the posts tho I recommend them all.

    It really kicked me in ass to think about how I can use what I’m doing for a bigger more important purpose. I’m a co-founder of FaveQuest and we are building a new video platform to people connect to each other through video (not in the seismic sense though). I’ve decided to expand this vision for a much bigger cause: connect kids throughout the world to each other so we can all eventually all realize that THEM=US. Check out my slide deck here.

    Keep the ass kickin’ going … it is working!

  27. I agree with that! The times I’ve really changed or learned something were when I fell over on my butt. :D

    I like to think about what alex and brett harris said in their book “do hard things”: all effort — even failed effort — builds muscle. it just makes you stronger and shows what needs to be improved to get where you want to go.

  28. July 23, 2008

    Saravanan

    Wow Chris,

    This is great article. I have not felt provoked after reading your article. I think most of them are thought provoking. I really love coming to your blog and reading your articles.

    I hope you achieve all that you dreamt of doing. I am eagerly waiting for the FAQ. Hope it comes out soon.

  29. Perfect timing…
    As I knuckle down to get my first fitness product completed, your post comes at just the right time.
    I’m nervous as I put together this product thinking what others in my field will think, what the feedback will be and so on…but I just have to get it done and launch it.
    Best,
    Coop

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  31. Great post. I think we have to step back sometimes, take a look at the big picture and get back to basics to restart. We just published a first article on how to do this here.

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  33. Chris, love your stuff – even if I rarely post! The best ass-kickings for me always come from people who want me to improve and truly CARE about ME improving. Lots of folks want to just kick my ass…but the ones who can do so in such a way that I welcome it and take it to heart – are rare! I’d like to see you say more about HOW to both be a gracious receiver and giver of a classic and beneficial ass-kicking.

    Thanks!

  34. Dear Chris,

    To share my story: yes, in my case failure taught me more than success. When i moved to Western Europe from an Eastern European country, i had a real hard time fitting into the new culture.

    But i learned a lesson that is very valuable: now i know how it feels to be an outsider, and how much it hurts. So now I always treat people with respect, and hold others accountable if they don’t.

    Thank you so much for your blog. I enjoy the fact that you provoke.

    Anna

  35. Synchronicity. I just got off the phone with a friend in the USA who has never been China. I’ve lived here off and on for the past eight years. I thought I knew a thing or two about the place because I’ve got the scars and bruises to prove. But, my latest round of trying to get hired at a company that is a perfect fit for my skills has proven to be a complete disaster as I beat my head against the iron rice bowl of the guy in the HR department. My friend had some beautiful and culturally spot on advice about how I’ve tried force the situation into my favor.

    It is a major ass-kicking, and my pride smarts a bit as well. But, I’m back on track now. Thanks for the reminder about the pain and glory of learning!

  36. Chris, this is great! I’ve been a journalist for years, so I am very used to deadlines always being imposed on me, and yet have always had trouble sticking to my own creative goals without outside pressure from others. This entry actually inspired me to create my own list for the next few months, and I hope I can also count on friends and others to give me an ass-kicking if needed. :) Thanks for sharing!

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