Controller's Corner

By Sadowski, Thomas J. | The Journal of Government Financial Management, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Controller's Corner


Sadowski, Thomas J., The Journal of Government Financial Management


Thought I'd start this column with a quote from Virgil Thomson, American composer and critic:

"Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not."

What I found so intriguing about this was not the part about fear. After all, who hasn't been apprehensive or nervous about doing something for the first time? This fear can be especially true at work, where you may feel more stress than other times.

So, yes, do it once. That's the only way to get past the fear of doing something you've never tried.

And if you are responsible for training others, you might keep this in mind: How often does your training consist of reading, listening and other passive activities? When do trainees do what they're learning? Reminds me of what I used to say about ITtraining - at least what I saw early in my career as a manager. The trainer would talk about how a PC works, not how to use it, but there was nohands-on no doing

It was like teaching a kid to drive and starting with how an internal combustion engine works, when all the kid wants to do is drive. Give the kids what they need to drive safely, but let them do it. That is when they will pay attention to other important information, like checking the oil regularly and learning a few other things that only make sense once you have the experience of driving, i.e., doing.

I will get back to my main point in a moment, but I wanted to emphasize Thomson's second point: repetition. It is the rare person who learns the first time. I recently finished a fascinating book by David Eagleman entitled Incognito about how the brain works. I highly recommend it to anyone. The relevant point here is how we actually learn and ingrain things so they don't take conscious thought. Do you recall learning how to ride a bike or to type? Take a momentto really think aboutthis. One day you know nothing about how to do it. And days or weeks later you are doing it and with no conscious effort. How did that happen?

Think more aboutthis experience. While you were learning, you focused intently on what you were doing and how. You were paying very close attention.

What are you thinking about now when you type? Just about anything except how you are doing it. You don't even see the keys on the keyboard. Your fingers know where the keys are, and you might not even think about the spelling of a word - just the word itself or maybe no more than the phrase or sentence you are composing.

This is what repetition does. It starts in the conscious as we lay down the tracks, and as it becomes ingrained, we never think again about ftoivwe do it. We just do it. But true learning takes repetition. Repetition is like programming a computer: Once the program works the way we want, we never need to think about it again.

So much for Nike and "Just do it". Ain't that easy, is it?

Sidetracked again, but now to Thomson's third point, which reminded me of the Alka-Seltzer commercial, "Try it. You'll like it." Except that is not what Thomson said. He said try it a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.

How many times have you tried something new and decided, "I won't do that again - I don't like it!" So besides learning to do something by repetition, you might learn to like it as well. I am less certain whether or how this applies in our government financial management world, but I'll bet it does.

I recently read a synopsis in the Business Intelligence Brief of The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk. I thought this an apt companion to the quote from Virgil Thomson. The synopsis included this:

"Ratherthan being the result of genetics or inherent genius, truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved with less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years' time."

Shenk concluded that "For those on their way to greatness [in intellectual or physical endeavors], several themes regarding practice consistently come to light. …

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