This revisit of a 2013 post is made timely by the fact that Tom Brady, now nearly 40, just went 11-1 and set an NFL record for touchdown-to-interception ratio. Which means 1) he’s pretty good for a sixth-round draft choice; 2) he’s almost made up for his choice of underwear in the photo at right.
Sorry to break this to you, but you are a pretty bad judge of talent.
It’s not your fault. We’re all bad at judging talent because we instinctively tend to overrate the visible stuff (performance), and underrate the invisible stuff we call “character” — namely work habits, competitiveness, ambition, and grit — which turn out to be far more important over the long run.
Take Sunday’s Oscars, for instance, where the big winner was “Argo” director/producer/star Ben Affleck. That would be the same Ben Affleck who, a few years ago, was known mostly for making a series of spectacularly mediocre movies, including 2003’s “Gigli,” which has been hailed by reviewers as possibly the worst movie of all time.
So were we all wrong about Affleck’s talents? Absolutely, because we made the same old mistake: we were distracted by the visible, and ignored what really matters.
Nowhere is this more true than at this week’s NFL combine, that annual festival of bad judgement. Hundreds of top college players are brought in to be measured — to leap, run, lift weights, and take intelligence tests. Teams then use these measures and other sophisticated scouting techniques to determine the players’ value in the draft… and then proceed to get it wrong with spectacular consistency.
Some teams, however, consistently manage to avoid this trap. One of them is the New England Patriots and their coach Bill Belichick. How? In part, because they’ve figured out an efficient way to test for character.
Here’s how it typically works: at the combine, Belichick invites the prospect to the team’s hotel room. The athlete walks in, Belichick says a brisk hello, clicks off the lights, then pushes PLAY on a video of one of the player’s worst moments of the previous season: a major screwup. Then Belichick turns to the prospect and asks, “So what happened there?”
Belichick not really interested in what happened on the field, of course. He’s interested in how the player reacts to adversity. How does their brain handle failure? Do they take responsibility, or make excuses? Do they blame others, or talk about what they’d do differently? (One player started ripping into his coach, and Belichick flicked on the lights and ended the interview right there — possibly saving his franchise millions.)
The idea is not just to weed out players with the wrong mindset, but also to identify those who have the right one. Players like this skinny, incredibly slow, unathletic quarterback (below), who developed into one of the all-time greats.
The challenge for most of us is that most of the time, we behave exactly like those NFL teams. We’re easily distracted by brilliant performance, and we naturally forget to pay attention to those quieter things that really matter in the long run. So here are a few ideas on how to do that:
- Highlight daily work and repetition. For instance, some music programs create a “100-Day Club” for people who practice for a hundred consecutive days.
- Track effort. Some coaches rate players after each practice on their effort and hustle from 1-5, and post those publicly, so everybody can see. Is there a way to do that in music or academics?
- Look for small signs of initiative, and celebrate them. Whenever a learner comes to practice with new ideas, or inquires how they can get better, or spends unexpected time working on their own to improve a skill, treat that as a big moment. Because it is.
Question: How much better would you be if you practiced a skill every day for one or two years?
Would you be ten times better? Twenty? Fifty?
Here’s the answer (tip: watch the first few seconds, then fast-forward to the end):
This guy did a similar experiment, learning a skateboard trick in six hours.
You wouldn’t be ten or twenty times better; you’d be immeasurably better. Comparing their skill at the beginning and end of the process is like comparing a Model T to a Ferrari — it’s not an increase; it’s a complete transformation.
Which raises a question: if intensive daily practice is so transformative, then why aren’t we all doing it? In other words, what do these people have that the rest of us don’t?
I think one answer is this: they have a willingness to feel stupid. To endure the unique social-emotional burn of repeated clumsiness. And this willingness is the secret foundation of their development.
Check out the first few seconds of the videos. They are trying hard — really hard — and they are barely progressing. They move woodenly. They make stupid mistakes. The violinist can barely play Happy Birthday; the skateboarder is falling over and over. It’s not pretty.
Now imagine doing that, hour after hour. Imagine focusing all your energy toward a task that you are, by every possible measure, terrible at — and then doing it again and again, day after day. This doesn’t qualify as normal practice — it’s an exquisite form of mental torture.
The real key to their progress, in other words, is not cognitive or muscular — it’s emotional. The real key is getting past the burning pain of feeling stupid. The question, then, is, how do you do that?
I think the key is to flip the way we think about this torturous feeling, to reframe it as an essential part of the process. To reinterpret the pain so that it isn’t pain; it’s a positive sign of progress.
Funny thing is, we already do this with physical exercise. When we work out or go for a run, we expect to feel discomfort — if we don’t, we know that we aren’t working hard enough. As the saying goes, no pain, no gain.
When it comes to learning new skills, the same rule applies. If we’re not willing to experience this social-emotional burn of awkward failure, we won’t improve. No burn, no learn, you might say. Here are a few ideas on how to do that.
- Target and celebrate small wins. Amid the clumsiness of the start, there are moments of figuring out fundamentals, of making small improvements. Find them, name them, and highlight them.
- Share your screw-ups. Seek people and cultures that encourage openness about failure.
- Embrace irrationality. Forget the notion of steady, linear progress, because that’s not the way learning happens. Learning happens slowly and painfully at first, and then with surprising speed. These big leaps don’t seem logical. But if you put the time in, they are inevitable.
But here’s a funny thing: many effective leaders spend a lot of time doing the opposite. Specifically, they spend time picking up stuff on the floor. Cleaning up. Playing janitor.
Exhibit A: LeBron James, who spent an evening last week picking up the team’s laundry from the locker-room floor after a game.
Exhibit B: Exhibit B: Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, was famous for picking up trash. “Every night you’d see him coming down the street, walking close to the gutter, picking up every McDonald’s wrapper and cup along the way,” former McDonald’s CEO Fred Turner told author Alan Deutschman. “He’d come into the store with both hands full of cups and wrappers. I saw Ray spend one Saturday morning with a toothbrush cleaning out holes in the mop wringer. No one else really paid attention to the damned mop wringer, because everyone knew it was just a mop bucket. But Kroc saw all the crud building up in the holes, and he wanted to clean them so the wringer would work better.”
Exhibit C: John Wooden. Back in the mid-sixties, when UCLA’s men’s basketball team was in the midst of one of the most successful eras in sports history – ten titles in 12 years — Franklin Adler, the team’s student manager, saw something odd: Coach Wooden picking up trash in the locker room. “Here was a man who had already won three national championships,” Adler said, “a man who was already enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a player, a man who had created and was in the middle of a dynasty – bending down and picking up scraps from the locker room floor.”
Exhibit D: The New Zealand All-Blacks, the best rugby team on the planet, who have formalized this into a habit they call “Sweeping the Sheds.” Basically, the team leaders are in charge of keeping the locker room clean.
This is a striking pattern. These are terrific, accomplished leaders of highly successful groups, and they are spending their valuable time on what would seem to be the most trivial, tedious, and mundane tasks imaginable — using a toothbrush to clean crud from mop buckets. Why?
The answer, I think, is that we tend to think about leadership in the wrong way. We tend to focus on the big, showy moves, when what really matters is the small, humble moments when the leader sends a relational signal of connection. These moments are vital because they contain several signals:
- I am not above you
- This place matters — we have standards
- You should do this kind of thing too
- We are about things that are bigger than ourselves
It adds up to a leadership mindset that I would call a muscular humility – an approach that constantly seeks simple ways to help and support the group. The reason these signals are powerful is not just because they are moral or generous, but also because they send a larger signal that every group needs to be sent over and over: we are all in this together. Because the point of leadership is not to do great things, but rather to create an environment where the whole group can do great things together.
If you have any similar stories about leadership, feel free to share below. I’d love to hear them.
You’ve seen it a thousand times. It happens before every game, at every level (and not just in sports, but also in music, theater, and dance). Before the game begins, the players loosen up. They get the juices flowing, they do a few moves, find their rhythm, and get comfortable. We call this process “warming up.” Warming up is widely accepted, and it’s completely fine.
The problem with warming up, however, is not what you do. It’s what you don’t do.
When you warm up in the traditional way, you forgo something important: the opportunity to get better. The evidence for this is the habits of top performers. Because they don’t merely warm up. They do something different. You could call it “learning up.”
Steph Curry is a good example. Here’s how he prepares for each game.
The whole thing is worth watching, because in a few minutes Curry highlights the key features of learning up, and in the process demolishes several myths about warming up.
Myth #1: The goal of a warmup is to get comfortable
Reality: Curry’s goal isn’t to get comfortable — it’s the opposite. He takes on a series of difficult tasks designed to test him, to put him on the learning edge, making mistakes and fixing them. By being uncomfortable now, he prepares himself to be comfortable later.
Myth #2: Keep intensity light, save your energy for the game
Reality: Everything is high intensity, high focus, and high energy. He dribbles hundreds of times. He takes 75 jumpers, for starters, far more than he’ll take in a game. The energy can be restored. What is not restorable is the opportunity to pre-create game intensity.
Myth 3: Warmups are loose affairs. You don’t have to design them.
Reality: Every moment of Curry’s 20-minute warmup is designed within an inch of its life to target the key parts of his game. There’s flexibility and fun — notice how he progressively alters the arc of certain shots, and takes an insanely long shot at the end — but only within a larger structure that purposely built to expand his skillset.
Myth #4: You should try to avoid making mistakes
Reality: Curry makes mistakes all the time. And it’s purposeful: he is constantly adding little extras to make it tougher — fakes, moves, changing the arc of the shot. He does this because he understands that the goal is not perfection; the goal is learning, and to do that, you need to make mistakes and pay attention to them.
Myth #5: The purpose of warming up is to prepare you for the game
Reality: Curry’s real purpose here isn’t to just prepare for the game, but rather to improve — to fix his weaknesses and build his strengths. Performance in the game is a side effect of getting a little better every single day. This is one reason why Curry, a small, skinny player who was lightly regarded during his first years as a pro, has been able to transcend his sport with a skillset that no one else possesses in today’s game. It’s not like he was great all along. He became great through his work habits, by getting a little bit better each day.
Seeing as I’ve been absent from this space for while now — and I’ll be writing more often now that the new book is mostly done — I thought it might be good to write about failure. Beginning with a question:
What happens when we fail really badly at something?
I’m not talking about almost-success or near misses. I’m talking about spectacular screwups, missed-by-a-country-mile kind of failures, when we fall flat on our face.
Most of us have the same reaction. We wince. We close our eyes. We slowly look to see if anybody noticed us. Then we ignore it, or, better, pretend it didn’t happen. It’s basically a full-brain allergic response — minimize it, keep quiet, and move on — and it makes perfect psychological sense.
But there’s an opportunity in this moment that is sometimes overlooked. Because when failure is shared, something special happens.
Check out this clip of Ed Sheeran, superstar of global pop, playing a recording of his teenage self. Spoiler: he’s really bad (fast forward to the 50-second mark if you dare). Sheeran can’t hit the notes. It sounds like yodeling, or someone falling down the stairs.
Or check out the remarkable CV of Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton. It’s like any other CV, except for one thing: Haushofer lists everything he failed at: the programs he failed to get into, the awards and funding he failed to receive. As he writes,
Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.
The engineers at Etsy do the same every week in the form of a company-wide email openly confessing their biggest mistakes.
Each of these methods is effective because it taps into the same power. Making failure visible sets off a chain reaction with two benefits: 1) you create emotional connection and motivation; 2) you provide knowledge that helps others avoid the same mistakes. Failure isn’t something to be hidden, but a valuable resource to be exploited, a tool that helps a group become smarter and more connected.
Which leads to another question: what’s the best way to do this? Here are a few ideas:
- Have leaders model vulnerability. When the most powerful people in a group are open about failure, they give permission for everyone else to do the same.
- Set expectations early on. The first big failure is the opportunity to establish the norm for group behavior around failures. If the first failure is shared, the others become easier to share.
- Build group habits of failure-sharing. A lot of highly successful groups have regular circle-ups where they shine light on their screwups, hold each other accountable, and make plans for improvement. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s a necessity when it comes to building a group brain.
I’d be curious if you had any other ideas for doing this; if you do, please feel free to share them below.
After a long hiatus spent researching my new book, I’m back, and I plan to be posting here regularly in coming weeks. Thanks for your patience. The new book will be called The Culture Code: The Hidden Language of Successful Groups, and it will be published next fall (2017) by Random House.
It’s based on a simple idea: beneath the surface, all high-performing groups are fundamentally the same place, following the same rules. I spent the last three years visiting eight of the world’s most highly successful groups, including Pixar, Navy SEALs Team Six, the San Antonio Spurs, IDEO, a gang of jewel thieves, and others. I found that they share a behavioral fingerprint, relentlessly generating a pattern of messages that create belonging, trust, and purpose. This book is about understanding how those messages work — and understanding how to use them to build your group’s culture.
Researching this book, as you might guess, has been addictively fascinating. I’m eager to share some material with you in the coming months, and, more important, I’m eager to hear your ideas. Looking forward to continuing the conversation, and thanks for reading.
Here is Odell Beckham Jr. last night, making what might be the greatest catch in NFL history.
That video is beautiful, but there’s something that’s even more beautiful: Beckham Jr. before games, practicing exactly this type of catch.
This reveals the deeper truth behind his great catch: it was no accident. Watch how Beckham keeps one hand at his side, as if pinned by a defender; how he controls the nose of the ball with his index finger; how his eyes follow the ball into his palm. We normally think of this kind of catch as a feat of athleticism. This shows that it’s really a feat of preparation.
This is a very particular kind of preparation, systematically pre-creating the most difficult situations. You might call it High-Leverage Practice, because it shows how focusing relentlessly on pre-creating pressure conditions can set a performer apart from their peers.
It reminds me of a story about Steve Kerr, the former NBA guard who’s now coach of the Golden State Warriors. Early in his career, Kerr was having trouble coming in off the bench and performing his specialty, which was three-point shots. He tried to fix the problem by focusing on technique, shooting thousands of three-pointers in practice. It didn’t work.
Then one of his coaches, Chip Engelland, had an insight. The problem wasn’t the shooting. The problem was the pressure caused by Kerr’s coming into the game cold, without warming up. So Engelland and Kerr decided to try an experiment.
Here’s how it worked: Engelland and Kerr would sit on the bench together, chatting casually. Then, all of a sudden, without any warning, Engelland would yell NOW!, and Kerr would have to go shoot a single three-pointer, then return to the bench. Then a few more minutes would go by, with more casual chatting, then Engelland would suddenly yell “NOW!” an the process would repeat. For half and hour, they would do this, shooting only eight or ten times. And it worked. Kerr’s game performance vastly improved. Not because he was a better shooter, but because he and his coach had, like Beckham Jr., designed a smarter training space.
High-leverage practice shares a few common characteristics:
- 1) It’s focused. You aren’t pre-creating the entire game, but only targeted situations.
- 2) It’s often untraditional. It doesn’t tend to fall into the list of conventional practice techniques, and as such, is easy to marginalize or overlook.
- 3) It’s habitual. High-leverage skills aren’t built in a few specialized sessions; they are built over time, through repetition and routine.
Practice sessions, like everything else, occur along a broad spectrum of effectiveness. At one end you have the perfect session where everything clicks, everyone is engaged and working productively.
Way, way over on the opposite end of the spectrum you have the Really Bad Practice. The sessions where no one is engaged, where no learning happens, and where you begin to suspect everyone would have been better off skipping the entire thing and going to a movie instead.
When we try to understand the causes of bad practice, we instinctively tend to focus on the learner’s state of mind and their emotions. For whatever reason, they just didn’t show up today, didn’t give effort, didn’t get engaged.
But is that true? Or is there another way to think about this problem?
The following two videos give us an insight by performing a simple and brilliant experiment: they ask adults to play in spaces that replicate the exact dimensions a kid would experience: supersize hockey rinks and soccer fields. The result is a Petri dish of contagiously bad practice: a dysfunctional circus of non-engagement, frustration, flailing, and non-productive effort.
This is, of course, a powerful argument for kid-size spaces, but the deeper message for us is to give insight into the causes of bad practice. Because it’s not about the learners; it’s really about the space.
All the behaviors we witness here: the exhausted flailing, the poor decision-making, the drifting attention spans, the low-boiling frustration, are not a function of their character (after all, these participants in the videos are coaches who love the game). All the bad stuff is a function of the fact that the space is too big.
In other words, engagement is not an emotion; it’s a design feature. When it doesn’t occur, the leader’s first move should not be to blame the learners, but to check the space to see if it can be improved.
The main principle of effective practice design is to keep the degree of difficulty in the sweet spot: neither too hard nor too easy, so that learners are constantly on the edge of their ability.
The other principle? Teachers and learners should trade places a lot more often.
One mysterious day many years ago — maybe around the Industrial Revolution — coaches and teachers started using a particular word to describe repetitive learning activities. It was a vivid, mechanical word: implying pressure, precision, progress. And it caught on in a big way.
The word is “drill.”
“Drill” has become the single most common word we use to describe practice in sports, music, and academics. And that’s a problem.
The problem is not that “drill” is a bad word in itself. The problem is that it often sends the wrong message to the learner.
The word “drill” is a signal that:
- There is one correct way to do something, and only one way
- This group values machine-like repetition above all else
Now, there are moments when that kind of signal is perfectly appropriate. But the ethos of “drilling” has been applied to a far wider range of activities, like soccer players learning to control the ball, or math students solving algebraic equations, or musicians working on improvisational skills — situations where you are seeking to create creativity, energy, and innovation.
So what word is better?
I think the answer is “challenge.”
I know, it seems like a tiny change. And yet, there are differences between the two terms that are worth appreciating.
The word “challenge” is a signal that:
- This is social, fun, and gamelike. It’s connective. (After all, it’s not called the “Ice-Bucket Drill,”is it?)
- Difficulty is expected; mindfulness is required; innovation is embraced
- This group values challenging obstacles, competing, and creating
One of my favorite examples is the Bonner Challenge, invented by Matt Bonner, reserve forward for the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. A few years ago he was messing around on the court and came up with a pre-practice routine he loved. He started challenging others to match him, and it caught on.
It works like this: you take your first ten shots of the day from ten pre-determined spots on the floor (layups, free throw, college three-point line, pro three-point-line, etc). Make all ten with zero misses, and you’ve won the Bonner Challenge. (If you take any other shots, you’re ruled “Bonner Ineligible.”) The team keeps track of the latest winner, and who’s won the most over the year, and they get a championship belt. It’s competitive, fun, and contributes to the team’s culture of togetherness (even the coaches compete).
Now, what Bonner invented, of course, is basically a drill. You could easily construct an alternate scenario where a coach orders the team to do the exact same ten-shot drill — but would it have the same engagement, impact, contagiousness, and mystique? Not even close. It succeeds because it’s not called a drill. It’s a challenge.
Like many successful organizations, the Spurs understand and embrace the power of words. Another example: when a Spurs player comes into practice early for individual work, they call the extra sessions “Vitamins.” Every other team in the league calls the sessions “early work,” or “extra work,” which carries negative connotations. But not the Spurs. Because they view those sessions as positive, essential opportunities that make players better. Vitamins.
The larger lesson here is that words matter far more than we think. Each element of the learning process exists within the fabric of the group’s culture and values. The words we use create the path to the behaviors we get. So take the time to pick them carefully, one by one.
(Which, come to think of it, is sort of like doing the Bonner Challenge.)
I’d love to hear any other good terms you’ve heard for practice or drills or anything. Which ones are your most favorite? Your least?
PS – here’s another great example of a challenge, courtesy of reader Stuart Crampton: Bayern Munich playing Bucket Ball
By most measures, the New Zealand All-Blacks are the toughest, smartest, and most successful sports team on the planet. The rugby squad has won 86 percent their games during the modern era against some of the most ferocious competition in the world. Best of all, they begin each match with a crazy, terrifyingly cool haka dance (below).
So it won’t surprise you to learn that the All-Blacks train incredibly hard, or that they have a robust team culture, or that they are tactically brilliant. But it might surprise you to learn that they spend a lot of time and energy working on an area which most of us totally ignore: emotional skills.
Specifically, their ability to regulate mood, to stay positive and resilient, to handle unfair ups and downs, to remain even-keeled, and to deal with unpredictable misfortune without losing your grip. Basically, their competitive temperament.
It’s funny, we don’t normally think of temperament as a skill. We think of it as a fixed product of someone’s character. We instinctively assume that temperaments are either weak (tend to choke under pressure) or strong (tend to come through). The All-Blacks, however, treat temperament and emotion as muscles to be trained with specific workouts.
Quick background: a few years ago, the team was going through a period of uncharacteristic struggle. Some players were having trouble controlling their emotions in matches. It was the typical stuff we all experience from time to time: they were trying too hard, being overly aggressive, and experiencing the tunnel-vision syndrome Navy pilots dryly refer to as OBE: Overcome By Events.
So, with the help of a former Rhodes Scholar named Ceri Evans, they devised a tool to fix that, built on a simple two-part frame that describes the mental state you want to avoid, and the one you want to be in. They call it Red Head/Blue Head.
Red Head is the negative state, when you are heated, overwhelmed, and tense (H.O.T., in the parlance). Your emotional engine is smoking, your perceptions are slow, the game feels too fast, and your decision making is rushed.
Blue Head, on the other hand, is the precise opposite: the cool, controlled, pattern-seeing state, when you retain your awareness and your decision-making power, when you stay flexible and deliver top performance.
The key is doing three things:
- 1) seek to stay in Blue Head as your default setting
- 2) sense cues when you are entering Red-Head mode
- 3) use a physical or mental trigger to get yourself back into Blue Head.
On the All-Blacks, each player is encouraged to devise personal triggers to make the transition. One player stamps his feet into the grass, to ground himself. Another uses mental imagery, picturing himself from the highest seat in the stadium, to help put the moment in perspective. Whatever tool you use doesn’t matter — what matters is realizing you’re in the wrong emotional zone, and finding ways to cool yourself off and get back in a high-performing head space.
I think this is an idea that applies to a lot more than just sports. The notion that you can build yourself an emotional thermostat that senses when it’s overheating, and cools itself down when needed, is powerfully useful.
What I like best is how it flips the normal dynamic about emotions — where everyone is left to deal with it on their own — and turns it into a platform for group conversation. Players and coaches can use this language to tell a player that he’s glowing red, or to appreciate a player who stays blue under pressure. It forms a language of performance that, like all shared languages, connects people and lifts them up.
(Plus, that haka!)
PS: if you want to read more about the All-Blacks, check out Legacy: What the All-Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, by James Kerr