- A) Start
- B) Finish
- C) Middle
Before you answer, consider the following story:
A few years ago, students at New Dorp School of Staten Island, NY, were struggling. Test scores were down, dropouts were up. School leaders tried a variety of methods — new technology, new teachers, new programs, you name it. Nothing worked.
Then, in 2008, New Dorp’s leaders came to a realization: students were not failing because they lacked intelligence. They were failing because they lacked the ability to construct arguments, build ideas, and distinguish essential information from nonessential information.
So New Dorp embarked on a bold experiment — they targeted these skills by building the school curriculum around analytic writing, using a proven technique called the Hochman Program. As Peg Tyre reports in The Atlantic:
The Hochman Program would not be unfamiliar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children…are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.
When speaking, [students] were required to use specific prompts outlined on a poster at the front of each class.
- “I agree/disagree with ___ because …”
- “I have a different opinion …”
- “I have something to add …”
- “Can you explain your answer?”
It worked incredibly well. The kids at New Dorp not only got better at writing, they got better at every subject, to the point that New Dorp is now a model for what some are calling the Writing Revolution. (Read Peg’s story here.)
Here’s why: analytic writing is a keystone skill. It is the foundation on which other skills can be built — literally, inside the brain. Improving at analytic writing allowed the New Dorp students to improve at math, science, and social studies because it supports those skills in the same way that a keystone supports a foundation.
Every talent has its keystone skills. Think of a baseball hitter’s ability to identify the speed and location of a pitch. Or a violinist’s ability to precisely match pitch. Or a salesperson’s ability to connect quickly on an emotional level. Or a soccer player’s ability to swiftly “read” a game.
All of these are keystone skills on which larger skills are built. They are exponentially more important to performance than any other skill. After all, it doesn’t matter how beautiful a baseball swing you have, if you can’t tell where the ball is located. It doesn’t matter how great a salesperson you are, if you can’t connect to people.
The strange thing is, keystone skills are easily overlooked and under-practiced. Most of us approach performance the same way New Dorp did in the early days — we try lots of things, in random order, and hope we get better
Instead of merely hoping, you should be highly strategic about planning practice sessions around keystone skills. Spend time analyzing the skill you want to build. What’s the single most important element? What is the move on which all your other moves depend? Then structure your practice around the keystone.
To return to our original question: What’s the most important part of a practice session?
The answer is D) None of the above.
Because the most important time of a practice session is before it begins, when you take time to figure out the answer to a simple question: what’s your keystone skill?
Once upon a time, there was a soccer team. They were very small, and very young, and not very skilled. All the other teams were bigger and faster, and scored more goals.
A lot more goals.
Two hundred and seventy-one goals in one season, to be precise.
But here’s the mysterious and wonderful thing: the little team still had fun. They loved playing. They loved the game, and each other.
Meet the kids and coaches of Margatania FC, the team from Spain that provides us a recipe for healthy youth sports:
- 1) mellow, quiet, no-pressure parents
- 2) nurturing coaches
- 3) fun-focused culture
- 4) long-term perspective
As one player jubilantly says, “We’ll score goals when we grow old!”
Related fact: Spain also produces some of the world’s greatest soccer talent. Do you think that’s a coincidence?
(Big thanks to the great John Kessel for sharing the link.)
My friend John likes to wear pajama pants. I’m not talking just around his house, or in the morning. I’m talking all day long. At the grocery store. Driving carpool. I once saw him downhill skiing in pajama pants. What’s more, John is absolutely incredulous that the rest of us don’t do likewise.
“Why not?” he says. “They’re comfortable!”
Here’s the surprising thing: historically speaking, John is in good company. As Tom Hodgkinson’s wonderful book How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto demonstrates, many of history’s greatest achievers spent huge amounts of time in their actual or metaphorical pajama pants, taking long walks, daydreaming, day-drinking, and living lives of organized relaxation that we, in our hyper-busy, overconnected age, can barely imagine.
For example, check out Charles Darwin’s daily routine:
- 7-8: short walk, breakfast
- 8-9:30: work at desk
- 9:30-10:30: read family letters, listen to wife Emma read novels aloud
- 10:30-noon: work at desk; end workday by noon
- 12-3: answer correspondence
- 3-5:30: nap, cigarette, listen to Emma read aloud
- 5:30-7: idleness, rest, novel-reading, cigarette
- 7-8: family dinner
- 8-10: two games of backgammon, more reading, relaxing on sofa while listening to Emma play piano, bedtime
The loafing program — or, to be more accurate, alternating intense efforts with spells of pure loafing — worked out pretty well, and not just for Darwin. After all, if it weren’t for daydreaming, we might not have Einstein’s theory of relativity, Mendeleyev’s periodic table, or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
So here’s a theory: Loafing is not a vice or a weakness, but an important and often-overlooked skill. High-quality loafing only looks like wasting time; in fact, it’s the opposite. Good loafing is restorative, and crucial to creativity and strategic thinking. It’s the time for reloading emotional fuel tanks, hatching plans, and making serendipitous connections. Bad loafing, on the other hand, leaves you more tired and distracted than before (I’m talking about you, Internet).
With that in mind, I’d like to offer the following rules for high-performance loafing, cobbled together from Hodgkinson and Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, as well as the suggestions of my pajama-fond friends and family.
1. Unplug from technology.
2. Take a long, slow walk outside.
4. Stare at an object you’ve never really considered before. The tree outside your window. A pencil. A leaf. A beetle. The smaller the better.
5. Listen to a favorite book read aloud
6. Take a long drive somewhere you’ve never been before
7. Get a massage
8. Gain altitude: go to the uppermost floors of a tall building, or atop the nearest hill
9. Take a train ride
10. Take a long nap (following the proper rules, of course)
11. Go out in the yard with your favorite book and a big glass of lemonade (from my daughter)
12. Spend all day in a robe or pajamas
13. Make tea
14. Avoid shopping, and shopping malls, and people who are shopping
15. Cook a grilled cheese
16. Go to the nearest body of water — ocean, river, pond — and gaze at it
17. Check Twitter constantly
18. Just kidding; ignore previous rule
19. Drink wine with lunch
20. Listen to a favorite album straight through
21. Go barefoot
22. Go to a museum (not barefoot), find one great painting, and stare at it
23: Go to nearest park
24: Feed the birds, the fish, or the squirrels
25. Take your pet for a long, slow walk (in 1830s Paris, it was considered fashionable to put a tortoise on a leash, and walk very slowly through the city.)
26. Eat an orange
27. Watch the sun go down
28. Eat dinner by candlelight
29. Play a card or board game
30. Lay on grass; look at stars
I asked my 17-year-old son if he had any ideas to add, and he said, “I’d tell you, but I’m way too relaxed.”
So I’ll ask you guys instead: What works for you? What else needs to be on this list?
I have to confess, I’ve watched this video five times and I’m still not sure what to think of it.
On one hand: these parents are completely nuts. Little dude is only seven months old! Why not wait until he’s shown an interest? Or at least until he can, you know, walk?
On the other: presuming it’s safe (a maybe), how are these parents any different from those who firmly nudge their toddlers into golf, chess, violin, etc? It’s not about the kid’s desires, because it rarely is — it’s all about the parents.
So is this a prime example of terrible modern parenting? Or is it just a slightly more edgy version of the kind of innovative parenting that produces prodigies?
Are they awful? Or just smart?
What do you guys think?
PS – Here’s what my daughter Katie (15) says: “It’s better to put little kids into fun, slightly risky situations (if it’s safe, of course!) rather than to shelter and overprotect them.”
I love this girl.
She’s six years old, her name is Dachiya Atkinson, and she can absolutely destroy a dance floor.
What I like even more is the space in which she’s developed her talent — which, as it happens, is the opposite of the way we teach most skills.
Let me explain. When it comes to teaching, our instinct often leads us to add a bunch of stuff. Like coaches. Practice drills. Words of advice. Trophies and ribbons. As parents and teachers, we have an irresistible urge to help, to get involved.
But that’s not how Dachiya built her skills. She did it using three simple elements:
- 1) Skilled performers to stare at
- 2) Sense of fun
- 3) Intense, repeatable competition
We see the same ingredients built into other talent-development spaces, whether it’s kids memorizing the digits of pi or a top soccer team practicing or a Little League team that won a championship while playing without a coach.
They succeed because they are finding a way to avoid the complication and static and to tap into the underrated power of clarity, competition, and ownership. They’re finding a way do the toughest thing: to be simple.
If you want to create a learning space, ask yourself these three questions:
- What’s the simplest, most fun game that can be played?
- How can you “fill the windshields” of the kids with top performers so they can learn directly, via mimicry?
- How can you remove coaches and teachers from the space, and give it completely to the learners?
If you want to share any stories or ideas for achieving this, I’d love to hear them.
- In sports, why do underdogs win so often, and odds-on favorites fall on their faces?
- In business, why are some meetings insanely fruitful, and others are torture?
- In life, why do certain families have an easygoing vibe, while others behave as if they’re unwillingly strapped in a runaway mine car?
The answer is always the same: group chemistry. Which, for many years, was a synonym for “magic”: sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Who knows why?
That old view is changing, thanks to the new science of sociometrics. Sociometrics uses new technology to give us an x-ray of why certain groups create success, and others create frustration. It’s like Moneyball, with social skills. And the takeaways promise to be nearly as useful and powerful.
Here’s one example that I love: Dr. Marcial Losada studied 60 business teams and tried to determine if there was a set of factors that led to high performance. He analyzed their interactions, focusing on three ratios:
- 1) positive comments vs. negative comments
- 2) asking questions vs. advocating for their own position
- 3) talking about others vs. talking about themselves
The data was stunning. It turned out that high-performing teams had positive/negative comment ratios three times higher than the medium-performing teams, and 15 times higher than the low-performing teams. High performers had question/advocacy ratios 1.6 times higher than the mediums, and 21 times higher than the lows, and other/self ratios 1.5 times higher than the mediums, and no fewer than 31 times higher than the lows.
In short, the chemistry of the high performers depended not on magic, but on social skills and group habits that can be learned. There’s a lot to dig in here, but I’m drawn to a few takeaways.
- 1) First, make sure people feel safe. If people don’t feel secure and unthreatened, group chemistry has zero chance of happening. As researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson writes, “When we are in a state of relative safety and satiety, when there are few threats demanding intense, narrowed attention, positive emotions allow us to pursue our long-term interests.”
- 2) Be positive, but not too positive. Losada has located a sweet spot in the range between three and 12 positive comments for every negative comment (above 12:1, performance nosedives). And, as he points out, the comments can’t be mindless rah-rah positivity — they need to connect to something real.
- 3) Avoid self-absorption at all costs. The high-performing groups were notable for their balance — they made about one mention of themselves for every mention of someone else. The low-performing groups, on the other hand, barely mentioned anyone else at all. They were staring at their belly buttons.
Which leaves two possibilities: maybe those low-performing groups are full of clueless, hopelessly dysfunctional people. Or, on the other hand, maybe nobody ever taught them how this stuff works.
Hmmmm. I wonder what Mrs. Hershberger would say?
I am a hopeless sucker for stories about the daily habits of geniuses — you know, the ones that reveal Hemingway used only knife-sharpened, German-made #2 pencils, or that Balzac sucked down 50 cups of coffee a day. I love these stories partly for the voyeuristic buzz, and partly because they sometimes contain useful tips.
I just found the mother lode: Daily Rituals, a new book by Mason Currey, which details the habits of 161 notable scientists, playwrights, philosophers, and writers. (Here’s a sample, from Currey’s blog.) It’s a useful read, because it changes the way we think about creative types — specifically about how they organize their days.
We’re usually taught that creative geniuses live spontaneous, eccentric, anything-goes lives — you know, lots of turmoil, cigarettes, and questionable hats. And from a distance, this seems true enough.
But when you look closer, you find a different reality. Beneath that colorful Wes Anderson veneer, a factory is humming, driven by strong work habits. This marvelous book lets us see those habits clearly in the lives of creatives from Churchill to Plath to Faulkner to Ben Franklin to Darwin, and in a way that reveals useful truths about the conditions in which all our brains work best.
Rule #1: Build a simple regimen, and stick to it obsessively. The people in this book never wake up and chase whatever daily crisis comes along. They have an unbreakable routine, which they treat as almost holy. As Tolstoy put it, “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”
Rule #2: Embrace weird little rituals. It’s striking to see how many of these creatives start their workday with a compulsive ritual: whether it’s Stephen King arranging the paper-edges just so, or John Grisham feeling compelled to write the first word of the day at precisely 5:30 a.m. It’s utterly OC/D-type behavior, but it’s incredibly useful, because it gets things moving.
Rule #3: Work in two phases: 1) production and; 2) review. Many of the people in this book use mornings to produce their work, and set aside evenings to review, evaluate, and plan. Which makes perfect sense: these are two distinct skill-sets; putting time and space between them helps you be better at both.
Rule #4: Do your most important work right after you wake up. Almost to a person, the people in this book accomplish their best work first thing in the morning. This is no accident: our brains function best after sleep, when it’s spent hours churning on the problems of the previous day. While there are some night owls in the book, others testify to the fact that working at night can be deceptive: the work flows easily, but proves subpar in the clear light of morning. (Yep, they’re talking about you, Kerouac!)
Rule #5: Save socializing for later in the day. Socializing seems to serve as crucial creative fuel, and most people in this book did their visiting in the afternoon and evening. Which was easy if you lived a century ago, and a good deal tougher in our hyperconnected age. Some modern creatives solve it by getting up insanely early; others limit email and internet to afternoons (way easier said than done, in my experience).
Rule #6: Exercise. Sure, Currey’s list has its share of alcoholics and agoraphobes, but a surprising number make daily time for vigorous exercise. Whether it’s Dickens and his marathon hikes around London, or Hemingway and boxing, they prove what researchers are finding: regular workouts sharpen the brain.
When you survey these habits they seem to be surprisingly mundane — I mean, Exercise? Get up early? But in a deeper way perhaps that’s the most powerful and paradoxical idea of all: reliable, effective creativity is built on orderly foundations. To be truly creative, you have to be brave enough to be boring.
When someone tries a new skill for the first time, we instinctively see the first few minutes as hugely important. We eagle-eye the first tries for promising signs — a natural grace, a knack. We immediately start sorting people into categories: those who have it, and those who don’t.
With that in mind, here is former world #1 player Dinara Safina, when she was three (watch her adorable wipeout at the 15-second mark).
Here is the first web page Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg built, when he was fifteen.
And here is a time lapse of a new skier’s progression through his first two years, as filmed by his dad, who happens to be a reader of this blog.
The pattern is always the same, because our instincts are dead wrong. Early clumsiness is not a verdict: it’s an essential ingredient. Because the key to developing talent isn’t “identifying” it; it’s creating safe spaces where this kind of happy clumsiness can be nurtured, with time and repetition, into grace and skill.
Question: When’s the most important time to practice?
At first glance, the answer is easy: just before the big game or performance. After all, that’s when we can dial in our skills, tune up, fully prepare.
Second question: Then why do so many top performers do just the opposite? Why do they have their most intense and productive practice just after their performance?
Pro golfers are perhaps most well-known for using this method: after a competitive round, many make a beeline for the driving range. But entertainers do it, too: Beyonce has a habit of reviewing each night’s performance on DVD after the show, in order to spot things she needs to work on. Legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks was known for holding practice sessions after games as well. Same with a number of surgeons I’ve researched. I know a politician who, after going on television, immediately watches a tape of the interview and tries to improve his delivery.
They’re all doing the same thing, and it works for two simple reasons:
- 1) Clarity: There’s no better time for knowing what works and what doesn’t than the first hour after a performance or game, when it’s still vivid in your memory. You can feel what you did right, and what you need to work on.
- 2) Emotional content: games and performances hinge on the skill of navigating emotions and pressure. Postgame practice lets you relive pressurized situations with the kind of realism you can never match in cold practice.
As Nicklaus said, “I always achieve my most productive practice after an actual round. Then, the mistakes are fresh in my mind and I can go to the practice tee and work specifically on those mistakes.”
For most of us, the main barrier to using this technique is force of habit. After games and performances, we take a relieved breath and shift into relaxation mode. That’s not a bad thing. But carving out a few minutes to do a clear-eyed review — what exactly worked, and what exactly didn’t? — is better.
I want to share two pieces of writing that capture what so many of us are feeling today.
“The marathon is symbolism for overcoming and facing challenges,” [marathoner Shalane Flanagan] said. “This will not stop anyone. If anything, it will inspire people to persevere and show that we’re better than that.”
Talking to her, I had another sensory memory of the one and only other time I wrote about the regular people on the course of a major marathon. It was in November 2001, when I stood at the finish in New York City and watched runners stream across. Seeing them run for joy, rather than in mortal fear as they’d done just two months before, and seeing people bow their heads in thanks after wrapping themselves in foil blankets, deeply thankful not for the time they’d logged, but simply for being alive, was a profound experience.
I am stricken by the reversal of that image here in Boston, the fact that people were running away from something terrible seconds after running toward something good. But I also know that will turn again.
Amateur marathoners push themselves for a whole host of reasons. To test their physical and psychological limits. To raise money for worthy causes. To compete. The next time this — or any — marathon is run anywhere in the world, they will run for yet another. To show that the power of communal achievement can be beaten on one day, but not on most days and never indefinitely. And that is what makes sense on a senseless day.
Boston. Fucking horrible.
I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”
But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.
But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.
So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”