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
People talk all the time about what makes up a great teacher or coach. The vast majority of the conversation focuses on the daily business of the craft: methods, information, and strategies. And this makes perfect sense.
But every once in a while, we get a glimpse of what coaching and teaching really are. Last month, at the Little League World Series, we got one of those glimpses, courtesy of Dave Belisle, coach of the Rhode Island Americans, in the moments after his team suffered a heartbreaking loss that eliminated them from the tournament.
(If you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend it.)
This speech strikes such a chord because it is a perfect case study of relationship-based coaching. It’s an approach where the coach puts his effort and focus on building relationships — creating identity, trust, and a sense of belonging.
A conventional coach focuses first on skills. A relationship-based coach, on the other hand, focuses first on creating a sense of belonging. A conventional coach asks: what can I do to help them win? A relationship-based coach asks: what can I do to help us nurture connections and create a culture? A conventional coach views his team through the lens of performance. A relationship-based coach views his team through the lens of family — which, not coincidentally, tends to make the teaching all the more effective. People work hard for a team. They work even harder for a team that truly feels like family.
Let’s look more closely at Belisle’s speech, which is like a textbook for relationship-based coaching.
First, he connects:
Everybody, heads up high, heads up high. Let’s talk for a moment here. Look, I’ve gotta see your eyes, guys.”
It would be so easy to overlook this given the emotion of this moment, but it’s massively important. I gotta see your eyes, guys. Be here, right now, together.
Then, he establishes the core message:
There’s no disappointment in your effort — in the whole tournament, the whole season…We came to the last out. We didn’t quit. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!
Notice how he focuses on things the team can control — the effort — and uses it to affirm the strength of the team identity. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!
He keeps building, focusing ruthlessly on their accomplishment and linking it to their identity. The message: they succeeded not just because they played well — they succeeded because of who they are.
You had the whole place jumping, right? You had the whole state jumping. You had New England jumping. You had ESPN jumping. OK? You want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way.
He doesn’t BS them — this is the last game — but he frames their disappointment around their larger, far more meaningful connection:
It’s OK to cry, because we’re not going to play baseball together anymore. But we’re going to be friends forever. Friends forever. Our Little League careers have ended on the most positive note that could ever be. OK? Ever be.”
Then explains what’s about to happen — which, of course, is about more relationships, connecting to those who love and support them:
So, we need to go see our parents, because they’re so proud of you. One more thing. I want a big hug. I want everyone to come in here for one big hug. One big hug, then we’re going to go celebrate. Then we’re going to go back home to a big parade.
This is not conventional coaching. This is a clinic on relationship-building. Fully 90 percent of what he says is about team identity and family. And he proves his words through his actions and the steadiness of his demeanor, especially those long, intense pauses that drive the words home to each kid, one at a time.
You’d call these “soft skills” but as this shows, they are anything but “soft” in their application. They’re a product of a relationship-based approach that has four core principles:
- 1) Seek to create belonging by establishing a clear, vivid identity.
- 2) Be vulnerable. Notice how the coach talks openly about emotions, especially his own. This creates safety and trust.
- 3) Teach the whole kid. Connect in ways beyond the field or classroom.
- 4) Tell the truth. The strength of the relationship is in its honesty and trust.
So simple, and so powerful. If anybody has any other examples of relationship-based coaching/teaching, or ideas to share, I’d love to hear them.
Welcome to the start of another school year. (I know, it’s a huge bummer that summer is over. If it helps, we adults feel exactly the same way. Have a cherry popsicle — you’ll feel better.)
Over the next nine months, you’re going to be using your brain to learn stuff. So it would be a good idea to know how your brain really works.
(And to be clear, the goal of all this is NOT so that you can spend more time at your desk. It’s so that you can get your homework finished quickly and then go do something truly important, like go ride your bike around the neighborhood, or catch a bunch of lightning bugs in a jar, while being careful to screw the jar lid on tightly to keep your bedroom from being filled with tons of lightning bugs in the middle of the night, which is freaky and scary and also cool. See? You’re only in the third paragraph and you’ve already learned something!)
Anyway, the thing about your brain is that it’s a little bit like that jar of lightning bugs. It was built by evolution, so it has all these twitchy, surprising features that helped your ancestors not get stepped on by mastodons and avoid falling into quicksand or getting lost in the woods. It was built for survival, not algebra.
So here are five quick hacks for your brain that will help you study better. They’re drawn from a variety of scientific sources, including a terrifically useful and insightful new book called How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens, by Benedict Carey (which is out next week, which inspired me to write this, and which your parents should definitely buy).
Hack #1: Space out your study time.
Let’s say that have a Spanish test on Friday, for which you need to spend about an hour preparing. Should you:
A) study Thursday night for one hour; or
B) study 20 minutes a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday?
The answer is: B). And it’s not even close. In fact, studies show you could probably get away with studying only about 10 or 15 minutes a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, because spacing out your study time is nearly twice as effective as cramming. It also helps you retain it a lot longer — which comes in handy for that Spanish test next month, and the one after that.
The reasons for this have to do with your brain’s tendency to get way less interested in stuff that gets repeated a lot over a short amount of time (i.e., cramming) and to get way more interested in stuff that it faintly remembers and can connect in different contexts. So, study the same way you snack: frequently, in small portions.
Hack #2: Switch up your study locations. We’re often told that we should stay in one place to learn, but that’s not true. Your brain likes to use settings like a Hollywood director; it uses them in the movies that make up your memory. So if you study and test yourself lots of places, play different kinds of music, wear different clothes, even chew different-flavored gum, your memory will improve.
Hack #3: Mix it up. School is orderly, so we instinctively think our studying schedule should also be orderly — you know, study math for an hour, then English for an hour. This is called “blocked practice,” and it makes perfect sense, except for one small fact: your brain doesn’t like blocked practice. What your brain likes instead is “interleaved practice,” where you study something for 10 minutes, then switch to something else, then come back.
The reasons for this are complicated, but they’re based on the fact that your brain works better when it’s being surprised. When you mix it up, you’re forcing your brain to work harder, and be more efficient.
(This also works in sports and music, by the way. If you want to get better at volleyball serves, mix up the type of serve you practice. And if you want to get better at playing classical music and rock, you should switch between the two all the time. Which could sound kind of awesome.)
Hack #4: Get outside. Your brain was built in the outdoors, so you need to let it get back there regularly. Nobody knows why being outside and walking around helps you get smarter, but it does. Check out this study of third-graders that shows how a 20-minute walk can light up the areas of the brain that filter out distraction and guide focused attention (talk about lightning bugs!)
Hack #5: Throw away your highlighters– instead, make a habit of testing yourself. We all know that school involves some memorization. The usual technique is to read a chapter over and over, highlight important passages, and maybe write notecards — you know the drill. Besides, it’s kind of fun to highlight (and yes, that yellow ink does smell fantastic).
But it turns out that those techniques are not nearly as effective as testing yourself. Here’s how: read a passage once, close the book, and then try to write the main points on a blank piece of paper. Then check yourself and see how many you got right.
In other words, don’t lean back in your chair. Instead, lean forward, and generate ideas. Shake the jar, and make the lightning bugs glow. Make your brain work the way it was designed to work — by reaching, struggling, and reaching again.
I’m talking about people in their thirties, forties, and beyond — people who are miles past any of the “learning windows” for talent, and who yet succeed in building fantastically high-performing skill sets.
People like Dr. Mary Hobson, who took up Russian at 56, and became a prize-winning translator. Or Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist who took up guitar at the age of 38 and taught himself to rock, or pool player Michael Reddick, or Dan McLaughlin, a 31-year-old who took up golf for the first time four years ago and now plays to an outstanding 3.3 handicap (and who also keeps track of his practice hours — 4,530 and counting, if you wanted to know).
We tend to explain adult prodigies with the same magical thinking as we use to explain child prodigies: they’re special. They always possessed hidden talents.
However, some new science is shedding light on the real reasons adults are able to successfully learn new skills, and exploding some myths in the process. You should check out this article from New Scientist if you want to go deeper. Or read Marcus’s book Guitar Zero, or How We Learn, by Benedict Carey (out next week).
The takeaway to all this is that adult prodigies succeed because they’re able to work past two fundamental barriers: 1) the wall of belief that they can’t do it; and 2) the grid of adult routines that keep them from spending time working intensively to improve skills. In other words, it’s not so much about your “natural talents,” as it is about your mindset and your habits. From the New Scientist piece:
“A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around,” says Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests. “If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”
With all that in mind, I thought I’d try to fill in a gap by offering a few basic rules on how to apply these ideas to regular life.
Rule 1. Pick a skill you were always fascinated by — one that you’ve already spent lots of time thinking about and admiring. Because all those hours is not just a sign of motivation; it’s also your head start to high-quality practice. You’ve already built some good circuitry, so use it.
Rule 2. Don’t pick something completely insane. Trying to become the next Steve Jobs or Peyton Manning probably doesn’t make sense for most adults. Focus on ambitious, reachable skills that make sense for you, and will add to your life.
Rule 3. Write down a big-picture plan. It doesn’t need to be too elaborate; it needs to contain some targets and strategies. Most important: figure out a daily routine, see if it’s working, then adapt it as you go along.
Rule 4: Don’t be so freaking conscientious about your plan. One of the traits that makes kids such good learners is their inherent looseness in approach; that is, they don’t get hung up on doing everything 100-percent perfectly every single time. They do the opposite: they try bits and pieces, and if something doesn’t work, they try something else. They’re experimenters, innovators, entrepreneurs of the brain. Do likewise.
Rule 5. Keep it quiet early on. The quickest way to kill motivation is to tell Facebook that you’re developing a new talent — because that creates high expectations, which are the ultimate motivational buzzkill.
Rule 6. Be secretly and irrationally arrogant. Fear is what keeps people from learning new things, and getting rid of that fear however you choose is a good idea. So be cocky, gutsy, and willing to go to the edges of your ability even if (especially if) that means you sometimes look a little foolish. In other words, channel your inner Kobe Bryant.
Rule 6. Practice every day, in short bursts.
Rule 7: Long bursts too.
Rule 8: Also, medium bursts. Dream all you want, but frequent, intensive, high-quality practice is the path forward.
Rule 8: Interleave your practice, which is a fancy word for switching it up a lot. For example, if you want to improve your toss on your tennis serve, don’t just toss 50 balls in a row. Instead, toss 5 while focusing on one element of the move. Then do something else for 5 minutes. Then come back to the toss — this time focusing on a different element. Then go do something else, and so on. Interleaving forces your brain to make connections, and learn faster.
Rule 9: Find the best teacher you can afford. One of the advantages of being an adult is that, unlike a kid, you can choose your own teacher. This is not a small thing. Find someone you like, and who maybe scares you a little (that is often a good sign).
Rule 10: Seek a training group. No matter what skill you’re trying to build, you are more motivated when you are part of a tribe working toward a goal.
Rule 11: Every once in a while, ignore your training group and stay home. The downside of training with people is that you tend to overlook problem areas that you really need to fix — and some things can only be solved alone.
Rule 12. Set aside a space to practice. This doesn’t need to be fancy — in fact, the less fancy the better. But it needs to exist and be convenient, and preferably located in your home, because you’ll use it more often.
Rule 13. Get good tools. If you’re learning guitar, get a quality one. If you’re doing something on a computer, don’t buy one from Radio Shack.
Rule 14: Keep your tools handy, not stored away in some closet. When they’re around, you tend to pick them up more often.
Rule 15. Be opportunistic. Use the little quiet spots in your day to work in some spontaneous practice. A good five minutes can have a huge impact.
Rule 16. Keep a notebook, and track what works and what doesn’t. The notebook is your map: it keeps track of the stuff you forget, the goals you want to track, and (most crucially) the progress you make.
Rule 17. Steal from other people. Even if you’ve picked a wildly obscure talent to develop, there are thousands of other people out there who are doing exactly the same thing as you are, right now. They’re solving the same problems, finding possible solutions. Seek them out (on YouTube, for starters) and go to school on them.
Rule 18. Teach someone else. You might think you know how to perform a skill. But trying to accurately, concisely explain how that skill works to someone else? That’s a deeper level of understanding entirely.
Rule 19. Keep expectations moderately low.
Rule 20: Keep hopes moderately high.
Rule 21. In your self talk, use “You” and not “I.” Research shows that self-talk is significantly more effective when you use the second person.
Rule 22. Practice early in the day. This is when your brain is fresh, and when you’ll make the most progress. Not coincidentally, this is also when there are the fewest interruptions.
Rule 23. Seek to become a world-class napper. This is a skill you likely already possess — and improving it can ratchet up your learning speed.
Rule 24. Plan on showing off, once you get good enough. Even the patron saint of adult prodigies, the painter Grandma Moses, wasn’t discovered until she got brave and started selling her artwork in local galleries. There’s nothing like an upcoming event or performance to direct your work and create a sense of energy. And besides, you earned it.
Two last questions: 1) Are there any stories/ideas you want to share about adult learning? 2) What other rules belong on this list? I’d love to hear what you have to say.
Hope you all had a good and rejuvenating summer. We spent a big chunk of it up in Alaska, doing some hiking, fishing, working, and — as some of you noticed — not updating the blog. It was nice to have a vacation, but as the weeks have gone by, I found myself missing this place, and the conversations that happen here. All of which is to say, in the coming weeks on I’ll be posting more regularly — figure on weekly-ish. And to start us off we’ve got a rare treat.
Question: If you had the opportunity to get inside one of the world’s top talent hotbeds, which would you choose? You could make a good case for German soccer academies, or Finnish high schools, or any number of top music academies. But there’s one hotbed that might rank above them all, one hotbed that’s so ass-kickingly, fascinatingly dominant that they make the others seem positively lukewarm.
To say Chinese divers are dominant doesn’t quite cover it. At last month’s World Cup of Diving they won gold and silver in every single event they entered. In other words, in nine events, no diver from any other country beat a single Chinese diver. This isn’t new: over the past four Olympics, they have won 24 of a possible 32 gold medals.
So it was a rare treat when I recently came into contact with Rett Larson, who he has spent a good chunk of the last two and a half years at the very center of Chinese diving. Rett is performance manager for EXOS-China and lives part-time in Shanghai, where he helps oversee and organize the team’s training. And because he’s also an incredibly generous and insightful dude, he’s made this video (below) and written the accompanying text so that readers of this blog can get this exclusive peek inside their training facility.
So check out Rett’s video and, even more important, the accompanying list. There’s a lot to love about his list: how it cuts against conventional wisdom; and how it describes a culture that consistently nudges performers to the edges of their envelope (for proof, scroll to the 2-minute mark in the video, and watch as a diver attempts a never-before-done dive, and ends up making what undoubtedly ranks as one of the most spectacular back-flops of all time).
Most of all, I love how these ideas and training designs can be applied to so much more than sports.
10 SURPRISING TRUTHS ABOUT THE WORLD’S MOST SUCCESSFUL TALENT HOTBED, by Rett Larson
1. WE MIX AGES LIKE CRAZY: The juniors aren’t all lumped together like they are in most systems — instead, three-time Gold medalists train with top 10-year-olds. Each diving coach might be responsible for five athletes – three Olympic veterans and two juniors. The juniors get to mirror the elites all day, from training to eating to bedtimes. It also creates a sense of humility in the juniors, who have likely dominated in their provinces since they were six years old.
2. WE SPEND MOST OF OUR TIME WORKING ON SUPER-BASIC DIVES: The Chinese have a higher training volume than the rest of the world – often more than 100 dives per day. But many of those dives are very basic. The first ten dives of the day might all be starting with your butt on the edge of the platform and falling into a simple dive. That’s it — and that’s the point.
3. WE APPLAUD SPECTACULAR FAILURES: For the past decade China has won almost every competition by doing simple dives very, very well. Their technical proficiency is incredible because they practice longer and harder than any other country. But, they also know that they have to push themselves and innovate. You’ll see in the video a male diver attempting to be the first human to do four flips from the 10-meter board starting from a handstand. He doesn’t make it — spectacularly. What you don’t see is the ovation he gets from the rest of the team after his failed attempt.
4. WE ARE OBSESSIVE ABOUT COACHING EVERY SINGLE REP: Each dive is given feedback, even the basic ones. A dozen coaches sit on the side of the pool and give immediate feedback on every dive that their athlete performs that day.
5. WE AVOID ALLOWING OUR ATHLETES TO SPECIALIZE IN ONE DISCIPLINE: The 10-meter platform divers won’t spend all day on the 10m board. They’ll have dives on the 3m, 5m, 6m, 7m, and even the springboards depending on what their coach wants them to work on. Each day the athletes receive a laminated sheet with their daily dives listed.
6. WE ACCOMPLISH OUR MOST IMPORTANT WORK OUTSIDE OF THE POOL: Chinese divers perform dry-land training better than anyone else in the world. If you ask the coaches – this is what has led to China’s dominance. As you’ll see in the video, their dryland training facilities are a Disneyland for divers. Like their dives in the pool, each athlete has a laminated sheet of dryland exercises that take them from the trampoline to the foam pit to the mats or to the runway to practice approaches. They move around the gym and are never on one piece of equipment for more than 20 minutes.
7. WE SEEK LOTS OF FEEDBACK FROM LOTS OF COACHES: As the athletes move around the dryland training area, they move into the zones of different coaches who offer a variety of corrections based on what their “coaching eye” sees. Chinese coaches all share a basic methodology so there’s no worry of conflicting messages being sent.
8. WE USE VIDEO AS MUCH AS HUMANLY (AND TECHNICALLY) POSSIBLE: In both the dryland facility and the pool there are closed circuit cameras that catch the dives being performed. After the athletes get out of the pool and receive feedback from the coach, they can look up on the huge monitors and see the dives for themselves.
9. WE SEEK WAYS TO ESTABLISH TEAM IDENTITY THROUGH SACRIFICE: No other Olympic team in the complex trains before 9 a.m. — but three days a week, our team rises early to train at six — because it’s a sacrifice. There’s no need to train at 6am instead of 9am. They do it because it’s inconvenient, and it creates an air of “we work harder than anyone else.”
10. WE HAVE WAA-AAY MORE FUN THAN YOU MIGHT GUESS: Dryland training is a place where there is frequent playing around and laughing. The coaches let the athletes be kids. Now I’m not saying that it’s like a frat party (this is Communist China, after all), but compared to many teams I’ve worked with over the last 2.5 years in China, they have a good time.
Quite a list, isn’t it?
Here’s the fascinating part: fully half of the ten principles (numbers 1, 3, 5, 9 and 10) have zero to do with training methods and everything to do with the organizational culture. Mixing ages, applauding failure, avoiding specialization, embracing sacrifice, and having fun are not training techniques — they are shared values that apply far beyond just diving. They are powerful signals that create a cohesive, high-performing tribe of people.
All of which leaves room for one more question: how does Rett’s list compare with the principles of other high-performing places (like, maybe, yours)? What’s missing? What might be added?
PS – if there’s anybody else out there who might want to offer a similar “insider’s tour” of their training, please let me know.