The Z-Boys Skateboarders, Los Angeles, California

A ragtag bunch of teenagers who, in the mid-1970s, used an empty swimming pool to revolutionize skateboarding. Their talent for soaring aerials, grinds, spins established the sport’s extreme vocabulary, made some of them millions of dollars, and defines extreme-sports culture to this day.

The Origin of the Species: The Moment the Z-Boys took Skateboarding Airborne

Compared to modern tricks, these moves rank as fairly primitive (the technology had something to do with it, too). But that’s precisely the point. Skill circuits build slowly. From a deep-practice point of view, what’s happening here is exactly the same thing that happened to the Brönte sisters.

  • At 30 seconds: watch how they wipe out every single time. It’s not especially pretty, but it’s crucial: as with all deep practice, mistakes are the royal road to skill.
  • At 40 seconds: they get into a groove, repeating the motion over and over, following and mimicking each other—a perfect hothouse for building and honing skill circuits.
  • At 55 seconds: they are going higher and higher, making better mistakes each time. The “eureka” moment of liftoff is made possible by a thousand smaller moments, each one the firing of a circuit, the earning of a tiny bit of new skill. Mistakes aren’t really mistakes: they’re proof of growing skill circuits, as they scaffold themselves to ever-higher ability.
  • At 1:40: Watch Jay Adams (whom many regard as the true originator of modern skateboarding): he’s constantly pushing himself to the edge of his (not-yet-so-great) abilities.
  • At 2:40: You can see the surfing connection clearly here, as Adams is using skills (firing circuits) that he developed in the ocean and bringing them to the street. (Unfortunately, Adams developed other skills too—he ended up spending much of his adult life in and out of prison.)

Lessons

While it’s tempting to attribute the Z-Boys’ success to their appealingly renegade personalities, the truth is that it has far more to do with their discovery of the perfect deep-practice tool: an empty swimming pool. Like the Brontes (link), the pools allowed them to:

  • Locate the sweet spot of learning-the uncomfortable edge of their abilities, where real learning takes place.
  • Provide immediate, vivid (and, in this case, painful) feedback.
  • Repeat endlessly, circling, firing their skill circuits, failing productively, and firing them again. Skill circuits don’t care who you are-they care about what you do.
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