Month: May 2009

Decoding Conan O’Brien

conan_o_brienComic talent: what’s it made of?  A new profile by Lynn Hirschberg gives us an X-ray of soon-to-be “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien at work, and the results are fascinating. 

Hirschberg on O’Brien’s comedy strategy:

O’Brien’s approach to comedy and television is analytical and exact. There’s a split in his psyche: he can be goofy, but he obsesses over the nuances of that goofiness. He’s constantly trying to puzzle out how best to be funny five nights a week for an audience of millions.

O’Brien on his background (ignition, anyone?):

“Everybody laughed at Carson – they all watched him. I started analyzing the show then. Since I was a teenager, I have been thinking about what’s funny and what’s not funny almost all the time. Not much in my life has changed since I was a kid…. My older brothers, Neal and Luke, slept in twin beds, and I was in a cot at the foot of their beds. I loved it. When you’re Irish Catholic, you learn to do comedy at the foot of your brothers’ beds. It’s all about trying to make your family laugh. And I employ the same muscle today. It’s just that now I make a living out of it.”

On his persistent, slow improvement after he landed his first hosting job at “Late Night” (which was rocky at first, to say the least):

 One key to O’Brien’s character is his quiet confidence that if he applies himself, he will eventually succeed. He’s not arrogant, but he’s willing to live and breathe the show. “…I’m addicted to the feeling of what it’s like to do a good show. There are 35 variables every night – what comedy do we have? What’s the audience like? Who are the guests? What time of year is it? What’s my mood? You need 15 cherries to line up to pay out the jackpot. And, every now and then, the stars align. And you keep chasing after that feeling.”

On his (deep) practice:

[O’Brien] walked over to an X that had been taped to the floor. When the show starts, that will be where he’ll stand when he emerges from the curtain to address the audience. “I come here at night, after everyone’s gone home, and I practice giving the monologue,” he said. “Every night. For hours. I just stand on the X and imagine the rest.”

Anybody read Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up? It’s virtually the same story–and more revealingly, the same underlying process.

Big Muscles, Bigger Skills.

As Alex Rodriguez returns after confessing to using performance enhancers, he raises an important question: when can an athlete truly be considered “clean”? The intuitive answer is that they are clean when the stuff is no longer in their body – or perhaps when their muscles deflate to normal size.

But it’s not that simple.

Performance enhancing drugs aren’t just about big muscles—they’re also about faster, more fluent skill circuits. Here’s why: PEDs cut recovery time and increase energy levels. Skill athletes on steroids can practice more often, more intensely, and more productively than anybody else. Ultimately it’s the skill circuit, not the muscle, that creates performance.  

This is why we see a telltale pattern: before they get busted, many steroid users are famous for their intense workout routines.  It’s also why even badminton players – who hardly depend on big muscles – are occasionally tempted. (Though as this advertisement makes clear, that might make for a more entertaining game.) 

Super Memory Club

22brainspanCheck out this fascinating story by Benedict Carey that explores the reasons why certain older people (90 and over) are able to maintain their mental sharpness. In a nutshell: researchers have found little evidence that diet or exercise makes a difference (kind of surprising). So who makes it into the club? People who spend their days “engrossed in mental activities” like playing cards, trying new things, and maintaining rich social connections.  

Beyond giving insight into why my Grandma Kuhl and all her friends stayed so sharp well into their nineties (with pinochle, not bridge), this also makes abundant sense: Fire the circuit, and you earn more myelin.

Graduation Gifts

Great idea from Timothy Noah at Slate – we need more commencement speakers who talk about the underrated usefulness of failure, screw-ups, and falling short. Sounds like a buzzkill, but as Noah wisely points out, success is a lousy teacher, and besides, failure makes for far more entertaining stories. 

Here’s someone already taking his advice: J.K. Rowling at Harvard.

Jack Kerouac’s Spring Training

keroslide8What’s the best training to be a writer?

 Part of the answer might be revealed in this Chip McGrath article which details the youthful creations of one of the most energetic of writers, Jack Kerouac, author of On The Road.  

Turns out Kerouac spent much of his youth creating imaginary baseball games. It was not a casual thing – he constructed teams, composed letters from owners, wrote make-believe newspaper stories, and kept track of games using a toothpick and marble in place of bat and ball. (See this slide show for samples.) It’s a strikingly Bronte-esque example of creating and documenting fantasy worlds – and seems to have been fueled a similar family tragedy, the death of Kerouac’s brother.

I was never in Kerouac’s league, but I did have an obsessive habit of detailing backyard Nerf football games through made-up teams, logos, statistics, standings, and end-of-season awards. So now I wonder: did that help me grow the circuits I’m using right now? Maybe so – though I’m positive I never had a player with as cool a name as Warby Pepper. 

Growing Willpower

images-6Check out this marvelous article about self-control in this week’s New Yorker by the consistently fascinating Jonah Lehrer . The takeaway: science is giving us a new way to think about willpower as a skill circuit you can hone with the right kind of practice. 

 [When] Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto. “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.” In other words, people learn how to use their mind just as they learn how to use a computer: through trial and error.

But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

The story also includes an account of how KIPP schools are using these principles to improve their students’ willpower, and includes first mention of what could become this year’s “Vote for Pedro”-style T-shirt catchphrase: “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow.”

Deep, Deep Practice

underwater_soccer-3855I was talking with my friend Allison the other day, and she had a cool idea I thought I’d pass along. Allison, who’s in her thirties, is an amateur dancer with a group here in Homer. Whenever she can’t catch on to a complicated move — some spin or leap — she heads for the swimming pool and practices it over and over by herself. “It slows me down just enough,” she said. “When I can feel myself doing it, then I can learn it.” 

I’m coaching girls’ softball (ages 10,11)  this summer — and she’s given me an idea for our first hitting practice: we’ll get a bunch of bats and teach the kids to swing in the pool — standing at shoulder-depth, so they slow down and feel the right motion, the leverage and rotation that’s behind a good swing. At the very least, it’ll be a really fun afternoon.

And it makes me wonder: where else would aqua-training be useful?

Cognitive Cash

images-23Fascinating story in the NY Times today on the science of concentration by the reliably interesting John Tierney. His subject is Rapt, a new book by Winifred Gallagher. The upshot: focus is like money. We each get only so much, and we can only spend it one place at a time.

“Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime.

“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”

I couldn’t help but think of the Clint Eastwood-like expressions of focused concentration I saw at the talent hotbeds. If concentration is like money, then they certainly know how to spend it in the right place.

Dirty Jobs, Sharp Skill Circuits

Like a lot of people, I love watching Mike Rowe on “Dirty Jobs” because of his lightning-fast mind. Like all great improvisers, Rowe is essentially unsurprisable, always ready with a response calibrated to poke a little fun (usually at himself), and reveal a little truth. That he’s doing this on the fly, usually covered in muck, makes his talent all the more impressive.

That’s why I was fascinated to find this clip of a young Mike Rowe (early nineties, judging by the suit) working as a host on none other than QVC, the cheesy home-shopping network.

On the surface, Rowe’s QVC job looks hopelessly entry-level and vaguely embarrassing. But from a deep-practice perspective, it’s a gold mine. Think of what’s happening: every few minutes a new object comes up for sale, and Rowe has to find something to say right now, under pressure, without a script — find an angle, make a joke, find some thread of connection between this object and the audience. He fires his circuit over and over, makes mistakes, and fixes them. Then he does it again, and again. He worked at QVC for four years. 

The Mike Rowe we see in this clip is clearly not that great yet – not as fast, not as clever, not as talented an entertainer. Which is exactly the point. His QVC time was where Rowe was slowly, fitfully growing his skill circuit. “Dirty Jobs,” on the other hand, is where we get to see it shine. (Well, so to speak, anyway.) 

Kid Talk

kids070219_3_1981One of the questions that comes up often is about talking to kids–specifically, how do you encourage them along? The simple and surprising answer from the research is to praise them for their effort, not their innate skill. The reason, as Carol Dweck explains, is that when you praise for skill, kids tend to react by protecting their status — they don’t want to take risks that might harm their standing. When you praise for effort, on the other hand, kids tend to react by taking on more challenging tasks, making mistakes and fixing them, spending time in the sweet spot where skill is truly acquired.

Here’s a good article in which Po Bronson explains how it works.