Month: September 2009

Sweet Gig

comic1jpgHow do you measure the true value of a job?

Conventional wisdom has its answers (salary, glamor, social networking). Here’s a better measure: how much opportunity you get to spend constructing and honing your high-speed circuitry.

This story gives us a beautiful example from the NFL, where a crop of new head coaches (nine at last count) bloom from an identical place: a position called “quality-control coach.” This is the low-paid, anonymous person whose job it is to spend hundreds of hours inside a tiny room analyzing film, assembling phonebook-thick playbooks, immersed in the subtle differences that separate winning from losing.

Reading the story gave me a bit of deja-vu of my first job as an intern at Outside magazine in the late eighties. Feature stories came in as hard copies; our job was to retype them into the computer system. Then the pieces would be edited by the magazine’s talented editors, and we interns would type all their changes in, adding the captions, headlines, and all the other tiny improvements that transformed a rough draft into a polished story. A lowly job, by all measures except one:  the opportunity to practice deeply.

Practicing Self-Control

Want to eat that marshmallow right now? You can, but here’s the catch: if you wait a few minutes, you can have two marshmallows.


Turns out that kids who can wait — who can control their impulses — grow up to get better grades, and score 210 points higher on the S.A.T., on average. The marshmallow study, originally performed by Dr. Walter Mischel, is one of many showing that self control–the ability to ignore tempting distractions and keep one’s emotions in check–stands at the root of achievements of all kinds.

So is self-control innate? Or can it be taught, developed, and practiced? For the latest answer, check out Paul Tough’s fascinating story about Tools of the Mind, a promising new program that teaches self-control through — surprise! — play. Turns out that dramatic play helps kids develop and improve their ability to keep impulses in check. As Angela Duckworth puts it, “Just because something is effortful and difficult and involves some amount of constraint doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.”

As much fun as eating two marshmallows, you might say.

PS — Thought-provoking discussion on this from Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman over at the excellent NurtureShock.

Portrait of a Genius as a Young Girl

It’s not often that we get to witness the first swings of someone who goes on to be the best tennis player in the world. Today’s our lucky day: here is Dinara Safina, current world number one player, taking her first swings at Spartak. We all know how great she became. The question is, did she have some special gift that separated her from other kids her age?

  • Does she an unusual level of natural coordination? (Uh, no–check out the pratfall at the 17-second mark.)
  • Does she exhibit unusually sharp hand-eye ability (Not really.)
  • Does she have a naturally efficient swing? (Not unless underhand is efficient.)

Yet I think we can see the real gift here: She’s falling in love with this game. Her coach (her mother) has wisely cut down her racquet and given her a soft, bouncy ball to play with. Dinara is having a complete blast out there. When she misses, she chases it down and does it again. This is how it begins.


bakfiets_cargobikeJust back from a speaking engagement in Amsterdam — what a marvelous city, in every sense of the word. I marveled mostly at the spectacle of thousands of people on bikes whizzing around the streets. And I mean whizzing. Amsterdammers ride really fast, even the oldest men, even the mothers with three kids in the rickshaw-like bikes, no helmets. Add in streetcars, motorcycles, canals, and blissed-out tourists for obstacles, and you’ve got what amounts to a high-speed ballet.

Speaking of ballet: at the conference I was attending, I got the opportunity to drive a Segway for the first time. I hopped on (how hard could this be?) and promptly drove it straight toward a murky canal. I couldn’t figure out how to turn the darn thing, and the canal kept looming closer and closer. Fortunately, several quick-thinking Dutch people (employing bike-honed danger-reflexes, no doubt), headed me off, preventing any impromptu swims. Ah, talent!

What Can Myelin Do For You?

ups_truckIf business is sport (and I think it is), few companies are as good at cultivating talent as quiet, non-flashy United Parcel Service. This article gives a glimpse at the machinery behind UPS’s success.

In a nutshell: a few years ago, the company’s younger drivers were failing, so the company invented a new training program: a kind of mini-town where trainees can deeply practice their every move. It’s elaborate (force sensors on handrails, obstacle courses, a “falling machine” where harnessed-up trainees attempt, and fail, to carry packages over slippery floors), and it works brilliantly. UPS is doing exactly what the coaches at Meadowmount, The Shyness Clinic, Spartak or any of the other talent hotbeds are doing: using deep practice to build fast, fluent circuitry.

Loop of Redemption

cursiveAs a longtime scribbler whose handwriting is nearly indecipherable, this story by Slate’s Emily Yoffe hits close to home. In it, Yoffe tries to improve the handwriting skills of herself and her eighth-grade daughter.

In the end, both Yoffe and her daughter are “astonished” at their progress. This raises an interesting point: the reliability of this kind of astonishment. High-quality, targeted training always ends up producing astonishing progress. Which is to say, it feels astonishing, like some kind of magic, but when you understand how the system actually works–how it’s possible to build fast, beautiful circuitry through deep practice–these gains are wonderfully predictable.