Month: November 2009


Mozgala at work
Mozgala at work

Back when I was reporting the book I went to see  neurologist George Bartzokis of UCLA. We were sitting in his tiny office, talking about myelin and how the brain can learn new behaviors, and Bartzokis said something that got my attention.

He said, “In a most basic sense, myelin is hope.”

Myelin is hope, I remember thinking. Could that possibly sound any more cornball?

I’ve found myself thinking about his words more than a few times — especially while reading Neil Genzlinger’s remarkable story in today’s Times.

It’s about a man named Gregg Mozgala who, with the help of a master teacher, learned to dance. The twist: Mozgala suffers from cerebral palsy, where the brain can’t send the right signals to the muscles. Until a few months ago, he couldn’t walk normally. Now? (Hit the link and check out the video for the proof.)

Before, [Mozgala’s] gait was extreme enough that it would draw stares on the street.  Now, when he is fully concentrating, a passer-by might have to look twice to realize he has a disability at all.

How? That’s the interesting part. It’s a combination of forces — the same forces that build any new circuitry.

First, a relationship with a master coach, Tamar Rogoff, a dance instructor who purposely didn’t read up on cerebral palsy before starting her work. “That way I didn’t have any ideas about what he could and couldn’t do,” she said.

Second, they built new circuits (as opposed to fixing old circuits). This involved spending (a lot of)  time on the edge of Mazgola’s ability.

They began doing intensive one-on-one sessions they call body work, Ms. Rogoff using her knowledge of the body and dance-training techniques to help Mr. Mozgala “find” individual bones, muscles and tendons that he had had no command of before.

They started at the top and worked down — sternum, sacrum, knees — with Mr. Mozgala’s body and brain opening paths of communication that had not existed.

“There’s a lot of howling, screaming, crying, sweating,” Ms. Rogoff said. But “we often have these huge eureka moments.”

I’m sure this could (and might well be) made into some cornball Hollywood movie. The screenplay practically writes itself — the hopeless angry man (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the understanding teacher (Cate Blanchett), and a skeptical head of the dance company (Judi Dench) — toss in a smoldering romance, a sweat-dappled “Eye of the Tiger” training scene, a triumphal Carnegie Hall performance.

But if they do make a movie, I hope they find a way to zoom in on the real forces that made a difference: the ability all human brains have to build new connections; to transform deep practice into fast, fluent circuits.

(And the Oscar goes to… Neuroplasticity!)

Good Reads, Links, Tunes

cornucopiaTis the season and all, so here are a few things I’ve been enjoying lately, in no particular order:

  • Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon: Okay, I’m a huge Chabon fan and would probably love anything he scribbled, but this collection of nonfiction essays is uniquely great for its insights into parenting, kid freedom, and the cultural power of Wacky-Packs.
  • The Weepies: My friend Dave got me into this Brooklyn singing/songwriting duo during a long drive to Denali National Park. We listened to them for six hours — and never got tired of it.
  • How Lincoln Learned to Read, by Daniel Wolff: What were the educations of great talents really like? By looking closely at 12 greats (Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, Sojourner Truth, Rachel Carson, even Elvis Presley), Wolff makes you want to jerk your kids out of school and apprentice them into print-shops, music studios, political groups. (Well, for a split-second, anyway.)
  • Game Six, by Mark Frost: A you-are-there recreation of my all-time favorite baseball game: the Cincinnati Reds versus Boston Red Sox  in the 1975 World Series, aka the Carlton Fisk Home Run Game. I remember watching this game as a ten-year-old; it made me love baseball.
  • Angle of Reflection:  Michael Reddick’s terrific blog in which he documents his audacious attempt to become a professional pool player in two years.  I like it partly because he’s putting the ideas of The Talent Code directly to use; but mostly because of his sharp analysis and good storytelling.
  • The Lucksmiths: Australian indie pop band (who just apparently broke up). They’re funny, whip-smart, and kinda twee — but hey, is it so wrong to like twee?

Tina Fey’s Transformation

Check out this video of Tina Fey in her early days, back when she was growing her skills doing improv at Chicago’s Second City. A few things leap out:

  • Young Tina’s not all that funny.
  • Young Tina takes LOTS of risks (as evidenced by the sketch).
  • Young Tina sees the direct connection between taking smart risks and getting better.  Listen to her at the 1:45 mark: “There’s a huge amount of risk but there’s a really fun freefall once you’ve done it a bunch of times and had it go really, really poorly. There is a freedom in that freefall that is kind of like skydiving, and that’s when you find something interesting.”

Once you’ve done it a bunch of times and had it go really, really poorly.

We often talk about the fearlessness of great comics (and athletes, and writers), but we frequently overlook the fact that it’s a  learned fearlessness. They become fearless slowly, by making mistakes, learning from them, developing fast, fluent neural circuits.

For Fey, the circuits are definitely firing:

The Underrated Benefits of Faking

2795295056_55a9b69f7eAs kids, we do it all the time: we pretend we’re the quarterback with one second left in a tied Super Bowl, or we’re about to walk onstage with the Rolling Stones, or (if you grow up in Alaska like I did), we’re mushing our dogteam toward an Iditarod victory.  We invent fabulously detailed, pressurized make-believe situations, then see if we can deliver.

I see a lot of top performers doing precisely the same thing. They create systems where they create a convincingly fake world where they can crank up the pressure over and over.  A few examples:

  • From comedy: Mel Brooks’s famous “2,000-Year-Old Man” routine (which became one of the greatest comedy albums of all time) began in the fifties as a dare. Brooks would go to dinner parties with his friend Carl Reiner, and Reiner would introduce Brooks (who nobody recognized at the time) as a world-famous alligator-wrestling champion, or a self-trained Swedish heart surgeon — and Brooks would be forced to play along, improvising a comic character out of thin air.
  • From music: Skye Carman, who teaches at Meadowmount Music School, recommends that students prepare for performances by replicating every condition of the performance — the dress clothes, the chair, the introduction.
  • From sports: The three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots practice game situations more than any other team in the league, adding the ticking clock, crowd noise and, if necessary, a watered-down field to replicate game conditions.

The usual explanation for the effectiveness of these strategies goes like this: fake pressure works because we get familiar with real pressure, and thus at some level inured to it.

This is basically true. But the deeper question to ask is this: what is this familiarity made of? Why does fakery — this transparent, imaginative baloney that we objectively know is utterly untrue — work so well?

And the answer, I think, has to do with two facts: 1) we’re suggestible beings; 2) emotion — like every other skill — is a neural circuit, a connection of wires that can be forged, honed, and deeply practiced.

We don’t instinctively think of emotions as practice-able skill, but there’s lots of interesting evidence that they are, most notably the work of Dr. Albert Ellis and cognitive-behavioral psychology, where emotions are treated as if they were muscles. The fakery works because it is the equivalent of a workout in which we can fire our emotional circuits over and over, and thus learn to control them better.

Thinking about this reminds me of the Shyness Clinic I visited for the book, a place where therapists were exceptionally imaginative about creating pressurized practice situations for their clients. One of their drills: to have the client walk into a grocery store alone, pick up a watermelon, and purposely drop it on the floor. It makes a big cracking, squishy noise, like a giant egg. People stare… clerks scurry… it’s completely mortifying.

It also works like a charm.

Geek Power: How Peyton Manning is Like Warren Buffett

Last night, with four minutes left and his team trailing by 13 points, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning did something amazing: he led the Indianapolis Colts to an improbable win, 35-34.

Warren Buffett had a pretty good week too, purchasing Burlington Northern Railroad for $34 billion.

All in all, it’s a fine time to ask a simple question: what do these two have in common? The answer, I think, starts with two facts.

  • Football and investing are about constructing systems: specialized, high-speed, adaptive organizations that can respond to adversity and opportunity.
  • Manning and Buffett are geeks.

I think these two facts are related. I’d like to make the case that Peyton Manning is the Warren Buffett of quarterbacks (or is Warren Buffett the Peyton Manning of investors?)  Both are successful because they build their lives around eccentric-seeming routines, which seem hopelessly geeky from the outside. But the closer you get, the more the truth is revealed: what appears to be geeky from the outside is in fact good strategy for building a reliable high-speed neural circuit.

Let’s be clear: there are many different species of geek. Among them:

First, there are Data-Set Geeks: memorizers of vast quantities of obscure information (Star Wars characters, Yo La Tengo lyrics) who use their knowledge to define and enhance their social status.

Second, there are Process Geeks: people who are utterly enraptured by a particular, usually repetitive task (Rubic’s Cube, novel writing) and who cannot stop thinking about it. Their geekdom isn’t outwardly expressed; it’s directed internally,  and tends to show itself in telltale eccentricities.

Then there are Geeks Who Aren’t Really Geeks: people who, in this age of Steve Jobs, pretend to be obsessed with some data set or process, but who in fact lack the true signifier of geekdom: the willingness to be uncool.

Manning and Buffett are both the second kind of geek. They are hopelessly in love with process. They are willing to be uncool. What’s more, over the years they’ve both developed a template to produce high performance.

Manning is beyond meticulous when it comes to the basics of his job, carrying a notebook where he records mistakes and fixes, not just for himself but for the team. He is so addicted to his practice routine that he’ll explain it in jaw-dropping detail to ten-year-olds without noticing they can barely grip the football. He is unique among quarterbacks for the amount of time he spends working with receivers, starting the moment they are drafted (Last year, Manning sent rookies a text message the day after the draft: “Meet me at the facility at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Warmed up. Ready to go.”)

It’s the same ferocious attention Buffett brings to his investment playbook; to his dictum of “turning pages;” i.e. doing the homework, eschewing the get-rich-quick idea, to patiently unearth value that will grow over time. As Buffett put it, “When I got out of school, I turned every page in Moody’s 10,000-some pages twice, looking for companies.”

Of course, there are many other sound reasons behind their success. Both Buffett and Manning had enviably early starts toward their 10,000 hours (Buffett bought his first stock at 11 years old; Manning was born into NFL quarterbacking royalty–though as this clip shows, was hardly an all-star from the start). Both had good models and mentors, and no shortage of opportunities. More important, both of their identities are so wrapped up in their jobs that they radiate the feeling that if the money and fame suddenly were to evaporate, they would continue doing it for free.

The point I’d like to make is that in our culture we tend to underrate Process Geeks. We tend to see Buffett and Manning’s eccentricities as “colorful” or “entertaining,” when in fact those traits reside at the very core of their abilities, because they help them build and maintain the neural circuitry to make high-speed, accurate decisions.

When one questioner recently asked Buffett how he was able to decide on investments so quickly, he said, “Well, that’s 50 years of preparation and five (minutes) of decision making.”

Peyton Manning couldn’t have said it better himself.

Never Mind the Book!

This just in: apparently some talents are natural-born.

The Genius of Screwups

One of my Sunday addictions, along with a triple hazelnut espresso, is “Corner Office,” Adam Bryant’s weekly interview of a bigshot CEO. Here’s the strange thing: At some point in each interview, every single CEO shares the same nugget of wisdom: the crucial importance of mistakes, failures, and setbacks. (Above, see Richard Branson of Virgin talking about the importance of being willing to fail.)

It’s kind of surreal when you think about it: a chorus of the world’s most successful businesspeople, waxing eloquent about how fantastically useful it is to screw up. Here’s Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg:

“If you don’t make failure acceptable, you can’t have [movies that are] original and unique. And so in a world today that punishes, brutally punishes, any of us for failure, it’s the single most important quality that I think we work so hard to provide for our 2,000 employees, the understanding that they are expected to take risks.”

And here’s John Chambers of Cisco:

“I learned another lesson from Jack Welch. It was in 1998, and at that time we were one of the most valuable companies in the world. I said, “Jack, what does it take to have a great company?” And he said, “It takes major setbacks and overcoming those.” Then, in 2001, we had a near-death experience. We went from the most valuable company in the world to a company where they questioned the leadership. And in 2003, he called me up and said, “John, you now have a great company.” I said, “Jack, it doesn’t feel like it.” But he was right.”

Okay, fine. We hear this kind of advice all the time: learn from your mistakes, don’t be afraid of risk, be resilient, blah blah blah. We tend to tune it out in part because we see it as moral advice — advice on how to have good character. But let’s look at it a different way. The advice they’re giving isn’t just moral. It’s neural.

What I mean is this: mistakes create unique conditions of high-velocity learning that cannot be matched by more stable, “successful” situations. When it comes to building fast, beautiful neural circuits, mistakes aren’t really mistakes — they’re information. They are  the navigation points from which those circuits are constructed, wire by wire. The lesson is that business operates by exactly the same evolutionary principles as sports or art or math or music: we have to take risks, make mistakes, screw up in order to build better brains.

Of course, all screw-ups are not created equal. You’ll notice that the CEOs aren’t talking about thrashing around blindly, but rather making purposeful reaches toward specific goals — as you would if you whack a golf ball toward a hole, figured out why you missed, and hit it again.

The real trick is creating an organizational culture where this kind of reaching is not only possible, but actively encouraged and supported — a rare feat in this perfectionist world of ours. I’ve witnessed good examples of these kinds of cultures at KIPP schools, Honda, and Suzuki music education.

Where else have you found them?

Great Teachers Part I: The Hoops Whisperer

20565The best coach in the NBA is a short, 38-year-old former lawyer who never played high-level basketball. His name is Idan Ravin, and he’s master coach to the stars: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and a dozen others, who swear by his magical touch (which you can see on video here and here).

So why is Ravin so effective? Because he learned two key skills.

First, he connects emotionally with the players. He identifies their learning style. Like a psychologist, he figures out what makes each player tick.

“The biggest mistake you can make is thinking these guys are stupid and inarticulate,” he says. “Whatever language they speak, they speak it well. And it’s not incumbent on them to understand me; it’s up to me to understand them.”

Second, Ravin channels that emotional fuel into high-velocity learning. His short, intense workouts (often no more than 45 minutes) systematically push players to the edges of their ability, where learning happens. There are no chalkboards, no lectures — only game-situation drills and a constant stream of short, concise signals. As Chris Ballard writes in his terrific-looking new book, The Art of the Beautiful Game, excerpted here.

Many of Ravin’s drills are intended to create a state of confusion. In one he throws tennis balls at a player, who must catch them while maintaining his dribble. (Ravin could be seen doing this in a Nike ad with Anthony a few years back.) The goal is not to improve hand-eye coordination but rather to create sensory overload. “You make the player focus on everything else except the game, so that the game skills become automatic,” explains Ravin. “You try to make the unreasonable feel reasonable.”

You have to give them bits,” says Ravin. “They all have ADD. They can’t sit through two hours of coaching theory. Not one kid wants coaching theory.” Instead Ravin makes everything interactive. “I have ADD too,” he says. “As a player I’d rather do it and fail, do it and fail, than have a coach move my hand to [show me] what to do. These guys learn by movement.”

It’s easy for the NBA establishment to dismiss Ravin as a dillettante; but they’re missing the real lesson of his story. Ravin is successful because he does precisely what every master coach does (and far too few NBA coaches do): he makes an emotional connection and uses that fuel to accomplish the hard work of building new neural circuitry.

Speaking of master coaches (and lack thereof), I spent the weekend at Notre Dame, watching my alma mater’s beleaguered football team lose to Navy for the second time in three years.

Hey Idan, if you ever decide to try your hand at football, I know a team that could use you!

Funny Business: How The Onion is like Toyota

onion_logo072309-thumb-200x200toyota_logo_2005Strange question of the day:  What does The Onion — the world’s best fake newspaper — have in common with Toyota, the car company?

At first the comparison seems ludicrous. In our comedy, we desire creativity and surprise; in our cars we desire reliability and non-surprise. In addition, comedy attract  profoundly different sorts of people than do automotive manufacturers. They occupy different universes.

But this article from yesterday’s NY Times points toward a surprising connection: both The Onion and Toyota are mechanisms for transforming something rough and unfinished (a pile of metal and rubber in Toyota’s case; a pile of loose ideas in the The Onion‘s case) into a smooth, well-functioning final product. They have built organizational circuitry (which is really neural circuitry) to churn huge quantities of  indeterminate stuff into finished product. They are both, in short, improvement machines.

Here is how Onion editors describe their machine:

“It’s a very specific, regimented format,” said Dan Guterman, the head writer. “You sort of learn the Onion language by rote. We spend hundreds of hours in the room deconstructing the jokes. I don’t think there’s anything comparable to the amount of material we generate and reject just to come up with the week’s headlines.”

Toyota operates on the philosophy of kaizen, or incremental improvement. At Toyota, each person learns the company’s cultural langage by rote. Each participates in the improvement process, pointing out errors and recommending solutions, then triangulating toward a better system, step by step. For example: at the company’s Georgetown, KY, plant, the convertible top to the Camry formerly took 30 minutes to install; after a kaizen process — making perhaps a hundred tiny fixes and improvements — it takes only eight minutes. And it’s not just about efficiency — kaizen frequently results in new, creative solutions. Each assembly line makes thousands of such changes a year; they add up to create something beautiful.

Both Toyota and The Onion succeed because they have become very skilled at one fundamental act: Locating weakness in existing structures and improving them. Whether that results in a smoothly running joke, or a smoothly running car — well, that depends on what kind of factory you want to have.

Learning Cello in 20 Minutes: An Experiment

Is it possible to teach a complete beginner to play cello in a twenty minutes?

Two weeks ago master cello teacher Hans Jensen and I tried to find out. We were at PopTech, a conference in Camden, Maine. We were gathered with forty people for a session about talent. We asked for volunteers — four adults, none of whom had ever so much as held a cello before.  Then Hans (who teaches at Northwestern University, and is regarded by many as the best cello teacher on the planet) went to work.

What happened next was pretty remarkable.

  • First, Hans connected emotionally. He was warm, funny, and above all, relentlessly positive.
  • He had them play copycat — thumping the instrument, cradling it, mimicking him as he tapped out rhythms, held the bow. He had them hold apples to teach them how to position their fingers. Hans guided their arms, then let go so they could feel a proper stroke.
  • He zoomed in on large physical keys: to be soft, to be loose. In addition, the students sang every note as they played. As Hans said, “if you can sing it, you can play it.”
  • He was always slightly ahead of them, firing dozens of quick signals and reacting instantly to each individual (“See if you can find the note  — Perfect! — Now see if you can copy him — Wonderful! — Now together!”)  The exchanges were quick, intense, and always connected to each other. He was building a neural scaffold.

Were the beginners suddenly transformed into virtuosos? No. But at session’s end they did the unthinkable: they played a song together. The audience (which included cellist Zoe Keating) was duly impressed. Even Hans was invigorated at how quickly the circuits can be built in the right conditions.

“I am always surprised by what people are capable of,” he said. “That is why I love my job.”