Month: December 2009

Seeing Beneath Greatness

we-are-all-witnesses-lebron-james-546522_1024_768In a couple hours my son and I are going to see the Chosen One: Mr. LeBron Raymone James, live and in person, on his 25th birthday (Cleveland Cavaliers versus Atlanta Hawks). We’ll be sitting in the rafters, but we’re excited to see Him in action. After all, it isn’t often you get to see a guy who makes the world’s best basketballers look like helpless kids.

But what will we be seeing, really? Fast, fluent neural circuits James built through deep practice? God-given talents? How can we see beneath the performance, to the forces that created it?

I was thinking of these questions when I came across this video of an 11-year-old from Washington who’s supposed to be the Next LeBron. His name is JaShaun Agosto, and here’s what he can do:

It’s pretty dazzling. But here’s the kicker: JaShaun’s daily four-hour workout consists of the following:

  • mile run
  • 50 free throws without missing
  • half hour of layup drills
  • 250 jumpers without missing three in a row
  • ten different dribbling drills (some using two basketballs)
  • 200 push-ups
  • 200 sit-ups
  • 150 squat-thrusts

Many of you have probably heard about the new “virtual reality” software. Basically, you aim your iPhone camera at something in the real world — a shop, a restaurant — and up pops pertinent information, such as price or user ratings.

So here’s my impossible game-day wish: I wish that someone would invent a virtual-reality app for famous athletes. Here’s how it would work: we’d aim our iPhone at a Roger Federer or LeBron, and up would pop the number of hours they train, or a sample of their daily workout. It’d work equally well with famous musicians (what would the numbers show on Lady GaGa, I wonder?). Because behind every great performance is hidden a great practice routine.

Lighting Fires


Check out the above photograph from the Kenyan town of Iten, just sent to me by Dr. Randy Wilber, a senior sport physiologist at the U.S. Olympic Committee Performance Lab. In it, two elite Kenyan runners trailed by a little kid who’s running to school.  It’s a tiny moment, and yet one that helps explain why this relatively small place produces the vast majority of the world’s great runners. As Wilber writes,

…it captures the “passing of the torch” from one generation of great runners to the next.  The little boy is serious and working hard to keep in contact.  The older runners are holding back just a bit so that the young one will stay relatively close and not get discouraged.  They are sending the message, “Yes, you are the next in line.  Someday you will be as good as we are.  Believe in yourself and grow in confidence.”  Please be aware that this is not an isolated image.  You see this same “passing of the torch” scene all over the streets and roads near the tiny town of Iten (pop. ~4000), both boys and girls.

Passing the torch is a nice way to put it. It’s the same thing that happens in Brazil in halftime of a futsal (indoor soccer) match, when flocks of four-and five-year-olds zoom around the court, pretending to be Robinho. Or at KIPP schools when inner-city fourth-graders travel to Ivy League colleges to visit KIPP alumni. It’s a simplest of connections; no words are required, no expensive facilities, no “development programs.”  Just two dots connected by a powerful idea: you could be them.

Let’s set all the psychology aside, and ask a question: where else can this kind of connection happen — in education, sports, art, in music, business? Where else are the opportunities to create this kind of identity-electricity?

The Talent of Creativity

“Would you like to spend tonight in the throws of passion?”
“Would you like to spend tonight in the throws of passion?”

My older brother Maurice has a talent for creativity. I could list dozens of of examples, but you should just click this: Men_R_Dogs It combines suggestive personal ads (complete with misspellings) and puppy photos. It’s pee-your-pants funny. And he churns out this kind of stuff all the time.

Most of us think of creativity as a kind of conjuring, where, as Webster’s puts it, something new is “brought into existence.” But I’m not so sure that’s right. In fact, I think it’s dead wrong.

My reasoning has to do with my brother and also with the prolific (and, for my money, underrated) writer Stephen King, who delivers some insights into the creative process in his 2001 memoir, On Writing.

King’s opinion: we don’t create ideas; rather we connect them. We make a link between two things that hadn’t been linked before. As he puts it, we unearth a connection, and then, POW!

This idea works to explain King’s immense creative output. In fact, most of his books are fueled by these sorts of combinations. For example: Mysterious Barrier + Quiet Maine Town = Under the Dome; Classic Car + Demon = Christine, High School Cruelty + Telekinesis = Carrie. Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into converting these primitive combinations into works of art, but they are like the uranium core of creativity: the big bang.

The deeper question is, how do we create more of these explosions?

To answer that, let’s look at what those connections really are. They are neural links — connected wires in our brain. Ideas don’t just float in the air — they exist, as electrical circuits. Maurice’s idea is funny because his brain built a connection between the neurons for “Suggestive Personal Ads” and the neurons for “Cute Puppies.” In fact, we could replace the word “creativity” with a new term: “connectivity.” And to maximize creative connectivity, you need to do two very different tasks:

1) gather ideas

2) connect them

For the gathering phase, we need lots of inputs, lots of filtering and categorizing. To be good at this is like being a human vacuum cleaner, hoovering up ideas and funneling them into various memory bins.

For the second phase, we need time and space to let the connections form and grow. It’s what management consultant and author Jim Collins refers to as “the white space” — the area of the day when real thinking happens.

Look closely at any creative person, and you’ll see that they have structured their lives to create acres of white space; Charles Dickens took endless walks through the city; Einstein played violin; Collins unplugs all electronics and goes “into the cave” from 8 a.m. until noon every day. All are good examples of Flaubert’s code: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

We’re living an interesting moment. For gathering ideas, it’s unquestionably richest time in history; we are standing in a torrent of stimulus and ideas. For finding that quiet place to connect those ideas, however, it’s exactly the opposite; white space is scarce and getting scarcer. Which makes it all the more valuable.

(Special thanks to my friend Michael Ruhlman for urging me to read On Writing.)

p.s. We went back to press for the eighth printing today — thanks, everyone!

Greatest Teachers: Who Would You Choose?

globe-eastIf you could gather six of the planet’s best teachers in one place for three days, who would you choose?

Would you pick:

It’s not a hypothetical question. Some educators I know are aiming to do just that — to assemble six great teachers from sports, art, music, and math for a three-day workshop. The idea: to create a miniature Florence of master teaching. To explore the deeper parallels between these teachers; to see how they make emotional connections, to see how they work their magic.  (Which isn’t really magic, of course, but rather a skill set that can be analyzed, copied, and taught.)

More to come on this — but in the meantime, which teachers would you choose?

The (Hidden) Genius of Editing

Pattern of genius: Dickens's original manuscript
Pattern of genius: Dickens's original manuscript

Editing has a bad name.

To many of us, the word evokes fussy red pens, nitpicking, stilted progress. Editing — which we can define as locating mistakes and fixing them — seems in every way to be the precise opposite of genius. After all, geniuses are fluid, perfect. Geniuses nail it the first time — that’s what makes them geniuses, right?

Uh, no.

In fact, when you peel back genius, you usually reveal editing. Lots and lots of editing. Ridiculous amounts of editing. Here are two useful case studies: Charles Dickens and Michael Jackson.

Check out this amazing original manuscript of “A Christmas Carol,” which went online today thanks to the cooperative efforts of the NY Times and the Morgan Library and Museum. It’s a riotous quilt of writing and rewriting — and looks for all the world like an 8th-grader’s term paper.

Of course, the changes are being made at an exceedingly high level — but the thing to recognize here is the pattern of work. Dickens read and re-read it dozens of times, finding fixes both small (changing “spot of mustard” to the more vivid “blot of mustard,” for example) and large (writing, then crossing out, a long paragraph comparing Scrooge’s character to Shakespeare’s Hamlet).

(See more examples of Dickens’s editing here.  And George Orwell’s spectacularly mashed-up first draft of 1984 here. And Bruce Springsteen’s six-month-long editing of the song “Born to Run” here. All proving why many writers hide their first drafts.)

It’s weird to think of writing a sentence as a neural circuit — as a chain of wires inside Dickens’s mind — but that’s precisely what it is. And in his editing, Dickens is firing those circuits, noting the mistakes, fixing the mistakes, then firing them again and again (and again) to gradually hone it into a smooth, natural-seeming result.

Michael Jackson, who was famous in the music industry for his work ethic, did the same thing with his dancing. Here is his tap-dance instructor, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, on what it was like to work with Jackson.

“He was a perfectionist and in four hours we might work four bars [about one song 15 seconds]. He would not move on until he was completely comfortable with one movement. That way he took the material in and made it a part of himself. He polished it before he moved on. I saw the passion in his work, very intense.”

Think about that:  Four hours of work on one song 15 seconds’ worth of moves.

As so often with the truth, there’s a paradox here: the final performance is designed to create the illusion of naturalness and fluency — of genius — which distances observers from the deeper force that truly created it: the humbler but still powerful force of a craftsman at work.