Month: March 2010

Yo-Yo Ma to the Rescue

Yo-Yo and Aidan

Returning from a spring break trip to Montana, my 14-year-old son Aidan and I were minding our own business, walking among the weary hordes of travelers at the Chicago airport. Then we noticed a slight commotion twenty feet ahead of us. A middle-aged woman had accidentally dropped her boarding pass, but since she wore an iPod, she was unable to hear the voices of people calling out. So the woman strode  briskly on, unaware.

Behind her, about a dozen people were doing what people usually do in those kinds of situations: they were yelling louder and louder, trying futilely to get iPod woman’s attention. Others (including us) were  instinctively slowing so we could see how this would play out.  In sum, nobody was doing much of  anything — except for a dark-haired guy in a black turtleneck.

The dark-haired guy  jumped out of the gathering crowd, snagged the fallen boarding pass and, calling “excuse me” in a loud voice, dashed up to deliver iPod woman’s boarding pass. Then the dark-haired turtleneck guy turned around, and — you guessed it — it’s Yo-Yo Ma.

As in, Yo-Yo Ma the cellist.  The six-time Grammy winner. The man who’s considered by many to be the most talented musician in the world. (Also, the guy I wrote about briefly in The Talent Code.)

This is a tiny moment. Perhaps it’s meaningless. But on the other hand, perhaps it raises some interesting questions about Ma’s mindset — and ours.

In the few seconds after the boarding pass fluttered to the ground, thirty people had the chance to act. Only one did, with an urgency and directness that seemed almost unconscious. In that brief time, Ma could have easily kept walking and let someone else take the lead. But that’s not how his mind works. He wasn’t thinking about himself or the crowd’s reaction. He was noticing a problem, and solving it.

I think that Ma’s mindset — outward-focused, perceptive, action-oriented — is no accident. Being a great performer, in the most profound sense, is not about the individual — rather, it’s about the music, or the athletic move, or whatever intricate series of thoughts and movements that are being connected. In truly great performances, the performer disappears.

We instinctively think geniuses are successful because they can get lost inside their private worlds, but I think this shows we might have it upside-down. Yo-Yo Ma isn’t successful because he’s lost in his own world. Rather, he’s successful, in part, because he is so deeply attentive to ours.

(Also, as the photo shows, he’s deeply warm to two strangers who chatted with him a few minutes later.)

P.S. — Apparently Yo-Yo isn’t the only one with this habit. Shinichi Suzuki (founder of the Suzuki Method) was once giving a concert when he suddenly ran offstage and down the aisle. The reason? A woman had accidentally left her purse behind; Suzuki wanted to return it.

(Thanks to Kimberly Meier-Sims of the Cleveland Institute of Music for sharing that memory.)

The Importance of Being Unpredictable

iditarodThis time of year our family happily geeks out on the Iditarod, that legendary 1,049-mile sled dog race from Willow to Nome. We tape a map on the fridge and follow our favorites — Lance Mackey, Ally Zirkle, our old neighbor Jim Lanier, and, this year, Jamaica’s own cool-runner Newton Marshall.

This year’s race has been completely great, with what looks to be a familiar ending. As of today, Mackey looks like he’s set to win for a record fourth-straight time.

The interesting question is, how does Mackey do it? More specifically, what makes him different? Because the truth is, everybody’s tough as nails. Everybody’s got super-fit dogs — and several top mushers have more resources than Mackey (who prefers living in a broken-down trailer to a house). And this is where the story gets interesting — because it’s where you can draw a line between Mackey, LeBron James, and the world’s top young violinists.

The difference with Mackey — his killer app — is his supreme flexibility. While others are grinding out the miles, Mackey changes strategies all the time. Sometimes he blows right past checkpoints, preferring to camp on the trail. Sometimes he pretends to fall asleep, and then, when his unsuspecting rivals doze off, slips out of the checkpoint. Mackey was one of the first mushers to run the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest race a bare two weeks before the Iditarod, a strategy which most race observers thought insane at the time, but which is now being emulated because it works so well. In short, Mackey wins because he is the best innovator, both strong and flexible.

So how can Mackey do this? The answer is, he trains that way.

From musher Joe Runyan’s blog at Alaska Dispatch:

“[Mackey] begins in August by training his dogs to expect uncertainty by harnessing them innumerable times. Day or night, he will harness his dogs to his four-wheeler, train with them on dry-land trails, rest, and then go again. The distances and the rests can be long or short and are completely random. The result, Mackey likes to report, is that his dogs develop a calm confidence in his unpredictability. Mackey’s move Saturday out of Kaltag may have been the moment he trained for so deliberately for in the fall.”

Training for unpredictability is an interesting idea. Because when we start to look at other talented performers, we see a similar pattern.

Like basketball, for instance. Trainer-to-the-stars Idan Ravin — whose students include LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and others — is famous for the tennis-ball drill, where he has his clients dribble with one hand while they catch tennis balls with the other. He takes a skill they’ve got (dribbling) and then uses distraction and randomness (in the form of tennis balls thrown at their heads) to let them practice overcoming distraction.

And golf. While training his son, Tiger, Earl Woods loved to tip over a golf bag or shout unexpectedly during his son’s backswing.

And music. Violinists learning the Suzuki Method are routinely asked to play a song while lying on their back, or turning the bow upside down, or walking in a circle.

The desired quality here is focus, which we can define as the ability to maintain concentration and control emotions in the face of unpredictability. We usually think of focus as something that’s innate, part of your character.

But the lesson here, I think, is that our instincts might be wrong. For Mackey, James, and the violinists, focus is a kind of skill, one that requires a training regimen all its own.

In fact, we can go further and divide all training into two basic types: 1) the training that builds the fundamental skill (a.k.a. the fast, fluent neural circuit); and 2) the training that field-tests that circuit, whacking it with all kinds of real-world randomness and distraction, in order that it become stronger, more reliable, and capable of handling surprises. Sort of like a good dog team.

The 3 Traits of Great Teachers

Dead_Poets_Society__XVID___1989_-fanart_posterWhat makes certain teachers so magical? What qualities should we look for, and what ones should we ignore?

In the last month we’ve seen a provocative new wave of reporting and research on that old and important mystery, from Elizabeth Bennett (New York Times Magazine), Amanda Ripley (Atlantic), and two terrific new books, Teaching as Leadership, by Steven Farr, and Teach Like a Champion, by Doug Lemov.

You should check out the stories and accompanying videos for yourself, but here’s the key point: great teachers share certain signature traits. Some of these traits are no big surprise — for instance, great teachers don’t see mistakes as verdicts, but as opportunities for learning; great teachers are immensely skillful at “holding the floor;” i.e. managing attention. Others are a bit more surprising.

  • Trait 1: They set big, ambitious, highly specific goals.

The key word here is specific, as in “my students will progress 1.5 grade levels this year” or, in the case of basketball, “our team will score an average of 50 points a game.”  Great teachers are constantly looking for vivid, trackable measuring sticks — which, by the way, are frequently creative (for instance, an orchestra could track the number of pieces it plays perfectly).

That sounds rather obvious, but the real art is in setting the right goal, making it visceral, and using it as a type of powerful magnet, orienting the mindsets, aspirations, and identity of the group. Above all, the goal is to avoid not having any. As Farr writes, vague goals are a kind of motivational smog, dimming expectation and achievement. Great teachers are allergic to vagueness.

  • Trait 2: Great teachers are constantly revising themselves.

They see their own work as never quite good enough. Behind the scenes, they tear up old lesson plans and draw new ones. In addition, they are magpies, stealing good ideas from fellow teachers, borrowing techniques, relentlessly upgrading their game. This finding seems strange, until you think of them as engaged in constructive editing. Like any good business or athlete, they are involved in an internal kaizen process, always looking hard at results, finding tiny ways to improve. They’re obsessed with honing their neural circuitry.

  • Trait 3: Great teachers radiate satisfaction with their lives.

They simply love teaching — a finding which seems warm and cuddly until you consider the hard numbers: according to a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology cited by Ripley, teachers who scored high in life satisfaction were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. Their zeal is not coincidental; it fuels the work of the job, allowing them to reach out again and again, engaging students.

It’s also interesting to note what qualities are not on this list — namely that Dead Poets’ Society, leap-on-the-desk quality known as charisma — which doesn’t turn out to be nearly as valuable we might instinctively suppose. (Ripley’s article contains a scene of two aspiring teachers competing for a job with Teach For America; one is charismatic and charming; the other quiet and prepared. Guess who gets the job?)

The lesson: sorry, Robin Williams. While the desk-leaping sizzle of your charisma is hugely enjoyable, it’s useful only when paired with the thick, juicy steak of real educational skills.

And the Oscar Goes to…

Ah, Oscar Week. Over the next six days we’ll witness people praising the visionary talent of best-director co-favorites James Cameron (“Avatar”) and Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”). We’ll hear about Cameron and Bigelow’s amazing skills: their unerring sense of story, their painterly eye, their supreme knack for framing an unforgettable story. Over and over, we will hear them be described as geniuses.

There’s just one major topic we won’t hear about: how did they get so good?

The surprising answer is this: they got good by making lots of extremely bad, schlocky movies. Click on the transcendently cheesy 1988 video above — directed by Cameron and starring Bigelow — and enjoy. Should you desire more, here’s a rare clip of Cameron’s first-ever movie, “Xenogenesis.”

We’ve all heard Cameron’s story — the obsessive mastermind behind blockbusters “Terminator” and “Titanic.” However, many biographies omit a vital fact: Cameron spent his early career apprenticing with legendary director/producer Roger Corman, king of the low-budget B movie, who specialized in making entire movies in less than three days. Think about that: script, shots, sets, actors — in 72 hours, a system that created Cameron-helmed classics like  “Pirhana II: The Spawning.”

Other Corman apprentices include Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Carl Franklin, and a dozen others. (To his credit, Cameron doesn’t downplay the connection, joking that he attended the “Roger Corman School of Film.”)

Kathryn Bigelow, who started out as a painter, followed a similar trajectory, directing “Near Dark,”Blue Steel,” “The Loveless,” and “Born in Flames.” Nothing great, by a long stretch (though you can make a case for parts of the surfer/bank robber movie  “Point Break”). Only after working through acres of subpar material did Bigelow create the artful, thrilling film for which she’s being honored this week. (I saw the movie on Friday, and it’s pretty amazing – I’m rooting for it to win.)

This pattern is not a coincidence. The key is to consider their careers from a neural perspective. While other would-be directors were waiting around for the “Right Project,” Cameron and Bigelow were seizing an opportunity to grow their skill circuits at ferocious speed: to solve problems, tell stories, build sets, run a team, work with actors, puzzle out the architecture of a story, over and over and over.

The lesson here has to do with the way we think. We instinctively separate creative people into categories – artists and non-artists, serious writers and pulp writers. Cameron and Bigelow show us the falseness of this distinction. Churning out schlocky stuff is not to be avoided, but instead to be actively sought out — so long as it doesn’t become an end in itself. We all should have a Roger Corman apprenticeship.

This brings up a question: where else do we see this pattern?  Who else’s creative talents were built by cranking out piles of subpar material?

(My first nomination: Charles Dickens, who spent four Corman-esque years as a court reporter, rendering the complex, interwoven, heartbreaking cases – in other words, their characters and plots – into stories.)