Month: April 2010

Learn Like a Baby

Several readers recently forwarded me this video. Not only because it’s deadly cute (man oh man, is it ever), but also because it provides valuable insights into increasing our learning velocity. There’s more learning per second going on here than almost anything I’ve ever come across.

On the surface, Li’l Edward tumbles around like a dervish, creating a perfect chaos. Beneath that chaos, however, there’s a pattern worth noting — a clinic on how our brains learn best and fastest. Since after all, evolution has built to learn by playing.

Three things Edward does that might be worth copying:

  • 1) Create lots of pure action. This kid is firing his circuitry. He’s not interested in observing or communicating — he’s all about doing, firing an action and experiencing the response. It’s pure action-feedback loops, with brief pauses for orientation. Watching it reminds me of being in Brazil, watching a futbol de salao game — which is essentially the same thing, lots of neural action in a tiny space.
  • 2) Zoom in and out. Edward has a pattern — he checks out a toy, then he rolls on his back to check it out in a deeper way (he even tries to do it to the big tricycle). It’s probing; he’s zooming in and out, from the small details to the big ones. This reminds me of watching good musicians practice, as they hone home in on a few notes, then step back to see where those fit in the big picture.
  • 3) Get totally absorbed. There are lots of names for good practice mindsets — “Flow,” “Relaxed Focus” — but I’m going to go with a new one: “The Baby.” This kid is open to new things, investigatory, and resilient. His emotional thermostat is not too hot, not too cold.  He shows us that all good practice is a kind of exploration. In short, Edward is learning because he’s not caught up in himself, but utterly caught up in his world.

(Well, at least until the end of the video, when he gets stuck under a chair.)

So the question becomes: how do we create more moments like this in our own lives? What kinds of “skill playpens” can we build?

The Power of Play: 3 Tips

tony_alva_dogtown_and_z-boys_002I spent last week at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, giving a few talks. It was big fun on a lot of levels. For one, the Olympic team is in good hands–as proven by the medal-haul of Vancouver. For another, the coaches are a friendly, hard-working, and deeply knowledgeable bunch. (The cafeteria food’s not too bad, either.)

The big surprise of my visit was this: most Olympic coaches want to coach their athletes less. A lot less. They want fewer structured drills, and more invented games–particularly for younger athletes. Fewer circumscribed workouts, and more intensive play. Less work, more fun.

To conventional thinking, this discovery ranks as a fairly big surprise. Free time? Play? Aren’t coaches supposed to, you know, coach? It’s a bit like attending a gardening convention and discovering that everyone is trying to figure out how to grow dandelions.

But that’s exactly what they’re doing, and here’s why. Look beneath any talent hotbed, and you’ll find simple, intense, player-invented games. Venice Beach skateboarders riding inside an empty swimming pool, Brazilian soccer players on the futbol de salao court, cricketer Don Bradman learning to hit by bouncing a golf ball off a dented water tank, or baseball players trying to hit a flying yogurt lid — neurally speaking, it’s all the same story. A small, simple, concentrated game controlled and played by the kids. They play when they want. They get tons of reps. They create ladders of competition, always reaching upward. They get obsessed. They combine deep practice with the power of identity to earn myelin in excelsis; they grow superfast neural broadband.

(BTW, this all makes good evolutionary sense, as this article in the new Atlantic magazine on the power of play points out.)

[Play] seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more  flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

So the question is, how do we help make that kind of play happen? A lot depends on the culture, of course — with the right set of motivational signals, even multiplication tables can be an addictive sport. Here are a few interesting ideas that came out of the discussion — useful tips for growing dandelions in any sports or education culture.

  • Use Ritual:  Most practice sessions begin when the coach tells players to warm up, or a school bell rings. Why not have a few ritualistic games that can be played as the players arrive? U.S.A. Volleyball coach John Kessel (who writes a marvelous blog) has created a culture of play where his arriving players dig, set, and spike against a stripe drawn at net height. As more players arrive, more join in — and hopefully take the game home with them.
  • The Google Method: Google encourages its employees to spend 15 percent of their working hours pursuing their own projects. Why shouldn’t coaches do the same?  Putting athletes in charge of their workouts — for instance, asking them to design a handful of small games — would increase their investment in practice, and avoid the workaday, clock-punching mentality that coaches and teachers dread.
  • Build in Open Time: These invented games happen on the margins; in the loose, unstructured times before and after practice, when kids are doing that crucial work of fooling around. Smart coaches should leave out the equipment, walk away, and watch what happens.

In Curacao, I remember watching baseball players feverishly playing a strange little game where every hitter had to bunt the ball and race around the bases. I asked the coach, Norval Fayenete, what they were doing, and he smiled.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But whatever it is, it’s working.”

What works for you?

PS — This idea can be summed up in a single golden quote:  “To systematize is to sterilize” —  from Common Sense About Soccer, a long out-of-print book by Nils Middelboe. Read more about how different nations are growing soccer talent here. (Big thanks to Mr. Kessel for the tip.)

How to Read

Wallace_Books_DeLillo_002_smallWe all know that world-class writers write differently from the rest of us. What I didn’t know — at least until recently — was how differently some of them read.

Check out these links to the private books of two pretty fair writers: Mark Twain and David Foster Wallace. They’re worth exploring, because 1) it’s as thrillingly close as you’ll get to the engine room of their minds; and 2) because they provide a vivid (and for me, utterly humbling) lesson on how to truly read.

For most of us, reading is a “lean-back” experience; a warm bath. Not these guys. They’re on the balls of their feet, swords drawn. DFW and Twain  challenge, criticize, scribble new ideas, tease, steal, improve, admire. They fully engage with the work. It’s like a writer’s version of a vigorous athletic workout.  Because, I’d like to suggest, that’s precisely what it is: an intense firing of their circuitry; deep practice in excelsis.

On the surface, this seems like a small shift — after all, scribbling a quick note versus thinking a thought. But the act of writing is profoundly different than thinking because it forces precision and it creates a record that can be linked to other scribbles. These notes are a kind of playing field where thought happens; without the marks on the page, the thoughts float up and disappear.

In most circles, particularly schools, marking up books is discouraged, even forbidden. But should it be? With the possibilities of e-books, could this sort of sharp-pencil dueling be encouraged, even taught?

The Uses of Madness

van-gogh-460_1441693cWhen I was in grade school, my ironclad bedtime routine included setting out the next day’s clothing. I didn’t fold the clothes, but laid them carefully on the floor exactly as I would put them on: pants next to socks, socks next to shoes, and so on.  An unsuspecting passer-by would assume either 1) a small child had suddenly evaporated; 2) I was maybe a bit obsessive/compulsive.

The link between talent and neural disorders is fascinating. The list of world-class performers who have been diagnosed as bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, or autistic is staggeringly long: Hemingway, John Nash, Nijinsky, Van Gogh, Faulkner, Orwell, Nabokov, and Glenn Gould, to name a tiny handful.

We usually think of this link in poetical terms. According to this way of thinking, certain people are gifted with an innate superpower (genius) that carries a terrible price (madness).

This view is tempting. The only problem: it’s not true. Almost nobody – including the crew listed above – has been found to be exempt from the rule of 10,000 hours. Even savants, according to Dr. Michael Howe in his insightful book, Genius Explained, achieve their skill through intense practice. They aren’t different; they are simply better at doing what we’re all trying to do: to focus, to practice deeply, and to build superfast neural circuitry.


  • OCD creates precise repetitions and elaborately organized behavior.
  • Autism creates focus, sensitivity to detail, and repetitions.
  • Manic-depression creates periods of high energy.

All of these processes are key elements of the skill-building process – which is all about repeating, making connections, and which requires large amounts of energy. (Perhaps that’s why these disorders exist; after all, if they had no benefit, why would evolution have selected for these traits?)

Which leads us to an interesting idea: what if geniuses aren’t geniuses because of innate ability, but rather because of the way their disorders equip them for highly motivated practice? I don’t want to be flip here – I’m not saying it’s an advantage to be depressed or autistic. And surely there are some rare synesthesic savants like Daniel Tammet who are wired differently from birth.

But I’d like to suggest that for most of us, the connection between genius and neural disorders holds two lessons.

  1. The majority of geniuses are building their brains using the same tools as the rest of us.
  2. We should align our talents with our disorders. Seeing as many of us possess mild, garden-variety versions of neural disorders, we should funnel those behaviors toward the practice that will grow the skills we desire.

When I think about my own life, I can see how I’ve done this almost unconsciously. While I no longer lay out my clothes the night before, I do have a ridiculously baroque system for organizing my notes. It’s obsessive, to be sure, but it works pretty well when it comes to capturing and arranging  ideas for a book or an article. (My sock drawer? Don’t get me started.)

The Rule of Limits

I love this video, first because of the kid’s uncanny resemblance to Young Forrest Gump. Second, because of the reaction of the other kids  — they’re stunned, thrilled, and ignited by his performance. (If he can do it, why can’t I?)

But the main reason is that it holds a useful strategic lesson. This kid has memorized a massively impressive number by breaking it down in three- and four-number chunks — and then linked those into larger chunks (check out the pauses as he moves from one string to the next).

We instinctively think these kind of barrier-breaking feats are accomplished with overwhelming force — a superpowered “photographic” memory. But that’s an illusion.  In fact they’re accomplished by small, flexible efforts, repeatedly and strategically applied.

We think it’s Goliath. But underneath, it’s really David.

ps — Do lots of schools do this pi contest? It strikes me as a fun, simple way to get kids amped about math, not to mention the power of their brains.

pps — Speaking of limits, check out WNYC’s RadioLab show this week. It’s about what happens when we get close to the edge of physical and mental performance. (Yep, I’m on it.)

What Shape is Your Talent?

Halloween-spiderwebyoroi Funnel

Spiderweb? Loop? Or Funnel?

Let me back up a second and start with a simple idea: Skills are really circuits in your brain.

I think this is a cool and useful idea, first because our brains are plastic and changeable. And second, because it leads us somewhere even cooler and more useful. Shapes.

All neural circuits have shapes. In fact, I’d like to assert that those shapes come in three basic types, into which pretty much every talent in the world can be sorted, and which might hold important lessons for us. Here’s why: if we know the shape of the circuit, we also can know the best way to grow that circuit to make it faster, stronger, and better.

(Note to science-minded readers: I’m not saying the circuits are literally structured in these shapes. Rather, that it’s useful to think of them this way.)


  • Examples: stock trading, quarterbacking, debating, social skills
  • Description: This circuit is all about pattern recognition and fast response. You perceive something (a set of stock prices, a blitzing linebacker, a smiling stranger) and you respond swiftly and accurately. It’s about perception, flexibility, and navigating a matrix by making quick, accurate choices.
  • How to Build It: Set up a grid of  if/then propositions. If Event A happens, you respond with B, C, or perhaps Z. The key is to take input, generate responses, and track their effectiveness.


  • Examples: playing a musical instrument, ice-skating, gymnastics, spelling
  • Description: This circuit is about precision. It isn’t trying to be flexible or responsive; rather, it’s trying to create (or re-create) an Ideal Performance; to achieve timing, speed, and power.
  • How to Build It: Break the task down to its elemental chunks, polish them, and piece them together in many different ways. You should play with time — slowing and speeding. Pay particular attention to the first repetitions, since they’ll be the tracks in which the rest of the circuit grows.


  • Examples: poetry, design, business innovation
  • Description: This circuit is about slow, creative thought; connecting ideas that were not previously connected.
  • How to Build It: Practice making unconventional connections; linking ideas that have never been linked into larger frameworks. Speed doesn’t matter (in fact, as this remarkable new study shows, creative thought happens more slowly). Find a container in which to collect ideas, the better to create a jostle of possibilities. (In her terrific book, The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp recommends a shoebox.)

Most talents involve a mix of shapes. For instance, when a jazz pianist plays a solo, he’s reacting to the music and the band (spiderweb), hitting precise notes (loop), and perhaps even noticing some new wrinkle to explore (funnel). When a comedian does her routine, she’s delivering precisely-worded jokes with timing (loop), tuning her delivery to that of the crowd (spiderweb), and trying to come up with new jokes (funnel).   And of course we are all familiar with people who are great at one part of the job but terrible at another (like those rocket-armed college quarterbacks who are marvelous at the loop-circuit skill of throwing while also being hopelessly bad at the spiderweb-circuit skill of reading NFL defenses).

The emerging lesson here is simple: the shape of the training should match the shape of the circuit. And that’s what I observed at the talent hotbeds like Meadowmount (where loops ruled), Brazilian futsal (home of fast, reactive spiderwebs), or the Bronte household (spiderwebs and funnels).

So in sum, if you want to build spiderweb circuits, train like this:


If you want to build loops, train like this:


And if you want to build funnels, train like this: