Month: May 2010

The Importance of Being Simple

37b4036ce8f20716694c5691c51096b40a5957b9.jpgI just came across a letter from 1998 that made my day. Here’s the backstory: Amir, a 14-year-old aspiring cartoonist, sends some of his drawings to John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren and Stimpy. Here’s Kricfalusi’s response (edited for space).

Dear Amir,

Thanks for your letter and all your cartoons to look at. Your comics are pretty good, especially your staging and continuity. You might have the makings of a good storyboard artist. I’m sending you a very good how to draw animation book by Preston Blair. Preston was one of Tex Avery’s animators. He animated ‘Red Hot Riding Hood’ and many other characters. His book shows you very important fundamentals of good cartoon drawing.

Construction. Learn how to construct your drawings out of 3-dimensional objects. Learn how to draw hands so they look solid. I want you to copy the drawings in his book. Start on the first page, draw slow. Look very closely. Measure the proportions. Draw the drawings step-by-step, just the way Preston does.

After you finish each drawing check it carefully against the drawing in the book. (if you do your drawings on tracing paper, you can lay the paper on top of the book to see where you made mistakes. On your drawing write the mistakes. Then do the drawing again, this time correcting the mistakes.

Here’s another important piece of information for you: Good drawing is more important than anything else in animation. More than ideas, style, stories. Everything starts with good drawing. Learn to draw construction, perspective.

Ok, now it’s up to you.

Allright Bastard, let’s get to work. Draw! and slow now.

Your pal,

John K.

Good teaching is wrapped in mystery. We tend to think of the great teacher as possessing a higher level of knowledge, and so we sometimes expect their knowledge to arrive in cryptic, complicated forms. After all, they’re smarter than we are. We’re not supposed to understand.

Kricfalusi’s letter shows us the falseness of this thinking by delivering a virtual clinic on the powerful simplicity of master teaching. First he establishes a connection. Then he gives a series of straightforward signals — do X, do Y, do Z. Do them slowly. Mark your mistakes. Look very closely. And best of all, Kricfalusi doesn’t just tell – he shows, by drawing examples. (Check out the original document.) Then he re-establishes the connection.

I think this letter is a useful reminder about what good teaching really is: simple, clear signals delivered at the right time, with love.

Amir apparently listened. He’s now in his fourth year at the animation program at Sheridan College — here’s some of his work.

Building a Leader’s Brain: The Underdog Plan

vince-lombardiLeadership is fascinating because it’s rooted in mystery. What makes certain leaders great? What makes them tick? How do they know the right thing to do?

One way to approach the mystery it through the window of a small question: why did so many mailroom workers rise to become CEOs?

Here’s a partial list:

  • Dick Grasso (NYSE)
  • Barry Diller, Michael Ovitz, and David Geffen (William Morris)
  • Mike Medavoy (Universal)
  • J. Lawrence Hughes (William Morrow)
  • Ned Tanen (MCA)
  • Jeffrey Katzenberg (Paramount)
  • George Bodenheimer (ESPN)
  • John Borghetti (Quantas)
  • Tom Whalley (Warner Bros.)
  • Sidney Weinberg (Goldman Sachs)

Other mailroom workers-turned-leaders: Don Hewitt (60 Minutes), John Bachmann (Edward Jones), and Simon Cowell (EMI records). If you Google the phrase “started out in the mailroom” and “ceo,” you get 3,450 results.

This is a striking pattern, because it’s so unlikely. At most corporations, the mailroom is the bottom rung. Its duties are simple: you read and sort letters, photocopy, roam the building delivering the mail, fetch coffee. To become CEO, the mailroom group had to do a very difficult thing: they had to outcompete hundreds of employees who were 1) more qualified, 2) better-resourced, and 3) more highly regarded – since after all, they weren’t relegated to the mailroom. And yet despite those immense odds, these underdogs pulled it off. How?

I think part of the answer can be found by looking at the equally demanding world of the NFL – specifically the surprising career paths of current head coaches. Because it turns out that an unusually high percentage  (nine at last count, including the Tony Sprarano of the Dolphins, Brad Childress of the Vikings, and Mike McCarthy of the Packers) share an interesting quirk on their resume: they sll started out on the bottom rung of the pro-coaching ladder, working as quality-control coaches.

Quality-control is not a sought-after job. It’s frequently the lowest-paid member of the staff. Q-C coaches spend their days sitting in a room watching game tape, compiling data, analyzing film, producing 50-page scouting reports for coaches to use, and, yes, occasionally fetching coffee for the “real coaches.”

“We worked quadruple everybody else, but we got to feel like a coach,” said Todd Haley, now the coach in Kansas City, who worked in quality control with the Jets. “We had responsibility. It’s the greatest job in football as far as learning.”

We usually think of leadership as being an innate talent, stemming from such intangibles as “charisma, “vision” and “character.” But the success of these underdogs from the mailroom and Q-C  coaching flips this idea on its head. The leadership talents of these CEOS and NFL head coaches is not being born; it’s being grown. They are positioning themselves smack-dab in the middle of the information flow, and they are working that flow like a training session to change their brains.

To understand how this works, let’s look at a typical day in the life of a mailroom worker and compare it to that of a higher-up.

The higher-up is insulated in their job, cocooned by the responsibilities of the day. Their advancement depends on performing a narrow job well and being recognized for doing so, usually by his or her immediate boss.

The mailroom underdog, on the other hand, roves around like a spy, able to peer into the organization’s inner workings (not least by reading mail and hearing gossip). They are the proverbial fly on the wall inside the offices of the powerful. They can learn the anatomy of disasters and successes. They can navigate a maze of personalities; witness communication skills. They can learn the crucial dividing line between what matters and what doesn’t. Their advancement doesn’t depend on performing a narrowly defined task for a narrow audience; rather, it depends on their impressing someone – anyone, really – of their general-purpose savvy and chutzpah.

In short, the underdog isn’t really an underdog — they’re the overdog. For a person of the right mindset – like former Paramount/Fox CEO Barry Diller – this spot is the perfect neural-training camp.

“My great strategy was to take what was seen as the worst job in the building — photocopying I’d collect things to copy, along with as much of the file room as I could carry, and hole myself up reading through the history of the entertainment business as seen through every deal, every development, every contract I read their entire file room.”

That’s not to say personal characteristics don’t count, because they do. Diller, like all of these successful underdogs, is hugely ambitious, persistent, and hardworking to the extreme. But here’s the point: so are a lot of other people. These underdog groups succeed in disproportionate numbers because they channel that energy through a grid of intensive training to make their brains fast, accurate, and organization-smart.

An increasing number of companies seem to understand this. GE’s Crotonville Leadership Development Center is a now-legendary pioneer in this area. Hindustan Unilever, a hugely successful Indian company, is widely regarded as a talent hotbed –largely because its senior managers spend 30 to 40 percent of their time mentoring young leaders.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? It depends who you are.

For organizations:

  • Construct a virtual mailroom,  a training program that allows young employees to learn – through real-world experience, not lectures – how leadership really works.
  • Consider leadership-mentoring programs.

For individuals:

  • Judge early jobs by their position in the information flow, not by prestige or salary.
  • Create your own training regimen. Whether it’s photocopying contracts or making predictions and seeing how they turn out, it doesn’t matter so long as its yours.

Vision Improvement

Vision is the greatest of talents, because it looks so much like magic. We see it in sports, when a basketball player surprises an entire arena by delivering a last-second pass to a waiting teammate. Or in business when a smart investor spots a tiny, vital pattern and leverages it to a massive advantage. Vision dwarfs other talents like accuracy, persistence, and strength because it operates on a higher plane. It changes the game by creating new opportunities where none existed.

When we see someone demonstrate great vision, we usually chalk it up to some innate quality. You have it or you don’t. Wayne Gretzky and Warren Buffett have it — they look at the world and they find a gap to exploit. (And I, who am equally unspectacular at hockey and investing, apparently don’t.)

But is that true? Are we stuck with the vision we’ve got? Or is it possible to improve?

One intriguing answer comes from new branch of sports science called perceptual training. These are scientists who spend their days putting special goggles on athletes with world-class anticipation and comparing them to normal folks, in order to see what’s different.

Their findings are fascinating, and consists of two simple facts:  it’s not about reflexes (it turns out pros and amateurs have roughly the same reaction times). Rather,  it’s about reading cues. The best athletes are skilled at decoding a set of signals that allow them to anticipate what’s going to happen. As this story in Wired puts it, regarding tennis:

What separated the pros from everyone else was the ability to pull directional information out of the early stages of a swing and therefore to predict a split second earlier where to head…. This means that an expert, who doesn’t have to wait until contact, has twice as long to move, plant his feet, and swing.

What’s more, the research shows this skill is learnable. Tennis players who spent a single day learning to read cues improved their success rate by 5 percent — quite a significant number for a few hours’ work. And like any newly built neural circuit, it soon gets stashed in the unconscious. As researcher Dr. Damien Farrow puts it, “they don’t even know that they’re doing it.”

This idea — that vision is learnable — makes a lot of sense. When you look closely at the biographies of people with great vision, you see a similar pattern. When Wayne Gretzky watched hockey on television as a kid, he used paper and pencil to make a record of where the puck went  in the course of a game — a perceptual map. When he was older, he practiced alone with a set of rubber cones, imagining the game and making passes to invisible teammates. He built his perceptual circuitry, bit by bit (just as Warren Buffett did by reading thousands of annual reports). This is why many good coaches, including John Calipari of Kentucky, have added perceptual training (like this program) into their programs.

I was thinking about Gretzky and Buffett the other night as I was reading The Big Short, the compelling new book by Michael Lewis. It’s the story of a handful of investors who, unlike everyone else in the world, actually anticipated the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. At a time when 99.99 percent of investors zigged, they zagged. They had vision, they made the right move, and they made billions of dollars as a result.

What gave these guys the vision?  Two answers. First, their backgrounds had provided Gretzky-style training. These were not normal childhoods: one investor’s idea of youthful fun was combing the Talmud for errors; another was an obsessive loner who far preferred numbers to people. Second, they had the ability to read large meaning into small cues. When they encountered a tiny but vital data point — like the Mexican strawberry picker who had obtained a loan to buy a $750,000 home — they knew what it meant for the larger picture. And they acted.

Obviously there are differences between making a brilliant hockey pass and earning billions in the stock market. But I think there are some similarities, too. Specifically, three lessons:

  • Define the perceptual component of a skill, and train it separately. One reason so few people have good vision is that they lump it in with all other skills. By breaking it out and working on it by itself, you enable yourself to train that decision-making circuit exactly as you would any skill.
  • Make long gazes, not short glances. In their research on rugby players, experimenters found that better players tended to look longer at potential targets. Interestingly, Lewis’s investors did the same thing. Instead of trying to take in every tiny piece of data, they stared deeply at a few and found out what they really meant.
  • Keep track of results. This seems titanically obvious, but it’s the kind of obvious thing that most people don’t actually do. Developing vision is about trying to predict the future. If you don’t record the data — how each of your predictions turned out — you won’t have the feedback it takes to improve.

Identifying Talent: What Really Matters

tryoutsAt my recent trip to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, I spent a lot of time talking to coaches about a small but profound question: can we identify talent?

In other words, can we assess a bunch of young performers when they’re 14 or so, measure certain qualities, and figure out who will likely succeed and who will likely fail?

To our conventional way of thinking, the answer seems obvious. Of course we can. It’s what coaches do – spotting the magic spark, the X-Factor.

But here’s the surprising answer the Olympic coaches kept giving me: No, we can’t.

In fact, the vast majority of the coaches said they were reliably surprised by who made it and who didn’t in the long run — at how inaccurate their first, second, and third impressions often turned out to be. I should point out that these are not average coaches. They are world-class experts, with decades of savvy and experience, employing every diagnostic tool known to sports science, observing these athletes on a daily basis. And the closer they look, the more mysterious talent seems to be. And as the casino-like hits and misses of the NFL and MLB drafts faithfully confirm each year, the Olympic coaches are far from alone. So the question grows: when it comes to spotting talent, what do we look for?  What qualities matter most?

I think part of the mystery can be illuminated by a small but revealing data point: A handwritten 1979  letter from a 14-year-old guitarist named Saul Hudson to his girlfriend who just broke up with him.

The letter’s not all that interesting, really, except for one fact: Saul Hudson would grow up to be Slash, the lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses. And the letter captures some key qualities — the vital intangibles — that helped grow this kid into one of the better rock guitarists of all time.

Back to the letter: Young Saul is writing to Michele, who has just broke up with him via letter. The key passages are in bold.

Oct. 2. 79
Dear Michele,

Your letter scared me, upon first glance, I hadn’t any idea what it was about, but when you told me, it struck in a strange way, I hadn’t any idea that I talked about my guitar so often, I’m going to have to change that, no matter who I talk to.

It’s a drag that it screwed up our relationship, you should have told me sooner, but I don’t think that’s the only reason, you just don’t like me that much, and I can see why, because I’m a hard person to get along with at times.

But any I’m glad we got that straight, thank you for not lying to me. To get off the subject, you look really nice today, you get prettier & prettier every day. My weekend was pretty good. Steve came by and we went to a couple parties, and we went to the Starwood, I spent pretty much of my weekend on cloud 9 if you know what I mean.

I had never been in the Starwood before, like, we hung around outside, but I’ve never been inside. It’s not such a hot place, I mean the Bands are alright, the girls are pretty (I still think you cuter than any of the girls there) the drugs are cool but it’s not a place I would want to waste my life at. The most exciting part of the night was, a guy mouthed off to this black guy, and the black got a hundred friends and chased him around all Hollywood. It’s a pretty crazy place. I’m going there next week to see Quiet Riot, because I hear there pretty good. One of these days I’ll play there.

Love you


[Saul draws picture of a marijuana leaf — and adds the following postscript]

This leaf was perfect untill I put the f*****g lines in it

I think this letter is fascinating because it gives us a peek into the invisible dimension of talent development: the mindset. Saul gives us a look into his core motivations, which contain three important ingredients:

  • #1: Obsession. Young Saul has just lost his girlfriend (whom he clearly likes a lot) because he talks too much about his guitar.
  • #2: A vivid vision of future self. In talking about the Starwood club, Saul declares that he’ll play there. It’s not some hazy dream – it’s more matter-of-fact, a statement of fact.
  • #3:  A keen eye for making small improvements. His scrawled commentary about the leaf is small but telling. Saul wanted it to be better, and he’s emotional about it. It’s the same attitude he shows earlier in the letter when he writes, “I’m going to have to change that.” It’s not a big leap to imagine that same sort of self-talk on the songs he’s learning. Play it again, again, and again, until it’s perfect.

These qualities — which make up Saul’s mindset and his identity — are more important than any measured skill level, because they operate on a higher plane. These qualities fueled and channeled the thousands of hours of intensive practice that built Saul’s circuitry. At the moment he wrote this letter, there were probably dozens of 14-year-old guitarists in Los Angeles who could play far better than Saul (who had only started guitar two years before). In a conventional tryout, he might have been completely overlooked.

All of this is a roundabout way of making a simple point: we fail at talent identification because we’re looking in the wrong place. We instinctively look at  performance (which is visual, measurable) instead of mindset and identity, which are what really matter, because they create the energy that fuels the engine of skill acquisition. They are the nuclear power-plant for the 10,000 hours of deep practice. They are the the ghosts in the machine.

I’ve found that good teachers and coaches often dig around for mindsets, sort of like doctors looking for subtle symptoms of a disease. They inquire about long-term goals, they watch for telltale signs, they try to penetrate the glossy surface to find out the answer to that tiny but titanically important questions: why are you here, really? How much do you care? What are you prepared to give?

For example: one highly successful college basketball coach, who shall remain nameless, uses a simple litmus test in his recruiting: if the recruit makes an excuse for anything – for instance, their performance in a certain game, or their grades in math – the coach crosses them off his list, no matter what physical skills they may possess. Why? Because they have the wrong mindset.

Which makes me wonder: how else can we measure mindset? Is there a way to replace “Talent Identification” with “Mindset/Identity Identification”? And more important, how do we create cultures that help ignite these kinds of mindsets?

PS — For more good reading on this topic, check out Carol Dweck’s book — called Mindsets, naturally.