Month: July 2010

Why Being Terrible is Kind of Wonderful

If tomorrow you were given the chance to be great at every single skill in your life — I’m talking world-class level, in each of your various interests — would you do it?

For many of us, the answer comes easily: Yes. Being tops at everything is considered Life’s Big Goal. Accordingly, we spend a lot of our time fervently traveling toward the promised land — shoring up weaknesses, honing strengths, targeting where to excel.

But I’d like to point out that this way of thinking misses out on a potentially important point: that there are some real advantages to being terrible.  There’s an underrated beauty in clumsiness. There’s virtue in sucking.

At this point I’d like to introduce the piece de resistance of bad, the great pyramid of terribleness: the golf swing of Mr. Charles Barkley (see above). It is not just bad. It is an Everest of ineptitude, a Versailles of discoordination. (Note: this video is not a fluke — it’s his real swing, as seen here and here in terrifying slow motion.)

Historically speaking, there are two ways of looking at being bad:

1) It’s bad. It’s to be ignored, avoided, and spoken of as little as possible.

2) It’s secretly kind of good, because it teaches important lessons we can’t learn anywhere else.

In this second way of thinking, being bad contains a potential silver lining: character development, teaching the invaluable skill of resilience. We see this all the time, not just in the work of psychologists like Albert Bandura, but also in the biographies of luminaries like Beethoven, Churchill, Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Harry Truman, and John Grisham — all of whom endured excruciating stretches of ineptitude before they got good.

What’s more, we can take this idea even farther.  Because I think the advantages of being terrible go well beyond the eat-your-vegetables benefits of resilience and character. Being terrible can be useful because:

  • It gives us freedom to experiment. Maintaining greatness is a narrow pursuit — you are essentially playing defense, vigilantly guarding against erosion. Being terrible, on the other hand, is a license to try new things. It permits a looseness and a creativity, since there is very little to lose.
  • It connects us to other people. It’s interesting to see the contrast between the way people treat the ever-smiling Barkley and the ever-grim Tiger Woods.  People admire greatness. But they relate to Barkley’s awfulness because we’ve all been there.
  • It lets us practice the vastly underrated skill of knowing when to quit. In this overprogrammed world, it’s all too easy (especially for parents and kids) to say yes to tennis, music, golf, theater, everything. But to get really good at anything, you can’t say yes to everything. Knowing when and how to quit is not just handy — it’s a survival skill.
  • It keeps us humble and grounded. Lives built on the relentless pursuit of perfection tend to be relentlessly narrow. Witness some of the tone-deaf, clueless, and indefensible behavior we’ve seen lately from perfectionists on Wall Street, Washington, and in the athletic arena.  Being terrible is a reminder that we’re like everybody else — vulnerable, human, prone to error. It tilts us toward a learning mindset.

My area of terribleness is the guitar. I’ve played it for 12 years now, and I know all of 12 chords. (That’s one new chord a year, for those of you keeping score.) When it comes time to pick out a melody, I’m hopeless, if not downright Barkleyesque. But I still keep picking the darn thing up. I can’t imagine life without it. And if somebody asked me to justify why I spent time doing something I’m objectively so unskilled at,  I’d have to say that it’s because I just like it, and that’s all.

The Learner’s Dictionary

CB029654It’s a beautiful moment we’ve all experienced: a teacher or coach says something and all of a sudden – like sunbeams cutting through a cloud – we get it. We understand deeply.

The question is, how do we make these moments happen more often?

I think one of the best ways is by using more precise language.  Too often, teachers and learners alike settle for vague instructions, like “do it like this,” or “try it again.”  These are well intended, perhaps, but in essence they are squishy, meaningless words that create squishy, meaningless actions.  What learners need isn’t cheerleading – it’s information on what sensations they should feel, what techniques they should use, what goals they should aim for on the practice field or the classroom.

With that in mind, here’s a semi-serious list cobbled together from various talent hotbeds, and stolen from business, sports, art, music, and academics.  Some are undoubtedly more useful than others, but all reflect a simple idea: to reflect the sensations and goals of the way the brain really learns.

  • Brick (v): The simple beginner’s errors that feel clumsy and stupid, but in fact form the crucial building blocks of future progress. Usage: “During the initial round of presidential-primary debates, Obama spent most of his time bricking.”
  • Lego (v): To break a desired task into its most basic component parts; akin to chunking. Usage: “Little Wolfgang struggled with the chord changes until his father helped him lego it out.”
  • Hack (v): To analyze the components of ideal performance with the goal of replicating it. Frequently assisted by the use of YouTube.
  • Hi-Def (v): To deeply and completely memorize the image of an ideal performance. Often used while hacking. Usage: “Kobe spent hundreds of youthful evenings staring at the posters on his bedroom wall, high-deffing Michael Jordan’s jumpshot.”
  • Ping (v): To send a short, concise instruction; typically from a teacher to a student. Usage: “Coach Wooden stalked the sidelines during practice, relentlessly pinging the team as it ran through its fast break.”
  • Rainman (v): To productively obsess on a tiny, crucial detail until it is dialed in with 100 percent accuracy. Usage: “The calculus test was Friday, so Albert started rainmanning his derivatives on Wednesday night.”
  • Sandwich (n): A three-part demonstration where a teacher vividly shows the right way to do something, then the wrong way to do it, then repeats the right way to do it. Usage: “In the movie ‘Stand and Deliver,’ Jaime Escalante teaches algebra by sandwiching.”
  • Suck-cess (n): A surprising favorable outcome; typically occurs following the combination of bricks, hacking, and pinging.
  • Vex Education (n): The process by which people grow familiar with the central paradox of learning: that being willing to be bad makes you good.

(What other words should we add?)

The 0.25 Second That Makes All the Difference

ist2_6078743-stopwatch-close-upWhen it comes to errors, most of us share a passionate and simple opinion: we don’t like them very much. We strive to avoid them, to conceal them, to avoid repeating them.  As a species, we are all essentially allergic to mistakes.

But there’s another way of thinking about error, and it begins with a story I heard recently about Marina Semyonova, a master teacher at the Bolshoi Ballet in the fifties.

The story goes like this: Every year, Semyonova would hold a tryout for the Bolshoi, which was (and still is) one of the world’s greatest ballet troupes. You can imagine the scene: dozens of brilliant young dancers milling about, years of experience holstered and ready, their dreams on the line.

At first, the tryout would proceed like any other: the dancers would try to show their abilities and vast repertoires. But then Semyonova would surprise them. She would stop the audition and teach them one new move  – something they’ve never tried.  They weren’t big complex moves – to the contrary, they were quite simple. It was as if the top-level audition suddenly was replaced by a beginners’ class.

The beginners’ class section took only a few minutes. But it was by far the most important moment of the audition, because by the time it was over Semyonova knew precisely which dancers to pick and which to pass over.  And as the record shows, she proved to be right far more often than not.

Semyonova wasn’t a neuroscientist, but she was onto something.  She wasn’t interested in measuring levels of skill – which changes over time and can be frustratingly unpredictable. She was zeroing in on a tiny slice of time that makes a massive difference in our learning ability  — that primal instant right after we make a mistake.

That instant – which this very cool brain-scan experiment shows to be about 0.25 seconds – is a fork in the road; the moment when things tip one way or the other. Either the mistake is judged as a verdict and thus blocked out — or it’s seen as a piece of information to be used.  And indeed, in the experiment referenced above, the students who used their mistakes (whose brains processed them deeply in that magical 0.25 seconds) ended up scoring higher than students who didn’t.

In other words, the old chestnut proves out to be true: it’s not the mistakes that are good or bad, but rather our reaction to them.  And this reaction – which we might deem our error-reflex — is in itself a kind of meta-skill, a measurable quality that is an accurate indicator of potential, and which can also be improved.

So the question becomes, how do we improve our own error-reflexes? How do we make more of our 0.25 second window? Here are a few ideas:

  • Depersonalize our mistakes by picturing them as navigation points. Because that’s what they are, literally, inside your brain –neural circuits whose wrongness nudges you in the right direction.
  • Break the reflex down into component parts. Every action is really three actions – the action, the recognition of the mistake, and the response. Each should be insulated from the others.
  • Expect to feel a bit disoriented because it’s a tricky balancing act, emotionally speaking. One moment, you have to put all of yourself into a sincere move – the next moment you have to pull back and evaluate. It requires an emotional equilibrium that helps you lurch between hot commitment one second and cool analysis the next.

That all reminded me of a sight I’ve seen while watching the World Cup these past few weeks: a player making a mistake (missing a shot at a wide-open goal, for instance), and then smiling about it, as if it somehow didn’t profoundly affect his future or the happiness of millions in his home country.

These are gargantuan, life-changing, career-altering moments – and yet a surprising number of the erring players (even the Germans!) react with the same understanding, nearly bemused smile that we never see on the faces of similarly erring stockbrokers or lawyers or politicians.

I’d like to suggest that their smiles can be traced to the essence of the game, which is built on the essential difficulty of controlling a ball with parts of our body least suited for control.  It’s very, very tough to score goals, or even make five good passes in a row, never mind get past 10 enemy players and a goalkeeper. As a result, soccer players are good friends with error.  They live in a world of constant screw-ups. They understand mistakes deeply, and that’s precisely what makes them such marvelous and resilient talents.

PS: Speaking of error’s bright side, you should check out Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz.  She’s a brilliant and funny guide to how errors are gifts, and how screwing up is key to our happiness and success.