Month: August 2010

Letter to Students: Cliffs Notes for A Faster Brain


Dear Kids,

Happy first day of school! I’ve got good news and bad news.

First the bad news: You are about to spend hundreds of hours learning a bunch of small, interconnected facts, most of which you will never, ever, ever use again. (Proof: ask your parents how to calculate the area of a rhombus. I rest my case.)

Now the good news: school is hugely, amazingly, life-changingly worthwhile. Here’s why: learning bunches of interconnected facts makes your brain faster and stronger. School is like a machine for improving your brain. But in order to improve it the most, it helps to know the basic rules of how that sucker works.

(Why don’t more schools spend time — a half-day, say — teaching kids the how their brains work? This state of affairs seems utterly crazy to me. Would you try to teach someone to drive a car without showing them the accelerator and steering wheel?)

So before you get started filling your brains with facts, here is a (very) brief user’s manual for your brain.

Rule 1: Feel the Burn

If you want strong, fast muscles, do you:

  • A)   do nothing and wait for your muscles to get strong
  • B)    Go to the store, buy bags of marshmallows and lift them over and over
  • C)   Go to the gym and work out until your muscles burn

Congratulations for picking C) – because here’s the deal: your brain works exactly like your muscles. To get stronger and faster, you have to push yourself right to the edge of your ability, until you feel the burn — which in this case is that spot where you make mistakes.

This is not easy. It feels uncomfortable – sort of like lifting a heavy weight. But it’s how you’re built. Struggle is not optional – it’s a requirement.

  • Do: Be willing to make mistakes, fix them, reach again. Mistakes aren’t verdicts – they’re navigation points for the next try.
  • Don’t: Sit back and let information flow over you like a warm, comfortable bath.  This feels good, and it’s an absolutely terrible way to learn.

Rule 2: Repetition is Underrated. (Repetition is Underrated.) Also, Repetition is Underrated.

When it comes to learning, there is nothing (repeat: nothing!) you can do that is more powerful than repetition. The reasons are complicated, but boil down to this: intense repetition makes the wires of your brain work faster. A LOT faster.

  • Do: Picture the wires of your brain working faster and faster with each rep.
  • Don’t: Think of repetition as drudgery. It’s not like doing boring chores. It’s a lot closer to installing high-speed broadband.

Rule 3: Steal From the Best

Look, I know your teacher and parents tell you that you are special and unique, but the truth is, you aren’t the first person in the history of the world to do math, music, art, or sports. In short, it’s not about you. When you encounter a problem, look to others. Find the people who do it well, and copy how they study, how they listen, how they take notes. Rip them off. Steal their habits, figure out the way they think, break into their vault. Your brain is built to mimic.

  • Do: Keep a list of useful habits you’d like to steal.
  • Don’t: Take defeat too personally. (Same with success, for that matter.)

In sum, making your brain fast and strong is all about doing the three R’s: Reach, Repeat, and Rob the Banks.

Good luck!

How to Be a Late Bloomer

Late bloomers are underrated.

It’s not just the condescending phrase —  the whispered implication that they should have bloomed earlier. And it’s not the fact that our culture tends to sprinkle the young with the fairy dust of infinite possibility, while treating late bloomers with the grim surprise we give when spotting an escaped farm animal roaming city streets – what are YOU doing here?

No, the real reason they are underrated is that these kinds of second-act successes are more common and possible than we might think.  So in the interest of germinating blooms in our own lives, here are a few random ideas.

1. Be Willing to Be Stupid Early On

We know about Julia Child taking her first cooking class in her mid-thirties, Shinichi Suzuki opening his legendary music school at 46 , late-arriving authors like Frank McCourt and Norman Maclean, and of course the official godmother of late bloomers, Grandma Moses, who learned to paint in her seventies.

What’s not mentioned in those stories is how the rest of the world — often including their closest friends — regarded their venture as borderline insane. To persist in the face of this sentiment is not an easy thing to do, and requires a particular combination of muleheadedness and dreaminess.

Muleheadedness also comes in handy during practice, because it takes an older brain more repeats to learn something. On the other hand, older brains tend to be good at remembering what they’ve learned.

I like the way Abraham Lincoln put it: “I am slow to learn and slow to forget what I’ve learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.”

2. Play to Your Strong Suits

Young people are good at learning certain kinds of skills — okay, lots of skills. But older brains actually work better as they get older in many softer integrative tasks, especially those requiring discernment and reasoning.

Cheerful fact: People aged 40-65 score more highly than younger people on four of six major mental capacities, including the most vital: inductive reasoning. So while teens make good figure skaters and violinists, there’s a good reason we don’t choose many 19-year-olds as CEOs, teachers, or leaders. So pick something that plays to your increasing neural strengths — soft skills rather than hard ones. For more on this, check out Barbara Stauch’s wonderful and useful new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.

3. Use Your Freedom to Screw Up

Let’s take a moment to feel sorry for super-talented young people, because their lives too often resemble a fast-narrowing corridor of endless practice routines, early pressure, and the kind of devilish bargaining that led a violinist Yeou-Cheng Ma (sister of Yo-Yo Ma) to produce the saddest quote I’ve ever heard: “I traded my childhood for my good left hand.” Their skill comes to defines their identity and thus their possibilities — and creates a mindset where they are often afraid to take risks.

Late bloomers, on the other hand, get to develop their own identities and, equally important, screw up. If something doesn’t work out, they have other skills to fall back on — particularly emotional skills. And when it comes to building their talent, they’ve got the most important asset: the freedom to experiment, to make mistakes and fix them.

For a good lesson on doing this, check out this Julia Child clip (interspersed with Meryl Streep’s re-enactment from a recent movie). Child takes a risk, screws up royally, and it comes off as a triumph of late-bloomer resilience.