Month: October 2010

Advice That Changed Your Life

john-wooden3lr-2When it comes to developing our talents, we all hear a lot of good advice. In fact, there’s never been a moment in the history of the world when we’ve had such an incredible bounty of good advice – a teeming ocean of it, provided by teachers, coaches, parents, the Internet.

For example, pick up a golf magazine. Each page brims with dozens of perfectly sound, smart tips; it’s a cornucopia of good advice. But does all that good advice actually make you better? (Judging by the historical average of golf scores, the answer is a resounding no.) It’s the same with other sports, music, art, math, business, you name it.

This surplus creates a uniquely modern problem: with good advice so plentiful, how do you know when you’ve located truly great advice – the rare, powerful ideas that really matter?  How do you know when you’ve found advice that might change your life?

For instance, here’s one of the the greatest pieces of advice I’ve heard. It’s from the late John Wooden, and it goes like this: You haven’t taught until they’ve learned.

That’s it.

You haven’t taught…until they’ve learned.

I know what you’re thinking. Because I thought it when I read it for the first time a few years back. My thought was, no kidding, dude.

But then one day shortly afterward I was coaching my Little League team, trying to teach them to field grounders. I was, as usual, putting my attention into my coaching – saying the correct words, showing them the correct form – and presuming if they picked it up, that was their responsibility.

Wooden’s words hit me like an avalanche.  I wasn’t really coaching, because they hadn’t learned it yet. I wasn’t teaching, I was just talking. And no matter how wisely I talked, no matter how brilliantly the drills were designed, it didn’t matter until they actually learned it. That was the only yardstick.

His advice showed me that it really wasn’t about me at all—it was 100 percent about them, about doing whatever it takes to create a situation where they learned. It seems strange to say now, but that was a titanic realization, and I still find myself thinking about it a lot.

I think this kind of advice–truly great advice–tends to follow a distinctive pattern.

  • It seems super-obvious at first, then gets deeper as you live with it.
  • It expresses a basic scientific truth about learning.
  • It jolts your perspective and leaves you somewhere new.

And so here’s the next step: I think it would be good and useful to start to gather some of these jewels of great advice in one place. Namely here, on this blog.

What’s the single greatest piece of advice you’ve ever heard? What’s the one that changed your life? It could be anything – something you heard or read or saw – all that matters is that it works for you.

You can write them in the comments section below, or email them to me at and I’ll start a master list to use and share.

To get things going, here are a few gathered from a peanut gallery of friends:

–Practice on the days that you eat

–If you want to get better, double your failure rate

–Do one thing every day that scares you

PS – Does anybody know of someone who could use Spanish-language copies of The Talent Code — or, as it’s titled,  El Código de Talento?  I’ve got a couple dozen, and would be happy to send them to a good home. Bueno.

How to Be More Creative (Step 1: Destroy)

jon-stewartWhen we think about creative people, we usually think of people who can produce something brilliant and amazing out of thin air. The kind who are, as the saying goes, naturally creative.

But here’s a strange pattern: when you look more closely at the daily habits of super-creative people, they are doing exactly the opposite. They’re not creating out of thin air. Rather, they are creating, then destroying, then creating again. It’s not one step. It’s three.

A few examples.

  1. Jon Stewart. This recent profile provided a vivid X-ray into a typical day. In the morning Stewart and staff write the script for The Daily Show. Then, a couple of hours before taping,  “Stewart and his team go on a nonstop, rapid-fire jag that tears up and rewrites nearly three-quarters of the script.” Then those new ideas are discarded and replaced by better ones. They keep churning until air time, throwing away a huge percentage of what they create.
  2. Great charter-school teachers. When Doug Lemov set out to study the habits of top teachers for his Teach Like a Champion, he found a strange pattern: when he asked about their lesson plans, the best teachers said they didn’t have any lesson plans right now, because they were in the midst of ripping up and rewriting the whole program. This wasn’t an exception or a fluke; Lemov gradually realized: it was a telltale sign that they were high-quality teachers.
  3. U2. A few hours before the kickoff of their stadium tour in Chicago last year, Bono hijacked the dress rehearsal and completely reshaped a 14-year-old song – even writing new lyrics and melodies. The session ended with drummer Larry Mullen wisecracking a sentence that could be the a motto of this approach: “If it ain’t broke, break it.”

The changes that Stewart, Bono, and the teachers are making are not small changes; this could never be called editing or honing. No, this is the equivalent of a skilled carpenter taking the time to build an entire house and then – while the paint is still wet – tearing it down with a bulldozer and building a brand-new house on the foundation. And I’m fascinated by it because I think it takes creativity out of the realm of magic, and into a place we can understand.

The takeaway: To build the good stuff, first you have to build the bad stuff. The bad stuff isn’t really bad – it’s a step; a blueprint that shows you where we need to go next. Without the bad script, there is no good script; without the crummy lesson plans, there is no great lesson plan.

If you think of creativity the traditional way, this makes zero sense. (Why in the world would creative geniuses consistently produce bad first drafts?) But if you think of creativity as a stepwise process – a literal construction of wires in your brain – then it begins to add up. This process is not about simply being picky or relentless. The early attempts are like probes, exploring the landscape, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The later attempts use that information to be more accurate, to deliver a better lyric, or joke, or lesson plan. The bad stuff is not accidental; it’s required. If it ain’t broke, break it.

So how do we apply this pattern to our lives?

  • Cultivate the mental habit of circling back, to reconsider things you take for granted.
  • Have the willingness to chuck what is perfectly good in order to try to try something better. This requires a tolerance we find often in the arts and all too rarely in sports and business, which are more risk-averse. But creativity and innovation are not about being efficient; they’re about hitting the mark.
  • Avoid getting married to one approach. When it comes to ideas, it’s always better to play the field.

(Of course, now that I’ve written this, I can’t stop circling back and trying to see where I might tear it apart and replace it with something better. Damn you, Jon Stewart!)