Month: November 2010

How to Light a Fire: The Keith Richards Method

keith-richards-pirates-18-10-10-kcPassion is the nuclear reaction at the core of every talent. It’s the glowing, inexhaustible energy source. It’s also pretty darn mysterious.

Where does intense passion come from? How does it start, and how is it sustained?  How does someone fall wildly in love with math or music, stock trading or figure skating?

Most of us intuitively think of passion as uncontrollable — you have it or you don’t, period. In this way of thinking, passion is like a lightning strike, or a winning lottery ticket. It happens to the few, and the rest of us are out of luck.

But is that true?  Or are there smart ways to increase the odds?

We get some insight into that question from none other than Keith Richards, whose book Life just came out. My favorite part of the book (and that’s saying something) is the part where Keith tells how he fell in love with music, and specifically with the guitar. The process went like this:

Step one: Keith’s Grandpa Gus, who was a former musician and a bit of a rebel, noticed that Keith liked singing.

Step two: whenever young Keith would come over, Gus placed a guitar on on top of the the family piano. Keith noticed. Gus told him, when he was taller, he could give it a try.

Step three: one momentous and unforgettable day, Gus took the guitar down from the piano, and handed it to Keith. From that moment, Richards was hooked (his first addiction). He took the guitar everywhere he went.

As Richards writes:

“The guitar was totally out of reach. It was something you looked at, thought about, but never got your hands on. I’ll never forget the guitar on top of his upright piano every time I’d go and visit, starting maybe from the age of five. I thought that was where the thing lived. I thought it was always there. And I just kept looking at it, and he didn’t say anything, and a few years later I was still looking at it. “Hey, when you get tall enough, you can have a go at it,” he said. I didn’t find out until after he was dead that he only brought that out and put it up there when he knew I was coming to visit. So I was being teased in a way.”

Reading it, I couldn’t help but think that most parents and teachers — me included — do precisely the opposite. We don’t put things out of reach — in fact we put them within reach. We go fast, not slow. We try to identify passion, not to grow it. We don’t take the time to make the nuclear reaction happen on its own.

For me, the lessons are these:

  • Don’t treat passion like lightning. Treat it like a virus, one that’s transmitted on contact with people who already have it. Grandpa Gus loved music. He noticed Keith liked singing.
  • Create a space for private contact with a vast, magical world. The guitar was totally out of reach. It was something you looked at, thought about, but never got your hands on.
  • Give time for the ideas to grow. And I just kept looking at it, and he didn’t say anything, and a few years later I was still looking at it.
  • Know that it’s never about today, but rather about creating a vision of the future self. “When you get tall enough you can have a go at it.”

For parents and teachers, Gus provides a useful model. Because Gus didn’t hover. He didn’t push. He didn’t even try to teach, beyond some rudimentary chords. But he did something far more intelligent and powerful. He understood what makes kids care. He carefully put the elements in place, sent a few pointed signals at the right time, and let the forces of nature take their course.

Smart man, that Gus.

And I can’t help but wonder: are there other Gus stories out there that might be instructive? How do we take the Gus Method and apply it to schools, or sports, or math?

PS — Thanks to all you readers who requested Spanish editions — they’re being mailed today. Venga!

How NOT to Develop Your Talent: The 3 Deadly Habits


We spend a healthy amount of time here trying to identify good habits for building skill. In fact, we do it so much that I can’t help but wonder: what if we turned the question on its head? What if we tried to identify the worst, most unproductive, most deadly habits? What habits are skill-killers? What’s the fastest way to slow down your talent development?

Let’s start with a well-established truth: many top performers are obsessive about critically reviewing their performances – either on videotape or with a coach or teacher.

A good example of this is Bill Robertie, who’s a world-class poker player, world champ in backgammon, and a grand master in chess (and who’s written about by Alina Tugend in her soon-to-be-released book Better by Mistake). Robertie reviews every game obsessively—even the ones he wins—searching for tiny mistakes, critiquing his decisions, breaking it down. The same is true of many top athletes, musicians, comedians, and (I can vouch) writers.

Which leads us to Deadly Habit #1: Thou Shalt Ignore Your Mistakes.

  • In order to develop your talent slowly, you should never, ever review your performance. You should regard errors as unfortunate, unavoidable events, and do your best to immediately hide their existence or, even better, erase them from your memory.

Another general truth about top performers is that they love rituals. Whether Rafael Nadal prepping for a serve or Yo-Yo Ma prepping a sonata, a lot of top performers are addicted to idiosyncratic, persnickety rituals that seem, to the neutral observer, insanely detailed and RainMan-esque. They tie their sneakers just so, they place their violin case at a certain precise angle.  These behaviors are usually described as a superstition, but I think that misses the point: their ritual is their unique way of prepping themselves to deliver a performance.

Which brings us to Deadly Habit #2: Thou Shalt Avoid Ritual.

  • In order to develop your talent slowly, you should approach each practice and performance as if you’ve never, ever done it before. You should be casual. You should avoid any repetition of actions, thoughts, or patterns of any kind, and instead make every day completely different.

A third commonality of top performers is that they are thieves. They are incurable shoplifters of ideas and techniques, constantly scanning the landscape for something they can use. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Which gives us Deadly Habit #3: Thou Shalt Not Steal.

  • In order to develop your talent slowly, you should regard your talent as your own private creation, and your challenges as private challenges that only you can solve. Don’t look elsewhere for guidance; certainly not to other performers.

It’s interesting to note that each of these deadly habits is not a big thing. They are small, nearly innocuous-seeming patterns that we can all fall into. We’ve all ignored past mistakes, avoided ritual, and failed to find guidance in the experiences of others. But here’s the real point: perhaps these little habits are a lot bigger than we might think.

This point is underlined by a fascinating paper I just bumped into called The Mundanity of Excellence, by Daniel Chambliss. Chambliss makes a powerful case that top performers aren’t great because of any overarching superiority, but rather because they do a lot of ordinary things very well. They pay attention to detail. They make each repetition count. They seek small, incremental improvements one at a time, every single day. And these little habits, over time, add up to great performance.

As Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Mary T. Meagher puts it, “People don’t know how ordinary success is.”

Of course, these three habits aren’t the only ones. What other deadly habits are out there? I’d love to hear your suggestions.