Month: February 2011

Breaking Ceilings

We got a ping-pong table at Christmas, and within days my 15-year-old son and I were seriously, hopelessly addicted. At first, I beat him regularly — 21-15 would be a typical score. Occasionally, I even dialed my game back a notch, so the game would stay excitingly close.

But then one fateful week something changed. The games were suddenly getting closer. Uncomfortably close. Then, with quiet inevitability, something tipped. The kid started winning. Not just winning, but thumping me with increasing ease, to the point where I began to suspect he was dialing it back for me.

Something had changed — or rather hadn’t changed. While my son kept getting better, I’d stopped improving. I had to face the unpleasant truth: I’d bumped into my ceiling.

We bump into ceilings all the time — at work, in sports, in music, in every area of performance. But when we look deeper, this area is wrapped in mystery.  What’s causing the ceiling, and how do we get through it? The mystery is deepened by the fact that our skills in navigating that encounter — our ceiling IQ — might be one of the most important factors of our longterm performance.

When we encounter a performance ceiling, we instinctively make a couple natural presumptions:

1) That we’ve reached our natural limit — the point where our skills plateau.

2) That the best way past the limit is to keep grinding – to grit our teeth, stick with our methods and to defeat the ceiling through sheer cussed persistence.

The question is, are our instincts right? Or are there other, smarter ways to crack through our ceilings?

We get some insights from this article written by Josh Foer called Secrets of Mind-Gamer. Foer, a twenty-something science journalist, transforms himself into a memory champion in the space of a single year (memorizing, among other things, a shuffled deck of playing cards as quickly as possible).

At one point in his journey, Foer hit a ceiling. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t memorize a deck of cards any faster. He then sought out an expert (who in a parallel familiar to Talent Code readers, turns out to be Dr. Anders Ericsson). The ever-resourceful Ericsson gives Foer some surprising advice: speed up your practice. Force yourself to go too fast. Force yourself to make mistakes. Analyze those mistakes, find your weak points, and fix them.

Foer and Ericsson’s speed strategy works beautifully. Foer goes on to win the memory championships and set a new American speed record for card-memorization.  It’s an intriguing story (and looks to be a fascinating book). But mostly it’s useful because it shines a light on a new way to think about ceilings.

Foer and Ericsson didn’t think of the ceiling to be a limit. Instead, they thought of it as a level of automaticity — a point at which Foer became fast, unthinking, and proficient. Automaticity – sort of like our brain’s autopilot for specific tasks — is usually a good thing. It helps us walk and talk without thinking too much. But when we want to improve beyond a certain level, automaticity becomes a barrier. We try harder — we grind away — but that just reinforces the automatic circuit. Progress stops.

The solution, then, is not to grind, but to disrupt.  To choose a new strategy that breaks up the automaticity, reveals our shortcomings, and allows us to rewire our circuit.  To change some factor — in Foer’s case, speeding up time — so that he’s prevented from being automatic, and thus can improve.

And in light of that, here are a few disruptive tools for ceiling-busting, stolen from various hotbeds:

  • Use Overspeed: Foer’s technique is relatively common among musicians and athletes. Going too fast breaks up the normal rhythms of a skill and allows them to be rebuilt and improved.
  • Use Underspeed: slowing way down to develop new feel; common to musicians (who, perhaps by many-laddered nature of the work, tend to become ferocious ceiling-busters. For example, world-champion speed typist Albert Tangora likes to type at half-speed when he hits a plateau.
  • Single Out: Focusing on one key element and working on it in isolation. For example, major-league batters will practice identifying various pitches. They are singling out the visual, pattern-recognition element of hitting.
  • Seek Fresh Feedback: Finding new metrics — such as videotaping your performance, or seeking out a consult from a new teacher — can quickly lead to new insights and experiments.
  • Give it Time: Ceilings are as much emotional challenges as anything else, best encountered with a sense of perspective. As George Leonard points out in his book, Mastery, “this is the inexorable fact of the journey: you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”

Normally, we think of stories like Foer’s as inspiration: he tried harder, so he broke through. But this story is not about inspiration; it’s really about strategy. He didn’t succeed merely because he tried harder, but because he tried in a highly methodic way that was consistent with the way our brains learn — by getting in the zone where we make mistakes and fix them. Talent’s not a possession — it’s a construction project.

As for my ceiling: it turns out that one half of our ping-pong table can be raised into a vertical position, creating a practice wall. At first it felt strange — the ball, rebounding from a few feet closer than I was accustomed to, shot back at me so quickly that I could barely catch up. It was overspeed in excelsis. But I’ve done it for a few days now, and I’m hitting the ball pretty well. Playing a real game seems weirdly slow.

Okay, so I still haven’t beaten the kid. But the last two games were 21-19 and 22-20.  Now I just have to make sure he doesn’t find out about my secret practice technique.

PS  — From the kid:  “Hey Dad, if you don’t want me to find out about your practice technique, maybe you shouldn’t write about it in your blog!”

The Power of Crumminess

Here’s a little-appreciated fact about talent hotbeds: their facilities tend to be rundown. Rusty. Makeshift. Overcrowded.

In a word, crummy.

Exhibit A could be the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which has produced Michael Phelps and a squadron of other top national swimmers despite its considerably-less-than-lovely setting.  Or Anand Kumar’s tin-roof math class in India where an astounding 78 percent of the students are accepted to India’s Harvard, the Indian Institutes of Technology. Or any of another dozen other hotbeds where this precise atmosphere is repeated so often that it stops feeling like a coincidence, and starts to feel more like a fingerprint, or a mathematical equation: Crumminess + Crowdedness = Beautiful Talent.

This strikes most of us as surprising, because to the modern American/European mind, crumminess and crowdedness are considered deeply undesirable. We instinctively strive for groomed fields, top-level technology, comfortable surroundings — and enough space where each age group can gather in splendid isolation.

The question is, is talent developed better in roomy, well-appointed facilities? Or is there something else going on in these remote hotbeds? To put it simply, are there any advantages to being crummy and crowded?

We get an interesting data point from Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, a bona fide hotbed of downhill skiing talent (it’s produced 40-plus Olympians in its 30 years). Burke’s facility is far from rundown (though the classrooms and dorms tend toward the spartan), but it has two features that set it apart: an undersized ski hill, and an ancient, creaking beast of a ski lift that, by all appearances, should have been replaced long ago. It’s an old-fashioned poma lift, and it works like this: you stand on the snow, grab onto a bar/seat contraption, and get dragged uphill.

Most visitors who come to Burke see the old poma lift and presume that it’ll be replaced soon by something faster and more efficient. But the teachers and coaches of Burke would never think of it. To their minds, the poma lift might be their most valuable resource.

From the poma lift, young skiers get a catbird seat to watch the older, better skiers make turns. That physical closeness transforms the small ski hill into a rich kingdom of watching and learning, not to mention motivation. Kids on that poma lift receive the privilege of seeing up close who they might become, if they work hard.

We’re all acquainted with the phenomenon of the scruffy underdog from the remote country who rises up and defeats big, rich Goliath — we see it all the time in sports, music, and business.  And we naturally interpret their success as evidence of the superior hunger of poor countries. They want it more. They’re tougher. They’re quintessential underdogs.

But I think Burke and the other hotbeds gives us a new way to think about underdogs. Crumminess and crowdedness, used properly, can be advantages. The skiers from Burke only look like underdogs — in fact, they’re the overdogs, because they’ve designed the perfect space to create deeper, better practice and ignite more motivation.

So what do the rest of us do? Should we demolish our good facilities and replace them with crowded, tin-roofed structures? Well, not quite. I think it’s more useful to look closely at the useful elements from the hotbeds and try to copy them. A few ideas:

  • 1. Find ways to mix age groups. Isolation diminishes motivation. Nothing creates effort and intensity like staring at older talent, someone who you want to become. Putting groups together — even in passing, as on the poma lift — injects a burst of motivational electricity.
  • 2. Aim to make facilities spartan and simple. Research shows that luxurious surroundings diminish effort — and why not? It’s a signal to our unconscious minds that we’ve got it made — why should we keep taking risks and working hard?
  • 3. When given the choice, invest in people over facilities. Teachers are the real engine of the day-by-day learning process that drives any hotbed. The addition of one master teacher creates more talent than a million dollars’ worth of bricks and mortar.

P.S. — Okay, what do you think?  What would you do if you received a check for $50,000 tomorrow to help develop talent in your team/school? Please rank the following possibilities from most-effective to least-effective:

  • 1. Pay for new facilities/equipment
  • 2. Hire the single best teacher/coach you can find
  • 3. Bring in a top-notch series of camps/seminars for students and teachers
  • 4. Pay existing teachers/coaches more