Stare to Win

If you were to visit a dozen talent hotbeds tomorrow, you would be struck by how much time they spend staring.

I’m not talking about merely looking. I’m talking about active staring — the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies.

What’s more, the physical spaces seem frequently designed for staring: practice areas are shared among different groups, so that older and younger can mix (and stare). Walls feature photos and posters of local heroes (the better for staring). Training sessions often seems to be augmented by injections of high-octane staring.

This pattern of behavior strikes most of us as strange and surprising, because to all appearances, staring seems kind of dumb. More important, most of us instinctively view staring as passive — and when it comes to teaching/parenting/coaching, there is no greater perceived sin than tolerating passivity. We strive to create environments of constant, purposeful action that makes our classrooms and playing fields resemble a neverending episode of Iron Chef. Just staring? It seems like a waste of time.

But is it? Or is there something powerful going on beneath the surface?

I recently visited a group of Special Forces soldiers who had recently taken an expedition to an exotic, far-off place: the corner offices of General Electric. The soldiers spent a few weeks in the boardrooms, watching top executives at work. The soldiers didn’t have any responsibilities other than watching the GE execs make decisions, communicate, and work together. Basically, they stared. And when they returned to their unit, the Special Forces commanders (who’d set up this experiment) noticed an immediate and pronounced boost in performance. They made better decisions, they communicated more clearly.

Another example: classical music teachers around the world have been stunned in the past few years by the quality of learning going by watching great performances on YouTube. There aren’t any real classes, per se, but rather a space where people stare at Heifetz, Perlman, Lang Lang et. al., copy them, and get better.

And another: In a famous episode of 60 Minutes, tennis teacher and author Timothy Galwey taught a person who’d never played tennis before to hit a decent forehand in 20 minutes — without uttering a word. It was all via the stare.

So what’s happening in these cases?

Three things, I’d say:

  • First, mimicry. Staring is the fastest, most efficient way to imprint a skill on our brains — far more efficient than trying to learn through the keyhole of words.  (First the teacher has to come up with the right word, then the learner has to absorb/understand it, then the learner has to convert that word into an action — it’s a multi-step conversion process, with the possibility for error at each step.)
  • Second, high-quality feedback. Active staring gives us a way to measure our performance against those who are better than us. Once their performance is imprinted, we can see how we compare, and make adjustments accordingly. We can feel where we fall short, and fix it.
  • Third, igniting motivation.  Staring is the royal road to passion, because it’s the main way we link our identities with other people.  Those photos of heroes around the talent hotbeds are not a coincidence, because they send a signal that creates a response from the starer: those dudes did it. Why can’t I?

To evolutionary-psychology types, the hidden benefits of active staring come as no surprise. For millions of years, long before language existed to motivate and inform us, our brains learned by staring — and we’re still good at it. Staring is a neural combination platter — fuel for both learning and motivation.

So the question becomes one of design — specifically, how do we mimic the talent hobeds and get more staring into our lives? I’d suggest four ways:

  1. Pick quality targets. Start collecting a video catalogue of brilliant, stare-worthy performances (YouTube is handy for this). All the better if there are slow-motion versions.
  2. Treat staring as a daily fuel stop. Set aside five minutes per day for watching brilliance.
  3. Design stare-friendly spaces. Isolation kills motivation — make sure age groups get a chance to closely observe each other, to see what they might become.
  4. Respect the stare. If you catch someone staring at something or someone (presuming here that it’s something vaguely worthwhile), realize what’s going on and give them some room. There’s some important stuff happening beneath the surface.
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