Month: May 2011

A Gauge for Measuring Effective Practice

If you distilled all the new science about talent development into two words of advice, they would be “practice better.”

That’s it. Practice. Better.

Forget everything else about your genes, your potential — it’s all just noise. The most basic truth is that if you practice better, you’ll develop your talent — and you won’t develop your talent unless you practice better. Period.

For most of us, that’s precisely where we bump into a common problem: how? Specifically, which practice method to choose? Do we focus on repeating a skill we’ve got, or do we work on new skills? What kinds of drills work best? What’s the best way to spend the limited time we’ve got?

When it comes to figuring out how to practice better, we often feel like we’re standing in the cereal aisle of the grocery store. There are lots of seemingly attractive choices. But how do we pick the ones that have the most nutrition, and avoid the ones that are empty calories?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’d like to use this blog as a test drive for a new gauge for comparing practice methods. I’m calling it the R.E.P.S. Gauge.

(Okay, acronyms are cheesy, I know. But they’ve been around for a long time because they work.)

R stands for Reaching/Repeating.

E stands for Engagment.

P stands for Purposefulness

S stands for Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback.

The idea behind the gauge is simple: you should practice methods that contain these key elements, and avoid methods that don’t. Below, you’ll find a description of each element along with a sample choice to illustrate how it works.

  • Element 1: Reaching and Repeating. Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating? How many reaches are you making each minute? Each hour?

Scenario: a math teacher trying to teach multiplication tables to 30 students.

• Teacher A selects a single student to write the tables on the board.

• Teacher B creates a “game show” format where a math question is posed verbally to the entire class, then calls on a single student to answer.

Result: Teacher B chose the better option because it creates 30 reaches in the same amount of time. In Classroom A, only one student had to truly stretch — everybody else could lean back and observe. In Classroom B, however, every single member of the class has to stretch (picture the wires of their brains, reaching) in case their name is called. Not a small difference.

  • Element 2: Engagement. Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you toward a goal?

Scenario: a violin student trying to perfect a short, tough passage in a song.

• Student A plays the passage 20 times.

• Student B tries to play the passage perfectly — with zero mistakes — five times in a row. If they make any mistake, the count goes back to zero and they start over.

Result: Student B made the better choice, because the method is more engaging. Playing a passage 20 times in a row is boring, a chore where you’re simply counting the reps until you’re done. But playing 5 perfectly, where any mistake sends you back to zero, is intensively engaging. It’s a juicy little game.

  • Element 3: Purposefulness. Does the task directly connect to the skill you want to build?

Scenario: a basketball team keeps losing games because they’re missing late free-throws.

•  Team A practices free throws at the end of a practice, with each player shooting 50 free throws.

• Team B practices free throws during a scrimmage, so each player has to shoot them while exhausted, under pressure.

Result: Team B made the better choice, because their practice connects to the skill you want to build: the ability to make free throws under pressure, while exhausted. (No player ever gets to shoot 50 straight in a game.)

  • The fourth element: Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback. In other words, the learner always knows how they’re doing — where they’re making mistakes, where they’re doing well — because the practice is telling them in real time. They don’t need anybody to explain that they need to do X or Y, because it’s clear as a bell.

Scenario: a high school student trying to improve her SAT score.

•  Student A spends a Saturday taking a mock version of the entire SAT test, receiving results back one week later.

• Student B spends a Saturday taking a mini-version of each section, self-grading and reviewing each test in detail as soon as it’s completed.

Result: Student B made the better choice, because the feedback is direct and immediate. Learning immediately where she went wrong (and where she went right) will tend to stick, while learning about it in a week will have little effect.

The idea of this gauge is simple: practices that contain all four of these core elements (R.E.P.S.) are the ones you want to choose, because those are the ones that will produce the most progress in the shortest amount of time. Audit your practices and get rid of the methods that have fewer R.E.P.S. and replace them with methods that have lots.

The other takeaway here is that small, strategic changes in practice can produce huge benefits in learning. Making a little tweak to the learning space — for instance, teaching multiplication through a little juicy game that keeps 30 people on their toes — can have big effects on learning velocity. Spending time strategizing your practice is one of the most effective investments you can make in developing talent.

But as I said at the start, this idea is still in the experimental phase. What other elements should we consider including? How do you achieve your best practices? What else should we add here?

As a sidenote, this will be my last blog entry for a little while, as I’m going to take the summer to work on a couple of book projects. I will be checking in periodically, of course, and will start up again in earnest when the school year starts in August. Thanks for reading, for all your insightful and helpful comments, and for making this project so fun and worthwhile.

Why Being Stupid is Close to Being Smart

Okay, so I did a pretty stupid thing the other day.  Let me set the scene:


“Okay, this theory sounds great,” he says. “But how does it help us teach kids how to read?”


‘Uhhh, well,” I begin. “The thing is…”


Those kind of moments happen pretty often in our lives, moments where a trusted ability or piece of knowledge we thought we had suddenly deserts us without warning. I knew the answer to the question, but for some reason I couldn’t deliver it. I don’t know why.

I don’t think there’s an essential difference between my screwup and a tennis player fluffing an easy volley, or a software designer botching a routine piece of coding. We usually call it choking — but I don’t think that’s quite right. “Choking” implies that it’s a response to emotional pressure, like a golfer missing a six-inch putt on the final hole of the Masters — and this isn’t really a response to pressure. It’s far more like a short-circuit. Things are working fine, and suddenly — bzzzzzzzt! — they’re not.

But here’s the thing — we never short-circuit when it comes to simple actions. We never go to brush our teeth and suddenly forget how to do it. We never short-circuit when it comes to walking down the sidewalk, or knowing how to unfold the newspaper, or how to eat chocolate cake. It’s usually complexity that causes it. So the real question is, what is complexity? And why is it so often connected with short-circuits?

Complexity is another way of saying that there’s a lot of stuff going on at a lot of different levels. One way to approach it is to divide skills into two basic types: hard skills and soft skills.

1. “Hard” skills are where there is a single right way to do something. Precision counts for everything. They’re skills where you want a tiny Swiss watchmaker inside you, performing the task with absolute control, doing it the same every time. Some examples:

  • a swimming stroke
  • music fundamentals: how to hold an instrument; play a certain chord
  • basic math procedures

2. “Soft” skills, where there are lots of equally good ways to accomplish a goal. Soft skills are about flexibility; having a lot of options to get past an infinitely varying set of obstacles. They’re skills where you want a tiny skateboarder inside you, making the moves in response to whatever obstacle comes next. Examples of soft skills include:

  • communication skills — writing, speaking
  • the improvisatory parts of sports/music/business
  • art

Complex activities — which of course are really neural circuits in your brain — have hard and soft skills woven together. Picture it as complex forest of circuits, with redwoods (the hard, high-precision skills) mixed with kudzu vines (the soft, high-flexibility skills). Or, to pick another analogy, performing a complex action is like building a Swiss watch at the same time you’re pulling double ollies at a skateboard park.

Think of what you’re doing right now, for instance. To read this sentence, you have to 1) instantly and perfectly translate these black squiggles into letters, combine those letters into words and then translate those words into meaning — a.k.a. the hard, high-precision skill; 2) scan ahead, connect ideas, and build an unfolding prediction what might happen next — a.k.a. the soft, high-flexibility skills. And you have to do it in microseconds, simultaneously.  It’s pretty dazzling.

Here’s the thing with complexity: when things go wrong, they really go wrong. When a single key element of our skateboarding watchmaker fails to function, everything grinds to a halt, and it’s not pretty. The lights go out; we’re rendered mute. Just as when a kid is struggling to read or, say, a person on stage is fumbling with an answer. In other words, Homer Simpson moments of stupidity are an inevitable outcome of every complex system. The price of dazzlement is occasional shame.

In the end, I think a few things come out of this.

  • 1. Don’t be fooled by short-circuits. They’re not verdicts on ability or potential. It only seems as if the wheels have come off, but in fact it’s a smaller problem. When it comes to complex skills, being stupid is often pretty close to being smart.
  • 2. To build complex talents, first analyze them to figure out the hard skills and soft skills. What elements have to be precise, 100 percent of the time? What elements change depending on the obstacle?
  • 3. Practice hard and soft skill separately — the hard skill first and the soft skill second

I think the biggest takeaway here is that the shape of the practice must match the shape of the skill you want to build. For hard skills, the practice space should resemble a watchmaker’s shop — with lots of slowness, precision, and a keen attention to errors. Think of the way a master music teacher works with a beginner, often spending an entire lesson on how to hold the instrument. Get it right the first time, build that precision. Don’t move forward until you’ve got it wired.

For flexible skills, on the other hand, the practice space should resemble a really fun skateboard park: lots of self-directed action at an endless variety of obstacles where you make lots of errors and learn a little something from each of them. Most flexible skills ideally don’t require a coach, but rather an addictive space to “play.”

This is one of those areas where we can “steal” a lot from others — especially regarding practice strategies for hard and soft skills. What strategies work best for you?

(PS — Speaking of fun and useful places to play: if you’re interested in music, you should check out master teacher Hans Jensen’s new website, Ovation Press String Visions. Check it out.)

The Angry Birds Theory of Success


Of all the profound mysteries about talent development, here’s one that might be the most mysterious: Why do underdogs succeed so often?

Because they do. Look at the biggest success stories in business, academics, sports, music. An unusually high percentage started out as hopeless longshots — from Shakespeare to Apple computer to the 1969 Mets.

The point is that we all live in a world where underdogs win all the time. They succeed with such clocklike regularity that they pose a fascinating question: what are we missing here? Are the underdogs merely getting lucky? Or are there subtle, powerful advantages — psychological, social, tactical advantages — to being an underdog?

Here’s the question: what if underdogs aren’t really underdogs? What if they’re really the overdogs?


I recently had the privilege of attending the U.S. Soccer Player Development Summit at the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The meeting was really cool and inspiring — the kind of gathering where a lot of super-smart, committed people come together for their Kennedy Moon Shot moment — the time when they point their compass at some distant goal (in this case, a World Cup victory) and get to work.

On paper, U.S. soccer fits the classic definition of an underdog. American players, while athletic and tactically smart, are not as technically skilled as top players in other countries. As U.S. Youth Technical Director and former U.S. team captain Claudio Reyna pointed out, when you compile a list of the top 100 world players, you will include precisely zero American players.

One of the problems, I think, is that while American soccer is in fact a huge underdog, the players and coaches don’t live the life of an underdog. They don’t feel like underdogs.

Picture the world from a young American player’s point of view. They are born into the middle class. When they are young, they are identified as a promising talent. Parents love and admire them. They make all the best travel teams. The World Cup is a distant abstraction — the real goal is success in their town, state, region. Their life is a steady climb of success and fulfillment, and the cherry on top comes on the big day: when they make the national team and put on the jersey.

Compare that to the story of a European or South American kid, for whom soccer is not a sport, but something closer to a religion. Who grows up seeing every person he knows weeping/rejoicing/freaking out every four years at the World Cup. Who dreams nightly of hoisting that trophy, of being that hero.

The problem U.S. Soccer faces isn’t structural — it’s narrative. Like a lot of us, they are Davids who are living in a world that treats them like Goliaths. They’re missing out on all the psychological advantages of being an underdog.

So the real question isn’t about talent. It’s about, how something bigger and more universal: why is that David story so powerful? And how do we figure out how to plug into it?


While I was thinking about all this David/Goliath stuff, I started playing Angry Birds for the first time. If you don’t know the game, check it out. On second thought, don’t, because it’s highly addictive.

(The game works like this: you use a touch-screen slingshot to launch birds at well-defended green pigs who’ve stolen the birds’ golden eggs. It’s an echo of David and Goliath, if Goliath were a smug green pig.)

So why is this game so fun and addictive?  Four things:

  • 1) You are targeting a huge, meaningful, distant goal. (Those golden eggs!)
  • 2) You are attacking a superior, well-defended force who stands between you and your goal.
  • 3) You have the freedom to innovate and experiment — to pick different angles, strategies, tactics.
  • 4) You bond. Your birds sacrifice for each other, work together, cheer when something good happens.

I’d like to argue that the reason you put so much energy into Angry Birds is the same reason that underdogs work so hard and win so often. Being an underdog isn’t about merely getting lucky — rather, it’s about tapping into the psychological and social advantages that are built into the underdog story. Aggression. Purpose. Innovation. Social ties. Being an underdog is the equivalent of getting a daily dose high-octane fuel.

(To illustrate this point, imagine if the game were reversed and instead of playing as the Angry Birds, you were forced to play as the Smug Green Pigs, guarding the golden eggs. Would it be any fun? Would you be inclined to put a lot of energy and thought into the game?)


So what do we do to tap into the underdog engine? We could start with three basic questions:

  • 1) What’s the Giant Goal — the ultimate, golden-egg target?
  • 2) Who’s Goliath? Who’s standing in your way? Who thinks you can’t do it?
  • 3) What innovations can you use? Remember, you are on the attack, not the defense.
  • 4) Who is with you on this journey — what connections exist, and how can you strengthen those?

The truth is, it’s really difficult to succeed in this world, and if you’re lucky enough to succeed, it’s even more difficult to keep it up. In the largest sense, we are all underdogs. Finding a way to express and communicate the fundamental truth of that situation seems to me to be one of the most important thing a group could do for itself.

So the real question is, What’s your story?