Month: December 2011

The Uses of Enchantment

I recently bumped into a wonderful book called The Game, by Ken Dryden, a Hall of Fame NHL goalie and uncommonly thoughtful writer. On the surface, it’s about sports, but underneath it’s about learning — specifically, the special moments when it begins to accelerate. At one point, Dryden is reflecting on the skills of the great players he’s met.

It is in free time that the special player develops, not in the competitive expedience of games, in hour-long practices once a week, in mechanical devotion to packaged, processed, coaching-manual, hockey-school skills. For while skills are necessary, setting out as they do the limits of anything, more is needed to transform those skills into something special. Mostly it is time unencumbered, unhurried, time of a different quality, more time, time to find wrong answers, to find a few that are right; time to find your own right answers; time for skills to be practiced, to set higher limits, to settle and assimilate and become fully and completely yours, to organize and combine with other skills comfortably and easily in some uniquely personal way, then to be set loose, trusted, to find new instinctive directions to take, to create.

I love that phrase: time unencumbered, unhurried, of a different quality. That’s a type of time that seems in  tragically short supply these days. I’m not going to add to the chorus of people decrying our hurried, overscheduled lives, but I will point out that the main barrier to achieving more of this unencumbered time is the mistaken sense of emptiness; the anxiety that we’re missing out on some important activity, the nagging worry that nothing’s happening. In truth, everything’s happening.

Two of our kids go to a Montessori school, whose founder coined a terrific term: “enchantment with materials.” This refers to the relationship between a learner and the physical elements of the environment – the blocks, the violin, the tennis ball, the pencil and paper. Those things – those simple, everyday objects – are seen as magical, worthy of reverence and care.  (Think about what you’re good at, and your relationship with those materials.) The enchantment powers the process – it’s the fuel tank, that keeps someone coming back, experimenting, playing, doing what Dryden so eloquently describes – creating their skill.

I think these two ideas work together — unencumbered time and enchantment.  They’re the yin and yang of learning: unencumbered time allows the enchantment to happen; the enchantment fills the time with engagement and learning.

So with that in mind, I’d like to wish you all an enchanted, unencumbered holiday.  Thanks for reading and commenting this year; I really appreciate it, and you. Merry Christmas, Dan

How to Fail Smarter: The Goldilocks Rule

I’ve been traveling lately in the business world and in the sports/music worlds. No matter where I go, I’m hearing conversations about the importance of failure. About how struggle makes you smarter, how mistakes are useful. Failure, it seems, is sexy.

Take Silicon Valley, for instance, where working on a failed startup is often regarded as a badge of honor superior to a Ph.D. Or education reformers talking about creating spaces for “productive struggle.” Or coaches extolling the importance of 10,000 hours of intensive practice, where you try, fail, and try again.

All in all, I think this is a really good thing.  But here’s the catch: all failure is not created equal. In other words, some types of failure are smarter than others because they create learning. Other failures are worse, because they create more failures. The question is, how do we tell smart failure from dumb failure?

One way to approach this question is to use the Goldilocks model, inspired by the work of Dr. Robert Bjork and Lev Vygotsky. As in the story, there are three zones of failure: too soft, too hard, and just right.

  • Zone 1: The Comfort Zone: Here, you’re able to hit your target more than 90 percent of the time. You’re in control; relaxed, confident. You’re not reaching past your current abilities, but operating firmly within them. You’re like an advanced skier on a beginner run, carving turns with ease and grace.
  • Zone 2: The Thrash Zone: Here, you’re failing more than half the time. When you succeed, it’s mostly because you’re getting lucky. You’re behaving like a beginning skier fighting his way down a steep expert run: occasionally you might make a good turn, but more often you’re just trying to get to the bottom in one piece.
  • Zone 3: The Sweet Spot: Here, you’re in between Comfort and Thrashing. You’re putting forth maximal effort and you’re succeeding between 60 percent and 80 percent of the time. You’re failing — sometimes spectacularly — and you’re paying attention, and learning from each screwup.

As with Goldilocks, this goal of this rule is to help us make the right choice between different options. To put this idea to work, here’s a quiz:

  • Should a student cram for a history test by (A) reading a chapter over and over five times, or (B) by reading the chapter once and then constructing an outline of the key points?
  • Should a business train its new sales force by (A) sending them into the field to see how they do or (B) by constructing a series of role-playing exercises led by a master coach?
  • Should a pianist spend her practice hour  (A) playing a song perfectly, over and over, or (B) isolating the weak spots in a new song, repeating them until they’re improved?

The basic rule in all cases is to choose (B), and aim for the sweet spot. Steer clear of comfort and thrashing, especially when you’re starting something new.  The second rule is that when in doubt, keep things small and simple. The smaller and simpler the task, the easier it is to locate your sweet spot.

The 1-Second Method

Just before every performance, whether it’s in sports, music, or in the workplace, there’s a quiet moment just before the action starts. It’s the deep breath before the leap, the moment when all the preparation is finished, and you’re waiting to start, and there’s nothing on earth you can do.

Or is there?

According to some fascinating new research, you should smile.

I know, it sounds like advice from a fifties musical, but in fact it’s a useful bit of neuroscience, courtesy of Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Here’s why: our brains are made up of two parallel systems, the Fast and the Slow. The Fast System works by instinct; it’s our intuitive autopilot, and used for swift, simple decisions. The Slow System, on the other hand, is for being rational and calculating; it takes more effort to use, and helps us work through complicated problems. Research by Kahneman and his colleagues revealed the systems are activated by, among other factors, our facial expressions.

Here’s the freaky part: your expression matters even if you don’t feel the underlying emotion. To create a smile, subjects were asked to hold a pencil between their teeth. To create a frown, researchers asked subjects to furrow their brows, which causes the face to take on a natural downturn.In each case, the facial expression drove the resulting behavior; that is, smiling made people behave in swifter, more intuitive ways, while frowning caused them to be more deliberate and rational.

Perhaps there’s some deep evolutionary explanation for all this involving expressions and survival. But when I read this, I thought of all the frowning, ultra-serious faces I saw among the practicers in the talent hotbeds I visited — in the book, I wrote that their expressions that resembled Clint Eastwood. Considering this research, perhaps that makes sense. For practicing, go with the Eastwood face. But in the last second before you perform, it’s smarter to go with Julia Roberts.

The New Way to Identify Talent: The G Factor

So I recently returned from a London sports-science conference where the discussion revolved around the mystery of talent identification. All over the world, in everything from academics to sports to music, millions of dollars and thousands of hours are being spent on singling out high-potential performers early on. And the plain truth is, most of these talent-ID programs are little better than rolling dice.

Take the NFL, for instance, which represents the zenith of talent-identification science. At the pre-draft NFL combine, teams exhaustively test every physical and mental capacity known to science: strength, agility, explosiveness, intelligence. They look at miles of game film. They analyze every piece of available data. And each year, NFL teams manage get it absolutely wrong.  In fact, out of the 40 top-rated combine performers over the past four years, only half are still in the league.

A lot of smart people have been thinking about this, and what they’ve decided is this: the problem not that the measures are wrong. The problem is that measuring performance the wrong way to approach the question.

According to much of this new work, what matters is not current performance, but rather growth potential – what you might call the G-Factor — the complex, multi-faceted qualities that help someone learn and keep on learning, to work past inevitable plateaus; to adapt and be resourceful and keep improving.

Thing is, G-Factor can’t be measured with a stopwatch or a tape measure. It’s more subtle and complex. Which means that instead of looking at performance, you look for signs, subtle indicators — what a poker player might call tells.  In other words, to locate the G-Factor you have to close your eyes, ignore the dazzle of current performance and instead try to detect the presence of a few key characteristics. Sort of like Moneyball, with character traits.

So what are the tells for the G-Factor? Here are two:

One is early ownership. As Marjie Elferink-Gemser’s work shows, one pattern of successful athletes happens when they’re 13 or so, when they develop a sense of ownership of their training. For the ones who succeed, this age is when they decide that it’s not enough to simply be an obedient cog in the development machine — they begin to go farther, reaching beyond the program, deciding for themselves what their workouts will be, augmenting and customizing and addressing their weaknesses on their own.

Another tell is grit. This quality, investigated by the pioneering work of Angela Duckworth, refers to that signature combination of stubbornness, resourcefulness, creativity and adaptability that helps someone make the tough climb toward a longterm goal. Duckworth has come up with a simple questionnaire that measures the responder’s grit. It has only 17 questions, and the respondent self-assesses their ability to stick with a project, see a goal to the end, etc. (You can take it online here.)

Duckworth gave her grit test to 1,200 first-year West Point cadets before they began a brutal summer training course called the “Beast Barracks.” It turned out that this test (which takes only a few minutes to complete) was eerily accurate at predicting whether or not a cadet succeeded, exceeding the predictions of West Point’s exhaustive battery of NFL-combine-esque measures, which included tests of IQ, psychological profile, GPA, and physical fitness. Duckworth’s grit test has been applied to other settings – academic ones, including KIPP schools — with similar levels of success. (Here’s a good story about grit.)

It’s fascinating stuff, in part because it leads so many good questions: what other elements are part of the G Factor? And perhaps most important, is it possible to teach it?