Month: March 2012

How to be Brave

I love this video because it shows something you rarely see: the anatomy of a courageous moment.

Improvement isn’t just about getting better — it’s also about getting braver. It’s about encountering thresholds, and taking big, scary steps across them; it’s about jumping into uncharted territory where you don’t know if you’re going to fly or flop. This girl, who’s in the fourth grade, is experiencing the same kind of moment that happens on a theater stage, or on an athletic field or in an office, and she gets past it with a great bit of strategy.

  • First, positivity. She assures herself that she’s going to do it, and she’s going to be fine.
  • Second, simplicity. She’s not caught up in remembering a bunch of stuff, but focuses on two things. (Go straight. Don’t snowplow.)
  • Third, a reference point. She reminds herself that this is like what she’s done before, just a little bigger.

It’s a good combination — a nifty three-step program for getting past a threshold — and shows us the old truth: courage isn’t about transcending fear; it’s about dealing with it and moving forward anyway.

The Real Lessons of the 10,000-Hour Rule

Okay, it’s happened: 10,000 hours is officially in the mainstream. Athletes, musicians, students, businesspeople are counting away, waiting for their practice odometer to tick over and — presto! — they’ll be world-class experts.

Sorry, but that ain’t how it works.

Why? Because when you count the hours, it’s easy to lose track of the real goal: finding ways to constantly reach past the edge of your current ability.

The real lesson of 10K is not about quantity; it’s about quality. It’s about getting the maximum possible gain in the shortest amount of time — and to get that, you don’t focus on the time, but on the gain. You put your focus on improving the practice, which happens two ways: through better methods or increased intensity.

To be clear:

  • 1. Certain kinds of learning — deep, or deliberate practice — are transformative.
  • 2. That transformation is a construction process.
  • 3. That construction process depends on your intensive reaching and repeating in the sweet spot on the edge of your ability.

You are what you count. If you count hours, you’ll get hours. But if you find a good way of measuring your intensity, or measuring your improvement, that’s what you’ll get.

How to Get Better? Be Like Evolution

I got an interesting note the other day from reader Will Newton from Toronto. He told me about a wildly addictive videogame called StarCraft.

If you want to get really good at StarCraft, you have to do the usual deep-practice stuff: put in the hours, focus like a laser on your mistakes, and mimic the best players. But when it comes to making progress, StarCraft learners have a tremendous advantage: a massive database of millions of game replays they can access and watch, where you can search out the best players and go to school on them. In other words, the game has a built-in platform for stealing, mimickry, and, thus, intensive practice and fast improvement.

The deeper point Will makes — the truth that applies not only to videogames but to every skill under the sun — is that all techniques are Darwinian. Meaning, every skill is like an ecosystem filled with competing techniques. Weak techniques disappear; strong techniques thrive; refinement never ends.

We instinctively think of our technique as being personal — a unique extension of ourselves. But as Will points out, this is mostly an illusion. It’s not about us; it’s about how we navigate a giant, invisible decision tree of choice and possibility. To improve technique, then, it’s best to behave exactly like evolution would behave — that is, be quick, clear, and ruthless. To experiment and copy. To replicate what works best. To quickly discard what doesn’t work. And to never, ever stop the process.

It also poses an interesting possibility: can we, in our own lives, use this idea to help our own techniques evolve? Could we, for instance, create a cache of “replays” were we capture the best techniques, the best decision-making, and use them as a learning tool?

  • For instance — in an English class, would it be possible to create a “game replay” of the best writer in class as they built a prize-winning essay?
  • Or in tennis — could you have a “replay” of someone learning how to hit a good backhand?
  • Or in music — a “replay” of someone learning a tough new song?

The thing I love about this idea is that it flips the way we normally think about our success. We usually think of defeat or victory as personal — as a verdict on ourselves our our worth, our potential. But that’s not true. What we think of as a personal problem is often more of an information-access problem.

Who’s Your Posse?

Predicting individual success is an immensely tricky business, because we have such powerful instincts about how best to do it. We intuitively hunt for performance metrics — test scores, sprint times, sales numbers. And, very often, we’re wrong.

The plain fact is, we humans are reliably terrible judges of talent. The majority of our can’t-miss prodigies do, in fact, miss. And the majority of successful people seem, to our eyes, to come out of nowhere.

The reason for this is that talent is not linear; it’s complex. It’s not about a number; it’s about an invisible landscape that emerges from the interaction of person and environment — the squishy yet vastly important combination of passion, grit, opportunity, and character that can’t be summed up in a single measure.

Or can it?

I recently read a story that might give us a new way to peek inside that landscape. It’s about the Posse Foundation, a group that helps students who might not otherwise get into elite colleges — in other words, dynamic kids from tough neighborhoods with low SAT scores who want to attend Middlebury, Stanford, or the like.

It works like this: Posse Scholars attend college in groups of 10 or so — a little team. During their academic careers they  meet weekly, support each other, connect to other scholars who’ve graduated, help each other get past the obstacles of life. Despite their relatively low SAT scores, 90 percent of Posse Scholars graduate, half on the dean’s list. Nearly 80 percent found or led groups and clubs. They’re helping colleges to rethink the outdated conventions of admission, and the rest of us rethink the way we think about finding talent.

When you start to look, these kinds of posses are everywhere. What are talent hotbeds, but organically grown posses? What are great schools, but institutionalized posses? What are great sports teams or musical groups, or businesses, but posses? And like any posse, they add a crucial mix of ingredients to the talent landscape: models, support, identity, constantly renewed ignition. They perform the most crucial function in the talent process: they fill our windshield with versions of our future self.

So when it comes to identifying talent, the question is not, What’s your score?

Maybe the real question is, Who’s your posse?

Read This Book

For me, the best books are not the ones that come out of left field, dazzling you with their original genius.

No, the best books are ones that, the instant you read them, feel titanically obvious. The ones that take something right under your nose and show it to you in a way that makes the whole world pivot and seem fresh.

That’s why you should read The Power of Habit, By Charles Duhigg, who also happens to be a friend.  Here’s the thesis:

Habits — automatic loops of behavior, triggered by cues, nourished by rewards, driven by cravings — make up a large percentage of our behavior.

To control your life, it helps to understand how these loops operate — to control the cues, rewards, and cravings. In short, the same neural machinery that makes you reach for a jelly donut can also make you reach for the tennis racquet or the math book, or perform a certain skill better, or build a productive practice routine.

In the book, Duhigg gives the example of the champion swimmer Michael Phelps. Phelps’s coach, the remarkable Bob Bowman, designed Phelps’s workouts as a series of strong, productive habits.

For example, each night Bowman would cue Phelps to “watch the videotape before you go to sleep and when you wake up.” There wasn’t an actual videotape — Bowman wanted Phelps to visualize himself performing every element of the perfect race. During practices, Bowman would have Phelps swim at race speed and tell him to “put in the videotape.”  Eventually, at races, Bowman would simply whisper, “Put in the videotape.” (We know what happened next.)

There’s a great deal more, but my main takeaway is the crucial importance of the central craving. Strong habits are not built around a vague desires, but rather around deep and powerful cravings that dominate our conscious and unconscious minds, our identities.

To build good habits, then, put the craving first and foremost. Figure it out. Define it. Nourish it. Do everything to ignite and support the craving, because the craving is the engine around which powerful, productive habits can be built.

As Saint-Exupery said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t assign people tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”