Month: April 2012

The Kid Who Loves Music

Ethan Walmark is six, he’s got autism, and he loves playing piano (he’s been learning by ear since he was tiny). Here, he plays one of his favorites: “Piano Man,” by Billy Joel. It’s worth a listen.

People talk about passion so often that it can sometimes feel like an abstraction. It’s nice to see a reminder what it looks like, and what it feels like.

(Not to mention where it can lead.)

The Power of Small Wins

Most of us instinctively spend a lot of time and energy seeking the big breakthrough: that magical moment when, after a lot of effort, everything finally clicks: when you play the song perfectly, ace the test, win the big game. Those moments are incredibly satisfying. But they’re also a problem.

Here’s why: focusing on the big breakthrough can cause you to overreach. It can create a steady diet of disappointment (after all, breakthroughs are rare, by definition). Worse, you stop focusing on the smaller, incremental things that really matter.

The best performers and teachers I’ve seen don’t get caught up in seeking big breakthrough moments. Instead, they hunt the little breakthroughs — the small, seemingly insignificant progressions that create steady daily progress. In short, they love baby steps.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explore this idea in their fascinating book The Progress Principle. In it, they analyze 12,000 diary entries from 238 subjects to get a picture of the subjects’ inner work lives. They conclude that the common trait of highly successful subjects is that they are focused on achieving “small wins” — those tiny, daily progressions that  don’t seem like much but which add up, over time, to big things.

The payoffs of a “small-win” mindset are clear: you tend to be less disappointed, and more motivated. You stay focused on the present.  You don’t overreach by taking shortcuts and trying to do everything at once.

Perhaps most important, the “small-win” approach is aligned with the way your brain is built to learn: chunk by chunk, connection by connection, rep by rep. As John Wooden said, “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”

A few ideas for a small-win mindset:

  • Keep a daily notebook: Name the small changes you make each day.
  • When you get a small win, freeze: Don’t breeze past small improvements; instead, take a few seconds to acknowledge and celebrate them.
  • Aim for a daily SAP — Smallest Achievable Perfection. Pick one little thing to perfect in a single day — one move, one action, one chunk. Work on it until it’s polished, until you can’t not do it right.

I’d love to hear if you have more ideas for making small wins.

A Solution for “The Parent Problem”

As I’ve traveled around talking to teachers and coaches, there’s one refrain I hear over and over: The kids are great. The problem is the parents.

I think this is deeply true, most prominently in youth sports, but also in other areas, like music and the classroom. It’s not because parents are dumb or ill-intentioned — though, okay, some are — it’s rather because a lot of parents genuinely want to help, and don’t know how best to do it, so they helicopter around and that makes things messy (I’ve been there, done that).

With that in mind, check out this letter written a few years back by a new Little League baseball coach to his team’s parents before the season began. And what makes it slightly more meaningful is that the Little League baseball coach happens to be Mike Matheny, who’s gone on to be the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals (he coached Little League just after he retired from pro ball).

If you’re curious, I would recommend clicking this link to read the whole thing, but here are a few excerpts:

I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans, and now here we are. The reason for me saying this is that I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. I think that it is best to nip this in the bud right off the bat. I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that this experience is ALL about the boys. If there is anything about it that includes you, we need to make a change of plans. My main goals are as follows:

(1) to teach these young men how to play the game of baseball the right way,

(2) to be a positive impact on them as young men, and

(3) do all of this with class.

We may not win every game, but we will be the classiest coaches, players, and parents in every game we play. The boys are going to play with a respect for their teammates, opposition, and the umpires no matter what.

Once again, this is ALL about the boys. I believe that a little league parent feels that they must participate with loud cheering and “Come on, let’s go, you can do it”, which just adds more pressure to the kids. I will be putting plenty of pressure on these boys to play the game the right way with class, and respect, and they will put too much pressure on themselves and each other already. You as parents need to be the silent, constant, source of support.

I am a firm believer that this game is more mental than physical, and the mental may be more difficult, but can be taught and can be learned by a 10 and 11 year old. If it sounds like I am going to be demanding of these boys, you are exactly right. I am definitely demanding their attention, and the other thing that I am going to require is effort. Their attitude, their concentration, and their effort are the things that they can control. If they give me these things every time they show up, they will have a great experience.

I need all of you to know that we are most likely going to lose many games this year. The main reason is that we need to find out how we measure up with the local talent pool. The only way to do this is to play against some of the best teams. I am convinced that if the boys put their work in at home, and give me their best effort, that we will be able to play with just about any team.

The thing I like most about this letter is how it so clearly establishes the relationship, and does so in a big-picture, friendly, personal way. As a parent, I wish I would have gotten more letters like this. As a former Little League coach, I’m wondering, why the heck didn’t I send one?

Why don’t more teachers and coaches use this technique? Could it be possible to use letters like this as a tool to change the dynamic, so that parents might stop being a problem and start being more of an asset?

(Big thanks to John Kessel and Jennifer Armson-Dyer for the heads up.)

To Learn Faster, Raise the Stakes

The other day Stephen, my daughter’s violin teacher, pointed out a pattern he’d noticed when he was teaching his students to play difficult passages.

When he instructed students to try to play it perfectly five times, the kids learned slowly. Some kids took thirty tries to get the five perfect ones; others took a hundred; some never got it.

However, when he told the kids to try to play it perfectly five times in a row and if they missed  they started again at zero, they learned it far faster. Instead of fifty tries, it took ten. “Much, much faster,” was how Stephen described it.

When you tell someone they need to do a task perfectly, but are vague about how it needs to be done, part of the learner’s brain switches off. The subconscious message is: take as long as you need, buddy. Every try isn’t really that important. Don’t worry, it’s just practice.

The vagueness serves as an escape hatch. (Which is completely natural — remember, our brains are always searching for an excuse not to give effort.)

However, you provide clarity plus urgency — say, when you tell someone that they need to do a task well five times in a row and if they miss they go back to zero — you’re sending a completely different signal. Now the subconscious message is: every single try matters immensely — and if you get one or two in a row, the importance increases even more. This is for keeps.

It reminds me of this great passage in Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, where he talks about his songwriting technique:

You’d be surprised when you’re put right on the ball and you’ve got to do something and everybody’s looking at you going, OK, what’s going to happen? You put yourself there on the firing line — give me a blindfold and a last cigarette and let’s go. And you’d be surprised by how much comes out of you before you die.

Good practice is designed to create that feeling. You’re on the line. The clock is ticking; every rep is pressurized. Good practice nudges you out onto the knife edge, over and over. Because that’s the place where skills are built.

There are lots of straightforward ways to raise the stakes in practice: limit time, count reps, make it a contest, track progress from day to day and week to week, post results. The real trick is to raise the stakes by the right amount; you want to hit the sweet spot where it’s seriously challenging but still do-able, where each failure teaches a clear lesson, and where each success builds to the next.

How else can you raise the stakes? I’d love to hear your techniques.

How to Make Learning Addictive

I’m about the ten-millionth person to make this point, but wouldn’t it be great if we could learn everything as fast and efficiently as we learn video games? If we could learn to play violin or write computer code as quickly as we learn Madden or Halo?

With that in mind, here’s a video-game term that might apply: replay value. It refers to how much a user wants to play a game over and over. You know the feeling — the irresistible itch to repeat a game just one more time, and just one more time after that (Angry Birds, anybody?).

Though the motivation feels internal, in fact replay value doesn’t come from the user; it comes from the design of the game itself. Games that provide lots of roles, lots of paths, lots of possible outcomes have high replay value — people love to play them, and get addicted. Games with few roles, few paths, few outcomes have low replay value; people play them once and then quit.

If you look at the practice routines of high performers, you’ll find they have high replay value. They are designed in such a way that you naturally want to do them again, and again, and again. For example:

  • Bubba Watson, who won Sunday’s Masters golf tournament with an “impossible” curving shot from the woods, learned to control the ball by hitting a small plastic ball in his yard when he was a small boy. The game young Bubba invented was to see if he could go around his house clockwise, then turn around and do it counterclockwise.
  • Earl Scruggs, the greatest banjo player who ever lived, practiced his sense of timing by playing with his brothers. The game went like this: the brothers would all start a song, then walk off in different directions, still playing. At the end of the song they’d come together to see if they’d stayed on time. Then do it again. And again.
  • Pretty much any skateboarding or snowboarding practice has a high replay value: think of how the sides of a half-pipe or ramp literally funnel the athlete into the next move. No wonder they learn so fast: the replay value in most gravity sports is off the charts.

The larger pattern here is that practices with high replay value tend to be practices the learners design themselves. One of the reason the learners can’t help but repeat them over and over is that they have a sense of ownership and investment — they’re not robots executing someone else’s drill; they’re players immersed in their own fun, addictive game.

Which leads to an interesting question: how else can we raise the replay value of our practice? Here are a few ideas.

  • 1. Keep score — and I’m not talking about on the scoreboard. Pick exactly what you want to learn, and count it, or time it. Musicians could count the number of times they play a passage perfectly; soccer players could count number of perfect passes; math students could count the time it takes to do the multiplication table — just as they do in addictive math-learning apps like Math Racer and Kid Calc.
  • 2. Provide multiple roles. Basically, switch places a lot. Everybody should periodically trade positions, to experience it from a new angle and come to a deeper (and more addictive) understanding. Batter becomes pitcher; salesperson becomes client; musician becomes listener.
  • 3. Set near/far goals. The most effective goals have two levels, one near and one far. The near goal is today’s immediate goal; the far goal is an ideal performance far in the future which serves as a north star. Putting both goals out there (as video games do so well) add a dose of sugar to the practice process, and keeps people coming back for more.

How else can you make your practice more addictive?

Q: What Stands Between You and Better Performance? (A: You)

Call it “Flow” or “The Zone” — we’ve  all had moments when it all comes together: when we can do no wrong, when our performance jumps to a higher level. The old cliche is that we go unconscious; our normal selves vanish and we’re replaced by someone better.

Now, science is showing us the useful truth beneath that cliche. Higher performance is not about addition; it’s about subtraction — specifically, subtracting the chatty, busybody part of your brain that focuses on your internal state. In fact, the lesson can be summed up as follows: get out of your way.

Exhibit A: Sally Adee, a writer for New Scientist, just wrote an extraordinary story that takes us inside the expert brain. The story involves a new technique called transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS, which sends low-voltage electricity to certain parts of the brain. The current turns off your prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that creates critical thought — and lets you act without interference.

The skill Adee tried to improve was marksmanship, via a military-designed video game. Before TDCS, Adee was average. After, she was transformed into an expert (she couldn’t miss!). Tests by the military show that TDCS more than doubles subjects’ ability to detect a threat. Other studies using related types of neurofeedback show similarly promising results.

The takeaway, I think, is not that we will all soon be sporting electrode caps (though we might!), but rather that the expert brain is a quiet place. A place where concentration and relaxation coexist, and where attention is 100 percent focused on the external, not the internal. Where the self, for a rare and lovely moment, disappears.

The other takeaway is that we should make a habit of developing this kind of relaxed, concentrated focus. It might be yoga, or exercise, or meditation, or prayer, or just a daily walk — it doesn’t matter, so long as it takes you to the sort of quiet place where you can vanish, and develop a sense for knowing when you’re there.

As Dan Millman writes: “The essence of talent is not so much a presence of certain qualities, but rather an absence of the mental, physical, and emotional obstructions most adults experience.”

(A belated, but big thanks to Rob Nonstop for the heads-up!)