Month: May 2012

What Does Great Practice Feel Like?

What’s your best practice made of? Novak Djokovic, top-ranked player in the world, gives us  a peek at his recipe. (Click ahead to 1:05 for the best moments.)  It includes:

  • 1) Smallness:  it focuses only on a few targeted qualities —  improving touch, agility, and the ability to disguise shots.
  • 2) Intensity: full-effort reaching, clear results.
  • 3) Game-ishness: this is no boring drill. It’s the opposite — a thrilling, absorbing, emotion-generating game (as the ending shows).

In other words, it’s about creating SIG — Small, Intense Games. The next question: what’s the math-class version of this? The music-lesson version? The software-coding version?

How to Build Resilience

No matter what talent you’re building, resilience is a big factor; perhaps the factor. Defined as the ability to recover from adversity; resilience is the ultimate killer app because it allows us to adapt, to learn, to turn setbacks into progress.

The mystery is, where does it come from? How is it developed? And perhaps most important, is it possible to teach?

One useful way to think about resilience is to think of it as the skill of controlling your emotions in negative situations. In this view, negative emotions are “hot” — they cause the brain to spark and short-circuit, they cause performance and confidence to dissolve in a cascade of doubt and judgement. Resilience is the skill of cooling those “hot” emotions and reinterpreting setbacks in a positive, future-oriented light.

We normally think of resilience as a response. The surprising thing about resilience, however, is that the most important moment comes before the negative event — it’s pre-silience. Studies show that resilient people start controlling their emotions before the stressful events begin. In other words, resilient brains function sort of like smart thermostats; even before the emotional heat arrives, they provide an anticipatory burst of cool, calm control.

Check out this study about Navy SEALs who were found to anticipate negative events by activating their emotional-control centers — in other words, before they encounter the negative event, their brains are already in calm-down mode.

The other interesting thing is that it seems this ability can be grown through practice. For instance, professional musicians who are preparing for a major performance will often pre-create, as closely as possible, the performance conditions, right down to the time of day, the clothes they’ll wear, the chair they’ll use.

NFL kickers like Billy Cundiff of the Ravens, who use bio-feedback devices to help teach them to regulate their stress levels in pressure situations.

Then there’s the wonderful example of Susan Cain, an introvert (and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking) who had to face her worst fear: giving a speech in front of a huge audience. (Long story short: she got coached, did nothing but rehearse for a solid week, and nailed it.)

They are all being pre-silient: creating the pressurized situation, over and over, to teach their brain to calm itself at the right moments. In this way of thinking, practicing resilience is not that different from practicing a golf swing. The keys are:

  • 1) Pre-create the stressful situation. It’s not enough to imagine it vaguely — try to get every detail. Ideally, duplicate the atmosphere; if not, imagine it as vividly as possible: a golfer or musician might imagine the uneasy rustling of the crowd; a CEO might imagine the hush of an expectant boardroom.
  • 2) No stopping allowed. Once the “performance” starts, you can’t give yourself an exit door; you need to endure it completely, get to the other side of it.
  • 3) Repeat. Then repeat again. And again. Learning to endure and control spikes of intense emotion is like enduring any sort of stimulus: time and repetition are your best friends.

Dept. of Multitasking

Because just completing a triathlon isn’t enough (apparently).

The New Report Card: Forget an “A,” Try for an “M”

Four years ago David Boone was a homeless 15-year-old sleeping on a park bench in Cleveland, Ohio. This fall he’ll be entering Harvard.

His is the kind of heroic story that would seem over-the-top in a movie, if it didn’t happen to be real: David used his book-bag as a pillow, studied in train stations, figured out how to avoid local gangs.  (Read his story here.)

More interestingly, David’s not the only hero in this story. The other is his report card. Not because of its grades, but because of its design. You see, report cards at David’s school don’t have “A”s, “B”s, and “C”s. Instead, they have “M”s and “I”s.

M stands for Mastery; I stands for Incomplete.

This method is a product of remarkable new high school David attended called MC2 STEM, in which David is part of the first graduating class. The school, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation STEM Initiative, teaches science and engineering through hands-on, project-based learning in cooperation with a General Electric R&D facility across the street (translation: they don’t sit at desks listening to teachers talk).

As they learn, students are graded on specific skill-sets — called benchmarks — that make up each 10-week subject.

“M” means the student has mastered the benchmark skill (usually demonstrated by a score of 90-plus on a project or test).

“I” means the student needs to work more until they master the skill.  They don’t retake the course — instead, teachers provide additional activities and opportunities for mastery, until it’s achieved.

It’s refreshingly simple: the mushy, judgmental landscape of Bs and Cs is replaced with a clear goal: mastery is expected; if you don’t get it right away, you will get new opportunities to work until you do. As David says, “They don’t accept mediocrity.”

I think one reason this technique is effective is that it uses grades the way they should be used: not as an often-demotivating verdict on identity (“You’re a C student); but rather as an ignitor of effort, a motivational north star. “Incomplete” is a motivating concept, because it sends a strong signal that complete learning is not only possible but expected; that everyone is capable of top-level work. It nudges the culture away from judgement and toward continual improvement and reaching. It turns a school into a skill-construction zone.

The question is, how can other organizations put this M/I grading method to work? For instance, could a soccer coach build a team around the idea of mastering certain moves? Could a businesses do the same when teaching employees? A music teacher?

Also, I’m curious: do you know of other simple methods that schools, teams, and businesses use to promote the love of mastery? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

How to Imagine More Effectively

We usually think of our imaginations as idea-fountains: wellsprings of creativity.

What’s interesting, though, is how often imagination is used by highly successful performers in their practice techniques. These people channel the fountain’s energy in a very particular way: they use their imagination to build a sensory template for the action they want to learn, speeding the learning process. They focus on pre-creating the feeling of a skill, projecting themselves inside an action so they can learn it faster and better.

Exhibit A: Wayne Rooney, Britain’s resident soccer genius. As this terrific article explains, Rooney spent much of his youth imagining as he practiced. He played in the dark, alone, inventing little games; imagined bricks as defenders; imagined street signs as goalposts. To this day, on the night before a game, he asks the equipment manager what color jersey his team will be wearing, so he can more vividly imagine himself going through game situations, over and over.

Rooney, famous for being a mumbly, half-literate lout, practically turns into a scientist/poet when he describes his technique: “You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game,” he says. “You work out what decision is the best, and then if you get in that position in the game, that comes back to you. It’s basically stored in your mind.”

Exhibit B: Two people, paralyzed from the neck down, who have taught themselves to use a robotic arm to reach out and grab objects. A chip is implanted in the motor area of the brain which responds to the electrical firing patterns.

So how did they learn this? Simple: the patients were instructed to stare at the robot arm while they watched researchers manipulate it, and to imagine themselves controlling it — reaching, twisting, tilting, grabbing. Like Rooney, they stared at the skill, they imagined, and then they did it. One woman, who suffered a stroke 15 years ago, was able to control the arm to a phenomenal extent: she grasped a cup of coffee and brought it to her lips (and also brought the researchers to tears; here’s the video).

These cases and others like them indicate that we carry around powerful, built-in mental machinery (perhaps mirror neurons) that assists us in skill acquisition, when we use it properly. Let’s call this technique projection, and let’s name its basic qualities:

  • 1. It’s highly specific and detailed. You are imagining a single move (a chunk) in the deepest possible detail. The color of the jersey, the smell of the grass, the feeling of grasping the cup. It’s visualizing in sensory HD.
  • 2. It has two steps. First, you stare at the target skill until you’ve built it in your mind. Then you project yourself inside that skill, focusing on what it would feel like.
  • 3. It’s solitary. This isn’t something that’s done in groups, but alone, in quiet places, where you can operate without distraction.
  • 4. It’s used in combination with intensive practice. All the vivid projecting in the world doesn’t help until it’s combined with a lot of high-quality reps.

In our busy lives it’s tempting to spend our learning time in a frenzy of activity. Maybe it would be smarter to spend more time with our eyes closed.


PS – On a completely different topic: with the new book (Little Book of Talent) arriving in August, we’re now looking for folks who might be interested to read early versions and maybe even provide a cover blurb. Any suggestions? I’m particularly interested in locating influential people in the blogosphere – mom/parenting-bloggers? teacher-bloggers? — who might find the book useful for their audience. Write suggestions below, or email me directly at Thanks.

LBOT Preview: Meet Your Talented Illustrator

Here’s the thing no one tells you about writing books: you spend a fair amount of time feeling kinda clueless.

I realize, you’re not supposed to say that. Writing a book is supposed to be a confident sequence of a-ha moments, that feeling of unstoppable creative momentum some writers like to call “taking dictation from God.” But for me, it can sometimes feel more like walking through a dark forest, bumping my head into trees, hoping to get to the other side. During those times, it’s not like taking dictation from God. More like, from Homer Simpson.

One of the key moments in the head-bumping journey of this new book (The Little Book of Talent, due out in August) happened not so long ago, when I realized that this book needed an illustrator. (In retrospect, hugely obvious, since this is a handbook filled with specific, concrete tips designed to help readers improve their skills/grow their brains. But at the time, not so obvious.)

I found myself magnetically drawn to the work of Mike Rohde. Mike’s work is simple, classic, beautifully clear, and best of all, has this uncanny knack for capturing ideas and turning them into vivid, memorable images.

When I called Mike about The Little Book of Talent, we started with the idea of doing six illustrations. Then it was twelve.  Then twenty. Next thing we knew, Mike was cranking out no fewer than fifty-freaking-two separate drawings for LBOT, one illustration for each of the book’s 52 rules, an Olympic-level performance. For example:

Tip #25: Shrink the Practice Space    Tip #51: Keep Your Big Goals Secret

It turns out that Mike’s knack is not an accident. He’s a pioneer of a new kind of visual notetaking called sketchnotes. You might have seen it on the web, or at conferences. The idea is to replace the old ways of note-taking (words stacked on a page) with a combination of key words and images that capture the larger idea in a more concise, engaging way. Like this:

Or this:

A good sketchnote quickly captures the essence of complicated ideas and relationships, distills them to a simple, memorable form. It works because it leverages the our brain’s natural ways of learning (focused on images and spatial relationships). Best of all, it changes the role of the note-taker from passive transcriber to active decision-maker; creator.

For more, check out Mike’s work here and his flickr collection here. But the big news is that he’s at work on a new book of his own: The Sketchnote Handbook from Peachpit Press, due in October. The idea is to help teach people how to use sketchnoting techniques in their lives, and give them some tools to start.

So now I’m trying this sketchnoting thing myself, in hopes that it helps me get lost less, or at least bump into the right problems more quickly. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Good Books

I was flipping through The Art of Fielding the other day (which is super-great, and just out in paperback). It’s about a few seasons in the life of a small-college baseball team and its unlikely star, Henry Skrimshander.

I was struck by how accurately and beautifully author Chad Harbach depicts the way a person grows their skills: the mix of obsession and focus and crazy love, the immeasurable power of deep repetition, how people really think and act as they work together to develop their talents.

For instance:

Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed SOMETIMES, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer–you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted.

Or this:

He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story.

You get the idea. The point is that The Art of Fielding takes us deep inside the process of growing talent in the same way that Moby Dick takes us deep inside the process of 19th-century whaling.

The other point is that, a lot of other books do the same. I think it’d be interesting, and maybe useful, to see if we could compile a running list — call it the “Talent Code Book Club.” The books could be fiction or nonfiction, about music or business or chess or painting; they could be written from a coach or teacher’s point of view or that of a kid — it doesn’t matter, so long as it takes us inside and leaves us with some fresh insights about what it means to try to get better.

A few that come to mind:

What other books — or even movies — should be on this list? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) on the Big Stuff

I love this for a lot of reasons, especially for Sendak’s thoughts about the unmistakable feeling of doing good work at the 2-min mark. But really, the whole thing is worth watching.

“It’s sublime, to go into another room and make pictures. It’s magic time, where all your weaknesses of character, the blemishes of your personality, whatever else torments you, fades away, just doesn’t matter. You’re doing the one thing you want to do and you do it well and you know you do it well, and… you’re happy. The whole promise is to do the work, sitting down at the drawing table, turning on the radio, and I think, what a transcendent life this is, that I’m doing everything I want to do. In that moment, I feel like I’m a lucky man.”

(From “Tell Them Anything You Want,” a beautiful film by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs)

What Mastery Feels Like

Last night my lovely bride and I snuck out to the movies at Cleveland’s old Capitol Theater. Screen 1 showed a preview of the colossal whiz-bang new Avengers movie (we weren’t invited, naturally).

Screen 2, however, showed a movie about a real person with actual superpowers. His name is Jiro Ono, and he’s built himself into the best sushi chef on the planet (click the trailer above for a taste).

It’s a terrific, up-close portrait of the power of daily practice. Jiro, who’s 85, talks about how much more he has to learn. And the culture they’ve built inside this tiny shop — a culture of attentiveness, precision, and reaching — should be the envy of any organization or team. At one point, a chef tells of learning to make a difficult egg sushi. On the 200th try, he did it, and he wept with joy.

The takeaway wasn’t about the discipline; it was about the love that fueled the process. As author Jonah Lehrer recently put it, “love is just another name for “it never gets old.”

Inside Jiro’s shop, it never gets old.  (Avengers, eat your hearts out!)

The Social Power of Sharing Mistakes

Much of the research about learning and the brain could be distilled into a few simple words:

Mistakes are goodStruggle makes you smarter.

When it comes to applying this lesson to our lives, the problem is not with the science, but rather with our powerful natural aversion to mistakes and struggle.

Try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise, mistakes feel crummy; struggle feels like a verdict. Also, mistakes often carry a social price — they can cost us our job, our money, our pride. So we instinctively hide them.

The question is, how to fix that?  How do you overcome your natural mistake allergy?

One good answer: do it as a group.

Last week I heard of a nice strategy from the headmaster of a private high school in Utah. It’s called the Mistake Club, and it got started, as most of these things do, by accident.

Backstory: A new assistant headmaster (let’s call him Ernest) had been asked to speak to one of the school’s biggest donors about an upcoming project. For various reasons, the conversation didn’t go well; by the time it ended the rich donor was royally ticked off. Ernest’s first instinct, naturally, was to hide the mistake; to tell no one.

But for some strange reason Ernest didn’t. He did the opposite. He told the headmaster and staff the whole fiasco, describing each detail of the train-wreck conversation. Someone made a joke that they should start awarding points for each screwup.

The Mistake Club was born. Meetings were weekly; points were awarded on a 1-10 scale — the bigger the screwup, the more you “earned.” At the end of the year, a “prize” was awarded to the person who’d accumulated the most points.

The benefits, of course, go far beyond the pleasure of the joke. The Mistake Club established a culture of trust and communication. When someone shares the details of their mistake, the whole group learns vicariously. Social ties are strengthened. The meetings turn into coaching sessions; the organizational brain gets smarter.

Here are few other ways to do that:

  • Control expectations: I’ve seen sports teams and businesses sign contracts at the beginning of a season affirming that people will make mistakes, struggle will happen.
  • Deliver praise during the struggle: instead of praising someone at the moment of their achievement, praise them during their effort — since this is the behavior that really matters, and that you want to create again.
  • Encourage fallibility in leaders: it’s far easier for everyone to be transparent when leaders set the tone. For example, I recently heard of a hospital CEO who wanted to encourage hand-washing. She offered a reward of $20 to any worker who noticed her entering a sterile area without washing her hands first. Showing her own fallibility makes it easy for others to show theirs.
  • Legislate risk: Some companies build risk-taking requirements into their culture. For instance, Living Social, the online coupon company, encourages its people to take a business risk that scares them once a week.

The point is to find some way to create a safe social place where mistakes can be made and then used to accelerate learning — an inoculation for our natural mistake allergy.  As with any inoculation, a small dose can have a big effect.