Month: July 2012

LBOT Trailer #1

Here’s the first trailer for The Little Book of Talent, which is due out on August 21. (Update — we improved the audio — now it works!)

A few behind-the scenes-notes:

  • 1) My office is not normally that clean.
  • 2) We futzed a lot with the music. The early version had more of a mysterious, pingy soundtrack that sounded like something from a mystery movie. Looking for something a bit warmer sounding, we changed it to this one. My brother Maurice says it sounds like I should be hosting an organic gardening show on NPR.
  • 3) Big thanks to videographer George Overpeck, Dave Stevenson, Ruby Levesque, Quinne Rogers, and my wife Jen for putting this together.

What do you think?


How to Build Better Reflexes: Forget Speed and Focus on Information

We love quickness.

We love it when an improv comedian makes a lightning-fast comeback.  Or when a soccer player slices open a tough defense with the perfect pass. Or when an investor spies a great opportunity in a fast-moving market. We love those moments because they contain the essence of talent: instant, uncannily precise reaction to a complex situation. These people succeed, it seems, because their reflexes are quicker.

What’s even more interesting: science is showing us that our instincts about quickness are wrong. The best performers, it turns out, aren’t reacting more quickly (thanks to limits of nerve-conduction speed, human reflexes are pretty consistent). The best performers are using time differently — namely, they’re using it to get more information.

For example, let’s take the classic case of a tennis player returning serve. You would instinctively think that the best returners are the ones who react the quickest. But you’d be wrong. Experiments show that the best players succeed because they wait longer before they make their swing. They use that time to gather information about the ball, the spin, the opponent’s position, and make decisions about it. And in tennis — as in many other areas of life — the better data you have, the better result you tend to get.

In other words, being quick isn’t about speed; it’s about information. It’s about learning how to wait.

This case and many others like it are discussed in a fascinating new book by Frank Partnoy called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. The basic message is that the most successful performers in many skills (business, military, medical, writing, acting, among others) follow a similar pattern, which has three steps.

  • 1) observe — take in all the relevant information.
  • 2) process — analyze the patterns, and pick a course of action
  • 3) act — deliver the action

The central insight is that the best performers get really fast and proficient at #3 — performing the action — so they can invest time and attention in steps #1 and #2. Time isn’t a handicap for them; it’s more like a lever; a selective advantage.

I love this insight because it sheds light on the sense of stillness you see in a lot of top performers.For example, picture Cristiano Ronaldo or Stevie Ray Vaughn or Stephen Colbert. Their skill comes from a foundation of calm. They look at the world through a the cool, ascertaining gaze. They’re never hurried or frantic; they’re constantly vacuuming their surroundings for good information, and when they decide to make their move, they make it decisively, with full commitment. They’re managing time, not being managed by it.

How to put this insight to use? The best way is to isolate each step of the process, and practice it by itself.

  • Step 1: Immerse yourself in pure observation. Take in the patterns; swim in the information. Watch “game film” of whatever game you happen to be playing.
  • Step 2: X-ray the information. Systematically figure out the underlying patterns; the if/then decisions that lay beneath the surface. If X happens, what’s the best response? If X and Y happen, what’s the best response?
  • Step 3: Isolate the key actions and practice them. The goal is to make the action perfectly automatic and fast, like you’re pressing a button.

Or, as John Wooden put it, “Be quick, but never hurry.”

What World-Class Practice Looks Like, Part 2

One of the beautiful things about great practice is how simple it is.

This is especially true with soft skills — those improvisatory skills of reading patterns and reacting instantly to them — which show up so often in team sports and the creative arts.

Check out this video of Barcelona (aka the world’s best soccer team over the past four years) as they do their regular one-touch keep-away workout, which is called rondo.

Here’s what I like about it:

1)  It generates reps of the key skills (anticipation, quick, accurate decisions under pressure), over and over.

2) It’s played with 100 percent maximum intensity.

3) It’s really fun/addictive — check out those smiles and laughs at the end.

Xavi, Barca’s midfielder, says: “It’s all about rondos. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch. If you go in the middle, it’s humiliating, the rest applaud and laugh at you.”

For this team, rondo isn’t a mere drill. It’s more like their identity.

To me, the truly interesting question is this: How do you create a culture in which this little game — not ego, not showing off, not even scoring goals — becomes the most important and valued part?

How the Best Teachers Begin Their Lessons

Quick question for coaches and teachers: What’s the single most important moment of a lesson? Is it:

  • (A) the initial explanation of the skill being taught?
  • (B) the first couple tries?
  • (C) the moment things click, when the learner “gets it”?

I think the answer is (D) — None of the Above.

There’s a strong case to be made that the single most important moment of learning happens before the lesson actually begins.

We know that master coaches are extremely skilled at quickly making a strong emotional connection with a learner, to create the bond of trust that’s the foundation of all learning.

But mere emotional connection isn’t enough. The world is filled with extremely charismatic, fantastically entertaining teachers who are wonderful at creating connection but not so great at actually improving skill.

Because it’s not enough just to capture the learner’s attention — you have to create intention: an urgent desire to work hard toward a concrete goal, toward some vision of their future self.

Science is giving us a peek inside that process. A group of researchers at Case Western were able to look at the brains of learners in two conditions. In the first, the coach was judgmental, and focused on negatives and the past. In the second, the coach was empathetic, and focused on the future.

With the judgmental coach, the visual cortex showed limited activity. With the positive, future-oriented coach, however, it lit up like a Christmas tree. The researchers concluded that this correlated with someone imagining their future.

The takeaway: when it comes to learning, brains work exactly like flashlights. It’s not enough just to turn them on; they have to be pointed toward a target.

A few simple ways to do this:

  • Encourage expression about future goals. Where do they want to be a month from now? A year? Five years?
  • Ruthlessly eliminate negative statements — especially judgements — that cause brains to shut down.
  • Count down until some Big Future Event. How many practices do we have left until the tournament? How many more lessons until the recital?  A calendar with Xs is a powerful tool.
How else? What other tips do you have for clicking on those flashlights?

How to Fix a Slump

Ever see this diagram? (It’s from comedian Demetri Martin.)

I like this, because I think it’s true. From the outside, success looks like effortless progress; from the inside, we discover the journey is a lot more complicated. In fact, the most interesting part of the line is where it turns sharply downward, into one of those nasty-looking tangles where progress stops, development stalls, and frustration rises. It raises an interesting question:

What’s the best way to fix a slump?

Normally, when we hit a slump, we experience an overwhelming instinct to ignore it — to shut our eyes and just try harder, and hope things change.  That makes sense — and it feels satisfying. But is it the best way?

We find an interesting case study from Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder. Drafted in 2005, McCutchen was a can’t-miss prospect, a first-round pick who performed outstandingly well for two years in the Pirates minor leagues — until, suddenly, he hit a dry spell. He stopped hitting. His average dropped to a puny .189. This was it: McCutchen’s slump, his crisis; his line was headed straight for the basement.

In this case, the Pirates organization used a surprising strategy. When McCutchen hit his downturn, they flew hitting coach Gregg Ritchie to visit him. Ritchie carried a piece of paper:  a print-out of McCutchen’s hitting flaws — specific, targeted problems with his swing mechanics that Ritchie had noted a year and a half earlier.

Until that moment, McCutchen didn’t know the list existed. But now, working with Ritchie, he used this list of flaws like a blueprint. He lowered his hand position; he shifted his weight — together, player and coach fixed his swing. And it worked: McCutchen got out of his slump, and kept moving up. He’s now an All-Star.

I like this story because I think it gives us insight into how to best handle these downturn moments. We instinctively want to do it alone; to lift ourselves back on that upward track out of sheer will.

But what works better is to approach the slump more like a science problem. Cool off the emotion. Collaborate and gather information. Figure out the shortcoming, and start re-wiring the improvement. In a word, be agile.

I also like it because it shows the importance of organizational agility. The Pirates handled this well, because they understood when to make the intervention. Coach Ritchie knew all along McCutchen’s swing had potential problems, but he didn’t try to fix those problems early on because his swing was working (as McCutchen said, if coaches had tried to correct him, he would have ignored them — and rightly so). No, the Pirates wisely waited until the the problem arose — until they had McCutchen’s full and desperate attention. Then, together, they went to work and built a better swing.

Fixing slumps is not about solo strength. It’s about group agility.