Month: October 2012

How to Nurture Talent (Without Being a Psycho Parent)

Here is a post I recently wrote for Jenny Rosenstrach’s wonderful Dinner: A Love Story blog (which, if you haven’t checked it out, you should, right now, especially if you’re a parent. Also, here’s their new book, which is quickly becoming the go-to cookbook in our house). 

I am not the first to point this out, but let me say it anyway: when it comes to nurturing our kids’ talents, today’s parents today have it tough. Not because we know too little, but because we know too much. Way, way too much.

Nurturing talent used to be a fairly simple process, because it was mostly passive. Parents sat back and waited for the talent to show itself.

Now, parental talent-nurturing is an official industry, like organic food. Soccer, violin, chess, math, art — they all provide us with nicely constructed funnels down which we can pour endless amounts of money and time as we try to help our kids become their best selves. Tiger Mothers and Fathers stalk the landscape, carrying their superstar cubs in their mouths. Science has given us terrifyingly concrete concepts, like Critical Learning Periods, where if your kid doesn’t learn something by age X, the door of opportunity slams shut — forever!  Being a parent has gone from feeling like a laid-back observer to feeling like a frantic gardener, racing around, trying to find the best way to help talent grow.

All of which creates a question: what’s the best way to navigate this new world?

I’ve spent the last five years visiting and studying talent hotbeds, and also being the dad of four kids (10-17). So over the last few years my wife Jen and I have done our best to navigate this, and have come up with a simple list of rules that have helped us around your house, a few of which I’d like to share.

  • Don’t: Praise kids for their abilities.
  • Do: Praise kids for their efforts.
  • Why: When you praise kids for their abilities, you diminish their willingness to take risk — after all, we’re status-oriented creatures, and why would anyone who’s been labeled “talented” risk their status?

When you praise kids for their efforts, on the other hand, you increase their willingness to take risk, to fail, and thus to learn. One useful phrase to use in praising kids is to say well done. It conveys appreciation, without calling anybody a genius.

  • Don’t: Fall for the Prodigy Myth.
  • Do: Reframe struggle as positive.
  • Why: Yes, different kids learn at different rates. Yes, some kids take off like rockets; others linger in the belly of the bell curve. The thing to remember: this isn’t a sprint.The majority of prodigies flame out, and the majority of successful people come from the anonymous ranks of average Joes and Josephines.

What helps is to understand that the moments of intense struggle are really the moments when learning happens fastest. Those moments aren’t pretty — it’s when a kid is reaching toward something new and missing — but they’re fantastically productive because it’s when the brain is making and honing new connections. Your job is to find ways to celebrate those moments of struggle.

  • Don’t: Pay attention to what you kid says
  • Do: Pay attention to what your kid stares at.
  • Why: Let’s do this one in the form of a scene, in which a kid returns from first soccer/piano/karate practice.

PARENT: So how was it? How did it go? Did you like your teacher? What did you do?

KID: Ummmmm.

PARENT: Was it fun? Were you good at it? Do you think you’ll do it next week?

KID: Ummmmm.

The point is, most kids are reliably inept at expressing their inner feelings. So don’t put pressure on them to express them, because it tends to speedily diminish whatever interest they might’ve felt.

Instead, pay attention to what they stare at. Staring is the most profound act of communication that kids perform. Staring is like a neon sign saying I LOVE THIS. Watch for the stare, and follow where it leads. One of our daughters got interested in violin because we went to a performance of a teenage bluegrass band. She stared. We didn’t say much. We bought her a violin, and took her to a lesson, and she was into it. That was five years ago; she’s still playing.

  • Don’t: Seek a coach or teacher who’s like a courteous waiter.
  • Do: Seek coaches and teachers who scare you a little.
  • Why: It’s easy to confuse pleasure and comfort with actual learning. But truly good coaches and teachers are about challenging you to get to the edge of your abilities, time and time again.

Seek out coaches who are authoritative. Who know their stuff, and who take charge. A little scary is good.

  • Don’t: Celebrate victories.
  • Do: Celebrate repetition.
  • Why: Too many kids (and parents) judge their progress by the scoreboard, instead of by the amount they’ve learned. Victories are their own reward. They do not need any extra emphasis.

Celebrating repetition, on the other hand, is not done often enough, because repetition has a bad reputation. We frequently connote it with drudgery. In fact, repetition is awesome. It’s the single most powerful way the brain builds new skill circuits. So make it cool. Doing a hard task ten times in a row is great. Doing it a hundred times in a row is freaking heroic. So treat it that way.

A Reader Writes: Please Help Rescue My School’s Crummy Facilities!

I received this letter the other day from a high-school teacher who’s facing a problem we increasingly share: How to deal with the sweet, tempting narcotic of luxury.


Hi Dan,

The school where I used to teach has a great facility for the young athletes. It fit the “crummy” description perfectly. They had no lodge, heat, bathrooms, they changed in their cars and kicked ass, the skiers from this time won four state competitions and went on to win multiple national championships. 

Then some funding came up, new lodge, heat, bathrooms, outdoor electricity, timing hut, more trails, etc. Same coaches (one is an former Olympian, yes the psychology of being great was/is there too). The team has not won a state title since the new facility. 

The school district has another “crummy” facility that has produced some really impressive results for the football team. It is in the basement of the school, everyone (varsity non-varsity, established/unestablished) trains in close proximity. It’s got everything it needs to be great and nothing more. Now there’s a move to build a “better” and “bigger” facility. 

I emailed the head coach with my concern, and told him about your work and the power of crummy facilities. He wrote off what I had to say. 

Can you help me in any way to possibly save the “crummy” facility?


Readers: anything you’d like to share? Stories? Strategies? Wisdom from your experience with similar dilemmas? Feel free to write them below.

How to Anticipate Better (Step 1: Stand Still)

Anticipation is the king of talents, because it’s so mysterious and powerful. How does Sidney Crosby know just where the puck is going to end up? How does Larry Ellison know just when to close the deal? How does Clapton know just when to make that chord change?

The usual answer is that it’s some kind of instinctive magic — a sixth sense.

The real answer is that it’s high-speed pattern recognition: a learned ability to look at telltale signs and accurately guess where the action is headed. It’s not about instincts. It’s about information processing.

Check out this video for a beautiful example. It’s one of those Science of Sport shows where they analyze the abilities of world-class athletes — in this case, Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s a pretty fair soccer player.

Scroll ahead to 6:20, and you’ll see a remarkably cool experiment that reveals the source of Ronaldo’s true ability — his eyes and his brain. By watching body language, arc, and speed, he can calculate where the ball is going to be, even in pitch-black darkness.

So the question becomes, how do we improve the speed of our information processing?  A couple ideas:

  • 1) Eyes-Only Practice –  Set aside practice time where you focus just on absorbing information — sort of like an NFL player would view film. A baseball player could stand at the plate without a bat, tracking the flight of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. A musician could watch a concert, trying to sense the architecture of each solo (ears instead of eyes, but you get the idea).
  • 2) Interrogate Top Performers – Seek out the best, and ask them to describe what’s going through their heads at key moments — what telltale signs they’re looking for. They won’t always be eloquent  — as Ronaldo shows — but his words and body language are still helpful and revealing.
  • 3) Do a Little Every Day – As the video shows, the anticipation is not something Ronaldo was born with, but rather a skill that he built over thousands of reps. Treat your observations the same. You won’t be good at the start, but each time you observe intensively and with a purpose, you’ll get better at figuring out what’s going to happen next.

Four Quick Cures for Poor Practice

The biggest enemy of talent isn’t genes, or opportunity, or luck. It’s poor practice. Because poor practice wastes time, creates bad habits, and, worst of all, gives us the deceptive feeling we’ve accomplished something when, in fact, we haven’t.

Trouble is, poor practice is tough to identify. Perhaps in the future, some genius will invent a Practice-o-Meter that flashes bright red lights and sounds a horn when it detects ineffective, time-wasting practice.  Until then, however, we have to make do with simpler methods.

So here, based on interviews with teachers/coaches and a sampling of scientific studies, are some warning signs that your practice is shallow — along with a few suggested cures.

  • 1) Symptom: Robotic sameness of performance. If you are doing the same thing over and over with no variation, you are not practicing deeply.
  • Cure: Make it tougher. Change one or more factors to stretch yourself. For example, if you’re shooting basketball free throws, try them from a variety of distances. If you’re doing algebra, set ever-shorter time limits. Constantly switch it up so that you’re always making and fixing mistakes.


  • 2) Symptom: The lack of “dammit” moments. Learning something new is like walking into a darkened room and figuring out where the furniture is located — when you make a mistake, you should feel it. Effective practice contains lots of “dammit” moments. Making mistakes should carry an emotional burn that helps you do better next time.
  • Cure: Keep score. Turn it into a game, so that each mistake carries a larger consequence.


  • 3) Symptom: Failing too much. The “sweet spot” of practice is when you make mistakes 20-40 percent of the time — not so seldom that you’re comfortable, not so often that you’re thrashing. Randomness does not make for good practice.
  • Cure: Make it easier. Eliminate some variables; simplify the task so that you are chunking one thing at a time, until you get back to the sweet spot.


  • 4) Symptom: Total boredom
  • Cure: Quit and do something else. Come back when you’re fresh.


Overall, aim for quality over quantity. It’s far better to achieve 10 minutes of deep practice — which is really tough to do — than practice shallowly for an hour.

TSR in the News

It’s been a busy week around here for my book that came out last month, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France – Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored with former Postal rider Tyler Hamilton.

It’s basically the inside story of what some are now calling the biggest fraud in the history of American sports. The world they lived in was half James Bond, half Sopranos, and half All the President’s Men. Okay, that’s three halves. But you get the idea.

The big news is that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency just released its 1,000-page report detailing its case against Armstrong. Twenty-six people gave testimony, including eleven former Armstrong teammates (including Tyler, of course.)

You might think the USADA report would by dry-dust reading, but it’s precisely the opposite. It’s kind of amazing. It’s filled with telling details, stranger-than-fiction anecdotes (like when Armstrong wanted an illegal cortisone pill and two teammates, rather than disappoint their demanding boss, shaved down an asprin and gave it to him as a placebo), and an irrefutable stack of hard scientific and financial evidence. Reading the report, you can’t help but feel a mix of horror and deep empathy for the riders — and you can’t help but wonder what you would have done in their place.

If you’re interested in a taste, here’s a Cliff’s Notes version from Outside magazine.  And, for the more ambitious among you, here’s the whole report: including a 200-page summary and the supporting materials (the affadavits are a good place to start).

I know it’s a sad story. But it’s also an important one — for the riders who are standing up and speaking out, for their families, and for their sport, which now has the chance to move forward. Like Tyler says, the truth will set you free. It sounds corny, I know. But man oh man, is it ever true.

PS – Tyler is going to be on Anderson Cooper 360 tonight (Friday) at 8:00 Eastern — tune in, or check TSR’s facebook page for more information.

Better Parenting Through Silence

These two videos happen to speak to the same massive question at the heart of parenting: how do you help your kid succeed at something new and difficult and scary?

In the first video, Natalie is trying to learn to ride a bike. Her dad wants to help. Things <cough> don’t go particularly well.

Why? From the first moment of the exchange, the dad is trying to take command of the situation. He keeps saying her name (“Natalie! Look at you! You’re doing it!  We’re gonna keep going around the block! Keep going!”). Even when it’s abundantly clear Natalie is having none of it, the dad keeps up.

He’s doing what we’ve all done: trying to nudge, persuade, cajole a kid past the difficulty using language and emotion. He’s trying to create success by narrating success. Meltdown ensues.

Contrast that approach with this video of a father and a four-year-old kid taking on another biking challenge. Here, the interaction is completely different. The kid is in the position of control, not the parent. You can see it from the first moment, where the father doesn’t tell the kid what’s going to happen — instead, he asks a question.

DAD: Oh, I’m first?

KID: You’re first.

DAD:  Okay.

Instead of narrating the process, this dad is almost entirely silent, except for the occasional praise for the effort (“Good work, pal!”). The messages are implied, not spoken — follow me… this is fun… I’m right here.

This silence creates something vital, because it allows the kid to narrate the process, which he does beautifully: “I can do it just the same as the other guys now… Yeah, oh yeah, buddy.” We see it most vividly at 4:10, in the moment just after the kid wipes out. The dad doesn’t come to the rescue; he’s present, but he doesn’t say a word, except to ask if the kid is ready to go.

To sum up:

  • 1) Seek to put the kid in the position of control.
  • 2) Speak minimally and avoid commands; instead, ask questions that lead to action.
  • 3) When they encounter a problem, avoid rushing to the rescue. Create opportunities for resilience.

The larger point is, kids are smart. You can’t con them. To take on challenges they need to be in control. They need to be given the room and motivation to encounter the challenge honestly, and a parent’s role is to help create the conditions where that can happen — then to step back.

How to Improve Your Focus

Focus is the holy grail of modern life. It’s rare. It’s powerful. And it’s tough to find.

Not for lack of trying. To improve focus, most of us use a common-sense method: we actively remind ourselves to do it. Coaches yell it from the sidelines — Come on, focus! Parents instruct their homework-doing kids — Stop texting and just focus! We talk to ourselves — Focus now! 

The problem is, that method usually doesn’t work. Urging focus is sort of like kicking the tires of a car that won’t start. It feels satisfying, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is that our brains crave the steady-state of comfort, not the effort of focus.

So the real question is, how do you nudge people out of their default setting? How do you design learning environments that tilt people toward focus?

I was thinking about this last weekend when we went to Chicago and rode bikes along the lakefront, that wide, paved stretch that fronts Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful day, so the lakefront was packed with hundreds of bikers, skateboarders, rollerbladers, joggers, and kids, everybody zipping in and out at high speed. Then we noticed something strange: no guardrails.

The paved area went right up to the lake, where there was a five-foot vertical drop to the water. No rail, no fence, no safety device of any kind for miles. To fall in would have been a problem, especially for small kids who were darting around.

But here’s the thing: nobody falls in. When they got close to the edge, everybody tuned in. The lack of guardrails makes people pay more attention. It sends a clear signal — Hey, the edge is right here — that improves focus.

(This isn’t the only place like this. A few years back, traffic engineers in Holland made an unlikely discovery: the best way to make intersections safer was to remove all traffic signs. Drivers became more attentive; accident rates dropped.)

So how do we design for better focus in a classroom? On a sports field? During a homework session?

The answer is, do the same thing. Remove the guardrails. Send a clear, unmissable signal — Hey, the edge is right here.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Post a calendar with important dates circled, and count them down. How many days until the tournament? Until the big test? Until the report is due?
  • Set out “north-star” goals. Some schools, like KIPP, constantly remind kids about college. For example, they name classrooms after the college the teacher attended; they post signs above the bathroom mirrors that ask: Where are You Going to College?  Those signals work like churchbells; they ring often, reminding the students of the bigger goal.
  • Have learners grade themselves each session. A top soccer coach uses a two-level system: players either gave their absolute best, or they did not.

The larger point: none of this involves talking, or urging people to focus harder. The goal is to design the environment so it does the urging for you.

I’m curious: what other ways do you have to improve your focus?

Should You Follow Your Passion? (Nope – You Should Grow It)

Whether you’re a parent or a coach, an athlete or a musician or a kid, there’s one piece of advice that you’ve heard a zillion times: follow your passion. It’s a beautifully tempting idea, because it implies each of us has a calling, a destiny.

It’s also crummy advice.

Here’s why: follow your passion (FYP) is based on the notion that our passions are fixed and unchangeable, and that our main job is to hunt after that passion as if it were so much buried Spanish treasure. The idea is, once we discover it, we’ll find happiness.

The problem is, that’s not true. Yes, there are a lucky few who are seized by a desire in childhood and spend the rest of their lives happily following that narrow road. But for the vast majority of us, life is more complicated: we are faced with tough choices, branching pathways. And when we base our happiness on FYP’s treasure-hunt logic, we create a cascade of frustration (Why aren’t I happy? Should I switch paths? What’s wrong with me?).

The key fact to realize is that passions aren’t fixed — they’re flexible and alive. They grow and change in connection with our abilities and accomplishments. For a useful insight into this, check out this piece by Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and author of the new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, who devastatingly debunks the Myth of FYP. His argument is based on two basic truths:

  • Point #1: the thing that people love about their lives — that X factor that gives them the feeling of passion — usually has less to do with the specifics of a pursuit, and more to do with the bigger factors: the feeling of self-efficacy, accomplishment, and the joy of having a mission that impacts the world in a positive way.
  • Point #2: The early years of any pursuit are filled with struggle and difficulty. The love of a craft grows alongside our skills.

I’m Exhibit A. Though I loved books, I didn’t grow up burning to be a writer; I turned to it after college, after I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor. My early years working at a magazine were fun, but also hard and frustrating. If I’d been constantly asking myself, “Is this truly my passion?” I would have been frustrated. But as I got better, I started to enjoy it more and more. I wrote short articles, then longer articles. Then decided to try writing a book. It worked — not because I’d followed my passion, but because my passion grew alongside my skills.

To be clear: this is not to say you shouldn’t do what you love. You absolutely should. But you should do so with the right expectations. As Newport points out: don’t follow your passion. Let your passion follow you, by cultivating it through hard work.