Month: December 2012

Four Life Lessons from Jerry Seinfeld, Master Craftsman

What qualities do the world’s great performers possess that the rest of us don’t?

It’s a great question, and our usual instinct is to answer the question by listing characteristics, as if they were ingredients for baking a cake.  (Start with passion. Stir in determination and great coaching; cook 10,000 hours and Voila!)

Unfortunately, this is exactly wrong. Not because those characteristics are not present in great performers. But because listing characteristics is the wrong way of thinking about the question. What makes great performers is not ingredients. It’s their approach.

Approach, meaning the interlinked pattern of strategies, habits, and methods for the daily process of getting better. It’s not just what you do — it’s how you go about doing it.

Few people on the planet have a better approach to craft than Jerry Seinfeld. To see why, read this wonderful story by Jonah Weiner and click the above video. Listen to Seinfeld approach the process of writing a single joke — which took two years. Look at how many lines he’s crossed out, shaving syllables, perfecting beats. Listen to the clinical/carpenter-like way he talks about “connective tissue” and “jigsaw puzzles;” how he refers to a comedy set as a “workout.” Most of all, see how much he relishes the process.

If you were to distill Seinfeld’s approach into a few guidelines, they might include:

  • 1) Embrace revision and repetition. Realize that nothing is ever completely right on the first try, and probably not on the tenth. (To prepare for his first appearance on the Tonight Show, Seinfeld did two hundred reps of his routine.)
  • 2) Be creative and ruthless in self-testing. Create challenges and seek out obstacles Seinfeld prefers tiny, difficult audiences to large, adoring ones. Because that’s the best way to expose weakness — which is exactly the point, so you can see what’s working, what’s not, and where to go next. They are your lab.
  • 3)  Learn from parallel crafts: in the space of this piece, Seinfeld compares his joke-writing process to baseball, high-end car design, samurai, calligraphy, and the art of cricket-cage building. The point is, he’s constantly trying to view his profession through different lenses, in order to understand it more deeply.
  • 4) Be obsessively, monkishly habitual about methods and tools. Design your workspace for simplicity and focus. An unabashed creature of habit, Seinfeld always writes material with a Bic blue clear-barrel pen on yellow legal pad, longhand. This works, because the more you automate the  non-meaningful elements of the process, the more you free your brain up to focus on what matters. As Flaubert said, “I am orderly and disciplined with my daily life, so that I may be savage and original with my art.”

I have to confess that, as great as this article is throughout, there’s one paragraph I like best of all:

When [Seinfeld] can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”

I like it because he’s referring to this article I wrote back in 2007 which served as the starting point for the research that became The Talent Code.

So I’ll tell you what Jerry, since you liked the article, here’s an offer: I’ll send you a copy of the latest book, if you send me a loaf of that delicious marble rye you “borrowed” from that lady on Episode 121.  Whaddya say?

Happy Festivus, everybody!

UPDATE:  Here’s what Jerry had to say about myelin, talent, and comedy, from this NYT Magazine blog (FYI, the “Dean” he refers to is Dean Robinson, the Times magazine editor who wrote the entry.)

OK. I am a thousand per cent sure there is not one other Comedy/Science Super Geek out there like me interested in myelination of comedianization.

But I do love this subject and must comment here as it is the only time this is ever going to come up in the Universe.

Just to clarify, building your myelin has nothing to do with being funny.

You could have my myelin. It won’t help. (As evidenced by the suggestion that the connection between these two articles could be ‘grist’ for comedy. Oh my god, Dean, I can’t even believe how unfunny that is.)

But here is how myelin works in comedy.

Being a comedian is two basic skills. One, being funny, which is a soft skill. Two, performing a comedy bit, which is a hard skill. The second part is where the myelin comes in.

Any comedian will tell you when they do two shows in one night the second show is almost always better. Why? You’ve got more myelin.

Doing a joke is very similar to any sport that is mostly repetitive action fine motor skills.
It’s a set of mechanical brain commands the body executes almost exactly the same way every time.

Myelin doesn’t make the funny, it makes the recreating of the funny at a time and place of someone else’s choosing possible. Which can be a cool career if you can do it.

But most people have experienced this myelin/comedy effect.

Ever hear a joke and then tell it to every person in your office? The last few recipients always hear the best version and laugh the most. Why?

Practice, polish, myelin. And that’s why it was very helpful for me to learn that being a male stand up comedian in his fifties and being a young Russian female tennis player are exactly the same thing.

Last-Minute Holiday Gift-o-Rama

Some people are highly organized about the holidays. They make precise lists. They do careful research. They comparison shop. They are able to confidently click “ground shipping” as an option.

This list is for the rest of us. The ones who, like me, have waited until the last minute, and who right now are quietly scrambling to find something good and useful for a kid, a parent, a teacher, or a coach. In that spirit, here are a seven things that caught our eye this year.

1. Gibbon Slackline ($79)

Our 12-year-old daughter went on a backpacking trip last summer and came back all hyped on slacklining — which is basically a combination of tightrope walking and trampoline. For those of you not familiar, you stretch a piece of webbing between two fixed points, and start walking/bouncing. So simple, so great for balance, and so fun in the purest sense of the word.


2. Electronic Rock Guitar Shirt ($19)

Yes, you read that correctly. It is a T-shirt, and it is also a musical instrument. To play, you place your fingers on the “neck” of the guitar and “strum” using a magnetic pick. The chords (recorded from a real guitar) are surprisingly authentic, thanks to the amp that clips to your belt. Question: is this crazy thing a “gateway” to playing an actual instrument? In our family, the answer is a definite yes. Perhaps because the amp, in fact, goes to 11.

3. My Ideal Bookshelf ($17)

Science tells us that creativity is all about creating a “windshield” of people you admire, observe, and emulate — which makes this book worth celebrating, since it’s a compendium of windshields. Author Thessaly La Force approached more than 100 creative types (Dave Eggers, Tony Hawk, David Chang, Chuck Klosterman, Judd Apatow) and asked them what books mattered most to them, giving the rest of us a nice X-ray into the craft of creativity.

4. Burton Sleeper Travel Hoodie ($95)

My brother, a tech-savvy guy who’s famously difficult to buy for, got this a while back and loved it. It looks like a regular hoodie, but it’s built for the art of napping: an integrated neck pillow, earplugs, and sleep visor, along with a passport pocket and yes, a toothbrush. Sort of like a Swiss Army knife for catching Z’s.

5. LikeaBike ($289)

Whoever invented the phrase “as easy as riding a bike” clearly never taught a kid to ride one. As you parents know, the process is a reliably painful thrash of pedals, tears, and endless stretches of running-alongside-the-bike-while-crouched-over. This little fella works because it takes the pedals out of the equation and puts the kid in charge. They scoot along, Flintstone style, and their brains get the hang of balance and turning without any parental help whatsoever. In other words, it’s perfect.


6. Ruhlman’s Twenty ($25)

Growing up, I thought cooking well was like writing romantic poetry: a talent reserved for the chosen few, plus some French. Since then, we’ve seen a quiet revolution in which cooking has become seen as it truly is: a skill that is learned, over time and through practice, with the help of good coaches. And if you want to learn to cook, there’s no more masterful coach than my neighbor and friend Michael Ruhlman, author of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and The Making of a Chef, among others. Twenty is a great starting place: a tour of 20 fundamental techniques, along with a hundred good recipes. Pro tip: start with the roast chicken.


7. Moleskine pocket notebook ($10)

In our smartphone-driven world, it seems strange that a humble notebook from the steam-engine age could be a useful tool. But that’s exactly what this is: a supremely well-made, portable device that needs no batteries and does what you need it to do: provide a space to capture thoughts, to make plans, to sketch ideas. In fact, as this new book shows, these notebooks are making somewhat of a renaissance: proof that if it’s anything is enough for Ernest Hemingway and Spike Jonze, it’s good enough for the rest of us.


Have you come across any useful gifts? Feel free to share — after all, we need all the help we can get!

Can This Machine Build a Better Athlete?

Say hello to Footbonaut, a new machine for training soccer players. (Click the video to see it in action.)

It’s a space-age beauty: built for the top German professional team Borussia Dortmund, it feeds balls from eight angles, and has 72 colored panels that light up to make targets. Reacting to a series of beeps and flashes, players receive and pass, over and over.

Footbonaut has been widely praised as the future of soccer training. Its inventor says it “allows you to work on any weaknesses and ensures that you play at pace but with precision.” and that after 15 minutes in the cage a player “will have received and passed on as many balls as he would in a normal week of training. Repetition and intensity are crucial if you want to conquer a particular skill, whether that be playing football, tennis or learning the piano.

So the question is, is it true? Is this a glimpse of the future of training?


Here’s why: great soccer players are great because they can identify and anticipate an unfolding series of patterns — body language, movement, position — and do the right thing at the right time. In other words, soccer is not played in a standing position with beeps and flashes.

Plus, merely achieving intensity should not be confused with learning. As Aspire Academy coach (and all-around brilliant guy) Michael Bruyninckx points out, using sweating as a parameter is misleading, because exhaustion slows learning. Then there’s the fact that only one player can use it at a time (compare that to non-technological beauty of the tiki-taka drill, which involves the entire team).

So while Footbonaut hones useful skills, it doesn’t develop whole soccer players any more than writing haikus can develop a skilled novelist.

This speaks to the tricky nature of adding technology to the learning environment — whether it’s Footbonauts or iPads in classrooms. Technology is seductive, but it’s extremely rare that a machine can adequately duplicate the immersive intensity of a well-designed practice session in the real world.

In my experience, the recipe for high performance is always the same: technology makes a fine spice for learning, but you should never mistake it for the main course.

The Most Powerful 3-Letter Word a Parent or Teacher Can Use

Kids love to announce that they’re not good at something. They usually do it just after they try something new and challenging, and they say it with finality, as if issuing a verdict.

I’m not good at math!” or, “I’m not good at volleyball.”

At that moment, our normal parental/teacher/coach instinct is to fix the situation. To boost the kid up by saying something persuasive like, “Oh yes you are!” Which never works, because it puts the kid in the position of actively defending their ineptitude. It’s a lose-lose.

So here’s another idea: ignore the instinct to fix things. Don’t try to persuade. Instead, simply add the word “yet.”

You add the “yet” quietly, in a matter-of-fact tone, as if you were describing the weather or the law of gravity.

“I’m not good at math” becomes “You’re not good at math yet.”

“I’m not good at volleyball” becomes “You’re not good at volleyball yet.”

The message: Of course you’re not good — because you haven’t worked at it. But when you do, you will be good.

At first glance, it seems silly — how can just one word make a difference?

The answer has to do with the way our brains are wired to respond to self-narratives. That’s where our friend Dr. Carol Dweck and her work on mindset come in. Through a series of remarkable experiments, she’s shown how small changes in language — even a few words — can affect performance.

Her core insight is that the way we frame questions of talent matter hugely. If we put the focus on “natural ability,” kids tend to be less engaged and put forth less effort (after all, if it’s just a genetic lottery, then why should I try?). When we put the focus on effort, however, kids tend to try harder and are more engaged.

In other words, it’s all about the story, because the story creates the culture.

I happen to spend most of the year in Cleveland, Ohio, where each year the area’s teams invent new and innovative ways to lose — it’s the Silicon Valley of sports futility. Because everybody at some level (players, coaches, fans) subconsciously expects to lose. It’s a vicious cultural circle.

On the other hand, Cleveland is also home to a number of remarkable elementary and high schools that are precisely the opposite of its sports teams: strong, positive cultures where every signal is aligned with values of risk, learning, and growth. Inside the walls of these schools, it’s all about virtuous circles: feedback loops that energize and motivate.

It’s no coincidence that this “Yet” idea comes from one of these places: Laurel School, where my ninth-grade daughter happens to be enrolled. The head of school, on reading Dweck’s work, decided to make “Yet” the school’s new watchword. And in a short time, it’s caught on, traveling through the culture like a virus. Teachers are saying it. Kids are saying it. They’ve even printed it on bumper stickers (above).

Yes, it’s kinda corny, like these things tend to be. I’m sure some teens roll their eyes when they hear it. But I also think it has an effect, because “yet” tells a clear story about the value of effort and struggle, and that story is aligned with the way the brain grows.

Which makes me wonder: what other ways do you parents, teachers, and coaches tell your story and establish your cultures?  Are there recurrent words/phrases – or, on the other hand, certain words that are off-limits? I’d love to hear your examples and suggestions.

Yep, It’s a Video of Some Dogs Learning to Drive a Car

So a bunch of New Zealand animal trainers decided to fulfill the longstanding national dream of teaching a dog how to drive a car.

Then, over seven weeks, using an intensive and tedious practice program based on chunked learning and repetition, they actually did. (The Mini Cooper is a nice touch.) If you want more, here’s a longer version of the video.

All of which goes to prove:

  • 1) Kiwis are kinda nuts.
  • 2) Intensive chunking and repetition are more powerful forces than we think. (After all, when it comes to learning, dogs’ brains are not that different from ours.)
  • 3) Tediousness is vastly underrated
  • 4) Still, Kiwis are kinda nuts.

Why You Should Be Relieved Your Kids Are Not Prodigies

Having a prodigy in the family is usually thought of as a divine blessing. Teachers and coaches compete over them. Other kids envy them. Parents look at them wishfully, thinking: If only my kid could be like that.


From a distance, it looks simple: you turn the kid loose and watch their talent rocket them through life. Up close, it’s anything but. The truth is, raising a prodigy is an immensely complicated and consuming endeavor.

We get a moving glimpse of this in Andrew Solomon’s terrific new book, Far From the Tree. He writes about the complicated emotional landscape parents have to navigate to balance the child’s abilities with the rest of their development. (I should point out that Solomon focuses not just on high performers, but on true prodigies, those rare children who display bewilderingly high levels of ability and desire at a young age, most often in math and music.)

The types of challenges range from the emotional (how do we balance “normal” childhood development with adult levels of talent?) to the developmental (how do we deal with early midlife crisis when the prodigies reach the end of their early successes?) to the relational (how do we disentangle natural parental ego and involvement so that the child can stand on their own?).

In addition, some talents arrive shadowed by autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other neurological conditions that make for their own challenges, not the least of which is the parent’s difficulty accepting them. Underlying all of that is the reality that despite hopes and appearances, the vast majority of child prodigies do not go on to become top adult performers.

Check out this story in which Solomon discusses his research on raising prodigies. And this story on how one parent helped his autistic child develop his abilities.

Here’s Solomon’s conclusion:

 Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder. That insight has largely shaped me as a father. I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude.

Me too.

Peer Turbo Power: How Clipboards Can Accelerate Learning

The other day my ten-year-old daughter Zoe had a great violin lesson. The setup was simple: there were two other kids, David and Lily, and one teacher. Partway through, the teacher handed out clipboards and explained the system: one kid would play, the other two would take notes and offer suggestions. Then they’d switch.

The atmosphere in the room changed. You know that bristly, electric moment when you can tell kids’ senses are activated, and they start paying attention on a deeper level? That happened.  The kids with the clipboards leaned in, observing keenly, scribbling their notes. The kid playing violin upped their game as well, knowing that they were being observed by their peers. It was a perfect storm of peer learning; everyone was reaching, learning from everyone else. (Here are the notes Zoe received from her classmates — they’re great.)

The method works because the learning process has two basic phases: Doing and Evaluating.  In the first phase, you’re absorbed with the performance itself — hitting the target. In the second, you pull back and examine, strategize.

These two phases require radically different mindsets. The “doing phase” is about concentration, absorption, focus, producing the intense heat of effort. The “evaluative phase” is about the opposite: pulling back, being cool and impersonal, spotting errors and fixing them.

The clipboard method works because it shifts kids into Phase Two learning, helping build the evaluative muscles they can apply to their own playing. It’s a method used by good teachers everywhere. One of my favorite examples is Kurt Vonnegut, who famously directed his students at the Iowa Writers Workshop to edit and evaluate some of the best short stories ever written. (Vonnegut’s assignment letter is a classic.)

Of course, a teacher can’t just hand the reins to the students and tell them to start coaching. The trick of doing this well is to impose some guardrails.

1) Keep it positive: Ask students to include compliments as well as how-to-improve comments.

2) Make sure they write down their comments, to promote precision and prevent vagueness, and also so they can be saved and referred to later.

The larger goal is to help nudge students toward the place where they are reflexively coaching themselves. To embrace the old paradox: the greatest teachers are the ones who are best at making themselves unneeded.