Month: April 2013

The Learnable Art of Group Chemistry

timthumbWhen I was in fifth grade in College Gate Elementary, Mrs Hershberger taught me that the best questions were big, obvious questions. So here are three:

  • In sports, why do underdogs win so often, and odds-on favorites fall on their faces?
  • In business, why are some meetings insanely fruitful, and others are torture?
  • In life, why do certain families have an easygoing vibe, while others behave as if they’re unwillingly strapped in a runaway mine car?

The answer is always the same: group chemistry. Which, for many years, was a synonym for “magic”: sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Who knows why?

That old view is changing, thanks to the new science of sociometrics. Sociometrics uses new technology to give us an x-ray of why certain groups create success, and others create frustration. It’s like Moneyball, with social skills. And the takeaways promise to be nearly as useful and powerful.

Here’s one example that I love: Dr. Marcial Losada studied 60 business teams and tried to determine if there was a set of factors that led to high performance. He analyzed their interactions, focusing on three ratios:

  • 1) positive comments vs. negative comments
  • 2) asking questions vs. advocating for their own position
  • 3) talking about others vs. talking about themselves

The data was stunning. It turned out that high-performing teams had positive/negative comment ratios three times higher than the medium-performing teams, and 15 times higher than the low-performing teams. High performers had question/advocacy ratios 1.6 times higher than the mediums, and 21 times higher than the lows, and other/self ratios 1.5 times higher than the mediums, and no fewer than 31 times higher than the lows.

In short, the chemistry of the high performers depended not on magic, but on social skills and group habits that can be learned. There’s a lot to dig in here, but I’m drawn to a few takeaways.

  • 1) First, make sure people feel safe. If people don’t feel secure and unthreatened, group chemistry has zero chance of happening. As researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson writes, “When we are in a state of relative safety and satiety, when there are few threats demanding intense, narrowed attention, positive emotions allow us to pursue our long-term interests.”
  • 2) Be positive, but not too positive. Losada has located a sweet spot in the range between three and 12 positive comments for every negative comment (above 12:1, performance nosedives). And, as he points out, the comments can’t be mindless rah-rah positivity — they need to connect to something real.
  • 3) Avoid self-absorption at all costs. The high-performing groups were notable for their balance — they made about one mention of themselves for every mention of someone else. The low-performing groups, on the other hand, barely mentioned anyone else at all. They were staring at their belly buttons.

Which leaves two possibilities: maybe those low-performing groups are full of clueless, hopelessly dysfunctional people. Or, on the other hand, maybe nobody ever taught them how this stuff works.

Hmmmm. I wonder what Mrs. Hershberger would say?

5 Surprising Habits of Super-Creatives

UnknownI am a hopeless sucker for stories about the daily habits of geniuses — you know, the ones that reveal Hemingway used only knife-sharpened, German-made #2 pencils, or that Balzac sucked down 50 cups of coffee a day. I love these stories partly for the voyeuristic buzz, and partly because they sometimes contain useful tips.

I just found the mother lode: Daily Rituals, a new book by Mason Currey, which details the habits of 161 notable scientists, playwrights, philosophers, and writers. (Here’s a sample, from Currey’s blog.) It’s a useful read, because it changes the way we think about creative types — specifically about how they organize their days.

We’re usually taught that creative geniuses live spontaneous, eccentric, anything-goes lives — you know, lots of turmoil, cigarettes, and questionable hats. And from a distance, this seems true enough.

But when you look closer, you find a different reality. Beneath that colorful Wes Anderson veneer, a factory is humming, driven by strong work habits. This marvelous book lets us see those habits clearly in the lives of creatives from Churchill to Plath to Faulkner to Ben Franklin to Darwin, and in a way that reveals useful truths about the conditions in which all our brains work best.

Rule #1: Build a simple regimen, and stick to it obsessively. The people in this book never wake up and chase whatever daily crisis comes along. They have an unbreakable routine, which they treat as almost holy. As Tolstoy put it, “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”

Rule #2: Embrace weird little rituals. It’s striking to see how many of these creatives start their workday with a compulsive ritual: whether it’s Stephen King arranging the paper-edges just so, or John Grisham feeling compelled to write the first word of the day at precisely 5:30 a.m. It’s utterly OC/D-type behavior, but it’s incredibly useful, because it gets things moving.

Rule #3: Work in two phases: 1) production and; 2) review. Many of the people in this book use mornings to produce their work, and set aside evenings to review, evaluate, and plan. Which makes perfect sense: these are two distinct skill-sets; putting time and space between them helps you be better at both.

Rule #4: Do your most important work right after you wake up. Almost to a person, the people in this book accomplish their best work first thing in the morning. This is no accident: our brains function best after sleep, when it’s spent hours churning on the problems of the previous day. While there are some night owls in the book, others testify to the fact that working at night can be deceptive: the work flows easily, but proves subpar in the clear light of morning. (Yep, they’re talking about you, Kerouac!)

Rule #5: Save socializing for later in the day. Socializing seems to serve as crucial creative fuel, and most people in this book did their visiting in the afternoon and evening. Which was easy if you lived a century ago, and a good deal tougher in our hyperconnected age. Some modern creatives solve it by getting up insanely early; others limit email and internet to afternoons (way easier said than done, in my experience).

Rule #6: Exercise. Sure, Currey’s list has its share of alcoholics and agoraphobes, but a surprising number make daily time for vigorous exercise. Whether it’s Dickens and his marathon hikes around London, or Hemingway and boxing, they prove what researchers are finding: regular workouts sharpen the brain.

When you survey these habits they seem to be surprisingly mundane — I mean, Exercise? Get up early? But in a deeper way perhaps that’s the most powerful and paradoxical idea of all: reliable, effective creativity is built on orderly foundations. To be truly creative, you have to be brave enough to be boring.

Clumsy is Good

When someone tries a new skill for the first time, we instinctively see the first few minutes as hugely important. We eagle-eye the first tries for promising signs — a natural grace, a knack. We immediately start sorting people into categories: those who have it, and those who don’t.

With that in mind, here is former world #1 player Dinara Safina, when she was three (watch her adorable wipeout at the 15-second mark).

Here is the first web page Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg built, when he was fifteen.


And here is a time lapse of a new skier’s progression through his first two years, as filmed by his dad, who happens to be a reader of this blog.

The pattern is always the same, because our instincts are dead wrong. Early clumsiness is not a verdict: it’s an essential ingredient.  Because the key to developing talent isn’t “identifying” it; it’s creating safe spaces where this kind of happy clumsiness can be nurtured, with time and repetition, into grace and skill.

When’s the Most Important Time to Practice? (Not When You Think.)


Question: When’s the most important time to practice?

At first glance, the answer is easy: just before the big game or performance. After all, that’s when we can dial in our skills, tune up, fully prepare.

Second question: Then why do so many top performers do just the opposite? Why do they have their most intense and productive practice just after their performance?

Pro golfers are perhaps most well-known for using this method: after a competitive round, many make a beeline for the driving range. But entertainers do it, too: Beyonce has a habit of reviewing each night’s performance on DVD after the show, in order to spot things she needs to work on. Legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks was known for holding practice sessions after games as well. Same with a number of surgeons I’ve researched. I know a politician who, after going on television, immediately watches a tape of the interview and tries to improve his delivery.

They’re all doing the same thing, and it works for two simple reasons:

  • 1) Clarity: There’s no better time for knowing what works and what doesn’t than the first hour after a performance or game, when it’s still vivid in your memory. You can feel what you did right, and what you need to work on.
  • 2) Emotional content: games and performances hinge on the skill of navigating emotions and pressure. Postgame practice lets you relive pressurized situations with the kind of realism you can never match in cold practice.

As Nicklaus said, “I always achieve my most productive practice after an actual round. Then, the mistakes are fresh in my mind and I can go to the practice tee and work specifically on those mistakes.”

For most of us, the main barrier to using this technique is force of habit. After games and performances, we take a relieved breath and shift into relaxation mode. That’s not a bad thing. But carving out a few minutes to do a clear-eyed review — what exactly worked, and what exactly didn’t? —  is better.


I want to share two pieces of writing that capture what so many of us are feeling today.

“The marathon is symbolism for overcoming and facing challenges,” [marathoner Shalane Flanagan] said. “This will not stop anyone. If anything, it will inspire people to persevere and show that we’re better than that.”

Talking to her, I had another sensory memory of the one and only other time I wrote about the regular people on the course of a major marathon. It was in November 2001, when I stood at the finish in New York City and watched runners stream across. Seeing them run for joy, rather than in mortal fear as they’d done just two months before, and seeing people bow their heads in thanks after wrapping themselves in foil blankets, deeply thankful not for the time they’d logged, but simply for being alive, was a profound experience.

I am stricken by the reversal of that image here in Boston, the fact that people were running away from something terrible seconds after running toward something good. But I also know that will turn again.

Amateur marathoners push themselves for a whole host of reasons. To test their physical and psychological limits. To raise money for worthy causes. To compete. The next time this — or any — marathon is run anywhere in the world, they will run for yet another. To show that the power of communal achievement can be beaten on one day, but not on most days and never indefinitely. And that is what makes sense on a senseless day.

Bonnie D. Ford,

And this:

Boston. Fucking horrible. 

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”

But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths. 

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness. 

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago. 

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

Why You Should Mimic More

We normally think of mimicry as a party trick. Which is is — but it’s also something more.

For an example, check out this skit from last week’s Saturday Night Live. It’s Bruno Mars doing dead-on impressions of Green Day, Justin Bieber, Steven Tyler, Louis Armstrong, and Michael Jackson (to save time, fast forward to 4:55 for the MJ).

Apparently Mars has been doing these impressions for years, starting with Elvis when he was a little kid. Think of what the repetitions of these imitations have done for Mars’s vocal technique, his range, and his ability to create certain vocal effects. Thanks to mimicry, he has a whole menu of sounds and moves to choose from and use.

I can testify that writers do this too. At various times in my notebooks I’ve mimicked Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Frank DeFord, Gary Smith, and Kurt Vonnegut, and I know many others who did the same.

Here’s Novak Djokovic mimicking various opponents (his Rafa and Federer are especially good).

We instinctively want talent to be utterly original and one-of-a-kind. But the truth is, developing skill at mimicry opens a useful short-cut, because it allows you to test out proven techniques and add them to your repertoire. It also separates you from your ego, so you can make more reaches and take more risks.

The moral? Thou Shalt Steal, Mimic, Copy, Imitate, and Always Encourage Others to Do So.

How to Spot a Master Teacher: A Field Guide

homeYou should read this story. It’s called “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” and it’s by Jeremy Denk, who happens to be a world-class pianist, but those details don’t really matter.

What matters is that his story shines a bright, useful light into the role of the master teacher. Denk looks back over his lifetime and gives us what amounts to a greatest-hits album of insights that apply to all of us. (Bonus: here’s a great video of Denk talking about the story.)

For instance, here’s Denk quoting Mr. Leland, one of his first teachers:

“Practicing a passage is not just repetition but really concentrating and burning every detail into your nervous system.”

Later, Mr. Leland wrote this in Denk’s practice notebook:

“Welcome to the summer during which you will learn to hate me. We are going to do precision drills. Exercises in perfection of fingering, notes, and rhythm…. every slip means back to the beginning.”  That was the summer the music died [Denk writes]. Long, tedious lessons solely on scales, arpeggios, repeated notes, chords. But this misery proved a success.

For me, the best parts were the descriptions of Denk’s unfolding relationships with his teachers. He remembers them with a novelist’s eye, picking out the key attributes, the practical and emotional tools they used to help Denk grow his talent.

In fact, Denk’s teachers turn out to be a beautiful set of case studies for analyzing what qualities master teachers tend to possess. I’ll list a few here:

  • 1) Master teachers love detail. They worship precision. They relish the small, careful, everyday move.
  • 2) They devise spectacularly repetitive exercises to help develop that detail — and make those exercises seem not just worthwhile, but magical. As Denk writes, “Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that  removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address.”
  • 3) They spend 90 percent of their time directing students toward what is plainly obvious. They spend the other 10 percent igniting imagination as to what is possible.
  •  4) They walk a thin line between challenging and supporting. They destroy complacency without destroying confidence. This is tricky territory, and requires empathy and understanding on both sides — particularly when it comes to understanding the moment when it’s time to move on.
  • 5) They do not teach lessons; they teach how to work. As Denk writes, they “ennoble the art of practice.”  (Isn’t that a fantastic phrase?)

I also like how Denk shows what the master teachers are not; namely infallible superheroes. Master teachers are master teachers because they’re good learners, constantly reaching to build the ultimate skill: constructing the talents of others.

A Quick Glimpse into the Future of Learning

This clip got sent around last week among some top Olympic coaches, and quickly went viral in that community. As smart coaches do, they immediately started talking about how they might use this technology as a learning tool. Click it and you’ll see why.

At first impression, it just looks like a super-cool visual effect: guys using a homemade array of 15 cameras to achieve the famed “bullet view” from the Matrix movies. (As Keanu would say, Whooaaaa.)

Now imagine that, instead of biker-dudes doing flips, you used the array to capture:

  • A great guitarist navigating a Hendrix solo — showing the fingers, the wrist angle, the touch of each individual string
  • A downhill skier executing a series of slalom turns — zoomed in on the knee angle, the weight shift, the tilt of the ankle
  • A volleyball player executing variations of each basic move: bump, set, spike
  • An elementary-school teacher managing a classroom, handling interruptions, focusing attention
  • A salesperson making a pitch, using body language and expression to create engagement

We are all visual learners. Giving people the opportunity to stare at top performers in HD slow-mo, over and over, is exactly like handing them a blueprint.

The larger point: this kind of technology is only going to get cheaper and more available. Which means the deeper question is this: how are you going to use this stuff?

Also: the future is going to be really fun.

(Big thanks to John Kessel and Peter Vint for sharing.)

11 Rules for Better Writing

The other day I was asked to take part in a MOOC.  If you haven’t heard the term yet, you will soon. MOOCs  — Massive Online Open Courses — are speedily revolutionizing higher education, because they have the capability to deliver top-level teaching via the web to thousands of people, for free.

Anyway, this particular MOOC, taught by Professor Denise Comer of Duke University, is entitled English Composition I: Achieving Expertise. Seventy thousand people signed up, from Mongolia to Massachusetts, wanting to develop their skills. All of which got me thinking about writing, which might be the world’s most misunderstood talent.

Here’s the basic problem: people think that writing is this:


When in reality, it’s more like this: channel-curation-featured-large

This happens to be Proust, but it could be Orwell or Austen or Whitman or Hemingway, who wrote no fewer than 47 different endings for A Farewell to Arms. Point is, writing isn’t wizardry, and good writers are not superhuman. Building a story is not magic. It’s more like building a piece of furniture: you need quality wood, basic design skills, and lots of sandpaper.

So with that in mind, I’d like to offer the following carpenter’s rules that I’ve developed over the years. Some have to do with structure, others with practice, and all of them are 100 percent unscientific.

  • 1) Know the difference between a topic and a story, which is this: A topic sits still, and a story moves. A topic is an answer, while a story asks a question that connects to the reader’s heart and mind. For example, I got fired from my job yesterday is a topic. I got fired from my job yesterday and this morning I began planning my revenge — that is a story.
  • 2) Don’t fly solo. Find the best writers who’ve written in this vein and study them like a detective. Figure out how they attacked the problem. They are your coaches.
  • 3) Figure out what your subjects/characters want — what they really, truly, deeply want — put it up top, and and let that question — will they get it? —  fuel your narrative.
  • 4) Inside the narrative, obstacles are your friend. The bigger the obstacle, the better the story.
  • 5) Seek out opposites. For example, if you were describing something rough and crude, you should use images of elegance and refinement (i.e. “the abandoned Chevrolet was a lacework of rust”). Or, if a 330-pound defensive lineman enters a room, focus on how delicately and balletically he walks. Sentences are like batteries: opposites create energy.
  • 6) Outline like crazy, and revise those outlines constantly. I use two kinds of outlines: big and small. The big outline is for the entire narrative arc; the smaller outline is for each chapter. Like construction blueprints, outlines sound dull, but in fact are the opposite: the place where the most important creative moves happen (Check  J.K. Rowling’s outline for chapters 13-24 of Order of the Phoenix.)
  • 7) Figure on a 10:1 efficiency ratio — that is, 10 pages of rough drafts and notes for every one page of quality writing. Which you’ll have to revise over and over again, of course.
  • 8) Read like a thief. Underline good stuff, and read it over and over again until you figure out how they did that. When you find a passage, image, or description you love, write it down on a card and keep all those cards in one place.
  • 9) Ignore small criticism.
  • 10) Listen intently to big criticism. If someone doesn’t “get” your writing, it’s not their fault. It’s yours.
  • 11) If you get stuck, get busy. Revisit outlines. Seek out new material. Keep plugging until something clicks. “Imagination” is overrated; creativity comes from making fresh connections.

A couple weeks, along with several hundred Ohio middle schoolers, I got to attend a writing competition called Power of the Pen. It works like this: students receive writing prompts, then have 40 minutes to write a piece, which is then judged. There were four rounds, and it felt like the NCAA tournament, partly because the kids write really well, and partly because there’s a team vibe, but mostly because the kids are not trying to be artists. They’re just building lots of stories, over and over, in a way that reveals the real nature of writing. It’s not an art; it’s a sport.