Month: May 2013

The Big Bet

icon-tutorial-2nd-series-52About a week from now, I will make a phone call to London and place a large bet. In fact this bet will be, by far, the biggest bet I’ve ever placed — around $1,500.

There are only three rules: 1) I have to bet it all; 2) I can bet on any sport; 3) I’m not allowed to lose. (This third rule was established by my wife Jen, and also by the existence of our son’s college tuition bills.)

So the question is, what should I bet on?

Quick backstory: a few months ago a book I co-wrote was fortunate enough to win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, which is sponsored by the British bookmaker of the same name. As part of the prize, I got a free voucher allowing me to place this bet.

At first, I was tempted to aim for a longshot. Like picking the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series (approximate odds: 1 bazillion to 1). Or picking the Cleveland Browns to win the Super Bowl. Or, come to think of it, any team from Cleveland to win anything.

Then, urged by my ever-wise wife, I started to think more conservatively. I started to look for a team or person whose talents I could trust with this bet. It wasn’t easy.

Because if I’ve learned anything over the past years it’s that success at the highest level — in sports, business, music — has a significant component of randomness to it. You can do everything exactly right — train, coach, prepare — but chance and chaos will have their say. Favorites collapse all the time. Underdogs win all the time. Refs make terrible calls. Freaky injuries happen. The ball bounces in strange directions. How do you beat that? It seemed hopeless.

Then I read this article. And saw this video.

They tell the story of how LeBron James, basketball’s best player, set out to improve his game. How, in a move straight out of Moneyball, James ruthlessly analyzed his weaknesses and set out to build a new skill set that would make him a more efficient teammate. How he hired a master coach and made himself a humble apprentice, showing up early for each training session, videotaping and studying, in order to learn a new set of scoring moves. How James, in short, turned himself into a master student.

Here’s James talking about the process:

“The biggest thing isn’t how much you work on things, it’s ‘Can you work on something, then implement it into a game situation?'” James says. “Can you bring what you’ve worked on so much and put it out on the floor with the finished product? I was happy that I was able to do that and make that transformation.”

James emerged from that summer transformed. “When he returned after the lockout, he was a totally different player,” [Coach Eric] Spoelstra says. “It was as if he downloaded a program with all of Olajuwon’s and Ewing’s post-up moves. I don’t know if I’ve seen a player improve that much in a specific area in one off season

So now I’m leaning toward betting on James and the Heat to win the NBA championship next month. In the larger sense, I wouldn’t really be betting on James — I’d be betting on the power of his process, his approach, his craftsmanship. I’d be betting that, in sports as in everything else, the smartest learner wins.

But before I make that phone call and place that bet, I want to ask: do you think this is the right move? Is there anything I’m missing here?

What would you bet on?

UPDATE — Thanks to all your wise advice, I did not bet on the Miami Heat to win the NBA finals — and am now looking at upcoming Wimbledon. Roger Federer couldn’t possibly lose a first-round match, right??

The Vastly Underrated Importance of Goofy Little Games

I love this video because it’s a time machine to a lost age of childhood. Here, we see hockey superstars Sidney Crosby and Max Talbot travel to the tiny Crosby family basement in Nova Scotia to do what Sidney spent much of his young life doing: shoot pucks into the Crosby family dryer. (Spoiler alert: Crosby is still pretty good.)

Watching this, readers of a certain age might be transported back to their own basements, and the little games played there. At my house, the favorite game involved roller skates, badminton racquets, and high-speed collisions with the radiator covers (which strongly resembled the Crosby dryer).

It turns out this sort of thing is a pattern. Golfer Rory McIlroy learned to play golf by chipping balls into the family washing machine. Hall of Fame ballplayer Willie Mays practiced hitting by swinging at bottle caps with a broomstick. Cricketer Donald Bradman practiced his batting by bouncing a golf ball off a water tank and hitting the rebound. They aren’t alone. Look deeply into the biography of any top athlete, musician, or writer, and you’ll eventually find a kid in a basement, enraptured by some goofy little game they invented.

So here’s my question: In a world where so much of youth life is highly organized and regimented, do these goofy little games still happen? Do they matter?

I think they do matter. Not just because they’re fun, but also because they’re the crucial learning space where skills are built and refined. Four reasons why goofy little games are important:

  • More engagement: the kid owns the space and sets the rules. Instead of being passive reactors, they are coach, player, and crowd all in one.
  • More focused repetition: kids are not limited by official practice hours or the strategies of a coach. Want to play? Play. Want to obsessively focus on a single move? Do it.
  • Improved creativity: conventional practice is great for fundamentals, but creativity is not built like that. It’s built by messing around: experimenting, trying stuff that might seem crazy in normal settings (for a nice example of this, check out Crosby’s eyes-closed shot to win the game at the 2:20 mark).

The deeper question is, in today’s hyper-organized world, how do you encourage goofy little games? How do you create the sort of environments where a kid can build skills on their own, even if it means absolutely destroying the family dryer?

I’d love to hear any ideas you might have.

(Big thanks to Trevor Parent of the University of Maine at Presque Isle for sharing the video.)

The Most Important Moment of Practice

keystoneQuestion: What’s the most important part of a practice session?

  • A) Start
  • B) Finish
  • C) Middle

Before you answer, consider the following story:

A few years ago, students at New Dorp School of Staten Island, NY, were struggling. Test scores were down, dropouts were up. School leaders tried a variety of methods — new technology, new teachers, new programs, you name it. Nothing worked.

Then, in 2008, New Dorp’s leaders came to a realization: students were not failing because they lacked intelligence. They were failing because they lacked the ability to construct arguments, build ideas, and distinguish essential information from nonessential information.

So New Dorp embarked on a bold experiment — they targeted these skills by building the school curriculum around analytic writing, using a proven technique called the Hochman Program. As Peg Tyre reports in The Atlantic:

The Hochman Program would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children…are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.  

When speaking, [students] were required to use specific prompts outlined on a poster at the front of each class.

  • “I agree/disagree with ___ because …”
  • “I have a different opinion …”
  • “I have something to add …”
  • “Can you explain your answer?”

It worked incredibly well. The kids at New Dorp not only got better at writing, they got better at every subject, to the point that New Dorp is now a model for what some are calling the Writing Revolution. (Read Peg’s story here.)

Here’s why: analytic writing is a keystone skill. It is the foundation on which other skills can be built — literally, inside the brain. Improving at analytic writing allowed the New Dorp students to improve at math, science, and social studies because it supports those skills in the same way that a keystone supports a foundation.

Every talent has its keystone skills. Think of a baseball hitter’s ability to identify the speed and location of a pitch. Or a violinist’s ability to precisely match pitch. Or a salesperson’s ability to connect quickly on an emotional level. Or a soccer player’s ability to swiftly “read” a game.

All of these are keystone skills on which larger skills are built. They are exponentially more important to performance than any other skill. After all, it doesn’t matter how beautiful a baseball swing you have, if you can’t tell where the ball is located. It doesn’t matter how great a salesperson you are, if you can’t connect to people.

The strange thing is, keystone skills are easily overlooked and under-practiced. Most of us approach performance the same way New Dorp did in the early days — we try lots of things, in random order, and hope we get better

Instead of merely hoping, you should be highly strategic about planning practice sessions around keystone skills. Spend time analyzing the skill you want to build. What’s the single most important element? What is the move on which all your other moves depend? Then structure your practice around the keystone.

To return to our original question: What’s the most important part of a practice session?

The answer is D) None of the above.

Because the most important time of a practice session is before it begins, when you take time to figure out the answer to a simple question: what’s your keystone skill?

The Little Team

Once upon a time, there was a soccer team. They were very small, and very young, and not very skilled. All the other teams were bigger and faster, and scored more goals.

A lot more goals.

Two hundred and seventy-one goals in one season, to be precise.

But here’s the mysterious and wonderful thing: the little team still had fun. They loved playing. They loved the game, and each other.

Meet the kids and coaches of Margatania FC, the team from Spain that provides us a recipe for healthy youth sports:

  • 1) mellow, quiet, no-pressure parents
  • 2) nurturing coaches
  • 3) fun-focused culture
  • 4) long-term perspective

As one player jubilantly says, “We’ll score goals when we grow old!”

Related fact: Spain also produces some of the world’s greatest soccer talent. Do you think that’s a coincidence?

(Big thanks to the great John Kessel for sharing the link.)

How to Be Lazy: 30 Rules for High-Performance Loafing

Sleeping-on-the-grass1My friend John likes to wear pajama pants. I’m not talking just around his house, or in the morning. I’m talking all day long. At the grocery store. Driving carpool. I once saw him downhill skiing in pajama pants. What’s more, John is absolutely incredulous that the rest of us don’t do likewise.

“Why not?” he says. “They’re comfortable!”

Here’s the surprising thing: historically speaking, John is in good company. As Tom Hodgkinson’s wonderful book How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto demonstrates, many of history’s greatest achievers spent huge amounts of time in their actual or metaphorical pajama pants, taking long walks, daydreaming, day-drinking, and living lives of organized relaxation that we, in our hyper-busy, overconnected age, can barely imagine.

For example, check out Charles Darwin’s daily routine:

  • 7-8: short walk, breakfast
  • 8-9:30: work at desk
  • 9:30-10:30: read family letters, listen to wife Emma read novels aloud
  • 10:30-noon: work at desk; end workday by noon
  • 12-3: answer correspondence
  • 3-5:30: nap, cigarette, listen to Emma read aloud
  • 5:30-7: idleness, rest, novel-reading, cigarette
  • 7-8: family dinner
  • 8-10: two games of backgammon, more reading, relaxing on sofa while listening to Emma play piano, bedtime

The loafing program — or, to be more accurate, alternating intense efforts with spells of pure loafing — worked out pretty well, and not just for Darwin. After all, if it weren’t for daydreaming, we might not have Einstein’s theory of relativity, Mendeleyev’s periodic table, or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

So here’s a theory: Loafing is not a vice or a weakness, but an important and often-overlooked skill. High-quality loafing only looks like wasting time; in fact, it’s the opposite. Good loafing is restorative, and crucial to creativity and strategic thinking. It’s the time for reloading emotional fuel tanks, hatching plans, and making serendipitous connections. Bad loafing, on the other hand, leaves you more tired and distracted than before (I’m talking about you, Internet).

With that in mind, I’d like to offer the following rules for high-performance loafing, cobbled together from Hodgkinson and Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, as well as the suggestions of my pajama-fond friends and family.

1. Unplug from technology.

2. Take a long, slow walk outside.

4. Stare at an object you’ve never really considered before. The tree outside your window. A pencil. A leaf. A beetle. The smaller the better.

5. Listen to a favorite book read aloud

6. Take a long drive somewhere you’ve never been before

7. Get a massage

8. Gain altitude: go to the uppermost floors of a tall building, or atop the nearest hill

9. Take a train ride

10. Take a long nap (following the proper rules, of course)

11. Go out in the yard with your favorite book and a big glass of lemonade (from my daughter)

12. Spend all day in a robe or pajamas

13. Make tea

14. Avoid shopping, and shopping malls, and people who are shopping

15. Cook a grilled cheese

16. Go to the nearest body of water — ocean, river, pond — and gaze at it

17. Check Twitter constantly

18. Just kidding; ignore previous rule

19. Drink wine with lunch

20. Listen to a favorite album straight through

21. Go barefoot

22. Go to a museum (not barefoot), find one great painting, and stare at it

23: Go to nearest park

24: Feed the birds, the fish, or the squirrels

25. Take your pet for a long, slow walk (in 1830s Paris, it was considered fashionable to put a tortoise on a leash, and walk very slowly through the city.)

26. Eat an orange

27. Watch the sun go down

28. Eat dinner by candlelight

29. Play a card or board game

30. Lay on grass; look at stars

I asked my 17-year-old son if he had any ideas to add, and he said, “I’d tell you, but I’m way too relaxed.”

So I’ll ask you guys instead: What works for you? What else needs to be on this list?

Are These Parents Terrible or Brilliant?

I have to confess, I’ve watched this video five times and I’m still not sure what to think of it.

On one hand: these parents are completely nuts. Little dude is only seven months old! Why not wait until he’s shown an interest? Or at least until he can, you know, walk?

On the other: presuming it’s safe (a maybe), how are these parents any different from those who firmly nudge their toddlers into golf, chess, violin, etc? It’s not about the kid’s desires, because it rarely is — it’s all about the parents.

So is this a prime example of terrible modern parenting? Or is it just a slightly more edgy version of the kind of innovative parenting that produces prodigies?

Are they awful? Or just smart?

What do you guys think?

PS – Here’s what my daughter Katie (15) says: “It’s better to put little kids into fun, slightly risky situations (if it’s safe, of course!) rather than to shelter and overprotect them.”

Want to Learn Faster? Subtract the Teacher

I love this girl.

She’s six years old, her name is Dachiya Atkinson, and she can absolutely destroy a dance floor.

What I like even more is the space in which she’s developed her talent — which, as it happens, is the opposite of the way we teach most skills.

Let me explain. When it comes to teaching, our instinct often leads us to add a bunch of stuff. Like coaches. Practice drills. Words of advice. Trophies and ribbons. As parents and teachers, we have an irresistible urge to help, to get involved.

But that’s not how Dachiya built her skills. She did it using three simple elements:

  • 1) Skilled performers to stare at
  • 2) Sense of fun
  • 3) Intense, repeatable competition

We see the same ingredients built into other talent-development spaces, whether it’s kids memorizing the digits of pi or a top soccer team practicing or a Little League team that won a championship while playing without a coach.

They succeed because they are finding a way to avoid the complication and static and to tap into the underrated power of clarity, competition, and ownership. They’re finding a way do the toughest thing: to be simple.

If you want to create a learning space, ask yourself these three questions:

  • What’s the simplest, most fun game that can be played?
  • How can you “fill the windshields” of the kids with top performers so they can learn directly, via mimicry?
  • How can you remove coaches and teachers from the space, and give it completely to the learners?

If you want to share any stories or ideas for achieving this, I’d love to hear them.