Month: July 2013

To Improve Faster, Think Like a Startup

Whenever we take on a new project, our first instinct is to behave like a student — to seek out the best teachers, to immerse ourselves in information.

This instinct makes perfect sense. But it might be the worst thing you can do.

Meet Karen Cheng, a California woman who spent the past year transforming herself from an awkward beginner to a remarkably skilled dancer.  Click this video (2.7 million views and counting) to see a cool time-lapse version of her improvement.

Cheng’s real accomplishment, however, is giving us a useful blueprint for changing the way we think about practice. She didn’t focus on receiving knowedge; instead she focused on action — specifically on constructing a lean, focused, entrepreneurial plan to construct her skill. (You can read more here.) Her plan has four basic principles:

1) Set small process-oriented goals, not big performance goals. Instead of aiming at grand achievement (being chosen for a dance troupe, for instance), Cheng’s initial goal was modest: to practice for at least five minutes each day. The allowed her to keep expectations low and avoid disappointment. As she improved, she increased the goal to two hours per day. She controlled the goals, instead of being controlled by them.

2) Be opportunistic. Rather than set aside a prescribed time to practice, Cheng constantly smuggled moments of practice into her everyday life. As she writes:

Here’s my secret: I practiced everywhere. At bus stops. In line at the grocery store. At work — using the mouse with my right hand and practicing drills with my left hand. You don’t have to train hardcore for years to become a dancer. But you must be willing to practice and you better be hungry.

3) Be your own coach. Keep a journal, use videotape, find ways to be organized about evaluating and strategizing your strengths and weaknesses. At every turn, Cheng sought out ways to take honest, realistic assessments and use them as platforms for learning.

4) Connect to people. Find good teachers on YouTube and in person; seek out places to watch good performers and learn from them. Here’s she plays the role of a student, but it’s anything but passive. She’s active, engaged, and targeted. She doesn’t worship at the altar of a single teacher’s wisdom; instead she hunts and gathers useful stuff she can apply.

The real payoff, however, is enjoyment. Check out the expression on Cheng’s face as she improves (especially between days 30 and 86). She’s intense but smiling, radiating hard-won satisfaction. In other words, she’s exactly where a good startup wants to be: utterly lost in the challenge, in control, and loving it. 

What’s Your LQ (Learning Quotient)?

un-label-lq-etiketten-lq-etiketten-limited-quantity-6201In sports, business, and education these days, you can’t go a hot minute without hearing talk of “character” and “work ethic.” In an increasingly quantified world, we use these terms as a catch-all to explain unexpected patterns of success and failure.

For instance, whenever an underrated person becomes a star, you will hear about how they were propelled by their resilient character and gritty work ethic. When a “can’t-miss” superstar falls on their face? Exact same story in reverse.

I think most of us would agree that character and work ethic clearly matter, and matter hugely. But the real question is: what do those terms really mean?  More important, is it possible to translate them into a measurable, identifiable skill set?

As it happens, we get a beautiful case study of this right now in the baseball world in the form of Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt. You might not have heard the name, but you already know the story: completely overlooked as a young player, didn’t start until his junior year of high school, drafted in 49th round, attended tiny college — and then (insert inspiring music here) worked incredibly hard, kept improving and improving and really improving, and is now one of the league’s brightest young players.

Why? That’s where it gets interesting. Because “character” and “work ethic” do not adequately describe what has propelled Goldschmidt. Instead, it’s about his remarkable ability to learn (see this story for more). Specifically, his willingness to take ownership of an intentional daily process in which he attacks his weaknesses and builds his strengths.

To the hitting coach, he would ask: How do I become a consistent major league hitter? To the infield coach: How do I become a Gold Glove first baseman? To the strength coach: How do I change my body to get in the best shape possible? Zinter said he trusted the coaches implicitly.

“A lot of kids have so much pride that they want to show the coaches and the front office that they know what they’re doing, and they don’t need the help,” Zinter said. “They don’t absorb the information because they want us to think they know it already. Goldy didn’t have an ego. He didn’t have that illusion of knowledge. He’s O.K. with wanting to learn.”

“He’s done such a great job of listening to everything and channeling how it works for him,” said Aaron Hill, a veteran second baseman. “He asks guys everything — about ground balls, footwork, counts, swings, setups, where to sit in the box, what I’m doing. You name it, he’s asking the questions.”

The picture that emerges is not of vague qualities, but rather of a highly specific set of traits — a combination of inquisitiveness, growth mindset, humility, adaptiveness, and relentlessness.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest an idea called Learning Quotient. The idea is that our ability to learn is a measurable skill, just like IQ.

Here’s how it might work: rate yourself from 0 to 5 on the following questions according to the usual scale: 0 for strongly disagree; 5 for strongly agree.

  • 1. You work on your skills for an hour or more every day
  • 2. You are focused on process, not the immediate outcomes
  • 3. You have strong relationships with mentors/coaches, and use them as models and guidance
  • 4. You are keenly aware of how much you do not know, and the gap between your present abilities and your longterm goals
  • 5. You can accurately and precisely describe the skills you want to build
  • 6. You think about improving your skills all the time
  • 7. You approach your daily work with enthusiasm
  • 8. You are balanced between building with repetition and seeking innovations
  • 9. You are comfortable going outside of your comfort zone
  • 10. You are constantly adapting and refining your learning process

By this yardstick, a perfect LQ would be 50: the heavenly realm of John Wooden and Goldschmidt. Below 15 and you’re either comatose or Allen Iverson (an immense talent who famously didn’t believe in practice). I suspect most of us would fall in the 25-30 range or so, which, among other things, speaks to the inherent challenges of creating a daily routine and sticking to it.

What I like about the idea of LQ, however, is that it is not a fixed quality. It can be increased and grown, and profoundly affected by environment and group culture.

The real question is, what do you think? Could LQ be used to scout or develop talent? And, if so, what other questions should be added to the list?

PS – The marvelous Annie Murphy Paul, author of the forthcoming book Brilliant, has more on LQ here