Month: April 2014

Talent ID 2.0: Stop Measuring Performance, and Start Testing Temperament

skill-scanDo you have an eye for identifying talent?

Can you watch people perform, talk to them, and then choose the person who’s destined to succeed in the long run?

Most of us instinctively answer “yes,” because it feels like we do.

In fact, science shows us that we’re mostly flattering ourselves. Because the truth is, long-term success is extraordinarily difficult to predict. Interviews are notoriously unreliable. Sports drafts, in particular, are expensive casinos.

The problem is that a person’s progress ultimately depends on factors that are extraordinarily difficult to measure — stuff like character, emotions, discipline, motivation. How do they respond to failure? What’s their vision for themselves? Can they persevere in the toughest situations?

We call this “the soft stuff” but in fact it’s not soft at all — it’s the hardest, most vital stuff there is.

The real question is, how do you measure it?

I came across a great answer developed by San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback before becoming a successful coach, has developed a simple way to measure the soft stuff of his quarterback and receiver prospects.

He plays catch with them.

That’s right — he plays catch, throwing a football back and forth. He does this at pro days, when prospective draftees try out for an audience of coaches and scouts. Every other NFL coach treats the event as a spectator sport, standing on the sidelines with clipboards and video cameras.  Harbaugh, on the other hand, uses it as an opportunity to engage.

Here’s the trick: with Harbaugh, it’s not an ordinary game of catch. Because after a few warmups, Harbaugh starts throwing harder, with more and more intensity. He makes the player run out for passes, making tough throws. He challenges the player, sees if they instinctively rise to the occasion. Some players back down, get uncomfortable. Others embrace it. From the Wall Street Journal:

Harbaugh first took a liking to [Colin] Kaepernick, who played in college at Nevada, when they played a supercharged game of catch at his pro day in Reno. Harbaugh threw hard; Kaepernick threw harder. Kaepernick, Harbaugh came to understand, had the drive he was looking for. Although he wasn’t considered a top prospect—San Francisco took him in the second round in 2011—Kaepernick has started in two straight NFC Championship games and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season.

I love Harbaugh’s litmus test because it measures two things at once: interpersonal chemistry and competitiveness. It operates at the gut level, where the most important factors reside.

In short, this is not talent ID — it’s temperament ID.

It reminds me of a master teacher I researched at the Bolshoi Ballet, who tested new students by teaching them a difficult and strange new move that none of them had ever done before. The teacher wasn’t interested in how well they performed so much as whether they embraced the process. Did they rise to the challenge? Did they struggle well? Like Harbaugh’s test, it was a gut-level litmus test of temperament and character.

The next question: are there ways to apply this idea to other disciplines? What’s the business version of Harbaugh method? What’s the music version?

Do you know of any similar temperament-ID tests that might be worth sharing?

3 Simple Things Great Teachers Do

cartoon-fruit-apple-08Quick: take a moment to think about the single greatest teacher you ever had. Someone who inspired you, engaged you, and maybe even changed the trajectory of your life.

Perhaps it’s a coach, maybe a high-school teacher, maybe a relative — it doesn’t matter.

Now picture their face.

(Got it?)

When you think about that person, which of the following comes to mind:

  • A) A life lesson that person taught you
  • B) A goal that that person helped you achieve
  • C) The way that person made you feel

If you’re like most people, it’s no contest.

The answer is (C).

The lesson of this little exercise is simple: the greatest teachers aren’t great just because they deliver information. They’re great because they create lasting connections. They’re not about the words they say; they’re about the way they make you feel.

I’m not talking about mere social skills. I’m talking about the ability David Foster Wallace was talking about when he wrote this:

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority…. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

Which leads us to a question: how do we find teachers like this, both for ourselves and our kids? How do we develop this quality in ourselves?

I thought it might be good to start a conversation by identifying a pattern I’ve seen in my research and the related science: three simple things that master teachers tend to do.

1) They are exceptionally good at small talk.  

Most master teachers don’t start sessions by teaching. They start by connecting. They want to chat, to engage, to figure out where you are, who you are, and what makes you tick.

A few years back, Dr. Mark Lepper of Stanford organized an extensive video-based study on the habits of the most successful math tutors, and discovered a curious fact: the best tutors started each session by engaging in idle chat. They talked about the weather, or school, or family — anything but math.

This seems nonsensical, until you consider the role small talk plays in building trust. We do not naturally give our trust to people; small talk is the doorway to trust and learning.

2) They ask LOTS of questions.  

We instinctively think of great teachers as repositories of knowledge, and deliverers of brilliant speeches and lectures. This is hugely wrong. From Socrates to John Wooden, great teaching is about asking the right questions, not about providing the answers.

Lepper’s study showed that the most effective tutors spent 80 to 90 percent of their time asking questions. They weren’t dictating the truth, they were doing something far more important: creating a platform where the learner can struggle toward  the answers.

Geno Auriemma, coach of UConn’s nine-time national championship women’s basketball team, is particularly good at doing this. From a recent profile:

Here’s the phrase Auriemma utters most often to his players at practice. “Figure it out!” he bawls.

If he says it once, he says it a hundred times. He halts practice every time a kid looks at him quizzically, and asks, “What do I do here?”

“Figure it out,” he insists. “What do you think you should do here? Why do you need me to tell you all the time what to do here?”

3) They have a good sense of humor.

Yes, there are a few ultra-serious teachers out there who rarely crack a smile (I’m looking at you, ballet teachers), but the vast majority of master teachers use humor the same way you might employ a Swiss Army knife: as a multi-purpose social tool. Humor can defuse tension, create common ground, and build bonds. In other words, being funny isn’t just funny — it’s also smart.

Which brings us to the next question: what other skills should we add to this list? What fundamental skills did your best teachers possess, and how did they make you better? I’m eager to see what you think.

How to Be More Creative (Step #1: Buy This Pixar Book)

© Disney • PixarI love the Singular Genius model of creativity. You know, the worldview that believes creativity comes from one-in-a-million individuals like Beethoven, Faulkner,  Edison, and Steve Jobs, who remake the world because they think different.

I love the Singular Genius model because it’s fantastically compelling and dramatic.

But the singular-genius model has a problem. Two problems, actually.

Problem #1: it’s inaccurate. None of the singular geniuses truly operated on their own. Beethoven had Haydn and Mozart, Steve Jobs had Wozniak and Gates; Faulkner had Conrad and Hemingway, Edison had Tesla, and so on. Singular geniuses stand tall because they stand on the shoulders of others (who stand on the shoulders of others, and so on).

Problem #2: it’s crippling. Under this model, you are either born a creative genius, or you’re not. Which makes for an entertaining story, but doesn’t do much for the rest of us who are seeking to be more creative in our lives.

Fortunately, there’s a better model, which might be called the Team model of creative genius. In this view, creativity does not reside within singular people, but rather within the social ecosystems that create and refine ideas.

The big insight is this: every creative breakthrough is built of ideas — thousands of ideas, working together in the same way that cells build a organism.  Creativity, then, is not about finding one brilliant individual, but rather about creating effective patterns of interaction between a bunch of smart individuals. About arranging the right people in the right way, and letting them get to work with as few barriers and as much focus as possible.

Nobody on the planet does this better than Pixar. The studio reinvented the movie business by switching from the singular genius model to the Team model, in which movies are made by tightly knit groups. As anyone who has seen Pixar movies can attest, it works. It’s not guesswork or good luck; it’s a system.

The good news: Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull has written a wonderful new book called Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Unlike most books written by founders, this isn’t some myth-heavy legacy project — it’s far closer to a blueprint.  Catmull takes us inside the Pixar ecosystem and shows how they build and refine excellence, in revelatory detail.

Among the takeaways:

  • 1) Embrace the suck stage.  All the best creative ideas are ungainly at the start. As Catmull says, every Pixar film, early in its development, has sucked. “That’s a blunt assessment, I know,” he writes, “but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” Embracing suckiness as part of the process — and not judging outcomes too early — is essential.
  • 2) Be quick to fix. Creative people need help, because they inevitably become lost in the process. They fuse emotionally with the project, and that fusion, while necessary, leads to confusion. The cure? Equip them with a braintrust: a cohesive group of colleagues who can identify problems with candor and trust.
  • 3) Be crazily persistent. Failure isn’t just an option: it’s the most effective pathway forward. To use those failures well, you have to be more than just mildly persistent. You get a good sense of this from an open letter written by Pixar animator Austin Madison.

“I, like many of you artists out there, constantly shift between two states. The first is white-hot, “in the zone” seat-of-the-pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode. This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice. This happens about 3% of the time. The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair…. In a word: PERSIST. PERSIST on telling your story. PERSIST on reaching your audience. PERSIST on staying true to your vision….”

You get the idea. This book is chock-full of advice like that. If you do creative work, you should read it, now. (For a  taste, here’s an excerpt.)