Month: May 2014

Your Official, Unapproved Summer Reading List

Summer is designed to change you. The sun hovers in the sky for pointless, fabulous hours. The scaffold of daily life gets knocked sideways. You travel to far-off and exotic places, which are often in your own backyard. And sometimes you read books.

With that in mind, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions for books that changed the way I see things. Recommended to be enjoyed with a gin and tonic, and a hammock.

549105954Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Reading Susan Cain’s book is like being handed a pair of X-ray glasses with which you can see everyone you know — including yourself — in a new and vivid light. It’s especially good on the often-overlooked benefits of introversion when it comes to creativity, leadership, and communication, and on the powerful things that happen when introverts teach themselves to be strategically extroverted.

adam-grant-give-and-takeGive and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, by Adam Grant – Have you ever had a book where you dog-ear so many pages that it begins to be far more convenient to locate a page that is not dog-eared? This is one of those books chiefly because Adam Grant 1) is one helluva writer, teacher, and researcher; 2) provides a genuinely revolutionary way to look at cooperation, generosity, and human nature. His thesis is that acts of giving are the most powerfully underrated force on the planet. Even better: when you reflect on it, you’ll see that he’s absolutely right.

UnknownSocial Physics: The Lessons from a New Science, by Alex Pentland – One of the most fulfilling moments in life is those rare moments when we are part of a group that possesses that elusive, magical quality known as “good chemistry.” We usually think of those qualities as intangibles, but Sandy Pentland’s new book makes them real, and, more important, measurable. Pentland, who directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, uses a series of new tools to show, among other things, how good groups function like beehives, how strangers can be brought together to solve massively complex problems, and how idea flow is the most important factor governing group performance.

9781594204548_p0_v1_s260x420Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, by Adam Alter. The idea that our brains unconsciously react to tiny signals is not new. But Alter gives us a blueprint for the way it works. For example, we behave more virtuously when we are watched — even by a photograph of eyes. Athletes are more likely to win when they wear red, perhaps because it mimics the kinds of dominance displays in our evolutionary past. The lesson: Seemingly tiny signals can have a massive impact on us, and dialing into that fact is the first step toward gaining a measure of control over them.

{A70B865E-ACAF-4825-A21F-A8DF02DE123D}Img100The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow — Okay, a 65-year-old novel might seem out of place on this list, but if the modern twitter-ized world has taught us anything, it’s that life can be lived at various levels. You can either skim the surface, or you can dive in and explore the depths. If you want to dive deep, there is no better guide than Bellow and his novel about an ambitious Chicago kid who, as the famous first paragraph declares, “will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent.”

Here’s Bellow on Augie’s grandma:

With the [cigarette] holder in her dark little gums between which all her guile, malice, and command issued, she had all her best inspirations of strategy. She was as wrinkled as an old paper bag, and autocrat, hard-shelled and jesuetical, a pouncy old hawk of a Bolshevik, her small ribboned gray feet immobile on the shoekit…. She was impossible to satisfy.

Here’s his description of a train ride to Chicago:

I headed downtown right away. It was still early in the evening, glittering with electric, with ice; and trembling in the factories, those nearly all windows, over the prairies that had returned over demolitions with winter grass pricking the snow and thrashed and frozen together into beards by the wind. The cold simmer of the lake also, blue; the steady skating of rails too, down to the dark.”

It’s good stuff, and a good way to slow down and see what’s really happening in life. After all, isn’t that what summer is for?

If you have any suggestions for summer reading, I’d love to hear them.

10 Ways to Spot Great Teachers (and Avoid Crummy Ones)

Do this
Do this
Not this
Not this

Truly bad teaching is pretty easy to spot, because learners don’t improve, and don’t feel connected.

Truly great teaching is pretty easy to spot, because learners improve rapidly and feel connected.

But perhaps the hardest to spot is a particularly nefarious type of teaching called pseudoteaching. It looks and feels like good teaching, but in fact it’s a mirage.

The term comes from teacher and blogger Frank Noschese, who writes about pseudoteaching here and here. What I like best is how open Noschese is; how he reveals that we are all guilty of it sometimes. As he writes:

Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.

I can definitely relate. A few years ago in Chicago, I taught a class in magazine writing and also coached Little League. In both I made the exact same mistake: I thought talking well was the same as teaching. I rarely connected to individuals, preferred talking to the big group. I approached teaching as if it were an eloquence contest: the more compellingly I talked, the better I thought I was doing. I didn’t realize that teaching is about interaction, not just action. I didn’t realize that good teaching happens in the space between the teacher and the learner.

With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to offer the following field guide:

10 WAYS TO SPOT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PSEUDOTEACHING (PT) AND REAL TEACHING (RT) 

  • 1) PT delivers long, entertaining, inspiring lectures; RT designs short, intensive, learner-driven sessions
  • 2) PT is eloquent and expansive; RT is concise and focused
  • 3) PT addresses large groups; RT connects to individuals
  • 4) PT doesn’t focus on small details; RT is all about details
  • 5) PT is about talking more than watching or listening; RT is about listening and watching more than talking
  • 6) PT is loudly charismatic; RT is quietly magnetic
  • 7) PT is Robin Williams leaping atop desks in Dead Poets Society; RT is John Wooden, teaching his basketball players how to put on their socks properly (no wrinkles, because that causes blisters)
  • 8) PT dismisses questions; RT craves them
  • 9) PT treats everyone the same; RT tailors the message for each learner
  • 10) PT delivers the exact same lecture over and over; RT customizes each session for its audience

Next question: what else belongs on this list?  I’d love to see your suggestions or hear examples of pseudoteaching and pseudocoaching. Who knows, maybe John Kessel and his team can make another poster, the way they did with Traits of Good/Bad Sports Parents.

How to Learn Like a Baby

 

It might be the most common piece of advice in the history of the world. You hear it whenever you’re learning something new. Just three words:

Take baby steps.

The most common interpretation of this is: Go small. Be safe. Don’t take big risks. 

There’s just one problem with this interpretation: it’s wrong.

Because we are not built to learn by avoiding risk, but by embracing it.

Fortunately, babies (like the one above) give us a useful blueprint for doing this:

  • Don’t tiptoe meekly —  move with enthusiasm toward a target beyond your reach.
  • Be a little crazy.
  • Be ready for spectacular wipeouts (why it’s a good idea to have people around to support you.)
  • Accept fear. If it’s not scary, you’re not doing it right.

Slightly crazed bravery is what baby steps are really all about. That’s why they work, both for babies and for the rest of us.

3 Rules of Stupidly Great Practice

Chalkboard-Line-GraphI love practice calendars.

I love the clean, organized, hopeful look of them. I love the sense of steady progress and accomplishment that they radiate.

I love calendars even though I know they’re lying.

Because despite what calendars imply, progress is never steady or predictable. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s uneven. You go from struggling with a particular thing and then, bang, you find yourself standing on a new threshold of ability. It’s not a staircase so much as jagged and unpredictable climb.

I find myself increasingly fascinated by those unpredictable leaps in ability. What are they made of? And, how do you make them happen more often?

We get an answer, I think, from the two videos below. They capture practice sessions from vastly different domains. But they’re really about something far more important and powerful: smart practice design. Which means being willing to be stupid.

Case Study #1: Timeflies Tuesday’s Lottery-Style Freestyle

Freestyling requires you to do write poetry on the fly, to the beat of a song. The keystone skills are to 1) generate phrases and 2) link them up into something bigger. The goal is nimbleless of mind, the ability to weave a series of ideas into a series of phrase-stories and make them rhyme in real time. This is not easy.

Rob Resnick and Cal Shapiro, a.k.a. Timeflies Tuesday, have come up with an ingenious design that is centered on slips of paper and a hat.

  • Step 1: Write down random topics on slips of paper (Kardashians, Anthony Weiner, Red Sox).
  • Step 2: Place slips of paper in a Celtics baseball cap
  • Step 3: Have Cal pick the topics one by one and try to work them into a freestyle.

Here’s what it looks like (Tip: fast-forward to 1:15 — and if you are offended by explicit language, you probably don’t want to click):

 

Case Study #2: Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech

Cech is one of the planet’s best goalkeepers, in part because he’s trained himself to detect and deflect the ball from every conceivable velocity and angle. His keystone skill is reading and reaction — which is what this practice is designed to build.

It’s completely fantastic: different-size balls, shots from three different angles and velocities, from feet and tennis racquets, layered with unique twists (I especially like how he has to throw one ball straight up in the air, catch a second ball and dispose of it, and then catch the original ball before it hits the ground).

 

Here’s the point: beneath the surface, both Timeflies and Cech are engaging in exactly same form of compressive practice, which has three elements:

  • 1) Isolate the key skill: You put one central skill under the magnifying glass. You aren’t working on the entire set of moves, but just the most important parts — which usually have to do with pattern recognition and reaction.
  • 2) Pressurize: Make it harder than normal. In games, Cech will never have to deflect three balls. Cal will never have to react to random lyric ideas from slips of paper. But practicing in this way — forcing nimbleness — will make performance under normal conditions far easier.
  • 3) Make it Fun and a Little Stupid: These are not “serious-minded drills” — they’re the opposite. They’re funny little games, loaded with emotion, engagement and the opportunity to fail productively. You feel goofy doing them — and that’s the point. This willingness to feel stupid is not a downside: it’s a design feature.

It’s no accident that Timeflies performs their sessions in front of friends and posts them on YouTube — it adds to the sense of fun, connection, and risk. Same with the people on Giveit100.com, who post their practice sessions as they improve over the span of 100 days. I think this is a worthwhile trend. The more we get to glimpse the nitty-gritty preparation beneath performance, the more we can steal and learn from them.

Speaking of which, what’s your favorite practice design, technique, or method?  Are there any useful ones that might be worth sharing and/or stealing?