Month: August 2014

24 Rules for Becoming an Adult Prodigy

growing-trees-hiChild prodigies get a lot of attention because they seem magical. But do you know who’s even more impressive?

Adult prodigies.

I’m talking about people in their thirties, forties, and beyond — people who are miles past any of the “learning windows” for talent, and who yet succeed in building fantastically high-performing skill sets.

People like Dr. Mary Hobson, who took up Russian at 56, and became a prize-winning translator. Or Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist who took up guitar at the age of 38 and taught himself to rock, or pool player Michael Reddick, or Dan McLaughlin, a 31-year-old who took up golf for the first time four years ago and now plays to an outstanding 3.3 handicap (and who also keeps track of his practice hours — 4,530 and counting, if you wanted to know).

We tend to explain adult prodigies with the same magical thinking as we use to explain child prodigies: they’re special. They always possessed hidden talents.  

However, some new science is shedding light on the real reasons adults are able to successfully learn new skills, and exploding some myths in the process.  You should check out this article from New Scientist if you want to go deeper. Or read Marcus’s book Guitar Zero, or How We Learn, by Benedict Carey (out next week).

The takeaway to all this is that adult prodigies succeed because they’re able to work past two fundamental barriers: 1) the wall of belief that they can’t do it; and 2) the grid of adult routines that keep them from spending time working intensively to improve skills. In other words, it’s not so much about your “natural talents,” as it is about your mindset and your habits. From the New Scientist piece:

“A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around,” says Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests. “If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”

With all that in mind, I thought I’d try to fill in a gap by offering a few basic rules on how to apply these ideas to regular life.

Namely:

Rule 1. Pick a skill you were always fascinated by — one that you’ve already spent lots of time thinking about and admiring. Because all those hours is not just a sign of motivation; it’s also your head start to high-quality practice. You’ve already built some good circuitry, so use it.

Rule 2. Don’t pick something completely insane. Trying to become the next Steve Jobs or Peyton Manning probably doesn’t make sense for most adults. Focus on ambitious, reachable skills that make sense for you, and will add to your life.

Rule 3. Write down a big-picture plan. It doesn’t need to be too elaborate; it needs to contain some targets and strategies. Most important: figure out a daily routine, see if it’s working, then adapt it as you go along.

Rule 4: Don’t be so freaking conscientious about your plan. One of the traits that makes kids such good learners is their inherent looseness in approach; that is,  they don’t get hung up on doing everything 100-percent perfectly every single time. They do the opposite: they try bits and pieces, and if something doesn’t work, they try something else. They’re experimenters, innovators, entrepreneurs of the brain. Do likewise.

Rule 5. Keep it quiet early on. The quickest way to kill motivation is to tell Facebook that you’re developing a new talent — because that creates high expectations, which are the ultimate motivational buzzkill.

Rule 6. Be secretly and irrationally arrogant. Fear is what keeps people from learning new things, and getting rid of that fear however you choose is a good idea. So be cocky, gutsy, and willing to go to the edges of your ability even if (especially if) that means you sometimes look a little foolish. In other words, channel your inner Kobe Bryant.

Rule 6. Practice every day, in short bursts.

Rule 7: Long bursts too.

Rule 8: Also, medium bursts. Dream all you want, but frequent, intensive, high-quality practice is the path forward.

Rule 8: Interleave your practice, which is a fancy word for switching it up a lot. For example, if you want to improve your toss on your tennis serve, don’t just toss 50 balls in a row. Instead, toss 5 while focusing on one element of the move. Then do something else for 5 minutes. Then come back to the toss — this time focusing on a different element. Then go do something else, and so on. Interleaving forces your brain to make connections, and learn faster.

Rule 9: Find the best teacher you can afford. One of the advantages of being an adult is that, unlike a kid, you can choose your own  teacher. This is not a small thing. Find someone you like, and who maybe scares you a little (that is often a good sign).

Rule 10: Seek a training group. No matter what skill you’re trying to build, you are more motivated when you are part of a tribe working toward a goal.

Rule 11: Every once in a while, ignore your training group and stay home. The downside of training with people is that you tend to overlook problem areas that you really need to fix — and some things can only be solved alone.

Rule 12. Set aside a space to practice. This doesn’t need to be fancy — in fact, the less fancy the better. But it needs to exist and be convenient, and preferably located in your home, because you’ll use it more often.

Rule 13.  Get good tools. If you’re learning guitar, get a quality one. If you’re doing something on a computer, don’t buy one from Radio Shack.

Rule 14: Keep your tools handy, not stored away in some closet. When they’re around, you tend to pick them up more often.

Rule 15. Be opportunistic. Use the little quiet spots in your day to work in some spontaneous practice. A good five minutes can have a huge impact.

Rule 16. Keep a notebook, and track what works and what doesn’t. The notebook is your map: it keeps track of the stuff you forget, the goals you want to track, and (most crucially) the progress you make.

Rule 17. Steal from other people. Even if you’ve picked a wildly obscure talent to develop, there are thousands of other people out there who are doing exactly the same thing as you are, right now. They’re solving the same problems, finding possible solutions. Seek them out (on YouTube, for starters) and go to school on them.

Rule 18. Teach someone else. You might think you know how to perform a skill. But trying to accurately, concisely explain how that skill works to someone else? That’s a deeper level of understanding entirely.

Rule 19. Keep expectations moderately low.

Rule 20: Keep hopes moderately high.

Rule 21.  In your self talk, use “You” and not “I.” Research shows that self-talk is significantly more effective when you use the second person.

Rule 22. Practice early in the day. This is when your brain is fresh, and when you’ll make the most progress. Not coincidentally, this is also when there are the fewest interruptions.

Rule 23. Seek to become a world-class napper. This is a skill you likely already possess — and improving it can ratchet up your learning speed.

Rule 24. Plan on showing off, once you get good enough. Even the patron saint of adult prodigies, the painter Grandma Moses, wasn’t discovered until she got brave and started selling her artwork in local galleries. There’s nothing like an upcoming event or performance to direct your work and create a sense of energy. And besides, you earned it.

Two last questions: 1) Are there any stories/ideas you want to share about adult learning? 2) What other rules belong on this list? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

 

10 Surprising Truths from the World’s Most Successful Talent Hotbed

imagesHope you all had a good and rejuvenating summer. We spent a big chunk of it up in Alaska, doing some hiking, fishing, working, and — as some of you noticed — not updating the blog. It was nice to have a vacation, but as the weeks have gone by, I found myself missing this place, and the conversations that happen here. All of which is to say, in the coming weeks on I’ll be posting more regularly — figure on weekly-ish. And to start us off we’ve got a rare treat.

Question: If you had the opportunity to get inside one of the world’s top talent hotbeds, which would you choose? You could make a good case for German soccer academies, or Finnish high schools, or any number of top music academies. But there’s one hotbed that might rank above them all, one hotbed that’s so ass-kickingly, fascinatingly dominant that they make the others seem positively lukewarm.

Chinese divers.

To say Chinese divers are dominant doesn’t quite cover it. At last month’s World Cup of Diving they won gold and silver in every single event they entered.  In other words, in nine events, no diver from any other country beat a single Chinese diver. This isn’t new: over the past four Olympics, they have won 24 of  a possible 32 gold medals.

So it was a rare treat when I recently came into contact with Rett Larson, who he has spent a good chunk of the last two and a half years at the very center of Chinese diving. Rett is performance manager for EXOS-China and lives part-time in Shanghai, where he helps oversee and organize the team’s training. And because he’s also an incredibly generous and insightful dude, he’s made this video (below) and written the accompanying text so that readers of this blog can get this exclusive peek inside their training facility.

So check out Rett’s video and, even more important, the accompanying list. There’s a lot to love about his list: how it cuts against conventional  wisdom; and how it describes a culture that consistently nudges performers to the edges of their envelope (for proof, scroll to the 2-minute mark in the video, and watch as a diver attempts a never-before-done dive, and ends up making what undoubtedly ranks as one of the most spectacular back-flops of all time).

Most of all, I love how these ideas and training designs can be applied to so much more than sports.

 

10 SURPRISING TRUTHS ABOUT THE WORLD’S MOST SUCCESSFUL TALENT HOTBED, by Rett Larson

1. WE MIX AGES LIKE CRAZY: The juniors aren’t all lumped together like they are in most systems — instead, three-time Gold medalists train with top 10-year-olds.  Each diving coach might be responsible for five athletes – three Olympic veterans and two juniors.  The juniors get to mirror the elites all day, from training to eating to bedtimes. It also creates a sense of humility in the juniors, who have likely dominated in their provinces since they were six years old.

2. WE SPEND MOST OF OUR TIME WORKING ON SUPER-BASIC DIVES: The Chinese have a higher training volume than the rest of the world – often more than 100 dives per day.  But many of those dives are very basic.  The first ten dives of the day might all be starting with your butt on the edge of the platform and falling into a simple dive. That’s it — and that’s the point.

3. WE APPLAUD SPECTACULAR FAILURES: For the past decade China has won almost every competition by doing simple dives very, very well.  Their technical proficiency is incredible because they practice longer and harder than any other country.  But, they also know that they have to push themselves and innovate.  You’ll see in the video a male diver attempting to be the first human to do four flips from the 10-meter board starting from a handstand. He doesn’t make it — spectacularly. What you don’t see is the ovation he gets from the rest of the team after his failed attempt.

4. WE ARE OBSESSIVE ABOUT COACHING EVERY SINGLE REP: Each dive is given feedback, even the basic ones. A dozen coaches sit on the side of the pool and give immediate feedback on every dive that their athlete performs that day.

5. WE AVOID ALLOWING OUR ATHLETES TO SPECIALIZE IN ONE DISCIPLINE: The 10-meter platform divers won’t spend all day on the 10m board.  They’ll have dives on the 3m, 5m, 6m, 7m, and even the springboards depending on what their coach wants them to work on. Each day the athletes receive a laminated sheet with their daily dives listed.

6. WE ACCOMPLISH OUR MOST IMPORTANT WORK OUTSIDE OF THE POOL: Chinese divers perform dry-land training better than anyone else in the world. If you ask the coaches – this is what has led to China’s dominance.  As you’ll see in the video, their dryland training facilities are a Disneyland for divers.  Like their dives in the pool, each athlete has a laminated sheet of dryland exercises that take them from the trampoline to the foam pit to the mats or to the runway to practice approaches.  They move around the gym and are never on one piece of equipment for more than 20 minutes.

7. WE SEEK LOTS OF FEEDBACK FROM LOTS OF COACHES: As the athletes move around the dryland training area, they move into the zones of different coaches who offer a variety of corrections based on what their “coaching eye” sees.  Chinese coaches all share a basic methodology so there’s no worry of conflicting messages being sent.

8. WE USE VIDEO AS MUCH AS HUMANLY (AND TECHNICALLY) POSSIBLE: In both the dryland facility and the pool there are closed circuit cameras that catch the dives being performed.  After the athletes get out of the pool and receive feedback from the coach, they can look up on the huge monitors and see the dives for themselves.

9. WE SEEK WAYS TO ESTABLISH TEAM IDENTITY THROUGH SACRIFICE: No other Olympic team in the complex trains before 9 a.m. — but three days a week, our team rises early to train at six — because it’s a sacrifice. There’s no need to train at 6am instead of 9am.  They do it because it’s inconvenient, and it creates an air of “we work harder than anyone else.”

10. WE HAVE WAA-AAY MORE FUN THAN YOU MIGHT GUESS: Dryland training is a place where there is frequent playing around and laughing.  The coaches let the athletes be kids.  Now I’m not saying that it’s like a frat party (this is Communist China, after all), but compared to many teams I’ve worked with over the last 2.5 years in China, they have a good time.

***

Quite a list, isn’t it?

Here’s the fascinating part: fully half of the ten principles (numbers 1, 3, 5, 9 and 10) have zero to do with training methods and everything to do with the organizational culture. Mixing ages, applauding failure, avoiding specialization, embracing sacrifice, and having fun are not training techniques — they are shared values that apply far beyond just diving. They are powerful signals that create a cohesive, high-performing tribe of people.

All of which leaves room for one more question: how does Rett’s list compare with the principles of other high-performing places (like, maybe, yours)? What’s missing? What might be added?

PS – if there’s anybody else out there who might want to offer a similar “insider’s tour” of their training, please let me know.