Search Results for: fun

The Three-Word Phrase that Helps Unlock Group Creativity

Let’s say you’re in a meeting, and you want to help your group think more creatively. Which of these phrases should you use?

1) “What if we….”

2) “Why don’t we….”

3) “How might we….”

If you guessed (3), you’re right. For why, check out this cool story on how designers at IDEO (who — you guessed it — are featured in my new book, The Culture Code) ignite team creativity.  The core insight: starting with how might we sends a signal that failure is okay.

“The beauty of the phrase ‘How might we do this’ is that it eliminates fear, stress, and anxiety by supportively implying that there may be more than one solution, and that nothing more is needed at the moment than ideas,” says Jean Greaves, an organizational psychologist and CEO of TalentSmart. “This is the language that primes our mind for having fun exploring, and pushing beyond what’s already known.”

In other words: if you want creativity, start with safety.  

Other Books

The Secret Race
Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs

The Secret RaceThe Secret Race is a definitive look at the world of professional cycling—and the doping issue surrounding this sport and its most iconic rider, Lance Armstrong—by former Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle.
Over the course of two years, Coyle conducted more than two hundred hours of interviews with Hamilton and spoke candidly with numerous teammates, rivals, and friends. The result is an explosive book that takes us, for the first time, deep inside a shadowy, fascinating, and surreal world of unscrupulous doctors, anything-goes team directors, and athletes so relentlessly driven to succeed that they would do anything—and take any risk, physical, mental, or moral—to gain the edge they need to win.

Tyler Hamilton was once one of the world’s best-liked and top-ranked cyclists—a fierce competitor renowned among his peers for his uncanny endurance and epic tolerance for pain. In the 2003 Tour de France, he finished fourth despite breaking his collarbone in the early stages—and grinding eleven of his teeth down to the nerves along the way. He started his career with the U.S. Postal Service team in the 1990s and quickly rose to become Lance Armstrong’s most trusted lieutenant, and a member of his inner circle. For the first three of Armstrong’s record seven Tour de France victories, Hamilton was by Armstrong’s side, clearing his way. But just weeks after Hamilton reached his own personal pinnacle—winning the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics—his career came to a sudden, ignominious end: He was found guilty of doping and exiled from the sport.

From the exhilaration of his early, naïve days in the peloton, Hamilton chronicles his ascent to the uppermost reaches of this unforgiving sport. In the mid-1990s, the advent of a powerful new blood-boosting drug called EPO reshaped the world of cycling, and a relentless, win-at-any-cost ethos took root. Its psychological toll would drive many of the sport’s top performers to substance abuse, depression, even suicide. For the first time ever, Hamilton recounts his own battle with clinical depression, speaks frankly about the agonizing choices that go along with the decision to compete at a world-class level, and tells the story of his complicated relationship with Lance Armstrong.

A journey into the heart of a never-before-seen world, The Secret Race is a riveting, courageous act of witness from a man who is as determined to reveal the hard truth about his sport as he once was to win the Tour de France.

Praise For The Secret Race

“The holy grail for disillusioned cycling fans . . . The book’s power is in the collective details, all strung together in a story that is told with such clear-eyed conviction that you never doubt its veracity. . . . The Secret Race isn’t just a game changer for the Lance Armstrong myth. It’s the game ender.”—Outside

“Loaded with bombshells and revelations.”—VeloNews

“[An] often harrowing story . . . the broadest, most accessible look at cycling’s drug problems to date.”—The New York Times

“ ‘If I cheated, how did I get away with it?’ That question, posed to SI by Lance Armstrong five years ago, has never been answered more definitively than it is in Tyler Hamilton’s new book.”—Sports Illustrated

“Explosive.”The Daily Telegraph (London)

Buy The Secret Race


Lance Armstrong’s War
One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France

Lance Armstrong's WarDaniel Coyle’s New York Times bestseller Lance Armstrong’s War takes a fascinating, in-depth look at a staggeringly talented yet flawed sports hero as he faced his greatest test: a record sixth straight Tour de France victory.

Now with a new epilogue covering Armstrong’s quest to win an 8th Tour de France, this “intimate, insightful, unflinching look at the greatest athlete of our time” (Jon Krakauer) explores the remarkable drive and accomplishments of a controversial champion—a must read for fans of John Feinstein and David Halberstam, as well as readers of Lance Armstrong’s own It’s Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts.

Praise For Lance Armstrong’s War

“A velvety mix of vivid, sophisticated prose, Raymond Carver’s unerring eye for nuance, and John Irving’s irreverent, unflinching humor….An intimate look inside the maelstrom of professional cycling.”
Boston Globe

When an athlete is as celebrated as Lance Armstrong, journalists tend to approach either with staggering awe or malicious schadenfreude. Refreshingly, Coyle (Hardball) displays neither. The journalist moved to Armstrong’s training base in Spain to cover the months leading up to the cyclist’s sixth Tour de France victory in 2004, and the resulting comfort level of Coyle with his subject is palpable. Armstrong emerges from these pages as neither the cancer-surviving saint his American fans admire, nor the soulless, imperialist machine his European detractors hate. Instead, he comes across as a preternaturally gifted athlete barely removed from the death-defying hellion he was as a teenager, fanatically disciplined, gregarious and generous but with a legendarily icy temper. Coyle sweeps over the basics of Armstrong’s Texas childhood and fight with cancer, concentrating on his obsessive training—this is a sport where results are measured in ounces and microseconds. He’s sometimes too loose with his writing, digressing as though he had all the time in the world, but he tightens up for the grand finale: the Tour. This work is honest, personal and passionate, with plenty to chew on for fans and novices alike. – Publisher’s Weekly

*Starred Review* “He seems so simple from a distance,” one cyclist described teammate Lance Armstrong. “But the closer you get, the more you realize–this is one very, very complicated guy.” If Linda Armstrong Kelly’s No Mountain High Enough (2005) revealed the impetus for son Lance’s drive to succeed (anger at absent dad, support from overachieving mom), and Lance’s own It’s Not about the Bike (2000) revealed the medical odds he has courageously overcome, Coyle’s excellent portrait of the six-time (and counting) Tour de France winner places Armstrong fully in his own element: the road to his victory in the 2004 Tour. The world knows, perhaps ad nauseam, Armstrong’s uncommon will to prevail–“Lance wishes to swallow the world,” as his trainer put it–but Coyle’s account also shows a laser-sharp managerial style, in the face of monumental distractions, that would be the envy of any Fortune 500 CEO. Coyle, a former senior editor of Outside magazine, also gives full coverage of Armstrong’s extensive support team, his Tour competitors, his focused training regimen, the questions over his suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs, and the (legal) strategies he employs to stay ahead of both the field and his own body’s inevitable breakdown. Fueled by superb reporting and the built-in suspense of the 2004 Tour, Lance Armstrong’s War is the equal of its distinguished and very complicated subject. And it’s just in time for Armstrong’s final Tour de France this July. Booklist

Buy Lance Armstrong’s War


A Season in the Projects

Hardball: A Season In The ProjectsIn the heart of Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s most notorious housing project, a group of kids and their white-collar coaches triumph over the odds through Little League baseball. A narrative tour de force that reveals not only a deeply troubling image of the way things are, but also a glimpse of the way they might be.

Praise For Hardball

An eye-opening chronicle of the fears, frustrations, and small triumphs of playing and coaching Little League baseball amid the squalor and violence of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project…Coyle captures the speech, fears, boyish bravado, and personality quirks of the children trying to have fun in an environment in which survival itself is a daily challenge. The crack of the bat heard over the sound of gunfire: a testament to the innocent courage of children, as well as to their ability to endure in spite of all, including the adults. – Kirkus

Buy Hardball


Waking Samuel
A novel

Waking SamuelAfter the loss of her only son, Sara Black finds herself spending more and more time at the Seattle hospital where she is a nurse, tending to “the tall man,” the victim of a gunshot wound whose identity has remained a provocative riddle-until he starts talking. As the man she knows as Samuel draws Sara into a strange and chilling story about his past on an Alaskan island, she must face some truths of her own, as well as the realization that the patient to whom she’s devoted herself may not be who he says he is.

Praise For Waking Samuel

“This moving first novel from an accomplished nonfiction writer–Coyle is the author of Hardball: A Season in the Projects (1993)–deals with loss, identity, and responsibility. At the center of the story is a woman named Sara Black, a 41-year-old nurse who has recently lost her young son in a car crash. Haunted by the boy’s death, Sara occupies herself with thoughts of a mysterious patient in her care, the so-called tall man. She becomes obsessed with the nameless patient, a gunshot victim who was discovered by a traveling junior-high class in the Pacific Northwest. Despite many rumors, his entire life remains an enigma to all those around him. Coyle is a clever writer, and he ably weaves his main character’s jumble of emotions into a satisfying whole. The novel takes a handful of unforeseen turns–for one thing, the tall man becomes an ever more perplexing figure–generating considerable excitement in what is essentially a character-driven story. An impressive debut.” – Booklist

Buy Waking Samuel

The Culture Code

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle book cover

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code comes a book that unlocks the secrets of highly successful groups and provides tomorrow’s leaders with the tools to build a cohesive, motivated culture.

Where does great culture come from? How do you build and sustain it in your group, or strengthen a culture that needs fixing?

In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle goes inside some of the world’s most successful organizations—including Pixar, the San Antonio Spurs, and U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six—and reveals what makes them tick. He demystifies the culture-building process by identifying three key skills that generate cohesion and cooperation, and explains how diverse groups learn to function with a single mind. Drawing on examples that range from Internet retailer Zappos to the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade to a daring gang of jewel thieves, Coyle offers specific strategies that trigger learning, spark collaboration, build trust, and drive positive change. Coyle unearths helpful stories of failure that illustrate what not to do, troubleshoots common pitfalls, and shares advice about reforming a toxic culture. Combining leading-edge science, on-the-ground insights from world-class leaders, and practical ideas for action, The Culture Code offers a roadmap for creating an environment where innovation flourishes, problems get solved, and expectations are exceeded.

Culture is not something you are—it’s something you do. The Culture Code puts the power in your hands. No matter the size of the group or the goal, this book can teach you the principles of cultural chemistry that transform individuals into teams that can accomplish amazing things together.

Order The Culture Code for your team

Click here for special company discounts on bulk orders for gifting or training!

Praise for The Culture Code

“If you want to understand how successful groups work—the signals they transmit, the language they speak, the cues that foster creativity—you won’t find a more essential guide than The Culture Code. This is a marvel of insight and practicality.”
— Charles Duhigg, New York Times bestselling author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better

“I’ve been waiting years for someone to write this book—I’ve built it up in my mind into something extraordinary. But it is even better than I imagined. Daniel Coyle has produced a truly brilliant, mesmerizing read that demystifies the magic of great groups. It blows all other books on culture right out of the water. Read it immediately.”
— Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Option B, Originals, and Give and Take

“There are profound ideas on every single page, stories that will change the way you work, the way you lead, and the impact you have on the world. Highly recommended, an urgent read.”
— Seth Godin, author of Linchpin

The Culture Code is a step-by-step guidebook to building teams that are not just more effective, but happier. Whether you lead a team or are a team member, this book is a must-read.”
— Laszlo Bock, CEO of Humu, former SVP of People at Google, and author of Work Rules!

Take the quiz: How strong is your culture?

Read a Q&A about The Culture Code

The Big Idea

The Culture Code is based on a simple insight: great groups don’t happen by chance. They are built according to three universal rules.

  1. Start With Safety

    Great group chemistry isn’t luck; it’s about sending super-clear, continuous signals: we share a future, you have a voice.

    Get tips

  2. Get Vulnerable and Stay Vulnerable

    Strong cultures don’t hide their weaknesses; they make a habit of sharing them, so they can improve together.

    Get tips

  3. Roadmap Your Story

    It’s not about nice-sounding value statements — it’s about flooding the zone with vivid narratives that work like GPS signals, guiding your group toward its goal.

    Get tips

Why Smart Leaders Use Corny Catchphrases

Tip for leaders: stop focusing on inspiration, and start focusing on navigation

Catchphrases have a bad reputation. They are corny. They are over-obvious. They sound dumb. As a result, we tend to avoid using them.  (Think about how you reacted the last time someone suggested you “work smarter, not harder.”)

But here’s the funny thing : When you visit highly successful cultures, you’ll notice they use a lot of catchphrases. I mean, they use tons of them. You can’t walk around for thirty seconds without hearing or seeing a corny-sounding catchphrase.

For example, here are a few you hear around Danny Meyer’s wildly successful restaurants: Creating raves… read the guest… finding the yes… collecting and connecting dots… planting like seeds in like gardens… one size fits one… the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.

And here’s what you hear and see at KIPP, a hugely successful system of charter schools: All of us will learn… work hard, be nice… read, baby, read… no shortcuts… don’t eat the marshmallow… be the constant, not the variable… prove the doubters wrong… privileges are earned.

If you spend time with the Navy SEALs, IDEO, Pixar, and other great groups, as I did during my research for my new book, The Culture Code, the pattern is the same. So the question is, What is going on?

The answer is, successful groups use using catchphrases in a highly targeted way: as cognitive scripts to define specific challenges they face. They aren’t catchphrases as much as navigational aids.

When you look closer, there are four types of catchphrases, each with their own guidance function. Let’s call them the North Star, Do’s, Don’ts, and Identity.  

Here are KIPP’s:

North Star: Work hard be nice

Do’s: Read, baby, read… if there’s a problem, we look for the solution… all of us will learn

Don’ts: No shortcuts… don’t eat the marshmallow 

Identity: Be the constant, not the variable… prove the doubters wrong… privileges are earned… every detail matters

And here are Danny Meyer’s:

North Star: Creating raves for guests

Do’s: Read the guest… finding the yes… collecting and connecting dots… planting like seeds in like gardens… one size fits one… the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled… mistakes are waves, servers are surfers… turning up the home dial

Don’ts: Skunking… your emotional wake

Identity: Athletic hospitality… the excellence reflex… loving problems… are you an agent or a gatekeeper?

See the pattern? The North Star provides the Why — the highest priority, the group aim. The Do’s and Don’ts describe the path on how to get there, and Identity defines key traits that distinguish the group from the rest of the world.

This pattern is not an accident. It’s essential, because it creates a “culture story” that captures the soul of the group — or, if you like, a narrative algorithm that provides the crucial connections between the Why, the Who, the How.

In other words, catchphrases aren’t corny — they are genius. Because purpose isn’t just about inspiration, but also about navigation. It’s about building a vivid, accessible roadmap with a set of emotional GPS signals to define identity and guide group behavior. 

Here are some tips for building your group’s roadmap:

• Seek to build a lot of catchphrases, all the time. Crowdsource the process. Use the ones that stick; ditch the ones that don’t. 

• Aim for simple, vivid images. Good catchphrases deliver one, simple, vivid idea.

• A good place to start is to clearly define the problems your people routinely encounter. If you can define the problem you face, you have the seed of a catchphrase.

Want Stronger Culture? Stop Leading, and Start Designing

Every leader wants to create strong culture. After all, culture drives group performance (a tidy 756 percent increased in net revenue over 11 years). As the old saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack.

The problem, of course, is that creating culture is a wildly mysterious process. It’s hard to measure, impossible to mandate, and easy to mess up. As such, it’s easy for leaders to fall into the trap of treating culture as something slightly beyond your control; to presume that certain people are born with the uncanny knack for creating culture; others aren’t.

There’s a better way. And I recently bumped into an excellent example, on the big island of Hawaii, home to a unique gathering called The Lobby.

The Lobby is a three-day gathering of 200 or so tech people and investors. It began eleven years ago when a venture capitalist named David Hornik grew weary of sitting in darkened rooms listening to people speak, while all the fun and useful conversations happened outside in the hallways. So Hornik hit upon an idea: to create a conference that flipped the conventional model on its head. No speakers, no auditorium, no official theme or agenda; just the lobby.

I can report that Hornik has succeeded to a wildly impressive extent. To put it simply, The Lobby is a complete blast: a high-energy gathering that leaves you brimming with new ideas and new friends. If my new book weren’t already written, I’d be tempted to include The Lobby as a case study because, to use the term that many longtime attendees use: it’s addictive. Hornik has built an amazing group culture, seemingly out of thin air.

The key is that Hornik doesn’t “lead” in the conventional sense of the word. He doesn’t outline a vision, or mandate actions from the top down. Instead, he thinks and behaves like a designer, engineering the culture from the bottom up. His main tool is a set of what psychologists call signaling behaviors: actions that carry the power to influence others.

Here’s how he does it:

• Before you go, Hornik’s team helps attendees create and share something personal with the entire group. It might be a postcard with biographical details and a photo of their favorite place, or short video tour of everyone’s office, or a baseball-type “trading card” — the only rule is that it conveys their personality and backstory.

• When you arrive, Hornik sets out the prime directive: everything said at The Lobby is 100 percent private. No social media, no journalists, no publicity.

• The first morning, you are randomly combined into six-person teams to play The Game, a three-hour series of puzzles and riddles. It’s silly, fun, complex, and creates high levels of cooperation, effort, and excitement.

• The core of the conference consists of “User-Generated Conversations.” These are questions, suggested by attendees, which focus on questions that people really want to talk about. (Examples: Is a 4-year college a waste of time and money? What does the future of work look like? How can we help kids deal with anxiety?)

• In the conversations, there are no chairs; just beanbags strewn on the lawn or in a room. People carry them to choose what conversations they want to be part of.

• Through it all, Hornik plays the role of pied piper, donning goofy outfits, connecting people, and modeling a kind of openness that creates more openness (he even brought along his parents).

When you look closer, Hornik is using two core signaling behaviors:

  • Signaling Behavior 1: You are safe.
  • Signaling Behavior 2: We share risks. 

Every element of the Lobby — the sharing of bios, the rule of secrecy, the shared games, the shared conversations, the beanbag chairs — toggle between two these core signals, either creating a sense of safety (we are connected; we share a future) or shared vulnerability (we take interpersonal risks together).

When combined, they create a feedback spiral of interactions that generates every-higher levels of group closeness and cooperation. Safety generates vulnerability, which generates even more safety, which generates even more vulnerability, and so on. The group chemistry and connection this creates might feel magical, but in fact it’s closer to inevitable.

So if you want to think like a culture designer, here are a few pointers:

• Make sure the leader is vulnerable first: this grants the group permission to do the same. One trusty method: share an embarrassing story.

• Ruthlessly eliminate default forms of status and power: the best way to do this: give each person a voice and a genuine opportunity to use it.

• Beware bad apples: they can destroy group safety in an instant. As Hornik puts it, all the social engineering in the world won’t fix a dysfunctional group of people.

PS – If you want to read more about Hornik, please check out Adam Grant’s terrific book, Give and Take).

Tips: Finding True North

Problem: Your Group Lacks a Strong Sense of Purpose

Remedy: Seek, Find, and Share Resonant Stories

  1. Name and Rank Your Group’s Priorities

    Obvious but true: in order to move toward a target, you must first have a target. Listing your priorities, which means wrestling with the choices that define your identity, is the first step. Most successful groups end up with a small handful of priorities (five or fewer), and many, not coincidentally, end up placing their in-group relationships—how they treat one another—at the top of the list. This reflects the truth that many successful groups realize: their greatest project is building and sustaining the group itself. If they get their own relationships right, everything else will follow.

  2. Embrace the Use of Catchphrases

    When you look successful groups, at a lot of their internal language features catchphrases that often sound obvious, rah-rah, or corny. Many of us instinctively dismiss them as cultish jargon. But this is a mistake. Their occasionally cheesy obviousness is not a bug—it’s a feature. Their clarity, grating to the outsider’s ear, is precisely what helps them resonate in the landscape.
    The trick to building effective catchphrases is to keep them simple, action-oriented, and forthright: “Create fun and a little weirdness” (Zappos), “Talk less, do more” (IDEO), “Work hard, be nice” (KIPP), “Pound the rock” (San Antonio Spurs), “Leave the jersey in a better place” (New Zealand All-Blacks), “Create raves for guests” (Danny Meyer’s restaurants). They’re hardly poetry, but they share an action-based clarity. They aren’t gentle suggestions so much as clear reminders, crisp nudges in the direction the group wants to go.

The Mental Trick that Unlocks Improvement

Question: How much better would you be if you practiced a skill every day for one or two years?

Would you be ten times better? Twenty? Fifty?

Here’s the answer (tip: watch the first few seconds, then fast-forward to the end):


This guy did a similar experiment, learning a skateboard trick in six hours.


You wouldn’t be ten or twenty times better; you’d be immeasurably better. Comparing their skill at the beginning and end of the process is like comparing a Model T to a Ferrari — it’s not an increase; it’s a complete transformation.

Which raises a question: if intensive daily practice is so transformative, then why aren’t we all doing it? In other words, what do these people have that the rest of us don’t?

I think one answer is this: they have a willingness to feel stupid. To endure the unique social-emotional burn of repeated clumsiness. And this willingness is the secret foundation of their development.

Check out the first few seconds of the videos. They are trying hard — really hard — and they are barely progressing. They move woodenly. They make stupid mistakes. The violinist can barely play Happy Birthday; the skateboarder is falling over and over. It’s not pretty.

Now imagine doing that, hour after hour. Imagine focusing all your energy toward a task that you are, by every possible measure, terrible at — and then doing it again and again, day after day. This doesn’t qualify as normal practice — it’s an exquisite form of mental torture.

The real key to their progress, in other words, is not cognitive or muscular — it’s emotional. The real key is getting past the burning pain of feeling stupid. The question, then, is, how do you do that?

I think the key is to flip the way we think about this torturous feeling, to reframe it as an essential part of the process. To reinterpret the pain so that it isn’t pain; it’s a positive sign of progress.

Funny thing is, we already do this with physical exercise. When we work out or go for a run, we expect to feel discomfort — if we don’t, we know that we aren’t working hard enough.  As the saying goes, no pain, no gain.

When it comes to learning new skills, the same rule applies. If we’re not willing to experience this social-emotional burn of awkward failure, we won’t improve. No burn, no learn, you might say. Here are a few ideas on how to do that.

  • Target and celebrate small wins. Amid the clumsiness of the start, there are moments of figuring out fundamentals, of making small improvements. Find them, name them, and highlight them.
  • Share your screw-ups. Seek people and cultures that encourage openness about failure.
  • Embrace irrationality. Forget the notion of steady, linear progress, because that’s not the way learning happens. Learning happens slowly and painfully at first, and then with surprising speed. These big leaps don’t seem logical. But if you put the time in, they are inevitable.

The One Surprising Habit of Effective Leaders

74466_161_d9-4_c_lgWe usually think about leadership as the art of doing big, important stuff: creating a vision, making decisions, inspiring people. You know, leading.

But here’s a funny thing: many effective leaders spend a lot of time doing the opposite. Specifically, they spend time picking up stuff on the floor. Cleaning up. Playing janitor.

Exhibit A: LeBron James, who spent an evening last week picking up the team’s laundry from the locker-room floor after a game.

Exhibit B: Exhibit B: Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, was famous for picking up trash. “Every night you’d see him coming down the street, walking close to the gutter, picking up every McDonald’s wrapper and cup along the way,” former McDonald’s CEO Fred Turner told author Alan Deutschman. “He’d come into the store with both hands full of cups and wrappers. I saw Ray spend one Saturday morning with a toothbrush cleaning out holes in the mop wringer. No one else really paid attention to the damned mop wringer, because everyone knew it was just a mop bucket. But Kroc saw all the crud building up in the holes, and he wanted to clean them so the wringer would work better.”

Exhibit C: John Wooden. Back in the mid-sixties, when UCLA’s men’s basketball team was in the midst of one of the most successful eras in sports history – ten titles in 12 years — Franklin Adler, the team’s student manager, saw something odd: Coach Wooden picking up trash in the locker room. “Here was a man who had already won three national championships,” Adler said, “a man who was already enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a player, a man who had created and was in the middle of a dynasty – bending down and picking up scraps from the locker room floor.”

Exhibit D: The New Zealand All-Blacks, the best rugby team on the planet, who have formalized this into a habit they call “Sweeping the Sheds.” Basically, the team leaders are in charge of keeping the locker room clean.

This is a striking pattern. These are terrific, accomplished leaders of highly successful groups, and they are spending their valuable time on what would seem to be the most trivial, tedious, and mundane tasks imaginable — using a toothbrush to clean crud from mop buckets. Why?

The answer, I think, is that we tend to think about leadership in the wrong way. We tend to focus on the big, showy moves, when what really matters is the small, humble moments when the leader sends a relational signal of connection. These moments are vital because they contain several signals:

  • I am not above you
  • This place matters — we have standards
  • You should do this kind of thing too
  • We are about things that are bigger than ourselves

It adds up to a leadership mindset that I would call a muscular humility – an approach that constantly seeks simple ways to help and support the group. The reason these signals are powerful is not just because they are moral or generous, but also because they send a larger signal that every group needs to be sent over and over: we are all in this together. Because the point of leadership is not to do great things, but rather to create an environment where the whole group can do great things together.

If you have any similar stories about leadership, feel free to share below. I’d love to hear them.

Stop Warming Up, Start Learning Up

You’ve seen it a thousand times. It happens before every game, at every level (and not just in sports, but also in music, theater, and dance). Before the game begins, the players loosen up. They get the juices flowing, they do a few moves, find their rhythm, and get comfortable. We call this process “warming up.” Warming up is widely accepted, and it’s completely fine.

The problem with warming up, however, is not what you do. It’s what you don’t do.

When you warm up in the traditional way, you forgo something important: the opportunity to get better. The evidence for this is the habits of top performers. Because they don’t merely warm up. They do something different. You could call it “learning up.”

Steph Curry is a good example. Here’s how he prepares for each game.

The whole thing is worth watching, because in a few minutes Curry highlights the key features of learning up, and in the process demolishes several myths about warming up.

Myth #1: The goal of a warmup is to get comfortable 

Reality: Curry’s goal isn’t to get comfortable — it’s the opposite. He takes on a series of difficult tasks designed to test him, to put him on the learning edge, making mistakes and fixing them. By being uncomfortable now, he prepares himself to be comfortable later.

Myth #2: Keep intensity light, save your energy for the game

Reality: Everything is high intensity, high focus, and high energy. He dribbles hundreds of times. He takes 75 jumpers, for starters, far more than he’ll take in a game.  The energy can be restored. What is not restorable is the opportunity to pre-create game intensity.

Myth 3: Warmups are loose affairs. You don’t have to design them.

Reality: Every moment of Curry’s 20-minute warmup is designed within an inch of its life to target the key parts of his game. There’s flexibility and fun — notice how he progressively alters the arc of certain shots, and takes an insanely long shot at the end — but only within a larger structure that purposely built to expand his skillset.

Myth #4: You should try to avoid making mistakes

Reality: Curry makes mistakes all the time. And it’s purposeful: he is constantly adding little extras to make it tougher — fakes, moves, changing the arc of the shot. He does this because he understands that the goal is not perfection; the goal is learning, and to do that, you need to make mistakes and pay attention to them.

Myth #5: The purpose of warming up is to prepare you for the game

Reality: Curry’s real purpose here isn’t to just prepare for the game, but rather to improve — to fix his weaknesses and build his strengths. Performance in the game is a side effect of getting a little better every single day. This is one reason why Curry, a small, skinny player who was lightly regarded during his first years as a pro, has been able to transcend his sport with a skillset that no one else possesses in today’s game. It’s not like he was great all along. He became great through his work habits, by getting a little bit better each day.


How to Use Failure

Seeing as I’ve been absent from this space for while now — and I’ll be writing more often now that the new book is mostly done — I thought it might be good to write about failure. Beginning with a question:

What happens when we fail really badly at something? 

I’m not talking about almost-success or near misses. I’m talking about spectacular screwups, missed-by-a-country-mile kind of failures, when we fall flat on our face.

Most of us have the same reaction. We wince. We close our eyes. We slowly look to see if anybody noticed us. Then we ignore it, or, better, pretend it didn’t happen. It’s basically a full-brain allergic response — minimize it, keep quiet, and move on — and it makes perfect psychological sense.

But there’s an opportunity in this moment that is sometimes overlooked. Because when failure is shared, something special happens.

Check out this clip of Ed Sheeran, superstar of global pop, playing a recording of his teenage self. Spoiler: he’s really bad (fast forward to the 50-second mark if you dare).  Sheeran can’t hit the notes. It sounds like yodeling, or someone falling down the stairs.

Or check out the remarkable CV of Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton. It’s like any other CV, except for one thing: Haushofer lists everything he failed at: the programs he failed to get into, the awards and funding he failed to receive. As he writes,

Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.

The engineers at Etsy do the same every week in the form of a company-wide email openly confessing their biggest mistakes.

Each of these methods is effective because it taps into the same power. Making failure visible sets off a chain reaction with two benefits: 1) you create emotional connection and motivation; 2) you provide knowledge that helps others avoid the same mistakes. Failure isn’t something to be hidden, but a valuable resource to be exploited, a tool that helps a group become smarter and more connected.

Which leads to another question: what’s the best way to do this? Here are a few ideas:

  • Have leaders model vulnerability. When the most powerful people in a group are open about failure, they give permission for everyone else to do the same.
  • Set expectations early on. The first big failure is the opportunity to establish the norm for group behavior around failures. If the first failure is shared, the others become easier to share.
  • Build group habits of failure-sharing. A lot of highly successful groups have regular circle-ups where they shine light on their screwups, hold each other accountable, and make plans for improvement. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s a necessity when it comes to building a group brain.

I’d be curious if you had any other ideas for doing this; if you do, please feel free to share them below.