Boredom is Underrated

May 19th, 2017

Check out this story of Eric Thames, a washed-up ballplayer who used his time in the Korean league to transform his skills. As this story shows, boredom isn’t a problem; it’s the solution, because it gives you the opportunity to reflect, plan, and build something new.

Eric Thames and the Transformative Power of Boredom

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Sneak Preview; New Release Date

May 15th, 2017

Wanted to share some news: The Culture Code has an official release date: January 30, 2018. We originally were going to launch in fall, but the more we thought about it, the more we liked the idea of the new year.

It also has an actual, real-life cover:

We were aiming for an image that captured the cohesive, magical feeling that great cultures radiate. You know, that “way more than the sum of their parts” vibe.

What do you think?

I love it — then again I might be a bit biased 😉

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The Boss Gives a Lesson

April 24th, 2017

This is the coolest/most inspiring video I’ve seen in a long time: Bruce Springsteen talking about practice.

Anybody else get goosebumps? How about you, Allen Iverson?

(Big thanks to Lisa Vahey. And also to Cousin Frankie)

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Three Tools for Highly Productive Practice

March 15th, 2017

images-6What if you could measure the productivity of each practice session? That is, what if you could look beneath the surface and see precisely how much learning and progress each session generates?

If you did, I think you’d find that your productivity, like so many things in life, probably follows a bell curve.

At one end, you would find a small number of practice sessions that are unproductive. In the middle, you would find a majority that are fairly productive. But out on the far end, you would find a small handful of practice sessions that are insanely productive.

The question is, how can you nudge your curve so that you have more of those super-productive sessions? Here are three ideas, drawn from high-performing coaches and teachers.

1. Keep Score 

Games are fueled by a scoreboard — why should practice be any different? University of Virginia women’s soccer coach Steve Swanson (who’s also an assistant on the U.S. Women’s National Team) scores each of his team’s practices on four qualities, rating each on a scale of 1-3:

  • Performance
  • Effort
  • Attitude
  • Communication

The most important part: Swanson posts the practice scores in the locker room. In addition, prior to each practice he secretly selects two players to receive what he calls Accountability Scores — basically, how well they achieved the goals of performance, effort, attitude, and communication that day — then delivers those scores to the players when practice is over.

Sometimes players disagree with the scores he gives. Which, as Swanson points out, is not a bad thing. Because it creates the kind of conversation he wants the team to have.

2) Design to Maximize High-Quality Reps

Probably the most high-leverage factor in productive practice is how you plan and structure each activity. The key metric here is the number of high-quality reps being generated.

Here’s a good example from Doug Lemov (whose books on building teacher skill are indispensable).

Designing class this way — cold-calling, so that each student generates an answer — the teacher maximizes the number of high-quality reps. If the teacher had selected a student before asking the question, one rep would be generated. By asking the question and then selecting a student, thirty reps are generated. That is, a small change in design leads to a massive increase in productivity.

Good design is revealed through a simple eye test: Are people standing around, waiting for their turn? Or is everyone on point, leaning forward, actively engaged?

3) Build a Practice Culture

The real value of a practice session isn’t determined by what happens in practice, but by the way the group’s leaders value practice. That is, how they talk about it, treat it, and the set of group habits that gives it meaning.

Here’s a vivid example of how an organization builds a culture around practice, from the Seattle Seahawks

Look at how intentionally Pete Carroll establishes the value of practice. That prioritization is upheld by a series of habits — tapping in to start, competing on each rep — that serve as signals that orient everyone to the larger truth: practice is the most important thing we do together, not just because it’s where the games are really won, but also because it’s where our identity is created.

I’d love to hear about any other tools teachers and coaches use to make their sessions better.

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Before Your Next Practice Session, Watch This

February 28th, 2017

There are lots of cool videos out there on the power of effective practice. But this might be one of the best — especially to show learners before a session.

It’s by Annie Bosler and Don Greene, and animated by Martina Mestrovic. And it’s awesome.

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There are Two Types of Coaches. Which are You?

February 16th, 2017

Z-2When you look out at the vast ecosystem of teaching and coaching, you see two main species: people who are focused on building skill, and people who are focused on building people.

Most coaches and teachers are in the skill-building business. They spend their time thinking about how to get better. They understand technique and strategy and information. They specialize in the “how” — that is, giving people tools to improve.

People builders, on the other hand, are  focused not just on on skills, but on connecting with the learner and guiding the growth process. They use a toolkit of emotional skills to build relationships. They operate on a deeper level, specializing in tapping into the “why,” accessing the deepest wells of grit and motivation that drive progress over time.

Here’s a quick and wildly unscientific quiz to see where you fit:

  • A) I treat everybody as mostly the same
  • B) I treat people as individuals, with unique motivations, strengths, and weaknesses


  • A) I focus on drills and repetition
  • B) I focus on awareness and feedback, and helping the learner take ownership of the process


  • A) I focus on delivering the knowledge to drive improvement
  • B) I focus on building partnerships to create the knowledge together


  • A) I’m fascinated by designing drills
  • B) I’m fascinated by building plans, tools, and systems


  • A) I’m obsessed with progress
  • B) I’m obsessed with process


If you answered A) to most, you incline toward being a skill builder; if you answered B), you incline toward being a people builder. I think most of us would agree that being a people builder is probably a more powerful role to play. But what we might not appreciate is how simple it is to become one.

Here’s an example: the teachers at Geared to Golf Performance Center in Ontario started off a recent session by having the students answer a simple question: What is your motivational fuel as an athlete? They then shared the answers on this whiteboard.


It’s not exactly brain science; it probably took all of ten minutes to accomplish. But consider the effect: in one short exercise, the individual motivations of each learner are made apparent, both to themselves and to all the teachers. This isn’t just skill-building — this is partnering with the learner.

Another of my favorite people-building tools I’ve come across is KIPP’s framework for excellent teaching, which they use to guide their efforts to develop the talents of their teachers. It looks like this:


Check out the way it combines the various elements of teaching and centers all the them on student growth. This kind of model — as simple as it is — can be a powerful influence in a culture, because it places the skill sets in a social context. It connects people so they can grow together.

Do you happen to have any people-building tools or ideas you’d like to share? Feel free to share them below!

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Stop Judging Talent; Start Judging Character

January 3rd, 2017

brady-combine-topThis revisit of a 2013 post is made timely by the fact that Tom Brady, now nearly 40, just went 11-1 and set an NFL record for touchdown-to-interception ratio. Which means 1) he’s pretty good for a sixth-round draft choice; 2) he’s almost made up  for his choice of underwear in the photo at right. 

Sorry to break this to you, but you are a pretty bad judge of talent.

It’s not your fault. We’re all bad at judging talent because we instinctively tend to overrate the visible stuff (performance), and underrate the invisible stuff we call “character” — namely work habits, competitiveness, ambition, and grit — which turn out to be far more important over the long run.

Take Sunday’s Oscars, for instance, where the big winner was “Argo” director/producer/star Ben Affleck. That would be the same Ben Affleck who, a few years ago, was known mostly for making a series of spectacularly mediocre movies, including 2003’s “Gigli,” which has been hailed by reviewers as possibly the worst movie of all time.

So were we all wrong about Affleck’s talents? Absolutely, because we made the same old mistake: we were distracted by the visible, and ignored what really matters.

Nowhere is this more true than at this week’s NFL combine, that annual festival of bad judgement. Hundreds of top college players are brought in to be measured — to leap, run, lift weights, and take intelligence tests. Teams then use these measures and other sophisticated scouting techniques to determine the players’ value in the draft… and then proceed to get it wrong with spectacular consistency.

Some teams, however, consistently manage to avoid this trap. One of them is the New England Patriots and their coach Bill Belichick. How? In part, because they’ve figured out an efficient way to test for character.

Here’s how it typically works: at the combine, Belichick invites the prospect to the team’s hotel room. The athlete walks in, Belichick says a brisk hello, clicks off the lights, then pushes PLAY on a video of one of the player’s worst moments of the previous season: a major screwup. Then Belichick turns to the prospect and asks, “So what happened there?”

Belichick not really interested in what happened on the field, of course. He’s interested in how the player reacts to adversity. How does their brain handle failure? Do they take responsibility, or make excuses? Do they blame others, or talk about what they’d do differently? (One player started ripping into his coach, and Belichick flicked on the lights and ended the interview right there — possibly saving his franchise millions.)

The idea is not just to weed out players with the wrong mindset, but also to identify those who have the right one. Players like this skinny, incredibly slow, unathletic quarterback (below), who developed into one of the all-time greats.

The challenge for most of us is that most of the time, we behave exactly like those NFL teams. We’re easily distracted by brilliant performance, and we naturally forget to pay attention to those quieter things that really matter in the long run. So here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Highlight daily work and repetition. For instance, some music programs create a “100-Day Club” for people who practice for a hundred consecutive days.
  • Track effort. Some coaches rate players after each practice on their effort and hustle from 1-5, and post those publicly, so everybody can see. Is there a way to do that in music or academics?
  • Look for small signs of initiative, and celebrate them. Whenever a learner comes to practice with new ideas, or inquires how they can get better, or spends unexpected time working on their own to improve a skill, treat that as a big moment. Because it is.

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The Mental Trick that Unlocks Improvement

December 15th, 2016

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.

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The One Surprising Habit of Effective Leaders

October 20th, 2016

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.

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Stop Warming Up, Start Learning Up

October 6th, 2016

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.


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