Stare to Win

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If you were to visit a dozen talent hotbeds tomorrow, you would be struck by how much time they spend staring.

I’m not talking about merely looking. I’m talking about active staring — the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies.

What’s more, the physical spaces seem frequently designed for staring: practice areas are shared among different groups, so that older and younger can mix (and stare). Walls feature photos and posters of local heroes (the better for staring). Training sessions often seems to be augmented by injections of high-octane staring.

This pattern of behavior strikes most of us as strange and surprising, because to all appearances, staring seems kind of dumb. More important, most of us instinctively view staring as passive — and when it comes to teaching/parenting/coaching, there is no greater perceived sin than tolerating passivity. We strive to create environments of constant, purposeful action that makes our classrooms and playing fields resemble a neverending episode of Iron Chef. Just staring? It seems like a waste of time.

But is it? Or is there something powerful going on beneath the surface?

I recently visited a group of Special Forces soldiers who had recently taken an expedition to an exotic, far-off place: the corner offices of General Electric. The soldiers spent a few weeks in the boardrooms, watching top executives at work. The soldiers didn’t have any responsibilities other than watching the GE execs make decisions, communicate, and work together. Basically, they stared. And when they returned to their unit, the Special Forces commanders (who’d set up this experiment) noticed an immediate and pronounced boost in performance. They made better decisions, they communicated more clearly.

Another example: classical music teachers around the world have been stunned in the past few years by the quality of learning going by watching great performances on YouTube. There aren’t any real classes, per se, but rather a space where people stare at Heifetz, Perlman, Lang Lang et. al., copy them, and get better.

And another: In a famous episode of 60 Minutes, tennis teacher and author Timothy Galwey taught a person who’d never played tennis before to hit a decent forehand in 20 minutes — without uttering a word. It was all via the stare.

So what’s happening in these cases?

Three things, I’d say:

  • First, mimicry. Staring is the fastest, most efficient way to imprint a skill on our brains — far more efficient than trying to learn through the keyhole of words.  (First the teacher has to come up with the right word, then the learner has to absorb/understand it, then the learner has to convert that word into an action — it’s a multi-step conversion process, with the possibility for error at each step.)
  • Second, high-quality feedback. Active staring gives us a way to measure our performance against those who are better than us. Once their performance is imprinted, we can see how we compare, and make adjustments accordingly. We can feel where we fall short, and fix it.
  • Third, igniting motivation.  Staring is the royal road to passion, because it’s the main way we link our identities with other people.  Those photos of heroes around the talent hotbeds are not a coincidence, because they send a signal that creates a response from the starer: those dudes did it. Why can’t I?

To evolutionary-psychology types, the hidden benefits of active staring come as no surprise. For millions of years, long before language existed to motivate and inform us, our brains learned by staring — and we’re still good at it. Staring is a neural combination platter — fuel for both learning and motivation.

So the question becomes one of design — specifically, how do we mimic the talent hobeds and get more staring into our lives? I’d suggest four ways:

  1. Pick quality targets. Start collecting a video catalogue of brilliant, stare-worthy performances (YouTube is handy for this). All the better if there are slow-motion versions.
  2. Treat staring as a daily fuel stop. Set aside five minutes per day for watching brilliance.
  3. Design stare-friendly spaces. Isolation kills motivation — make sure age groups get a chance to closely observe each other, to see what they might become.
  4. Respect the stare. If you catch someone staring at something or someone (presuming here that it’s something vaguely worthwhile), realize what’s going on and give them some room. There’s some important stuff happening beneath the surface.

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15 Responses to “Stare to Win”

  1. gosobooks says:

    Staring is unique and I can acknowledge that. Recently I decided to go into seminar presentations and I have never done such in my life in the past even to worsen the case i couldn’t even answer a question in a normal classroom setting throughout my schooling period upto my 1st degree but having watched a lot of TED presentations and youtube videos on related field to my chosen seminar line I became convinced I could do it and I have already done two without panicking and i hope God’s willing to get better at it. I think the youtube staring means is really revolutionary, otherwise how do u get to see people like Steve Jobs presnting and learn from them?

  2. Ellen Q says:

    I sometimes have trouble applying the methods you talk about to my own work (genetics research), but this like really struck home: “Isolation kills motivation.”

    I never feel more humbled, or more motivated, than the week after the annual conferences I attend. Active attention to other people’s research – even when it doesn’t closely relate to my own – is a powerful learning tool.

  3. Jeff says:

    Staring or watching intently is a must. YouTube helps but even better is seeing it live. I think that helps you even more with the “Hey he can do it, so can I” mentality.

  4. Walter says:

    How many times have we watched an event on TV as young kids such as the Stanley Cup Finals, Super Bowl or NBA championship game and then right after the game we would call up our buddies and a game would break out on the streets?? I recall watching the NHL Stanley Cup game on TV and the next day at school 12 of us had organized a game on our street right after school. Everyone taking turns mimicing a crazy move that one of the NHL guys had done the day before? Youngesters aspecially watch and love to mimic. As a soccer coach before our practice offically starts kids are booting the ball around. I hang in a corner and do some “free styling” with the ball. Kids often watch and then weeks later i see them still trying to profect those moves. I realize how far they’ve come along since they first tried the moves. Starring is what they do and often that triggers and starts the wheels in motion. I think we are all guilty of that.

  5. djcoyle says:

    Great example, Walter — thanks for sharing that. I am going to steal that technique of yours immediately.

  6. Dale says:

    Excellent ideas. There are a couple of videos I watch many mornings.
    For mental awesomeness:
    YouTube – Everything is Possible Just Train Your Brain – Memoriad http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX8mR-x35Pk

    For physical awesomeness:
    YouTube – Anything’s possible with training… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTEoasnAQWI

  7. Thanks for validating my staring habit, Dan. :-)

    Similar to Walter, I always play my best tennis after watching one of the Grand Slam finals on TV — doesn’t matter how long it’s been since I’ve played.

    There’s something about skipping left-brain processing and going straight to right-brain execution. Watching/staring provides instant motivation, an “I wanna try that” factor, that isn’t so immediate w/listening or reading.

    (This concept seems to tie in with TED’s Chris Anderson ideas about crowd-accelerated innovation as well.)

  8. Garnet says:

    Great blog Dan, and it reminds me as a teenager I started playing a lot of tennis. My friend and I kept trying to hit topspin forehands like Bjorn Borg, but we just kept pounding them over the fence. This went on for a number of days, then, as luck would have it, the Wimbledon finals were on with Borg and MacEnroe.

    I’d read Timothy Gallaway’s Inner Tennis and remembered how he talked about passive brain learning, or something. So I parked myself 3 feet from the TV and did my best to feel how Borg’s hit the ball while completely blocking out MacEnroe.

    I wasn’t watching the game, I was just trying to absorb Borg’s stroke. The next day I had a killer topspin forehand, it was like I’d always had it. My friend couldn’t believe that I could go to bed one day with a lousy shot and wake up the next day with a near perfect stroke(and he wasn’t buying the ‘learning by watching it on TV’).

    The crux of it was not memorizing or trying to figure out what he was doing as it is getting the feeling or rhythm of it. In fact, I just remembered this, a buddy of mine was helping me improve my skiing and we’d pick a song and then play it in our heads as I followed him down the mountain, doing my best to move the way he did. It was kind of a stare/feel/mimic routine that we repeated, and it worked wonders on my skiing.

    There must be some sweet spot of combining technical understanding and absorbing the rhythm of great performers.

    Looking forward to your next post Dan.

  9. Rod Roth says:

    Dan,

    here’s what i stare at:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/chasingtheswell/.

    Thirty minutes of extraodinary big wave surfing and commentary from the surfers about their involvement. I don’t surf anymore, I trade futures. This film, which I’ve watched over twenty times, has everything for me that you talk about. Especially that brilliant flash of motivation. Thanks for another great post.

  10. Hunter Dean says:

    Daniel – So true, when you look at how “Children” learn its exactly the same, and in fact the problem often with them is that we “Adults” disrupt their learning over and over not respecting this state. Turning our kids into the ADHD paradigm we have now, most parents are not even aware with all their rushing around what they’re creating.

    Neurolinguistics – Bases much of its modelling work around this kind of learning also!

    Any athlete worth their salt is incredible at focusing or going into the “Zone” and staying there, and I’m certain you’re right this started when they “Stared” and experienced others doing these same things years prior.

  11. Wendy says:

    The city we live in has an NHL team that went to the 6th round of playoffs a few years ago and their goaltender absolutely “stood on his head”. That was a year that many impressionable young hockey players made the decision to become goaltenders. Known as the ‘Kipper Phenomenon’,Calgary now has a huge pool of 1996 birth year great young goaltenders.
    The next step, I guess, is to understand how to compete successfully in an environment where there has been such a situation.
    I look forward to exploring more of the ideas you,Daniel,and your readers present.

    Cheers!

  12. Great post. You may find it interesting to investigate mirror neurons. A recent discovery, our mirror neurons allow us to learn things just by watching others.
    It seems mirror neurons are why ‘staring’ works.

  13. Robnonstop says:

    Here is the of Timothy Gallwey teaching tennis to a complete beginner:
    http://youtu.be/HzR8x5MgvDw

  14. Robnonstop says:

    Here is the video of Timothy Gallwey teaching tennis to a complete beginner:
    http://youtu.be/HzR8x5MgvDw

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