The Senator Experiment


The other day I got a call out of the blue from a U.S. Senator (who’ll remain anonymous here), with an interesting problem: he wanted to get better at his job. Quick background: he’s in his mid-fifties, and not a career politician; he’s not in danger of being defeated in an election, so he figures he’s going to be in D.C. for a while. The Senator was essentially asking a strange and fascinating question: was there a way he could practice being a better senator?Here’s how he described his goal:

“I want to become one of those people who “gets” big issues — who can frame them quickly and talk about them in clear, compelling ways. I want to be one of those senators who might only say a few words, but to whom people listen because their words cut through the clutter and capture the essence of an issue.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. The question seemed kinda crazy. Then we talked some more. It gradually became clear that the people who do well in this area essentially possess 3 distinct skills: 1) recognize a pattern in the landscape; 2) choose a strategy; 3) communicate that strategy to others.

We’re talking, of course, about soft skills. This is not like learning to play an E-major chord or shoot a free throw (see previous post) — it’s not about repeating with precision. It’s more like learning to be a jazz singer, or salesperson, or an improv comic — building a fast, fluent brain capable of choosing exactly the right sequence, at speed, out of thousands of possibilities. The question the Senator is asking is the same one most of us face: what’s the best way to practice soft skills? We kicked around some ideas and here’s what we came up with:

  • 1) To improve pattern recognition and choice, practice like a soccer player: consider creating “game films.” Pick a recent Big Issue — for example, the financial crisis — and do an analysis of how each of the key figures behaved. Walk through the events in slo-mo; recreate their decision patterns, and learn from them. Figure out how you would want to behave in that kind of situation.
  • 2) To improve the ability to distill issues to their essence, practice like a comedy writer: start generating material, test it out, keep what works. Political communication is like any other communication; it’s about distilling and framing — figuring out just the right combination of images and words to tell your story. One good tool is Twitter: the discipline of the 140-character limit enforces the principle: it’s easy to be complex — the true challenge is to get good at taking immensely complex issues and making them simple, compelling and accessible.
  • 3) Set aside some daily time and space for practice, and start keeping a journal to record ideas, results, and to make plans.

I’ve no idea how this is going to go, but it feels like a potentially interesting experiment. The Senator said he’ll keep me posted as to how things are going. So feel free to offer any other suggestions, and post them below. Who knows? If this takes off, he might have to call you “coach”!

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12 Responses to “The Senator Experiment”

  1. Doc says:

    Maybe the first thing this senator should do is strive to be one of “those senators” (if there is one) who does the right thing at the expense of money, power, paybacks, etc. Maybe challenge himself to actually represent the entire country. Maybe understand that to be responsible is a worth goal for people but they often need help achieving that because the playing field is so often tilted away from them. Maybe to understand that safety nets are fine but the goal is to create a path so that people can eventually free climb without a net. Maybe set aside any bigotries and stereotypes and get out and see how people acutally live and what they have to endure on a daily basis. There is a new book out called “Manvotionals” that explores 7 virutes of manliness. Title is a little cheesy but some great articles in written by some of the great figures in history. It covers what manliness actually is, courage, industry, resolution, self reliance, discipline and honor. Once this senator achieves these types of things (if He or She hasn’t already) then maybe begin learning how to be more concise and powerful in his speech. The last thing we need now is another politician ramming through bad ideas, and that is a non partisan statement

  2. If you want to become a big picture thinker you have to expand the area of topics you look at and let your brain and interests take you, you have to look at the underlying patterns and connections between each, for they are there and then come up with a sentence to explain those patterns and connections.

    Big picture thinking is really important yet it is hammered out of us at school because it’s not taught or marked for.

    If you want to learn how or see examples of simplicity of thought there is a book and a website out there by M&C Saatchi called “Brutal Simplicity of Thought”

    The other thing you must be prepared to do is have an open mind and challange your own ideas and perceptions.

  3. Brian says:

    Nothing substantial to add (sorry!). Just wanted to say I’m addicted to this blog after having read your book. Keep it up and don’t ever stop writing here!!

  4. Doc says:

    Interesting that no one is commenting on this. Wonder what that tells us. One last point as I re read what the Senator wants to be able to do I had to ask myself “Isn’t this a skill the Senator should have had before even considering running for Senate”?

  5. Rod Roth says:

    Big picture issues are, themselves, patterned. The pattern matches the monthly chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. After extreme periods, such as at the present, the call is to fix things, like to restore the banking laws that were put in place suring the depression and lobbied out of law during the halcyon days prior to the top in the market.

    The best source for understanding how the big picture will evolve is Robert Prechter’s book, THE WAVE PRINCIPAL OF HUMAN SOCIAL BEHAVIOR. I believe the nation would benefit greatly if legislators (and their constituents) studied this book. Continuing information is available at the Socionomics Center’s Website:

  6. Maria says:

    I disagree regarding the question posted above regarding whether this Senator shouldn’t already have had the skills he/she wants to improve upon.
    Some of the most solid, influencial, moral, courageous people you know didn’t become that way without life experiences and, perhaps mistakes made along the way.
    Similiar to being a parent and/or running a family household – not all stellar parents had those skills prior to having a family. They perhaps had a vision of what they wanted in a family, they had expectations, but no doubt there were many lessons learned with the first, second or third child that molded them into the present-day parent!
    The fact that this Senator is pro-actively searching for a way to “get it”, to better communicate and understand, speaks volumes.

  7. Garnet says:

    The different strategies used for hard and soft skill development is interesting.

    I think your format is good Dan, although I would add ‘gain a deep understanding of the topic’ and then build the skills on top of that.

    The idea of watching video of people who are good at it to let your mind absorb the desired result, and then mentally putting yourself in that situation and practicing how you would respond would be very effective.

  8. Doc says:

    It is admirable that the Senator is trying to improve himself. However, Maria is making my point for me when she speaks of life experiences and failures. We have too many people entering politics when they don’t have the life experiences and the failures and most importantly the wisdom to make the hard choices that affect our country and the world. Just because you have been successful in a line of work doesn’t necessarily qualify you to be in such an important position. Wisdom comes from time and experience and failures and learning from those failures to mention only a few of the vitues needed. The difficulties of raising children and running a household (as importannt as it is) is not the equivalent of voting on issues that impact not only our country but the entire world. Using Al Gore as an example (putting aside his politics and stating that there are similar people in both parties):his sights were on politics from his high school years as evidenced by his papers on important issues, his volunteering to go to Viet Nam to experience what war was like and to report on it. His life was devoted to the issues that impact the world. Those are the type people we need entering politics regardless of party. They should have an understanding of issues and ramifications of actions. It is we as voters who should also be knowledgeable of the issues and vote for those with whom we agree. It is the substance of what made America what it is. And I will say again, now that this Senator is in office it is admirable that he or she is trying to improve his or her abilities. Others should follow suit

  9. ted herbert says:

    Great discussion on this important topic. I work in Government and would love it if political representatives took the time and invested the energy needed to really master what they are entrusted to do – make good decisions and think hard about how to translate those decisions into policy/programs. Your suggestions for improving cognitive agility and communication clarity are very valuable. I love reading this blog.

  10. Dave says:

    “Capturing the essence” of an issue is an exercise in the mental process of abstraction. According to, abstraction can be defined as “the act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances.” David Foster Wallace had some interesting thoughts on abstraction in the introductory section of his mathematical book “Everything and More”. Ayn Rand was also a master of abstract thinking and her “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” is a very useful guide to what is actually happening when we form abstract concepts. Also, realize that the senator is asking about two different skills here. One is the initial understanding of the issue and the next is stripping away the inessential points of the issue in order to communicate it to others. The initial understanding of the issue may require that the senator examines certain details that are ultimately “inessential” in his quest for understanding, which he then strips away before communicating to his colleagues.

  11. Todd Graves says:

    As a coach, I try to listen to the cause of the resistance to the students learning potential. When someone is having trouble with a fundamental, often they have a concept in their head of “how it should be” when in reality, the concept is keeping them from experiencing what is correct.

    I think people who “service” others must be good listeners. The Senator should strive to become a great listener. Many times BIG issues are simply the development of smaller issues and the smaller issues are the things that must be dealt with. Listen to those who he is serving. Ask people what they are experiencing. Ask them what they are doing about it. Listening is a skill and it must be learned. All great coaches, teachers and communicators have learned to listen to the people they service.

    This is the problem with the current Government regime. Nobody is listening. There is a fundamental lack of understanding of economics AND nobody is listening to those who can help the problem. Furthermore, those who are not being listened to will eventually go where they will be heard. Look at the CEO of Starbucks who has established an organization to fund small businesses. He listened AND he is doing something about it because big government isn’t.

  12. Candice says:

    Wow! What a powerful and interesting discussion. I have to agree with the above comment on listening. When we seek first to understand and then be understood it’s incredible the insights that can be discovered. The more aware and alert you become while listening the clearer and simplier things become. Listening definitely does require putting aside the busy ideas, thoughts and beliefs about should be and emptying your mind while another shares.

    On the pattern front, Six Seconds (International Emotional Intelligence educators has pattern recognition as one of their learnable, teachable skills. Like soccer in Brazil, I would use my own patterns of behavior’s as a training ground for learning pattern recognition. It’s amazing once you begin to recognize your own patterns how you see them in other’s and ultimately playing out exactly the same way in a community, city, country, global playground. Through self-mastery of one’s own patterns seeing other patterns becomes a lot simpler.

    I think the skills of self-mastery (soft-skills as Daniel calls it) would make much of what the Senator wants to learn easier. One of the doorways being Emotional Intelligence training.

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