Not for lack of trying. To improve focus, most of us use a common-sense method: we actively remind ourselves to do it. Coaches yell it from the sidelines — Come on, focus! Parents instruct their homework-doing kids — Stop texting and just focus! We talk to ourselves — Focus now!
The problem is, that method usually doesn’t work. Urging focus is sort of like kicking the tires of a car that won’t start. It feels satisfying, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is that our brains crave the steady-state of comfort, not the effort of focus.
So the real question is, how do you nudge people out of their default setting? How do you design learning environments that tilt people toward focus?
I was thinking about this last weekend when we went to Chicago and rode bikes along the lakefront, that wide, paved stretch that fronts Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful day, so the lakefront was packed with hundreds of bikers, skateboarders, rollerbladers, joggers, and kids, everybody zipping in and out at high speed. Then we noticed something strange: no guardrails.
The paved area went right up to the lake, where there was a five-foot vertical drop to the water. No rail, no fence, no safety device of any kind for miles. To fall in would have been a problem, especially for small kids who were darting around.
But here’s the thing: nobody falls in. When they got close to the edge, everybody tuned in. The lack of guardrails makes people pay more attention. It sends a clear signal — Hey, the edge is right here — that improves focus.
(This isn’t the only place like this. A few years back, traffic engineers in Holland made an unlikely discovery: the best way to make intersections safer was to remove all traffic signs. Drivers became more attentive; accident rates dropped.)
So how do we design for better focus in a classroom? On a sports field? During a homework session?
The answer is, do the same thing. Remove the guardrails. Send a clear, unmissable signal — Hey, the edge is right here.
Here are a few ways to do that:
- Post a calendar with important dates circled, and count them down. How many days until the tournament? Until the big test? Until the report is due?
- Set out “north-star” goals. Some schools, like KIPP, constantly remind kids about college. For example, they name classrooms after the college the teacher attended; they post signs above the bathroom mirrors that ask: Where are You Going to College? Those signals work like churchbells; they ring often, reminding the students of the bigger goal.
- Have learners grade themselves each session. A top soccer coach uses a two-level system: players either gave their absolute best, or they did not.
The larger point: none of this involves talking, or urging people to focus harder. The goal is to design the environment so it does the urging for you.
I’m curious: what other ways do you have to improve your focus?
Whether you’re a parent or a coach, an athlete or a musician or a kid, there’s one piece of advice that you’ve heard a zillion times: follow your passion. It’s a beautifully tempting idea, because it implies each of us has a calling, a destiny.
It’s also crummy advice.
Here’s why: follow your passion (FYP) is based on the notion that our passions are fixed and unchangeable, and that our main job is to hunt after that passion as if it were so much buried Spanish treasure. The idea is, once we discover it, we’ll find happiness.
The problem is, that’s not true. Yes, there are a lucky few who are seized by a desire in childhood and spend the rest of their lives happily following that narrow road. But for the vast majority of us, life is more complicated: we are faced with tough choices, branching pathways. And when we base our happiness on FYP’s treasure-hunt logic, we create a cascade of frustration (Why aren’t I happy? Should I switch paths? What’s wrong with me?).
The key fact to realize is that passions aren’t fixed — they’re flexible and alive. They grow and change in connection with our abilities and accomplishments. For a useful insight into this, check out this piece by Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and author of the new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, who devastatingly debunks the Myth of FYP. His argument is based on two basic truths:
- Point #1: the thing that people love about their lives — that X factor that gives them the feeling of passion — usually has less to do with the specifics of a pursuit, and more to do with the bigger factors: the feeling of self-efficacy, accomplishment, and the joy of having a mission that impacts the world in a positive way.
- Point #2: The early years of any pursuit are filled with struggle and difficulty. The love of a craft grows alongside our skills.
I’m Exhibit A. Though I loved books, I didn’t grow up burning to be a writer; I turned to it after college, after I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor. My early years working at a magazine were fun, but also hard and frustrating. If I’d been constantly asking myself, “Is this truly my passion?” I would have been frustrated. But as I got better, I started to enjoy it more and more. I wrote short articles, then longer articles. Then decided to try writing a book. It worked — not because I’d followed my passion, but because my passion grew alongside my skills.
To be clear: this is not to say you shouldn’t do what you love. You absolutely should. But you should do so with the right expectations. As Newport points out: don’t follow your passion. Let your passion follow you, by cultivating it through hard work.
Science is showing us that when it comes to praise, kids operate like light switches. Certain types of praise switch kids on by boosting their motivation and willingness to take risks. Other kind of praise switch kids off.
There are lots of interesting experiments here (many by Carol Dweck), but here’s the takeaway: avoid praising for abilities, and instead praise for effort.
Here’s why: when you praise for ability — that is, when tell someone they’re a natural-born Einstein, or a Mini-Michael Jordan — they unconsciously tend to protect that status by taking fewer risks and forgoing opportunities to make more effort. (After all, we’re status-based creatures — why risk genius status?) When you praise for effort, on the other hand, studies show that kids are willing to take on harder tasks without complaint, and perform better.
The problem, however, is that we parents and coaches seem to be hard-wired to praise in exactly the wrong way. We instinctively praise ability and status. When a kid shows us their latest magic-marker drawing, we say, “What a great artist you are!” When a kid does his first trick on a snowboard, we say, “Hey, you’re little Shawn White!”
The key to effective praise is to focus on the process, not the person. Put the emphasis on what was produced, not on the kid. This sounds sort of chilly, but the effect is actually the opposite. For instance:
- So, instead of saying, “Wow! You’re such a great artist!”
- Say: “I love that picture! Tell me about it.”
- Instead of, “You’re an awesome snowboarder!”
- Say: “That was great! How’d you figure out how to do that?”
- Instead of, “Another A-plus! You’re so brilliant at math!”
- Say: “Another A-plus! You must’ve really studied hard for that test.”
See what I mean? Instead of just being a cheerleader (You’re so awesome!), use praise to go a notch deeper: to start conversations, spark reflection, and create more of a bond.
In the search for effective praise, the best example I’ve ever come across consists of just two words: Well done!
You don’t need to rehash the accomplishment, or elevate the kid to superstar status. All you need to do it be present, and to show that you saw what they did, appreciate it.
What other phrases work for you?
This is the single best speech on creativity I’ve ever seen. It’s from Jack White, rock star and former upholsterer. I love this because it shows that creative work is not about magic and mystery. It’s about designing an environment that helps you make new connections in the brain you already have. (The whole clip is useful, but if you’re short on time, skip ahead to the 40-second mark.)
Here are the takeaways:
- 1) Inspiration is hugely overrated. Don’t wait for the clouds to part and rays from heaven to come down. Do the work, every day.
- 2) Scarcity is fuel. Luxuries of time and space don’t help creativity; they strangle it. Constrict your time and choices; it creates clarity.
- 3) Avoid comfort. Don’t settle into patterns, but seek ways to create tension
“Force yourself into it. Force yourself…. Deadlines and things make you creative. But opportunity and telling yourself, “Oh you have all that time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in your palette you want, anything you want…” – that just kills creativity.”
Of all the key moments in talent development, the most important and mysterious is the first ten seconds. The first few swings, the first notes, the first stumbly tries. It’s a tenuous time, because it’s a psychological fork in the road. Either you get the Good Feeling (“Hey, this is kinda fun!”), or the Bad Feeling (“Awww, I’ll never be any good”). In short, it’s either an on-ramp or a stop sign.
The deeper question here has to do with design. Namely, how do you create an environment that creates more on-ramps and avoids stop signs?
As it happens, I just came across some videos that do a nice job of teaching how to do just that. They feature Diddy, a two-year-old kid in Yorkshire, England. His father, a PE teacher named Stuart Owen, has videotaped his experiences coaching Diddy in number of sports. (And it’s working — the little dude is pretty amazing. Click here to check out the full set.)
While the videos are useful for parents, I think they also provide a nice blueprint for anybody who wants to start out on the right foot.
- 1) Keep it small. Don’t be ambitious. Focus on one simple core action, not a whole complicated series of them.
- 2) Have a clearly defined, do-able target. Don’t aim vaguely or abstractly — this is about creating a small game, with clear feedback so the person can instantly see for themselves where they’re at — how they can get closer next time.
- 3) Make it fun. Create an environment free of judgement, and where successes are celebrated like crazy.
The payoff of this design is evident: you can see how much Diddy loves it. Not because he’s being praised (which is nice), but rather because he’s in an environment tilted to help him discover an immensely powerful fact: trying new skills, while it feels strange at first, isn’t that hard after all.
Self talk is the world’s most mysterious language. We all do it constantly — you know, that whisper that comes into your head at key moments, the one that says, okay, take a deep breath… keep your weight on the balls of your feet… now go! — but it happens mostly unconsciously, and nobody talks about it.
Which is strange, because when it comes to skills, self talk is a massively useful tool. For example, studies show that skilled athletes tend to self-talk more often, and in a more planned and consistent manner (less-skilled athletes tend merely to react). Sprinters who self-talk run faster. Good self talk functions like an early-warning radar system, helping us to identify key moves and navigate problems. Done well, it’s like having a coach inside your head.
But here’s the question: if self talk is a good thing, how do we get better at it? Is it possible to teach it, the same way you’d learn any language? With that in mind, here are a few tips — some from experiments, some from my observations.
1) Keep it short and chunky. Good self talk is never chatty or complicated. It divides the skill into its key moves, and uses those as clear cues. For example, with a golf swing:
- Say this: “Smooth arms, still head.”
- Not this: “Okay, let’s keep the takeaway smooth, relax your posture, make sure to keep your head still through the backswing.”
2) Make it vivid. The more vivid the image, the easier it is to remember, and to do. For example, with a violin player working on posture:
- Say this: “Stand like a tree.”
- Not this: “Make sure you stand up straight.”
3) Keep it positive. Don’t focus on what you want to avoid, but on what you want to accomplish. For example, for a soccer player practicing penalty kicks:
- Say this: “Keep tempo; hit it clean.”
- Not this: “Don’t rush the shot, don’t get under the ball.”
Finally, and maybe most usefully, fluent self-talkers don’t just talk to themselves during their performance; they also do it before and after. Self talk is like a game tape: you use it to preview what’s going to happen, and then afterwards you use it again to walk through what happened, and figure out how you might do it better the next time.
Because if we parents are honest, we know that we are, more often than not, pretty crummy coaches. We want to help, but we lack deep understanding of mechanics or technique, and so we compensate by being vague and/or bossy (been there). By the same token, kids who would listen eagerly to a coach aren’t always so agreeable to taking pointers from dear old Mom or Dad.
In short, it’s complicated.
Which is where Mike Polonsky and his nine-year-old hockey-playing son come in. Here’s what Mike wrote:
Dylan was working on his shot this summer, and it was coming along. More zip, more elevation. Like a basketball player in the driveway working on his shot, Dylan was pounding the hockey pucks into the goalie net, which had a target in each corner. While his speed was developing, his aim was not. For instance, he might be trying to hit the top left corner and end up in the bottom right quadrant. This type of result was happening routinely. Aim just seemed beyond his reach at this point in his development. Summer was winding down.
In mid-August, while he was in the middle of his bucket of pucks, I asked him to stop; put down his stick; take off his gloves; pick up a puck and throw it like a pitcher or a quarter back to the top left corner. He whipped it over the net. But with in 10 throws he was narrowing in, and within 20 throws he was consistently in the range.
I asked him while he kept throwing, “Dylan, can you feel your brain talking to your hand? Trying to figure out when to release the puck?” He said he could. After about 40 throws, I suggested he put the gloves back and grab his stick. I told him, “Dylan, that blade at the end of your stick, I don’t want you to think of it as a blade anymore. Think of it as another hand, that can grab a puck and is connected to your brain. Let them talk to each other, and control when you release the puck.”
First shot: top left corner. Dylan just looked over at me, and smiled with wonder and surprise. Pretty cool moment for us. Moreover, his aim improved dramatically thereafter. Once, two weeks later towards the end of the summer he nailed four pucks in a row into that same top left corner.
I love this story because of the simplicity of what Mike does — and doesn’t do.
What Mike does: he targets the problem — release point. He helps Dylan notice for himself. Then creates a simple action from which Dylan can learn, and gives him a vivid image to work from.
What Mike doesn’t do: take over. Give a lecture. Grab a stick to demonstrate the technique. Make it about himself in any way.
All of which goes toward showing us the real way to be a good coach/parent.
It’s not about explaining big things; it’s about directing the kid’s attention to little things.
It’s not about talk. It’s about asking questions, inspiring action, and creating vivid feedback so they can figure it out.
It’s not about you, parents — it’s about them.
Me? I wanna be like Mike.
Life is made up of tests: the championship game, the final exam, the crucial presentation, the big recital. In those moments, we naturally tend to focus on the externals of our performance. Were we successful or not?
However, I think it might be more revealing to focus on the foundation: the days of preparation leading up to the performance. Specifically on this question: how do you know when you’re ready for a big test? How do you tell that you’re fully prepared?
While doing research for The Little Book of Talent I was fortunate enough to spend time at a Navy SEALs training base. The SEALs are rightly famous for their toughness, but I was more impressed with their brains — especially when it came to their methods for preparing for big tests. Case in point: last year’s mission to take out Osama Bin Laden, featured in the new book No Easy Day.
So how did the SEALs prepare for this test? They built a precise, full-scale mockup of Bin Laden’s compound in North Carolina, and they rehearsed. And rehearsed. And rehearsed. For several weeks, they ran endless variations of possible situations, from best-case scenarios on down to total disaster. The story is told in No Easy Day, the new book by fellow Alaskan Mark Bissonnette.
“Every single contingency was practiced to the point where we were tired of it,” Bissonnette writes.
I love that line, not just because it resonates with what I observed with the SEALs, but also because it gives us some insight into what real preparation for big tests truly is. You do something over and over – every single contingency – until you are tired of it.
This is not normally how we think about preparation. In normal life, we think that practice ends when we get it right a couple times in a row. But in truth, that’s when practice truly begins. The goal is not to do it right once. The goal is to do it often enough, in realistic conditions and under pressure, so that you can’t do it wrong.
So how do you know when you’re there? Here are a few tells.
- 1) You can perform the action while paying attention to other, extraneous things. For instance, if it’s a speech or a song, you can perform it while retaining a bit of brain space for noticing things. Call it automaticity, call it autopilot — the point is that you’ve built a reflex.
- 2) You are genuinely, deeply tired of it. You know every molecule of the material so well that if you ran through it one more time you might explode. This relationship — call it a healthy exasperation — is a good sign that you’ve mastered it.
- 3) You can vividly and accurately pre-create the Big Moment in your imagination — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sensations. You don’t get surprised or knocked off balance by the big test because in a profound way, you’ve already experienced it.
All of which adds up to a basic truth known to the SEALs and others whose job is built on mastery: the trick of succeeding in the biggest moments is to use practice to transform them into a series of small, controllable moments.
It’s called The Secret Race, written with professional bike racer and former Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton. It’s the full, honest story of his career at the top of the world’s toughest sport; it takes you inside the hidden world of the U.S. Postal team and the Tour de France during the Lance Armstrong era.
Here’s what went into it: Two years of research. Two hundred hours of interviews with Hamilton. My independent verification of Hamilton’s account through numerous interviews with other riders, doctors, team assistants, wives, and friends. One weeklong trip to France, Spain, and Monaco to visit key locations.
There’s a lot more to come.
I’m eager to hear what you think of it.
Not sure about the eligibility rules for Academy Awards, but do you think I’ve got a shot?