How to Daydream More Effectively

February 5th, 2013

We all daydream. We all spend hundreds hours in a pleasantly zonked state, weaving stories about our future successes. As a small kid, my favorite daydream was winning a gold medal at the Olympics. I was a little hazy as to precisely which event — track, maybe? — but I could hear the anthem playing, and feel the weight of the gold medal around my neck.

Science has weighed in, leaving no doubt that daydreaming can be a good thing for our brains. The deeper question is, are some daydreams more useful than others, when it comes to producing motivation and real-world results? In other words, is there a smarter way to daydream?

We get a fascinating answer from Top Dog, a terrific new book about the science of competition by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (which comes out on Feb 19th, and which you should pre-order right now). Here’s the takeaway: daydreaming works best when you focus both on the goal and on the obstacles between you and the goal.

In other words, you shouldn’t daydream about the payoff, but about the whole process.

For example: one scientist studied German children about to learn English. Some students fantasized only about the benefits they’d get (“I’ll make my father proud!” “I’ll talk to the members of my favorite American band!”), while others fantasized about both the barriers and the benefits. After a semester, the first group averaged a C grade; the second averaged an A.

Another scientist studied hip-replacement patients. Some patients daydreamed about all the wonderful stuff they’d do after surgery, like running marathons and dancing; others focused on the fear, pain and difficulty of recovery as well as the benefits. After surgery, the second group had significantly more mobility and less pain.

Why? The peril of high expectations. Our brains are easily seduced by the sweetness of anticipated benefits — which means that we get demoralized by any setbacks — waitthis isn’t what’s supposed to happen!  Obstacle/benefit daydreaming, on the other hand, prepares you emotionally and tactically for the challenge ahead.

One nice way to apply this idea is the Zander Letter — named after the music educator Benjamin Zander. It works like this: before he begins teaching a new class, Zander asks the students to take out a sheet of paper, date it three months in the future, and title it: I Succeeded in this Class Because…  In the letter, they’re asked to detail the concrete steps they will take that leads to their success.

I like this method, because it can be applied to just about any project, and because it puts the learner in the right mindset for effective daydreaming. They can’t just focus on the seductive sweetness of the outcome. They also have to figure out exactly how they’re going to get there.

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The Power of Fun

February 1st, 2013

“Let’s make it fun.”

You hear those words a lot these days from parents, teachers, and coaches — along with words like “passion” and “engagement.”  We all know that “fun” is a key element of the learning process. We think of it as the the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. That’s part of what fuels the modern urge to provide trophies, ribbons, and ice cream to every participant in every activity — after all, it should be fun, shouldn’t it?

But is this the right way to think about it? Is “fun” really something you can add to the process?  Or is it something more?

I think we get some insights from this video. It’s about the Cochran family, which has produced ten national-level downhill skiers on their small hill behind their house in Vermont. It’s a wonderful video for a bunch of reasons, but especially for the way the four Cochran kids, now grown, describe the experience:

“It was like having a party at your house… We’d come home, rush to do our homework, and at six o’clock the lights would go on, and this magical place appeared.” 

“I don’t ever feel that my father wanted us to be World Cup racers or ever had any idea that we’d be national level racers; all I remember that it was incredibly fun. We just loved going out there.” 

I think this shows a truth that’s easy to overlook:

Fun isn’t something you add to the process — fun is the process.

Fun isn’t the sugar that gets sprinkled on top of the work — it’s baked into the work itself.

Fun isn’t really about parents or teachers or coaches at all. It’s about creating a space where learners can experience the deep fun of discovery and improvement.

(And judging by those smiles, it never goes away.)

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Eloquence is Overrated: Why You Should Teach Like You Tweet

January 29th, 2013

Growing up, the two best movies about teaching were “Dead Poets’ Society” and “Stand and Deliver.” The key moments in both movies were when the teacher made eloquent and amazing speeches that made the hair go up on the back of your neck, when suddenly the students — and you — saw the world in a new and wonderful way. Those movies were totally great.

Also, totally wrong. Not because inspiration isn’t important — it is. But because that’s not how effective teachers really teach.

Great teachers don’t make inspiring speeches to groups. They send short, super-clear bits of targeted information to individuals, which helps them make the right move. They’re like a really useful twitter feed — Do this… Now try that… Reach here… Now here.

We saw a beautiful example of that this fall, when Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and largely confined to his hospital bed. An interim coach took over the team, but Pagano kept coaching, sending in small, targeted messages via text and phone.

Before a big November 26 game against the Bills, Pagano sent a message to punt returner T.Y. Hilton that said just three words: “Stretch and cut” — in other words, stretch out the defense by running horizontally, then cut upfield.

No speech. No elaborate explanation, no inspiration. Just three words. And it worked. Early in the game, Hilton received a punt, stretched the defense, cut upfield, ran 75 yards and scored; the Colts won.

The deeper reason that this kind of tweet-style teaching works has to do with the fact that even the simplest instruction is, underneath, incredibly complicated. There are four basic steps for any communication:

  • Step 1) The teacher/coach has to think up the right idea.
  • Step 2) They have translate that idea into the right words
  • Step 3) They have to deliver those words in such a way that they can be understood and retained by the learner
  • Step 4) The learner has to translate those words into the right action

The simplest teaching — stretch and cut — is actually a complex, fragile four-step chain, with each step holding the potential for misunderstanding and mistake.

Teaching is not about eloquence; it’s about information and interpersonal skills — delivering the right signal to the right person at the right moment.

Which is, when you think about it, pretty damn inspiring.

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Avoiding the Helpfulness Trap: Why Parents Shouldn’t Help Their Kids Too Much

January 25th, 2013

One of the hardest things about parenting is avoiding the Helpfulness Trap: the temptingly wrong idea that parents should assist their kids through their struggles: i.e. speedily intervening when they show frustration, smoothing over rough patches.

While there’s lots of solid thinking on the problems with parental over-helpfulness (my favorite is Blessings of the Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel), I’ve never seen the case made quite so clearly as in this short letter from an Alameda, California, mom named Kate Bassford Baker, who posted it on the Alameda Patch. (You can read the whole thing here.)

Dear Other Parents At The Park:

Please do not lift my daughters to the top of the ladder, especially after you’ve just heard me tell them I wasn’t going to do it for them and encourage them to try it themselves.

I am not sitting here, 15 whole feet away from my kids, because I am too lazy to get up. I am sitting here because I didn’t bring them to the park so they could learn how to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them. I brought them here so they could learn to do it themselves.

They’re not here to be at the top of the ladder; they are here to learn to climb. If they can’t do it on their own, they will survive the disappointment. What’s more, they will have a goal and the incentive to work to achieve it. It is not my job — and it is certainly not yours — to prevent my children from feeling frustration, fear, or discomfort. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn that those things are not the end of the world, and can be overcome or used to their advantage.

To that, I’d add the fact that times of struggle and failure are precisely when the most learning occurs — the “sweet spot,” as psychologists call it, when kids go to the edge of their ability and a little beyond. What looks like struggle and failure is, in fact, an act of construction — the making and honing of new connections in their brain.

All of which means that leaving kids alone has three benefits: 1) they develop emotional resilience; 2) they build skills; 3) you get more free time. In scientific literature, I believe that’s referred to as a win-win-win.

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The Agility Loop

January 22nd, 2013

We love agility — that telltale combination of speed and nimbleness that marks great performers — not just because it’s beautiful, but also because it’s useful.

Quick thought experiment: Go find the best chess player in your area. Offer to bet them $100 on a game if they’ll play you under the following conditions:

  • 1) you give up half your pieces before the game starts
  • 2) you move twice for every one of your opponent’s moves

What you’ll find is surprising. Despite being outsized; despite your opponent’s higher skill level, you will win. In fact, you can give up practically all the pieces and still pull off victory because of a simple reason: you are more agile.

We see that same pattern at the core of many recent successes in sports and business. Think of the revolutionary no-huddle offenses succeeding in college and the NFL; or Obama’s block-by-block data-driven strategy of the 2012 election, or the continued success of the lean-startup model — all of which are the same story: speed and agility trump all other qualities — including skill, size, and experience.

So, where does agility come from? How do you build it?

We get a useful answer from an unlikely source: a fighter pilot named John “Forty Second” Boyd. Boyd, a Korean war pilot who went on to be head of instruction at the USAF Weapons School, was famous for his standing bet with trainees: he could, from a position of disadvantage, defeat any of them in a dogfight in 40 seconds or less.

Boyd’s secret? The OODA Loop, which Boyd developed to increase the speed and agility of fighter pilots, and which has since been adopted by many sports teams and businesses. It works like this:

O: Observe: collect the data. Figure out exactly where you are, what’s happening.

O: Orient: analyze/synthesize the data to form an accurate picture. 

D: Decide: select an action from possible options

A: Action: execute the action, and return to step (1)

The genius of Boyd’s idea is that it shows that speed and agility are not about physical reflexes — they’re really about information processing. They’re about building more/better feedback loops. The more high-quality OODA loops you make, the faster you get.

When you tune into it, you start to see OODA feedback loops everywhere: in Messi’s seeing-eye passes, in Google’s quicksilver iterations of its online products, in the daily routines of successful stock traders. They’re all fast, but they succeed because they are ruthless about following the OODA loop. They observe, orient, decide, and act — and then start the cycle over.

The real key in using OODA loops is to embrace clarity. You have to be 100 percent merciless about figuring out where you are, what’s really happening, and where you want to go. If you shade the truth to protect your ego, you lose the chance to improve.

So here’s a takeaway: in order to get more agile, the first step is to be brutally honest with yourself.

(PS – Big thanks to reader Andrew Lingenfelter, who pointed out OODA loops in a comment back in July.)

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“The World Sends Us Garbage. We Send Back Music.”

January 11th, 2013

You should watch this short clip — not because it’s an remarkable story (which it is) or because it will make your eyes well up (which it might), but because it’s a good reminder of two basic facts we tend to overlook:

1) Respecting and caring for the tools of your skill — what some educators call “the enchantment of everyday objects” — ignites powerful motivation

2) Talent is everywhere

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How to Get Better Feedback

January 7th, 2013

Question: Who is the fastest learner in the world?

That is, if there was a magical machine that could accurately measure the learning speed of every person on the planet — every writer, musician, math student, chess player, artist, and athlete — who would come out on top?

My answer: a kid learning to skateboard.

You’ve seen it happen: you hand a kid a skateboard, they start messing around, and before you know it — without any coaches, instruction books, or classrooms — they are crazily, stupidly, mythically skilled.

The question is, why?

The answer is feedback.

Skateboarders learn incredibly quickly because they receive a rich, continuous, useful stream of high-quality feedback. Every action creates an immediate and crystal-clear consequence. Mistakes can be detected; patterns intuited, brain circuitry swiftly built.

(Picture the brain of a kid balanced on a skateboard: glowing with engagement; blueprinted with models, keenly attuned to the edge — their brain is a neon-lit Las Vegas of high-quality feedback signals. Now picture the brain of a corporate employee listening to a lecture in a training session. See what I mean?)

It’s useful to judge feedback like you would judge the quality of a GPS mapping app on your phone: the best ones are real-time, detailed, and crystal-clear. The problem is that most of the time — especially at work and in school — the feedback we get isn’t timely or clear. So we tend to wander, and get lost.

In other words, the feedback question is really a design question: in a world that can be vague and mushy, how do you tighten the loop, and deliver the right signal in a timely way?

Karen May, vice president for people development at Google, has invented a method she calls “speedback.” It works like this: partway through a training session she will tell everyone to pair off and sit knee to knee, and give them three minutes to answer one simple question: “What advice would you give me based on the experience you’ve had with me here?” Participants say that it’s some of the best feedback they’ve ever gotten.

Compressing space works well too. Since I wrote about the effectiveness of Brazli’s futbol de salao (football in the room) for teaching soccer skills, I’ve come across numerous examples of coaches shrinking space to increase reps and improve feedback, from hockey to swimming to baseball to factory assembly lines.

You can also compress information: many good teachers have developed the technique of interleaving their lectures with a short quizzes, given not for grades but to help students and teacher determine where their skill levels are at.

In every case, the same rule applies: the more timely, vivid, accurate feedback you get, the more skill you can build.  And if you have any examples of useful methods you use to boost feedback, I’d love to hear them.

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Four Life Lessons from Jerry Seinfeld, Master Craftsman

December 21st, 2012

What qualities do the world’s great performers possess that the rest of us don’t?

It’s a great question, and our usual instinct is to answer the question by listing characteristics, as if they were ingredients for baking a cake.  (Start with passion. Stir in determination and great coaching; cook 10,000 hours and Voila!)

Unfortunately, this is exactly wrong. Not because those characteristics are not present in great performers. But because listing characteristics is the wrong way of thinking about the question. What makes great performers is not ingredients. It’s their approach.

Approach, meaning the interlinked pattern of strategies, habits, and methods for the daily process of getting better. It’s not just what you do — it’s how you go about doing it.

Few people on the planet have a better approach to craft than Jerry Seinfeld. To see why, read this wonderful story by Jonah Weiner and click the above video. Listen to Seinfeld approach the process of writing a single joke — which took two years. Look at how many lines he’s crossed out, shaving syllables, perfecting beats. Listen to the clinical/carpenter-like way he talks about “connective tissue” and “jigsaw puzzles;” how he refers to a comedy set as a “workout.” Most of all, see how much he relishes the process.

If you were to distill Seinfeld’s approach into a few guidelines, they might include:

  • 1) Embrace revision and repetition. Realize that nothing is ever completely right on the first try, and probably not on the tenth. (To prepare for his first appearance on the Tonight Show, Seinfeld did two hundred reps of his routine.)
  • 2) Be creative and ruthless in self-testing. Create challenges and seek out obstacles Seinfeld prefers tiny, difficult audiences to large, adoring ones. Because that’s the best way to expose weakness — which is exactly the point, so you can see what’s working, what’s not, and where to go next. They are your lab.
  • 3)  Learn from parallel crafts: in the space of this piece, Seinfeld compares his joke-writing process to baseball, high-end car design, samurai, calligraphy, and the art of cricket-cage building. The point is, he’s constantly trying to view his profession through different lenses, in order to understand it more deeply.
  • 4) Be obsessively, monkishly habitual about methods and tools. Design your workspace for simplicity and focus. An unabashed creature of habit, Seinfeld always writes material with a Bic blue clear-barrel pen on yellow legal pad, longhand. This works, because the more you automate the  non-meaningful elements of the process, the more you free your brain up to focus on what matters. As Flaubert said, “I am orderly and disciplined with my daily life, so that I may be savage and original with my art.”

I have to confess that, as great as this article is throughout, there’s one paragraph I like best of all:

When [Seinfeld] can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”

I like it because he’s referring to this article I wrote back in 2007 which served as the starting point for the research that became The Talent Code.

So I’ll tell you what Jerry, since you liked the article, here’s an offer: I’ll send you a copy of the latest book, if you send me a loaf of that delicious marble rye you “borrowed” from that lady on Episode 121.  Whaddya say?

Happy Festivus, everybody!

UPDATE:  Here’s what Jerry had to say about myelin, talent, and comedy, from this NYT Magazine blog (FYI, the “Dean” he refers to is Dean Robinson, the Times magazine editor who wrote the entry.)

OK. I am a thousand per cent sure there is not one other Comedy/Science Super Geek out there like me interested in myelination of comedianization.

But I do love this subject and must comment here as it is the only time this is ever going to come up in the Universe.

Just to clarify, building your myelin has nothing to do with being funny.

You could have my myelin. It won’t help. (As evidenced by the suggestion that the connection between these two articles could be ‘grist’ for comedy. Oh my god, Dean, I can’t even believe how unfunny that is.)

But here is how myelin works in comedy.

Being a comedian is two basic skills. One, being funny, which is a soft skill. Two, performing a comedy bit, which is a hard skill. The second part is where the myelin comes in.

Any comedian will tell you when they do two shows in one night the second show is almost always better. Why? You’ve got more myelin.

Doing a joke is very similar to any sport that is mostly repetitive action fine motor skills.
It’s a set of mechanical brain commands the body executes almost exactly the same way every time.

Myelin doesn’t make the funny, it makes the recreating of the funny at a time and place of someone else’s choosing possible. Which can be a cool career if you can do it.

But most people have experienced this myelin/comedy effect.

Ever hear a joke and then tell it to every person in your office? The last few recipients always hear the best version and laugh the most. Why?

Practice, polish, myelin. And that’s why it was very helpful for me to learn that being a male stand up comedian in his fifties and being a young Russian female tennis player are exactly the same thing.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift-o-Rama

December 19th, 2012

Some people are highly organized about the holidays. They make precise lists. They do careful research. They comparison shop. They are able to confidently click “ground shipping” as an option.

This list is for the rest of us. The ones who, like me, have waited until the last minute, and who right now are quietly scrambling to find something good and useful for a kid, a parent, a teacher, or a coach. In that spirit, here are a seven things that caught our eye this year.

1. Gibbon Slackline ($79)

Our 12-year-old daughter went on a backpacking trip last summer and came back all hyped on slacklining — which is basically a combination of tightrope walking and trampoline. For those of you not familiar, you stretch a piece of webbing between two fixed points, and start walking/bouncing. So simple, so great for balance, and so fun in the purest sense of the word.


2. Electronic Rock Guitar Shirt ($19)

Yes, you read that correctly. It is a T-shirt, and it is also a musical instrument. To play, you place your fingers on the “neck” of the guitar and “strum” using a magnetic pick. The chords (recorded from a real guitar) are surprisingly authentic, thanks to the amp that clips to your belt. Question: is this crazy thing a “gateway” to playing an actual instrument? In our family, the answer is a definite yes. Perhaps because the amp, in fact, goes to 11.

3. My Ideal Bookshelf ($17)

Science tells us that creativity is all about creating a “windshield” of people you admire, observe, and emulate — which makes this book worth celebrating, since it’s a compendium of windshields. Author Thessaly La Force approached more than 100 creative types (Dave Eggers, Tony Hawk, David Chang, Chuck Klosterman, Judd Apatow) and asked them what books mattered most to them, giving the rest of us a nice X-ray into the craft of creativity.

4. Burton Sleeper Travel Hoodie ($95)

My brother, a tech-savvy guy who’s famously difficult to buy for, got this a while back and loved it. It looks like a regular hoodie, but it’s built for the art of napping: an integrated neck pillow, earplugs, and sleep visor, along with a passport pocket and yes, a toothbrush. Sort of like a Swiss Army knife for catching Z’s.

5. LikeaBike ($289)

Whoever invented the phrase “as easy as riding a bike” clearly never taught a kid to ride one. As you parents know, the process is a reliably painful thrash of pedals, tears, and endless stretches of running-alongside-the-bike-while-crouched-over. This little fella works because it takes the pedals out of the equation and puts the kid in charge. They scoot along, Flintstone style, and their brains get the hang of balance and turning without any parental help whatsoever. In other words, it’s perfect.


6. Ruhlman’s Twenty ($25)

Growing up, I thought cooking well was like writing romantic poetry: a talent reserved for the chosen few, plus some French. Since then, we’ve seen a quiet revolution in which cooking has become seen as it truly is: a skill that is learned, over time and through practice, with the help of good coaches. And if you want to learn to cook, there’s no more masterful coach than my neighbor and friend Michael Ruhlman, author of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and The Making of a Chef, among others. Twenty is a great starting place: a tour of 20 fundamental techniques, along with a hundred good recipes. Pro tip: start with the roast chicken.


7. Moleskine pocket notebook ($10)

In our smartphone-driven world, it seems strange that a humble notebook from the steam-engine age could be a useful tool. But that’s exactly what this is: a supremely well-made, portable device that needs no batteries and does what you need it to do: provide a space to capture thoughts, to make plans, to sketch ideas. In fact, as this new book shows, these notebooks are making somewhat of a renaissance: proof that if it’s anything is enough for Ernest Hemingway and Spike Jonze, it’s good enough for the rest of us.


Have you come across any useful gifts? Feel free to share — after all, we need all the help we can get!

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Can This Machine Build a Better Athlete?

December 14th, 2012

Say hello to Footbonaut, a new machine for training soccer players. (Click the video to see it in action.)

It’s a space-age beauty: built for the top German professional team Borussia Dortmund, it feeds balls from eight angles, and has 72 colored panels that light up to make targets. Reacting to a series of beeps and flashes, players receive and pass, over and over.

Footbonaut has been widely praised as the future of soccer training. Its inventor says it “allows you to work on any weaknesses and ensures that you play at pace but with precision.” and that after 15 minutes in the cage a player “will have received and passed on as many balls as he would in a normal week of training. Repetition and intensity are crucial if you want to conquer a particular skill, whether that be playing football, tennis or learning the piano.

So the question is, is it true? Is this a glimpse of the future of training?


Here’s why: great soccer players are great because they can identify and anticipate an unfolding series of patterns — body language, movement, position — and do the right thing at the right time. In other words, soccer is not played in a standing position with beeps and flashes.

Plus, merely achieving intensity should not be confused with learning. As Aspire Academy coach (and all-around brilliant guy) Michael Bruyninckx points out, using sweating as a parameter is misleading, because exhaustion slows learning. Then there’s the fact that only one player can use it at a time (compare that to non-technological beauty of the tiki-taka drill, which involves the entire team).

So while Footbonaut hones useful skills, it doesn’t develop whole soccer players any more than writing haikus can develop a skilled novelist.

This speaks to the tricky nature of adding technology to the learning environment — whether it’s Footbonauts or iPads in classrooms. Technology is seductive, but it’s extremely rare that a machine can adequately duplicate the immersive intensity of a well-designed practice session in the real world.

In my experience, the recipe for high performance is always the same: technology makes a fine spice for learning, but you should never mistake it for the main course.

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