Not sure about the eligibility rules for Academy Awards, but do you think I’ve got a shot?
With the new book arriving in stores today, I thought I’d mark the occasion in the traditional way: by doing an author Q&A, like you see on Jon Stewart or Piers Morgan. In this case, however, I’ve decided to do the interview with the savviest questioners I know: my four kids, ages 10-17.
Not to say that LBOT is a book designed just for kids; it’s for everybody who’s interested in improving their skills, ages 10-100. But it’s clear that kids, particularly these ones, have a way of looking into the heart of things. Even if they are a bunch of smart alecks.
Without further ado, here’s a partial transcript:
Q: So seriously — which one of us is your favorite?
A: Whoever asks the best questions. So far, that’s the winner.
Q: Why did you decide to write a little book of talent? Why not a medium book of talent? Why not a super-long book of talent?
A: The Talent Code is about looking inside talent hotbeds and seeing what makes them tick.
This book takes that idea and flips it on its head. The idea is to take the lessons of the talent hotbeds and to boil them down into a set of simple tips. Do this, not that. And the best way to do that wasn’t to write a medium or a long book. So, a little book. A manual.
Plus, what I liked best about writing Talent Code was the way it put me in touch with lots of fascinating people who were putting these ideas to work. To me, that’s the most fun thing about writing books — the conversations that it creates. So I guess this is my sneaky way of doing that again.
Q: Where did the tips come from?
I’ve been collecting them for five years now. It started when I was at this tennis club called Spartak in Moscow, and the players were practicing in slow-motion — swinging forehands and backhands super-precisely — and I thought — hey, I should use that method for teaching my Little League baseball players how to hit. And I did. And it worked really, really well.
From that moment I started collecting tips, especially after the first book was published. Tips from the Navy SEALs, the U.S. Olympic coaches, top music academies, businesses, schools, pro sports teams, from scientists who study learning. I kept collecting, and pretty soon the list was getting longer and longer. It needed to be collected in one place, and LBOT is that place.
Q: Did you use us as guinea pigs?
A: Yep. When you learn about this stuff — when you see it work — you can’t help but get kinda infected by some of these ideas. So yes, your mom and I did use a lot of these tips in our daily life. When we tell you to break everything down into small chunks, or that struggle is a good thing — that’s all from the research for the book.
Q: Are there other books like this?
A: Not really. Most books about skill focus on certain narrow types of skill. LBOT is broader, because its built on the idea that all skills — athletic, musical, business, parenting — are really about growing your brain, about struggling in certain ways so that the wires of your brain get faster and more accurate.
One of the inspirations was Food Rules, by Michael Pollan; another was Elements of Style, the writing manual by Strunk and White. And if you think about it, developing skill is a lot like developing good eating habits or good writing habits. A few simple rules can take you a long way. Like when your mom tells you not to eat junk food.
Q: Why is there a gold medal on the front of the book?
A: I suppose because there was one on the front of The Talent Code. It shows the books are like siblings. Happy, friendly, golden siblings, who always get along. Exactly like you guys.
Q: Why are there 52 tips? Why not 152?
A: It was a Goldilocks decision, feeling our way along. We started with the goal of true simplicity: having each tip fit on one page. At one point there were 75 tips — that felt like too many, and some of them overlapped each other. In the end there were 53. I decided to make it 52, since there are 52 weeks in a year, 52 cards in a deck.
Q: What was the 53rd tip, the one that got cut?
A: It was about relationships — and about how important it is to build the skill for building and maintaining good relationships, since in the end that’s the most important thing.
Q: Which tip do you think is the most useful?
A: I’m partial to tip #43: Embrace Repetition. Because most of us have an instinctive allergy to repetition. We see it as a drag, as something to be avoided. But in fact, that’s a huge misperception. Repetition the greatest tool in our toolbox, because it’s the most effective way to make our brains fast and accurate. Like Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.” And we all know that Bruce Lee is one cool dude.
Q: Which tip is your favorite?
A: I really like Tip #5: Be Willing to Be Stupid, because it’s helped me take better risks — like with writing this blog with you guys. I also like Tip #30: Take a Nap.
Q: Do people ask about your toupee?
A: Again, I’m going to have to go with no comment. Also: that joke will never get old.
Q: Or is it a joke?
A: I suppose now we’ll never know.
Here’s the first trailer for The Little Book of Talent, which is due out on August 21. (Update — we improved the audio — now it works!)
A few behind-the scenes-notes:
- 1) My office is not normally that clean.
- 2) We futzed a lot with the music. The early version had more of a mysterious, pingy soundtrack that sounded like something from a mystery movie. Looking for something a bit warmer sounding, we changed it to this one. My brother Maurice says it sounds like I should be hosting an organic gardening show on NPR.
- 3) Big thanks to videographer George Overpeck, Dave Stevenson, Ruby Levesque, Quinne Rogers, and my wife Jen for putting this together.
What do you think?
We love it when an improv comedian makes a lightning-fast comeback. Or when a soccer player slices open a tough defense with the perfect pass. Or when an investor spies a great opportunity in a fast-moving market. We love those moments because they contain the essence of talent: instant, uncannily precise reaction to a complex situation. These people succeed, it seems, because their reflexes are quicker.
What’s even more interesting: science is showing us that our instincts about quickness are wrong. The best performers, it turns out, aren’t reacting more quickly (thanks to limits of nerve-conduction speed, human reflexes are pretty consistent). The best performers are using time differently — namely, they’re using it to get more information.
For example, let’s take the classic case of a tennis player returning serve. You would instinctively think that the best returners are the ones who react the quickest. But you’d be wrong. Experiments show that the best players succeed because they wait longer before they make their swing. They use that time to gather information about the ball, the spin, the opponent’s position, and make decisions about it. And in tennis — as in many other areas of life — the better data you have, the better result you tend to get.
In other words, being quick isn’t about speed; it’s about information. It’s about learning how to wait.
This case and many others like it are discussed in a fascinating new book by Frank Partnoy called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. The basic message is that the most successful performers in many skills (business, military, medical, writing, acting, among others) follow a similar pattern, which has three steps.
- 1) observe — take in all the relevant information.
- 2) process — analyze the patterns, and pick a course of action
- 3) act — deliver the action
The central insight is that the best performers get really fast and proficient at #3 — performing the action — so they can invest time and attention in steps #1 and #2. Time isn’t a handicap for them; it’s more like a lever; a selective advantage.
I love this insight because it sheds light on the sense of stillness you see in a lot of top performers.For example, picture Cristiano Ronaldo or Stevie Ray Vaughn or Stephen Colbert. Their skill comes from a foundation of calm. They look at the world through a the cool, ascertaining gaze. They’re never hurried or frantic; they’re constantly vacuuming their surroundings for good information, and when they decide to make their move, they make it decisively, with full commitment. They’re managing time, not being managed by it.
How to put this insight to use? The best way is to isolate each step of the process, and practice it by itself.
- Step 1: Immerse yourself in pure observation. Take in the patterns; swim in the information. Watch “game film” of whatever game you happen to be playing.
- Step 2: X-ray the information. Systematically figure out the underlying patterns; the if/then decisions that lay beneath the surface. If X happens, what’s the best response? If X and Y happen, what’s the best response?
- Step 3: Isolate the key actions and practice them. The goal is to make the action perfectly automatic and fast, like you’re pressing a button.
Or, as John Wooden put it, “Be quick, but never hurry.”
One of the beautiful things about great practice is how simple it is.
This is especially true with soft skills — those improvisatory skills of reading patterns and reacting instantly to them — which show up so often in team sports and the creative arts.
Check out this video of Barcelona (aka the world’s best soccer team over the past four years) as they do their regular one-touch keep-away workout, which is called rondo.
Here’s what I like about it:
1) It generates reps of the key skills (anticipation, quick, accurate decisions under pressure), over and over.
2) It’s played with 100 percent maximum intensity.
3) It’s really fun/addictive — check out those smiles and laughs at the end.
Xavi, Barca’s midfielder, says: ”It’s all about rondos. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch. If you go in the middle, it’s humiliating, the rest applaud and laugh at you.”
For this team, rondo isn’t a mere drill. It’s more like their identity.
To me, the truly interesting question is this: How do you create a culture in which this little game — not ego, not showing off, not even scoring goals — becomes the most important and valued part?
- (A) the initial explanation of the skill being taught?
- (B) the first couple tries?
- (C) the moment things click, when the learner “gets it”?
I think the answer is (D) — None of the Above.
There’s a strong case to be made that the single most important moment of learning happens before the lesson actually begins.
We know that master coaches are extremely skilled at quickly making a strong emotional connection with a learner, to create the bond of trust that’s the foundation of all learning.
But mere emotional connection isn’t enough. The world is filled with extremely charismatic, fantastically entertaining teachers who are wonderful at creating connection but not so great at actually improving skill.
Because it’s not enough just to capture the learner’s attention — you have to create intention: an urgent desire to work hard toward a concrete goal, toward some vision of their future self.
Science is giving us a peek inside that process. A group of researchers at Case Western were able to look at the brains of learners in two conditions. In the first, the coach was judgmental, and focused on negatives and the past. In the second, the coach was empathetic, and focused on the future.
With the judgmental coach, the visual cortex showed limited activity. With the positive, future-oriented coach, however, it lit up like a Christmas tree. The researchers concluded that this correlated with someone imagining their future.
The takeaway: when it comes to learning, brains work exactly like flashlights. It’s not enough just to turn them on; they have to be pointed toward a target.
A few simple ways to do this:
- Encourage expression about future goals. Where do they want to be a month from now? A year? Five years?
- Ruthlessly eliminate negative statements — especially judgements — that cause brains to shut down.
- Count down until some Big Future Event. How many practices do we have left until the tournament? How many more lessons until the recital? A calendar with Xs is a powerful tool.
Ever see this diagram? (It’s from comedian Demetri Martin.)
I like this, because I think it’s true. From the outside, success looks like effortless progress; from the inside, we discover the journey is a lot more complicated. In fact, the most interesting part of the line is where it turns sharply downward, into one of those nasty-looking tangles where progress stops, development stalls, and frustration rises. It raises an interesting question:
What’s the best way to fix a slump?
Normally, when we hit a slump, we experience an overwhelming instinct to ignore it — to shut our eyes and just try harder, and hope things change. That makes sense — and it feels satisfying. But is it the best way?
We find an interesting case study from Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder. Drafted in 2005, McCutchen was a can’t-miss prospect, a first-round pick who performed outstandingly well for two years in the Pirates minor leagues — until, suddenly, he hit a dry spell. He stopped hitting. His average dropped to a puny .189. This was it: McCutchen’s slump, his crisis; his line was headed straight for the basement.
In this case, the Pirates organization used a surprising strategy. When McCutchen hit his downturn, they flew hitting coach Gregg Ritchie to visit him. Ritchie carried a piece of paper: a print-out of McCutchen’s hitting flaws — specific, targeted problems with his swing mechanics that Ritchie had noted a year and a half earlier.
Until that moment, McCutchen didn’t know the list existed. But now, working with Ritchie, he used this list of flaws like a blueprint. He lowered his hand position; he shifted his weight — together, player and coach fixed his swing. And it worked: McCutchen got out of his slump, and kept moving up. He’s now an All-Star.
I like this story because I think it gives us insight into how to best handle these downturn moments. We instinctively want to do it alone; to lift ourselves back on that upward track out of sheer will.
But what works better is to approach the slump more like a science problem. Cool off the emotion. Collaborate and gather information. Figure out the shortcoming, and start re-wiring the improvement. In a word, be agile.
I also like it because it shows the importance of organizational agility. The Pirates handled this well, because they understood when to make the intervention. Coach Ritchie knew all along McCutchen’s swing had potential problems, but he didn’t try to fix those problems early on because his swing was working (as McCutchen said, if coaches had tried to correct him, he would have ignored them — and rightly so). No, the Pirates wisely waited until the the problem arose — until they had McCutchen’s full and desperate attention. Then, together, they went to work and built a better swing.
Fixing slumps is not about solo strength. It’s about group agility.
We just arrived in Alaska, where we’re spending a big chunk of the summer. So far, everything’s going well: family and friends are healthy, weather’s been solid, and during this morning’s coffee, we had an official welcoming committee: a newborn moose calf and its mother ambling through the backyard.
Speaking of arrivals, it’s exactly 10 weeks until The Little Book of Talent publication date (August 21). As a way of marking the countdown, I’d like to update one of my favorite posts from about a year and a half ago, when I asked you readers to name the single best tip — the best advice, the best strategy, the best practice tool — they’ve ever received.
Your responses (all 71 of them) were terrific — so terrific, in fact, that it seems a shame to let them be buried in the comments section of the old post. So with that in mind, I’ve combed through the tips and selected my top four favorites.
- 1) Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast (from Greg Sumpter)
I think we typically want to learn a skill as quickly as possible, and be done with learning it. If we could only slow down, break things down into small reproducible parts, and excel in a smoother way, we would get to the end product with excellence much more quickly.
Why I like it: Because it keeps me focused on what really counts: being accurate and efficient, and letting the speed come later.
- 2) Start with the End in Mind (Bill Dorenkott, Head Coach of Ohio State Women’s Swim Team)
My 20-minute drive to work allows me quiet time to employ this rule for my day, week and season. I find it much easier to reverse-engineer a challenge than to fly by the seat of my pants.
Why I like it: Because there’s a huge gap between mere activity and targeted work; this saves me time.
- 3) Cultivate Awareness (Kent Bassett)
Instead of engaging in a running commentary about all the mistakes to avoid, and keeping a list of all the mistakes made, you should cultivate awareness. It fires the more unconscious, creative part of the mind. You can even say to yourself, “I’m going to play this passage, and I’m not going to try to avoid mistakes. I might even try to make mistakes.” This counter-intuitive technique allows you to play more freely, and often, with fewer mistakes.
Why I like it: Because rather than getting governed by your mistakes (always a danger), this helps you focus on mastering them.
- 4) Feel pain, not hurt (Markus)
Feeling pain is a signal of growing and improving. [Feeling] hurt is a signal of stop which pause the flow of skill development.
Why I like it: Because it makes clear the useful distinction between good pain (stretch, struggle, reach) and bad pain (ouch).
What I really like, however, is the idea that this master list of talent-development tips exists, and that we can make it even more useful by sharing it and adding to it as time goes on. So with that in mind, here’s the entire list, along with a question: what are your favorites? What new tips need to be added?
For example, one swing-thought might be SMOOOOTH. Or ROLL WRISTS. A good swing-thought works because it un-clutters the mind, clarifies focus, and captures the essence of your best performance.
Which makes me wonder: do the best coaches and teachers have the equivalent of swing-thoughts as they work? Are there key ideas coaches can use in the moment of teaching to help them coach better?
Based on my observations, I’d say that most master coaches have three distinct coaching-thoughts.
The first is CONNECT. They create a personal link; they use their interpersonal skills to capture the spotlight of the learner’s attention. Until that’s achieved, nothing useful can happen.
The second coaching-thought is ASK. The coach puts forth a task — it could be doing a drill or playing a song, or trying something new — it doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as the task 1) is unmistakably clear; 2) puts the learner on the edge of their ability (which is to say, it’s neither too hard nor too easy).
The third is RESPOND. The coach perceives what the learner is doing, and uses it to generate the next task. The next task might be more difficult, or it might be easier — all that matters is that it helps the learner navigate closer to the goal of proficiency.
Connect. Ask. Respond. This process isn’t a lecture from a podium. It’s more like a personal conversation that happens on the edge of the learner’s abilities.
When I coach, I find it useful to visualize what’s happening inside the learner’s brain: to picture the wires glowing, trying to connect, the new circuitry forming through each repetition. I know, it sounds sort of science-fiction-ish, but it works for me because it helps focus on the underlying process. Mistakes aren’t verdicts; they’re pieces of information you use to build the right connections.
Next question for you coaches and teachers: what images and ideas are going through your mind as you work? Are there any useful “coaching-thoughts” you’d like to share?
One of the big moments for a new book happens about 90 days before publication, when the bound galleys arrive from the printer. Bound galleys are basically a paperback with a generic cover, designed to be sent around for early readers. They are the dress rehearsals of the book world: not perfect, but close enough to give the feeling of the real thing.
Last week, the moment arrived. One of the first copies went to Andy Ward, my editor at Bantam/Random House, who brought it home to the busy, book-filled home he shares with his wife and their two soccer-playing, ballet-dancing daughters.
On Saturday morning, Andy was driving his younger daughter to her year-end ballet recital — a big deal, with an audience of 200 or so — when he turned around and saw this:
Andy reports she then went out and rocked the recital.
There’s something else you should know about Andy: his wife, Jenny Rosenstrach, is the author of a remarkable new book called Dinner: A Love Story, which is is designed to help families tap into the simple power of the family meal.
Now, I could tell you how well the book is written, or how fantastically useful and smart it is, or how beautiful it is. I could tell you how much I’ve learned from it already (how to properly fold a burrito — who knew?) or how my family and I are loving Jenny’s recipes.
PS — Jenny’s gonna be talking DALS on the Today Show on Wednesday, June 13. Check it out.