Having a prodigy in the family is usually thought of as a divine blessing. Teachers and coaches compete over them. Other kids envy them. Parents look at them wishfully, thinking: If only my kid could be like that.
From a distance, it looks simple: you turn the kid loose and watch their talent rocket them through life. Up close, it’s anything but. The truth is, raising a prodigy is an immensely complicated and consuming endeavor.
We get a moving glimpse of this in Andrew Solomon’s terrific new book, Far From the Tree. He writes about the complicated emotional landscape parents have to navigate to balance the child’s abilities with the rest of their development. (I should point out that Solomon focuses not just on high performers, but on true prodigies, those rare children who display bewilderingly high levels of ability and desire at a young age, most often in math and music.)
The types of challenges range from the emotional (how do we balance “normal” childhood development with adult levels of talent?) to the developmental (how do we deal with early midlife crisis when the prodigies reach the end of their early successes?) to the relational (how do we disentangle natural parental ego and involvement so that the child can stand on their own?).
In addition, some talents arrive shadowed by autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other neurological conditions that make for their own challenges, not the least of which is the parent’s difficulty accepting them. Underlying all of that is the reality that despite hopes and appearances, the vast majority of child prodigies do not go on to become top adult performers.
Here’s Solomon’s conclusion:
Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder. That insight has largely shaped me as a father. I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude.
The other day my ten-year-old daughter Zoe had a great violin lesson. The setup was simple: there were two other kids, David and Lily, and one teacher. Partway through, the teacher handed out clipboards and explained the system: one kid would play, the other two would take notes and offer suggestions. Then they’d switch.
The atmosphere in the room changed. You know that bristly, electric moment when you can tell kids’ senses are activated, and they start paying attention on a deeper level? That happened. The kids with the clipboards leaned in, observing keenly, scribbling their notes. The kid playing violin upped their game as well, knowing that they were being observed by their peers. It was a perfect storm of peer learning; everyone was reaching, learning from everyone else. (Here are the notes Zoe received from her classmates — they’re great.)
The method works because the learning process has two basic phases: Doing and Evaluating. In the first phase, you’re absorbed with the performance itself — hitting the target. In the second, you pull back and examine, strategize.
These two phases require radically different mindsets. The “doing phase” is about concentration, absorption, focus, producing the intense heat of effort. The “evaluative phase” is about the opposite: pulling back, being cool and impersonal, spotting errors and fixing them.
The clipboard method works because it shifts kids into Phase Two learning, helping build the evaluative muscles they can apply to their own playing. It’s a method used by good teachers everywhere. One of my favorite examples is Kurt Vonnegut, who famously directed his students at the Iowa Writers Workshop to edit and evaluate some of the best short stories ever written. (Vonnegut’s assignment letter is a classic.)
Of course, a teacher can’t just hand the reins to the students and tell them to start coaching. The trick of doing this well is to impose some guardrails.
1) Keep it positive: Ask students to include compliments as well as how-to-improve comments.
2) Make sure they write down their comments, to promote precision and prevent vagueness, and also so they can be saved and referred to later.
The larger goal is to help nudge students toward the place where they are reflexively coaching themselves. To embrace the old paradox: the greatest teachers are the ones who are best at making themselves unneeded.
I might be a tad biased, given that my wife and I are alums, but there’s something absolutely insane about the fact that Notre Dame’s football team will be playing for the national championship in a month. Because it wasn’t supposed to happen. For the past two decades the most consistent thing about ND football has been its enthusiastic embrace of its role as college football’s version of the Bad News Bears: clumsy, clueless, and endlessly creative when it came to finding new ways to achieve mediocrity.
And now… this? What on earth happened?
This is really a question about culture — specifically, how does a losing culture become a winning one? That’s where the lockers come in.
Under ND’s previous coach, players’ lockers were considered their private domains. The result was, the locker room looked like a laundry bomb had gone off. When Coach Brian Kelly arrived three years ago, he issued an edict: lockers mattered. Players were issued a diagram of precisely how their lockers should be kept — shoulder pads here, helmet here, playbook here.
This seems like a small thing — a tiny drop of change in a larger ocean of changes. But on a deeper level, these kinds of changes work because they are what writer Charles Duhigg calls keystone habits: the kind of habits that create structures to let productive behaviors flourish. The keystone habit is often quite humble. After all, the way in which a player keeps his shoulderpads should have zero bearing on the team’s on-field performance. But it does. Because it changes the atmosphere. It sends a clear signal — be organized — that echoes into other behaviors.
Keystone habits are a core part of winning cultures. In his wonderful book, The Power of Habit (which should be on everyone’s Christmas list), Duhigg tells how Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill used the keystone habit of worker safety to remake the organization’s fortunes, and how weight-loss programs succeed far more often if they embrace the keystone habit of journaling. The message: turnarounds are not about willpower or desire; they’re about designing an environment that supports the habits you want to create.
What do the best keystone habits have in common?
- 1) They deal with preparation/organization.
- 2) They are daily routines.
- 3) They are fantastically detailed. Here’s how UCLA basketball coachJohn Wooden used to teach his players how to put their socks on:
“Now pull it up in the back, pull it up real good, real strong. Now run your hand around the little toe area … make sure there are no wrinkles and then pull it back up. Check the heel area. We don’t want any sign of a wrinkle about it … The wrinkle will be sure you get blisters, and those blisters are going to make you lose playing time…”
It’s a small detail. But it succeeds because it’s the right detail — a keystone habit whose signal echoes through the mind of an entire team.
PS – On other fronts, The Secret Race has had a very nice week, winning the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in London. Tyler Hamilton and I got to attend the ceremony, which was held in a beautiful bar on the top floor of Waterstone’s Picadilly bookshop (yes, British bookstores know how to sell books). The day involved a fair amount of champagne and cigars, a trip to Harrod’s, and our learning lots of new British expressions. Best of all, Jen got to come along. We’re simply chuffed to bits.
That someone happens to be my lovely wife, Jen. The ask? To cook the Thanksgiving turkey.
After all, she said, cooking a turkey is just another skill, like hitting a tennis ball or learning a language. Plus, she said, it’s incredibly manly.
I protested, to no avail.
“You always say you have to get outside your comfort zone,” she said.
I agree that it’s outside the comfort zone. The question is whether it’s outside the salmonella zone.
On the advice of my brilliant neighbor Michael Rulhman, I’m going with the “roast and braise” technique, which appears to involve a considerable amount of joint-cutting, lemons, and white wine. (Not all for the turkey, either.)
The knives are sharp. The fridge is full. Thirty people arriving on Thursday.
So my question is: do you have any turkey advice? After all, this is the time of year we acknowledge our dependence on others — and I need coaching!
I’m happy to report that (whew!) all went well. We ended up changing strategies at the last minute, going with a classic roast technique. We stuffed it with lemons, onions, sage, parsley, and oregano, with plenty of butter and salt. Four hours, breast down, then a quick flip, and it was done.
My neighbor did the deep-fryer technique, injecting beforehand with Cajun spices. The setup looked like a meth lab. It also tasted pretty great. Might have to think about that for next year…. Thanks for the help, everybody, and happy Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for all of you.
Because while the science of talent has made many advances in recent years, motivation remains an area of profound mystery. How does it start? Why does it vanish? How do we sustain it in our families, our teams, our organizations?
I’ve come to realize that part of the problem might lie in one word.
Words are signals, and the signal the word “practice” sends is “THIS WILL PROBABLY BE BORING.” “Practice” tells a story of dutifulness, obligation, of putting in required hours. It’s vague, devoid of spark or specificity, a slice of white bread and soggy peas slapped on a dinner plate.
Now go do your practice. I’ve gotta go to practice. We have practice all week.
That’s why I think many smart parents, teachers, and coaches are starting to avoid the word “practice” and replace it with words that tell a more precise, motivating story.
Many music teachers avoid the word “practice,” and recommend using the word “play” instead. So instead of saying, “It’s time for you to practice piano,” you say, “Time to play piano.” A small change, perhaps, but an important one, because it puts the focus on the action itself.
I recently learned of Jim McGuinness, coach of Ireland’s County Donegal’s absurdly overaccomplished Gaelic football team, who also avoids the P-word and who instead talks about his team’s “rehearsals.”
I love that. McGuinness’s team doesn’t aim to “practice” in some general way — they rehearse specific plays over and over, so that they can hit their marks with timing and precision, exactly as an actor or musician might. Exactness is the goal; so “rehearsal” is the right word.
I’ve heard some musicians refer to their practices as “workouts,” which I like because it implies a muscular specificity. “I need a couple more workouts on the new guitar solo,” is far better than, “I need to practice that new guitar solo.”
This high-school tennis team has outlawed the word “practice,” and replaced it with the word “training.” They say they like it, because “it has more of a work-ethic undertone,” and also because it implies a goal. You’re training toward a big event, not just practicing.
All these terms work because they refocus the soft, generality of “practice” on something more precise and useful.
They also underline a larger fact: motivation isn’t about handing out Attaboys, or telling people that they’re awesome. It’s about finding the right words to convey the harder, more precise truth about the process, the goal, and where to put the effort.
What other words work for you?
I love this video. It’s about a group of Thai kids who wanted to play soccer, but who didn’t have space in their coastal village — so they built a small, floating soccer field.
It’s a parable about an increasingly rare quality in our world: ownership. These kids succeeded not because they were provided with facilities, but because they seized the opportunity to build one. In doing so, they created their own micro-culture, their own rules, their own space.
It’s a recurring pattern. This summer, a Little League baseball team in San Clemente, CA had a problem when no adults volunteered to coach. So they found two kids (14 and 15 years old) to coach them — and won the league championship.
Or there’s Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, which started in 1970 when a teenage skier named Martha Coughlin wanted to train and study on the slopes. She found other kids who were interested, and, with guidance from a far-seeing educator named Warren Witherell, turned a farmhouse into a small school. When they needed a dormitory a few years later, students pounded the nails and put up the walls. Burke has gone on to produce more than 50 Olympians.
As coaches and parents, we instinctively think we need to provide great facilities, and to direct the action like an orchestra conductor. But often it’s exactly the opposite: the smartest thing we can do is to step back, in order to allow the learners the freedom and pleasure of solving problems and building something they truly own.
(Big thanks to Casey Wheel for sending this video.)
Big news! The Secret Race, which I wrote with Tyler Hamilton, just got nominated for the GoodReads Choice Award for Nonfiction Book of the Year. The voting is this week — so click here and have your vote counted. This is the semi-final round; voting goes through November 18th. If we make the final, there’s another round that ends on November 27th.
We are also fortunate enough to be nominated for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, the winner of which will be announced on November 26th in London. No reader voting for that one (at least, not by readers), but we’ll definitely have our fingers crossed.
I was chatting recently with Nate Sanderson, a top Iowa high school girls’ basketball coach. The subject turned to favorite pieces of advice. I expected to hear him start talking about lay-up drills and passing technique. But I didn’t. Instead, he said this:
Know where you are, and know where you’re supposed to be.
Know where you are, and know where you’re supposed to be.
Over the next day or so, I started to appreciate why this was his favorite. Basketball, soccer, algebra, comedy, skateboarding, spelling — it doesn’t matter. The advice applies in all cases:
Know where you are.
What move are you making, exactly, right now? Are you tuned into the precise knowledge of your performance as it unfolds?
Know where you’re supposed to be.
Where are you in relation to the ideal move? If you could superimpose yourself over the ideal performance, where would you match, and where would you fall short?
This advice fits with our scientific picture of skill acquisition. Psychologists say that learning new skills is like entering a dark room, feeling around for the furniture, and memorizing its location, so you can move through it – perform the action — ever more swiftly. In a word, it’s about cultivating awareness — awareness of ourselves, and of the path to our target performance.
The really interesting thing, though, is that we mostly take awareness for granted. We don’t instinctively train it, or devise ways to develop it. Maybe we should. Here are a few ideas:
- 1) Freeze. Develop the habit of stopping the action at unexpected times, to get a precise snapshot of where you’re at, and where you should be. An equally good technique is to drastically slow down the motion. Many musicians do this; so do athletes like Ben Hogan.
- 2) Embrace video. It’s used all the time in sports, but for some reason it’s used less in disciplines like music or business or art. If video can help develop tennis technique, why not use it with a boardroom presentation? A piano recital?
- 3) Build in a pause before each rep. Adding a momentary stop just before the action helps increase awareness by letting you take time to focus on the two things that matter: your knowledge of where you are, and where you want to go.
We’re busy. Really busy. Maybe busier than any generation, ever. So naturally we tend to assume that, in order to improve our skills, we need to set aside a good-size chunk of time: an hour or so. To practice for merely five minutes feels like a silly waste of time.
There’s evidence to show that daily micropractices — five minutes or so — are effective and often superior to longer weekly practices.
One reason: on days you don’t practice, skills erode. You are forced to spend significant part of the next session re-learning what you’ve forgotten.
When you practice a little each day, skills don’t erode. In fact, they consolidate. It’s like a bank account earning compound interest: a virtuous spiral where skill accrues quickly.
The larger idea here is that deep practice is a construction process where you’re connecting and honing living wires in your brain. Spending daily bursts of time works, because it’s aligned with the ways our brains actually grow — a little bit every day.
“Inspirational” is a dangerously overused word. But it’s the only word to describe “Brooklyn Castle,” a new documentary that tells the story of a tiny, unlikely talent hotbed: a middle-school chess team from Brooklyn, NY.
What I love is that this film doesn’t settle for the easy, soft-focus portrait. It shows exactly how hard the the kids work, and how their work is driven by the powerful culture the coaches create. (Watching those coaches work is worth the ticket price.) What I love best, however, is how it shows lives and identities being utterly transformed through acquiring skill.
Go see it with your kids. You’ll love it.