I’m talking about people in their thirties, forties, and beyond — people who are miles past any of the “learning windows” for talent, and who yet succeed in building fantastically high-performing skill sets.
People like Dr. Mary Hobson, who took up Russian at 56, and became a prize-winning translator. Or Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist who took up guitar at the age of 38 and taught himself to rock, or pool player Michael Reddick, or Dan McLaughlin, a 31-year-old who took up golf for the first time four years ago and now plays to an outstanding 3.3 handicap (and who also keeps track of his practice hours — 4,530 and counting, if you wanted to know).
We tend to explain adult prodigies with the same magical thinking as we use to explain child prodigies: they’re special. They always possessed hidden talents.
However, some new science is shedding light on the real reasons adults are able to successfully learn new skills, and exploding some myths in the process. You should check out this article from New Scientist if you want to go deeper. Or read Marcus’s book Guitar Zero, or How We Learn, by Benedict Carey (out next week).
The takeaway to all this is that adult prodigies succeed because they’re able to work past two fundamental barriers: 1) the wall of belief that they can’t do it; and 2) the grid of adult routines that keep them from spending time working intensively to improve skills. In other words, it’s not so much about your “natural talents,” as it is about your mindset and your habits. From the New Scientist piece:
“A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around,” says Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests. “If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”
With all that in mind, I thought I’d try to fill in a gap by offering a few basic rules on how to apply these ideas to regular life.
Rule 1. Pick a skill you were always fascinated by — one that you’ve already spent lots of time thinking about and admiring. Because all those hours is not just a sign of motivation; it’s also your head start to high-quality practice. You’ve already built some good circuitry, so use it.
Rule 2. Don’t pick something completely insane. Trying to become the next Steve Jobs or Peyton Manning probably doesn’t make sense for most adults. Focus on ambitious, reachable skills that make sense for you, and will add to your life.
Rule 3. Write down a big-picture plan. It doesn’t need to be too elaborate; it needs to contain some targets and strategies. Most important: figure out a daily routine, see if it’s working, then adapt it as you go along.
Rule 4: Don’t be so freaking conscientious about your plan. One of the traits that makes kids such good learners is their inherent looseness in approach; that is, they don’t get hung up on doing everything 100-percent perfectly every single time. They do the opposite: they try bits and pieces, and if something doesn’t work, they try something else. They’re experimenters, innovators, entrepreneurs of the brain. Do likewise.
Rule 5. Keep it quiet early on. The quickest way to kill motivation is to tell Facebook that you’re developing a new talent — because that creates high expectations, which are the ultimate motivational buzzkill.
Rule 6. Be secretly and irrationally arrogant. Fear is what keeps people from learning new things, and getting rid of that fear however you choose is a good idea. So be cocky, gutsy, and willing to go to the edges of your ability even if (especially if) that means you sometimes look a little foolish. In other words, channel your inner Kobe Bryant.
Rule 6. Practice every day, in short bursts.
Rule 7: Long bursts too.
Rule 8: Also, medium bursts. Dream all you want, but frequent, intensive, high-quality practice is the path forward.
Rule 8: Interleave your practice, which is a fancy word for switching it up a lot. For example, if you want to improve your toss on your tennis serve, don’t just toss 50 balls in a row. Instead, toss 5 while focusing on one element of the move. Then do something else for 5 minutes. Then come back to the toss — this time focusing on a different element. Then go do something else, and so on. Interleaving forces your brain to make connections, and learn faster.
Rule 9: Find the best teacher you can afford. One of the advantages of being an adult is that, unlike a kid, you can choose your own teacher. This is not a small thing. Find someone you like, and who maybe scares you a little (that is often a good sign).
Rule 10: Seek a training group. No matter what skill you’re trying to build, you are more motivated when you are part of a tribe working toward a goal.
Rule 11: Every once in a while, ignore your training group and stay home. The downside of training with people is that you tend to overlook problem areas that you really need to fix — and some things can only be solved alone.
Rule 12. Set aside a space to practice. This doesn’t need to be fancy — in fact, the less fancy the better. But it needs to exist and be convenient, and preferably located in your home, because you’ll use it more often.
Rule 13. Get good tools. If you’re learning guitar, get a quality one. If you’re doing something on a computer, don’t buy one from Radio Shack.
Rule 14: Keep your tools handy, not stored away in some closet. When they’re around, you tend to pick them up more often.
Rule 15. Be opportunistic. Use the little quiet spots in your day to work in some spontaneous practice. A good five minutes can have a huge impact.
Rule 16. Keep a notebook, and track what works and what doesn’t. The notebook is your map: it keeps track of the stuff you forget, the goals you want to track, and (most crucially) the progress you make.
Rule 17. Steal from other people. Even if you’ve picked a wildly obscure talent to develop, there are thousands of other people out there who are doing exactly the same thing as you are, right now. They’re solving the same problems, finding possible solutions. Seek them out (on YouTube, for starters) and go to school on them.
Rule 18. Teach someone else. You might think you know how to perform a skill. But trying to accurately, concisely explain how that skill works to someone else? That’s a deeper level of understanding entirely.
Rule 19. Keep expectations moderately low.
Rule 20: Keep hopes moderately high.
Rule 21. In your self talk, use “You” and not “I.” Research shows that self-talk is significantly more effective when you use the second person.
Rule 22. Practice early in the day. This is when your brain is fresh, and when you’ll make the most progress. Not coincidentally, this is also when there are the fewest interruptions.
Rule 23. Seek to become a world-class napper. This is a skill you likely already possess — and improving it can ratchet up your learning speed.
Rule 24. Plan on showing off, once you get good enough. Even the patron saint of adult prodigies, the painter Grandma Moses, wasn’t discovered until she got brave and started selling her artwork in local galleries. There’s nothing like an upcoming event or performance to direct your work and create a sense of energy. And besides, you earned it.
Two last questions: 1) Are there any stories/ideas you want to share about adult learning? 2) What other rules belong on this list? I’d love to hear what you have to say.
Hope you all had a good and rejuvenating summer. We spent a big chunk of it up in Alaska, doing some hiking, fishing, working, and — as some of you noticed — not updating the blog. It was nice to have a vacation, but as the weeks have gone by, I found myself missing this place, and the conversations that happen here. All of which is to say, in the coming weeks on I’ll be posting more regularly — figure on weekly-ish. And to start us off we’ve got a rare treat.
Question: If you had the opportunity to get inside one of the world’s top talent hotbeds, which would you choose? You could make a good case for German soccer academies, or Finnish high schools, or any number of top music academies. But there’s one hotbed that might rank above them all, one hotbed that’s so ass-kickingly, fascinatingly dominant that they make the others seem positively lukewarm.
To say Chinese divers are dominant doesn’t quite cover it. At last month’s World Cup of Diving they won gold and silver in every single event they entered. In other words, in nine events, no diver from any other country beat a single Chinese diver. This isn’t new: over the past four Olympics, they have won 24 of a possible 32 gold medals.
So it was a rare treat when I recently came into contact with Rett Larson, who he has spent a good chunk of the last two and a half years at the very center of Chinese diving. Rett is performance manager for EXOS-China and lives part-time in Shanghai, where he helps oversee and organize the team’s training. And because he’s also an incredibly generous and insightful dude, he’s made this video (below) and written the accompanying text so that readers of this blog can get this exclusive peek inside their training facility.
So check out Rett’s video and, even more important, the accompanying list. There’s a lot to love about his list: how it cuts against conventional wisdom; and how it describes a culture that consistently nudges performers to the edges of their envelope (for proof, scroll to the 2-minute mark in the video, and watch as a diver attempts a never-before-done dive, and ends up making what undoubtedly ranks as one of the most spectacular back-flops of all time).
Most of all, I love how these ideas and training designs can be applied to so much more than sports.
10 SURPRISING TRUTHS ABOUT THE WORLD’S MOST SUCCESSFUL TALENT HOTBED, by Rett Larson
1. WE MIX AGES LIKE CRAZY: The juniors aren’t all lumped together like they are in most systems — instead, three-time Gold medalists train with top 10-year-olds. Each diving coach might be responsible for five athletes – three Olympic veterans and two juniors. The juniors get to mirror the elites all day, from training to eating to bedtimes. It also creates a sense of humility in the juniors, who have likely dominated in their provinces since they were six years old.
2. WE SPEND MOST OF OUR TIME WORKING ON SUPER-BASIC DIVES: The Chinese have a higher training volume than the rest of the world – often more than 100 dives per day. But many of those dives are very basic. The first ten dives of the day might all be starting with your butt on the edge of the platform and falling into a simple dive. That’s it — and that’s the point.
3. WE APPLAUD SPECTACULAR FAILURES: For the past decade China has won almost every competition by doing simple dives very, very well. Their technical proficiency is incredible because they practice longer and harder than any other country. But, they also know that they have to push themselves and innovate. You’ll see in the video a male diver attempting to be the first human to do four flips from the 10-meter board starting from a handstand. He doesn’t make it — spectacularly. What you don’t see is the ovation he gets from the rest of the team after his failed attempt.
4. WE ARE OBSESSIVE ABOUT COACHING EVERY SINGLE REP: Each dive is given feedback, even the basic ones. A dozen coaches sit on the side of the pool and give immediate feedback on every dive that their athlete performs that day.
5. WE AVOID ALLOWING OUR ATHLETES TO SPECIALIZE IN ONE DISCIPLINE: The 10-meter platform divers won’t spend all day on the 10m board. They’ll have dives on the 3m, 5m, 6m, 7m, and even the springboards depending on what their coach wants them to work on. Each day the athletes receive a laminated sheet with their daily dives listed.
6. WE ACCOMPLISH OUR MOST IMPORTANT WORK OUTSIDE OF THE POOL: Chinese divers perform dry-land training better than anyone else in the world. If you ask the coaches – this is what has led to China’s dominance. As you’ll see in the video, their dryland training facilities are a Disneyland for divers. Like their dives in the pool, each athlete has a laminated sheet of dryland exercises that take them from the trampoline to the foam pit to the mats or to the runway to practice approaches. They move around the gym and are never on one piece of equipment for more than 20 minutes.
7. WE SEEK LOTS OF FEEDBACK FROM LOTS OF COACHES: As the athletes move around the dryland training area, they move into the zones of different coaches who offer a variety of corrections based on what their “coaching eye” sees. Chinese coaches all share a basic methodology so there’s no worry of conflicting messages being sent.
8. WE USE VIDEO AS MUCH AS HUMANLY (AND TECHNICALLY) POSSIBLE: In both the dryland facility and the pool there are closed circuit cameras that catch the dives being performed. After the athletes get out of the pool and receive feedback from the coach, they can look up on the huge monitors and see the dives for themselves.
9. WE SEEK WAYS TO ESTABLISH TEAM IDENTITY THROUGH SACRIFICE: No other Olympic team in the complex trains before 9 a.m. — but three days a week, our team rises early to train at six — because it’s a sacrifice. There’s no need to train at 6am instead of 9am. They do it because it’s inconvenient, and it creates an air of “we work harder than anyone else.”
10. WE HAVE WAA-AAY MORE FUN THAN YOU MIGHT GUESS: Dryland training is a place where there is frequent playing around and laughing. The coaches let the athletes be kids. Now I’m not saying that it’s like a frat party (this is Communist China, after all), but compared to many teams I’ve worked with over the last 2.5 years in China, they have a good time.
Quite a list, isn’t it?
Here’s the fascinating part: fully half of the ten principles (numbers 1, 3, 5, 9 and 10) have zero to do with training methods and everything to do with the organizational culture. Mixing ages, applauding failure, avoiding specialization, embracing sacrifice, and having fun are not training techniques — they are shared values that apply far beyond just diving. They are powerful signals that create a cohesive, high-performing tribe of people.
All of which leaves room for one more question: how does Rett’s list compare with the principles of other high-performing places (like, maybe, yours)? What’s missing? What might be added?
PS – if there’s anybody else out there who might want to offer a similar “insider’s tour” of their training, please let me know.
Summer is designed to change you. The sun hovers in the sky for pointless, fabulous hours. The scaffold of daily life gets knocked sideways. You travel to far-off and exotic places, which are often in your own backyard. And sometimes you read books.
With that in mind, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions for books that changed the way I see things. Recommended to be enjoyed with a gin and tonic, and a hammock.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Reading Susan Cain’s book is like being handed a pair of X-ray glasses with which you can see everyone you know — including yourself — in a new and vivid light. It’s especially good on the often-overlooked benefits of introversion when it comes to creativity, leadership, and communication, and on the powerful things that happen when introverts teach themselves to be strategically extroverted.
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, by Adam Grant – Have you ever had a book where you dog-ear so many pages that it begins to be far more convenient to locate a page that is not dog-eared? This is one of those books chiefly because Adam Grant 1) is one helluva writer, teacher, and researcher; 2) provides a genuinely revolutionary way to look at cooperation, generosity, and human nature. His thesis is that acts of giving are the most powerfully underrated force on the planet. Even better: when you reflect on it, you’ll see that he’s absolutely right.
Social Physics: The Lessons from a New Science, by Alex Pentland – One of the most fulfilling moments in life is those rare moments when we are part of a group that possesses that elusive, magical quality known as “good chemistry.” We usually think of those qualities as intangibles, but Sandy Pentland’s new book makes them real, and, more important, measurable. Pentland, who directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, uses a series of new tools to show, among other things, how good groups function like beehives, how strangers can be brought together to solve massively complex problems, and how idea flow is the most important factor governing group performance.
Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, by Adam Alter. The idea that our brains unconsciously react to tiny signals is not new. But Alter gives us a blueprint for the way it works. For example, we behave more virtuously when we are watched — even by a photograph of eyes. Athletes are more likely to win when they wear red, perhaps because it mimics the kinds of dominance displays in our evolutionary past. The lesson: Seemingly tiny signals can have a massive impact on us, and dialing into that fact is the first step toward gaining a measure of control over them.
The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow — Okay, a 65-year-old novel might seem out of place on this list, but if the modern twitter-ized world has taught us anything, it’s that life can be lived at various levels. You can either skim the surface, or you can dive in and explore the depths. If you want to dive deep, there is no better guide than Bellow and his novel about an ambitious Chicago kid who, as the famous first paragraph declares, “will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent.”
Here’s Bellow on Augie’s grandma:
With the [cigarette] holder in her dark little gums between which all her guile, malice, and command issued, she had all her best inspirations of strategy. She was as wrinkled as an old paper bag, and autocrat, hard-shelled and jesuetical, a pouncy old hawk of a Bolshevik, her small ribboned gray feet immobile on the shoekit…. She was impossible to satisfy.
Here’s his description of a train ride to Chicago:
I headed downtown right away. It was still early in the evening, glittering with electric, with ice; and trembling in the factories, those nearly all windows, over the prairies that had returned over demolitions with winter grass pricking the snow and thrashed and frozen together into beards by the wind. The cold simmer of the lake also, blue; the steady skating of rails too, down to the dark.”
It’s good stuff, and a good way to slow down and see what’s really happening in life. After all, isn’t that what summer is for?
If you have any suggestions for summer reading, I’d love to hear them.
Truly bad teaching is pretty easy to spot, because learners don’t improve, and don’t feel connected.
Truly great teaching is pretty easy to spot, because learners improve rapidly and feel connected.
But perhaps the hardest to spot is a particularly nefarious type of teaching called pseudoteaching. It looks and feels like good teaching, but in fact it’s a mirage.
The term comes from teacher and blogger Frank Noschese, who writes about pseudoteaching here and here. What I like best is how open Noschese is; how he reveals that we are all guilty of it sometimes. As he writes:
Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.
I can definitely relate. A few years ago in Chicago, I taught a class in magazine writing and also coached Little League. In both I made the exact same mistake: I thought talking well was the same as teaching. I rarely connected to individuals, preferred talking to the big group. I approached teaching as if it were an eloquence contest: the more compellingly I talked, the better I thought I was doing. I didn’t realize that teaching is about interaction, not just action. I didn’t realize that good teaching happens in the space between the teacher and the learner.
With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to offer the following field guide:
10 WAYS TO SPOT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PSEUDOTEACHING (PT) AND REAL TEACHING (RT)
- 1) PT delivers long, entertaining, inspiring lectures; RT designs short, intensive, learner-driven sessions
- 2) PT is eloquent and expansive; RT is concise and focused
- 3) PT addresses large groups; RT connects to individuals
- 4) PT doesn’t focus on small details; RT is all about details
- 5) PT is about talking more than watching or listening; RT is about listening and watching more than talking
- 6) PT is loudly charismatic; RT is quietly magnetic
- 7) PT is Robin Williams leaping atop desks in Dead Poets Society; RT is John Wooden, teaching his basketball players how to put on their socks properly (no wrinkles, because that causes blisters)
- 8) PT dismisses questions; RT craves them
- 9) PT treats everyone the same; RT tailors the message for each learner
- 10) PT delivers the exact same lecture over and over; RT customizes each session for its audience
Next question: what else belongs on this list? I’d love to see your suggestions or hear examples of pseudoteaching and pseudocoaching. Who knows, maybe John Kessel and his team can make another poster, the way they did with Traits of Good/Bad Sports Parents.
It might be the most common piece of advice in the history of the world. You hear it whenever you’re learning something new. Just three words:
Take baby steps.
The most common interpretation of this is: Go small. Be safe. Don’t take big risks.
There’s just one problem with this interpretation: it’s wrong.
Because we are not built to learn by avoiding risk, but by embracing it.
Fortunately, babies (like the one above) give us a useful blueprint for doing this:
- Don’t tiptoe meekly — move with enthusiasm toward a target beyond your reach.
- Be a little crazy.
- Be ready for spectacular wipeouts (why it’s a good idea to have people around to support you.)
- Accept fear. If it’s not scary, you’re not doing it right.
Slightly crazed bravery is what baby steps are really all about. That’s why they work, both for babies and for the rest of us.
I love the clean, organized, hopeful look of them. I love the sense of steady progress and accomplishment that they radiate.
I love calendars even though I know they’re lying.
Because despite what calendars imply, progress is never steady or predictable. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s uneven. You go from struggling with a particular thing and then, bang, you find yourself standing on a new threshold of ability. It’s not a staircase so much as jagged and unpredictable climb.
I find myself increasingly fascinated by those unpredictable leaps in ability. What are they made of? And, how do you make them happen more often?
We get an answer, I think, from the two videos below. They capture practice sessions from vastly different domains. But they’re really about something far more important and powerful: smart practice design. Which means being willing to be stupid.
Case Study #1: Timeflies Tuesday’s Lottery-Style Freestyle
Freestyling requires you to do write poetry on the fly, to the beat of a song. The keystone skills are to 1) generate phrases and 2) link them up into something bigger. The goal is nimbleless of mind, the ability to weave a series of ideas into a series of phrase-stories and make them rhyme in real time. This is not easy.
Rob Resnick and Cal Shapiro, a.k.a. Timeflies Tuesday, have come up with an ingenious design that is centered on slips of paper and a hat.
- Step 1: Write down random topics on slips of paper (Kardashians, Anthony Weiner, Red Sox).
- Step 2: Place slips of paper in a Celtics baseball cap
- Step 3: Have Cal pick the topics one by one and try to work them into a freestyle.
Here’s what it looks like (Tip: fast-forward to 1:15 — and if you are offended by explicit language, you probably don’t want to click):
Case Study #2: Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech
Cech is one of the planet’s best goalkeepers, in part because he’s trained himself to detect and deflect the ball from every conceivable velocity and angle. His keystone skill is reading and reaction — which is what this practice is designed to build.
It’s completely fantastic: different-size balls, shots from three different angles and velocities, from feet and tennis racquets, layered with unique twists (I especially like how he has to throw one ball straight up in the air, catch a second ball and dispose of it, and then catch the original ball before it hits the ground).
Here’s the point: beneath the surface, both Timeflies and Cech are engaging in exactly same form of compressive practice, which has three elements:
- 1) Isolate the key skill: You put one central skill under the magnifying glass. You aren’t working on the entire set of moves, but just the most important parts — which usually have to do with pattern recognition and reaction.
- 2) Pressurize: Make it harder than normal. In games, Cech will never have to deflect three balls. Cal will never have to react to random lyric ideas from slips of paper. But practicing in this way — forcing nimbleness — will make performance under normal conditions far easier.
- 3) Make it Fun and a Little Stupid: These are not “serious-minded drills” — they’re the opposite. They’re funny little games, loaded with emotion, engagement and the opportunity to fail productively. You feel goofy doing them — and that’s the point. This willingness to feel stupid is not a downside: it’s a design feature.
It’s no accident that Timeflies performs their sessions in front of friends and posts them on YouTube — it adds to the sense of fun, connection, and risk. Same with the people on Giveit100.com, who post their practice sessions as they improve over the span of 100 days. I think this is a worthwhile trend. The more we get to glimpse the nitty-gritty preparation beneath performance, the more we can steal and learn from them.
Speaking of which, what’s your favorite practice design, technique, or method? Are there any useful ones that might be worth sharing and/or stealing?
Can you watch people perform, talk to them, and then choose the person who’s destined to succeed in the long run?
Most of us instinctively answer “yes,” because it feels like we do.
In fact, science shows us that we’re mostly flattering ourselves. Because the truth is, long-term success is extraordinarily difficult to predict. Interviews are notoriously unreliable. Sports drafts, in particular, are expensive casinos.
The problem is that a person’s progress ultimately depends on factors that are extraordinarily difficult to measure — stuff like character, emotions, discipline, motivation. How do they respond to failure? What’s their vision for themselves? Can they persevere in the toughest situations?
We call this “the soft stuff” but in fact it’s not soft at all — it’s the hardest, most vital stuff there is.
The real question is, how do you measure it?
I came across a great answer developed by San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback before becoming a successful coach, has developed a simple way to measure the soft stuff of his quarterback and receiver prospects.
He plays catch with them.
That’s right — he plays catch, throwing a football back and forth. He does this at pro days, when prospective draftees try out for an audience of coaches and scouts. Every other NFL coach treats the event as a spectator sport, standing on the sidelines with clipboards and video cameras. Harbaugh, on the other hand, uses it as an opportunity to engage.
Here’s the trick: with Harbaugh, it’s not an ordinary game of catch. Because after a few warmups, Harbaugh starts throwing harder, with more and more intensity. He makes the player run out for passes, making tough throws. He challenges the player, sees if they instinctively rise to the occasion. Some players back down, get uncomfortable. Others embrace it. From the Wall Street Journal:
Harbaugh first took a liking to [Colin] Kaepernick, who played in college at Nevada, when they played a supercharged game of catch at his pro day in Reno. Harbaugh threw hard; Kaepernick threw harder. Kaepernick, Harbaugh came to understand, had the drive he was looking for. Although he wasn’t considered a top prospect—San Francisco took him in the second round in 2011—Kaepernick has started in two straight NFC Championship games and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season.
I love Harbaugh’s litmus test because it measures two things at once: interpersonal chemistry and competitiveness. It operates at the gut level, where the most important factors reside.
In short, this is not talent ID — it’s temperament ID.
It reminds me of a master teacher I researched at the Bolshoi Ballet, who tested new students by teaching them a difficult and strange new move that none of them had ever done before. The teacher wasn’t interested in how well they performed so much as whether they embraced the process. Did they rise to the challenge? Did they struggle well? Like Harbaugh’s test, it was a gut-level litmus test of temperament and character.
The next question: are there ways to apply this idea to other disciplines? What’s the business version of Harbaugh method? What’s the music version?
Do you know of any similar temperament-ID tests that might be worth sharing?
Perhaps it’s a coach, maybe a high-school teacher, maybe a relative — it doesn’t matter.
Now picture their face.
When you think about that person, which of the following comes to mind:
- A) A life lesson that person taught you
- B) A goal that that person helped you achieve
- C) The way that person made you feel
If you’re like most people, it’s no contest.
The answer is (C).
The lesson of this little exercise is simple: the greatest teachers aren’t great just because they deliver information. They’re great because they create lasting connections. They’re not about the words they say; they’re about the way they make you feel.
I’m not talking about mere social skills. I’m talking about the ability David Foster Wallace was talking about when he wrote this:
A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority…. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.
Which leads us to a question: how do we find teachers like this, both for ourselves and our kids? How do we develop this quality in ourselves?
I thought it might be good to start a conversation by identifying a pattern I’ve seen in my research and the related science: three simple things that master teachers tend to do.
1) They are exceptionally good at small talk.
Most master teachers don’t start sessions by teaching. They start by connecting. They want to chat, to engage, to figure out where you are, who you are, and what makes you tick.
A few years back, Dr. Mark Lepper of Stanford organized an extensive video-based study on the habits of the most successful math tutors, and discovered a curious fact: the best tutors started each session by engaging in idle chat. They talked about the weather, or school, or family — anything but math.
This seems nonsensical, until you consider the role small talk plays in building trust. We do not naturally give our trust to people; small talk is the doorway to trust and learning.
2) They ask LOTS of questions.
We instinctively think of great teachers as repositories of knowledge, and deliverers of brilliant speeches and lectures. This is hugely wrong. From Socrates to John Wooden, great teaching is about asking the right questions, not about providing the answers.
Lepper’s study showed that the most effective tutors spent 80 to 90 percent of their time asking questions. They weren’t dictating the truth, they were doing something far more important: creating a platform where the learner can struggle toward the answers.
Geno Auriemma, coach of UConn’s nine-time national championship women’s basketball team, is particularly good at doing this. From a recent profile:
Here’s the phrase Auriemma utters most often to his players at practice. “Figure it out!” he bawls.
If he says it once, he says it a hundred times. He halts practice every time a kid looks at him quizzically, and asks, “What do I do here?”
“Figure it out,” he insists. “What do you think you should do here? Why do you need me to tell you all the time what to do here?”
3) They have a good sense of humor.
Yes, there are a few ultra-serious teachers out there who rarely crack a smile (I’m looking at you, ballet teachers), but the vast majority of master teachers use humor the same way you might employ a Swiss Army knife: as a multi-purpose social tool. Humor can defuse tension, create common ground, and build bonds. In other words, being funny isn’t just funny — it’s also smart.
Which brings us to the next question: what other skills should we add to this list? What fundamental skills did your best teachers possess, and how did they make you better? I’m eager to see what you think.
I love the Singular Genius model of creativity. You know, the worldview that believes creativity comes from one-in-a-million individuals like Beethoven, Faulkner, Edison, and Steve Jobs, who remake the world because they think different.
I love the Singular Genius model because it’s fantastically compelling and dramatic.
But the singular-genius model has a problem. Two problems, actually.
Problem #1: it’s inaccurate. None of the singular geniuses truly operated on their own. Beethoven had Haydn and Mozart, Steve Jobs had Wozniak and Gates; Faulkner had Conrad and Hemingway, Edison had Tesla, and so on. Singular geniuses stand tall because they stand on the shoulders of others (who stand on the shoulders of others, and so on).
Problem #2: it’s crippling. Under this model, you are either born a creative genius, or you’re not. Which makes for an entertaining story, but doesn’t do much for the rest of us who are seeking to be more creative in our lives.
Fortunately, there’s a better model, which might be called the Team model of creative genius. In this view, creativity does not reside within singular people, but rather within the social ecosystems that create and refine ideas.
The big insight is this: every creative breakthrough is built of ideas — thousands of ideas, working together in the same way that cells build a organism. Creativity, then, is not about finding one brilliant individual, but rather about creating effective patterns of interaction between a bunch of smart individuals. About arranging the right people in the right way, and letting them get to work with as few barriers and as much focus as possible.
Nobody on the planet does this better than Pixar. The studio reinvented the movie business by switching from the singular genius model to the Team model, in which movies are made by tightly knit groups. As anyone who has seen Pixar movies can attest, it works. It’s not guesswork or good luck; it’s a system.
The good news: Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull has written a wonderful new book called Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Unlike most books written by founders, this isn’t some myth-heavy legacy project — it’s far closer to a blueprint. Catmull takes us inside the Pixar ecosystem and shows how they build and refine excellence, in revelatory detail.
Among the takeaways:
- 1) Embrace the suck stage. All the best creative ideas are ungainly at the start. As Catmull says, every Pixar film, early in its development, has sucked. “That’s a blunt assessment, I know,” he writes, “but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the ﬁrst versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” Embracing suckiness as part of the process — and not judging outcomes too early — is essential.
- 2) Be quick to fix. Creative people need help, because they inevitably become lost in the process. They fuse emotionally with the project, and that fusion, while necessary, leads to confusion. The cure? Equip them with a braintrust: a cohesive group of colleagues who can identify problems with candor and trust.
- 3) Be crazily persistent. Failure isn’t just an option: it’s the most effective pathway forward. To use those failures well, you have to be more than just mildly persistent. You get a good sense of this from an open letter written by Pixar animator Austin Madison.
“I, like many of you artists out there, constantly shift between two states. The first is white-hot, “in the zone” seat-of-the-pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode. This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice. This happens about 3% of the time. The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair…. In a word: PERSIST. PERSIST on telling your story. PERSIST on reaching your audience. PERSIST on staying true to your vision….”
You get the idea. This book is chock-full of advice like that. If you do creative work, you should read it, now. (For a taste, here’s an excerpt.)
(Look for new post in the next week or so.)
1) I’m working on a new book about successful group culture. I’m focused on underdog organizations (sports teams, businesses, schools) that succeed despite the odds; groups that are far more than the sum of their parts — in short, groups where two plus two equals 10. I’m focused on the invisible, intangible stuff: culture, cohesion, chemistry, trust, purpose, and seeing how those work. I’ve still got a ways to go, but I hope to stop reporting and start writing soon. One slight problem: the reporting is kind of addictive.
2) I’m also spending time working with my adopted-hometown team, the Cleveland Indians, focusing on talent-development innovation. It’s been a blast, and the organization is nothing short of terrific. We spent two weeks of spring training in Arizona, and while I can’t reveal too many details, I can confirm that Nick Swisher’s bro hugs are exactly as powerful as you’d imagine them to be. Tonight is opening night for the Indians — so Go Tribe!
If you have any thoughts about either of these projects, I’d love to hear them.