How to Be More Creative (Step #1: Buy This Pixar Book)

April 9th, 2014

© Disney • PixarI 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.)

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Play Ball!

March 31st, 2014

imagesSorry, I haven’t posted for a while — and here’s why:

(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.

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Your Best Training Session Ever

March 10th, 2014

thumb_COLOURBOX2909481My friend Jeff is a trauma surgeon, and he’s pretty good at his job. You can tell because a few years ago, President Obama was visiting town, and Secret Service agents stopped by to inspect Jeff’s operating room — you know, just in case Jeff was needed.

The other day I asked Jeff a simple question: what was the single best, most effective training session he’d ever witnessed?

Here’s his answer:

We were teaching medical students a class in emergency medicine, and instead of lecturing we did something different: we staged an accident.

Class began as normal, then we had somebody barge through the door and yell that there had been a car accident outside — they needed help, now! The students ran out — they could probably tell it was staged, but it was pretty convincing — fake blood, injured “victims” scattered on the ground, piles of debris everywhere. They had to read and react to what they saw — to do triage, to figure out who needed what, under live conditions. We even hid one “injured” person under a pile of debris, to test if they would pay attention enough to find him. 

The students went to work treating the injured for about 15 minutes, and we videoed the whole thing from a few angles. Then we all walked back in the classroom, and watched the video, analyzing exactly what they did right and what they did wrong. And then — and this was the powerful thing — we did the whole thing all over again. We re-staged the accident from the start and had the students go out again, to correct their errors and get it right. The whole exercise took two hours, and it was a huge learning experience for everybody.

Isn’t that great? Not just because it’s creative, but also because it vividly shows the gap between conventional learning (a.k.a. passively listening to someone lecture) and actual skill development (doing real things, paying keen attention to your mistakes, then doing those things over again.)

Jeff’s story reminded of my own best training experiences. I was just out of college, and wanted to be a better writer. I invented this method where I would attend baseball games and pretend that I was the sportswriter on deadline. I would watch the game, take notes, and then race back home to write my story by my make-believe deadline. The next day, I would compare my story to the story written by the actual writer, and see where I’d gone wrong, and where I’d gone right.  It provided, like Jeff’s make-believe accident, some of the most vivid and powerful training I ever had.

This kind of learning falls under the general heading of LARP — live action role play – and it has a few key features:

  • 1) You’re pretending to be someone you’re not (yet, anyway)
  • 2) You perform in “live” conditions, with real emotional pressure
  • 3) You get vivid, speedy feedback
  • 4) You repeat it over and over

Effective LARP requires something else: a certain immunity to embarrassment. It feels more than a little goofy pretending to be a sportswriter, or pretending to take care of fake victims. I think that’s one reason why LARP tends to be vastly under-used — which, in my opinion, is a missed opportunity.

With that in mind, I’m curious if anyone would like to share their own stories of their best training session ever. It could be LARP, or it could be something else that happened through invention or accident. Please give us a quick description of your session below, and why you think it was effective, and we’ll see what patterns emerge. Thanks!

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What Makes a Good Sports Parent?

February 21st, 2014

Of all the master coaches I know, John Kessel might be the best. Not because of his brilliant coaching of his sport (which happens to be volleyball), but more because of the way he thinks.  John is enthusiastically obsessed with the Big Questions: What’s the best environment for learning? How can you ignite motivation in young people? What is great teaching made of?

Earlier this week, John happened to see a presentation contrasting the habits of good classrooms and bad classrooms. After brainstorming with colleagues Leslee Harms and Cassie Weaver, he came up with the following poster, which highlights the key elements of a high-quality sports program.

I think it’s absolutely spot-on — and what’s more, applies to a lot more than just sports. In fact, if there’s a clearer road map to creating an effective learning environment, I haven’t seen it.

Tale of Two Sports Programs  11x17

But of course, that’s just the start.

For the next project, John would like to come up with a similar road map for the single group of people who need it most: parents. His idea is to have the readers of this blog (and others) compile a similar list for parents: Call it: “A Tale of Two Parenting Styles.”

And that’s where you come in.

Would you be interested in offering John your ideas and suggestions on what makes an effective sports parent, and what doesn’t? Feel free to add however many you like; the only request is that you follow the above format. I’ll get it started:

  • Parent A: Focuses on wins and losses as the measure of success
  • Parent B:  Focuses on long-term learning.
  • Parent A: Spends the car-ride home asking detailed questions about the game, the kid’s performance, and the coach
  • Parent B: Spends the car-ride home being supportive, listening to music, talking about life outside sports

What do you think? Can you help John get this done?

PS – You can find John’s blog here, and more good posters here that, like the above, are free to print out and share (I especially like “Be a Coach” and “Be a Player”).

PPS - For inspiration, check out this hilarious animated video that John made with his son Cody, depicting a a coach’s conversation with a Parent from Hell.

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The Unprepared Person’s Guide to Performance-Boosting

February 13th, 2014

unpreparedIn a perfect world, we all arrive 100 percent prepared for every test, game, or performance.

In the actual world, this does not happen. In fact, we  occasionally show up fantastically unprepared. In fact, just this morning, my 15-year-old daughter had such a moment: a math test this afternoon, and she’d barely studied.

Fortunately, modern science is here to rescue us. Specifically, science that reveals the surprising power of small environmental cues to activate unconscious triggers in our brains.

There are entire books written about this subject (my favorite is Adam Alter’s wonderful Drunk Tank Pink) and I recommend checking them out. But in the meantime here are a few quick performance-enhancing tricks that you can use in a pinch. Keep in mind that the science is in its infancy, and that many of these studies have tiny sample sizes.

But that’s okay. After all, you’re desperate.

  • 1) Think about your ancestors. This experiment in Germany showed that students who spent a few minutes thinking about their forebearers (either great grandparents or more distant) improved  performance on a memory test by 30 percent over students who thought about friends or shopping. The reason? We’re social animals. Your ancestors are the reason you exist. Thinking about them seems to activate our senses of belonging, confidence, and control.
  • 2) Wear red, especially in sports. This is a weird one, but apparently true: a 2004 study of 457 Olympic wrestling matches showed that when competitors were seeded identically, the ones wearing red won 62 percent of the matches. A similar finding was done with a half-century-long study of English soccer teams (though the fact that powers Manchester United and Liverpool both wear red might have something to do with that). Scientists theorize it has to do with the fact that red holds an evolutionary link to dominance and aggression, and thus triggers unconscious feelings of dominance that improve performance.
  • 3) Spend a few minutes staring at a photo of trees, or (better) take a quick walk in the woods, which has been shown to improve performance on a memory and attention test by 20 percent.
  • 4) Listen to relaxing music, which improves the body’s ability to handle stress, lowering cortisol levels and buffering against negative emotions.
  • 5) If you’re a woman speaking to a group, look at a picture of Hillary Clinton: this experiment showed that exposure to Hillary’s face (as opposed to her husband’s face or a landscape) substantially improved the public-speaking abilities of women. (Sorry, guys — no similar effect found for men.)
  • 6) Chew gum, which improves blood flow to the brain and improved recall by 20 percent on a short test.
  • 7) Exercise, which has a similar blood-flow effect, and, in the long run, helps build a better brain.
  • 8) Take a quick nap, which has all kinds of cognitive benefits (especially if you follow the official rules of high-performance napping).

As we drove to school today, I told my daughter some of these tricks. At this exact moment she’s chewing gum, thinking about ancestors, and staring at trees (as luck would have it, she was already wearing red). I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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Hey Parents: Quit Raising Specialists and Start Raising Omnivores

February 6th, 2014

Sports-STACK-629x240In the glossy heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of East Anchorage High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Trace Savage. And Trace Savage was awesome

(Just say it out loud: Trace Savage.)

Trace Savage was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: quarterback of the football team, starting forward on the basketball team, and track star. He was living our American sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew.

Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed.

Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the ESPN-ification of youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, and tournaments, with each kid (read: parent) seeking the holy grail of success: the college scholarship.

By the time the mid-nineties rolled around Trace Savage had vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists.

Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: indoor soccer in winter, hockey in summer, baseball all year round. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round. It makes perfect sense.

It was also, in retrospect, a perfectly bad idea. While early specialization works for a lucky few, an increasingly large wave of research has provided proof that early specialization doesn’t work so well for the rest of us. Let us count the ways:

I think the bigger point is this: when it comes to athletic skills, we are natural omnivores. Our bodies and brains are built to grow through variety of activities, not just one.

Think about what happens when you play multiple sports. You develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength. You cross-train skills from one sport to another.

It is not a coincidence that many top performers were multiple-sport kids growing up. Roger Federer played soccer until 12; Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant did the same. The reason they possess such brilliant footwork and vision is because they built those skills, over time, by being omnivorous.

Most important, multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process.

I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability. (See: Woods, Tiger.) They are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.

So the real question is, what do you do? How do you nurture a Trace Savage in a Tiger Woods world? Here are three useful approaches, courtesy of Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport, who’s written widely on the subject.

  • Delay: wait as long as possible before choosing a single sport to pursue. It varies according to sport, but research puts the ideal age for specialization around the early teenage years.  (That doesn’t mean you start at that age, of course, but rather that you start getting serious.)
  • Diversify: embrace all possibilities to broaden skills. Experiment and cross train.
  • Co-operate: seek ways to build connections between the silos of individual sports, so that families are not forced to choose one over the other too soon.

I’d add one more word: Connect. One of the main reason specialization is hard to resist is the parental peer-pressure that comes with joining any “elite” team. When every other family on the team is skipping school to travel to that “prestigious” out-of-state tournament, it’s awfully hard to say no. So I’d suggest seeking out other parents, kids, and coaches who share the multi-sport view, and working together to create fun, homegrown, omnivorous alternatives.

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A Free Learning App that Actually Works

January 29th, 2014

meStudying_app_iconFor a few years now, I’ve been skeptical of the ever-growing wave of learning apps that use iPads and smartphones to teach math, language, art, and music.

As in, really skeptical.

While fantastically entertaining and beautifully designed, most of these apps fail what I’d call the Reality Test: they are inferior to learning the old-fashioned way, with your brain, body and the good old physical world. (Besides, as South Park wisely pointed out, there’s a slight but crucial difference between being skilled at Guitar Hero and being skilled at guitar.)

Then came last night.

Let me set the scene for you: it’s 10 p.m. and the temperature here in northeastern Ohio is approximately minus-478 degrees. School for tomorrow has been officially canceled. Jen and I are hanging out downstairs; the three girls are upstairs in full snow-day celebration mode, reveling in the unexpected late bedtime, the joy of no classes, pure freedom.

But something’s wrong. It’s too quiet. Then I hear a faint trumpet call, followed by yells of delight.

“What’s going on up there?” I ask. That’s when Jen tells me.

“They’re learning Spanish,” she says. “On an app.”

The truth tumbles out: the app (which is free) is called DuoLingo, and Jen has been secretly addicted for a few days, playing every spare moment. She’s already past 400 points, she tells me, and she can’t wait to get back to it, having just selected INSANE as her new daily level of practice time. And now it seems her new obsession has traveled, like a rogue virus, to the kids.

At first glance, DuoLingo doesn’t seem like much. You pick a level, and the a friendly voice poses a series of translation puzzles. Sometimes you are asked to speak a sentence. Sometimes you type what you hear, or pick the right translation from a series of options.

The secret to its appeal is the way it combines this sense of fun with smart individualized coaching. It nudges you to the edges of your ability and keeps you there, looping over material in various ways until you have it dialed in. Instead of tediously memorizing lists of words, you spend time solving tiny, engaging puzzles. Add in the razzle dazzle of medals, points, social competition and happy trumpets, and you’ve basically got a nutritional version of Candy Crush.

The other secret has less to do with the app and more to do with the nature of the skill itself. Language, unlike many other skills, is basically a massive interconnected ocean of information. DuoLingo works because it gives us space to splash around in that ocean, see what works, and repeat. It does exactly what a skilled coach does: creates a gamelike environment that keeps us reaching, over and over again, toward mastery. (Or, if you’re Jen, reaching for a reason to propose a family vacation to Spain.)

So does it work? Users (like this Slate writer) seem fairly ecstatic. I found this study (financed by DuoLingo’s parent company but conducted independently) showing that DuoLingo users learned the equivalent of a college semester in 34 hours. Around our house, the trash-talking has already started: Katie has promised to defeat her mother in the levels race.

So here’s the next question: What else am I missing? What other learning apps are useful? (Has anybody tried Coach’s Eye, for instance?) I’d love to start building a list of learning apps that actually work. Please feel free to add any of your recommendations in the comments section below.

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How to Prepare for a Big Moment

January 21st, 2014

11954348431437107035Gerald_G_Balance_Scale.svg.hiWhen it comes to approaching a major performance test, most of us follow advice that can be distilled into three words: Focus on success.

That is, we prepare ourselves by banishing doubt and visualizing the positive. We vividly imagine ourselves making all the right moves with fluid grace, with zero mistakes or missteps. And it feels good.

What’s interesting, though, is that when you look closely at world-class performers, most don’t use this feel-good approach. In fact, they do the opposite — what you might call the Feel-Bad-First approach.

It goes like this: First they focus on the mistakes — and figure out, in detail, how they will react to them. Then they visualize the positive.

A great example of this is the Green Berets, the U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers. Teams spend weeks training for a mission (most of which happen at night). On the day of the mission they follow a two-part routine.

First, they spend the entire morning going over every possible mistake or disaster that could happen during the mission. Every possible screwup is mercilessly examined, and linked to an appropriate response: if the helicopter crash-lands, we’ll do X. If we are dropped off at the wrong spot, we’ll do Y. If we are outnumbered, we’ll do Z.

After some hours of doing this, the team takes a break and has lunch together. They socialize, relax, and maybe take a nap.

Then they spend the afternoon in phase two, talking about everything going exactly right. They review each move, visualizing each step, and vividly imagine it going 100 percent perfectly.

You might call this Balanced-Positive Approach: equally split between negative and positive, and ending on the positive. Notice the complete wall of separation between the two phases. They don’t toggle back and forth between positive and negative. The two phases are kept as separate as night and day: first comes all negative, then all positive.

Many top performers (Peyton Manning and Steve Jobs jump to mind) embody this approach. Half the time, they are persnickety, chronically dissatisfied, negative, doubtful, obsessed with potential failures. The other half of the time, they’re incredibly positive, confident performers.

This isn’t surprising. The balanced-positive approach helps you avoid the pitfalls of positivity — namely, that you get surprised and demoralized by failure — and replaces it with a preparation that matches the reality of the world and also leaves you ready for performance. Good things and bad things will happen, and you can’t control either. But you can prepare.

If you have any other tips on preparation you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.

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Parenting a Talented Kid: A New Approach

January 13th, 2014

Mikaela Shiffrin, age 7

Quick thought experiment:

Let’s say you’re the parent of a kid who really, really loves skiing. (It could be soccer or chess or tennis or math, but let’s make it skiing.)

Let’s say that by grade school, your kid is dominating their peers. Stories about their prowess begin to spread. Then it happens: you get approached by coaches, scouts, national-team types. They have an important question for you:

Your child is brilliantly talented, and their talent requires support. We can provide your child with expert training, the best coaching, and world-class competition. Let us take charge — let your child join our program, train and travel with us — and we will help them reach their potential. 

What do you do?

For many of us, the answer is simple: we’d say yes. It’s the same logic you use when you take your car to a mechanic instead of fixing it yourself: experts know best. (Never mind the dizzying contact high you’d get from having a kid in a world-class talent-development program.) It would be almost irresistible.

And it also might be exactly the wrong thing to do.

Meet 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin. Everyone will be meeting her soon enough. As a World Cup slalom champion, she’s likely to become one of the big stories of next month’s Sochi Winter Olympics. (I recommend reading this marvelous profile by Bill Pennington.)

But to understand why, you should understand that Shiffrin is a useful case study for the reverse approach to parenting a talented kid — what you might call the Do-it-Yourself approach to talent development. It’s an approach that focuses on 1) valuing the daily skill-development process over competition; 2) maintaining family normalcy.

As her father Jeff recalled:

“These top-level coaches would tell me that Mikaela was just ripping up a racecourse. And I would say: ‘Yeah, I agree, but she’s just 9 years old.’ And they’d say, ‘What are your plans for her?’ And I’d answer: ‘Plans? Well, tomorrow she’s trying out for a part as the angel in the Christmas play.’”

In the Shiffrins’ telling, much of Mikaela’s development was built on homespun methods. To teach balance, they bought a unicycle. Instead of racing big courses, Mikaela spent time skiing an icy 300-foot hill, working on perfecting her technique. In summer, they used in-line skates and broomsticks to simulate slalom gates.

To be sure, Shiffrin competed at a high level, and worked with some of the finest coaches around. But every decision was  built around the daily process of mastering skills — which captured Mikaela’s imagination more than any medal. As Kirk Dwyer, Shiffrin’s coach and headmaster of Burke Mountain Academy, puts it,

“She truly believed that the focus should be on the process of getting better and not race results. She does that to this day. Everyone on the World Cup says they want to race like they practice, but how many actually do it? Mikaela can because she’s not thinking about trying to win. She’s thinking about getting better.”

If the big sports programs are akin to the factory-farm approach to developing talent, you might call this approach Free Range Mastery. It sounds revolutionary, but it’s really not all that different from the approach followed by Bode Miller, Serena and Venus Williams, and of course, Tiger Woods. A few reasons why it works:

  • 1) True ownership of the skill-development process. In big programs, the power is held by the coaches, creating a tendency for the kid to become a highly obedient automatons — achieving for others, not themselves. In the free-range approach, however, the dynamic is reversed. The kid (and parents) remain the master of the daily process, able to innovate, test, and ultimately drive the improvement process.
  • 2) More adaptability. Big programs, by necessity, tend to put everyone into categories and timelines, with the associated grid of expectations. If you don’t achieve X by age Y, then you have the risk of being perceived (and perceiving yourself) as a failure. But talent development is never a one-size-fits-all experience, and the line of progression is rarely smooth. Keeping things loose — being able to take some time off, or test-drive a new coach or fresh approach — is beneficial in the long run.
  • 3) Fewer demotivating experiences. A kid’s desire is a fragile thing, and nothing extinguishes it faster than getting crushed on a big stage. Controlling the big-pond competitive environment allows skills (especially emotional skills) to grow at their own pace.
  •  4) Embracing the power of normalcy. Doing chores, homework, and being a regular kid whenever possible acts like a powerful drug, helping to build emotional skills, resilience, and the foundation to deal with whatever comes along.

But perhaps the biggest reason the DIY approach works is because it is aligned with the way skill actually develops: not through splashy public accomplishments but by something quieter and closer to the bone.

Jeff Shiffrin put it best:

“Some people might call our approach intense. But it’s not, because the motivation is not to be better than other people at something. The motivation comes from a belief that almost anything can be mastered if you’re willing to put in the hours to master it. If you’re going to do something, do it as best as you can.”

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How to Make Better Mistakes

December 31st, 2013

spelling-mistake-1You’re probably familiar with the following mantras:

Mistakes are beautiful.

Fail fast and often.

Errors are opportunities. 

All of these are basically true. But the real question isn’t whether mistakes are valuable. The real question is, how do we tap into that value? How do we take better advantage of our mistakes?

A while back, a Harvard business professor named Amy Edmondson decided to explore this mystery by investigating the organizational habits of hospitals, measuring the quality of the leadership and worker relationships in eight institutions.

Edmondson discovered something surprising: the best-run hospitals reported ten times more errors than the poorly run hospitals. Investigating further, Edmondson found that the real difference wasn’t in making mistakes (all the hospitals made about the same amount). The difference was in reporting them. Well-run hospitals operated in an open, transparent manner; mistakes were seen as opportunities for discussion and improvement. Poorly run hospitals, on the other hand, were filled with fear, uncertainty, and silence. Employees thought that “heads would roll” if they admitted making mistakes.

In other words, the better hospitals weren’t necessarily smarter or more talented. They had something more powerful: a psychological safe zone: a shared place where mistakes weren’t hidden, but discussed in the clear light of day.

To understand why this effect is so powerful, you have to understand that our brains are keenly sensitive to safety, and react with the equivalent of an on/off switch. When we get signals that we’re safe, we can relax, switch on, and perform to our potential. But when we get signals that we’re unsafe, we instinctively revert into what some call the “critter state”: fearful, twitchy, hunkered down. We switch off.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas on how to create a sense of safety:

  • 1) Send the message early and often. Our brains are built to decide whether we’re safe very early in any interaction. The earlier you send the signal — making mistakes and talking about them is okay — the more effective it will be.
  • 2) Be systematic. Capture mistakes in notebooks, or through an open review process. Encourage the dissection process. Treat mistakes not as a verdict, but as information to be sifted over and over for connections and ideas.
  • 3) Model it. No signal is so powerful as a leader who is open about their own mistakes, even small ones.

Happy New Year!

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