Together, they’re part of a larger trend away from the traditional one-size-fits-all factory model of learning, and toward what you might call an organic-farm model: simpler, individualized, targeted programs that are more aligned with the way talents actually develop.
Here are two I especially like.
1) Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, founded in 2012, teaches software coding in the same way that the Navy SEALs teach marksmanship — as an intensive, immersive, no-holds-barred boot camp. They transform students (many with no previous technical experience) into proficient coders in the space of three months. And it works: 90 percent of Bitmaker grads have been hired by tech firms.
Bitmaker does it, in part, by reverse-engineering the educational process. Rather than taking the theory-based academic approach, founder Matt Gray and his partners asked 50 software companies what skills really mattered. Bitmaker built its curriculum around that feedback: an 80-hour prep course followed by nine weeks of project-based learning at Bitmaker’s headquarters — which, naturally, is open 24-7, the better to replicate the intensely immersive startup environment.
Here’s what one 18-year-old Bitmaker student wrote in his blog:
“The education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution to prepare students to become workers by, for example, having them follow instructions and do repetitive tasks. This resonates with my experience in college and I didn’t want to spend a big chunk of my life doing things that weren’t meaningful to me. I didn’t want to learn so I could get a diploma or a job, but so I could be empowered to affect the world in the way I want to.”
2) Joy of the People, a Minnesota youth soccer program that aims to reinvent how kids learn the game. (It’s named after the famous Brazilian player Garrincha, who was so exciting that Brazilians called him Allegria do Povo — Joy of the People).
JOTP founder Ted Koerten has a simple idea: to provide American kids with the chance to learn soccer exactly as Brazilians learn it: having lots of fun in small spaces. So he got rid of elite teams and elite travel and instead built a kid magnet: a series of small inflatable soccer fields — smaller space, smaller goals, with barriers to produce more continuous play. Younger kids are focused almost entirely on fun; older kids on more deliberate practice.
As Koerten told me in an email:
The old models tend to structure youth soccer (and all youth sports) heavy on the deliberate practice…. The dark side of the idea that players are made is that now mad scientists are all trying to make them. But our model is kid centered and understands that kids need to be kids in order to complete the hard work of adults.
Koerten is full of ideas: for instance, he has the kids play with balls that vary in size from tiny to large, and employs a tennis-ball machine to increase touches. He’s interested in cross-pollinating with newly invented sports like Puckelball. And it’s working: he’s drawing 600 kids a week.
Which brings us to the deeper question: what lessons do these organic, free-range models provide? How can they help us improve and innovate our own talent-development spaces? Here are four:
- Focus on creating rich, people-centric ecosystems. They are based on the principle that the best learning happens when humans are in intense collaboration.
- Put fun first. These aren’t solemn, self-important places — rather, they’re looser, more user-driven. Emotion is not some background factor, but a vital part of the process.
- Design for lots of mixing. People aren’t segregated into levels and classes; rather, they’re mixed together in a style that might be described as Montessori-like, which provides a rich environment for relationships and mentoring.
- Focus far less on lectures/theory, and more on doing stuff. Knowledge isn’t transferred from the top down so much as it is grown from the bottom up, through challenge, smart design, and lots of intense reps.
Do you know of any new, surprising, and/or innovative talent-development programs? I’d love to hear about them.
Which is why I love the approach of Rob Miller and Bruce E. Brown, who run a coaching outfit called Proactive Coaching LLC. In their quest to understand what makes a successful parent, Miller and Brown used a stunningly simple method: They asked kids what worked.
For three decades, Miller and Brown made a habit of asking college-age athletes about the ways their parents had made a positive or negative impact. After several hundred interviews with a wide cross-section of kids, their informal survey had two insightful discoveries.
Number one: what kids hate most, by an overwhelming margin, is the conversations during the ride home after the game. You know, that quiet, strained, slightly uncomfortable time when parents ask questions, give praise, offer critiques, and generally get involved by saying things like:
Great job today. So what happened on that play?
What did your coach tell the team after the game?
Do you think the team could have hustled more?
These types of moments, Miller and Brown point out, are well intentioned, and often contain truth, but the timing is toxic. The moments after a game are not the time for judgement or pressure and definitely not for instruction (which is the job of the coach, not the parent). In fact, many of the kids said they preferred having grandparents attend games, because they are more joyful and less pressurizing than parents.
But it’s not all bad news. Because there’s a second finding to emerge from their work, and it might be the best parenting tip I’ve ever read.
The kids reported there was one phrase spoken by parents that brought them happiness. One simple sentence that made them feel joyful, confident, and fulfilled. Just six words.
I love to watch you play.
That’s it. Six words that are the exact opposite of the uncomfortable car-ride home. Because they reframe your relationship — you stop being the watchful supervisor, and you start being a steady, supportive presence.
I love to watch you play.
A signal that sends the simplest, most powerful signal: this is about you. I am your parent, not your coach or your judge. You make me really, really happy.
I love to watch you play.
Try it out, like this parent did. I know I’m going to. Let me know how it goes.
A couple days ago I was in Canada talking with a group of Olympic coaches. Late into the night, after a Molson or two, the conversation turned to the question of performance under pressure. One coach (a former Olympic mogul skier, as it happened) put it something like this:
You’re standing on the top of the mountain at the starting gate, clock counting down. Twenty thousand people are screaming, millions more are watching on television. I don’t care how much you train. Some people can come through in that moment, and some people cannot.
In other words, is there an X factor? Do high-pressure performers – Michael Jordan, Shaun White — heck, let’s throw in Winston Churchill and Stonewall Jackson — have an uncanny natural ability to shine in crucial moments when the rest of us fall apart?
I think this is an important question, mostly because we rely on the X Factor all the time to explain success. It’s the Sasquatch of high performance — a powerful, shadowy entity that explains everything. Is it real? And if so, how do we get more of it?
Here’s what I think:
- 1. At the very top levels, studies show that clutch performers are a persuasive mirage (here and here). Performance under pressure tracks extremely closely with the rest of performance — great performers remain great, average performers remain average. After all, these people rise to the top level precisely because they have the ability to deliver under pressure. The clutchness we perceive is a function of good old luck and our intense desire to believe in it.
- 2. At lower levels (where most of us live), performing under pressure is essentially about emotional control — as Kipling put it, of keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs. And that is where intensive practice seems to make a difference (for an example, check out this article on teaching emotional control in school).
- 3. In my experience, top performers make a habit of pre-creating pressure situations in vivid detail, so that when the time comes, they’re ready.
For example, many concert musicians use performance practice. They simulate the precise conditions (same formal clothes, same chair, sometimes even the same auditorium) and run through their program exactly as if it’s opening night. Many sports teams routinely rehearse the last moments of games, piping in crowd noise, and increase tempo beyond what they might see in a game. Special Forces soldiers spend virtually all of their training inside a pre-created, live-ammo, high-pressure world — not to break them, but rather to accustom them to it.
So the question isn’t, Do you have the magical X Factor?
The question is, How do you specifically train for high-pressure moments?
That’s not to say that everyone would succeed equally — after all, luck and emotional temperament do matter. But with smart training, you can make them matter a lot less.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories of the ways you accomplish this kind of training in your life, or in the lives of the people you teach.
It’s also Study Tip Season — that time of year when kids and parents start thinking about how to improve their lives by studying more effectively and efficiently.
With that in mind, I thought I’d try to distill the best advice into a few simple words. Three, to be precise.
The first word is reach. The most effective studying happens when you’re slightly out of your comfort zone, when you go the edge of your ability and make an intense, targeted effort beyond it. This is how our brains make new connections — not by leaning back and letting information wash over them, but by leaning forward, making mistakes, and fixing those mistakes.
(Parent tip: when your kid is struggling on the edge of their ability, resist the urge to heroically swoop in and rescue them. Instead, let them know that those are the moments when progress happens.)
So if you have to learn material in a textbook, don’t just read it over and over. Instead, read it once, close the book, and then summarize the main points on a separate sheet of paper.
If you’re a fan of highlighting (which research has shown is not that effective), you might want to follow it up by organizing all your highlighted material into an outline.
The best way to reach? Make a habit of testing yourself. Testing yourself works best of all, because it’s a double-reach: first you have to figure out the important questions to ask (one reach), then you have to answer (another).
The second word is loop. Embrace the idea of learning stuff by repeating it in short sessions over a number of days. In other words, don’t study in a straight line, but in a series of short loops, returning to the material over and over. This technique, called spaced repetition, works because each repetition embeds the information more strongly in our brains.
So instead of studying just today’s work, go over work from the previous few days as well. Instead of trying to learn all the Spanish vocabulary words the night before the quiz, learn a dozen each night, and keep going over them. And, of course, avoid cramming, which feels really satisfying, but doesn’t work that well.
The third word is mix. Our natural instinct is to attack homework like a dutiful worker on an assembly line, focusing on a single area for large chunks of time. But what works better is to mix it up — to interleave different types of problems and allow our brains to navigate the conceptual landscape, to make connections that might have otherwise been missed.
Instead of focusing on one type of algebra problem, switch it up by doing several different types of problems, so your brain has to sort through the different possibilities. Instead of studying one narrow aspect of science (say, cell division), try to link it with other, related areas. Study like a great athlete works on their game — working on a bit of A, a bit of B, a bit of C, and combining them.
So that’s it: reach, loop, and mix. Your brain will thank you. For more study tips, here’s a useful compilation from one of my favorite writers, Annie Murphy Paul: as well as another from The Washington Post.
Though now I have a confession to make.
There’s one more word, which might contain the most effective study tip of all.
Clue: It has five letters, and begins with S. Any guesses?
Saw a movie last night called Somm, and my verdict is in: this is the Citizen Kane of wine-tasting movies. The documentary, by Jason Wise, follows four young men as they chase the near-impossible goal of passing the Master Sommelier exam (there are only 197 masters in the world). The exam is a true Everest, requiring crazy-deep knowledge of wine theory, history, and, yes, the magician-like ability to take a single sip of wine and precisely identify it by type, region, and year.
Anyone who’s ever tried for something really, really hard will be able to relate to the journey of these guys: the obsessions, the wild ups and downs, the group and family dynamics. And above all, the training. Watching these guys blind-taste a glass of wine is exactly like watching NFL quarterbacks practice their progression of reads, or watching a ballet dancer polish their moves. Their final test, where each goes before the judges and has to identify six glasses of wine, is more nerve-jangling than any Super Bowl.
Click the above trailer to get a taste. And be warned: watching the movie makes you very thirsty.
If you were asked to pick two people on opposing sides of the nature/nurture debate, you might pick myself and David Epstein, author of the new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. If you haven’t bought it already, you should: it’s a fascinating, thought-provoking look at the leading edge of sports performance, written by a guy who knows the territory. David, besides being a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, was a collegiate runner for Columbia University. More to the point, he’s a terrific researcher and a fine, thoughtful writer.
Last week David and I had a wide-ranging barroom-style chat that covered Jamaican sprinters, the 10,000-hour rule, and the secret role of David’s mother in his new book. You might think we would spend the entire time hurling barstools at each other. You would be wrong. Partly because David is an incredibly nice guy, and mostly because science is shining new light on this area: when it comes to raw athletic skills (endurance, speed, leaping ability) genes are a difference-maker, particularly at the world-class level. With complex athletic skills (basically everything else), it’s far more about environment (quality practice, coaching, motivation, etc.).
Here’s how our chat went:
DC: David, let me start by saying how much I admire the book, your work, and how it made me appreciate physical talent in a different way. I can only presume that the skill you show in writing this book is mostly genetic.
DE: It’s funny — my friends think of me as a guy who thinks that training is a miracle, because it can totally transform someone. But the questions I get on TV are mostly, “What’s the gene for this, what’s the gene for that?” Like this TV show I went on yesterday tweeted “David Epstein thinks that there’s an actual sports gene that separates athletes from the rest of us.” I totally don’t think that.
DC: I’m especially interested in this notion of trainability you write about — how when some people exercise, they get a lot more fit, and other people who follow the exact same regimen don’t improve at all, and it seems controlled by genes. I wonder if you found any evidence whether these same sorts of variances apply to the brain and the process of learning skills.
DE: Yeah, I didn’t get into skills as wide ranging as you have, but I did look at twin studies, fraternal and identical twins, heritability and things like that. Experimenters would have them doing skills like balancing on a plank that has a ball under it, and the identical twins would usually progress in a way that was similar to each other and different from the fraternal twins, and sometimes significantly different. But it depended on the tasks. For tasks that were really simple, everyone would get better at the same rate, fraternal and identical, and everybody would end up in a pretty similar state. But if the tasks were pretty complex, sometimes people would actually get more different from one another with practice. Identical twins would move together, and they would move away from the fraternal twins. So it seems, even though we don’t know the genes for all that, that in complex tasks there was usually a trainability phenomenon, or almost always a trainability phenomenon.
I had to cut 40,000 words from the manuscript, and some of the material I cut involved some studies like this. One of the genes was the BDNF gene, which stands for “brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” There’s studies with versions of BDNF called val and met, and they’d have people do a driving simulation and people with a certain version would tend not to repeat their mistakes as much, so when they would bring them back, a day or month later, they’d remember the course better. The same thing happened with putting pegs in holes.
I absolutely love this video. It’s from Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney’s new Eagles documentary on Showtime (and if you’re my age, here’s a warning: you will watch this obsessively, because it’s a time machine to your teen years, and because it’s wildly entertaining for reasons that Bill Simmons details here.
But what I really love about this clip is that it shows how lead singer Glenn Frey began to master the creative skill that underpinned the band’s success. And he did it in an unusual way: by listening through his floorboards to his neighbor, Jackson Browne.
I didn’t really know how to write songs. I knew I wanted to write songs, but I didn’t know exactly, did you just wait around for inspiration, you know, what was the deal? I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor exactly how to write songs, ’cause Jackson would get up, and he’d play the first verse and first course, and he’d play it 20 times, until he had it just the way he wanted it. And then there’d be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot going off again, and it would be quiet for 20 minutes, and then I’d hear him start to play again … and I’m up there going, so that’s how you do it? Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence.”
It goes on from there, all great stuff. For me, the takeaways are:
1) Proximity. Glenn Frey didn’t read a book about songwriting, or hear a talk. The breakthrough started with his social network — on making friends with a guy who was involved in the same craft, and at a slightly higher level. Frey and Jackson Browne became neighbors, and the lessons began.
2) Habit. Through Browne, Frey learned a lesson that eludes many creative types: it’s not about inspiration. As the artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us show up and get to work.” Browne’s teakettle goes off at 9 a.m., the process starts.
4) Looping. Browne’s creative process is built on the act of circling back through the structure — changing a small piece and looking at the entire thing, then doing it over and over. This is the pattern with any creative act, whether it’s writing or juggling or comedy. It’s an act of construction, where each piece impacts the whole structure.
5) Repetition. Frey learns the repetition isn’t boring; it’s actually kind of thrilling, because it’s the tool that builds songs.
There are also a few other valuable lessons in the documentary having to do with peyote, groupies, and Stevie Nicks — but I’ll leave those for you to enjoy.
Speaking of enjoying, I hope you’ve all been enjoying the summer. Now that September almost here, I’ll be posting more often, starting with a Q/A with David Epstein, author of the new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. If you have any questions for David, please let me know (we’re talking on Weds Aug 14).
Whenever we take on a new project, our first instinct is to behave like a student — to seek out the best teachers, to immerse ourselves in information.
This instinct makes perfect sense. But it might be the worst thing you can do.
Meet Karen Cheng, a California woman who spent the past year transforming herself from an awkward beginner to a remarkably skilled dancer. Click this video (2.7 million views and counting) to see a cool time-lapse version of her improvement.
Cheng’s real accomplishment, however, is giving us a useful blueprint for changing the way we think about practice. She didn’t focus on receiving knowedge; instead she focused on action — specifically on constructing a lean, focused, entrepreneurial plan to construct her skill. (You can read more here.) Her plan has four basic principles:
1) Set small process-oriented goals, not big performance goals. Instead of aiming at grand achievement (being chosen for a dance troupe, for instance), Cheng’s initial goal was modest: to practice for at least five minutes each day. The allowed her to keep expectations low and avoid disappointment. As she improved, she increased the goal to two hours per day. She controlled the goals, instead of being controlled by them.
2) Be opportunistic. Rather than set aside a prescribed time to practice, Cheng constantly smuggled moments of practice into her everyday life. As she writes:
Here’s my secret: I practiced everywhere. At bus stops. In line at the grocery store. At work — using the mouse with my right hand and practicing drills with my left hand. You don’t have to train hardcore for years to become a dancer. But you must be willing to practice and you better be hungry.
3) Be your own coach. Keep a journal, use videotape, find ways to be organized about evaluating and strategizing your strengths and weaknesses. At every turn, Cheng sought out ways to take honest, realistic assessments and use them as platforms for learning.
4) Connect to people. Find good teachers on YouTube and in person; seek out places to watch good performers and learn from them. Here’s she plays the role of a student, but it’s anything but passive. She’s active, engaged, and targeted. She doesn’t worship at the altar of a single teacher’s wisdom; instead she hunts and gathers useful stuff she can apply.
In sports, business, and education these days, you can’t go a hot minute without hearing talk of “character” and “work ethic.” In an increasingly quantified world, we use these terms as a catch-all to explain unexpected patterns of success and failure.
For instance, whenever an underrated person becomes a star, you will hear about how they were propelled by their resilient character and gritty work ethic. When a “can’t-miss” superstar falls on their face? Exact same story in reverse.
I think most of us would agree that character and work ethic clearly matter, and matter hugely. But the real question is: what do those terms really mean? More important, is it possible to translate them into a measurable, identifiable skill set?
As it happens, we get a beautiful case study of this right now in the baseball world in the form of Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt. You might not have heard the name, but you already know the story: completely overlooked as a young player, didn’t start until his junior year of high school, drafted in 49th round, attended tiny college — and then (insert inspiring music here) worked incredibly hard, kept improving and improving and really improving, and is now one of the league’s brightest young players.
Why? That’s where it gets interesting. Because “character” and “work ethic” do not adequately describe what has propelled Goldschmidt. Instead, it’s about his remarkable ability to learn (see this story for more). Specifically, his willingness to take ownership of an intentional daily process in which he attacks his weaknesses and builds his strengths.
To the hitting coach, he would ask: How do I become a consistent major league hitter? To the infield coach: How do I become a Gold Glove first baseman? To the strength coach: How do I change my body to get in the best shape possible? Zinter said he trusted the coaches implicitly.
“A lot of kids have so much pride that they want to show the coaches and the front office that they know what they’re doing, and they don’t need the help,” Zinter said. “They don’t absorb the information because they want us to think they know it already. Goldy didn’t have an ego. He didn’t have that illusion of knowledge. He’s O.K. with wanting to learn.”
“He’s done such a great job of listening to everything and channeling how it works for him,” said Aaron Hill, a veteran second baseman. “He asks guys everything — about ground balls, footwork, counts, swings, setups, where to sit in the box, what I’m doing. You name it, he’s asking the questions.”
The picture that emerges is not of vague qualities, but rather of a highly specific set of traits — a combination of inquisitiveness, growth mindset, humility, adaptiveness, and relentlessness.
With that in mind, I’d like to suggest an idea called Learning Quotient. The idea is that our ability to learn is a measurable skill, just like IQ.
Here’s how it might work: rate yourself from 0 to 5 on the following questions according to the usual scale: 0 for strongly disagree; 5 for strongly agree.
- 1. You work on your skills for an hour or more every day
- 2. You are focused on process, not the immediate outcomes
- 3. You have strong relationships with mentors/coaches, and use them as models and guidance
- 4. You are keenly aware of how much you do not know, and the gap between your present abilities and your longterm goals
- 5. You can accurately and precisely describe the skills you want to build
- 6. You think about improving your skills all the time
- 7. You approach your daily work with enthusiasm
- 8. You are balanced between building with repetition and seeking innovations
- 9. You are comfortable going outside of your comfort zone
- 10. You are constantly adapting and refining your learning process
By this yardstick, a perfect LQ would be 50: the heavenly realm of John Wooden and Goldschmidt. Below 15 and you’re either comatose or Allen Iverson (an immense talent who famously didn’t believe in practice). I suspect most of us would fall in the 25-30 range or so, which, among other things, speaks to the inherent challenges of creating a daily routine and sticking to it.
What I like about the idea of LQ, however, is that it is not a fixed quality. It can be increased and grown, and profoundly affected by environment and group culture.
The real question is, what do you think? Could LQ be used to scout or develop talent? And, if so, what other questions should be added to the list?
Consider this your official heads-up, because that kind of disruption is about to happen in business, sales, teaching, and other domains built on soft skills. And it might be because of this little device.
Meet the sociometer. It might look boring, but it provides a window into the most mysterious world of all: the hidden landscape of social interactions that drives creativity, productivity, and success.
The sociometer, worn around the neck like an ID badge, captures tone of voice, activity level, and location. It can tell who you talk to, how often, and for how long. It can tell whether two speakers are face to face, or turned away from each other. It can measure the energy level of an interaction, and use it to determine levels of engagement. Most important, it can combine its data with email and social media to form detailed maps that reveal the inner workings of a team, company, or classroom.
The sociometer was originally developed by Alex “Sandy” Pentland and the folks at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, and further perfected by Ben Waber and other MIT alums who founded Sociometric Solutions. The technology is still evolving, and there are some hurdles to overcome (preserving individual privacy being the most obvious), but it’s easy to imagine how this device might fundamentally change the landscape of work life. Because it’s already starting to happen.
For example: sales firms use the sociometer as a skill-development tool. They show trainees how often top salespeople interrupt clients (hardly ever, it turns out) and then show them precisely where they fall on that scale.
Businesses are using it to maximize team cohesion by altering physical space. For instance, Waber’s studies reveal that 12-person lunch tables lead to significantly more interaction and productivity than four-person lunch tables.
Through an application called Meeting Mediator, the sociometers provide real-time data that shows levels of participation, dominance, and interaction to help people distinguish a healthy, productive meeting from an unhealthy one.
Yes, there’s something Orwellian about the notion that our movements and communications can be tracked and placed into some management algorithm. But if individual privacy concerns can be addressed, I think the potential outweighs the dangers.
We normally think of great social skills as being mysterious and vaguely magical. But when we see like a sociometer — when we see our social world in terms of quantifiable, repeatable patterns — we get a glimpse of the mechanics beneath the magic. We begin to notice examples of brilliant social thinking all around us.
• How Steve Jobs designed the Pixar studio building so that all the bathrooms were centrally located — maximizing serendipitous interaction.
• How successful comedy-improv troupes prohibit using the words “no” and “but” and replace them with “yes” and “and.”
• How Amazon’s Jeff Bezos uses a “two-pizza rule” — which states that any team that cannot be fed with two pizzas is too big, and has to be made smaller.
The sociometer may be a new tool, but the most useful truth it will reveal will be an ancient one: we work best in small, cohesive, purposeful tribes.
So here’s a question: would you be willing to wear a sociometer at work?