How to Be Creative, Starring Jackson Browne’s Teakettle

August 13th, 2013

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.

Here’s Frey:

 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).

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To Improve Faster, Think Like a Startup

July 18th, 2013

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.

The real payoff, however, is enjoyment. Check out the expression on Cheng’s face as she improves (especially between days 30 and 86). She’s intense but smiling, radiating hard-won satisfaction. In other words, she’s exactly where a good startup wants to be: utterly lost in the challenge, in control, and loving it. 

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What’s Your LQ (Learning Quotient)?

July 1st, 2013

un-label-lq-etiketten-lq-etiketten-limited-quantity-6201In 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?

PS – The marvelous Annie Murphy Paul, author of the forthcoming book Brilliant, has more on LQ here

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The Soft-Skills Revolution

June 20th, 2013

BNOnDxhCAAAJvS0Remember back ten years ago when big data and Moneyball analytics changed the sports world?

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.

For example:

• 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?

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How Great Teachers See

June 14th, 2013

Identifying-Talent-at-the-Middle-Man-400x230Talent identification is the holy grail of sports, business, parenting, and education. We dream of having the magical ability to quickly and accurately assess who is destined to succeed; to sort the contenders from the pretenders.

Funny thing is, there was once a clever scientist who figured out how to do just that.

His name was Dov Eden; he was an Israeli psychologist who worked with businesses and the military. In the early 1980s Eden published a remarkable study that showed he could predict with uncanny precision which young recruits in the Israeli military would become top performers.

It worked like this: Eden studied the mental and physical aptitudes of one thousand recruits, then selected a handful of soldiers he labeled as “high potential.” Eden informed platoon commanders that they could “expect unusual achievements” from these individuals.

Sure enough, Eden was right. Over the next 11 weeks, Eden’s group performed significantly better than their peers — 9 percent higher on expertise tests and 10 percent higher on weapons evaluation.

It looked for all the world like an impressive display of talent identification — except that it wasn’t.

Because here’s the twist: the “high-potential” soldiers weren’t really high-potential. Eden had selected them completely at random. The real power was in the act of labeling them as high-potential. In sending a simple signal — these people are special.

That signal had created a massive effect in both the mind of the instructor and the learner — a virtuous spiral between teacher and learner that led to the full expression of potential. (The phenomenon, dubbed the Pygmalion Effect, has been repeated many times, and is particularly powerful in educational settings.)

The story, told in Adam Grant’s marvelous new book Give and Take, gives us a glimpse into the power of labels, and how they affect our subconscious. The underlying picture: the unconscious minds of most teachers are naturally thrifty with energy and attention — after all, they don’t have all the time in the world.  They thus look at each new student with a questioning eye: do they have what it takes? Is this a good investment?

The high-potential label is like a flashing Las Vegas sign reading THIS PERSON IS A GREAT INVESTMENT — that triggers a cascade of positive effects. First impressions are uniformly positive. Early mistakes aren’t treated as verdicts; but as learning opportunities. Progress isn’t treated as luck, but as a happy inevitability.

I remember watching Hans Jensen, a remarkable cello teacher at Meadowmount Music School, teach two students. To my eye, one student was clearly better than the other. After the lesson, I asked Hans which student had more potential.

“Who knows?” he said.

I think this is precisely the kind of thinking that distinguishes master teachers. They share a hesitancy to judge; a stubborn, seemingly illogical optimism. They see failures as stepping stones to progress. They begin each new encounter with a single thrilling thought: this person is special.

And then, more often than not, that thought turns out to be true.

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Forget 10,000 Hours — Instead, Aim for 10 Minutes

June 7th, 2013

The-Ten-Minute-WorkoutIt’s hard to believe, but it’s been nearly five years since the 10,000-Hour Rule went mainstream. Last week, as if to officially mark the anniversary, more than three hundred coaches, players, general managers, and talent-development experts from around the world gathered at the Leaders in Performance conference in New York. Among this crowd, you might expect to find people singing the praises of the 10,000-Hour Rule.

You’d be wrong.

A significant number disliked it, because they saw the rule creating a mindless culture of hour-counting. They saw sports federations building programs around the metric, using it as the sole measure of progress.

“It’s absolutely nuts,” the head of one nation’s soccer federation told me. “Coaches are tracking practice hours and the athletes are clocking in and out with time cards like they’re working on an assembly line. There’s no ownership, no creativity.”

The science behind the 10,000-Hour rule has been subject to debate, and rightly so, because talent is more complex than any one measure. For example, how do you calibrate the impact of Warren Buffett’s childhood paper route on his temperament and business skills? How do you count the hours the young Keith Richards spent listening to blues records and falling in love with them?

The real issue here, however, is that the the 10,000-Hour rule is not really about quantity. It’s about the power of sharp, focused, high-quality practice. It’s about the massive learning differences created by intense efforts within highly engaging practice environments. We see this in the habits of high-performing groups, many of whom build their skills through a combination of short, sharp sessions and lots of restorative rest.

For example, at La Masia, the training academy that has produced the majority of Barcelona’s world-beating soccer team, the schedule calls for organized training a mere 70 minutes per day — a figure that most U.S. travel soccer coaches would scoff at as being insufficient.  But here’s the thing: it’s a world-class 70 minutes: a razor-sharp, full-tilt, meticulously planned session with far more content and engagement than any mundane, exhausting three-hour practice.

The other benefit of this approach is that it frees the learners to spend time on their own. Real learning doesn’t happen just through organized drills; most of it happens in the off hours, when you’re fooling around, inventing games, competing, experimenting, mimicking, grappling with problems and inventing solutions. When you’re wholly engaged in the art of simple, intense play.

So perhaps a solution is to ignore the 10,000-Hour Rule and instead embrace the 10-Minute Rule. Which has three elements:

  • 1) Focus: pick out a target skill — a single chunk you want to work on.
  • 2) Super-high intensity
  • 3) Rest: only do it when you’re fresh. If you’re exhausted, quit.

In other words: don’t approach practice like a factory worker logging hours. Instead, think like an opportunist. Be an entrepreneur.

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The Big Bet

May 29th, 2013

icon-tutorial-2nd-series-52About a week from now, I will make a phone call to London and place a large bet. In fact this bet will be, by far, the biggest bet I’ve ever placed — around $1,500.

There are only three rules: 1) I have to bet it all; 2) I can bet on any sport; 3) I’m not allowed to lose. (This third rule was established by my wife Jen, and also by the existence of our son’s college tuition bills.)

So the question is, what should I bet on?

Quick backstory: a few months ago a book I co-wrote was fortunate enough to win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, which is sponsored by the British bookmaker of the same name. As part of the prize, I got a free voucher allowing me to place this bet.

At first, I was tempted to aim for a longshot. Like picking the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series (approximate odds: 1 bazillion to 1). Or picking the Cleveland Browns to win the Super Bowl. Or, come to think of it, any team from Cleveland to win anything.

Then, urged by my ever-wise wife, I started to think more conservatively. I started to look for a team or person whose talents I could trust with this bet. It wasn’t easy.

Because if I’ve learned anything over the past years it’s that success at the highest level — in sports, business, music — has a significant component of randomness to it. You can do everything exactly right — train, coach, prepare — but chance and chaos will have their say. Favorites collapse all the time. Underdogs win all the time. Refs make terrible calls. Freaky injuries happen. The ball bounces in strange directions. How do you beat that? It seemed hopeless.

Then I read this article. And saw this video.

They tell the story of how LeBron James, basketball’s best player, set out to improve his game. How, in a move straight out of Moneyball, James ruthlessly analyzed his weaknesses and set out to build a new skill set that would make him a more efficient teammate. How he hired a master coach and made himself a humble apprentice, showing up early for each training session, videotaping and studying, in order to learn a new set of scoring moves. How James, in short, turned himself into a master student.

Here’s James talking about the process:

“The biggest thing isn’t how much you work on things, it’s ‘Can you work on something, then implement it into a game situation?’” James says. “Can you bring what you’ve worked on so much and put it out on the floor with the finished product? I was happy that I was able to do that and make that transformation.”

James emerged from that summer transformed. “When he returned after the lockout, he was a totally different player,” [Coach Eric] Spoelstra says. “It was as if he downloaded a program with all of Olajuwon’s and Ewing’s post-up moves. I don’t know if I’ve seen a player improve that much in a specific area in one off season

So now I’m leaning toward betting on James and the Heat to win the NBA championship next month. In the larger sense, I wouldn’t really be betting on James — I’d be betting on the power of his process, his approach, his craftsmanship. I’d be betting that, in sports as in everything else, the smartest learner wins.

But before I make that phone call and place that bet, I want to ask: do you think this is the right move? Is there anything I’m missing here?

What would you bet on?

UPDATE — Thanks to all your wise advice, I did not bet on the Miami Heat to win the NBA finals — and am now looking at upcoming Wimbledon. Roger Federer couldn’t possibly lose a first-round match, right??

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The Vastly Underrated Importance of Goofy Little Games

May 23rd, 2013

I love this video because it’s a time machine to a lost age of childhood. Here, we see hockey superstars Sidney Crosby and Max Talbot travel to the tiny Crosby family basement in Nova Scotia to do what Sidney spent much of his young life doing: shoot pucks into the Crosby family dryer. (Spoiler alert: Crosby is still pretty good.)

Watching this, readers of a certain age might be transported back to their own basements, and the little games played there. At my house, the favorite game involved roller skates, badminton racquets, and high-speed collisions with the radiator covers (which strongly resembled the Crosby dryer).

It turns out this sort of thing is a pattern. Golfer Rory McIlroy learned to play golf by chipping balls into the family washing machine. Hall of Fame ballplayer Willie Mays practiced hitting by swinging at bottle caps with a broomstick. Cricketer Donald Bradman practiced his batting by bouncing a golf ball off a water tank and hitting the rebound. They aren’t alone. Look deeply into the biography of any top athlete, musician, or writer, and you’ll eventually find a kid in a basement, enraptured by some goofy little game they invented.

So here’s my question: In a world where so much of youth life is highly organized and regimented, do these goofy little games still happen? Do they matter?

I think they do matter. Not just because they’re fun, but also because they’re the crucial learning space where skills are built and refined. Four reasons why goofy little games are important:

  • More engagement: the kid owns the space and sets the rules. Instead of being passive reactors, they are coach, player, and crowd all in one.
  • More focused repetition: kids are not limited by official practice hours or the strategies of a coach. Want to play? Play. Want to obsessively focus on a single move? Do it.
  • Improved creativity: conventional practice is great for fundamentals, but creativity is not built like that. It’s built by messing around: experimenting, trying stuff that might seem crazy in normal settings (for a nice example of this, check out Crosby’s eyes-closed shot to win the game at the 2:20 mark).

The deeper question is, in today’s hyper-organized world, how do you encourage goofy little games? How do you create the sort of environments where a kid can build skills on their own, even if it means absolutely destroying the family dryer?

I’d love to hear any ideas you might have.

(Big thanks to Trevor Parent of the University of Maine at Presque Isle for sharing the video.)

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The Most Important Moment of Practice

May 17th, 2013

keystoneQuestion: What’s the most important part of a practice session?

  • A) Start
  • B) Finish
  • C) Middle

Before you answer, consider the following story:

A few years ago, students at New Dorp School of Staten Island, NY, were struggling. Test scores were down, dropouts were up. School leaders tried a variety of methods — new technology, new teachers, new programs, you name it. Nothing worked.

Then, in 2008, New Dorp’s leaders came to a realization: students were not failing because they lacked intelligence. They were failing because they lacked the ability to construct arguments, build ideas, and distinguish essential information from nonessential information.

So New Dorp embarked on a bold experiment — they targeted these skills by building the school curriculum around analytic writing, using a proven technique called the Hochman Program. As Peg Tyre reports in The Atlantic:

The Hochman Program would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children…are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.  

When speaking, [students] were required to use specific prompts outlined on a poster at the front of each class.

  • “I agree/disagree with ___ because …”
  • “I have a different opinion …”
  • “I have something to add …”
  • “Can you explain your answer?”

It worked incredibly well. The kids at New Dorp not only got better at writing, they got better at every subject, to the point that New Dorp is now a model for what some are calling the Writing Revolution. (Read Peg’s story here.)

Here’s why: analytic writing is a keystone skill. It is the foundation on which other skills can be built — literally, inside the brain. Improving at analytic writing allowed the New Dorp students to improve at math, science, and social studies because it supports those skills in the same way that a keystone supports a foundation.

Every talent has its keystone skills. Think of a baseball hitter’s ability to identify the speed and location of a pitch. Or a violinist’s ability to precisely match pitch. Or a salesperson’s ability to connect quickly on an emotional level. Or a soccer player’s ability to swiftly “read” a game.

All of these are keystone skills on which larger skills are built. They are exponentially more important to performance than any other skill. After all, it doesn’t matter how beautiful a baseball swing you have, if you can’t tell where the ball is located. It doesn’t matter how great a salesperson you are, if you can’t connect to people.

The strange thing is, keystone skills are easily overlooked and under-practiced. Most of us approach performance the same way New Dorp did in the early days — we try lots of things, in random order, and hope we get better

Instead of merely hoping, you should be highly strategic about planning practice sessions around keystone skills. Spend time analyzing the skill you want to build. What’s the single most important element? What is the move on which all your other moves depend? Then structure your practice around the keystone.

To return to our original question: What’s the most important part of a practice session?

The answer is D) None of the above.

Because the most important time of a practice session is before it begins, when you take time to figure out the answer to a simple question: what’s your keystone skill?

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The Little Team

May 14th, 2013

Once upon a time, there was a soccer team. They were very small, and very young, and not very skilled. All the other teams were bigger and faster, and scored more goals.

A lot more goals.

Two hundred and seventy-one goals in one season, to be precise.

But here’s the mysterious and wonderful thing: the little team still had fun. They loved playing. They loved the game, and each other.

Meet the kids and coaches of Margatania FC, the team from Spain that provides us a recipe for healthy youth sports:

  • 1) mellow, quiet, no-pressure parents
  • 2) nurturing coaches
  • 3) fun-focused culture
  • 4) long-term perspective

As one player jubilantly says, “We’ll score goals when we grow old!”

Related fact: Spain also produces some of the world’s greatest soccer talent. Do you think that’s a coincidence?

(Big thanks to the great John Kessel for sharing the link.)

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