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?
Talent 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.
It’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.
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??
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.)
- 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?
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.)
My friend John likes to wear pajama pants. I’m not talking just around his house, or in the morning. I’m talking all day long. At the grocery store. Driving carpool. I once saw him downhill skiing in pajama pants. What’s more, John is absolutely incredulous that the rest of us don’t do likewise.
“Why not?” he says. “They’re comfortable!”
Here’s the surprising thing: historically speaking, John is in good company. As Tom Hodgkinson’s wonderful book How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto demonstrates, many of history’s greatest achievers spent huge amounts of time in their actual or metaphorical pajama pants, taking long walks, daydreaming, day-drinking, and living lives of organized relaxation that we, in our hyper-busy, overconnected age, can barely imagine.
For example, check out Charles Darwin’s daily routine:
- 7-8: short walk, breakfast
- 8-9:30: work at desk
- 9:30-10:30: read family letters, listen to wife Emma read novels aloud
- 10:30-noon: work at desk; end workday by noon
- 12-3: answer correspondence
- 3-5:30: nap, cigarette, listen to Emma read aloud
- 5:30-7: idleness, rest, novel-reading, cigarette
- 7-8: family dinner
- 8-10: two games of backgammon, more reading, relaxing on sofa while listening to Emma play piano, bedtime
The loafing program — or, to be more accurate, alternating intense efforts with spells of pure loafing — worked out pretty well, and not just for Darwin. After all, if it weren’t for daydreaming, we might not have Einstein’s theory of relativity, Mendeleyev’s periodic table, or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
So here’s a theory: Loafing is not a vice or a weakness, but an important and often-overlooked skill. High-quality loafing only looks like wasting time; in fact, it’s the opposite. Good loafing is restorative, and crucial to creativity and strategic thinking. It’s the time for reloading emotional fuel tanks, hatching plans, and making serendipitous connections. Bad loafing, on the other hand, leaves you more tired and distracted than before (I’m talking about you, Internet).
With that in mind, I’d like to offer the following rules for high-performance loafing, cobbled together from Hodgkinson and Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, as well as the suggestions of my pajama-fond friends and family.
1. Unplug from technology.
2. Take a long, slow walk outside.
4. Stare at an object you’ve never really considered before. The tree outside your window. A pencil. A leaf. A beetle. The smaller the better.
5. Listen to a favorite book read aloud
6. Take a long drive somewhere you’ve never been before
7. Get a massage
8. Gain altitude: go to the uppermost floors of a tall building, or atop the nearest hill
9. Take a train ride
10. Take a long nap (following the proper rules, of course)
11. Go out in the yard with your favorite book and a big glass of lemonade (from my daughter)
12. Spend all day in a robe or pajamas
13. Make tea
14. Avoid shopping, and shopping malls, and people who are shopping
15. Cook a grilled cheese
16. Go to the nearest body of water — ocean, river, pond — and gaze at it
17. Check Twitter constantly
18. Just kidding; ignore previous rule
19. Drink wine with lunch
20. Listen to a favorite album straight through
21. Go barefoot
22. Go to a museum (not barefoot), find one great painting, and stare at it
23: Go to nearest park
24: Feed the birds, the fish, or the squirrels
25. Take your pet for a long, slow walk (in 1830s Paris, it was considered fashionable to put a tortoise on a leash, and walk very slowly through the city.)
26. Eat an orange
27. Watch the sun go down
28. Eat dinner by candlelight
29. Play a card or board game
30. Lay on grass; look at stars
I asked my 17-year-old son if he had any ideas to add, and he said, “I’d tell you, but I’m way too relaxed.”
So I’ll ask you guys instead: What works for you? What else needs to be on this list?
I have to confess, I’ve watched this video five times and I’m still not sure what to think of it.
On one hand: these parents are completely nuts. Little dude is only seven months old! Why not wait until he’s shown an interest? Or at least until he can, you know, walk?
On the other: presuming it’s safe (a maybe), how are these parents any different from those who firmly nudge their toddlers into golf, chess, violin, etc? It’s not about the kid’s desires, because it rarely is — it’s all about the parents.
So is this a prime example of terrible modern parenting? Or is it just a slightly more edgy version of the kind of innovative parenting that produces prodigies?
Are they awful? Or just smart?
What do you guys think?
PS – Here’s what my daughter Katie (15) says: “It’s better to put little kids into fun, slightly risky situations (if it’s safe, of course!) rather than to shelter and overprotect them.”
I love this girl.
She’s six years old, her name is Dachiya Atkinson, and she can absolutely destroy a dance floor.
What I like even more is the space in which she’s developed her talent — which, as it happens, is the opposite of the way we teach most skills.
Let me explain. When it comes to teaching, our instinct often leads us to add a bunch of stuff. Like coaches. Practice drills. Words of advice. Trophies and ribbons. As parents and teachers, we have an irresistible urge to help, to get involved.
But that’s not how Dachiya built her skills. She did it using three simple elements:
- 1) Skilled performers to stare at
- 2) Sense of fun
- 3) Intense, repeatable competition
We see the same ingredients built into other talent-development spaces, whether it’s kids memorizing the digits of pi or a top soccer team practicing or a Little League team that won a championship while playing without a coach.
They succeed because they are finding a way to avoid the complication and static and to tap into the underrated power of clarity, competition, and ownership. They’re finding a way do the toughest thing: to be simple.
If you want to create a learning space, ask yourself these three questions:
- What’s the simplest, most fun game that can be played?
- How can you “fill the windshields” of the kids with top performers so they can learn directly, via mimicry?
- How can you remove coaches and teachers from the space, and give it completely to the learners?
If you want to share any stories or ideas for achieving this, I’d love to hear them.