Showing Up

August 24, 2011

My children are about to start their junior year in high school. Yesterday my daughter came to me; she was troubled by thoughts that she would not be academically successful this year. She is taking three advanced placement classes and the rest are honors courses. In addition, she feels the pressure of achieving high scores on her upcoming standardized tests such as the PSAT and SAT.

I asked her if she’d ever heard the saying “that 90% of life is showing up.” She said she had, but added, she didn’t understand what it meant.

Reflecting on the transition from freshman year to sophomore year, she had been surprised by the increase in workload and by the number of her friends whose class standing dropped precipitously. “What characteristic,” I asked, “did these free-falling students share?” She smiled. She understood that those who were high-honors freshmen but fell below the honor’s bar as sophomores had ability. They simply did not value doing the extra work required of them to maintain their high academic standing as sophomores.

My daughter began to relax; she saw her fate was in her hands. Almost certainly, I explained, she would have to do more work than in her sophomore year. But the good news was that if she did that work she would almost certainly succeed. I encouraged her to fully surrender to the process and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from that.

At the legendary Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, each student must sign a statement that reads in part: “Every endeavor pursued with passion produces a successful outcome regardless of the result. For it is not about winning or losing — rather, the asset put forth in producing the outcome.” Yet, practice “pursued with passion” often produces results; and graduates of Bollettieri’s academy include a virtual who’s who of tennis champions.

The irony is that often those who believe winning is everything are not prepared to expend the effort it takes to win. They believe that those who win do so because they are lucky or because they have prodigious talent. Fear of failure is the opposite side of the same coin as believing winning is everything. And often, those who fear failure do not show up and make an effort.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson is considered the world’s foremost expert on the causes of outstanding performances. Ericsson’s research shows that in all fields of endeavor, it takes at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to be a world-class performer. For example, he found that by the age of 20, the best violinist in the world had practiced at least 10,000 hours; while those aiming for careers as music teachers had practiced, on average, 4000 hours.

Ericsson’s findings were without exception: He found no world-class performers who had practiced less than 10,000 hours. And, everyone who had practiced 10,000 hours had reached elite status. Ericsson wrote, “We deny that these differences [in outcome and skill level]…are due to innate talent.”

Ericsson’s extensive research has been popularized in many fine books including Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Bounce by Matthew Syed; yet, many are skeptical. It seems that the mindset that some of us are more special than others is a hard one to overcome. That mindset results in celebrity worship and in living one’s own life without activating the potential within.

Why would anyone make such a choice? Human beings want to believe in their own specialness—even if their own specialness is a story of lack and victimization. We don’t want to hear that we are fundamentally all the same; we don’t want to hear that the only thing standing between us and mastery is long hours of practice.

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When Strengths Become Weaknesses

February 23, 2011

Any high performer knows that to get into the “zone” or a state of flow, they have to forget about themselves. The concerns they have when they are identified with their “story of me” must fade away in favor of a state where they are fully immersed in their activity.

This winter my wife and I have taken up classic, cross-country (Nordic) skiing. Although we are active summer hikers and active winter hikers (snowshoeing), we have no Alpine and very little Nordic ski experience.

Bretton Woods, in the shadow of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, has beautifully groomed trails and a fine 12K loop for beginners. Even on the beginner trails there are hills, and we soon realized that if we were ever to progress to intermediate trails, our hill negotiating abilities would have to improve.

So, we scheduled a lesson to learn about skiing on hills. After hearing how inexperienced we were, the instructor thought it wise to begin at the beginning by teaching us the basics of striding. I quickly realized that my self-taught basic stride was wrong. I was holding my poles in the wrong position, my arms were bent at the wrong angle, and so was my body. I was expanding far more energy and moving slower than if I were to use the correct technique.

I was surprised by this revelation. Even with my incorrect technique, I had been moving faster than most of the other classic skiers on the beginner trails.

Later that day I did some reflecting. I noticed that with regular long-distance hiking and a routine of bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and pull-ups, I have strong arm and leg muscles. I was able to fall quickly into bad form for classic striding because I used my arm and leg strength to overcome the inefficiencies caused by my bad form.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson has made a career of studying the elements of what he calls deliberate practice. Psychologist Carol Dweck has carefully distinguished the elements of what she calls a fixed mindset. Dweck’s mindset theory and Ericsson’s ideas on practice are quite complementary.

We engage in deliberate practice when we identify the elements of our “game” that we not good at, and then we repeatedly practice what is difficult for us.  Deliberate practice is not merely practice. Ericsson has observed that a significant amount of the practice time of Olympic ice skaters goes towards elements of skating that they find difficult. In contrast, skaters below Olympic levels spend the bulk of their practice time doing what they think they are already good at. Ericsson’s observations explain why, in most occupations, mere experience does not result in improved performance.

Dweck has observed that we can have either a fixed or a growth mindset about learning. If we have a fixed mindset our preoccupations of avoiding failure and looking good makes it difficult to learn something new.

During my Nordic ski lesson I was surprised to observe just how fixed my mindset was. I didn’t consciously know it when I arrived, but the real purpose I had given to my lesson was to add a few tweaks to my existing skill set. When I saw that was not to be, I instantly became uncomfortable. As the instructor began to show us the correct way to stride, I was just as concerned about looking good as I was about following his directions. As other skiers went by us, I mentally said to them, “I don’t ski as bad as I look right now.” I knew my thinking was absurd, I knew I was not getting the full benefit of the lesson, yet I continued to entertain the dysfunctional thoughts as they arose.

By the time we got to the hill for training, I was eager for the lesson to be over. I had psyched myself out. I was so lost in my fixed mindset thoughts that I was literally unable to execute a single direction correctly.

Because I was unwilling to be an incompetent beginner, I could not take full advantage of what was offered to me. But all was not lost; after the lesson, my wife and I did our normal loop. As we continued to ski and my mind began to clear, I did indeed notice that I was remembering to use the correct form that I had just been shown. As I did, I was astonished to see how much less energy I was using.

Ericcson’s and Dweck’s work is easily misunderstood. For example, my students often comment, “Of course, I have a growth mindset; I am completing my MBA.” Perhaps so, but one can approach the MBA the same way I approached my ski lesson: How can I improve the strengths I perceive I have already and look good in the process? If that is our purpose, that is all we are likely to receive.

Right now, collectively, America seems to have a fixed mindset. Our national psyche can be no more or no less than the sum of our individual psyches. Our strength—our great national wealth—became our weakness. We threw money at perceived problems, spent recklessly, and now we seem unwilling to explore and learn from current realities.

As a nation we seem to be collectively unable to return to the beginner’s mind that a growth mindset demands.  We are so caught up in the story of our specialness that the great founding principles that promoted liberty and prosperity have largely been forgotten. Like us, our politicians would rather look good than engage in serious study and contemplation. So, they hire media consultants who help them perfect still further their ability to look good while saying little in thirty second sound bites.

We see in politicians the false idea that all that matters is raising enough money to swamp their opponents. How else do we explain the fact that Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is promoting ethanol in order to stay in good graces with the corn lobby? Principles don’t matter, looking good while spouting inanities and raising money is what matters.

Gingrich is not unique of course—our current crop of national leaders with their fixed mindsets seem constitutionally unable to do anything but strengthen their “strengths”—raise money and talk glibly, but without principle.

When I return to Bretton Woods, I will try to help contribute to our national recovery by being more conscious of my mindset. There is nothing wrong with spending a day in the great outdoors hacking away; but to go to the next level, there is no way for me to avoid the clumsy, awkward beginner’s stage. And as Ericcson’s work shows, that clumsy, awkward stage never fully ends for those who are really at the top of their game in any field. There are always new things to learn and new ways to be a beginner.


Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

January 15, 2009

By now, many have begun to break their heartfelt New Year’s resolutions. They may believe that, if they are dieting, they are the unfortunate victim of bad genes. If they are trying a new exercise regime, they may attribute their failure to their busy schedule. If they are trying to improve their relationships with their teenage children, they may attribute their failures (sarcastically) to “everyone knows how teenagers are.” If they are trying to learn a new skill, they may claim that they are slow learners. The excuses are endless; the real power behind a resolution is always the same—hard work and a change of heart. Success rarely comes easily.

When you hear the name Mozart what do you think of? Most people think of a great musical genius who had gifts that were apparent at a very early age. They think of a genius who had to do very little to develop his gifts. Many believe that Mozart was a scribe writing down music that was “dictated” to him. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin points out that these are myths. Consider this statement supposedly written by Mozart in a letter.

All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once…. When I proceed to write down my ideas, I take out of the bag of my memory, if I may use that phrase, what has previously been collected into it, in the way I have mentioned. For this reason, the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.

The only problem is that almost all scholars of music history agree that this letter is a forgery; written by Mozart’s publisher Friedrich Rochlitz and designed to enhance Mozart’s reputation.  As Colvin points out, “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was continually revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.” Simply, “he wrote music the way ordinary humans do.” Mozart was no Mozart!

But didn’t Mozart begin to compose at a very young age? Doesn’t that indicate that Mozart was different? Colvin points out that his father Leopold, an accomplished musician himself, corrected his son’s manuscripts, and that Mozart’s early compositions were arrangements of works by others. Mozart went through 18 years of very rigorous training before, at the age of twenty-one, he published his first composition that is generally considered a masterpiece.

Colvin’s book is fascinating because he reports on a provocative thesis developed by psychologist Anders Ericsson—namely, most of our success in life is not the result of an innate talent, but it is a result of what is called deliberate practice.  Once we understand what deliberate practice is we begin to understand why better performance for most individuals does not get better simply by experience. Deliberate practice is not mere experience; and very importantly, it is not practicing what we are already good at.

Ericsson found, for instance, that skaters who had aspirations for the Olympics would deliberately practice those aspects of their skating game where their skills were the weakest. On the other hand, other amateurs would focus on what they were already good at; and they spent a great deal of their time at the rink socializing and not really practicing at all.

Deliberate practice is not easy; that is why it is the road less traveled. It requires focus and concentration—often this work is not fun. According to Colvin “deliberate practice requires that one identifies certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.” Such a practice stretches us beyond our current comfort zone. Many of us don’t place ourselves in this learning zone—we are happy just maintaining the level of performance that brought us to the position we are in.

Choosing deliberate practice takes commitment. In the world of sports, some athletes stand out not because of their talent level, however high it is, but because of their commitment to deliberate practice which in their profession may be grueling. Former National Football League wide receiver Jerry Rice is considered by most to be the greatest of all time at his position. However, it was not his physicals skills that were extraordinary-many others exceeded him in important categories like speed. What was extraordinary about Rice was his training regime which was so demanding that few came close to emulating it.  For example, Rice was not the fastest on the field, but his daily uphill wind sprints gave him acceleration skills that no one was able to match.

Back to our New Year’s resolutions. Trouble speaking to your teenage son? You may need to learn new skills, and you may need a change of heart. You’re going to have to practice some things that you haven’t done before.

New diet? Same thing. If you rely upon your taste buds, which have become accustomed to processed foods, to eat natural foods may be a deliberate practice for you.

Exercise?  You may have to cancel your cable television subscription and feel the discomfort of doing so. You may have to suck wind the first time that you jog up a hill.

Lots of things seem impossible from where we stand today. We can make the impossible possible with deliberate practice.


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