Monthly Archives: February 2007

The Origins of Expertise

boy practicing tennisWe can all point to clear evidence showing that elite performers – in all areas – possess innate strengths that give them an edge over the rest of the crowd. For example, Shaquille O’Neal’s body gives him an edge in professional basketball, and composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven obviously had musical talents that set them apart from generations of artists. But is “talent” really the core ingredient of expertise and elite performance?

An interview entitled, The Expert on Experts, from Fast Company’s November 2006 issue, illuminates “expertise” in a different light, and suggests that my examples above are extreme exceptions to the typical evolution of expertise. The interview’s subject is K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the 918-page Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Ericsson says:

“With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level….Elite performers aren’t genetically superior. They spontaneously do things differently from those individuals who stagnate. They have different practice histories. Elite performers engage in what we call deliberate practice – an effortful activity designed to improve target performance….. In general, elite performers utilize some technique that isn’t well known or widely practiced.”

I was recently reminded of this Fast Company article when reading Brad Gilbert’s book, I’ve Got Your Back: Coaching Top Performers from Center Court to the Corner Office. Gilbert is a former top-ten tennis pro who later coached #1 players, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. As a youngster, Gilbert was always a good player but he never stood out as a future star. He received a tennis scholarship to a junior college, eventually transferred to Pepperdine University, joined the ATP tour, and slowly worked his way from #180 in the world to his peak ranking of #4.

It was this paragraph from Gilbert’s book that struck me:

“I guess a couple of things made me different from other up-and-comers on the tour. Sure, I had resilience and foot speed. But other guys had those traits. What set me apart, maybe, was my eye for the game, my memory of how people played it, and my drive to pay attention. Almost every other guy on the tour, when he was finished with his match, couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there – to go back to the hotel room to watch TV, or go pound a few beers. Call me nutty (and a few people did), but I loved to hang out at the venue: watching matches or practice, shooting the breeze with guys in the locker room or training area. And whenever I was watching tennis, I was taking notes. I kept a little black book on every guy I played, and every guy I saw playing…. if you know the other guy’s weaknesses, you have a huge leg up.”

Later in the book, when Gilbert explains how he helped Andre Agassi improve from a #30 world-ranking to #1, the “black book” technique is featured once again.

Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner (authors of the interesting book, Freakonomics) wrote this about Ericsson’s expertise book in The New York Times Magazine:

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers – whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming – are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.”

I find it amazing – and thrilling – that good performers can become elite performers through “deliberate practice” and “utilizing some technique that isn’t widely known or widely practiced.” And I find it fascinating that, since natural talent isn’t the central reason for superior performance and any of us can become an elite performer in an area that deeply interests us, we aren’t all among the “elite” in something.

Clearly, everyone has a choice: to become an expert or elite performer in an area of our choosing, or to be a generalist. (And while “generalist” implies mediocrity and dulled impact, we can always turn to Benjamin Franklin and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, two “expert generalists,” for stunning counter examples…)

In Pursuit Of The Zone

“When am I in the zone, and how will I double the time I spend in the zone in the next 12 months?”

Entrepreneur and author Raj Setty has been publishing “Quoughts of the Day” on his blog since late December, 2006. (A “quought” is a question that provokes thought.) Back on January 13, I wrote about Raj’s excellent “quoughts” series and suggested three quoughts of my own. Since then, Raj and I have become acquainted via email, and today he has published my quought at LifeBeyondCodeBlog.

I’m a big fan of “being in the zone.” I believe we all do our best work when we’re in the zone. Almost all really, really great work is produced by people in the zone. Entrepreneurs. Athletes. Teachers. Writers. Doctors. Salespeople. Musicians. Architects. Chefs. Gardeners. Artists. Preachers. Mothers. Fathers. Students. CEOs. Auto Mechanics. The elite ones get “locked-in” when they’re practicing their craft.

I believe we need to spend at least a few hours every day in the zone, or we’re depriving the world (and ourselves) of our most valuable stuff. I worry about people I love who don’t appear to spend any time in the zone during the day.

Christian LaettnerWhen in your lifetime, including when you were a kid, do you remember being in the zone? (If you’re Christian Laettner (left), you remember being in the zone on the night you took this shot, with 0.2 seconds left, after catching an 80-foot pass from Grant Hill, to win the 1992 East Regional NCAA Tournament game in overtime against Kentucky, 103-102. Laettner was 10 for 10 from the floor, and 10 for 10 on free throws in this game. That’s some serious zoneage. The story of this game is here.)

Can you pepper your schedule next week – and for the rest of your life – with more “zone-time?”

“Work is my obsession but it is also my devotion…. Absorbedness is the paradise of work.” – Donald Hall, poet and essayist

The Cost of Praising Intelligence

It’s common sense that a good parent should frequently seize opportunities to tell his/her children that they are “smart,” isn’t it?

Not so fast.

Po Bronsoncub scout has written a fascinating article in New York Magazine, entitled, How Not To Talk To Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise. The article describes a recent study of 400 New York City fifth graders that shows that children who are repeatedly told they are “smart” shy away from challenges where there’s even a slight risk they might not succeed. On the other hand, kids who are consistently praised for their hard work or effort are more self-confident, more inclined to seek out challenging projects despite the possibility of failure, and less inhibited by concerns about how their work will be “graded” in the end.

Carol Dweck, the psychologist who led the study, writes, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” She continues, “Emphasizing effort gives children a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

It turns out that teaching kids that their innate intelligence is the key to their success actually sends a damaging message to them by diminishing the importance of effort – which is, in fact, the ONLY thing over which they have any control!

Clearly, this study is hugely important for all parents, teachers, and coaches. And it reminds me of two baseball t-shirts my oldest son owns. One says, “Just give me the ball and let me do the rest.” The other t-shirt says, “Champions are made in the off-season.” One motto emphasizes ability, the other practice and effort.

I never did like that “give me the ball” t-shirt, with its arrogant, anti-teamwork, talent-focused slogan. And now that I’ve read about the impact of highlighting effort,  I love that “champions” t-shirt all the more!

(By the way, the cub scout in that photo is not my son – I actually have no idea who that is.)

Rules vs. Results

We were all trained as children to “follow the rules.” But should our teachers have taught us how to decide when to break the rules? (Yes.)

Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal spent years studying managers and seeking out the habits and characteristics that separate “purposeful managers” (only 10% of all of them) from the frenzied, dTiger Woodsetached, and procrastinators. Their findings are collected in A Bias For Action (2004).

One of their most interesting insights is that successful managers know when to “break the rules” to reach critical organizational goals.

They write:
“Purposeful managers take an active stance when it comes to formal regulations and informal rules developed through cultural norms, habits, and shared expectations. Not only do they question rules that they deem outdated or inappropriate, but they also break or circumvent the rules when it’s absolutely necessary for achieving their goals.”

Sometimes, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I getting paid to do things the way my boss and her boss would like me to do them, or am I getting paid to give my boss and her boss the results they want to see?” Bruch and Ghoshal’s research reveals that the most successful 10% of managers prioritize results over following protocol.

What rule – either formal or informal – are you letting stand in the way of your optimum performance?

A Golfer In My Own Mind

Tom WatsonThe third round of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am was on TV in the background today as I supervised and played with my 4 small children (yes, that’s Tom Watson at Pebble Beach, left), and it got me thinking…

I have probably played a total of 50 rounds of golf in my entire life (perhaps 2 per year since 7th grade). How, then, can I justify calling myself a golfer?

Perhaps it’s because I imagine playing golf all the time; I read books about golf (The Legend of Bagger Vance, by Steven Pressfield, is one of my all-time favorite novels); my son and I compete in Yahoo’s online golf league together; in the summer, I’m constantly trying to find a way to squeeze in nine holes; when I do find time to get out on the golf course, I feel a level of peace, freedom, and competitive focus attainable in no other way.

Why does this game have such a hold over me, and over so many others? What is it about this sport that makes it so addictive, so engaging, so exhilarating — even for hacking amateurs like me?

Most importantly, how can you and I quadruple our annual golfing time during the course of the rest of our lives?

“I asked Arnold Palmer if he’d ever come close to mastering the game of golf; he said he thought he had once, for nine holes.” — Fuzzy Zoeller, from Be The Ball: A Golf Instruction Book for the Mind

Are You Measuring The Right Things?

Wrigley’s fenceSeth Godin describes an example today on his blog that shows that “just because you can measure it doesn’t mean it’s important.” It reminded me of a great book about measurements – indeed, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

Have any of you read Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game? (Even if you couldn’t care less about sports, you’ll enjoy this book.) It’s a fascinating story that provides a perfect example of how “knowing what to measure” can have a dramatic impact on an organization’s results.

A few years ago, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, set out with some MIT stat geeks to figure out what player statistics correlate most closely to “scoring runs.” What they discovered enabled them to compete on a different level in the game of selecting players. While every other team pursued players with high “batting averages” and “home run totals,” the A’s had figured out that these stats weren’t actually the most important when seeking players who would help you WIN (which is, of course, the ultimate goal).

They learned that “high on-base percentage” and “high slugging percentage” were the statistical qualities that contributed most to winning games — and that many of the players with the best stats in these areas were either overlooked by other teams (who had their eye on the wrong measurements), or undervalued in terms of salary. So, on one of the smallest budgets in all of baseball, the A’s put together a team that competed for the World Championship several years in a row.

How’d they do it? They asked the right questions, did some analysis, and figured out the right things to measure to identify players who could help them achieve their ultimate goal of winning – then they adjusted their game plan accordingly.

What if you could engineer a surge in your results in your own field, similar to the A’s surge in victories, by starting to measure the right things?

Sustaining “Pure” Self-Confidence

My most recent article over at Lifehack.org tells about the “life list” my 7 year-old son has been composing over the last couple of months – on his own. I stumbled across his list about a week ago (modeled after John Goddard’s life list), and it has led me to ponder the question, “What difference do goals make, anyway?”

I recall hearing a terrific quotation from David Allen about goals. He said: “The value of goals is not the future they describe, but the change in perception of reality they foster, and the change in performance they effect right now, inside of you.”

hell freezes over(Re-read that quotation… it’s a great one.)

I love that my son believes that anything he can dream is possible. I love that that’s his reality. (“It’s not over, Daddy,” he says frequently, when watching a sports event whose outcome seems obvious. “Anything can happen.”) His life list reflects his expectation that he will eventually fulfill his loftiest aspirations (whether this is accurate or not is irrelevant) and if David Allen’s quotation is accurate, today and tomorrow he’ll “perform” with the pure self-confidence that fuels all great lives.

My challenge as his parent is this: How can I help him sustain his self-confidence, optimism, and possibility-thinking and carry it into adolescence and adulthood?

(To read my original article, My 7 Year-Old Son’s Life Listclick here.)

Who Are Your Most Beloved Athletes?

Writing abodoug flutieut how great athletes talk to themselves got me thinking about my favorite athletes of all-time. Four of the individuals on my distinguished list rise above the rest because of the place they hold in my heart, and because of the influence they had on me as a teenager and young adult. And, looking at the quartet, I am struck by the similarities between the three and the common characteristics they taught me to admire and emulate. The magic foursome is: Doug Flutie, Larry Bird, Jim Barton, and Nomar Garciaparra.

Doug Flutie. I was sixteen in 1984 when he threw the hail mary pass to Gerard Phelan to lead Boston College to victory over University of Miami. His 21-year pro career was just like his college clarry birdareer: he was smaller than every other NFL quarterback, but he found ways to win, time after time. And he never did it the same way twice – he was the king of improv.

Larry Bird. I was 17 that spring the Celtics beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals (1986). My dad always used to say, “Remember Larry, because you won’t see anyone like him the rest of your life.” It’s not Larry’s clutch shots and passes I remember first, it’s his hustle, diving to the floor to grab control of a loose ball, slamming his chin on the court. Larry was a warrior.

Jim Barton, Dartmouth basketballJim Barton. Jim was a star basketball player at Dartmouth College in the late 1980s when I was a student there. He could catch a pass and get off a shot in one instantaneous motion — and it always went in. His heroics made me lose my voice every game. He was among the nation’s scoring leaders, and at the time, I had never witnessed a more electric athlete in person.

Nomar. As a member of the Red Sox, his love for playing baseball was obvious, and even though he was an Nomar Garciaparra t-shirtall-star, he was humble and appreciated his success. He seemed to be hustling every minute of the game, even in the dugout (mentally). He was my first son’s first favorite Sox player, which has cemented him among my top-four favorite athletes. At the age of 5, he cried when Nomar was traded to the Cubs. He still wears his Red Sox-Nomar shirt, as well as his Cubs-Nomar shirt, and at the time Nomar signed his glove, it was probably the greatest moment of his young life.

Nice list, but why does it matter?

These great athletes were also great teachers of mine. Through countless emotionally-charged athletic performances, they helped develop my world view: the belief that anything can happen if you can imagine it; that the game isn’t over until it’s over, so you must never quit; that calm, confident focus can tame the highest-pressure moments; that spectacular results hurtle towards us when we’re “in the zone;” that the team’s goal of winning supercedes individual accomplishments; and that there is nobility in playing hurt and hustling on every play.

Who are your most beloved athletes, and how have they helped shape your world view?