Sunday, November 19, 2006

"Body & Mind" -> Success (Part III)

In the previous post, we found out how incredible the training effect is on the body. If you approach things correctly, you can be in your 60s and still have the endurance of 20 years old.

The brain is even more interesting. As mentioned before in this blog, brain cells are post-mitotic. This means that brain cells don't increase, but neither do they die! In other words, treat the brain cells you have well, and they will stick with you.

I won't repeat my earlier post, but I do encourage you to read it again. It will help you remember what you need to do to preserve your brain.

So, lets repeat a few concepts from this blog:

1. Brain cells are the hardware
2. A skill (or expert performance) is the software.

Now if you have a lot of skill at something, is this because you are talented?

Remember that we talked about KA Ericcson publishing a paper in 1993? His paper really pushed the idea that practice and not talent was key in skill aquistion. It will makes sense if you understand the nature of the brain.

1. Brains fundamentally are not constructed radically different. Some people have wiring that is a bit screwed up, and others have a few more brain cells, but for the most part we are pretty all the same.

2. Thus, you need the right software download to get skill into your brain.

So, let's ask ourselves "what is talent?"

Talent is the ability to load the right software into our brain to acquire skill.

If you remember the movie "The Matrix," you should remember that the characters could download skill via a cable into their brains: that is that they could "download" the right program for Kung-fu, for language, or for flying a helicopter. However, that was science fiction. How do we "really" put software into our brain.

Many people believe that to download the right skill into your brain you need "talent." You might look at an individual and assume "wow, look at that skill. I bet it wasn't hard for them to gain that skill. Therefore, they must have something that I don't. They must have "talent," which allows them to download that skill without much problems."

This is called Nature vs Nurture. Is it the "inside" that makes a difference, or is it the "outside" that makes the difference?

So if you see somebody that has a lot of skill on the violin, you will probably believe the following:

1. Their brain was preprogrammed for the violin. (Nature)

OR

2. Their brain was easier to program in certain people. (Nature)

OR

3. More time is spent stuffing into their brain the information for the skill. (Nurture)

The first two say "talent." The last one says "hard work."

The world of psychology has gone back and forth over this. In the hey-day of BF Skinner, it was assumed that everybody was a blank slate, and your could simply "program" any person to any end.

However, things like the Minnesota twins study started to cast grave doubts on this. What was the Minnesota twins study? If was looking at identical twins that were separated at birth and were raised in different environments. It was very interesting to see that even when raised apart, many twins had very similar skills. So, many said, "ah hah, people have inborn talents that allow them to have similar skills."

Ericcson has started to swing the pendulum back to "programming" via hard work. How did he do this?

While Ericcson looked at several different areas, he looked very closely at violin players. Now, let's say you believe great violin players are born (have inborn talent) and not made. Thus what would you assume?

*If you believe in talent, we would expect the very skilled violin players to become very, very good without much practice.

*If you believe in talent, we would expect the violin players that aren't good to spend a lot of time practicing, but not to become very good.

So let's look at the data that he found.

The chart to the side shows the different categories of violin players. Part of the challenge is finding people who are willing to track how much time they spend in practice.

However, they found three different groups that they could get data on:

1. Teachers, who were good enough to teach.
2. Student that were "good"
3. "Talented" individuals

If you read the chart, you are going to come to a conclusion that is not tied to "having talent." Instead, you will see that, at any age, the best students simply practiced more.

Let's repeat that: simply working harder resulted in having more skill.

Lets look at bit at the data. The data shows the total accumulated time our subjects had spent in practice.

For instance, by the time the "teacher catagory" was 20 years old, they had accumulated under 5000 hours of practice. On the other hand, the good players had under 8000 hours of practice. However, the best players had over 1000 hours.

Think of it this way:

The best players simply flooded their brains with the violin. The ate violin. They slept violin. They spent twice as many hours every week playing the violin over the teachers. And because of their hard work, they resulted in "talent" for the violin.

Here is the issue, if you can't do something, don't blame your lack of talent, blame that you don't want to practice.

As Ericcson dug into this, he also found out that the way that you practiced was incredibly important. Some people may do an activity all day long, but they don't get any better. However, other people can also do something all day, and they will get better.

This problem is not new, and we can look at telegraph operators to see data from 150 years ago.

The telegraph was the internet of its age. The biggest problem with the telegraph was the speed of the operators. The faster your operator, the more your profits would become. So, they started to study operators.

Some were "naturally" very fast, and others were slower. While operators started the job, they were slow, but they increased their speed with time, and then eventually their speed leveled off. Thus it would appear that the speed of the operator would naturally "stop" after a while.

But here the really interesting thing. If they engaged these operators in special kinds of training they could increase their speed again. So, even though they might "naturally level off," it was possible to get them faster again.

So how did this happen? The analogy that I use is the "empty garbage can" that people throw used paper towels into in public restrooms. The garbage can is like your brain. The stuff that you need to put into your brain is like the paper towels that need to be put into the trash can.

Now, when the garbage can is empty, you can simply throw in the towel. What happens when the towels get to the top of the can?

You can either say:

1. The trash can is full
2. I need to compact the trash that is in there so I can throw in more towels.

This happens at work all the time. I come into the men's room, and the can is overflowing with paper towels. What do I do?

I roll up my sleeves, I grab a new paper towel, and I use this paper towel to push all the other paper towels into the trash can. By pushing in the new paper towel, I am able to open up more space on top, and then people can throw more in.

What I find is interesting: I am the only person I ever see compacting the trash. Most people are simply lazy, and they would rather say "the trash is full" and throw their towel on the ground, than going through the effort of pushing down the used towels.

Most people when they sense that their "brain is full" simply get to the point where the "natural" empty part of their brain is full with facts. So people have a bit bigger brain and can naturally take more facts, but even here, their brains eventually fill up. However, if you really want to cram in the software, you need to roll up your sleeves and do some work and really cram more software in.

So, how do you do you stuff more knowledge into your brain? You use "deliberate practice" and cram the software programming into the brain.

So, what do you need for deliberate practice?

Here is the list (as in a paper that is recapped by Larry C. Farmer & Gerald R. Williams):

(1) a highly motivated student
(2) with good concentration
(3) performs a well-defined task,
(4) at an appropriate level of difficultly,
(5) receives informative feedback, and
(6) is given opportunities for repetition to correct errors and polish the skill before moving to the next task

The best way that know how to describe this is to talk about my piano playing. I can sit down and just practice without trying anything hard. I simply play pieces that I've played before. Or perhaps, I simply play through a couple of pieces that I've done before. The problem with this is that is in NOT deliberate practice. This is junk practice.

To gain skills, I do something that makes my brain hurt. This is how I do this.

1. I go to a new section of the music that I have not mastered.
2. I practice with one hand until I can play the passage correctly. Right now it is Bach's "Little Clavier Book" and will be a phrase which is a measure or two. This is very often very difficult in the tough passages, and my brain almost feels like screaming as I hit the wrong notes or sit at one key trying to figure out what key to press next.
3. I then go through the passage with my other hand on the section of music designed for it. Again, this is very difficult and my brain almost hurts.
4. I then slowly go through the section with both hands until I get it correct.
5. I then increase the speed of this passage until I can play is through.
6. I then back back a few bars to see if I can transition into the passage.
7. Finally, I start from the beginning of the piece to see if I can get to the new section.

This process is very painful, and I can't do it all day. I can feel my brain saying "I'm full, why are you pushing more in?" However, after a while, I have gained the section, but it also helps me in other sections. I have done the deliberate (painful) practice.

Let's go back to the telegraph operators. What they did was take the operators and challenge them in speed tests and contests--very similar to the way that I might practice the piano. They encouraged them to push harder and practice on words that might slow them down. Then did individual drills.

The outcome? Everybody got better. Even the ones at the top of the pack.

You can apply this to work.

1. Do you use Excel? Are you trying to figure out Pivot tables?
2. Do you do presentations? Are you reading books on how they should flow and the pictures that should be inserted?
3. Are you responsible for giving out prices? Are you trying to memorize all of the prices that are in the book so you don't have to look up a price when somebody ask you, but you simply know them?

All of the above require practice, practice, practice. Have you ever thought really, really hard and you couldn't quite get something? This isn't bad. This is the act of "cramming in the extra paper towel" to compress the garbage in the garbage can. The struggle to learn shows that you are in the process of rearranging your brain.

Now here is the rub. I believe that there are two things that go into your ability to do deliberate practice.

1. Some people are just naturally geared toward stuffing things into their brain.
2. Some people have the ability to be disciplined.

If you are not in boat #1, you need to be in boat number two.

Now, let's be clear, you need to have something to aim at. If somebody hands me 50 pounds of flour and asks me to stuff it into a small garbage can, it just isn't going to work. You need to make goals that are reasonable. This can be summarized in the following:

You can often do much more than you think, and often less than you want. To maximize your potential you need realistic goals and the willingness to suffer a little.


You must sit back and make some goals for yourself. How do you do this?

a. Measure where you are at.
b. Make a goal to get a bit better that you perceive as a stretch
c. Do deliberate practice
d. Retest to find how close you have gotten to your goal.
e. If you get close to your goal, reset the goal higher.

For example, let's say you type 40 words per minute. However, you know that if you type faster that you'll be able to communicate at work much better. You should do the following:

1. Buy a typing program
2. Measure you current speed of typing (lets say 35 words per minute)
3. Set a goal for 50 words per minute
4. Practice the skill tests they have in the program (boring, but needful)
5. Test and reset the goals once you are at 50 words per minute

It often helps to understand what is the fastest typist in the word. Right now it is about 150 words per minute. I would suggest setting a goal under this, since you should always measure on a curve to avoid setting goals that are unrealistic.

Finally, what about the Minnesota twins study? To me, the answer is pretty simple.

There is one thing separate people, their desire to work hard.

While you can get people to similar skill levels (regardless of the talent idea), you need to review the list of items that are necessary for deliberate practice. Number one on the list? A highly motivated student.

Now here is the final irony. There is one talent that is critical for skill acquisition.

The talent for accepting hard work.

It seems that the desire to work hard, to deal with the pain of deliberate practice, the intrinsic interest in an area is all tied to our ability to work hard.

In the end, perhaps it is nature. Luckily, we can often raise ourselves beyond our normal desires. As a Christian, you can ask the Lord to help you.

Luke 11:9 (New International Version)

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

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