What is your Learning Rate Determining Step?

Just over a month ago, I had my first piano lesson. It was very hard. The teacher kept trying to teach me about “Middle C”, a term that had little meaning and even less perceived value to me. And she taught me to play music that was so inanely simplistic that I was bored before I’d finished playing the first bar. But the experience was fascinating. Especially when you know how good some pre-school students are!

After getting bored with drills intended to train me like they might train a 3-year-old, who will take an average of 1200 hours of formal practice to achieve Grade 5 (according to Sloboda’s Leverhulme Project), I decided to just learn how to play a piece of music. I chose to play one of my favourites, Gymnopedie. It looked easy enough.

It wasn’t easy. To start with, it was hard. Very hard. And it was hard in very specific ways.

And it has already highlighted two key aspects of learning for me: One conscious, one unconscious. Continue reading “What is your Learning Rate Determining Step?” »

Iconoclast: What does it take to be extraordinary?

In the pursuit of excellence and freedom, there are a few domains to consider. One is the field of expertise, a major contribution of which, Deliberate Practice, I have discussed elsewhere. Yet what about those unique individuals who really change things? Those people (‘freaks’ – in a good way!) who change the world. What is different about them? How do they do it?

Gregory Berns calls them Iconoclasts in his book of the same title, where he notes that they “see things differently than other people. Literally… because their brains do not fall into efficiency traps as much as the average person’s brain.” Berns argued that one way is to “bombard the brain with things it has never encountered before.” And Adam Dachis was saying much the same thing when he suggested doing things that make you feel uncomfortable. When we have rich experiences, we are able to access a more profound heuristic to understand the world around us, being less constrained by the examples that happen to be before us or the ways of thinking that we grew up with.

Berns also  noted that these individuals are less subject to the desire for social approval, which reminded me of my old friend Wayne Dyer speaking of self-actualized people being “independent of the good opinion of others.” Robert Greene pointed out that thinking for yourself can be dangerous, and suggested that one should, “Think as you like but Behave like others”. Perhaps that might be a good start though it might be more rigorous to refer to the importance of social intelligence.

Being able to think for oneself is challenging. It is hard. It is scary. And it must be done carefully.

The results can change the world.

If you’re going to vary the recipe…

I love cooking. The way that we can transform ‘simple’ ingredients into something deliciously complex is a wonder to behold, and a delight to experience.

If you don’t know how to cook, you can follow a recipe. With a little bit of discipline, focus, and the right ingredients, you can find yourself producing great quality food quite easily.

After a while, you can start to figure out how the recipe works. You find that a little bit extra of one ingredient will vary the taste, texture or appearance. You might even start to experiment.

Some people can start to create. Not just to follow the recipe, but to come up with entirely new concoctions, based upon the test kitchen in your mind.

Yet I would be reluctant to rely upon the skills of someone who hadn’t yet mastered a single recipe. Maybe they would create something delicious and creative and new. Maybe you would get food poisoning.

Individuality and self expression are great things, and it is good to note that most great innovators didn’t come from “the establishment” in their domain. Whether they be Rodin or 50 Cent, Einstein or Gershwin, Branson or Brin, innovators learn enough to speak the language of their chosen domain, though not so much as they lose their accent.

Before we start changing the rules, let’s find out what they are.

Who says the Earth revolves around the Sun?

If you were like me, you were probably taught that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that it takes one year – a bit over 365 days – for the Earth to complete one such cycle.

And you probably also learned that we didn’t always believe that.

You might have learned about Ptolemy, who believed that the celestial bodies revolved around the Earth. It seems impossible to believe now, but that was the established wisdom for thousands of years. People were executed for disputing this scientific “fact”.

When Copernicus came up with his idea of the Earth revolving around the Sun, it didn’t make sense. The scientists of the day disputed his claims and showed through “science” that he was ‘wrong’, by demonstrating that his theories couldn’t explain what was happening any better than the established wisdom. In fact, Copernicus’ model offered worse predictions than Ptolemy’s model.

But with contributions from Galileo and Kepler united under Newton, our world experienced a paradigm shift (in the original/ Thomas Kuhn sense of the term). And suddenly our textbooks were rewritten. And so “The Sun revolves around the Earth. The Sun has always revolved around the Earth.” became, “The Earth revolves around the Sun. The Earth has always revolved around the Sun.”

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we of course know that we know the truth.

And yet, do we? Perhaps one abusing ‘Relativity’ might posit that it all depends upon where you are stationed – that from the perspective of the Earth, the Sun does revolve around it and vice versa. And maybe they are both wrong.

Such is the nature of “science”: The perpetual quest to prove oneself wrong.

The special challenge falls on those individuals who lead periods of revolution. Scientific, cultural, social, linguistic. Whether they are the revolutionary leaders of climate change or economics or politics or even intelligence.

You see it in someone like Howard Gardner in positing Multiple Intelligences back in 1983. Or Edward de Bono’s “Lateral Thinking”. Or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. From ‘ridiculous’ to ’self-evident’ in but a short few years.

If we are going to support and facilitate the development of more of these game-changing Great Minds – people with “capital C” Creativity – what sort of systems, policies, procedures, experiences and opportunities might we want to create?

In the past two weeks, I watched my four-month-old son learn to blow raspberries. Inspired by reading that this would be good for his language development (seriously!), and knowing that his mother can’t blow raspberries, I made the sacrifice and regularly blew raspberries at him. He was surprised at the start, then he started laughing. Then he started trying it out for himself. It took a while, and he ‘fell over’ a bunch of times. Even now, his raspberries are particularly sloppy. But he watched me and he did it – today, he can reliably exit a room and blow me a raspberry!

Interesting skills are usually the most difficult to transfer. We can learn Newton’s Laws, but it’s another story entirely to learn to think as Newton thought. Those tacit and almost invisible skills that sometimes leave behind traces of brilliance are the ones where we lack the language to teach the skills. Often we lack the explicit knowledge as to what is being done at all. Yet an infant can learn without language. They just look out at the world with eyes wide open and a willingness to explore, experiment and experience.

Ultimately, most of what we learn is false. It’s our best guess, but at best it’s almost certainly wrong or flawed. We want to get to those moments of joy and pure experience when we can create genius.

I wonder what would happen if  we would just choose to put our desire to control to the side, and accept the ambiguity, the obstacles and the knowledge that even our best work will probably be wrong. And just keep blowing raspberries.

(originally from TheGeniusProject.com)

Treat it as a performance

Delivering a presentation that is smooth, insightful and ends right on time can be a big ask. Lots of intelligent people mess it up. One of the speakers who really seems to get it right is Malcolm Gladwell. If you have ever watched him speak (like here on TED), you may notice how he speaks eloquently, even effortlessly, and ends with precise punctuality.

When asked about it once, Gladwell replied, “I know it may not look like this. But it’s all scripted. I write down every word and then I learn it off by heart. I do that with all my talks and I’ve got lots of them.”

It’s great to connect with your audience as if you were just having a casual chat with them. And sometimes that’s precisely what you will want to do. Other times, like maybe when you want to really nail it, you might be interested to discover what happens when you go beyond the bullet points and rehearse, refine and distill the most important information that you are there to share. Focus on the most important stuff; skip the rest. Polish, polish, polish. And you might just find yourself on a level where you have that polish that casual speaking just doesn’t allow.

While memorizing isn’t “the answer”, if you want to deliver a professional-standard speech, you might consider treating your next presentation as a performance.

Bringing deliberate practice into speaking is challenging – hence so many speakers stagnate – though by refining your work, looking for ways to raise your standards, you give yourself a chance of lifting your bar.

That what seems to work for the guy who wrote The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and, more recently, What the Dog Saw.