Saturday, March 23, 2013

Treasure Map: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

What I learned reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle drives me to sit down and “do the work.”  That is the creative work of game design and fiction writing.  The motivation to do my work is that I can do this.  With enough time at the keyboard and deliberate focus on improvement, I can write something that I am satisfied with.  It might take ten years, but I can do it.  The Talent Code parallels the message of Imagine.  The central premise of Imagine suggests that to be human is to be creative.  Creativity is not a special gift.  Daniel Coyle takes a giant step beyond that suggesting that talent is over rated.  You are not a special and unique snowflake.  Everyone can develop a high degree of competence in a skill. 

Coyle, a journalist, was researching a story about places where a statistically improbable number of talented athletes were developed and trained.  He visited these “talent hot spots” to speak with the coaches and find out what made these places special.  Examples from the book include Brazilian soccer programs, a tennis club in Russia and a little league program on a poor Caribbean island.   He asked an obvious question; How does a Russian tennis club in a run down industrial building with a single indoor court produce more top 20 players than all the clubs in the US combined?  How does a tiny Caribbean island with a per capita income of less than the US poverty line get its little league team to the world series year after year?

The reason is coaches and teachers in these “talent hotbeds” teach and require what Coyle calls “deep practice.”   Deep practice is a method by which the student or athlete develops a skill by focusing on the thing being done, immediately correcting an error.  It may be that the student has to do this very slowly.  It may be that the athlete has to train in a smaller space or with a smaller ball that makes precision handling necessary.  A key component to the method is correction of error. The student will make errors in this practice and the error is immediately attended to.  The finger is moved a centimeter up the fret board, the knee bent a little more the pencil gripped with less tension.  The task is performed over and over until the student masters it.  The degree of mastery depends on the amount of deep practice the student puts in. 

Coyle explains that neuroscience has evidence that skills are built by this deep deliberate practice through a process called myelination.  The body insulates neural pathways that carry signals from the brain to muscles and other body tissues required for a task.  When there is an intense and repeated stimulus during a particular act, the body adds more myelin to the axons which make up the pathways necessary to respond to the stimulus.  Muscles are built by repeated minor stress to the muscle.  Neural pathways are built by repeated stress on the pathway.  Coyle goes into the specifics of this at a level a layman can understand.  This hypothesis of skill is relatively new and still being studied.  The mechanisms are not entirely understood but the early research is promising.  Understanding this process may change the way we teach children, coach athletes and train employees.

Daniel Coyle shows us that a motivated person can become highly skilled through desire, deliberate practice and good coaching.  This is nothing new.  The best coaches and teachers have been doing this for a long time.  They figured it out by trial and error or learned it from a mentor.  The old apprentice system of masters training apprentices was based on the deliberate practice model.  For the first time, neuroscience is telling us what the mechanism underlying this process is.  This understanding can help us to make learning more efficient and effective.  What it also tells us is that “talent” may have little to do with developing mastery in a skill.  That is the most important theme of this book, in my mind.  

How many times have you heard the story about a world famous guitar player teaching themselves how to play the guitar?  They didn’t have money for lessons and bought an old mail order guitar at a garage sale with a Beatles lesson book.  Spending several thousand hours in their bedroom with the old guitar and the lesson book, they become a huge pop star in their early twenties.  How many poor kids have become sports superstars got their start standing under a ragged hoop on a playground shooting free throws for hours and hours?  

A person who wants to develop mastery and is willing to spend the time and resources necessary to achieve that mastery can do so.  It is depth of commitment that matters most.  Getting good coaching to help direct the deep practice will make the process more efficient but without the desire and commitment all the talent in the world won’t help. 

There are certain skills that require a certain bone structure or ability to build muscle mass that are rare.  For example, it takes a certain build to be a Pro Bowl linebacker.
There are some skills that are easier to do if you have a certain physical make up.  A person with long fingers is going to be able to make long stretches on the neck of a bass guitar that a short fingered person may not.  It also seems that certain skills develop easier than others.  I have had the experience of struggling with a skill whilst  being able to develop other skills to a reasonable level of competence within a short period of time.  I don’t know why this is and it is not something addressed in the book. 

Acquiring skill requires a deep commitment to the work and is not easy to do.  It is claimed in The Talent Code and other publications that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve high level mastery of a skill.  For me, what the book has done is help me to keep in mind that I’m not spinning my wheels.  Incremental improvement is difficult to see unless the skill you are training has an objective and measurable standard.  In the arts, detecting improvement can be hard.  There may have been something special about Shakespear, Dante and Homer.  Then again, what may have been special about them was an ability to overcome their self doubt and work until they produced something that we read and remember today.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Treasure Map: Unfortunately… the next book was by Jonah Lehrer

Those who may not be aware should know that the next book in this series, Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine has many problems.    Jonah plagiarized, reused large sections of earlier magazine articles he had written, over simplified the science and fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan and others.  Imagine:How Creativity Works describes a number of people and organizations known for creativity and ties these examples into the science of creativity.  I listened to this whilst driving and doing housework so I don’t remember as much of it as I would like.  Getting a physical copy of it is difficult since only 200,000 copies were sold before the publisher pulled the remainders out of the book stores.  Don’t worry though because the point of the book can be captured without reading the whole thing.

Lehrer’s ethical failure destroys the book as a viable work on the subject of the science of creativity.  There are other resources on the web about this topic worth checking out.  I’ll post links at the bottom of this entry. Despite its problems, the book impacted me and got me thinking about creativity.

Neuroscience and psychology are building a solid case that creativity is not about “talent.”  There are many anecdotes from the world of film, art, and music which support this. Creativity is a function of the human brain and it can be stimulated intentionally.  Anyone with normal brain function can create.  This concept offers anyone who is blocked by Resistance (the concept from The War of Art) a tool to overcome that Resistance.  Often Resistance takes the form of self doubt and fear.  The fear our ideas aren’t creative enough.  The fear we can never produce any truly creative  song, story, drawing  or screen play gives us pause.  We figure, “I’m not creative.  Why bother when I’ll just fail anyway.”  When we find out creativity is a birthright… that’s magic.  

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the book.  Since its main concept is sound, I'm not expending the energy needed to determine what is fact and what is fabrication.  I’ll stick with generalities.  “Creativity” is a cognitive process natural to human beings.  We all create all the time.  Creativity doesn’t come from muses, angels or other supernatural beings.  To be creative is to be human.  It is not something that only special unique people have.  It is something we all do and can do well. 

You may recall from the first “Treasure Map” post that Dan Gilbert of Harvard considers the thing that makes us human is our ability to simulate an event in our mind before it happens.  We can imagine what cod liver ice cream might taste like and decide not to eat any.  We can imagine what it might be like to win the lottery or lose a child to cancer.  This is creativity.  We are creating, in our minds, an image or experience without actually having the experience.  Creativity is our nature.  Also remember that Dan Gilbert mentioned we are really bad at predicting what we’ll feel like in the future. Cognitive behavior therapists point put we can create non-adaptive negative mental images surrounding certain activities.   Our self manufactured fears negatively effect our relationships and work.  Understand, creativity can be our enemy as well as our ally.

Creativity can be enhanced.  Imagine details a number of people and organizations known for creativity.  Lehrer fabricated some elements of these stories and muddled the value of others.  One he did not fabricate was the success of Pixar and the role of the Pixar office facility in that success.  In the film making business, it is an axiom that no one can predict whether a film will be a hit or a bust.  Every Pixar movie has made money.  Some of them have made a lot of money.  Part of Pixar's success come from the chance interactions between its employees.  Pixar's main campus building is a well known study in the notion that the place you work has an effect on the results of your work.

Pixar’s main building was designed so that everyone will have chance interactions with people they don’t work with directly.  Steve Jobs obsessed over the design and construction of that building.  At its center is a huge atrium.  Jobs put the mailboxes, bathrooms, meeting rooms and cafeteria in the atrium space.  Because everyone in the building had to go into that area, chance encounters were going to happen.  He believed that these spontaneous meetings and encounters would create innovation.  Neuroscience, it turns out, suggests that this is true.  Here are a couple of articles about this.  The second one is a scientific paper that suggests when two people exchange ideas other new ideas occur.  

From this example, we can create a heuristic to enhance our creativity.  
Talk with other people, face to face.  Join a book group.  Throw a party and tell your guests to bring a friend that you don’t know.  Join or create a discussion group.  Go to conventions or seminars.  Take a cooking class.  Go to a coffee house and strike up a conversation with a stranger.  The broader your interactions the better.

I’m bringing up a single creativity enhancing technique.  There are many more.  This brings me to why Imagine, despite its problems, was an important book for me.  It was up lifting.  I suppose scams often are up lifting. No matter.  As I finished the book, I felt if I worked at being creative and applied techniques suggested by the author, I too could create.  The feeling that a thing is possible and it is is within your power to do that thing provides encouragement.  Sitting down to “do your work” as Steven Pressfield has written many times no longer seems like a waste of time or energy.  When you understand the process will eventually return a positive result, if you keep at it, makes it worth doing that work.  Keep in mind that painting your room blue, interacting in a coffee house and playing ambient noise at a medium volume level won’t turn you into Picasso.  There may be some degree of genius that will elude most of us.  The point is; We can, if we apply certain techniques and work, we can do far more than most of us would have thought possible.   

The last book in this “treasure map” series is about how “talent” is not quite as important to success as we might assume.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Book Review: The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

In my last post, I laid out an unexplained and underlying premise to this series.  I told you several books spurred me to seek out a more satisfying life.  You might ask, “more satisfying than what?”  A good question when you consider all I have to be grateful for.  I live in a nice town and neighborhood.  My beautiful wife, my child and family all love me.  My employer pays a very good wage, treats me well and I am proud that my admittedly humble work benefits people in developing communities that grow coffee beans. It would seem I suffer from a lack of gratitude and a certain degree of selfishness.  I feel bad about that, to a point.  When I’m not engaged in writing or designing material for role playing games on a regular basis, I feel a great deal of dissatisfaction.  The degree of despair created by denying the truth about my dissatisfaction comes down to a matter of self preservation and self love.  In the end, not doing these two things I want to do is an act of self destruction.  Accepting the “self” who creates games and writes about things that interest me is accepting who I am.  This may be juvenile or self absorbed but not writing and designing makes me unhappy. 

What I refer to when I say “more satisfying” is that I have avoided doing the very thing I have wanted to do most since I was a child.  It has been my heart’s desire to write books and tell stories from the time I was just a little boy.  My anxiety and fear overwhelmed me as a man in my early and mid twenties.  I put down my pen for more “sensible” things.   Anyone who understand the economics of writing know that most of us will never escape our day jobs.  I stopped playing and writing material for role playing games, a hobby I pursued since my early teens.  I thought D&D was for nerdy teenagers with nothing better to do.  I came back to it a few years ago and found that the game can be an incredible creative outlet on a number of levels when played by adults in an adult fashion.  I find it far more engaging than spending time watching TV. Forgiving myself for giving these things up has been difficult.  My fear, self doubt and insecurity were more than I could handle.  It kicked my butt for more than a decade.  I spent four years serving as a Marine infantryman.  I did some scary things just during our training.  Some how this dream of writing down my stories for others to enjoy unmanned me.  I never understood how this could be until I read The War of Art

Steven Pressfield wrote The War of Art for me.  He wrote it for you too.  He defines this fear and anxiety we have as “Resistance.”   Pressfield defines Resistance:

“Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled. But it can be felt. It is experienced as a force field emanating from a work-in-potential. It's a repelling force. It's negative. Its intention is to shove the creator away, distract him, sap his energy, incapacitate him.”

The root of Resistance is fear.  Human beings allow this fear to dominate their lives and this prevents them from doing their work.  What work?  The work each individual most wants to do but is too afraid to do it.  How do you know what that is?  It is the thing you feel the most Resistance to.  A great deal of the book is about Resistance.  Pressfield describes what Resistance can do to you and how to overcome it. 

Resistance is manifested in many forms.  For me, “resistance” has manifested as compulsive over eating, chain smoking cigarettes, excessive video game playing, new age spiritual healing, psychoanalysis, obsessions with hobbies and ill considered casual relationships.  I looked to all these things for comfort when sitting down and doing my work was what I needed.  I was afraid of failing.  Afraid I was a fraud.  Afraid I might succeed and then fail the second outing and show everyone what a fraud I am.  

Here is a link to Steven Pressfield’s website about this book.  If you click on the link marked “excerpts” you can read about “resistance” more in depth.

“Resistance” is evil in Pressfield’s view.  It prevents us from doing the things that we have in our hearts to do and causes us to do things that hurt ourselves and others.  Thankfully, he offers a battle plan to defeat Resistance.  I do not know if this works for everyone but it works for me.  He suggests we “turn pro” and tells us how to do this.  First, he defines the parameters of “turning pro.”  

“What exactly are the qualities that define us as professionals?1.  We show up every day. 2.  We show up no matter what. 3.  We stay on the job all day. 4.  We are committed over the long haul. 5.  The stakes for us are high and real. 6.  We accept remuneration for our labor. 7.  We do not over identify with our jobs. 8.  We master the technique of our jobs. 9.  We have a sense of humor about our jobs.10. We receive praise or blame in the real world.”

He takes each of these points in turn and describes how we can attack each issue every day.  The big message is: Do The Work.  

When we act in the face of our fear and Do The Work amazing things occur.  We gain mastery and sovereignty over our selves.  Sun Tzu said that mastery of this sort is key to victory. I find this to be true in my experience.  Doing the work brings exhaustion, isolation and doubt.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.  Even though the work tests our mettle it also helps us to find our autonomy.  You may recall from the previous post, Dan Gilbert described autonomy as an important element of happiness.  By applying the techniques of “turning pro” described by Steven Pressfield, we have a blueprint for a achieving that self mastery and autonomy.

The final third of the War of Art describes the place where the inspiration for our work comes from.  Pressfield is a believer in “god” “angels” and “muses.”  He suggests that when we sit down and do our work in a humble and dedicated fashion that heaven whispers insights and ideas that help us to create great things.  

I disagree. I believe that we gain inspiration from parts of the human brain that we cannot consciously control and neuroscience does not yet fully understand.  I think the attitude and effort Pressfield recommends does help to activate this part of the brain humans can not otherwise consciously control.  There are other ways I can activate my creativity.  

The seat of creativity is the topic of the next book in this “treasure map” series.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Finding the Buried Treasure: Part One

In the last year I've read several books about happiness, creativity and talent.  Taken together, they have provided me with a treasure map. I have been followed the map.  I have been spending my days digging at the "X".  I've not yet found the treasure I know is buried down there but I'm glad to be doing the work.  I'd like to share those books with you. Some of you are unhappy with where you are in life.  I hope that you might read these books and benefit from them.

The first book is Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert.  Dr. Gilbert is a psychologist at Harvard who studies happiness.  He asserts, and I think he is right, that the most defining trait of  human beings is that we are able to think about the possible results of an action before we do it. We can run a simulation in our conscious minds.  This allows humans to consider if we put the fulcrum there and make the lever this long that we can may budge the boulder out of the way.  It was a key development in our evolution as humans.  Our ability to think about what comes next before we act is an incredibly valuable tool.  It is not something any other species can do, so far as we know.  What this also allows humans to do is speculate about what would make us happy.  We can imagine that the ice cream cone will make us happy so we eat it.  Later on we are miserable because we broke our diet and we feel like a loser with no self discipline.  Humans are very bad at predicting what will make us happy, how long it will make us happy and the intensity of the happiness.

A fascinating phenomenon was brought to light in Gilbert's research.  This finding matches my own personal experience and maybe yours as well. Single events we believe will make us happy or sad for a long time usually have a temporary effect.  We win a bunch of money.  A year later, we've gotten used to having a lot of money, some negative aspects of having a lot of money appear and we aren't any happier than we were before.  We have a terrible car accident and can't work the factory any more.  A year later, we find some other thing we can do with our selves and start a new career as a book reviewer and enjoy what we are doing.  The money isn't as good but the work is satisfying.  We don't take into account that there may be downsides to our upsides and upsides to our downsides.

This is why so many of us struggle to figure life out.  We buy stuff but the stuff only has a temporary effect.  We get a younger girlfriend but she's shallow and after a while the sex isn't enough.  We eat brownies and get fat which makes us sad.  We smoke to be cool but then develop a long term addiction that affects our health and makes us depressed.  What is amazing is that the things that lead to real long term happiness are simple though not always easy to get.

Gilbert's research indicates that the general things we need to live happy fulfilling lives are simple.  We want to have the basic necessities of life met: food, water, shelter and a few other things beyond that.  A feeling of Autonomy: We want a certain amount of freedom and independence.  A feeling of competence: We want to feel like we can do what we are working at and are able to navigate life successfully.  Positive personal relationships with friends and family.  That's it.  Happy people have those life experiences of security in their needs, a feeling that they are doing what they want to be doing and do it well and are able to have meaningful relationships.

This is something worth considering. There are a lot of questions that this idea generates.  So what do I want to be doing?  What if I do find what I want to be doing and I suck at it?  How do I figure any of this out?

Next Up: The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield