Thursday, July 5, 2018

What Separates Champions From ‘Almost Champions’? -- Science of Us

What Separates Champions From ‘Almost Champions’? -- Science of Us

I’m going to start of with a long series of quotes from an article in The Cut titled “What Separates Champions From ‘Almost Champions’?

It’s the perennial million-dollar question of nature versus nurture, sure. But the difference between the greats and the almost-greats (which, by the way, applies well beyond sports) also appears to be at least partially driven by one specific thing — how each group responds to adversity. The greats rise to the challenge and put in persistent effort; the almost-greats lose steam and regress.  
For a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, talent development researchers Dave Collins, Aine MacNamara, and Neil McCarthy examined the differences between athletes who overcame adversity and went on to become world-class (what they call super champions) and those who struggled in the face of hardship (the hearthbreakingly named “almost champions”) . Whereas super champions were playing in premier leagues and/or competing on national teams (think: Olympics), almost champions had achieved well at the youth level but were playing in the less prestigious leagues as adults. 
The researchers found that super champions were characterized “by an almost fanatical reaction to challenge.” They viewed challenges in a positive light — as opportunities to grow — and overcame them thanks to a “never satisfied” attitude. This runs in contrast to almost champions, who blamed setbacks on external causes, became negative, and lost motivation.
.... 
Super champions were driven from within. Their primary concern was self-improvement. They held themselves to high standards, but judged themselves against prior versions of themselves, not against others.
Almost champions, however, were focused on external benchmarks, like national rankings or how they compared to rivals, a mind-set the researchers speculate why almost champions got discouraged during rough patches.  
....... 
World-class performers, then, don’t rely on either nature or nurture, but on a combination of the two — and they are really good at nurturing their nature. All of which suggests the recipe that gives rise to super champions is worth emulating: Individuals who demonstrate persistent effort follow their interests; practice foremost to get better, not to outdo others; derive satisfaction from within; and feel constantly supported, but not pressured, in their journey toward achievement. If these criteria are in place, experiencing failure doesn’t weaken motivation — it bolsters it. In the words of Michael Joyner, an expert on human performance at Mayo Clinic, “With enough persistent effort, most people can get pretty good at anything.”
These results touch on a number of topics I’ve covered in previous posts: having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset, focusing on the process rather than results, focusing inwardly on how you’re performing per your own standards instead of worrying about how you’re being perceived externally by your opponent or your friends, engaging in deliberate practice to improve, not just repeating what you already do well and not pushing yourself in practice and having grit as a personal quality. The Cut article doesn’t specifically touch on all of these points while I think they’re all implicitly involved.

I figure someone reading all of this might ask how studying world-class performers applies to us. How many of us really fall into that category? I know it will sound arrogant or obnoxious but I like to think I applied these ideas when designing and delivering presentations when I was working, in my tennis game and in other areas of my life such as relationships, etc. While I’ll probably never climb to the A level of players at the clubs where I play I do know my game has continually improved thanks to my constant investment into getting better. I like to think I’m now a B+ player! ;-) That’s why I believe the quote at the end of the article is key, which is why I’m repeating it below.
In the words of Michael Joyner, an expert on human performance at Mayo Clinic, “With enough persistent effort, most people can get pretty good at anything.”
Amen!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Puzzles versus Problems

I’m reading Elevate: An Essential Guide to Life by Joseph Deitch (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2018) which was given to me as a Father’s Day gift by my son-in-law. (Thank you!) Deitch proposes an idea for handling challenges that caught my attention. Deitch introduces the section by talking about responding to new challenges by reminding yourself you have the basic skills to try anything rather than saying “I can’t do that” or “I haven’t learned how to do that.” “A central insight of Elevate” is that certain skills are so basic, so fundamental, so universally applicable that they drive achievement in every conceivable endeavor.”

This leads into Deitch’s idea.

One of my favorite examples of the enormous difference this mental orientation can make is based on a story told by the philosopher George Gurdjieff. Growing up in Turkey, Gurdjieff benefited from an educational system organized around solving puzzles rather than memorizing facts. As a result, he came to see the challenges life presented as a series of puzzles to be solved. Instead of thinking, “I don’t know what to do because I’ve never faced this before,” or, “I can’t do such and such because I haven’t learned how to do it yet,” he would think, “Oh, here’s another puzzle. I’ll figure it out.” ...
Inspired by Gurdjieff’s example, I learned to frame challenges as enjoyable puzzles to be solved rather than as intimidating predicaments. ... Turning situations from problems into puzzles is a universal principle with enormous ramifications.

This idea resides in the beginning of the book where he lays the groundwork for these universal skills which are fleshed out in the second half of the book. I like his idea because, like him, I believe our mind reacts differently when something is framed as a puzzle, something to figure out, rather than a challenge which is usually interpreted as something that could exceed our abilities.

I also believe there is a connection between Deitch’s idea and the “can I fix this?” approach of Bob the Builder that I have discussed in a previous post. I think the mind reacts differently if we ask ourselves “Can I figure out this puzzle? Yes, I can!” versus “I’m faced with a challenge that I have to overcome.”

I think these approaches of looking at things as puzzles and answering the question if can we figure it out with a “yes” also ties in to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. Someone with a growth mindset sees puzzles (or challenges) as a chance to grow, to learn to do something new whereas someone with a fixed mindset sees challenges as a threat to their abilities. If they don’t figure out the answer to a challenge the fixed mindset person thinks that’s proof of their inherent limitations. On the other hand the growth mindset person concludes that not being able to solve a problem just shows where they need to improve without it lowering their self-esteem.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Can I? versus I Can!

Having read many self-help books over the years I’ve constantly encountered the idea of using positive self-talk and affirmation statements to help improve your chances of achieving your goals. Many of these books tell you to write positive “affirmation” statements. Examples would be:

  • I have plenty of creativity for this project.
  • My work will be recognized in a positive way by my boss and colleagues.
  • My co-workers and customers respect and value my opinion.
  • I am successful.
  • I complete tasks and projects on time.
  • I expect to be successful in all of my endeavors. Success is my natural state.
  • I am courageous and I stand up for myself.
  • My thoughts are positive and my life is filled with prosperity.

When I read these books years ago and tried affirmations like this I believe they helped put me in a more positive frame of mind. However, as I wrote in my April 23, 2017 post “Moving Beyond Positive Thinking”, research has shown that if we vividly visualize our goals our mind doesn’t know the difference between the imagined outcome and the actual results! We can end up having less motivation not more. In this post I refer to work done by Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg and covered in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Daniel Pink, author of books such as Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, reports on research that says we can be more productive by asking if we can do something then answering with a “yes” rather than declaring “I can do it.” Pink relays research done on a method used by Bob the Builder, an “overall-clad, stop-motion animated construction executive – who debuted on CBBC in 1999 and whose television programme now reaches children in 240 territories and 45 languages – is a management radical. His approach to directing projects, people and himself runs counter to the prevailing wisdom about business performance.”

Most of us believe in positive self-talk. "I can achieve anything," we mouth to the mirror in the morning. "Nobody can stop me," we tell ourselves before walking into a big meeting. We believe we'll do better if we banish doubts about our ability or our strategy and instead muster an inner voice that affirms our awesomeness.

But not Bob. Instead of puffing up himself and his team, he first wonders whether they can actually achieve their goal. In asking his signature question – Can we fix it? – he introduces some doubt.


In a nifty set of experiments, three social scientists explored the differences between what they call "declarative" self-talk (I will fix it!) and "interrogative" self-talk (Can I fix it?). They began by presenting a group of participants with some anagrams to solve (for example, rearranging the letters in "sauce" to spell "cause".) But before the participants tackled the problem, the researchers asked one half of them to take a minute to ask themselves whether they would complete the task – and the other half to tell themselves that they would complete the task.

The results?

The self-questioning group solved significantly more anagrams than the self-affirming group.


By asking "Can we fix it?", Bob widens the possibilities. Only then – once he's explored the options and examined his assumptions – does he elicit a rousing "Yes, we can" from his team and everyone gets to work.
So the next time you're feeding your inner self a heady brew of confident declarations and bold affirmations, toss in a handful of interrogatives with a few sprinkles of humility and doubt.


The research that Pink reports relates somewhat to Oettingen’s WOOP process. WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan. You define what you wish [W] to accomplish, determine the outcome [O], identify the likely obstacles [O] then design a plan [P] to overcome those obstacles.

Am I saying not to use positive affirmations? No! I think they have a place. For an interesting perspective see Scott Adams’ How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. Adams in hardly a raving advocate of positive mental attitude but he admits to have tried positive affirmations. I think the key take away is not to expect affirmations to have magical powers that will make things happen without work or without accounting for obstacles that could derail your efforts. We need to have a positive idea where we want to go while also asking ourselves what could go wrong and what can we do to deal with it.

NOTE: for a related post on the power words can have on behavior see this post from 2013.

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Process Improvement: This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent

Process Improvement: This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent


This article by James Clear touches on what I covered in the previous post about journaling. As I mentioned I found that using a journal to record my progress in tennis technique, tactics and my mental/emotional state have helped me become a better player through incremental improvement. Clear's article shows how the British cycling team, which had never won the Tour de France, ended up winning it in 2012 as well as pulling in 70% of the gold medals in cycling in the 2012 Olympics. They did it through “aggregation of marginal gains” as described by Dave Brailsford, General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky, Great Britain’s professional cycling team.

Keeping a journal helps me keep track of where I'm improving and where I need to spend more time and effort.

While I'm on the subject, Clear also suggests it's better for us to focus on the system we put in place to accomplish goals, rather than the goals themselves. (A point that Scott Adams also makes in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.) Another way of saying it is to focus on the process (the system) rather than the goal (the outcome). Here are some of his examples.



  • If you're a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
  • If you're a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
  • If you're a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
  • If you're an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process. 
Clear goes on to explain the reasons why setting up a system works better than focusing strictly on goals. Rather than repeating them, here is the link.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Continual Improvement Journaling

A couple years ago I read a tennis book that recommended using a journal to rate yourself after each match on how much incremental improvement you made while playing. (Unfortunately I don't remember the book.) It suggested rating yourself on a scale of 1 for low to 5 for high in how much incremental improvement you made in the areas of technique, tactics, mental/emotional, and adjustments. It also asks what you did well and what you could improve. The idea behind this is that we usually don’t drastically improve our games. It’s more a process of continual improvement, often with the quality of our play declining a bit because we’re trying to change things. (This is a common occurrence when people take lessons.)

After doing this for about two years I can say that keeping this journal has been helpful. For one thing, I’ve noticed trends that help me know what to work on, such as I’m not tossing the ball forward enough when serving or I’m hitting overheads long. It’s also been helpful seeing progress as my self-ratings in the categories have increased over time. It probably sounds like bragging but I have to think more about what needs to be improved because I’m making fewer errors or clusters of mistakes in one area.

I think this diary could be used to evaluate how we perform in other areas of our life. Obviously the categories we would use to rate ourselves would be different but the general concept would be the same: the level of incremental improvement. For instance, my job involved making ten or more stewardship presentations a year to customers. (I used the past tense because I’m retired.) If I were to use this self-rating method I would have evaluated how much my technique improved (pacing, variation of my voice, etc.) as well as the design of my slides (layout, simplicity, clarity, etc.) and so on.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review of How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs

I’ve read a number of books in the last few years that tell us how we think we’re being objective but we’re actually hostage to a laundry list of various biases, many of which influence us subconsciously. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow probably is the most influential of these books based on how frequently it is cited in the other books. While Jacobs’ How To Think tills some of the same ground there is a difference. Jacobs’ personal background helps him see how biases influence how different groups of people perceive the world and think about it. Why do I say this? Because he straddles two worlds. He is an academic (teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University) while also being a Christian. This gives Jacobs a unique perspective where he can see how different groups perceive each other.

When I hear academics talk about Christians, I typically think, That’s not quite right. I don’t believe you understand the people you think you’re disagreeing with. And when I listen to Christians talk about academics I have precisely the same thought.

Jacobs differs from Kahneman and others by saying that thinking involves much more than recognizing and fighting our inherent bias. He believes:

[W]e suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?

Here is Jacobs’ suggested first step how to address this taken from his Can Evangelicals and Academics Talk to Each Other? in The Wall Street Journal.

[T]here is a first step that all of us can take in resisting the hold of our Inner Rings and the reflex to push away our “repugnant cultural others.”

The Inner Ring that Jabobs refers to is from a C. S. Lewis talk titled “The Inner Rings” which describes our fear of being left out of our preferred social group, of being considered an outsider to the ingroup that we want to belong to. Jacobs’ discussion uses his term “repugnant cultural other” (or RCO) throughout his book. RCO captures how we tend to be repelled by those who disagree with us in politics, religion, or issues such as gun control.

Or another way to summarize his approach is:

The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup. The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.

I do disagree somewhat with Jacobs’ explanation why some people cast those who disagree with them as enemies worthy of being demonized and even disposed of.

When you believe that the brokenness of this world can be not just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia. … Whole classes of people can by this logic become expendable – indeed, it can become the optimist’s perceived duty to eliminate the adversaries.

I wouldn’t label people who think this way necessarily as optimists. I’d say they’re sadly lacking in objectivity. They’re not asking themselves why people who disagree with them could possibly take that position. I’ve seen this especially rampant here in Massachusetts among my liberal friends, where I’ve chosen in some cases not to get into arguments. I know a couple people who have quit talking to me simply because I disagreed with their support for Hillary Clinton as president. Having said that, I’ve also seen conservative, libertarian and Objectivist friends treat people who disagree with them in a less than civil manner.

Jacobs describes how each group creates their own keywords so that allies can easily understand each other while judging other people by their use of these keywords. (It reminds me of Arnold Kling’s Three Languages of Politics in which liberals talk in terms of oppressors and the oppressed, conservatives cast debates in terms of barbarism versus civilization and libertarians judge whether acts impede our freedom or coerce us.) As Jacobs correctly says, “keywords have a tendency to become parasitic: they enter the mind and displace thought.” After all, it’s easier to slap labels onto ideas we agree or disagree with than it is to objectively consider them.

Jacobs disagrees with the idealistic image of us as independent thinkers who reach our conclusions unencumbered by the influence of what others think.  “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.” I’m sure we can find examples of people who indeed did heroically work out their ideas in isolation. Based on the summaries of the abundant psychological research I’ve read in the books on how we think, I do believe we are swayed by how our friends think and we tend to surround ourselves with people who tend to agree with us. I agree with Jacobs and others (like Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind) that despite our advancement from our caveman days we still are tribal in nature. However, I also believe that we can strive for objectivity if we follow Jacobs’s advice such as “when faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.” Or “value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory.’ ”

Before I close let me say that Jacobs doesn’t say we should never come to firm conclusions. “You simply can’t thrive in a state of constant daily evaluation of the truth-conduciveness of your social world, any more than a flowering plant can flourish if its owner digs up its root every morning to see how it’s doing.”

I believe if you take the steps Jacobs puts in his final chapter, The Thinking Person’s Checklist, you can still firmly hold and defend your opinions while also accepting that people can disagree with you. You can be secure in your beliefs without demonizing the other person.


At the beginning I said that I’ve read many books, not just on how biases can affect us. For a number of these books after I finish them I sarcastically ask, “Gee, how did the author shoehorn the contents of a three page article into a 300 page book.” By that I mean the author took an idea that made a good magazine article then expanded it into a book by adding filler and stories but not much else. Jacobs’ book sets an example of how to do the opposite: how to pack many ideas into a slim 156-page volume. His book could have been titled How To Think -- and Write.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Moving Beyond Positive Thinking | Big Think

Moving Beyond Positive Thinking | Big Think

This article nicely summaries the findings of Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Having read many “positive thinking” books over the years I know that most of these books tell us that we need to vividly visualize the goals that we want to achieve in order to attain them. However Oettingen’s research found that doing these visualizations can actually hamper our motivation!

“Positive thinking can make us feel better in the short term, but over the long term it saps our motivation, preventing us from achieving our wishes and goals, and leaving us feeling frustrated, stymied and stuck.”

In other words if we visualize our goals our mind doesn’t know the difference between the imagined outcome and the actual results! We end up having less motivation not more.

Does this mean Oettingen wants us to abandon positive thinking and become pessimists? No. Her research has shown we achieve more if we try to anticipate obstacles that stymie us and develop plans to deal with them using if-then statements. For instance, we might want to exercise first thing in the morning but we know that we repeatedly hit the snooze button. To deal with this we create the following implementation intention: “If I feel like hitting the snooze button, then I will immediately jump out of bed.”

This sounds too good to be true but studies have shown that this process works. In Oettingen’s studies 80% of those who applied the WOOP approach achieved their goals while only 30% of the control groups did.

Oettingen calls her approach WOOP, Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. You define what you wish to accomplish, determine the outcome, identify the likely obstacles then design a plan to overcome those obstacles.

Here are some links for additional information on this.