30 days ago I had the pleasure of delivering my talk “Card Sorting Your Way to Meaningful Metadata” for ITUnity. If you’d like to view the prerecorded portion of this talk, you can find it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXKhwjH1H_8
30 days ago I had the pleasure of delivering my talk “Sharing for the Social Skeptic” for ITUnity. If you’d like to view the prerecorded portion of this talk, you can find it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18h0ITTtBQY
Compared to the average joe I read a lot. Books that I read (all non-fiction) tend to fall into one of two broad categories. They’re either helping you understand a problem, or they’re providing a recipe – a set of questions, actions, and behaviors that you can do to get the results that you want. When I read (and reviewed) How Children Succeed a few years ago, it definitely fell into the former category. There were great points, however, there was very little guidance. Paul Tough followed up on that book with Helping Children Succeed, which tilts the scale much more into the direction of a how-to book without completely forgoing his sense of necessity about knowing why things work.
In my heart, I want to help everyone realize their dreams. I want to help every child become a happy, healthy, well-functioning adult. While I accept that I can’t help everyone be successful, I’m always on the lookout for ideas and materials that can help more people be successful. Helping Children Succeed is another tool in that toolbox – ideas and techniques that lead to more success.
Children and Poverty
Tough’s work is focused around younger children – effectively birth through elementary school grades – and how their situations impact them. He’s keenly aware of the impact that poverty has on children, both directly and indirectly. Understanding the societal changes that have occurred, such as the fact that over 50% of children in America were classified as living in homes with “low income” in 2013, is just a part of the broader tapestry of the changes that have made it more critical that we identify the barriers in children’s way and we teach them how to navigate those barriers. Robert Putnam, in his book Our Kids, carefully mapped out the differences in child rearing between affluent and non-affluent families, and concluded that the issue with poverty isn’t just the lack of financial resources, though that plays a part, but is instead about the time that parents have to spend with their children.
The answers that Tough found for compensating for these deficiencies are a set of programs that are designed to supplement or supplant the parental involvement if they don’t have the capacity to support the growth of their children. Just like Sesame Street was designed to help bridge the learning gap in the 70s between higher and lower income kids entering schools, the programs that Tough found are designed to reduce the gap in non-cognitive skills to help children succeed better. (See “G” is for Growing for more on Sesame Street’s goals, methods, and impacts.)
Non-cognitive skills are the kind of skills that others might call non-academic. They’re the grit or perseverance when obstacles come up. It’s the emotional intelligence to understand oneself and those around you. (See Emotional Intelligence
for more on emotional intelligence.)
The starting place for these programs was changing the environment in which the children lived.
What Determines Success in Life?
Before we dig into how to help children succeed, it’s necessary to pause and talk about what constitutes success in life. While this is a topic in itself, there are some tenets that we can subscribe to that will allow us to guide children to success.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that what’s important for one person (or child) isn’t important for another. (See Who am I? and The Normal Personality for more on classifying what’s important.) Certainly it would be a tragedy if we defined success solely as high-income. However, there’s a certain amount of income that allows you the freedom to enjoy life and to pursue other interests. Nearly every hobby requires some level of finances to support it. Every act of philanthropy is a gift of time or money or both, and therefore requires a stable base.
So, while success is often measured on earning potential, that isn’t because that’s the end game, but rather because it’s a predictive marker, and a way to ensure that some of the negative reinforcing loops that constrain people to poverty are eliminated with a moderate income.
Second, however we define it for someone, success should move society forward as a whole. That is, it should be helpful to their neighbors, their children, their community, and their world. It’s one thing to want to be a free spirit, but it’s another to live off of the toils and gifts of others.
Third, while most of us, myself included, want people to be happy, happiness is a difficult thing to quantify. There’s certainly a difference between hedonistic happiness (happiness for the moment) and value-based, or philanthropic-based happiness which is more enduring. (See Hardwiring Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis and Stumbling on Happiness for more on the different kinds of happiness and how we struggle to know what will make us happy.)
Because it’s difficult to define the specific end goals for every person, and they themselves won’t always be able to define what their goals are or how to be happy, we have to put some stake in the ground. One thing that we can define as not-success in a general sense is academic achievement. Measurements like Intelligence Quotient (IQ), which predict academic achievement but don’t seem to correlate with success in life, won’t be helpful.
Success is the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that lead to a healthy self and a contribution to others, but that requires a healthy environment.
Behavior as a Function of Person and Environment
Kurt Lewin said that behavior (what people do) is a function of both the person (their core makeup) and their environment (what’s provided for them and expected from them.) What Kurt didn’t point out is that, over the long term, either of these factors will influence the other. In the context of our children, this means that the environments that we create are critical to shaping our children.
When we create loving environments, where it’s safe to try and fail to later succeed, we create in children a willingness to live out their curiosity. (See Rising Strong [Part 1] and Changes that Heal, and Creative Confidence to learn more about making it safe to fail and the importance.)
It turns out that the biggest influencer of personal development from an environment is stress. As Tough discussed in How Children Succeed, early and repeated stress can turn up the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and cause children’s “fight or flight” response to almost always be on – thus preventing rational thought. The result of frequent or high stress is to suppress the higher-order executive functions of the brain.
It’s these higher-order functions that allow children to develop persistence and grit, to delay gratification, and to develop the skills that are the most important to success in life. (See Willpower
for more on delayed gratification.)
Environment as Relationships
So what do I mean when I say “environment”? Am I talking about plains vs. desert? Apartment vs. home? As it turns out, the answer is neither. Environment isn’t where you live, it’s the relationships that you have with other people. Are they responsive to you? Do you perceive them as safe? How do they nurture your development?
Certainly children in low-income situations have physical safety issues to be concerned with. I don’t want to minimize this or the negative impact that it has on their development; however, that is a factor that’s hard to address directly. How do you address the physical safety issues for every child? It’s easier to address the one-on-one relationships with adults that children have, and their ability to relate positively with those adults in their lives. Many of the programs that Tough discusses are focused on introducing relationships into the children’s lives that are positive and nurturing.
While these relationships are great, the interesting question is when the relationships need to occur in order to counteract the effects of the lack of positive experiences that children are getting.
One of the challenges which Tough aptly points out is that, in our technologically-driven world, we have a tendency to try a bunch of things, and then take the one that is the most successful and scale it up. While this in theory is the right answer, when the programs are built upon the relationships that the program workers have with the program children, this can be difficult to do.
Scaling up programs that work aligns very well to the recommendations for marketing and sales and life in general. It just makes sense to take the small-scale pilots and use what works and shut down the rest. However, much of what works in these programs may be non-program specific effects. That is, the program may work not because of the specific approach or methodology being attempted, but rather due to things that are unique to the workers. In research terms, these are factors that aren’t considered as a part of the program for testing, but have a potentially large impact. This is why researchers replicate others’ studies. They are attempting to see if what the person thought were the active effects were enough to produce the results when tried in another environment.
Replicating research is one thing, but doing moderated scale-up of seemingly effective programs isn’t as easy – or successful – as it seems. Often, even very successful programs may not know exactly why they work. For instance, looking at the adult side of the world, take a look at the Delancey street program for individuals convicted of a crime. (Note that I’m being careful not to label them as criminals since the effects of labeling are particularly toxic.) The stories of the program told in the books Influencer and Change or Die are relatively different. Who knows what are the necessary, essential factors for making the program work? Maybe someone does, but getting to that answer is difficult for every program.
Shutting Down Fear of Failure
There’s one thing that’s certain. If you don’t try, you won’t fail. Then again, you won’t thrive either. The problem that gets set up in the minds of children (and adults) is that they can’t be punished for failure if they don’t try to do anything. The unspoken rule becomes, don’t do anything so that you’re not punished. However, this is a limiting mindset. (See Mindset for more on limiting beliefs.) It creates walls and barriers between people and what they can be.
Shutting down because of the fear of failure shows up everywhere in innovation and creativity. (See Creative Confidence for more on the impact of fear.) As we in the United States as a nation are relying more on our ability to innovate and create new and interesting solutions to challenges, the fuel that we need to use is creativity. That fuel is siphoned off by our fear. Flow, the highly productive state of engagement, specifically shuts down the inner critic, thereby enabling greater creativity and better problem solving. (See The Rise of Superman for more on flow and its ability to shut down the inner critic.)
Self-fulfilling prophecies can be good things when they’re high expectations. It turns out that children who have high – but obtainable – expectations set for them will rise to the occasion; where children who are perceived to be inferior won’t even do the level of work that they’ve already demonstrated that they’re comfortable doing. The impact of this is that you should set expectations with children as high as possible without destroying their belief (or hope) that they’re able to meet them.
Setting the right tension between the student’s skills and the challenge can get them into flow (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more). Flow is the high performance mental state that can help them achieve their goals.
Dunbar and Groups of Fifteen
As I mentioned in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving, Robin Dunbar came into some folks’ consciousness through The Tipping Point, but most folks only know the idea of a maximum number of stable social relationships for humans is around 150. What is interesting as you dig in deeper are the rings of connection that Dunbar explained, including the circle of the “close fifteen”. These are the folks who you are close enough to that their loss will hurt substantially.
In terms of creating programs to help children succeed, this has an important implication. The implication is that the upper end bound to a “small group” is fifteen people. Recapping Dunbar’s work we have the inner five – these are the folks whose lives you’re entangled with. The next ring out is the close fifteen and beyond that the interesting 50.
In an attempt to develop close social relationships, you have a group with a maximum of about five – of which many of the slots are already taken – fifteen, or your relationship lands in the category of “interesting” – a relationship that you monitor and manage, but one which doesn’t have substantial swing in your relationships. If you want to create a group that has influence on someone – one that creates a tight bond – you’ve got to get the entire group (or most of it) to fit into that 15 slots of the close circle. That necessarily constrains small group sizes to less than fifteen.
Once the group size is set, the next trick is to keep the group together and keep it relatively stable. It’s this stability, structure, and familiarity that put the pieces together to allow the relationships to form.
While serving in cub scouts, I learned a few things about crowd management. These crowd management skills, it turns out, are very effective at helping kids learn. My first lesson was presence. If you have a set of children who aren’t following instructions, listening or being respectful, go sit among them. I’ve never found anything as effective as sitting among a bunch of children who were previously not paying attention. The magic of this for me is you don’t have to say a word. The children just all start doing what they should be doing.
I also learned that setting clear expectations has immense power. By explaining clearly what the rules are and what the consequences are, the number of challenges that we had were substantially reduced. In any activity with young children, there’s both the defined boundaries – the things you talk about – as well as the undefined boundaries. We knew what things were critical to explain to everyone – and what things we could allow to evolve to the point where we needed to establish the boundary.
Most frequently, the thing we allowed to evolve was play. Boys sometimes do subtle escalations of their play to the point where it’s no longer “safe enough” for the leaders. There we had to help deescalate the play – or, depending upon the children, stop it all together. There are no clear expectations you can set for play. The boundaries aren’t clear enough to define in advance. You have to negotiate these boundaries.
Sometimes, it turns out, the best way to help children succeed is to manage the crowd better. When the guidelines are well-known, the number of times that you have to intervene is fewer, and you can focus on the educational tasks – or the development of non-cognitive skills.
Learning and Taking Risks
All learning involves risk-taking. All learning and growing is accepting someone else’s view of the world as valid. Learning is about changing who you are in small ways; and making changes to who you are and what you believe is an unsettling process. In order to learn, you’re necessarily taking these risks and sometimes it’s these risks that can freeze, paralyze, or immobilize children and adults alike.
When we experience a high degree of variability in responses, negative events associated with learning, or embarrassment that we believe something, this creates a barrier, or at least friction, to the learning process, whether that learning is cognitive or non-cognitive skills.
No matter the type of learning being encouraged (cognitive or non-cognitive), we must be mindful of the barriers that inhibit children’s growth and seek to fill in the gaps in their experience or patch over the rough spots so that they’re capable of learning.
Interesting and Challenging
Once you’ve removed the barriers from learning, it’s time to pull children through the process. This pull-through should be extrinsically motivated at first with the intent of transferring to intrinsic motivations. While this may sound easy, in practice it’s anything but. We’ve been conditioned to believe that education should be dull and boring. If we spit out the information, children will just accept it and regurgitate it for the test. However, as Tough points out, this may be the wrong approach.
James Hiebert notes that math classrooms in Japan follow a radically different script than they do in the United States. Instead of the teacher at the front of the classroom being the all-knowing oracle that spits out the right answer, teachers in Japan are more likely to behave as facilitators. They facilitate the classroom reaching the right solution to a problem. The teacher may crystalize an idea and create clarity around it, but it’s the students themselves that are learning.
There’s not a reliance on rote memorization or repetition. The reliance is on creating a deep understanding of the processes involved. We’ve “known” about Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, and other frameworks that explain the need for us to create more understanding and mental models, but in most classrooms in America that doesn’t happen.
In many ways, the approaches we take to education continue to be challenged. For instance, in Schools Without Failure, Glasser points out the value of collaborative classroom discussions. His work was published in 1969. Similarly, Knowles et al.’s work on The Adult Learner hints at the need for children to learn differently than we currently teach them – while carefully avoiding directly stating the need for education to change. The first edition of this book was published in 1973.
As we’re creating programs that are designed to help children succeed, we need to acknowledge that learning, whether cognitive or non-cognitive, requires a set of skills that are different than we’ve come to expect. We have to pay attention to the interest and motivation of the children we’re teaching, and design activities (not lectures) that students can engage in at their own levels. Science fairs and their much maligned parental involvement are the kinds of project-based learning that children need to internalize a subject and to build the mental models that will serve them for their entire lives. (See Sources of Power for more on mental models.)
The best way that we have of Helping Children Succeed is to create activities that are hospitable to children of different levels, which allow and encourage them to challenge themselves. Engaging activities with an element of stretch drive children to more effort and thus build a virtuous cycle. Maybe you can start the cycle for yourself or the children you care the most about by reading Helping Children Succeed.
Over the course of my career I am repeatedly confronted with a question. The question is how to measure content quality. Whether it’s my content that I’m looking at to improve or content of someone else I’m providing feedback on, the question of content quality keeps coming up over and over again.
Recently, I was speaking with a content creator. He’s an accomplished creator of training solutions. He told me that he focuses on his content and largely ignores the production aspects of creating the content. Visuals are someone else’s problem – someone who is more gifted in these areas than him. (I’ll save the argument about giftedness for books like Mindset.)
As I ran into the problem this last time, I realized that I break content quality into three dimensions. These dimensions are distinct. Being good or bad at one has little or no impact on the others. Together, they’re how you create truly amazing content. The dimensions are:
Quality – How is the content produced? For a book, this might be typesetting and writing. For a video, it’s video and audio quality.
Structure – How is the content structured to accomplish the goal. If the goal is persuasion, how many people actually buy the product? If the goal is education, how many people learned?
- Delivery – How well was the content delivered? What’s the style, appearance, and approach of the presenter?
Let’s look in more detail about how I think we can distinguish content quality.
What defines production quality varies widely by the medium being used to deliver the content. Some mediums offer relatively little in terms of ability to improve or remove quality of the content through the production process. However, there always seems to be at least some aspect of perceived content quality driven by the production aspects.
For instance, in traditional book publishing, there’s a typesetting or layout department that manages the process of taking the stream of words and putting them onto pages. Even after the advent of programs which are, for the most part, capable of laying out content automatically, traditional book publishers have kept people who are skilled in laying out the copy of the book.
There are simple things that they must consider including ensuring that the page numbers are correct and are on every page. Nearly every piece of software for layout now handles widows and orphans. Collectively, these are one sentence either above or below the page break. Automatic kerning brings together the letters ‘V’ and ‘A’ to reduce the horizontal space between them.
These are the technical details of book production. They’re the details that will help the reader believe that the book is a quality book. It’s entirely independent of what the author is saying, but it makes a difference to the reader in terms of how professional and complete the text feels.
In video production, the technical aspects are much more challenging. On the video side, there’s lighting to consider, as well as backgrounds, depth of field, and more. On the audio side, there is signal-to-noise ratio, unwanted reverb, tonal balance, and a plethora of other considerations. (See My Video Studio 2.1 for just some of the things that I’ve done to improve the production quality of our video work. I say “some”ecause there are more upgrades that I’ve not had time to document yet.)
Ultimately the production quality of content can detract from the core content itself. Many people are distracted by typos, misspelling, and bad grammar – and it impacts the ability for the content to do its job. If there’s a hollow sound to a recording, it will take away from the perceived authority of the person speaking – and thus limit the impact of their content.
The core of content quality is the content itself and its structure. Does it accomplish its purpose in you? If the content is designed to propel you into a philanthropic cause, do you rise up from your chair and volunteer? If the content is designed to educate, who understands at the end of the day? Does the content reach the target audience? Does it positively impact a broader audience?
There are two key differentiators inside of the content structure. The first is the content’s type. Is it a piece of persuasive content designed to cause action, or is it educational content designed to improve knowledge and thinking? The second differentiator is the audience. The type of audience and familiarity requires different approaches, and by tailoring to the audience (or not), the content’s subjective quality can be dramatically improved or removed.
Rhetoric is persuasive talk. But that’s not the only thing that talk can do, as evidenced by the number of live, instructor-led educational events in the country. When evaluating the content, it’s important to ask what was the content intended to do – and then did it hit its intended target. The way that you evaluate content depends upon whether it’s designed to persuade or invade the mind.
Creating persuasive content isn’t really my “thing.” I can and do write copy that’s designed to market and sell my services. However, I’m far from considering myself at an expert at this. I don’t create commercials. I don’t create printed ads. However, I do know that the true measure of this kind of content is the conversion rate. Whether it’s a billboard, a commercial, or marketing copy, the true measure is how many people take the action that you want.
Books like Demand speak of segmenting your market and removing the barriers to their purchasing. Guerrilla Marketing pushes you out of your comfort zone to try things to create persuasive content that are unconventional and can be done with minimal investment. Sally Hogshead in her book Fascinate seeks to help you find the unique trigger in your creation that will resonate with others. Brand is a Four Letter Word seeks to focus your entire brand message into a single idea that will create feeling – and therefore action – in your messages. In Slide:ology, Nancy Duarte seeks to help you find a way of expressing yourself in slides and speaking that drives folks to action.
Despite the work on how to create persuasive content, the best advice I’ve ever gotten – from a long time personal friend who teaches marketing at a collegiate level – is, “Just try stuff and see what works.” Needless to say, it’s hard to learn the skills that lead you to great content creation when not even the experts seem to really know what it takes to be effective.
It’s not that we don’t understand the ultimate measure of persuasive content, it’s just that we don’t have consensus on what the factors are that lead to success.
I’ve spent a considerably larger portion of my professional career working on the creation of educational content. From book writing to course development to productivity aids, I’ve looked at education from nearly every conceivable angle. Despite my effort, research, experience, and desire, I still don’t always get the educational content that I create right.
One would think that, with 25 books on which I have author credit and another 100 that I’ve got some sort of an editor credit on, I’d be able to express my thoughts in a meaningful way, but you’d be wrong. My blog posts are edited by my office manager and it’s pretty routine to have her send me a comment along the lines of “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” In my statistical sample of one person, I’ve failed to get my point across and to educate. I’m grateful that I have someone who helps me be more successful in my written word.
The guidelines for the development of educational content have been well studied. Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues put together a taxonomy for the creation of educational content back in 1956. Since then, many have researched the educational process. There have been many books about learning and high performance. Efficiency in Learning is a survey of research about educational effectiveness. The Art of Learning
is Josh Waitzkin’s story about how he became among the best in the world at chess and martial arts, and what he believes it takes to learn to be the best. The Art of Explanation focuses on how to explain things in a way that people can remember. Source of Power explains tacit knowledge and the mental models that practitioners build – and that, as educators, we seek to build more quickly and completely.
The ultimate measure of educational content is the effectiveness at creating learning in the student’s mind. We’ve discovered that assessing a student’s learning is a tricky business that can often interfere with retention. As a result, it’s often difficult to assess the effectiveness of learning. (You can find out more in my whitepaper, Measuring Learning Effectiveness.)
Despite the fact that education is a large market and it’s been studied for a long period of time, there’s still quite a bit of debate about what good content is. In part, this is due to the fact that education and learning are largely situational. What works for one medium and with one set of students doesn’t work at another time or for another set of students. Malcolm Knowles and his colleagues describe The Adult Learner and how the adult learns differently than a child. The inner state of the learner – what they bring to the table – is more important in some cases than the content itself.
Thus you can’t evaluate the quality of content without knowing the audience for which it’s intended. On the persuasive content side, much is made about marketers and their ability to identify their target audience through workshops, discussions, and trial marketing. Knowing the audience means getting a real “sense” for them. This can take the form of a persona – a prototypical person with whom you can relate – or it can be basic observations about how they interact.
As I speak to audiences, I can tell you the feel in a room in Washington, DC is different than a room in rural Illinois. The folks in Illinois are – for the most part – more open, friendly, inquisitive, and willing to engage. That doesn’t make them more or less smart than a Washington, DC audience. It just makes them different.
I do a lot of conference speaking and each conference has its own feel too. Some conferences are flexible, open, and casual while others are more formal and “starched.” Knowing the conference allows me to know the audience and tailor the content to the audience so that it will resonate.
Knowing your audience can be knowing their age, their interests, their challenges, or a million other potential facts; but ultimately, knowing an audience allows the content creator to identify content that will resonate with them and will improve the end goal of persuasion or education.
Putting well-crafted content into an excellent production facility isn’t enough. The best joke told in the best comedy club in America will fall flat if it’s not delivered correctly. Delivery is the last dimension. That is how the content is actually delivered. Some ideas never see the light of day because their authors are unknown. Some ideas sit on shelves percolating because their creator doesn’t feel like they’re finished – or because the publication of the idea isn’t notable enough.
Delivery can mean distribution. It can mean the ability for the idea to get to the people who would be interested in it. A conversion rate for persuasive content isn’t anything if no one sees it. Educational content isn’t going to educate if no one sees it. However, delivery is more about how the content is delivered.
In the written and spoken word, this means the vocabulary and structure that is used. Is it inside of the vocabulary of those to whom it is targeted? Is the language of active voice? Does the language tantalize the emotions as well as compel our reason? Is the structure different enough to not be dull and boring, and consistent enough to ease understanding?
The spoken word also needs the force of the speaker’s voice. It relies upon the intonation, cadence, and pauses. When delivered live, the words need to align with the speaker’s body language. Body language can amplify the emotional context of the words — at the risk of detracting if there’s a mismatch.
In every dimension, finding the distinction between style and a structural problem is a key challenge. In the spoken word, it’s generally accepted that the filler “um” is to be avoided in public speaking. It indicates that the speaker is trying to pause the listener while they collect their thoughts. However, the occasional “um” isn’t a challenge, particularly when used to signal a transition in topics or a change in thinking. Reverb can provide warmth to a voice. Too much reverb makes a voice muddy and unintelligible. Quick-paced content can be exciting and engaging for a student; or it can be overwhelming for non-native speakers, whose attention is split between listening to the language and understanding the concepts.
Are the clear lines between specific educational goals more important, or is it more important that the education follow a storyline that arcs through all of the content? As you watch various TED Talks, you’ll see numerous different styles of speakers and presenters. If they’re on the TED stage, they’re invariably a good or great speaker delivering a compelling topic. (If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been selected – but we should make allowances for a bad day.)
All too often in the content creation business, the criteria we use is subjective and based on the relatively limited knowledge of the next person. Rarely does the process encourage learning about the process. Authors are told to do things different. They must either do it – or fight until they get their way with the content. In either case, neither party really expands their understanding to the other’s point of view or sensibilities.
There are places where content quality can’t be measured. There’s no quantitative measurement for the fit of an analogy or the speed at which a particular topic should be delivered. However, there are numerous quantitative measurements that can be put in place to monitor some of the aspects of quality discussed above. Written word can be subjected to reading scores. Spoken words can have the filler words counted. Audio can have a signal-to-noise ratio checked.
Where there are quantitative mechanisms for measuring content quality, they should be used. Where there aren’t quantitative measures for content quality, dialogue should be considered as a way to elevate everyone’s understanding of the variables and conditions, so that everyone learns of different experiences and perspectives and are able to bring that to the next situation.
How is it that some people just seem to get better and better at what they do? Whether it’s a ballerina, a musician, or a doctor, they just seem to get better with every day of practice. At the same time, how is it possible that most ballerinas, musicians, and doctors don’t improve with practice? They just practice? The answer may be in the idea of “intentional practice” as Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
Ericsson’s work wasn’t first publicized in his book. It first hit the market as a part of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In this book, he sensationalizes the need for 10,000 hours of practice in order to gain mastery of something. It was effective at galvanizing ideas around the “10,000 hours” number. It was successful enough that it was satirized in a Dilbert cartoon, where Dogbert said, “I would think a willingness to practice the same thing for ten thousand hours is a mental disorder.” I suppose if the practice were all dreary repetition that would be true – it could be characterized as a mental disorder.
The problem is that Gladwell didn’t get the answer precisely right. It’s not 10,000 hours as a specific number that matters. It’s not a magic number where at 9,999 hours you’re awful, and at the 10,000th hour you’re miraculously transformed into the next king of rock and roll. Instead, it’s the momentum built by 10,000 hours (or substantially less) of purposeful practice. Each hour of work trying to get better adds a new skill, technique or understanding. This gets momentum building until, eventually, a person’s velocity appears to be magical.
Purposeful practice is the kind of practice where you’re a bit outside of your comfort zone, and you’re trying to learn one thing – sometimes one very small thing – with the practice that you’re performing. It means staying engaged and really trying towards a specific goal.
Many years ago I purchased a Dr. Who pinball game. A few years ago I had it converted over to all LED lighting and completely refurbished from the ground up. The game has an upper loop common in pinball games. They’re hard to hit but they generally give very large rewards. Hitting the loop in this game is a playfield multiplier. If you do it as a part of a larger sequence, it will give you an extra ball.
I had played for hours before I made a specific decision. I wanted to improve my technique for getting into – and staying in the upper loop. I did this by ignoring everything else on the board for hours. I’d play just to get to the upper loop and stay there. My one game record is 28 loops. When I finished this skill I worked on another skill. While I never completed all of the skills that I would need to be really good at the game, I could tell that my game improved when I specifically targeted a specific skill.
This was purposeful practice in its most precise sense. I had a very specific goal and I had immediate feedback about how well I was doing for that goal. What would have been more ideal would have been to have a teacher – but that isn’t a requirement for purposeful practice, it just makes it easier.
… and Flow
Purposeful practice has a deep similarity to flow – and I’d go so far as to say a dependence on flow. Both purposeful practice and flow require a challenge that just slightly exceeds one’s skills. Both flow and purposeful practice increase one’s skills, increasing the need to up the challenge. Both require immediate feedback to be the most effective. Both require a clear goal. In short, they match 1-for-1 on the requirements.
More interestingly, purposeful practice needs to occur over a long period of time. Practice is – for most folks – not the most fun thing in the world. There has to be a motivation for practice to be continued. Ericsson notes that Bloom (yes, the same Benjamin Bloom responsible for Bloom’s Taxonomy) noticed that, after a few years of practice, the students began to identify themselves with the skill they were learning rather than other things. Identification with the skill is a motivator; however, it’s the same intrinsic motivation that drives flow. We get into flow because getting into flow (and the resulting skill development) is fundamentally something that is rewarding to us.
So what is it about top performers that’s different? It turns out, it’s how they see the world. Top gymnasts have a better model of gymnastics than those who aren’t at the top of their field. Chess masters have a better mental representation of the game than the novice. As Josh Waitzkin explained in The Art of Learning, at some level it’s no longer about the memorized openings. At some point, chess – like life – is understanding how the game is played – better than anyone else.
Gary Klein applied mental models to the fire commanders who he studied and wrote about in Sources of Power. They were simulating the fires and attempting to find a set of variables that could explain all of their observations. Efficiency in Learning uses schemas to describe the critical mental models that students must build in order to learn.
By focusing on a small part of the activity, it’s possible to swap out a less effective mental model of an aspect of the overall goal, much like you would swap out components in a desktop computer. You don’t have to replace the whole thing to upgrade a part of the experience.
Models are recursive. I have a model for creating content. This includes a model for creating an outline. It includes a model for doing research. It includes a model for typing. I can upgrade my typing skills by taking a class, using a program, or focusing on the effectiveness of my typing abilities – all without disturbing the other models for creating content.
The top performers in any given area are focused on swapping out the little component models which aren’t working as well as they would like with newer, more effective models.
Peak Performance and Innovation
Peak performers are always looking for a better option – and therefore they’re more likely to generate innovations. Peak performers aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They’re not OK with just good enough. Gary Klein speaks of what insights are in his book Seeing What Others Don’t. Insights are a different way of seeing the world. Insights are upgraded models of viewing the world. These updated insights lead to different views of the problem, and therefore the ability to solve the problem in ways that others can’t even imagine.
What’s even better than deliberate or purposeful practice? Informed practice. Informed practice is when you have a teacher, a guide who can help you to learn through practice how to improve your skills quickly, using the standardized teaching techniques that the field has developed over time.
Informed practice is an accelerated kind of purposeful practice.
Differentiating Between Performance and Practice
So if I’ve got 10,000 or 100,000 hours of work in a field, does that necessarily mean that my mental representation of my field is better than or at an expert level? In a word, No. If I’ve been constantly performing trying to optimize my results with each engagement, then I’m necessarily not allowing for failure, or focusing on how to improve one aspect of my work. As a result, I may – or may not – perform better than when I started.
I remember one time when I was very young we had a large snow. We decided to build a snow fort in the front yard. If you’ve never had to build up a snow fort, then you won’t know that the first step is to pile all of the snow that you have into the place where you’re going to create the fort. I started with a snow shovel and I’d carry the shovel back and forth. I then tried a variety of techniques to improve the efficiency of the operation until I settled on using a trash can. I could slide it across the lawn, scooping the snow, then take it over to the snow fort and dump it on. I remember this because by the time I had fully refined my process, I had consumed all the snow in the rather tiny yard. I spent all my time trying to optimize the process – so much, that I failed to realize when the actual task was done.
I mention this story because for me I entered into a state where I wanted to try to make things better (in this case, more efficient) and I was willing to make significant investments in trying different strategies. I was, in effect, practicing to find the best way to move snow. Today it seems silly to think about a child of about 8 years of age doing process optimization work, but that’s what I was doing. (I still don’t know if my mother was more impressed or concerned about these activities.)
Safe to Fail
Inherent in the notion of practice, like the notion of play (See Play for more), is the idea that it’s relatively safe. That means even if I mess up, even if I make a mistake or don’t perform as well as I normally do, that it will be OK. There are no looming consequences which are going to threaten my survival.
I mentioned in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy that safety is an important part of growth. As strange as it sounds, even the extreme athletes discussed in The Rise of Superman believe that what they’re doing is safe. That may be because their brain has shut down their inner critic or they’ve rationalized the safety issues away, but they feel relatively safe. It is this relative feeling of safety that enables normal learning.
Dealing with Discouragement
If you’ve worked at anything for a length of time you’re undoubtedly going to encounter some discouragement, some setbacks, frustration, and you’ll want to quit. The difference between peak performers and the rest of us is, when this time came, they kept with it. They kept practicing and trying to get better. They found a way to work past the discouragement.
In The Psychology of Hope, we learned about the components of hope, including willpower and way power, and how they together help us to move through discouraging situations. By developing these skills – these mental processes – we can cope with more discouragement and regain our belief that we can be the best in the world someday.
Paul Tough in How Children Succeed calls this persistence or grit. It’s this grit that can carry you through the trough of despair as you believe you’re not making progress – or not making enough progress.
The funny thing about our performance is that it’s very much about our belief about the maximum that we can do. If we believe that we can’t run faster than a four-minute mile, then no one will – until the first person does. When the belief is broken, suddenly everyone could run faster than the four-minute mile. The belief evaporated and then so did the limit.
Peak performers have faced many of these false beliefs about their limits and have overcome them. Whether you’re running a mile or you’re trying to be the best swimmer in the world, you’ll have to get rid of your fears and your belief systems that raise artificial barriers. It’s only by confronting these barriers that you can become the Peak of your field.
It was years ago when I first was introduced to fractal art. Even today I have a book sitting on my shelf – now over twenty-five years old – about fractal art. It was interesting because at one magnification a line would seem straight and plain. As you would keep zooming in you would see that the line displayed the same pattern of uniqueness as the overall shape. The deeper and the deeper that you went in fractal art the more it became the same. The edge of the lines in fractal art wasn’t as simple as I’d liked to have believed.
The importance of this, as I’ve been reflecting on my recent readings, and life in general, is that the more expertise and mastery we obtain, the better we are able to see the edges with clarity and to know what is inside or outside of the bounds.
A Life of Contradictions
Every life is full of contradictions. Play but study. Consider others with compassion but be true to yourself and take care of yourself. Be present in the moment but consider the consequences. Optimize the meeting but not so much that you take out the relationship development.
The joke is that a consultant will answer every question with “it depends.” Having had experience in multiple situations, the consultant naturally recognizes that it takes different answers for different environments. English Bleeker and Associates used to run a conference titled the Best Practices Conference. In speaking at the event and speaking with the organizers, everyone knew that there was no one set of practices that was best for everyone – only proven practices that worked for others.
My friend Paul Culmsee made light of best practices in The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices because there are no best practices. There are all these contradictions. We know how to manage projects well because the Project Management Institute publishes the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), but rarely do project managers follow it because the process is too heavy and difficult for most projects. A skilled project manager knows how to take what works – and leave the rest.
In this life of contradictions, we’re forced to decide which side to land on. Is something inside or outside of the bounds? It’s these lines in life – it’s the tough decisions which I don’t see straight lines any longer. I see much more intricate patterns and more study needed to understand whether something is a yes or no.
Most folks believe that the industrial revolution was triggered and sustained by the power of steam. The industrial revolution converted folks from largely working in cottage industries defined by hand-crafted goods to folks who operated machinery. Even those who were in their cottage crafting benefited from new machinery that made their work easier and more consistent.
The problem with this view of the industrial revolution is that it sensationalizes the power – the steam – that drove the engine, and ignores the more important, powerful, and overlooked force of standardization. We had machinery prior to the industrial revolution. Humans had been making tools and machines since the dawn of our civilization. The change thatthat triggered the industrial revolution was standardization. Instead of every manufacturer cranking out their own items which only worked on their machines, standardization happened, and suddenly simple components for machines such as bolts could be used universally.
The result was a system that allowed for specialization and interoperability, because the standards were well-known and well-used. The personal computer industry was built on top of this standardization. Power supplies have standard connectors and pin orientations. Hard disk drives have standard interfaces. Add-in cards plug into a standard bus.
The problems that we often face in life are problems which have no standards, ambiguous standards, or incorrect standards. What’s the standard for friendship? How can you define mastery? How do you establish competency? They’re hard questions with no clear answers.
The real world, which you and I live in, is full of what Mandelbrot (the creator of this field of fractal art) would call “roughness”. That is, it’s not as clean as we would like to believe. Everywhere that we look we find simplicity and complexity. We see the smooth edge of a piece of wood until we zoom in and see its roughness. We attempt to predict events but can’t really predict them. We expect there will be a problem but we don’t know for sure. Yellowstone is an area of geological instability, where the heat in the earth’s core is leaking up, creating geysers and hot springs. When will the Yellowstone area experience another seismic event that triggers the rapid release of energy (like an earthquake or volcano)? We don’t know.
The San Andreas fault runs through California. What happens when the tectonic plates underneath the fault slip? What happens when there’s a rapid movement along the fault line? Will we have a state called California any longer – and will Nevada suddenly become Pacific Ocean property? No one really knows.
At a personal level, we’ve all seen the news stories about the people who suddenly “snapped.” The news crew interviews the neighbors of a suicide bomber or a serial killer or someone who shoots up a public place, and the interviewee talks about “What a nice guy he was. I had no idea.” We can’t predict the behavior of individual people. We don’t know what stressors are functioning on people and how that will play out.
Work like Steven Reiss’ work in Who Am I? and The Normal Personality lead us to the conclusion that we can map the behavior of a person, and if we just know what values they hold then we’ll be able to predict their behavior. However, my experience is that everyone’s hurts are unique, and that if you hit someone where they hurt they’ll behave in unexpected ways. In short, we can’t know how they’ll behave. No matter how much effort we put into predicting the unpredictable – we can’t be successful because it’s unpredictable.
In this fractal world, the lines that we think are clear are just areas where we can discover new nuances to understand. Consider a situation where the rules are well-understood. When should you break them? For instance, when should you run a red light? Well, there are several circumstances where the rule (law) of stopping for a red light can be the wrong answer.
What if there’s a semi-truck come up behind you but not stopping? What if there’s a gunman behind you? What if there’s no one coming and someone you love is with you and needs medical attention? We believe that we know where the lines are drawn but, in reality, the closer we look the more we realize that there is more to the situation than the simple rule.
As a pilot, I make it a rule to not jump out of an airplane. I find that it’s counterproductive to jump out of airplanes if you want to fly them. That is, of course, right up to the point where there’s a problem with the airplane that will cause it to crash. In which case, I’m already out the door with my parachute on wishing you luck.
So what’s the point of this post? The point is that we need to pay more attention to the edges, and be careful about how quickly we judge others who see the “right” answer differently than we see it. It can be that they’re seeing things on the other side of the line than the way we see it. We may need to zoom in to see where the real line is – as long as we accept that we may find what we don’t expect.
It was through reading Brené Brown’s work Rising Strong (See my posts Part 1 and Part 2) that I came across the reference to The Dance of Connection. The reference was to over-functioning and under-functioning in stressful situations. Having seen different strategies for dealing with stress in my family, I was intrigued as to what Harriet Lerner would have to say about this. What I found is more than I expected about how to connect with other people. Having recently read The Power of the Other, I was reminded about how connections are important and how we can have no connection, bad connections, pseudo-good connections, or true connections.
Right or in a Relationship
In my review of The Titleless Leader I mentioned that you can either be right or you can be in a relationship. This is at the heart of the “dance” of connection. That is, the dance is about being able to speak our true, authentic voice and at the same time to do it in a way that honors other people and allows us to stay in a relationship with them. When we hold on too tightly to our righteousness, we are unable to allow space for the other person. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about the need for allowing.)
Kids on a playground can be mortal enemies one moment and favorite friends the next, because they’re willing and able to let go of their righteousness in order to live in a relationship. This can be healthy or unhealthy depending upon the degree to which we’re bending. Cloud and Townsend spoke of the need for boundaries in Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries. There is a certain amount of give that we should have for others, and a certain limit to which we’re willing to bend. Getting clear on where this is can be very healthy.
The Screams of Silence
Connection happens through conversation and dialogue. (See Dialogue for more on what makes dialogue special.) As we try to connect with one another, we need these conversations to help bring us closer together – to form a connection. While most conversations can be positive, there are times when conversations may be difficult– which, admittedly, most of us would like to avoid if we could. (See Crucial Conversations for more about the hard conversations that people want to avoid.)
While there may be times that we want to avoid conversations, that doesn’t mean we should. John Gottman’s work makes it clear that, in intimate relationships, avoiding conversations isn’t a good thing. (See The Science of Trust for more on Gottman’s work regarding communication in couples.) Stonewalling – or preventing conversations — is one of the “four horsemen” of the relational apocalypse. Intimacy Anorexia calls upon the weapon of stonewalling as a way to prevent further communication and can rip a marriage apart.
The silence of one person in a relationship or in an attempted relationship, may yield screams on the part of the other party; in either case, the result of silence is a lack of connection.
The Gap Between Same and Different
One of the great challenges in America is the conflict between our rugged individualism and our innate nature as social creatures in need of connection. We believe that we’re “self-made” and “original”, and at the same time deny the love and support poured into us by others. (Even if it wasn’t enough.) We long for similarity and connection, and at the same time seek to be different, unique and original. In our quest for being different, we deny our need for connection, that anyone could possibly understand what we’re going through.
Whenever I can get honest in a group – whether it’s a church group, a recovery group, or a mastermind group – I find that the other folks in the group can identify with what I’m going through, what I’m feeling, and how I’m struggling. On the one hand, we are unique and different; however, on the other hand we’re all made up of the same elements. We’re a different organization of protons, neutrons, and electrons – or a different organization of atoms – but at our hearts we’re all made up of the same stuff. We all have fears. We all have dreams.
We connect to others through our similarities. We connect through common activities, interests, and beliefs. We need to set aside our belief that we don’t need anyone, that we can be “self-made,” or that we can survive by ourselves. If we want to be happy and fulfilled, we need to accept that we’ll need some other people. (See Spiritual Evolution for our need to be in relationships.)
Logic and Intellectualizing
I’m sometimes accused – rightly so – of not being in touch with my emotions enough. When I hear this, I think of the Rider-Elephant-Path model that Jonathan Haidt discussed in The Happiness Hypothesis. In the model, our rational rider sits on top of the emotional elephant, firmly entrenched in his mistaken belief of control. I think about this because, in my own experiences with horses, I know that there’s a point when the horse and the rider have such a relationship that the rider can lean down and effectively hug the horse to say thank you for the ride or for the companionship.
The visualization I have is that my rational rider is reaching down and patting the elephant on the side of the neck to say thank you. Occasionally I visualize the rider off the elephant resting a hand on the elephant’s massive upper leg. In both of these cases I’m visualizing the relationship between the rational, logical rider and the impassioned, emotional elephant.
There are times when my rational rider has to tell my elephant that it will be OK, and for the elephant to trust the results will be OK, even if the current circumstances feel very awkward or bad. The rider has to tell the elephant that the only way out is through. And, more importantly, the elephant has to trust that the rider is right. That’s the power of logic: to work with the feelings – to accept the emotion – and move through them.
This has a very different feel than intellectualizing (which I do as well). Intellectualizing denies our feelings. It’s whip that the rider uses to snap the elephant into submission – at least for a time. Men are typically better at compartmentalization than women. However, compartmentalization isn’t a skill to be lauded. It’s one that comes with very dangerous consequences if it’s used for too long. Our health and our relationships with others can both suffer if we lean too hard on compartmentalization and its larger cousin “stuffing”. (See I’ll Have Some Emotional Stuffing with That.)
Relationships are emotionally-laden constructs. Every relationship has some level of emotion attached. It’s foolish to believe that we can logic our way through emotions. However, it’s equally foolhardy to believe that we’re able be completely emotional without applying some level of logic.
Stepping in, Stepping Back
As we “dance” with our connections with others there are times when we need to step in. That is, we need to do our absolute best to create the best circumstances for a healthy relationship. This is particularly true of family situations where the other person “isn’t going anywhere.” We sweep our side of the street and clean up all our garbage. We approach the other person with as much respect and dignity as we can. While assuming the best possible posture doesn’t ensure that the other party will definitely give us the response we want, it is the part of the equation that we can control.
In this stepping-in process, we have to let go of our expectation that the other person will change. In truth, people rarely change substantially. Our goal can’t be for the other person to suddenly start responding in completely healthy ways; instead, our goal can only be that we’ll respond in healthy ways.
The opposite of stepping in is quite obviously stepping back. However, stepping back isn’t running away or leaving the relationship potential behind. Sometimes stepping back is giving the other person room to grow. If you’re never allowing them the space to behave in better ways and to grow, then – well, they won’t. There are times when it’s appropriate, and even necessary, to expect more of others than they can do today, and to create the additional space they need to grow.
In today’s society it’s obvious that, if a relationship isn’t something that’s physically safe, then it shouldn’t be pursued. It’s obvious that we need physical safety to be in a relationship lest it become abusive. However, the lines are much less clear when it comes to emotional and mental safety. We tolerate negative people. We accept insensitive comments. However, when we do this we don’t feel emotionally safe.
Safety is critical for our leaning and growing. (See the role of safety in Play.) Ultimately, we have to be safe to feel vulnerable so that we can build intimate relationships. (See my post on Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more.)
Anatomy of an Apology
When we’re in a disagreement, and when we’re faced with people we don’t trust, it’s very hard to apologize. Apologies, we believe, show our weakness, and we don’t want to expose our weak spots to our adversary. It’s a natural response, but it’s also one that isn’t based on our best thinking. It’s based on an earlier, dog-eat-dog world, when showing any kind of weakness might mean extinction of our genes.
The problem is that apologies are “a regretful acknowledgement of an offense or failure.” There’s no admission of weakness in an apology. There is only regret. The twist here is that too many people believe that a failure means that they are a failure. As a result, apologizing means they’re a failure. It means that they’re imperfect and weak. (See Find Your Courage for more on ascribed meaning to failure)
Apologizing falls into two categories. The first category are those things that are under our control or influence. That is, we have some responsibility for the outcome. This might take the form of “I’m sorry I forgot about your piano recital.” In this case we’re wholly responsible for our inaction.
The second category of apology is compassion or sorrow. It involves things outside of our control. It might take the form of “I’m sorry your dog died” (given that you weren’t personally involved in the death). This still takes the form of “I’m sorry”; however, the context is different. In this case, we’re not accepting responsibility for the situation.
Over the years, I’ve had people who have felt me as insincere, because I would apologize for things that I couldn’t control. They discounted my regret because they didn’t understand that there are two different kinds of apologies.
There are two very liberating thoughts here. First, that just because you failed, you aren’t a failure. Second, I can apologize even if I couldn’t have had a direct responsibility. When these two are put together, they form a powerful combination that helps me be less resistant to apologizing to others. This is the first step on the road to repairing a relationship with them.
In every Cheers episode, Norm Peterson (George Wendt) would walk into the bar and be greeted with everyone shouting “Norm!” in unison. That’s what I call a social norm. While begging apologies for the pun, it was the standard. When Norm walked into the bar everyone shouted Norm! Though it was a fictional TV show, I’d expect that in any bar where that actually happened, eventually people who didn’t know Norm would start to shout out his name as he entered. That’s because this was established as the social norm. It’s just what you did.
Imagine your confusion if you and your spouse walked into a bar in their home town and suddenly the assembled masses would should out his or her name. In your world, no one knows your name when you walk into a bar, much less calls it out when you enter the bar. Your spouse would be unfazed because it was the norm, while you’re sitting there trying to figure out if you’ve just slipped into the Twilight Zone, and Rod Serling is about to jump out from a dark corner and talk to you.
However, that is what relationships are – the blending of social norms. One family might watch TV during their once-per-week family dinner. The other family might ban all electronics and require attendance at nightly family dinner. Neither are right or wrong. They’re just different. There is so much of our experience that we simply take for granted. Take, for instance, a simple question. What side of the mall do you walk on?
Without being told or instructed, you’ll instinctively walk on the right side of the mall if you’re raised in any of the countries that drive cars on the right side of the road, and on the left if you were raised in a country that drives on the left. Certainly there’s no right or wrong to which side of the mall you walk on. However, if you make the wrong choice you’ll feel like you’re having to swim upstream.
The social norms within someone’s family of origin are unique to them and their family’s function. There’s nothing right or wrong with everyone planning on hunting or fishing after Thanksgiving dinner, unless you’ve grown up where you (like most) watch football after Thanksgiving dinner – or fall asleep pretending to watch football. These different expectations can be the source of frustration or potential amusement. More importantly, they can often come between people when not seen for what they are.
Defined by Dysfunction
Holding folks accountable – including oneself– is tricky business. On the one hand, you have to acknowledge the fact that you missed a goal or expectation; conversely, you have to acknowledge that it doesn’t define you. Someone who is struggling with an addiction through a 12 step program is encouraged to identify themselves as an addict. However, once you get past the introduction and the start of the program, these same addicts are encouraged to acknowledge the parts of their personalities which are positive and life-giving to others. It’s not that this excuses their behavior. Instead, it’s designed to create an integrated self-image that acknowledges that everyone has good and bad parts of their personality – even non-addicts. (See Part 1 of my review of Rising Strong for more.)
When you’re under the weight of feeling defined by a dysfunction, it’s hard to see your value – and therefore the reason why you should change. If you’re focused only on your dysfunction, it’s easy to lose hope. (See The Psychology of Hope for more on the importance of hope.) Being focused on dysfunction is focusing on the shame that you’re not good enough to conquer your dysfunction. (See Daring Greatly for more on the impact of shame.)
Balancing or Dancing?
One of the interesting messages embedded in the title of the book is the idea of “dancing”. Dancing is about being in a relationship with another person. It’s about managing the gap between you and being connected to the music.
Often when we’re speaking of multiple conflicting ideas or priorities or needs we talk about balance. The only thing I know about balance is that you never keep it. There are always forces that are trying to pull you from your balance and there’s constant work to keep in balance. When I speak of balance, I speak of it in general. It’s not so much the question about whether I’m in balance right this moment, but whether overall I’m maintaining a balance. You can’t measure one moment in time because you may be relaxing with family or at work slaving away. It’s only when you take a step back from it that you can see if the ratio of one to the other is appropriate.
I believe the metaphor of dance is a better one than balance, because it provides a perspective of the entire song –measuring across time, as well as the awareness that you’ll be at different places at different times. Sometimes you’ll be very close and other times relatively far away. It’s only in looking at the whole dance can you say how good – or bad – it was.
There are times when it’s appropriate to hold people’s feet to the fire and label them with their dysfunction. There are times when you need to allow grace for failings and to build them up in their understanding of their inherent and apparent worth. Relationships are a dance.
With a client recently I was surprised to get an access denied message when trying to convert global navigation for their site collection over to managed navigation. (This is an option that’s available when publishing is enabled in a site collection.) I was surprised because I was an administrator for the service, the site collection, and the term store. I had every permission that I could possibly have and yet I received an access denied.
With the help of Microsoft support we found the culprit. In Office 365 there’s an option to control custom script and whether users can be prevented from custom scripts. Turning this option on has a long list of limitations – things that don’t work in SharePoint after you’ve turned the option on – however metadata navigation not working isn’t one of them. This setting is in the ¡SharePoint administration portal:
When I reset the setting to “Allow” and waited for 24 hours, the metadata navigation worked just fine.
I’m always trying to improve my craft. As it pertains to my keynote and educational speaking, it’s not always easy to find people who can press me to improve. That’s why I took the standup comedy course years ago as I described in my post I am a Comedian. While that was a very indirect path to improving my work as a speaker, the book Great Speeches for Better Speaking
is a much more direct approach.
Components of a Speech
The history of public speaking traces its roots back to ancient Greece. Plato viewed intellectual legitimacy based on three criteria:
- a craft had to have definable and distinct subject matter
- whose theoretical principles could be articulated and mastered
- in service to the public good.
Socrates was concerned about rhetoric and the power of speech because of its ability to create the appearance of expertise where none actually exists. In fact, Socrates believed that rhetoric was primarily concerned with appearance and not about truth or justice.
However, the most powerful case for rhetoric is found in Aristotle’s work On Rhetoric. His position was that we could preserve the working democracy through the training of everyone in the art of oratory. In that way people could use the power for good.
Aristotle believed that the power of public speaking came from three sources:
- The favorable light of the speaker (ethos)
- The provocation of emotions (pathos)
- The force of reason (logos)
The Violence of Speech
Humans are the only species on the planet who have the capability to resolve conflict by force of oratory persuasion rather than the introduction of physical violence. Certainly there are oratory constructs such as yelling and screaming that have more in common with physical violence than impassioned reason, but our ability to resolve the differences in perceptions and values through communication (oral or otherwise) is unique to our species.
Brené Brown speaks of guilt and shame in her book Daring Greatly. These are ways that our words can tear down others. We can name-call. And while “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is an often-repeated phrase, it’s not truth. Our words have the ability to build people – and a society – up or to tear them down. Aristotle wanted to arm everyone with the weapons of good public speaking to deter anyone from seeking to harm another with the violence of their speech.
Of the speeches studied in the book, most fit cleanly into the structure of a persuasive argument. A few, however, have a more subtle goal of persuasion. In the case of Regan’s address following the Challenger explosion, it seems like there is no persuasion present. However, when viewed more broadly, one can quickly realize that the objective of the address is to persuade the American public into the belief that there was meaning in the deaths of the astronauts, and that though we will mourn, it will be OK.
In the case of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, the objective is to persuade Americans to step up and do their part to remake the great country by asking what they can do for their country and for their fellow man rather than asking what they can get. The persuasion isn’t about changing their view on a particular issue but is instead asking the audience (all of America) to change their world view. This is a much loftier goal than most persuasive arguments.
Structure of an Argument
If the goal of rhetoric is to persuade, then the basic structure of persuasion is an important part of any speech. There are three major components of the argument. The first is the premise. The premise is the idea that supports the conclusion. Next is the warrant. The warrant provides additional evidence or provides a connection between the premise and the claim. The final part is the claim. That is, the claim is the logical outcome of the premise plus the warrant or warrants. This structure is a simplified version of the work of Steven Toulmin in The Uses of Argument.
Often persuasive speeches start with a premise with which everyone agrees. Movement proceeds from what everyone agrees with into areas where there may be some disagreement, before proceeding to the point where there is known disagreement and for which the speech is prepared.
Agree Then Disagree
When trying to persuade an audience, you must address all three of Aristotle’s sources of power. First is to create a favorable light for oneself so that the audience will even listen to the rest of the message. This is what we’re doing when we start by stating things with which everyone will agree. However, more than this it’s possible (and recommended) to speak to how you and your audience are similar. That is, why it is that you might have differences but are more alike with them than different. Ted Kennedy focused on his being American and Catholic to his audience at Liberty Baptist College. While his views may have varied substantially from most of his audience, there were aspects of his beliefs and values that they shared, and he wanted to ensure they were aware of it.
By building what The Heart and Soul of Change would call “allegiance”, Kennedy’s message had the possibility of resonating on the hearts of his audience to build his ethos.
Finding the Framing
Randal Terry might not have been the first to utter the words “He who frames the issue wins the debate,” but he was the one who used those words to powerfully drive his agenda of pro-life. Whoever the initial author of the quote, there is truth in the words. The person who is able to successfully frame the issue will win the debate – or in this case, the hearts and minds of the audience. This means that careful work must be done to frame the issue in a way that makes the proposed course of action the logical choice.
The other framing is the use of a structural motif. A structural motif is a repeated word or phrase, like the chorus of a song, that brings everyone back to a common point. Structural motifs provide a rhythm and realignment of the speech and ensures that everyone returns to the common point before venturing off into another area of the argument. By echoing the same phrase, the momentum of the presentation can build.
Who Makes the Connection
In speaking, there’s a question to be answered about whether the speaker should be the one who draws the line between two ideas, or whether that connection should be made by each member of the audience individually. There are numerous techniques and reasons for leaving the audience to fill in the details for themselves, and perhaps equally as many reasons why one would make the connection explicit.
When a topic is distasteful or when the connection is related to the listener’s personal experience, allowing the listener to make the connection is important. You can describe the evils of the world in broad, sweeping terms and encourage the listener to fill in their own personal perception of the evil. This minimizes the negative valence on the speech and frees it up to be inspiring.
The nature of people is that we all have similarities in our experiences but we also have differences. When a speaker is working with an audience where the precise perception of a topic is unknown and the audience’s specific issue may be completely opaque to the orator, then utilizing techniques that allow the listener to create their own connection is a useful way to create the appearance of alignment where there is less alignment really present.
Consider Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which encouraged people to have a dream – their own personal dream that followed the structure of Dr. King’s dream, but was at the same time uniquely personal.
However, utilizing these techniques assumes that the audience is sufficiently motivated to attempt to make the connection, and further that they have the information necessary to make the connection. If they don’t know enough about where the speaker is going or about the subject, they won’t be able to make the leap across the conceptual gap.
It is these times when it’s necessary to walk someone through the specific connections that need to be made between concepts. It’s necessary to be explicit about how two or more concepts are related.
Bringing it Home – Delivery
One of the things that I learned from my work with comedy is that sometimes when a comic takes a drink on stage, it’s not really a drink. They may take in a beverage. They may actually take a drink; however, the timing of the drink isn’t accidental. In fact, the timing of the drink and the body language of the comic may be designed to enhance the power of the joke or punchline. Ron White is a master at this. He’s frequently seen on stage with a glass of hard liquor and a stirring straw that he frequently uses to break or change the cadence of his delivery.
The cadence of delivery can have a profound effect on the impact of the speech. In comedy we spoke of “stepping on the laugh” – that is, starting with the next joke or tagline before the laughter from the previous one had died down. Conversely, there’s letting the laughter die out when you allow too much time before reengaging the audience. “Simple” cadence isn’t so simple, as it requires using techniques which are designed to vary the rhythm and pace of the talk to match how the audience is responding.
Speaking as someone who does both live presentations and recorded video presentations, I have great respect for the skill that Ronald Regan had when delivering his Challenger address, because he had to get his cadence right without the benefit of being able to read the audience for timing. Of course, this is something that a movie actor practices. It is perhaps why, when Regan was asked how an actor could be president, he wonders out loud how a president could not be an actor.
In technical training, one of the frequent mistakes is the delivery of a monotone droning of information. While I see this kind of delivery all the time, it’s not something that’s appealing to the audience. In general, more positive delivery creates a more positive response in the audience; however, not every situation calls for a positive and upbeat delivery. For instance, the Challenger Address isn’t an appropriate time to be “perky.”
The actual delivery of the words can create as dramatic an effect as the words themselves. When I read Great Speeches for Better Speaking, I was reading the words from the page. While some of the speeches I remembered, most I couldn’t recall the delivery in sufficient detail to recognize the artfulness with which the speaker paused for dramatic effect or lowered their voice and slowed their delivery at important points. So when I listened to them in preparation for this post, I was surprised at how the dry words came to life and began to beat in my heart in the way that they were originally intended.
Each speaker prefers to prepare for their moment differently. Some speakers are best making off-the-cuff or impromptu speeches with very little preparation. Some speakers are more comfortable reading their speeches. Others memorize their speeches to prevent the issues with reading. Others, like myself, prefer extemporaneous speaking, which requires an understanding of the material and a rough outline.
In comedy, I learned that many things which appeared on the surface to be off-the-cuff, accidental, or impromptu were well-rehearsed. That is, while it gave the appearance that it wasn’t rehearsed, often times they were. This has created skepticism in my mind when someone appears to be doing a good job with an off-the-cuff speech.
The other comedy trick I learned was the idea of “savers”. That is a technique that a comic uses to pull the audience back when a joke falls flat or they’re not getting the reaction they want. One of my favorite savers is from my buddy Michael Malone who will, when an audience isn’t responding, say to them, “You know this isn’t TV, right? You know I can see you.” This serves two purposes. First, it generates a laugh as the audience realizes that they’re not interacting. Second, it telegraphs his desire to interact with the audience. (I greatly admire Michael’s ability to work with an audience.)
The obvious problem that happens when reading a speech is that there is a tendency to a single-metered rate of delivery and a monotone voice, something that speakers who prefer reading their speeches carefully learn to control. Some orators prefer to memorize their speeches in order to eliminate this problem. There’s something different about recalling a speech from memory compared to reading it that makes it easier to manage the delivery.
Extemporaneous speaking follows the structure but can bend and change, and thereby reduces the challenges associated with monotone delivery, at the risk of making it impossible to hit a time target. The flexibility to read an audience and lean into a topic more because they’re reacting more is great, but only when you can control your timing to a point that you’re able to hit the time constraint or goal that you’ve been given.
There isn’t any one way to prepare for a speech. Each approach has its limitations. The point isn’t that there’s one path up the mountain for preparing for public speaking. Rather, one must find the style that works for them, and then develop skills around mitigating the potential limitations of that preparation style.
The Love of a Good Story
At the National Speakers Association (NSA) convention a few years ago, I saw a curious thing happening. (See my blog post.) I noticed that some of the speakers were telling their stories. Whether it was their rise to fame or triumph over impossible odds, there were the stories that were designed to motivate and propel people. At the same time, I heard the seasoned speakers in their workshops speaking about the techniques to help someone be a better speaker or the option to listen to their story. The moan that went through the crowd as the idea of hearing another story was palpable. It seemed that no one wanted to hear another story that wasn’t theirs and wasn’t something they could use to improve their speaking.
I think this is a special audience of people who, while recognizing the value of stories across time and today, equally recognized that these stories weren’t replicable to them. What they could take away and use were the tool, tricks, and techniques of the craft of public speaking.
We all love a story. We want to be entertained and inspired. However, if your objective is for your audience to leave and be able to actually do something else rather than having an inspirational moment, that requires the sharing of techniques and tools. It requires specific actions to be done.
A counselor and former pastor friend of mine once told me that his business as a marriage counselor picks up dramatically after the church with which he is associated runs a marriage seminar. Ostensibly, the seminar is teaching couples how to have a better marriage. However, in truth, it further exposes the reality of their current relationship, and the work that would need to be done to make it rise to the level of the utopian ideal proposed at the seminar. This is true no matter who is delivering the seminar. The result is that couples become disillusioned with their current relationship and decide that it’s broken and needs fixed. In fact, it needs so much fixing that it’s necessary to engage a professional.
The stories told in the marriage seminars are great stories. They’re stories of couples staying together after infidelity. They’re stories of couples who’ve spent their entire lives together and who die within minutes of each other. However, these stories are the exception and are not the norm. While we need stories to inspire us, we need tools and techniques to help us deliver on the promise that the inspiration leads us to.
In Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis, I learned of the Rider-Elephant-Path model for considering how people are motivated to change. In this model, if you want to create meaningful lasting change, you need to talk to the emotional elephant because it is the powerhouse of the psyche. It’s the elephant that gets things done.
Great speeches engage the elephant and create in the audience an emotional response (pathos). Emotions can be created by recalling the pieces of our identity or history that we’ve lost. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for the impact of loss.) Emotions can be created by the creation of a grand unifying vision such as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or Kennedy’s call to land an American on the moon and return them safely.
Powerful speeches aren’t only well-reasoned pleas to the rational rider to take the reins and steer the elephant towards a path: they directly engage the elephant and the rider to lead them in unison to the desired goal.
The speeches used to illustrate great oratory in the book are as follows:
- Ronald Regan’s Space Shuttle Challenger Address (1986)
- Edward Kennedy’s “Faith and Country, Tolerance and Truth in America” (1983)
- Douglas MacArthur’s Thayer Award Acceptance Address (1962)
- John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (1961)
- Barbara Jordan’s Statement on the Articles of Impeachment (1974)
- Mary Fisher’s Republican National Convention Address (1992)
While I encourage you to listen to the speeches, I believe that understanding the structure of them and having a guide to what is happening in the speeches make it well worth reading Great Speeches for Better Speaking.
I meet monthly with a group of organizational development folks. Some of them are professors. Some are consultants. Others are practitioners in their organizations. I love the meetings because they challenge me to learn and grow. Several of the participants are connected to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. It’s through this connection that I came to read Servant Leadership.
As one of the guys, Jeff, said, Greenleaf isn’t a cheap date. That is, the material in Servant Leadership isn’t an easy read. You’ve got to stay focused, work at it, mull it over, and generally put more work into it. However, it’s worth it.
What is a Servant?
When I’m thinking about what it is to be a servant, I instantly think of Heroic Leadership and the example of the Jesuits. I think of folks who put the rules and their ego behind them to serve others. The essence of humility, as was explained in Humilitas, is power held in service to others. So a servant is quite simply one who serves others. It’s because of that service to others that other characteristics, such as humility, surface.
Great leaders are servant leaders, whether you look towards Jesus’ contributions (which nearly every religion recognizes as a great man, even if denying that he was the Messiah) or you look at present day servants such as the Dali Lama (see My Spiritual Journey for more on the Dali Lama).
What is Leadership?
The heart of leadership is the ability to lead or guide others. While there’s some belief in natural skill in the ability to lead, most scholars agree it takes some level of study to become a great leader. While leadership is often confused with management, which is coordination of objectives and managing outcomes, it’s a separate discipline which requires the ability to motivate people, and also the ability to “see the big picture” and devise a meaningful place to go. Leaders observe the current reality and create a vision for a new world that their followers would like to be in, and then set out upon the journey with them.
Modeling Servant Leadership
The challenge of leadership is the drifting away from the mission of leading people and falling victim to an ever-increasing ego, where the leadership becomes more about the power of the leader and less about how the leader is serving the needs of the followers. This is akin to the maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Leaders must have a constant vigilance to ensure that their leadership doesn’t become about them and remains about the people that they’re leading – and serving.
For this, Greenleaf has a model. The model is primus inter pares – “first among equals”. That is, the organization should have a set of leaders who are peers. They hold no position over one another, but are instead a collection of similarly motivated people who care about the organization and the people it touches, both internally and externally. This equality forms the basis of limiting ego. As they hold no position of power over one another, it’s difficult for their ego to grow out of control.
The balance to this, however, is the need for someone to be able to drive the group to a decision. While the utopian idea that everyone is a peer is useful for controlling egos, it’s awful at helping the organization get things done. As a result, you need the ability for there to be a leader whose role it is to ensure that things continue to move forward. At effective law and accounting firms this might be the managing partner. That is, a partner who, for a time, is responsible for driving the discussions forward. (Admittedly, I’ve seen very few of these effective firms or effective managing partners.)
Connecting with the Cosmos
Many of the books that I read are structural guides. They talk about ideas and frameworks. They tell you to tweak this or do that and stop doing this other thing in order to get the results you want. This is the structure that I expect from a book. However, there are times, like for Servant Leadership and in cases like Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future, where the structure is accompanied by a bit of mysticism. I do not mean this in a pejorative sort of way, I mean that there’s a connectedness or wholeness – a sense that the author expects that you can’t fully understand what the house will look like by just the structure. Strangely, I found more mysticism in Servant Leadership than in religious books like My Spiritual Journey and Spiritual Evolution.
A few dozen miles from my house is a place called Camp Chesterfield. It’s the home for the Indiana Association of Spiritualists. While there has historically been some controversy around the idea of mediums practicing on the camp property, the place has an overall sense of peace to it. I don’t believe in healing crystals or many of the other beliefs that some of the residents of Camp Chesterfield hold. If you asked me to describe the grounds to you, I’m certain I wouldn’t be able to convey the same peace to you. Somehow, everything comes together in a way that works.
Greenleaf believed that religion at its root means “to rebind”, as in to rebind humans to the cosmos. That is, there is something about connecting ourselves to the world that can’t be explained. He describes the general ways of operating in various types of organizations. These are more like, as the Jesuits might say, a compass instead of a map. That is, they don’t tell you exactly how to get from one place to another, but instead give you a general direction.
Having had the honor of working with organizations that really understood how to work together – and those who do not – I can tell you that from the outside they look very similar. However, there’s a certain atmosphere in some organizations that make them different.
Organizations for Development’s Sake
Every organization has a purpose. Commercial organizations are designed to make money. Non-profit organizations are designed to improve humanity through their output. Educational institutions are designed to help educate us towards a better world. Religious institutions are designed to connect us with the religion’s god. However, is their stated purpose their only purpose?
For Greenleaf the answer is no. However, to understand why, you have to realize that he believed organizations are designed for the betterment of everyone that they touch. That is, every person internal or external to the organization should be made better by it.
Educational institutions shouldn’t “burn up” professors in the service of the students. Religious organizations shouldn’t persecute others in the service of their beliefs. Commercial organizations shouldn’t pressure their vendors to the point where their vendors aren’t able to grow and thrive.
In other words, the age-old debate of whether the ends justify the means is put to bed with a clear answer of no. You can’t do “anything necessary” to achieve the purposes of the organization, because the organization’s real goal should be the betterment of everyone involved.
Brené Brown calls the kinds of people who are capable of interacting in healthy ways throughout their lives “wholehearted people” (see Rising Strong Part 1 and Part 2). Dr. Wayne Dyer calls these people “No Erroneous Zone” people (see Your Erroneous Zones). Whatever you call these people, you’ll find that they know who they are. They’re not looking outside themselves for validation. They’re not bending to the latest winds of change.
There’s no map here for how to become the kind of wholehearted leader that believes they’re a servant. There are not five easy steps to building your character as a person and as a leader. However, there are more clues to the organizational structure, and more importantly the aspirations for organizations, which lead to the kind of growth that allows someone to become a servant leader.
Becoming a servant leader may not be a straight or easy path – but it’s one that is worth it, so you may want to go read Servant Leadership.