So You Want to be a Keynote Speaker...

What is it like to be a public speaker? People often ask me what it is like to be a keynote speaker (they often use the words “motivational speaker” which immediately makes me cringe and brings about a deja vu to an old Chris Farley SNL routine, “In a van! Down by the river!” - but I digress). I have a quip at the ready for this question - “It is awesome - basically I get paid to travel the world and go to parties.”

The truth of the matter - part 1. Well, everything above is true - I do get paid to go to parties. There might be better jobs out there (but I doubt it…) and here’s why. After you *get a speaking gig (the hard part) life is amazing. You take an all-expense paid trip to a luxurious resort or hotel - often at the beach or in Mexico, NYC, Miami or LA. After the flight, you are picked up in large black SUV and whisked to the hotel. Usually, there is a reception the evening before and you are introduced to the CEO, CMO, sponsors - all inevitably interesting people who open up to you about their lives. You have some fine wine and a great meal, more conversation and then finally head to bed, where there is often a welcome gift waiting for you. The next morning you head down for A/V check which is usually handled by a team of professionals so that it only takes a few minutes. You have no prep because you know the material cold. Then, when it is your time, you get a grand introduction, take the stage, and (hopefully) pull the audience deep into your stories and frameworks, the noise of applause still ringing in your ears as you exit stage left. Next there is a long line of people eager to talk to you, to shower you with compliments, to buy your book and to tell you a little about themselves. Afterward, time allowing, you go to yet another reception and dinner and people approach you all evening long to share their stories and how what you said affected them. The senior executives, one by one, make time to thank you and converse about high level business strategy or amazing personal stories. After collecting your hotel points, you are whisked to the airport in another SUV, fly home collecting your airline miles, and then return to your daily commute to the couch - because you work for yourself and your time is your own. When not traveling for a talk you balance your time by nesting at home and/or connecting with friends and family, or using your points and miles to travel the world, meeting new people, interviewing the world’s top experts to gather cutting-edge information and the latest research, reading case studies and books, and collecting new stories from your adventures to put in the next book or talk. Oh, and every single thing you do, with the exception of 1/2 your rent, and groceries, is tax deductible. As my accountant / attorney told me, “your profession is the least audited of any category - less than 1/10th of a percent, because your whole life is tax deductible.”

The truth of the matter part 2. *Speaking gigs are not easy to get - it is a very, very tough business. 80% of my speaking gigs come from someone who saw me speak themselves. These are not “referrals,” they were there! So, getting started in a business like this is very, very hard. It is the classic chicken / egg, cart / horse equation. In order to get speaking you have to get speaking… and how the hell do you do that? Well, first of all, you have to be a rock solid subject matter expert with real credentials, and you have to keep your knowledge up-to-date. Then, you have to be able to take your expertise and develop it into a great talk (or talks) on relevant topics with enough storytelling to keep it engaging. You also have to have this elusive thing called “presence” a combination of how you carry yourself, how you project your voice, where and how you move, the use of hand gestures, smiles… the list goes on. Without “presence,” no matter how great the content, you will not get the call for the next talk. But even having all of that most certainly is not enough to get the word out on the street to bring in the next opportunities. Unless you are famous, speaker bureaus are useless - I’m listed with at least 50 and less than 5% of my talks come through them. Instead, it is a networking sport full of potential rejection - usually in the form of the sound of “crickets” - someone sees you talk, tells you how great it was, wants to bring you to their company or event, they then they say when asked, “no I don’t have a card, but I’ll drop you an email” and then you never hear from them… ever… It is socially exhausting - every event I work the room from the moment I arrive until I leave. I never bow out early, I offer to speak privately to any and every sponsor or executive the organizing committee wants me to meet. You are ON the whole time. After back-to-back gigs I sleep like the dead sometimes for 12 hours or more. The follow-up trail is never-ending. I get so many emails a day that require personal responses that it is a full time job just trying to keep up. When someone shares a personal story you can’t not respond though sometimes I’m running months behind. And… I have help - my business partner Monica does a vast majority of the business correspondence - each gig requires dozens and dozens of touchpoints. When someone is paying low-to-mid 5 figures for an hour of your time, they want more than an hour of your time. As I always joke, “the best part of working with me is that you don’t have to work with me - you get to work with Monica.” First there is the original touchpoint or inquiry, then the follow up, then meeting scheduling / rescheduling, getting on the phone for the sales pitch, having a follow up call with the exec sponsor, working thru corporate vendor set-up systems (which require extensive hoop-jumping) and then a few more calls and emails regarding logistics, flights, time, agenda etc. Then you have the wrangling over price (I never get involved if I can avoid it - Monica handles this) and then the contract, invoicing, handouts and worksheets for printouts, A/V requirements, introduction talking points, mailing of books to the location, travel arrangements, and then after the gig, the follow up on payment (50% up front) and tabulation and invoicing for expenses, and then of course the quickbooks, insurance, taxes and all the other things that keep a business solvent. I do very little of that, though I still do my own travel. I also manage the website, while Monica arranges and sends our semi monthly newsletter and other marketing materials, hires freelancers, and manages our CRM system. I write the books, turn my expertise into written or video content… and so on. There are so many bright shiny objects to chase that you always feel a few steps behind.

The balance: Could I coast and work a very light schedule - yes - maybe for a while, but instead I often work very very long hours for weeks or months on end. However, it is my choice and if I want to up-and-go to Jamaica for the weekend (like I am this weekend) then I do. Also there are natural off-peak periods during the main holidays, 4th of July, mid August and other times where there are lulls where you can plan ahead to do things. But during the main season months it is nearly impossible to commit to any sort of travel, event or even family visit more than 2 weeks out because the opportunity cost of missing a gig or two is so very high. I think there is also a hidden danger of getting too full of yourself. I’ve met a few successful speakers (who will go unnamed) that I think fail to realize the people who loved your talk are the ONLY ones to actually come and give you feedback. If that is the only feedback you listen to, your ego and hubris can explode. Also, I think there are a lot of “fake it to make it” players out there - so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who holds themselves out as a successful high-paid speaker is actually making it. They might be struggling more than you know. The bookings can be erratic and unpredictable. Feast or famine. If you can’t handle occasional uncertainty, this may not be for you. For the last couple of years I’ve had north of 60 paid gigs a year, and I do my share of complimentary keynotes as well for non-profits, schools etc…

Should you be a keynote speaker? Yes, yes you should (unless you don’t like leaving home). I firmly believe it might be one of the best lifestyles out there - traveling the world at someone else’s expense, meeting amazing, interesting, successful people, collecting their stories, and getting paid really well to do it, all on your own time… I get to choose what to do, what not to do, no one says what or where I have to go, and there are no paparazzi to hassle you. It, at its essential core, is a form of freedom that few other jobs provide. And here’s a little secret, I love it so much, I would pay to do it, but somehow new events keep emerging, the pipeline for the year is full (I did 16 gigs in the first 5 weeks of the year!) and international travel to Rio, Santiago, Cancun, Shanghai and Portugal are on the horizon. If you feel the urge to share your story, if you have great presence and are a great storyteller, and you have deep expertise in something useful to a business, find a TEDx near you and pitch it - that’s how I got started. If you want to know more, feel free to drop me an email or sign up for our newsletter.

PS: click here to find out how I prep for my TEDx talks

PPS: If you are serious about becoming a paid speaker, you might want to check out the Speaker School for Women.

Skunks, Trees, Skulls and Spiders...

“The perception of temporal duration is crucially bound up with memory”

“Time is a game played beautifully by children”

I was riding. It was dark. There was no moon. Swallowed by the inky blackness I entered a netherworld where all visual stimuli were black on black – gradations of the gloom expanding into the emergent silhouette of a pine tree or the dangling reach of branches articulating and then gone. Beneath my tires the ever-expanding treadmill of the asphalt swayed sinuously left and right as I breezed by, moist mists roiling in my wake.

I was repeating one of my favorite summer routines – a 27-mile round-trip bike ride to and fro across the Fox River to Primrose Farms: a community garden where I annually maintain two large garden plots (mostly super-hot chilies). My routine was to arrive an hour or so before sunset and spend the evening harvesting, tilling and grilling as the light faded and the air cooled, often with visits from friends.

This particular night fell on a particularly sultry evening in mid-August and even as I headed home at around 9:30pm the air was still so heavy that the stars were nearly completely obscured in the humid haze. As I descended into the Fox River drainage the air melted, minute droplets decorating the fine hairs of my forearms, the gloaming of the evening aching with the fragrance and nostalgia of endless summers. Like usual, I switched off my headlamp at the start of the trailhead, eyes adjusting to the near absence of light. I loved the thrill and danger of it – of the nearly unseen trail unfolding beneath my tires, the remnants of the July fireflies winking their ever shorter flashes, the ripple of the pond to the right and the endless trilling of the toads and grunting of the frogs, the sudden rumbling of my tires across a small wooden bridge over a stream, the way the soft air re-absorbed all sound. I was in love with the thrill of the dark and the heat and the sweat.

Suddenly a strange chiaroscuro outline appeared against the black tarmac of the trail. Unlike puddles, leaf piles or other obstacles this one did not grow with proximity – instead it appeared to maintain its size, almost like it was moving along with me. Shapeless, the black hole veered left and right, disappearing and pixelating in the gloom. Reappearing it flitted to the side again and with swift certainly I suddenly realized it wasn’t a mirage – that it was something alive and traveling at the same speed in the same direction, dodging to and fro to avoid me. At that exact moment the black blot swerved right, and expanded. Something was familiar about the movement and I could suddenly see the rising shape of a long black tail gilded with a shimmery white stripe unfurling like a flag as I passed, swerving. Simultaneously to the brush of fur on my leg came a distinct hiss in the darkness even as all my neurons and adrenaline woke up screaming. Fading behind me the pungent spray missed its mark by only a 10th of a second. I remained clean and shiny, bathed in only sweat. A fraction of a second later and I would have been doused from head to toe with necrotic funk nebulized from the anal glands of a posturing skunk.

My heart raced as the adrenaline coursed through my system. At first I picked up the pace but then slowed as I remembered that where there was one skunk there may be more.  My eyes sought movement in the slippery blackness, my amygdala scanning, every neuron on full alert. I approached a second wooden bridge, eyes tracking low to the ground for movement but at the last second I saw, higher up, an oddly bloated orange firefly. It floated up and to the right. Then the glow intensified and suddenly the outline of an oddly shaped human face appeared, grinning, cigarette pressed to pursed lips. The man didn’t move nor even acknowledge my passing, something that should have been quite unexpected. I felt a wave of cold fear… what was he doing miles from the closest trailhead, standing alone on the bridge in the dark completely un-flummoxed by my sudden appearance? Maybe it was the light but his face look skeletal, his eyes black, ridges of tendons exposed on his wrists and fingers. My creeped-out-ed-ness grew and I involuntarily accelerated. I was tempted to turn on my lights. But I resisted and continued on towards the river, swerving with aplomb through the eddies and bends of the trail that I’d been down dozens of time. No way “Slenderman” could catch me anyway…

The trees closed in near the final section before the river. It was exactly pitch black, but the trail was perfectly straight there, so I shot through the warm slab of air like a spear through water and then saw yet another mirage – a large mass of blackness emergent in the space in front of me. It appeared only for a split second before impact. Claws scraped me, tendons snapped under my wheels, the bike bucked and I nearly went over the handlebars as my knuckles took a beating from the bones of a large dead tree that had fallen onto the trail. As my forward velocity stopped, the bike began to fall sideways and I hopped off into the waiting cradle and crackles of the dead tendrils. I backed up and slowly un-entwined the skeletal fingers from my frame and spokes and walked my bike into the woods around the obstacle and back onto the path.  

Mounting the bike, heart beating like a bass drum, I gave in and, finally, switched on both my headlamp and my handlebar lights – beams as strong as truck brights cutting into the mist, blinding me momentarily. With perfect visual clarity I picked up the pace and raced toward the river, working the adrenaline out of my system. Fear coursed through me, self doubt, worry, judgment… What if the skunk had gotten me? Who and what was that person doing standing on the bridge – what if he had a knife? What if one of those branches of that tree had taken out an eye?

I finally made it down to the river and for a moment I cut the lights, however my eyesight had grown so adapted to the LED’s that I had to turn them right back on again else potentially go off the trail. I followed the river to the massive train bridge spanning it and then turned right to cross the hanging parapet underneath.  I climbed up the incline and at the top of the span I stopped, exited my bike and proceeded to follow my nightly ritual: to lean over the rail, feel the breeze, smell the water, stare at the ripples reflected from the bridge lights and to … relieve myself from 50 feet up over the river – no one around to see or care. I began to unzip until I stopped short in horror.

I still had my headlamp on and in the flare of the lumens I could suddenly see the convergence of thousands tiny white filaments spanning the arch. Worse was the articulated movement along those threads. There, between the arch supports of the  bridge where I had stopped so many times over the years, was a horror – a giant black Shelob waiting there to pounce, and all around the edges her offspring dozens of tiny replicas all moving, converging on the center where my partially unzipped fly was. I froze. I backed away, watching the activity coalescing in a place where I had done the exact same thing over and over again for years, without a light. A shudder wracked my body. Too much. Too much stimulus, to many unseen dangers, too many unknowns hiding in the blackness. I had to get home.


I mounted my bike. I kept on my lights. I rode fast, now fully in “flow” dodging through intersections, taking new kinds of risk, fully awake and alive, primed for monsters, horrors and hidden dangers. I pushed my physical limits and in the process experienced a weird euphoria as I hopped curbs, rode through ditches and accelerated through the final miles home.

As I consider events from 2018, this is one of the standout memories and with a little bit of analysis it is easy to see the pattern emerging: Beauty, Uniqueness, Physical Intensity, Emotional Intensity and Flow – all combined to make what would normally be a routine ride home eternally memorable. My amygdala was on full alert, writing highly recallable memories and then the flow state emerged from the stimulus, danger and possibility. And so, here I am, six months later recalling it with striking clarity: a perfect, endless summer night made, imprinted, remembered and recalled. Time expanded. I was awake. I was alive. I was really living.



Why Conventional Wisdom About Slowing Time Won't Work...

Why Conventional Wisdom About Slowing Time Won't Work, (In Fact, it is Exactly, Perfectly, Wrong)

Recently nearly a dozen people sent me an article about how to slow down time. It was thoughtful, articulate, compelling, and as it turns out exactly, perfectly, wrong. The author's observation was that the pace of life is picking up (true), that constant interaction with technology is causing our minds to race (true), and that the key to slowing down time is to detach, slow down, and clear our minds (exactly.perfectly.wrong). Why is it wrong? Well, I'll get to that in a second, but first to clarify - the author's advice is not bad advice - lots of people probably need to detach, slow and clear their minds - there are lots of health and other benefits to doing so. However if slowing time down is the goal, then this advice is exactly, perfectly wrong. In order to show why we'll need a brief lesson in neuroscience. 

Philip Zimbardo of Stanford was one of the first to look into how our brains focus on time - in particular that sometimes we are thinking about the future, sometimes the present, and sometimes the past. He calls these “temporal perspectives.” Here’s the critical factor: when it comes to time perception (how long did this day last, this month, this year, last summer) all that matters is past temporal perspective. More specifically, the you that you are and the time you experience, all exists in long term memory. The future doesn’t matter, the present doesn’t matter, only memory. You experience with time perception is directly correlated to the quantity of recallable memories you store, and how intense (deep) they are. How you experience time in the present actually has an inverse relationship with your perception of time. This is where the fallacy begins…

“The day was super hectic, busy, it flew by… alas time sped up and I ‘lost time.” Yes, time in the present temporal perspective was swift, but the key question is, “did you lay down a lot of memories?” If none of the high speed hectic activities were intense or meaningful or recallable, well then.. yes. But consider a long boring day where time extends to infinity in the present temporal perspective. The clock on the wall simply stops ticking and the day is endless. Most likely this is actually going to leave almost no memories… Sure slowing down your mind and assuming a zen-like pose might be good for your nervous system, but it won’t create memories.

So here’s why the advice is exactly perfectly wrong. In order to expand time, you have to create lots of recallable, intense memories. In order to do that, you have to process lots of information at a high rate. Slowing or emptying your mind? It might be important for a health check, but those days of high speed “in the zone” engagement where the pressure is on and you perform at your best? That’s the stuff time perception is made of.

More in my forthcoming book (working logo below)


How the Greeks Hacked Time: Kairos Versus Chronos

Time is the most common word in the English language. This might actually be a bad thing - we may be over-extending the use of a single word that actually contains a broad variety of interpretations and meanings. The Inuit have more than 50 words for snow - how can english-speakers possibly have only one word for time? The vagaries of time can be a funny thing: even as we pretend that clocks rule our lives, and that seconds add directly to minutes that add to hours, the reality is that the way we often experience time is anything but linear. Time speeds up, it slows down, sometimes "time stops.” 

The Greeks, in their wisdom, had two words for time, “chronos” (χρόνος) defined as linear, sequential and quantitative time and “kairos” (καιρός) defined as qualitative, in-the-moment time signifying the opportune moment for action. I like to think of chronos as clock time and kairos as human time. Throughout Greek writings in history, kairos was the word more often used to describe how events unfolded. As we consider our businesses, practices and interactions with leaders and employees, which kind of time is more important today? 

The etymology of kairos brings even more clarity to the meaning ascribed to the word. Kairos’ roots are to the moment when an archer releases an arrow at a target, where everything happens at once and the trajectory is set. From Wikipedia, kairos is “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved."


Consider the interactions we have daily in our businesses and relationships: even as hours and months of chronos time elapse, big shifts often take place in moments not minutes, hours or months. The passing praise of a coworker, feedback shared in the hallway after the meeting, the hug of a tear-stained toddler, the breakthrough of “a-ha” ideas – all these meaningful exchanges rest on the mantle of chronos but are ultimately kairos moments of human time and connection. 

So, how can we all wrangle kairos time to benefit our lives, relationships and companies? One of the most powerful ways is simply to recognize that small moments can really matter, more specifically that the value of an increment of time is not related to its duration. If we raise our awareness to the untapped potential found in the small moments we can expand our influence and leadership in ways that matter in the broader context. 

A smile, a nod, a kind word, a quick course-correct, listening attentively, applauding loudly – all these simple aspects of everyday life are, as it turns out, incredibly important. Cast back for a moment to remember “one of those days” where everything was going off the rails and you wanted to crawl under your desk. Then, just when you wanted to call it a day and go home early, someone dropped by your office, and with just a few kind words re-energized the rest of your week. That is kairos at work – a special form of time magic where trajectories can be re-set in seconds, and months of momentum can be released in moments. It is time: It is time to bring your kairos watch to work.

Life is Long if You Know How To Use It...

Time, by most conceivable measures is simultaneously finite (we all have a terminal illness called "life") and infinite - in that what takes place "in the dash" of your headstone represents infinite possibilities and a near infinite number of "moments." 

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The universe is approximately 13.4 billion years old - a nearly inconceivable span of time when thinking of the artificial construct of "earth years." That said, the universe is vastly older than that when you consider the division of time into seconds, microsceconds, nanoseconds, femtoseconds, and the base unit of "Planck lengths." In terms of scale magnitudes, the universe's age is 60 orders of magnitude greater than a single Planck length of time. Of course even the Planck length can be infinitely subdivided, so essentially there is an infinite amount of time within any specific duration. 

Consider this amazing graphical representation of the age of the universe and the inconspicuous blip our lifespans represent...

Yet, on the converse, despite our short span, our decades of life, consciousness, actions and meaning are nearly infinitely longer than the origins of the universe...

Physics models of the origins of the universe suggest that as much may have happened in the first nanosecond of the universe as in the billions of years since. All this to suggest my main ongoing thesis about time, specifically, that "the value of an increment of time is not related to its duration."

Our solar system centered, second/minute/hour/day/week/month/year human view of time carries all kinds of bias. Arbitrary elliptical circuits of the star we call the sun suggest an important tick on the yardstick of time... but what about the mayfly whose tenure on earth never sees a sunset much less a solar circuit? What about a Bristlecone pine with a lifespan of 5,000+ years. Are sunrises and sunsets like a strobelight? To the Bristelcone, is the birth, growth and death of other trees like the surge and collapse of an unwatered bean sprout? What about an entity with a lifespan of a "google" (10^100 years)? Would the universe's expansions and contractions (if it actually contracts) look like the blips of a firefly? 

Time, at least for us humans is not made of seconds or months or years or eons. Time is made of memories and the rest doesn't matter. Much like time follows in the wake of space in the expansion of the universe, so too does time follow in the wake of memories created in our brain. Time is made of moments: more moments equals more memories equals more time.

Perhaps Seneca had it best oh-so-short-ago: 

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”  Seneca

Chapter Preview From My Book "Design For Strengths"

From my forthcoming book, "Design For Strengths: Applying Design Thinking to Individual and Team Strengths." 

Chapter 4: Strengths, Deliberate Practice and Flow: Are Strengths Even Real?

The First Flow

My first bicycle was a Kmart Orange-Crate bike with chrome 20-inch wheels. I got it for my seventh birthday. I remember feeling disappointment with the ugly color, fenders, reflectors, and old-school banana seat: I had wanted a BMX bike resembling a motorcycle, something black and chrome with aggressive knobby tires to shoot dirt into the air as I churned the pedals.

My dad was quickly to the rescue—a half hour later the fenders, kickstand, reflectors, and banana seat were off—and I was sitting on the small seat of a bright orange mini-motorcycle and zooming away in the sunshine. For hours at a time, I would loop around the dirt piles surrounding the foundations dug for new homes in the subdivision the next neighborhood over. I fell in love with the lonesome freedom of the road: the wind in my face, the speed, and the wispy contrails of dust streaming off my tires as I rode the truck tire-pummeled tracks. I loved retracing my laps in the dirt, laying new tracks just next to the old ones and maximizing the width of the trail, leaving my mark.

Perhaps my favorite of all was to accelerate down the steep hill to our lakefront beach club and zoom out into the wet sand near the water. For a few seconds my skinny limbs would generate enough power to lift the muddy sand up and over my head while I turned hard into a slide. It was just me, the bike, the heavy breathing of my exertion, and the cultivated skill of those controlled slides— accelerations through the variable terrains of pavement, gravel, sand, and mud.

Often I would fall into a reverie where time stopped and all I would hear and think about was a low thrumming, a humming in my heart and head—perhaps reminiscent of the motorcycle I was trying to emulate—perhaps just a resonant frequency as I mastered my self-administered task. There was never anyone else around. Hours slipped away with no sensation of time passing and I would only return home when the sun was beginning to set or I heard my mother’s piercing call, “Joooohhhhnnnnn! Dinnneeerrrr is Readddddyyyy!”

Little did I know that this “deliberate practice” would set the stage for the rest of my life. That I had arbitrarily stumbled into one of my few—and very specific—strengths, a unique talent that would carry me to the very pinnacle of the sporting world: the Olympic Games.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

Wait, is there even such a thing as “strengths?” Haven’t I read that it’s just a matter of practice—of putting in the time? Virtually every article, book, or commentary about the most successful people in any field—sports, music, business— always refers to “persistence” or “grit.” The plot that generally emerges is, “I just worked harder and longer than anyone else—and eventually became an overnight success.”

In his book Peak, Anders Ericsson suggests that there is little-to-no evidence to prove something like “innate talent” even exists and comes to the conclusion that even the most seemingly gifted among us are simply a result of lots and lots of deliberate practice.

But there are certainly other perspectives. A sporadic debate over the last decade has been centered on the dialectic between “talent” and “strengths” and the counterargument of practice and discipline. In the “strengths” camp are the popular business books, Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton and Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath. In the “deliberate practice” camp, we have Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, Peak by Anders Ericsson, and The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown by Daniel Coyle. Malcolm Gladwell also entered the fray with his classic book, Outliers. From that book, the argument goes:

Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990s by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. With the help of the Academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups. In the first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. In the second group were those judged to be merely “good.” In the third were students who intended to be music teachers in the public school system. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced? Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old. In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, until by the age of twenty they were practicing—that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better—well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.

The Power of Deliberate Practice: Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle (no relation to me) is a contributing editor for Outside magazine and the author of The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown., and Lance Armstrong's War. In our interview, he shared the following:

There has been a lot of talk about the “10,000 hour rule:” the idea that breakthrough performers in all fields put in about that amount of time mastering their field before becoming an “overnight success.” It is a great rule of thumb, but I think it has often been misinterpreted. People see a number and they think quantity. Some sports programs even count the hours. But the whole point is about quality, not quantity. A deep 10 minutes is better than a shallow two hours. It is essential that the type of practice be a very specific type of practice - deliberate practice.

So what is deliberate practice? Simply put, deliberate practice is a specific type of practice where you spend a lot of time at the very edges of your capability, paying close attention to your failures, and being willing to go into this uncomfortable place again and again in order to improve. Master performers in any field do this kind of practice and they do it for thousands of hours to finally achieve breakthrough performance. Hence Ericsson’s proposition of the 10,000 rule. But, when it comes to the 10,000 hour rule the number itself can be misleading - for some it may be 5,500 hours and for others it might be 15,000, but other than a couple of rare exceptions, no one gets a free pass. (The exceptions here being simple activities matched with things people are genetically gifted at. For example, pure speed or power - there are examples of someone becoming very good at the high jump very quickly.) However, for complex tasks there are no exceptions, no free passes, and everyone must put in the time. Yes, some will pick up things faster, others slower, but what all have in common is this strange obsession to make long term progress on a hard task. By staying on the edge, by paying attention to the boundaries and feedback provided by failure, by maximizing the learning with each repetition - this is how deliberate practice leads to mastery. By the way, very few people are willing to put in this kind of sacrifice.

In my book, (The Talent Code) I talk about another mysterious ingredient in the path to mastery, a magic moment where people “suddenly” decide to flip the switch and start putting in the time and the deliberate practice. I call it “ignition,” and it is pretty mysterious. Why do some put in the time, the deliberate practice, and some - most actually - don’t? One essential component is that there is often a perceptual shift in self-image. These peak performers start to imagine or see a future version of themselves that is successful at whatever the challenging endeavor before them is. They start to connect their identity to that future self, and that engages their motivational system in a powerful way. We know how our respiratory system works, and that on a day-to-day basis, we engage very little of its capacity unless put it to the test. That’s how our motivational system works - it runs in the background until somehow triggered (ignition) - and if that happens, you can release or realize a tremendous amount of motivational energy.

Ignition (the process of leaning fully into a hard task) is not something that can be designed or created. You can’t cause lightning to strike. However, you can seed the right conditions for a potential electrical storm. You can manipulate the environment, seed the clouds, and then pray for rain… and magic... and electricity.

Strengths vs. Practice: A Spurious Correlation?

In the case between strengths and practice, the compelling evidence appears to be centered directly in the “deliberate practice” camp. The correlation between roughly 10,000 hours of practice and success is so uniform and consistent it appears to be irrefutable. In fact it seems no one has ever been great at something without thousands upon thousands of hours of practice.

Tiger Woods had most likely practiced more golf than any other child on the planet by age five and Bill Gates almost certainly had more time coding on a mainframe by age 14 than any other child on the planet. Mozart started writing music at age five, but did not achieve mainstream success with his compositions for more than 10 years. As Ericsson puts it, “We don’t know of any evidence...that there are really prerequisites that would make some less likely to succeed than other individuals who are willing to engage in the appropriate training.”

So … practice it is, right?

Wait a minute. In the world of statistics, making definitive conclusions based on correlations is a cardinal sin. “Correlation does not prove causality” is gospel. While it may be tempting to use correlations to suggest causality, doing so is a dangerous game riddled with many examples of erroneous and spurious correlations. Why can’t we “prove” something from highly correlated data? Because there is the risk that unidentified factors—also correlated—are actually driving the results. Here are some humorous, spurious correlations:

● The number of people who annually drown in a swimming pool correlates nearly precisely with the number of films Nicholas Cage appears in.

● The age of Miss America correlates with the number of murders committed annually by the method “steam and hot vapors.” (How does one murder with “steam and hot vapors?” No idea.)

● The divorce rate in Maine correlates precisely to the consumption of margarine.

Humor aside, incorrect correlations have led to some pretty terrible conclusions on things that matter:

● Margarine consumption soared in the 1950s and 60s, replacing butter on tables in the United States. This was based in large part on USDA guidance based on a famous study by Ancel Keys in 1953 that showed a strong correlation between diets in countries high in saturated fat and heart disease. This led, over time, to USDA guidelines recommending reduced consumption of saturated fat and a strong argument for margarine instead of butter, since it has one-quarter the saturated fat of butter. The correlation was strong, and the logic seemed impeccable: eating saturated fat makes you fat and increases your cholesterol. Sales of margarine took off, butter consumption fell off a cliff, and everyone was healthier … except they weren’t.

In fact, a precipitous rise in heart disease followed these guidelines—most likely because it is yet another spurious correlation. As George Mann, a biochemist at Vanderbilt Medical School wrote: “Ambitious scientists and food companies [had] transformed [a] fragile hypothesis into treatment dogma.”

Keys was not the unbiased scientist he should have been—he self-selected countries to support his hypothesis and ignored countries like France, where heart disease is rare despite diets very high in saturated fats.

According to Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, “When researchers went back and analyzed some of the data from the Seven Countries study, they found that what best correlated with heart disease was not saturated fat intake but sugar.”

Meanwhile, the latest data (while still correlative) paints a stark picture. It basically completely reverses the long-standing guidelines. Margarine’s trans fats are the new enemy and butter is now being used as a superfood in “Bulletproof Coffee” and ketogenic diets. The latest correlation? A Medical Research Council survey showed that men eating butter ran half the risk of developing heart disease as those using margarine.

Other claims that were ultimately disproved as nonsense include:

  • Crime reduction in the 1990s in New York City was attributed to implementation of the “broken windows theory,” which postulated that crimes of all kinds could be reduced by minimizing small crimes in a neighborhood. The correlation was simple—in neighborhoods with clean sidewalks and buildings in good repair, crime was drastically lower.

So, the theory was that by ticketing turnstile jumpers, removing graffiti, cleaning up litter, and fixing broken windows, more serious crimes would decline. This police effort in NYC was then followed by a drastic decrease in crime and the causal narrative was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. That is, until a better correlation emerged: that the decrease in crime was directly correlated to Roe v. Wade, which had led to a birth rate reduction in low-income mothers, thus reducing the number of potential perpetrators growing up in poverty. This “better correlation” was popularized in the book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and directly challenged the “broken window” theory.

But then … a new correlation was found in the data. As it turns out, the birth rate of at-risk children actually increased after Roe v. Wade. And so, we are left holding a empty bags of correlation with no cache of causality. What caused the reduction in crime in NYC in the 1990s? The answer is possibly “We don’t know,” or more likely it is, “A whole bunch of things, all at once.”

But wait, in 2016 emerged yet another new correlation, one worthy of serious consideration. The crime decline in the 90’s was not limited to New York City - it was widespread all around the country and simultaneous. But, it was stronger in some communities than others. A new correlation tying the amount of lead in the soil (from leaded gasoline in cars) to the declines appears to be the current candidate for the most likely cause. Zip-code by zip-code or even block-by-city-block the declines appear to tie directly to known degenerations of the brain caused by lead that are directly linked to crime. As the lead faded from the soil, so did the overall crime rate recede.

Here are a few others:

  • “Eating breakfast everyday causes weight loss.” Probably not true. The weak correlations that exist are not strong enough to suggest eating breakfast is a cause for weight loss.

  • “Eating dinner together as a family leads to less teen drug use.” Not true. Other factors, including the strength of family relations are the better correlation.

  • Vaccinations cause autism and other issues.” They don’t: there are no validated studies proving a correlation. This idea emerged after a 1998 study (since retracted) inaccurately tied the two.

As I read all the stories reinforcing the 10,000-hour rule, I was rationally convinced. The data was clear: the correlation between practice and mastery appeared to a 1 to 1 ratio. Nearly one hundred percent of the time it seems, masters in their field practiced tons of hours and usually more than just about anyone else. Certainly my own experience mirrored the data:

After a year of zooming around the neighborhood on the orange Kmart bike, my father bought me a bright yellow, red and orange Raleigh 10-speed the next summer when I was eight. He then invited me to join him on club rides that were 15 to 20 miles long. I enjoyed them, so we tried a half-century ride (50 miles) early in the summer. I didn’t struggle with that, so then we tried a “century ride” (100 miles). And then another and then another. All told, that summer I completed 13 century rides. I might have ridden my bicycle more miles than any other child on the planet by age eight. This reflection supports the validity of the 10,000-hour rule.

Talent is Overrated… Or Is It?

But … my intuition wouldn’t completely let go of the natural talent side of the equation. As hard as it might be to pinpoint or prove the reality of native strengths, most people have an inkling that they are naturally good at certain things and other things not so much. From an early age, many children tend to have an affinity or capacity for certain activities and an aversion to others. The hard part is that strengths tend to be fairly specific, while weaknesses—these tend to be very broad and are usually pretty clear.

I know this personally. I am a terrible athlete in almost every way. I have a host of native weaknesses that are extraordinarily broad in swath and enduring no matter how much I practice or invest in them. My strengths though? As it turns out I have only one real (and very specific) strength as an athlete, one that emerged over the years. Chapter Five will examine those strengths and weaknesses in detail, but for now, back to the potential correlation error.

In this example, the correlation error is related to the question itself (remember the most important principle in Design Thinking: “Are we asking the right question?”). The question that was being asked and answered with a near-perfect correlation coefficient of 1.0 was the following: “When it comes to practice hours, what do the very best in the world all have in common?” And the answer is definitive—in fact worthy of a causal relationship: “All master performers in all fields put in their equivalent of ‘10,000 hours.’”

But, are we asking the right question? Are we solving the right problem? If that is the right question and answer, then each one of us should arbitrarily go choose some area of business, music, or sports regardless of our real or perceived natural talents, double down for the 5,824 waking hours we have each year and in two years time we can then be the best in the world in anything we choose. It sounds impossible and ridiculous… and it almost certainly is. Nonetheless, this appears to be exactly what Ericsson is suggesting. “...instead of spending years noodling around in search of a true calling, we all might be better off to pick an area we are interested in and fearlessly dedicate ourselves to that area…”

So, following this logic, I could commit, for example, to swim every single day for the next two years for 8 hours a day. Sure, if I did that I would get better at swimming. How much better? Well that’s anyone’s guess, but it is a bit of a moot point, because, almost for sure I won’t last even a week or two. Why? Because I have no talent for swimming. Case in point -  as a kid my parents took me to swim lessons each Tuesday and Thursday for two months the summer I was 7 years old. But I was so terrible that unbeknownst to them, after the first floundering failure of lesson one, I quit. I quit, but I didn’t tell them, and each Tuesday and Thursday I would dutifully get in the car and head to the lake, whereupon immediately after getting dropped-off I would go hide in the woods for duration of the lesson.

The debate rages on, Douglas Detterman, a psychology professor at Case Western University, cites a number of factors that researchers have linked to expert performance, including intelligence, motivation, and personality. “Ericsson denies ability differences and claims that all differences are due to instructional differences,” he says. “I find that to be blatantly ridiculous.”

Regardless, here is the harsh reality: almost no one puts in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is necessarily hard. Deliberate practice can be boring. Deliberate practice requires motivation and persistence and grit. Deliberate practice requires intense focus for hours a day on activities where tiny margins will separate the winners, the achievers, the famous from the also-rans and everyone else. As Ericsson points out, “...there's nothing inherently wrong with being average. In fact, working toward expertise in any area can be a grueling, lonely, and often ugly undertaking.”

If the vast majority of people eventually give up—fail to follow through, fail to persevere for the required 10,000 hours for success—then this begs the original question: instead of what leads to great performance (we now know: 10,000 hours) then perhaps the better question is why does anybody bother to sweat, ache, and toil through 10,000 hours of deliberate practice?

Simon Sinek would agree that this is a better question. As he says, “Always start with ‘why.’” If it is a better question, then it should deliver a better answer. The answer to this potentially more important question actually circles back to the case for native strengths and talent—and features something called "Flow."

What is “Flow” and how is it related to talent? If you have missed the waterfall of books and articles on “Flow” (sorry), just pick up Steven Kotler's book The Rise of Superman. “Flow” or “the zone” or “the peak performance state” are all labels for those moments of intense concentration where time simultaneously stops—and speeds up—and we deliver our very best performances.

The “Godfather” of Flow is a man with a complicated name but a singularly striking perspective regarding its importance. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the term and is the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published in 1990. Flow research has recently been amped up with the help of modern measurement techniques from neuroscience. Here’s why:

The Science of Flow: Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler is the author of The Rise of Superman and coauthor of Stealing Fire and Abundance. He is also co-founder and Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project. When I interviewed him, he had this to say about Flow:

What is Flow? Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, one where you feel and perform your very best. It’s those moments of total absorption: action and awareness merge, sense of self vanishes, time passes strangely—sometimes it slows down and you’ll get a freeze frame effect, more frequently it speeds up and five hours can pass by in five minutes. And throughout, performance, both mental and physical, goes through the roof. The brain takes in more information per second, processing it more deeply and more completely. You may know it by other names, being in “the zone,” the “runner’s high,” the “peak performance state”—but they are all describing the very same thing.

If you have ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so involved with a work project that all else is forgotten, then you have experienced Flow.

In terms of the brain, in the Flow state we actually use much less of the brain—not more. The main portion of the brain that is deactivated is your prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that governs all your higher cognitive functioning—complex decision-making, long-term planning. Why does time pass so strangely? Because time is calculated all over the prefrontal cortex and as parts of it shut down we can no longer perform that calculation. Another part of the brain that winks out is the dorsal lateral area of the prefrontal cortex. This is the area that houses your “inner critic,” your “inner Woody Allen,” that nagging, defeatist, always-on voice in your head. This voice turns off during Flow and as a result we feel liberated. We are finally getting out of our own way, creativity goes up, risk-taking goes up, performance skyrockets.

Besides these changes in neuroanatomical function, the brain also produces changes in neurochemistry and neuro-electricity—the way the brain communicates with itself. During Flow the brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemicals. Besides being performance enhancing, these are also “feel good drugs.” Five of the most potent neurochemicals known to man are released. Hence Flow is considered one of the most addictive states on earth. Once we have an experience that starts producing Flow, we will go extraordinarily far out of our way to get more of it. Researchers now believe that Flow is the source code to intrinsic motivation.

Why is it important? Because it is remarkably clear that Flow speeds up learning. Studies have shown that we can be up to five to seven times more creative and learn up to five times faster in Flow. Flow might very well be a shortcut to chop the 10,000-hour rule in half or more. Perhaps as important or even more important—the people that have the most Flow are the happiest people on earth.

Here’s the challenge though—Flow might be the most desirable state on earth, but it is also one of the most elusive. While seekers have spent centuries trying, no one, until recently, has found a to reliable way reproduce the experience.

Building off of Csikszentmihalyi's work, Kotler examines the neurobiology of these “altered states” and finds two interesting things: 1) The Flow state is dependent on a relative mastery of the task at hand, where level of skill meets the level of challenge (native or developed talent, it doesn’t matter), and 2) The Flow state simultaneously produces the world’s most desired (and addictive) set of chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, endorphins, and serotonin. Here’s Kotler again, from an interview with Chase Jarvis:

For example, when you snort cocaine, all the drug does is cause the brain to release copious amounts of the neurochemical dopamine. Well, dopamine is released in Flow. So are norepinephrine (speed), anandamide (marijuana), endorphins (heroin), and serotonin (ecstasy). You actually couldn’t produce this cocktail with drugs. Trying to take all those drugs at once and you’re going to end up drooling or dead. But the brain does it naturally.

Operant Conditioning: Getting to “Why”

So, an interesting potential conclusion: peak performers are addicted! Seeking that neurochemical feedback loop, peak performers put in the time because of the chemical reinforcement.

Back to our central question: “WHY do great performers practice more than their peers?” I think the answer is becoming clear: they enter into the Flow state more often than their peers, they experience this chemical cocktail more often than others, and hence they are willing to practice more than anyone else.

And here’s the interesting wrinkle: an essential component of the Flow state is mastery, the ability to match the level of skill with the level of challenge. I believe that the reason that some people enter the Flow state more often than others is simply because they are better at whatever the challenge is than others. Thus, they achieve the mastery required for a state of Flow faster and easier than their peers. From a behavioral psychology standpoint, the way “Flow” provides its rewards encourages both practice and commitment.

Consider elements of behavioral psychology around the “reward” of Flow. One interesting aspect of Flow is that achieving it is almost always unpredictable. Athletes say, “I couldn’t get into the zone.” Performers say, “I lost the line.” Flow tends to come in fits and starts and only a very few masters can enter the zone predictably. So, from an “operant conditioning” behavioral psychology perspective, Flow can be categorized as form of “variable-ratio reinforcement.”

What does that mean exactly? Well, consider an experiment where the reward of “Flow” and all its enticing neurochemicals is replaced with a “pellet.” And in this same simplistic exercise, instead of an artist performing or an athlete competing, let’s simplify it to a rat (performer/athlete) pulling a lever (practice) to receive a pellet (Flow) and their relative willingness to do it for long periods of time—or not (commitment).

This is a classic version of an operant conditioning experiment popularized by B. F. Skinner and his Skinner Boxes—controlled studies with birds, rats, and other animals in order to study their responses to certain positive or negative rewards. What we learn from those experiments is that, in the cases of positive reinforcement (the pellet), there are significantly different outcomes based on how those rewards are provided.

In this kind of experiment there are two outcome elements to test, based on the schedule of how the rewards are delivered. First there is the response rate, the rate at which the rat presses the lever (how hard the rat works, or “practice” in our metaphor). And second there is the extinction rate, the rate at which lever pressing dies out (how soon the rat gives up, or “commitment” before quitting).

There are a number of methodologies to deliver rewards. For example, one method is continuous reinforcement, where the rat receives a pellet for every push of the lever. In this case the response rate is slow (low levels of effort or practice), and the extinction rate is fast (low levels of commitment). The rat knows he’ll get a pellet for every push, so he doesn’t work (practice) very hard, and quits as soon as he is satiated (low commitment).

In the world of athletics there is a sad but common adjacency. Often, the most talented athletes quit early. They win every race for a long interval (continuous reinforcement) and hence their level of practice and commitment is low. As soon as the dynamics change and they can’t win every time, they quit—usually for good.

Then there is the fixed-ratio reinforcement, where a certain number of presses are required to bring a reward. In this case the response rate is fast (lots of effort/practice), but the extinction rate is relatively quick (low commitment). The rat has to push 5 or 10 or more times to get a pellet and so will work hard at first, but as before will quit after it is satiated, because it knows it can simply press 5, 10, or 20 more times again to get the next pellet.

More interesting is when variable mechanisms for reinforcement are introduced. Variable-interval reinforcement schemas provide a reward once, at random, during a particular time interval, and then none until the next interval starts. This dramatically increases both the response rate—the rat presses feverishly until it gets the reward—and a slow extinction rate. The rat will keep pressing for long intervals, until it finally figures out that there will only be one reward per five minutes or one hour or whatever the refresh rate is. Eventually, the rat figures out the interval and only works hard at the beginning of each interval until the reward is received.

The most effective in terms of response rate (level of practice) and extinction rate (level of commitment) is the variable-ratio reinforcement schema. This method provides a pellet randomly for a certain number of lever pulls. Maybe it is 20 or 50 or 100. Because the reinforcement is not time based and is instead based on the amount of work, the rat is motivated to pull the lever more and more to provide the greatest number of pellets. And the uncertainty around if—or when—the pellets might run out (remember this is not based on any kind of time interval) drives an extinction rate that is the lowest of any of the test-and-response mechanisms (i.e., it provides the highest level of commitment).

The Talent – Flow – Practice – Commitment Cycle

The Flow state is a variable-ratio reinforcement program for humans. If—and this is a hugely important precondition—IF someone can achieve the Flow state in a particular activity, THEN a non-predictable reinforcement correlated to an amount of work (not to a time interval) will motivate these individuals to work harder AND longer than in any other scenario. As Kotler put it to me in our interview, “Once we have an experience that starts producing Flow, we will go extraordinarily far out of our way to get more of it. Researchers now believe that Flow is the source code to intrinsic motivation.”

But here’s the giant barrier to entry into the Flow state. In the Skinner box, the rats had to stumble into the lever in order to release a pellet. In the continuous-reinforcement program, one stumble into the lever one time leads directly to a pellet and the rat almost immediately adopts the lever-pulling practice. In the fixed-ratio experiment, enough touches on the lever will eventually lead to rewards and again the rat almost always figures out the rules quickly.

However, in the variable-rewards scenario the rat sometimes never learns the game. The longer the interval before the first reward—or the greater the number of required lever touches before the first reward—the more likely that the rat NEVER learns the game and hence NEVER receives a reward. In the literature around the variable-reinforcement programs the language begins with, “Providing that one correct response has been made …” Then the response and extinction rates will improve. BUT if the rat never achieves a “correct response”—i.e., the first Flow (the first pellet), then that rat will discontinue pulling the lever and give up altogether.

Consider the analogy to the Flow state. In this metaphor a “correct response”—i.e., a lever pull resulting in a pellet (a first Flow)—comes in a variable-ratio reinforcement form of operant conditioning. In this case, though, the variable ratio is not completely random—it is exactly and perfectly correlated to the relative talent or natural capacity that someone has for the activity on hand.

Most humans, given repeated failures at something, will naturally give up. But those that achieve some success in the early goings will keep pulling the “Flow lever” over and over to repeat the state. The trick is to find the lever and be good enough to get a reward early. Those lucky few with the talent to achieve Flow before quitting—well, those few have a shot at greatness. This group, and only this group, will put in the required hours of diligent practice (lever pulling) required to achieve peak performance (a huge hoard of pellets equaling the “10,000 hours”).

In summary, this research—applied back to people, practice, and performance—suggests the following: breakthrough performers practice more than everyone else. They practice more than everyone else because they garner the reinforcing reward of the Flow state at least once and, then, more often than everyone else. They enter the Flow state more than everyone else because they have a natural talent for whatever the activity is. Talent leads to the first Flow, the first Flow leads to Practice, the variable-ratio reinforcement of Flow leads to Commitment, and Commitment leads to the 10,000 hours required for Mastery. All are required and many, if not most, people never experience the first Flow and hence have absolutely no motivation to practice.

Csikszentmihalyi and Susan Jackson, in Flow in Sports, conclude:

In many ways, one might say the whole effort of mankind throughout the millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them part of everyday existence.

Whoa! The whole effort of mankind throughout history? That’s possibly confirmation bias on Csikszentmihalyi and Jackson’s part. But, given the estimated $4 trillion spent annually in the global economy on legal and illegal ways to produce these Flow chemicals in our bodies, perhaps not as grand a statement as it seems.

Talent is NOT overrated (but it alone is not enough.) Flow is underrated. It is time to discover our strengths and talents and spend more time in Flow. This leads me to one of my favorite questions—and conversation starters: “What are you best at?”

Short Track Speedskating -- The Fastest Sport in the World

Fun fact: Short Track speedskating is actually FASTER than long track!

Yep. Fact.

In fact, short track is the fastest human powered sport in the world* (under certain conditions - see below)

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But wait, you say, the world record in short track for the 500 meters is 39.9 seconds, vs. 33.9 in long track, and 24.8 in velodrome cycling…

Aha, let’s break that down a bit. First of all, short track and long track speedskating times include a standing start - the 500m world record in cycling is a flying start. So to make comparisons fairer, we’ll have to use the shortest standing start event in cycling - the 1000 meter “kilo."

So to compare let’s use the fastest lap time for each event:

  • 7.9 seconds for 111 meters in short track (J. R. Celski)
  • 24.3 seconds for 400 meters in long track (Pavel Kulizhnikov)
  • 18.8 seconds for 333 meters on the cycling velodrome (Francois Pervis: this is 1/3 of his WR kilo time - the shortest event with a standing start for comparison purposes)

So doing the math on these nominal times and distances and converting to meters a second (X meters/lap time) we get the following speeds which we convert to MPH (MPH ((= X m/s * 3600s / 1000m) * 0.62 m/km)

  • 14.1 m/s for short track speedskating or 31.3 MPH
  • 16.2 m/s for long track speedskating or 36.2 MPH
  • 17.7 m/s for velodrome cycling or 39.6 MPH

All this makes intuitive sense. Naturally, you go fastest on a bike, and you can’t go as fast in a hockey rink… right? Wrong. There’s a missing calculation. Despite the nominal track size, the athletes sometimes travel a distance different than the actual track dimensions. Great cyclists ride right on the pole lane and even dip below it, so they travel nearly exactly the distance of the event. Long track skaters swing wide on the inners, less so on the outers, and by my calculations skate about 412M per lap in a sprint event. But short track speedskaters? Watching the 500m races from the last few world championships, the skaters are board-to-board on a 30M wide rink. Adjusting for the pads, they skate (conservatively) corners 26 meters wide vs. the 16 meter wide corner blocks. 2πr gives us the distance they actually skate. Instead of the nominal distance of 25 meters around the corners, they actually skate about 41 meters per corner or about 142 meters per lap. Now, plugging these “real” distances back in the formula above, here’s what we get for actual speeds:

  • 24.3 seconds for 412 meters in long track speedskating = 16.7 m/s or 37.3 MPH
  • 18.8 seconds for 333 meters in velodrome cycling = 17.7 m/s or 39.6 MPH
  • 7.9 seconds for 142 meters in short track speedskating = 18.0 m/s or 40.2 MPH

So, there you have it. Short Track speedskating is the fastest human powered sport in the world.*

*For for the fastest recorded single lap in a standing start event. For pure top speed, cycling is the easy winner, with match sprinters topping 48mph.

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My "Intimate" Moment With Tonya Harding, and the Film, I Tonya

True story: when I first met Tonya Harding at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, I was naked, and so was she...


Last night I watched the amazing movie, I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding and it brought back so many memories and a couple déjà vu's. I can remember being in the arena down at ice level during the Lillehammer Olympics, watching Tonya rush out, late for her program, and then stop about a minute in to request a re-start due to a broken lace.

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The movie replay was perfect. The movie is funny and sad and is so over-the-top ridiculous that if you didn't know better would feel like complete fiction. It is a definite a must-see and will mostly likely change your perceptions of those infamous events. Over 24 years ago, Tonya Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly hired two bumbling wanna-be mobsters (Shawn Eckhardt and Shane Stant) to whack Nancy Kerrigan on the knee so Tonya could be assured a spot on the Olympic team. Media blitzed the story especially a video snippet of Kerrigan sitting on the floor sobbing and screaming, "Why!? Why?!" 

A couple of months later after the story broke and I was at the Olympic village in Lillehammer.  The story continued to hold the headlines as new information was breaking daily including greater suspicion that Tonya may have had a role in the affair. I had met Nancy on a few occasions and was on friendly terms with her, but it seemed impolite to even inquire about the matter. 

The Olympic village is a safe haven with TV's, lounges, food, and even massage and physical therapy available 24/7. After a tough workout I decided to take advantage of the massage and entered the physical therapy area which featured dozens of massage tables in pairs each set facing one TV on a cart. As was the norm, I stripped down into just a towel and laid face down as the therapist began working on my calves and hamstrings. I watched coverage of skiing with a bit of glazed indifference and tried to relax. At some point, I heard some motion to my right and as I turned my head, I noticed someone had joined me on the second table. I knew it was a girl because of two towels and a blonde pony tail, but had no idea who it was. 

Just then two things happened. First the girl on the table next to me turned her head and our eyes locked - I was staring into the visage of none other than Tonya Harding. Just as that was sinking in another thing happened - on the TV, louder commentary intruded overtop the skiing that caused a hot rush of embarrassment to course through my veins, "Breaking news in the Nancy Kerrigan - Tonya Harding affair - new evidence  has emerged that suggests possible knowledge or even tacit approval by Tonya Harding for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan." I was mortified. For some reason I felt like a voyeur - like I had intruded into someone else's private and embarrassing affair that had made its way into the light of day and I began to subtly turn my head the other direction. 

Tonya had swiveled to see the TV, but the movement of my head caught her attention and she turned back to me raising her hand slighty to put me 'on pause' as her eyes moved over to the left side of the TV where the remote control was - just inches from my right hand. Her eyes returned to mine with excitement and with not even the remotest hint of embarrassment she spoke.

What she said next I'll never forget, "Turn it up!  Turn it up! - I want to hear this!" so... I did. You can't make this stuff up. That was my time with Tonya. 

Why You Should Design Fear and Suffering Into Your Vacations

The Art of Really Living - Time Dilation Tip #1:

Want to expand time? Want to create lasting memories that leave notches in your brain creating an ever-expanding temporal yardstick? Well, you won’t like the following advice, but this is one of the most effective tools to impact “chronoception” or perceptual time.

Design Fear and Suffering Into Your Vacations.  “What?!” you say, “why would I intentionally ruin my blissful escape from the day-to-day grind? “I’ve worked hard and suffered to earn this respite – why would I ruin it??”

Here’s why: vacations give you a freedom to escape the routine, to generate experiences that are new, different, and intense. The kind of experiences you can recall with in uncanny detail months, years, even decades later. But here’s the rub: almost always the best and most expansive memories we have involve incidents of suffering that, in the moment, were a crisis or a struggle, but with the patina of time and under the golden gloss of memory have subsequently become the highlights of the stories you tell. The human brain is wired to identify with the hero’s journey or monomyth and each hero’s journey contains elements of stress and crisis as the center of the plot. Odds are good, your best vacation stories include some sort of challenge or crisis.

Breaking it down:

  1. We, as humans, are wired for stories – facts and data are easily forgotten, but stories we remember.
  2. All stories, particularly the most memorable, have a plot.
  3. All plots have a crisis: a struggle often involving fear and suffering.
  4. If you don’t have a crisis you don’t have a plot.
  5. If you don’t have a plot you don’t have a story.
  6. If you don’t have a story you won’t have anything to remember.
  7.  ∴ (Therefore) you must design fear and suffering into your vacations. It is simple logic.

Conclusion: Sure you can go to the all-inclusive resort, lounge calmly by the pool sipping cocktails. But, when you return home a week later, and you are asked “how was your vacation?” there most likely will be moment of awkward silence, a pause as you search your memory for the thread of a narrative, and then, absent a plot, a crisis or a story, your answer will be a slightly chagrined “great!” End of conversation.

PS: Here’s an example 


Why Design Thinking "Trumps" Big Data

Or "Why the number of films Nicholas Cage stars in annually apparently predicts pool drownings."

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Why: I wanted to write a buzz-worthy post and began to wonder if the title and search terms of an article were more important than the content itself. Do others share my technology-induced ADD? Do all of us need the counsel of ADD leadership coach and psychologist Phil Bossiere?

That said, the making the premise work: Big Data is coming. More and more we will be able to see the correlations between even larger and more disperse sets of data and further unravel the onion-like layers of psychology, science, society, technology and the subtle perturbations of the quantum physics underlying it all. They say "the data doesn't lie"... but it all depends on whether you are asking it the right question. This is where Design Thinking DOES trump Big Data. The core of design thinking always is to ensure "are we asking the right question?" Or as the adage goes,

You can have all the right answers, but it doesn't matter if you are asking the wrong question

Correlation Doesn't Prove Causality: everyone who takes stats 101 learns this phrase, yet history is plagued with an embarrassing pattern of human confirmation bias and erroneous attribution of causality to correlation. Here are a few examples from this excellent article:

  • Hormone replacement therapy was correlated with reduced instance of cardiac disease... until a more important correlation with higher socioeconomic status upended the claim.
  • Crime reduction in the 90's in NYC was attributed to police efforts following the "broken windows theory" and widely credited to those actions and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Tipping Point... until a better correlation emerged from a potential reduction in birth-rate to low-income mothers driven by Roe v. Wade as popularized by Levit and Dubner in Freakonomics... Except as it turns out the birth rate of at-risk children may have actually increased after Roe v. Wade, so.. what is it?

Other similar claims that were ultimately disproven as nonsense:

  • Eating breakfast = weight loss
  • Eating dinner together as a family = less teen drug use
  • Vaccinations = autism and other issues

Other, funnier spurious correlations: As it turns out given enough data and the ability to process it (e.g. "Big Data") spurious correlations can emerge from all directions. A couple of my favorites:

  • The number of people annually drowning in a pool correlates nearly precisely with the number of films Nicholas Cage appears in.
  • The age of Miss America correlates with annual murders via "steam and hot vapors" (how does one do this? No idea.)
  • The divorce rate in Maine correlates precisely to the consumption of margarine

Asking the right question (and the null hypothesis.) Design thinking constantly anchors to empathy and reframing the question: correlation errors are often driven by confirmation bias - a "belief" that the answer has been found. True statisticians know that you can never "prove" causality from correlation, but they can disprove that things are uncorrelated - a double negative that if inaccurately simplified suggests you can prove causality from correlation.

A terrible question and one of the most embarrassing errors in science: "Does eating fat and in particular saturated fat cause obesity and heart disease?" This question and the corresponding correlation/causality errors over the last 45 years may have killed more Americans than smoking and car accidents combined. Was there a correlation between eating fat and obesity: apparently yes. Was is possible that a lower fat, (and likely higher plant based) diet also correlated with a more health conscious, high income group of people who exercised more with access to better medical care than those who ate a higher portion of fat in their diets? Probably. So the null hypothesis could not be proven (at the time) that eating fat does not NOT cause obesity. The inverse of the null hypothesis was then very logical (if completely flawed):

If you eat fat, you get fat.

Seemingly every doctor and nutritionist in the world with the exception of the much-maligned Robert Atkins jumped on the bandwagon and the US and the world in its wake shifted to a low-fat (and hence high carb) diet in the 70's in accordance with this data and logic.

The Big Fat Lie: unfortunately the correlation that eating fat causes obesity and the corresponding advice to shift to a low fat high carb diet has almost certainly had catastrophic outcomes. The obesity rate in the US was steady at 15% until 1980, and since then has climbed to nearly 40% - close to triple! Lest I also confuse correlation with causality lets get back to our original question and reframe it better: "do our bodies process all foods and calories the same?" and "Which foods lead us to storing fat and which foods lead to burning fat." Better questions that can lead to chemistry vs. correlation.

Chemistry and causality vs. correlation and causality. Data correlations are, as mentioned, slippery slopes to causality, but when you speak physics or chemistry, you CAN prove causality. In physics we have Newton's third law "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." In chemistry and biology there are similar laws including conservation of mass, equilibrium etc. So in testing we can examine what chemicals and hormones are released in the body when consuming certain types of foods, we can then chemically and biologically ascertain which of those food/chemical combinations cause our bodies to burn or store fat, and then we can announce findings with a much greater level of confidence.

And the chemistry says?

Eating fat causes us to burn fat, eating carbohydrates causes us to store fat.

Whoah! how did we have it exactly wrong for so very long?? So basically everything we have been told for 30 years by the "experts" is wrong?? Here we are lambasting McDonalds, when it is really Coke and General Mills that are to blame. I, for one, get angry every time I think about this. For two decades I avoided fats, ate boatloads of bread and pasta, and "carbo-loaded" before every single competition, screwing up all kinds of balances including insulin, causing inflammation and soreness, and taking on probably 5 lbs of extra water weight to carry around the track. Now that I'm low carb, I can see it dramatically any time I go off the wagon: shaky nerves, creaky joints, and an immediate weight gain of 5 lbs. of water. I can speak to this from personal experience, but slowly and quietly the world's experts have eschewed their prior guidance: here are three great books: Eat Fat, Get Thin In Defense of Food It starts with Food

For God's sake, I ate Margarine instead of butter for 25 years! At that time dietary guidelines had butter as Charles Manson and coconut oil was the devil. Now along with millions of other bullet-proof coffee aficionados I put a tablespoon of both coconut oil and butter into my coffee every morning. Just 3 years ago I switched to a high fat low carb diet and within 3 weeks I lost 20 lbs and looked 10 years younger. Eating eggs and butter every day, my cholesterol has dropped significantly and my weight and body fat have stabilized at very healthy levels.

Conclusion: Design Thinking (and asking the right questions) needs to guide Big Data Correlations. We are all human beings and subject to all sorts of biases driven by complex psychological schemes and evolutionary holdouts and shortcuts. The emergence of Big Data and its limitless possibilities for potentially spurious correlations will most likely lead to a host of new rabbit trails and red herrings. Who knows what new wrong questions we might ask and what new unintended consequences may result. I, for one, am glad we no longer have saccharine in our diet sodas, but the reality is, saccharine is slightly less carcinogenic than green beans. Oops. Oh well, bring on the butter!

What kinds of questions are we going to get wrong with the advent of big data ?

PS: I assume somewhere in this article I too attributed correlation to causality, an egregious hypocritical fractal. Apologies in advance - please point it out kindly.




A Moment of Flow

The Physics of Flow

We were on our second exploration of the backcountry of James Peak when it happened. For a brief interval I entered the “flow state” in a primordial and unprecedented moment of ecstastis. Like my occasional lucid dreams I flew high and free… but this time in real life.

We plummeted down the first run of untracked powder, wilting snow-covered pines contrasting with the reflected blues and shimmering whites of the sky and clouds above. Due to the uncontrolled backcountry area we were entering, I was primed to be aware of the snowpack, wind, temperature and exposure. I was highly observant to the sensations sent through the divining rod of my knees from the hidden reserves of blue water below.

I was in Utah for “Flow and Snow” a unique small-group experience led by Flow-masters, authors and practitioners Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler. Along for the ride and carving turns ahead and behind the group were pro skiers Langely McNeal, Julian Carr and Lyndsey Dyer.

I’m not much for skiing with others – I like to ski fast and hard and I am impatient, but the cast and crew were all experts and even though there was some waiting, I enjoyed the camaraderie. My backcountry buddy was JP Scanlon and on the first trip down James Peak he went first and I followed his line a bit to the left.  We were in and amongst scattered pines in untracked powder sheltered by shadows and it was light and billowy, easy to ski and required little in the way of skill. It was bliss and joy, we whooped and hollered… but due to the lack of challenge, it wasn’t flow - until I drifted to the left and entered the strange mix of snow at the crest of the ridge. Speed increased swiftly in the few turns I made in the stiffer, shallower cover but I also noticed an ability to set my hips and carve as well. I ran out of hill before I fully explored and vowed to return on the next run.

On our second pass JP exploded out into the lead leaving white contrails in his wake as he rocketed through the pines, whooping with joy. I was a bad ski-buddy and instead of following I traversed a bit to find the special snow-pack on the ridge from the last run. I tested the layers with my pole. It was unusual – very soft and light on top due to wind-blown cover, but with a steady transition to ever tighter, heavier and denser snow below – I could only push my pole 24 inches down before it became impenetrable.

I pondered for a moment: we had just been taught a lesson on snowpack layers and fracturing, but I found another, older lesson in materials science suddenly in my head like a déjà vu. In my freshman year of university a materials science professor, trying to recruit more students into the then-unpopular degree, held an exhibition at the physics tank. He shared a number of fascinating demonstrations of how materials act in unusual ways based on environment, temperature and other exogenous factors. In one of his first examples he put 3 rectangular chunks of ice perhaps 2 feet by 1 feet and 2 inches thick onto pairs of bricks holding them above the table. Then he recruited three volunteers. The first volunteer was given a ball-pein hammer to tap the first piece of clear ice. Immediately it cracked and fell into a half dozen pieces. “You see,” he explained, “this piece of ice is all the same temperature, so the cracks from the hammer propagate easily and hence the ice is highly fragile.”

The second piece of ice had some frost and whitening on the bottom, but was shiny on top, wet as if melting. “This piece of ice was just frozen from the bottom up. The bottom is 0 degrees, and top is 32 degrees.” He gave the next volunteer a regular hammer and the student took a whack. Nothing happened except for a few ice chips. Harder and harder the student swung and eventually the ice sagged, buckling in the middle, partially breaking. “You see, with different ice temperatures as a gradient throughout, the cracks do not propagate easily, and hence the ice is difficult to crack.”

He paused and brought out a hidden sledgehammer for the 3rd and final student and last block of ice. This piece of ice looked a bit like lasagna – a series of white layers were visible along the edge. He explained. “this block of ice has several layers of single-sheet newspaper frozen into it… Go ahead and take a swing,” he said to the student. The boy heaved the sledgehammer cautiously, but the ice didn’t wince. “Go ahead – take a full swing.” The student obliged and with a dramatic windup the hammer rose up high and swung full force into the ice… Which quivered, but held. After a few repeated swings, the ice eventually buckled in the middle, but remained in one piece.

“Fissure propagation,” explained the professor, “Is wildly different depending on the temperatures, inclusions and purity of the material.”

I looked at the snow again. 3 day old powder, repeatedly wind-blown, heated by the sun, cooled by the night and then layered again with fresh blown snow. Not only was I safe due to being on a ridge, I was safe due to the steady gradations of the snow from soft and light on the surface to solid and dense 18 to 24 inches down. This was “Flow Snow,” time to put it to the test.

I pointed my tips downhill and gained speed waiting for the right moment. As I reached a critical velocity, perhaps 30mph, far faster than typical powder skiing, I performed a move reserved for slalom and groomed runs – I set my hips into the turn, leaned hard and carved a turn.

My skis submarined for a moment, peeling through layers of substrate with help from the g-forces and then changed vectors smoothly as the denser snow below provided and equal-and-opposite reaction to the action of the shaped skis as they bit hard. I absorbed the g-forces as they compressed me low to my skis at the center of the arc and then began pushing back in syncopated slow motion, massive hydraulic thrust pushing core and quads into the snow. My horizontal trajectory swiftly reversed as I completed the turn where there was a corresponding and unexpected release from the vertical: time stopped as my tips suddenly exploded out of the snow-pack and I launched high into the air.

The feeling was nearly identical to a giant leap on a trampoline – the explosive forces generated by the hard carve, combined with the upward release from the snow catapulted me skyward… I shot into the sun, still leaning left at >50  degrees.

With fear and focus I immediately I entered the flow state… somehow I would have to reverse my tilt, in-air, to land at least vertically or preferably to begin a lean to the right. Fortunately the tail end of the arc had introduced some rotational energy into my mass and even as I reached apex of my unintended flight, my boots and skis rotated smoothly underneath me and I landed easily with a slight lean to the right, ready to begin the next cut.

I was now carrying even greater speed and in the flow state a sense of invincibility. I let the skis momentarily plane and then let the tips drop to submarine under the soft layers. As the snow began to give back I rotated hard to the right, hips leaning way down, skimming the surface of the powder as the dense snow at 24 inches gave back and I entered the compression of 3 G’s, even 4 G’s, traveling 35 mph and carving an arc with a radius of 15 meters or so. I leaned hard, compressed, reversed, released and then allowed the tips to explode back up out of the snow pack.

This time I flew on the wings of eagles, arcing high into the air with serious hang-time. During the release I again found my body rotating to prepare for the next landing from the boomerang of the resilient snow. At this speed, with hang times in excess of a full second, my tracks had 50 foot gaps between the turns*. *(a 3 meter leap and return to earth takes about .78 seconds, which at 35 mph or 51ft/sec = 40 linear feet. However, my vector was not flat – hence I probably landed at least another 15 feet down the slope before landing) 

I pushed it a little harder each turn until I sensed some give in the snow. Then, for the next 15 seconds I executed a series of perfectly carved turns at the limits of the conditions until I ran out of ridge, flying high with each turn. I was, in those moments, either weightless, heavy, or rotating. Oddly, I was reading the book “Stealing Fire” and just after I wrote the above, I read the following paragraph, “’Weightlessness, weightedness and rotation are the nectar of gravity games,’” explains professional climber and film-maker Jimmy Chin. ‘They provide easy access to flow and that’s what keeps us coming back for more.”’

The ridge ran out and then back amongst the trees my speed quickly diminished as the ability to set edges evaporated and instead I bulldozed some beautifully billowy turns exploding into the valley where my fellow Flow-and-Snowers waited. I was speechless. In my head I was rewinding. I was remembering… thin-slicing the 3rd turn, the slow motion rotation in-air transitions from the explosive exit surrounded by my own detritus to the frantic moment where I had over-rotated and was flying completely sideways above the snow pack. In detached bemusement I remembered throwing down my right foot first to stabilize my landing, then returning to earth with perfect aplomb already 30 degrees into the next lean.

I was I a deep reverie as we made the traverse down James Peak. I hadn’t just skied… I had flown like an eagle, banked like fighter pilot. It was, in the lexicon of “Stealing Fire” “ecstasis”. In my own terms it was 20 seconds worth a year…

I have tried, on several occasions to describe these moments verbally, but failed to capture the essence. Hopefully I have come closer here.

Postscript: The ice for Short track speedskating uses these same materials science principles – the best ice is as follows: 1.75” thick. 17 degrees at the bottom, 32 degrees at the top, with a steady gradient interrupted by thin slices of resurfacings along the way and a surface air temperature of 52 degrees and a humidity of 15% to keep it slick, shiny and provide some bite. This ice allows a short track speed skater to enter a 25 meter corner at 31mph and 2 seconds later exit that same corner at 31mph going the exact opposite direction. V2/r gives the math for the g-force calculation, and concludes that a short track speedskater hits 2.7 g’s in the corner – effectively tripling their body weight. The space shuttle takes off at 3 g’s. So breaking it all down, a 170lb short track speedskater at that speed is doing the equivalent of a 500lb, one legged squat from deeper than 90 degrees, while leaning over at 68 degrees all while balancing on an 18” long, 1mm wide blade, on ice, heading directly at a wall.

Skiers have the benefit of longer blades and two legs.. The turns I was making on James Peak carved a shorter arc at a slightly higher speed, creating even greater g-forces – potentially in excess of 4 g’s and creating potential energy released as kinetic energy and the subsequent flight. A refrigerated hill and “with a snow-zamboni” could potentially recreate these conditions…



The 10,000 Hour Rule: True . . . and Also Nonsense

What is the "10,000 Hour Rule?" If you are a reader of leadership literature over the last decade then you almost certainly have come across the proposition that "Talent is Overrated" (Geoff Colvin) and that excellence in just about any field comes down to simply hours of practice as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Here's an excerpt from his famous book Outliers:

“Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990s by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. With the help of the Academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups. In the first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. In the second group were those judged to be merely ‘good.’ In the third were students who intended to be music teachers in the public school system. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?

Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old. In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, until by the age of twenty they were practicing — that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better — well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.”

The Error: What vs. Why, Correlation vs. Causality. The data looks pretty convincing - the facts are straight "more practice = better performance." But like all correlations attempting to prove causality, there is the risk of unidentified factors - also correlated - that actually drive the results. In this case I think the error is in the question itself (first law of Design Thinking: "are we asking the right question?"). Sure we have the "what leads to great results?" question, and the clear answer is "diligent practice." But I think a better question is "why do great performers practice more than their peers?" And I think the answer to this, potentially more important question, circles back to strengths, talent, and "flow."

What is "Flow" and how is it related to talent? If you have missed the waterfall of books and articles on "Flow" (sorry) just pick up Steven Kotler's book "The Rise of Superman". "Flow" or "The Zone" or "The Peak Performance State" describes those moments of high concentration where time simultaneously stops and speeds up and we deliver our very best performances. Building off Csikszentmihaly's work, Kotler examines the neurobiology of these "altered states" and finds two interesting things: 1) The Flow state is dependent on mastery of the task at hand (native or developed talent) and the Flow state produces the worlds most desired (and addictive) set of chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, endorphis and serotonin.

"For example, when you snort cocaine. All the drug does is cause the brain to release copious amounts of the neurochemical dopamine. Well, dopamine is released in flow. So are norepinephrine (speed), anandamide (marijuana), endorphins (heroin) and serotonin (ecstasy). You actually couldn’t produce this cocktail with drugs. Trying to take all those drugs at once and you’re going to end up drooling or dead. But the brain does it naturally." 

Peak Performers are addicted! Back to our central question, "WHY do great performers practice more than their peers?" I think the answer is clear: they enter into the flow state more than their peers, become more addicted to the results of the activity, and hence they voluntarily practice more than everyone else. (Sometimes the additional practice is driven from an outside force as well: emotionally manipulative parents and coaches can also drive the 10,000 hours - that's a whole other article.) From Csikszentmihaly:

"In many ways, one might say the whole effort of mankind throughout the millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them part of everyday existence."

Whoah! The whole effort of mankind??? Possibly confirmation bias on Csikszentmihaly's part, but given the $11 Trillion (Kotler) spent annually in the global economy on legal and illegal ways to produce these chemicals in our bodies, perhaps not as grand a statement as it seems.

Putting it together: top performers practice more than anyone else. Most top performers are driven to practice more than others because they are chasing flow. The chicken or egg question is which came first - the practice or the flow state? There is good evidence that willpower is both limited and fairly evenly distributed - e.g. that the super-disciplined athlete or performer is a myth. Given this fact, I would argue that without some initial "beginner's flow" (or "talent") most individuals will not have the desire nor willpower to pursue the practice necessary to master the 10,000 rule.

In Conclusion: Identifying natural talents or strengths allows for "beginner's flow." The struggle / reward cycle of the flow state, once initiated, leads to practice. Practice leads to mastery which leads to even more flow moments. Talent is NOT over-rated (but it is not enough.) Flow is under-rated. It is time to discover our strengths and talents and spend more time in flow.

This leads me to my favorite question - and conversation starter:

What are you best at???
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How to Prepare for a TED Talk

How Do You Memorize All That? I'm often asked how I prepare for my talks - particularly for the rapid-fire, time-limited venues like the two TEDx talks and Chicago Ideas Week talk I have given.

If I Had More Time I'd Write You a Shorter Speech: Other than having a great story, useful data and a simple 1 - 2 - 3 framework, the other essential element for a great TED talk is to know your material inside and out, especially key concise phrasing required to deliver a complex topic in 18 minutes. This takes practice - but how to master 18 minutes of new material? Here's how I learn to memorize the outline of a talk and key phrases...

One Proven Approach: (That may, or may not work for you.) I follow the steps below for any new speech:

1) I write out the talk completely long-hand just the way I would say it (~10-12 single spaced typed pages for a 15 minute talk) along with movements, gestures and things to highlight. For an example click here to view my blog post on this topic.

2) Distill it to an outline with the key points and certain specific phrases to memorize

3) Start practicing using the outline - out loud (usually in the car as that’s a good place to be private) and timing myself. The first pass of my Chicago Ideas Week Talk was 34 minutes - I had to compress it to 18!

4) After practicing a few times using the notes, distill the outline to short 2 - 8 word bullets, (approximately 2 pages long) practice again and again until I don't need the notes. I memorized more than 80% of my Ideas Week talk word-for-word to the tight scripted phrasing to finish it on time while covering the topic thoroughly. This meant I practiced it ~30 times end-to-end.

5) Print the bullets on 4 X 6 cue cards - usually 4-6 of them. Staple, keep in my pocket for the talk as a backup and then don't ever use them : ) Talk pretty, bow to the applause.

In Conclusion: This process works as it forces you to A) outline your story and tighten your language B) learn key words and triggers to practice with C) allow you to show up confident in your material.

How to Slow Down Time: A Time Manifesto

A two year labor of love, my passion project, The Art of Really Living Time Manifesto video is finally complete. See video link below.

I’m a bit in mourning as the bi-monthly sessions I’d been doing with my friend / video editor / former DJ Michael Ziener have come to a close after two years. It was an apprenticeship to the world of audio, imagery, tempo and rhetoric. For me it was a bi-weekly catharsis where I could wave my four-dimensional baton and Michael would put a stitch-in-time to weave it all together. His DJ roots come through as every sound, every word is on beat and on cue - to the final 3 drumbeats where the mother kisses the baby's feet. To Really Living!

Read more

When You Were a Kid, How Long Did Summers Last?

Two years ago October I came home from work, picked up a pencil, and started writing a poem. This was notable because a) I don’t write poetry, b) I type almost everything and c) when I don't type I use a pen, not a pencil. Regardless, 15 minutes later and I had completed a draft of a poem that represented my deepest thinking and emotions about time.

Shortly thereafter I started meeting weekly with friend and video editor Michael Ziener to bring the poem to life. More than two years later this passion project is finally complete and today we are releasing the first of eleven stanzas of the video - if you like it please share with your friends and family. We will release the entire “Art of Really Living Manifesto” a On November 21st, 2016.

Endless Summers and Dirty Knees... a Guest Post by Katelina Coyle

Sometimes I just want to have fun. This sentiment is not the musings of a very young child. I just want endless summers, dirty knees, and adventures at night where we let our minds run wild in the dark.

Sometimes I catch myself growing up. Sometimes I notice how things have changed without warning. Sometimes I look out the window to the children playing outside and wonder when that stopped being me… and sometimes I forget that was ever me.

Sometimes I just want to have fun, yet always when I do, I can’t. I won’t. Maybe it’s my age, or that I’m too tall now, maybe I’m afraid I’ll look stupid or something of that sort. This, then is the price of growing up… and maybe, the price of being afraid.

Sometimes I just want to have fun,  and sooner or later I’ll be too busy to even consider. And when the reality of the disenchanting teenage world sinks in, I let it. But what if I can’t turn back? I’ve been captured by the not-so-kindness of my youth and age, but wonder if I’m lost forever. There is still so much I want to do!

I want endless summers, dirty knees and adventures at night where minds run free. 

A Year in a Moment: Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

“I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it."

"Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."

Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes in chapter 2 of "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway

Pamplona, Navarre, Espana, July 9, 2016

“Running with the bulls.” A centuries old tradition embedded in an even older celebration – the festival of San Fermin – now nearly 700 years old and counting. We’ve all seen the images: muscular charging bulls with massive sharp horns parting a red and white sea of young men sprinting in terror down narrow cobblestone streets. Inevitably, the media highlight reel ends with a trainwreck of sprawling bodies, trampling, and the occasional life-threatening goring.

Each year the festival of San Fermin draws nearly 1,000,000 visitors to the small tranquil village of Pamplona in the Basque region of Northwest Spain.  The central spectacle of the festival is the “encierro,” or running of the bulls, which takes place each morning at 8 a.m. for a week. Six bulls and six steers arrive in the early morning to a corral at the base of a hill in town. Then, they run uphill approximately 850m to the “plaza del toros” (bullring). The run takes somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes, but no individual person runs with them the entire route – the bulls run too fast, so you must stake out a position for a short sprint. Each of the six bulls face nearly certain death later in the day in the “corrida” or bullfights that take place in the afternoon. Essentially each of these bulls, bred to be aggressive, mean and fast, are running away from life toward their inevitable death at the hands of a matador who risks his own life to take theirs. Cruel? Inhumane? Yes. Dramatic? Romantic? Yes. Is the inevitable death of an animal at the sword of a matador worse than the plight of the average farm cow bred for slaughter via the food industry? I don’t think so: at least each of these bulls has a fighting chance at survival and a pre-corrida life where they eat, drink, rut and fight as opposed to standing in a pen full of dung, chewing their cud.

I’ve been drawn to the running of the bulls ever since I first saw it as a teenager. The thrumming of the hooves as the dust rises, the chanting of the crowds, the anticipation of the appearance of the flanks and horns in a high-speed chase, the danger, the exhilaration, and the long-standing traditional rituals involved have always evoked a romantic notion of risk taking, fear, physical prowess and courage. Not to mention the visual spectacle of an event where hundreds of thousands throughout a picturesque village all care enough for tradition to wear the exact same garb – women, babies, children, the elderly, locals and tourists alike. Also, deep down I have always believed that I possessed the requisite skills to navigate such an event safely and with aplomb - the parallels to bike racing and short track speedskating are striking: a high speed chase on a narrow slippery course with tight corners that requires speed, agility, balance, the ability to read the patterns of movements of the bulls and avoid hundreds of people trying to kill me. This was something I had essentially been doing my whole life. I was not afraid. Finally, I wanted to create a new life chapter – literally in this case – by documenting the experience through the lens of “chronoception” or perceptual time. I wanted to test my own horological hypothesis: to prove that the combination of the thrill, the beauty, the physical and emotional intensity, and danger-induced “flow state” would stop time and turn seconds into hours, even months in memory.

"Because flow de-activates large parts of the neocortex, a number of these areas are offline - thus distorting our ability to compute time."  David Eagleman

The morning of the run we made our way to our starting point, threading through throngs of revelers. One fact became quickly clear as we traversed the streets - almost none of the actual festival participants actually join the encierro due to the real and perceived peril. Everyone we had spoken to the night before seemed amazed I would actually run. But, in all reality there have been relatively few significant serious incidents over the years, and the actual danger of death may be less than a regular city commute to work. That said, the nature of the danger is real and visceral: six 1200+ lb bulls bred to kill with razor sharp horns and another six giant 1500+ lb steers stampeding full tilt down a narrow lane filled with more than a thousand intoxicated people sprinting forward while looking backward, zigzagging haphazardly to the left and right - one mis-step and those horns easily part flesh and bone - this, and the added threat that the horns often carry a form of bacteria that cause the wounds to suppurate and quickly become life threatening.  I looked around me as I entered the course and wondered – the drunk chubby young men, the gaunt older men, some wide eyed young women as well – I wondered how were they going to survive. Only later did I realize most “runners” just line the course and get the hell out of the way. Few actually run WITH the bulls.  But I had grander plans. I wanted to live “all the way up.”  

The encierro and subsequent corrida (bullfight), the associated danger, fear, ugly brutality and elegant artistry underpin arguably one of the greatest books by one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” encapsulates, romanticizes and relates the elements of the festival of San Fermin in a way that has enchanted generations. The prose also covers a very real element of the festival – the role of wine, beer and other forms of alcohol in the proceedings. San Fermin is a drinking event that puts Summerfest, Octoberfest and any other similar festival to shame for its bacchanalian extravagance. Like all the other elements of the festival it has its shades of romantic elegance and brutal ugliness. Picturesque mid-afternoon picnics with families on white linen with chilled local wines and short siestas under the trees as children play on centuries old walls eventually morph into throngs of 20-somethings from around the world swilling Kalimotxo - 32 ounce plastic cups of cheap wine mixed with Coca Cola available for about $1. The town fills throughout the day and somewhere near sunset most of those over 35 and under 18 leave. Then the garbage piles up, the noise and crowds expand and without proper sanitation rivulets of urine begin to run through the streets and fill the nooks in the plaza cobbles.

Navigating late at night the evening before to scout out the course through the throngs with my great friend, neuroscientist and local inhabitant, John Wesseling, I was amazed to ascertain he had never actually attended the festival despite living in walking distance from town for more than a decade. “Too much mayhem – we always leave town once San Fermin starts.” He said. He served as my guide through the increasingly crowded streets, and as we rounded yet another corner of a plaza where every patch of grass was crowded with young people from around the world staggering like zombies, vomiting or passed out, I began to understand his point of view. Perhaps it was the proximity to death’s hand hanging heavy in the air. Entire plazas looked and smelled like a garbage filled port-o-potties. The streets had become so crowded with inebriated people that it became a game of drunk people “bumper-cars” just to exit the city center. By 1:30 a.m. it was nearly impossible to move and we couldn’t wait to leave, but the 20 minutes it had taken to get to Plaza Castillo earlier in the evening now took more than an hour to navigate, ping-ponging aggressively through the throng on the way out. My whites were now stained with splashes of wine and Kalimotxo. I was “official.” After the bus ride and the walk to John’s house we finally made it home at 3:00 a.m., exactly as Hemingway would have had it. 

Wakeup was 6:00 a.m. In order to arrive to the course in time to stake a position in the encierro, we were told we should be there by 6:30 a.m. for the 8:00 a.m. start. Such little sleep was daunting in and of itself, but for me it was compounded by the fact that I had only arrived in the country one day prior, and it had been a packed agenda - we had hiked for hours in the morning on the beaches and cliffs of the gorgeous home village of John’s wife Isabel – Zumaia, then drove to San Sebastian and walked for hours through the lovely old town and its cobblestone streets while carrying all our bags, and then traveled by bus to Pamplona where John and I immediately went for a intense bike ride at 8:00 p.m. into the mountains – 2.5 hours of hard riding including a 7km climb to the top of a mountain. We had returned from the ride at 10:30 p.m. in the darkening gloaming of dusk, and had only then headed into town for the pandemonium described above. Needless to say I was exhausted.  


During our visit to Zumaia the day prior, John’s extended family ganged up on me at lunch. There were eight of them. All around the table they one-by-one told me in broken English or translated Spanish that I shouldn’t run… but afterward quickly asked if I was going to anyway – all with a strange twinkle in their eyes. I knew that deep down they wanted me to run. I declared I was running. There were murmurs. A mixture of worry and pride floated around the table. Then John’s 13 year old daughter, Alba, looked me straight in the eyes and ranted with a serious face in Spanish for a full minute. I didn’t follow. Isabel translated “You should not run. Don’t run. Please do not run. It is too dangerous. People get hurt. Last year there were five gorings, several were American…. Then there was a long pause… “But…, but” and her face changed to a smile, “but if you do run, you must wear something of a different color so I can see you on TV! – I watch every morning and I want to find you!”

After the initial inquisition, I was ushered over to sit next to Miguel, John’s brother-in-law and an aficionado of the encierro for years who knew the ins-and-outs of the course and its dangers. He pulled out his phone and loaded a map of the encierro and then expostulated on elements of the route. As he spoke he would slap the back of his hand into his palm as he laid out a series firm guidelines for the run.

First - You should be sober – is too dangerous if you are drunk… also is illegal now as of a recent law.” (OK, “check.)

Second, is not so much you must outrun the bulls – you cannot – instead you must outrun the other drunk crazy men and not get pushed into the bulls' horns. Please, John, avoid the horns… hooves too” (OK I’m pretty fast -  “check”)

Third, there are three sections to the run, you must absolutely avoid the first section of the course– the uphill is steep, all the young men are drunk and the bulls are angry and their are no barriers to jump over and there are two sharp corners – this portion is 250m long.” (OK, “check.”)

Fourth, you also want to avoid the middle part of the course this is 400 meters long and lined with stone walls – also there are too many people and not enough barriers to jump over if you get into trouble – this part is very dangerous. So don’t run this portion.” (OK, “check”)

Fifth, you must avoid the last part of the run – the last 200 meters and the final corners and tunnel are dangerous and people fall down and the bulls run over them.” (Um…???) 

“So, in conclusion… John… my advice to you is you should not run any part of the encierro… any other questions?”

We all had a laugh at this point as his advice was translated and I again affirmed my intention to run. Eventually we settled on the notion that I would run the final section and then into the bullring. “It is the only place that it will be possible to get a picture of you – the barriers will be lined w/ spectators starting 5:00 a.m., and the balconies rent for $1000 for 5 minutes for the encierro. Your friend John can show you the way and where to line up.”


Three hours after dropping into a dead sleep the morning of my run, my alarm went off at 6:00 a.m., and John knocked on the door shortly thereafter. I stumbled about mumbling to myself “sleep when you are dead, sleep when you are dead” and clumsily dressed in the traditional garb of San Fermin purchased the evening before. I donned the wine stained white pants, white shirt, red sash and red bandana and then a pair of running shoes. Sadly I had failed to find an identifiable piece of clothing for Alba to find me; so in generic garb I followed John quickly through the streets to catch the bus to town to fight our way through the throngs to join the encierro – the running of the bulls in Pamplona. It was a Saturday – perhaps the busiest day of the 8 day event.

At about 6:45, John and I found the spot where I would run. There were two layers of heavy wooden barriers, and I had to climb through on all fours to enter the course. John wished me luck, told me he would be in the stadium, and that we would meet afterward at “Hemingways,” a bar just outside the “plaza de toros.” I moved out into the cobbles and throngs, and I was now fully awake and alive. I muscled through to the final barrier blocking the final 150 meters to the bullring by 7:00 a.m. Perfect position.

There I met two English speakers: Bill from Ireland who was clearly drunk, and Greg from the UK who was sober but easily 6’7” tall. We talked strategy. We agreed we would wait for the bulls to arrive and then run with them into the stadium – it sounded simple.

Then we waited. I wasn't nervous. I "got this," I thought. Then at 7:30 a.m., the police formed a cordon and kicked all of us out – aggressively shoving all of us outside the barrier and off the course. "Too many people" they said.

I had flown 4000 miles for this, and I wasn't accepting no. Greg and Bill felt the same way, so we ran full tilt down the hill trying each barrier – each time thwarted by the EMS and police who waved us away. Finally we reached the set of barriers right at the base of the hill, right at the very start, right by the corral itself. As we arrived, a fight broke out in the street and the police and emergency workers were briefly distracted. I threw myself to the ground and belly crawled through the legs of a policeman inside the first barrier and then across the wood of the second barrier to enter the surging throng. Bill and Greg followed suit and then we were in!

We had to move – now! We knew we didn't want to be at the bottom of the hill at the most dangerous place - no barricades to climb, fresh and angry bulls, and mostly drunk young men. We had regained the course at 7:48 a.m., and needed to push through the throngs of more than 1000 people if were to regain our original position. This is where my inebriated friend Bill’s aggressiveness combined with Greg’s height became the perfect combination -  Bill unrelentingly forcing his way through the throng yelling ahead and waving saying “We are coming Melissa!!” as though we were joining an imaginary friend, and Greg shouting directions based on the vantage point his height provided. Eventually we were able to shove our way through the throngs to regain our former positions 175m from the bullring. We arrived right at 7:59 a.m. and slapped high fives. One minute later, the fireworks went off – the bulls had left the corral.

In that instant everything went to hell – everyone panicked and started pushing and running pell-mell, some jumping over the barriers and others falling and running over each other. It was complete hysteria based on nothing. There were no bulls and wouldn’t be anytime soon. I knew from Miguel that it would take about 90 seconds to 2 minutes for the bulls to arrive, yet everyone was already running toward the bullring looking over their shoulders in sheer terror. Over and over again people slammed into me sprinting forward while looking backward, bruising me all over while I barely maintained my grip on the barricade. After the first wave, Bill and Greg were gone but there was a small group of us still in place. I left the protection of the barrier to join them in the street: all of us jumping up and down in place like Masai warriors trying to see the bulls coming over the crest of the hill. Then there was a second surge of runners and my adrenaline started flowing. Surely I thought, this must be it. I dropped from the barrier and thought about running, but again I could see no bulls, so once again I waited and for the first time I felt some trepidation. I was on the inside of a corner . . . if the bulls came tight, I could be caught in the horns and die . . .. Fifteen people have died over the last 40 years or so, and about 300 are injured each year.

But I was there to run WITH the bulls not in front of the bulls, so I waited. By now mostly everyone around me had run off, and for a few seconds I was almost alone except for a trickle of frightened runners threading single file in the center of the lane sprinting towards the stadium.

I breathed deep, slowed my heart rate, and focused my attention. It was exactly like the last lap of a bike race . . . then I saw them. The massive toros and larger steers mixed together galloping full speed up the hill with their heavy ponderous gait, the bulls with their heads down and massive wide sharp horns ready to pierce anything in their path and the massive steers mixed in, unstoppable. There was a small cadre of runners just ahead and beside the bulls and a massive sea of white following in their wake.

In the moment I began "thin-slicing" time. I could see the lumbering propulsion of shiny hooves striking cobbles, massive muscular flanks glistening and quavering in the light, murderous eyes behind the needle sharp points of horns tilted to give death’s blow. I was no longer myself - I was unraveling of my awareness into the events unfolding in front of me. This was my time - to stop time. 

Time slows down. Self vanishes. Action and Awareness merge. Welcome to Flow.  -Steve Kotler

They headed right at me, right towards my barricade. All sound stopped and I grabbed the barrier, preparing to launch myself over the heavy wood and steel crossbars. Arms and hands stretched my shirt and grasped my arms attempting to pull me over. I fought them off and could see the mouths of the watching crowd moving in unison – they were chanting something. Then the herd was upon me: at first steers running 3 abreast, and then 2 bulls passing just behind them, their lethal horns clearing my soft abdomen by about 2.5 feet. The steers’ horns were taller than my head.

There was a small space, a gap, after the second bull and in slow motion I dropped, bent and sprang into  a sprint, running parallel to another steer and just ahead of two other bulls as I reached full speed. Sound and motion returned and now I was in the tail end of the “peleton de toros” preparing for the final sprint into the ring. I could see the hooves flashing, the rapid gait of the gallop, the ominous flanks of the steer just to my right and a bedlam emerging of runners from the widening sidelines attempting to join the herd. My spidey senses tingled - bad things were about to happen . . . .

We crested the hill. To the left and right larger remnants of the throng ahead that had stopped to wait were either attempting to run or jumping the barriers, or falling down on the stones. The steers up front were still running 3 abreast, and as the lane narrowed towards the plaza del toros the animals formed a gigantic snowplow: there was no room for the runners ahead, and so the detritus piled up like a bloody snowbank, white bodies punctuated with their red sashes layering and stacking to the left and right as the bulls and steers momentum continued unabated. As we headed down the cobbles, I was still running full tilt, un-afraid, seeing and predicting everything with precision– it was both fast and slow. Now we were about to enter the tunnel itself and ahead 100 men in a complete panic were scattering in front of 11 bulls and steers running 2 and 3 abreast at 15mph in a 15 foot wide tunnel with narrowing barriers to each side. There was perhaps 5 feet of open space in the middle. The steers attempted to shuffle and reposition to thread the needle and slowed as did the bulls behind them. I knew the runners behind could not see what was happening and arms out I fought off the onslaught from the rear.  As we slowed I felt the flotsam and jetsam of the river of humans behind me buffeting my outstretched arms, my heels kicking backward into shins, my elbows striking faces. In that moment I realized that in order to survive I would have to actually accelerate into the madness in front of me if I was not to become one of the trampled. The crescendo started – a combination of the cartwheeling of dozens of men falling to the left and right, stacking, screaming; the bulls and steers driving up and over the bodies, heavy sharp hooves on ribs, faces, groins, a pileup becoming 3 deep, 4 deep, 7 deep, 8 deep. Only a narrow lane of visible pavement remained as the first steers cleared the tunnel and scrambled into the bullring itself.

Once again time stopped: I could feel the press of flesh behind me, I could see every movement of the bodies in front of me – the peleton of runners all crashing, hands high and then fingers twitching as they were tripping, falling, being trampled by steers and toros and men, the few remaining runners still vertical like me scrambling up a lattice work of white limbs. I had no choice – in slow motion I placed my feet on body parts and ran across a jumble of men like so many fleshy stones. I climbed up and to the right to avoid the impaling horns of the bulls behind me and ran over top of a writhing sea of humanity and down the other side. I was 15 feet behind the last bull when I broke into the light of the bullring . . . . 

"There's this sense that sometimes time slows down and sometimes time speeds up, and sometimes when we are in the zone and lose track of time, or when we are doing an activity that elicits an adrenaline rush, time slows down. There's time dilation - altered states of consciousness..." -Jason Silva, Shot of Awe

I once raced a bike race in Downers Grove, IL, where in the final corner every single rider in front of and around me crashed in a huge pileup except me. In a weird denouement I coasted down the finish stretch to the roar of the crowd alone bewildered, bemused and eventually triumphant.

Entering the bullring was a déjà vu of that race. No one behind me survived the pileup, and I entered to the massive roar of 20,000 people just behind the bulls and steers. I ran full tilt into the middle of the stadium and then slowed and stopped, arms in the air as the handlers billeted the bulls and steers into the corral. Perhaps 300 other runners had made it into the ring and I was one of the last. I was euphoric. In a gladiator-like moment I turned and just kept my hands up enjoying the noise, the atmosphere, the joy of being “really alive.”

And then, after a moment, oddly… I realized I was nearly alone. Most of the other runners all had swirled away and dissipated to the edges of the arena. At first I felt proud . . . I thought it was “my moment,” but then the noise of the crowd changed its tenor. It went from excitement to . . . something else. Even as I circled in my moment in the sun I felt the change and noticed the ant-like unison movements of the other runners spiraling sideways and heading to and over the barriers.

What I didn’t know was that there was a huge monitor in the stadium showing the bulls, the course and the happenings before and behind me. What I also didn’t know is that there was a “Curioso”… an extremely rare situation that has happened only once before in the last 100 years of the encierro. A Curioso is a situation where one of the bulls bred to run, fight and kill, stops and decides to abandon the steers, peers and encierro, and instead explore other options rather than run to the ring to its eventual death. This Curioso browsed around chasing runners mid-course for about 30 seconds - going after a few runners with aggression - before resuming its journey. Everyone was watching the monitor realizing there was one more bull. I didn’t know he was out there. 

Behind me the doors to the tunnel had opened to let him in. Without the calming presence of the steers and with all the goading from the crowd, he was now pissed. He charged bucking into the arena, black glistening hide, wide sharp horns, and one particularly available target… the stupid Chicago boy in the center of the arena with his hands still held high.

When the voices changed, when the volume grew there was another artifact that helped me realize my danger – suddenly there was a thrumming and rhythm of hands at the barriers in front of me – virtually every person at ground level had their arms out – begging me and other remaining runners to be lifted over. For a moment I had no idea what was happening

All of this happened in less than ½ of a second, but suddenly I saw the bull out of the corner of my eye. He had plunged into the stadium and was near the side chasing a few lingering runners, but then he saw me in the center, directly en route to the safety of the corral. He started his charge, and the crowd roared in fear, and I sprinted full tilt to the wall. He was turning right when I last looked and I knew I had perhaps 2 seconds to make the barriers. I ran slightly to right so that I could use my speed to get up and over the wall versus run directly into the barriers and as I came into proximity of the 5 foot red painted concrete wall, a dozen hands grabbed me roughly and pulled me up and over, literally throwing me onto my back into the space between. I flipped as I fell and landed on top of another runner, who had ducked to avoid my body. My back cracked as I draped heavily across his frame and then I fell off him to the concrete below. I had had the wind knocked out of me but I was safe and alive . . . SO alive. The noise of the throng resumed and I stood up and joined in the cheers as the Curioso left the ring.

Here's the thing. This entire experience was less than a minute long… but it seemed like hours, even days… and has grown with each passing day. I had planned and designed for this moment for a long time in hopes of creating an “event horizon moment.” And so with the plans and a lot of serendipity I had experienced a perfect layering of beauty, danger, uniqueness, physical and emotional intensity and “flow” in such a way to create a memory worth a year.

Celebrating on my barrier after the running of the bulls

Celebrating on my barrier after the running of the bulls

After the run: the tunnel to the plaza del toros - home of the human trainwreck

After the run: the tunnel to the plaza del toros - home of the human trainwreck


Epilogue: As it turns out it wasn’t over. After the Curioso was corralled the next section of the festivities began. The crowd roared and all the runners re-entered the ring and the sense of community, excitement and pride of having lived, thrived and survived was contagious - there were hugs all around from sweaty young men half my age. We had done it! I found Greg and Bill. We took a few pictures with Bill’s phone camera. Greg had dropped his in the run. I had not brought my phone based on other’s advice. We laughed and talked about our experience and then suddenly the crowd roared. It wasn’t over yet – entering the ring was a “vaquilla,” one of the  young, fast angry and horned heifers released for the continued amusement of the crowd. We all ran like hell and as I ran backward keeping my eyes on the young animal, I watched as it found its very first victim who was was none other than 6’7” Greg who was lifted like a floppy toy, thrown in the air and then gored repeatedly and ruthlessly on the ground. I ran to him terrified as others distracted the vaquilla and it galloped away and the crowd was screaming.

He sat up and I couldn’t see any blood. “Are . . .are you OK???” I asked as he got up and we scrambled away to the side. “I . . . I don’t know?” He said as he pulled up his shirt and we found some bruises forming on his back and ribs, but no punctures, no broken bones – he was fine. We laughed. I said, “Dude! You were the first person thrown by a bull in the arena! You’re famous!” He laughed and then we turned again towards the same horned menace who had made its way back towards us as runners jumped the barriers.

The vaquillas were still upwards of 800 lbs and mean as hell but what we could now could see is that their sharp horns had been capped to prevent the possibility of a goring. This is why Greg was safe and this also made the runners far braver. So began an “amateur hour” bullfight as brave, crazy, or drunk young men attempted to make toreador passes with these young heifers to touch their horns, slap their flanks.

Each vaquilla came out for about 5 minutes and I was determined to at least touch one, but they were fast and mean and despite the capped horns I watched each one lift and throw and trample and bury their capped horns into a dozen young men. This was unlike the running – I didn’t know the patterns and couldn’t predict the random sideways movements and though I came close a few times I never did touch one. I stayed safe.

The other thing, unannounced, that happened over this next hour is that near the end of each vaquilla run, they would loose one of the real toros into the ring with a handler. Still mean as hell and huge with uncapped sharp horns, the sea of humanity parted like ripples in a pond and the ring cleared in seconds. The bull would make one round, make a few half hearted charges to anyone too close and then be escorted out. I followed the crowd during these moments and had a hand and foot on the barrier ready to jump. After the six vaquillas and six parades of the main toros it was all over. The crowd and runners cheered, and we all began to file out through the tunnel. I made my to Hemingway’s bar, found John, had a glass of wine at 9:00 a.m. in honor of the festival, and then returned to his apartment to sleep. It took me a long time to wind down, the sun was hot in the room and the Spanish hills beckoned with other adventures, but eventually exhaustion ruled, and I was able to fall into a deep sleep.

In the afternoon we prepared to go back into to town. I started putting on shorts and a t-shirt but then stopped. I retrieved the dirty white uniform of San Fermin from the floor and put it on - the wine- and dirt-stained white pants and shirt. I tied the sash around my waist and bandanna around my neck, and returned to town, just another anonymous member of the throng, but uniquely stained inside and out with new colors of life, death, and really living.