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?”

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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