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.

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."

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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.

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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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…

 

 

When Quitting is Good: Guest Post by Brent Hortze

I used to be a manager in a large box home improvement store. I thought life was going great, I had finally found a job where I was making a lot of money and my department was ranking in top 5-10 each month nationally. I was on what seemed like the fast track to being promoted. This perceived happiness was short lived. I found my overall happiness in life going down and at a pretty fast pace. The money was a false sense of joy and didn’t offset the fact that I was working anywhere from 60-80 hours a week depending on the time of year, having no holidays off, only every other weekend, and no time for friends, family, or a life outside of work.

I found myself getting frustrated at work, realizing that the money wasn’t worth the time I was putting in at my job and my quality of life was pretty low, I began to look at other options. As my search for a new career continued, I received a call from the Boy Scouts of America. Something clicked in my head when I was preparing for my interview. I had always enjoyed working with people, helping people, and wanted to find a job that cared about me and my life outside of work. Going in I knew this would be a perfect fit for where I wanted to be, I nailed the two interviews and accepted a new job my new work schedule is flexible, they care about how I am doing with my career and are very flexible and understanding when it comes to family.

I have been with the Boy Scouts of America for the past 3 years and haven’t looked back or regretted my decision to quit and move on once. In the process there were times when I was questioning my decision to possibly leave, but it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

If and when that should happen to you: fight through it, change isn’t always easy and allowing yourself to have the courage to take the road less traveled almost always has an extremely rewarding outcome. The main take away for me was, following your strengths and passions sometimes means quitting for the right reasons. Everyone deserves to be truly happy and have a high quality of life, find your strengths and GO FOR IT!

Brent and fiance Kimberly

Brent and fiance Kimberly

Four Movements in Time: An Experience in Synaesthesia, 7pm - March 28th, Chicago

A week from Saturday we are aiming to confuse the senses and hijack your perception of time through an experimental fusion of art, music, poetry, talk and dance. I hope you will consider joining us. Tickets are available here: Four Movements in Time

Here is the the Program, Music, and Performers:

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Four Movements in Time: Syncopated sharing of Poetry, Dance, Music, and Talk centered around the non-linear nature of experiential time

Why is time accelerating? Why did summers as children seem so much longer than they do as adults? Is there any way to design our lives to reverse these trends and instead slow and expand time?

Through a syncopated intersection of art, music, poetry, dance, and a TED talk on the cognitive biases that result in the non-linear processing of time, Ani Gogova (concert pianist), Tess Collins (modern dancer), and John K. Coyle (TED speaker, lyricist) will touch the audience’s senses to demonstrate the three rules that govern "experiential time" and share ways to slow the ticking of the clock to bring back summers as expansive as those when we were children so we can "really live" longer. Art in the room by Karolina Kowalczyk reflects this nostalgia and loss of childhood.

The PerformersJohn_Coyle - no logo

John K. Coyle (talk/poetry) is an horologist, Stanford d.school grad, SVP and Professor of Innovation, Olympic Silver Medalist, NBC commentator/analyst, writer and speaker. As a TEDx presenter and founder of The Art of Really Living movement, John has received rave reviews for his presentations.  His passions lie in the areas of innovation, strengths development, and an obsession with the cognitive bias on how we as humans experience time.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 10.40.50 PMAni Gogova (piano) is an award-winning Bulgarian-American pianist who appears in over 40 performances each season throughout Europe and North America, including broadcasts on NPR, WBEZ, TEDx Talks, and WFMT Chicago. Her work has gathered critical acclaim around the globe and been selected as a top recommendation by Time Out Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Tribune. Gogova holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and she served as a Professor at the world-renowned Music Conservatory of the Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University.

Tess ColliScreen Shot 2015-03-17 at 10.32.04 PMns (dance) graduated from Columbia with a degree in dance, then traveled overseas to further study and receive her yoga teacher training. She's continually creating and performing movement-based work in collaboration with other artists, and as an instructor of various styles. Her curiosity and playfulness on the mind/body/spirit continuum form the base of her movement exploration in choreographic choices and teaching.

karolina2.jptKarolina Kowalczyk (art) was born in Raba Wyzna, Poland and has lived in Chicago for the past 20 years. She received a BFA in Illustration from the American Academy of Art and currently works at The Art Institute of Chicago. Her meticulous way of working with paper cut-outs is inspired by her childhood love of stickers and wycinanki (Polish paper art).  The pieces are created from many independently drawn elements on paper that are carefully arranged and built up in layers.

Her work is inspired by nostalgia, trauma, loss and childhood and has been featured in shows in Chicago, Michigan and Minnesota. Sample art:

Shame Revisited Close Up 3

Growing Down

Nostalgia One

Shame Revisited

A Story of Really Living: Guest Post by Gary Goebel

Today: guest blog from Gary Goebel, master (mostly unaware) of the Art of Really Living. Gary is a great friend and unassumingly inspiring. Here’s a guy who tends to talk about his risk aversion, his periods spent as a lawyer and teacher, and “domesticated life” as a stay at home dad. What comes out around the edges, is that this is the same guy who left the rock star house-on-the-hill (literally in this case - formerly owned by the lead guitarist for the Scorpions) and along with his star-powered attorney wife Monica, abandoned the money-chasing rat race and moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to enjoy the fruits of their labors while still young enough to experience them fully. A 2-year sabbatical followed by a job here and there, and then most recently two other massive adventures - first an 8 month sojourn into the jungles, beaches and teeming cities of Central and South America - with 8 and 10 year old boys in tow going to “the school of life.” And now, unhappy with the local school system dynamics with his elder son, Gary has taken on home-schooling an 11 year old boy with traditional curriculum, unique experiences, and lots of TED talks.

Seriously, when other people only dream of taking the big chances and changing their lives forever, Gary and Monica have proven willing to take the risks to do so repeatedly. Every day as I consider what the Art of Really Living is really about, I think of Gary and Monica, and the strengths, resiliency, and time-expanding adventures they have been on over the last decade. With that, I turn it over to Gary and his adventures in time down in Latin America with the only edit being the addition of Really Living elements:

ELEMENTS AND CONTRASTS OF REALLY LIVING MOMENTS:

  1. Unique/Mundane
  2. Beautiful/Ugly
  3. Physically invigorating/exhausting
  4. Emotionally deep (Love/Courage, Hate/Fear)
  5. Flow State

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I have known John Coyle for years, not as long as some, but have seen him in a number of personal and professional settings.  I have always admired his gusto, his pursuit of adventure, and, basically, his commitment to “really live.” I assumed he was just the type of person who "lived large." It was who he was, and of course, this was natural for him. But what about the rest of us?  If we didn’t share his DNA, were these adventures just something to dream about?

It was only recently that I learned that his actions are part of a conscientious philosophy, and that others can follow suit. In fact, he pointed out that my wife Monica and I have a history of the kind of risk-taking and creating incredible experiential moments for ourselves and our two young sons, that represents the heart of The Art of Really Living.

One recent time-expanding experience came in the Summer of 2013.  I had just gotten out of a life-draining business (mundane), and Monica was working from home as a one-on-one business development coach for lawyers. Our two sons were ages 8 and 10.  Monica was hit with an epiphany! We had no jobs that forced us to be anywhere in the foreseeable future. It was time for World Travel!  (unique)

It is too trite to say we packed our bags and hit the open road. That sounds so romantic and whimsical. To plan and tackle a trip like this requires a decent amount of suffering: there was a lot of discussion, disagreement, research, preparation, arrangements, etc. to be made before our new dream could become a reality.

Eventually we settled on a Central America as a starting point. Why? We wanted to learn Spanish and enjoy beaches. Panama fit the bill because unlike the Central American countries a bit further north, there is no hurricane season. Also, flights were cheap, health care good, and they accept the US dollar.

Our adventure started almost a month before going abroad. We rented out our house, much earlier than anticipated, because we found an ideal tenant who was interested in a four month lease of our fully furnished house. Suddenly, we became “homeless.”  That was an experience, but a story for another time. Let me just say that in times like that you know who your friends truly are.  It was like a month long going away party!

Leaving all our worldly possessions behind (except backpacks), and giving our two boys the benefit of “the school of life,” we hit the road for a minimum of four months. We purchased one-way tickets to Ciudad Panama as our launch pad, enrolled in a Spanish Language Immersion School, and arranged to live with host families (unique). We started by spending two weeks in the mountain town of Boquete and two weeks more on the Caribbean island Bocas del Toro, with some exploration time between the two destinations.  (beauty)

Beyond that, we did not formulate a plan. Who knew what we would do or where we would go?  We decided to see what felt right after we arrived. I jokingly told people we would be back when A) We ran out of money; B) We got tired of dysentery; or C) We were kicked out of a country with no where else to turn. Honestly, most family and friends could not get their heads wrapped around a non-itinerary such as that. But that was the plan, or non-plan, if you will. “So really, when ARE you coming back?” Part of “really living” as we have learned is not trying to force amazing moments to happen, but instead trying to create the right kind of environments where possibility for serendipity is ripe.

So how long did we stay? As it turns out, 8 months. We traversed the cities, beaches, jungles and cloud forests of Panama for 7 weeks (physically challenging). Then, we traveled by bus over the border to Costa Rica and lived in a cabana in the jungle near the Pacific Ocean for a month. (beauty, uniqueness)

Next, we took a bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City to meet John Coyle and his family for Thanksgiving in the San Blas Islands.  There, we sailed for days on a catamaran with Captain Jean Charles and a Guna Yala guide named Ronnie.

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Sadly we all managed to get sick during this period (physically challenging) but bonded in close quarters along the way (emotionally deep). Next, we were dropped off on a tiny palm fringed island smaller than a city block, with gorgeous white sand beaches and a laid back vibe.  We lived in straw huts and ate meals provided by Franklins -- family who owned the island. (beauty, uniqueness)

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After the Caribbean Island time, we flew to Quito Ecuador, and  rented a condo for six weeks. While in Ecuador, we explored the Andes mountain towns, the villages in Amazonia, and the Galapagos Islands.  We traveled by planes, trains, canoes, boats, horses, taxis, vans, flat-bed trucks with benches bolted to the bed, buses, bicycles and foot. (physically arduous, emotionally scary)

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When our three month tourist visa expired, we again traveled over an international border into Peru, but this time on foot, not by luxurious plane. There, we discovered yet another form of travel- we called them loco-motos, but they were really just jerry-rigged motorcycles modified to transport more people and things.  The Peruano ingenuity with these transports was nothing short of miraculous! They could move mountains! But if you have visited Machu Picchu, you know that Peruanos have historically moved mountains.

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Each time  we left a “safe and secure” spot (OK, at least one where we had developed some level of comfort or that felt somewhat familiar), was incredibly stressful.  At least for me.  Were we going to the proper bus terminal?  Did we buy the right ticket?  Would we be crossing a border at the best or safest time?  How would we change our currency?  Was our gear secure? What forms of transportation, if any, awaited us?  Could this taxi driver be trusted?  Would we be over-charged?  Robbed?  (emotional depth - fear, anxiety) Travel here is not the same as there.  I often railed when people asked about our “vacation.”  There may be many words to describe what we did, but I do not see vacation as one of them.  I tend to reserve that word for going to Disneyland or sitting at a resort by the pool with a Mai Tai.

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During our travels, time passed fast and slow, we had periods of quiet contentment, boredom, painfully long journeys, beauty and of course those certain memories that just implant themselves, seemingly of their own accord, and serve to become the “stories of the road” - the experiences that “made a dent” that we will always remember, like:

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  • The dramatic passing of an ancient grandfather in the bedroom next door to the boys on our first night with our first host family; (unique, emotionally deep, beauty too)
  • Taking 36 hours to go from door to door from our tiny cabana in Costa Rica to Park Ridge, Illinois, without cell phone, GPS, my more fluent wife, or any other niceties; (emotionally, physically stressful)
  • Having our cabana burgled while we lounged comfortably on the beach; (fear, anxiety)
  • The intimate connection with the ocean, land and animals in the Galapagos; (beauty, emotional depth)
  • Befriending other traveling American families in one country and meeting up again in another;  (emotional depth, love)
  • Traversing the Sacred Valley of Peru and all that it offered; (beauty, uniqueness)
  • Floating down an Amazonia River on inner tubes; (beauty)
  • White river rafting on the border of Costa Rica and Panama;
  • Working to create a new girls’ home for young mothers in Cuzco, Peru
  • Dancing in the streets at Carnival in Chachapoya, Peru (beauty)
  • The camaraderie of fellow backpackers singing around a fire, kicking back beers in hostels, riding bikes on volcanos, and soaking in natural hot springs in the mountains.  (uniqueness, emotional depth)
  • 24 hour bus trips; (physical challenge)
  • Eating exotic “street meats” and quail eggs from vendors, buying artisan cheeses  from colorfully attired indigenous women… almost any of our culinary experiences; (beauty, uniqueness)
  • Chicken Buses (fear, love, beauty, ugliness, uniqueness)
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We could write a small book on the trip (my musings can be found on our blog at http://ottoowenmonicagary.blogspot.com/ ).  Not a day goes by that I do not think back to one thing another about our 8 month odyssey. Did we really live? Unequivocally! We were not just tourists. We absorbed and experienced an entirely different world than the one we had left.  Did we expand time? Absolutely - those 8 months fill our mental data banks with the equivalent of years of memories had we stayed home, and we continue to relive special moments, reach out to new friends found abroad, and explore future roads we might have otherwise closed if not for the experience. Whatever money, convenience, peace-of-mind, etc we sacrificed, has been recouped ten-fold.

“Wait,” you say, “that all sounds fun, but I  couldn’t do that…” Let me challenge you here. . You couldn’t do that because… of your house, your car, your belongings? What are those things “worth?” vs. experiences?     935611_10202178672043468_1905013855_n

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Let me share the story of a certain famous rock star, as related in the book, “What Happy People Know” by Dr. Dan Baker.  In the book, the author relates the story of a famous rock star who had turned to drugs and alcohol because he felt so “trapped” by the establishment - recording deals he HAD to complete, concert tours he HAD to fulfill. Here he was worth a hundred million or more and he was miserable feeling like he had no choices. Easy for us to look in from a afar and say, “wait - you can just walk away, travel the world, live on an island, do whatever you want with all that money… and you still have your talent.”

But how different is that from you and I? Many of us have savings, or could scrape some together if we lived more frugally. We’ve invested in education and careers that make us easily hireable.  Yet .. we can’t take 3 or 6 or 12 months off because... ? Why?  Our THINGS? our JOBS? MONEY?

I challenge you - what are we working for anyway? to die on a stack of money or to “really live?”

Everyone dies, not everyone really lives…  I want to really live!

Yes, I'm Terrified: Join Us for a Study of Four Movements in Time, March 28th

On Saturday, March 28th, I'll be teaming up with concert pianist Ani Gogova,  http://anigogova.com and modern dancer Tess Collins for a unique fusion experience of Art, Poetry, Movement, Talk and Music. In full disclosure, I'm completely terrified. Ani is an amazing concert pianist full of drama and emotion and skill. Tess is an elegant archetype of the modern dancer, flowing like water. Me? I talk good (supposedly). But.. poetry???

I'm not a poet and I know it. Nonetheless in the spirit of The Art of Really Living and in an homage to my lost friend Kevin Bennett, Stanford poet laureate, I'm going to lyricize some poetry in syncopation with Tess's movement, Ani's music and my recent TED talk. I hope you'll join us. Heckling, well, sure...

More information to come, but here's a draft of the flyer:

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Everyone Dies, Not Everyone Really Lives

Everyone Dies, Not Everyone Really Lives. What is a Really Living Moment?

At the heart of The Art of Really Living is the notion of a “really living moment” and its extreme, the “event horizon moment.” This blog post is an attempt to explain, “what does that mean and why does it matter?”

A “really living moment,” is simply this: any event, activity, moment in time, or memory that leaves a lasting impression – creates a “dent” in your perceptive memory that expands your sense of time in the temporal past. Perhaps it is easier to describe the opposite: the inverse of really living moments are the mundane hours, days and weeks of the routine – of life on “autopilot,” where these same days and weeks disappear in memory and leave swaths of time unaccounted for. In these cases it is as though you never really lived at all. From my experience, and from the research on cognitive perceptions on time, here are a few descriptions of time expanding “really living” moments.

    1. Uniqueness: Eye opening unique experiences that take you well beyond your current experiences: Examples: entering a convent in Greece during vespers, walking the markets in Beijing the first time, trying Pace (sheeps brain stew) in Albania, viewing the birth of your first child.
    2. Beauty: experiences (be they aural, visual, tactile, gustatory or olifactory). Examples: standing atop a karst in Thailand as the sun sets, the smell of jasmine in the evening, the last bite of a plate of Vietnamise lemon grass chicken, the first glimpse of the emerald waters and white sand of perfect Caribbean beach, hearing a line of poetry that resonates with you.
    3. Physical Intensity (adrenaline) intense physical activities – often with some risk associated. Examples: the last lap of a criterium bike race fraught with possibility (and crashes), skiing the steepest chutes in Colorado or Utah, completing a 500 lb. one-legged squat from lower than 90 degrees while leaning over at 72 degrees balanced on a 1mm wide 18 inch blade, traveling 31mph directly at a wall on ice (short track speedskating), eating a trinidad moruga scorpion pepper, splashing into the 34 degree Black Sea with friends.
    4. Emotional Intensity (love, desire, fear) intense emotional connections – often with some fear or risk associated. Examples: watching your daughter put her heart into a close basketball game, the first kiss, falling in love, the first “I love you,” exposing your true feelings about something important to someone close to you, the perfect father's day of "really living" adventures with your daughter.
    5. Flow State: strengths-centered activity relying on the myelinated circuits in your brain. These activities are recorded with a high speed camera – time disappears in the present but our brains record more data, more memories. More memories = more time. Examples: any activity (sport, hobby, relationship, music, etc.) that transports you into the hyperfocused state of flow. For me it is bicycle racing, skiing, exploring, writing, music, traveling, deep conversations with people smarter than me, creative dialog and wordplay.

These elements are all “stackable” meaning that they can all take place simultaneously. Occasionally when this happens, time itself can feel like it stands still and “event horizon moments” are born. Rather than a dent in your memory, it is an expansive experience that actually creates a sense of time from nothing. Often these moments have aspects of both positive and negative emotions associated with them. Eugene O’Kelley described it best in his great book Chasing Daylight where he described these wonderful / terrible moments when he had to say goodbye to loved ones – forever – due to brain cancer, but in so doing, created “perfect moments where time stopped.” Event Horizon moments are rare, they are intense, but they are made of life itself: of love, fear and the act of creation.

What are your “really living” moments made out of?Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 9.39.26 AM

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Arrival in Vlore - the emerald sea

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the one picture I waited the whole trip for: the Black Sea Plunge

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A day of "really living"

So What Do Strengths Have to Do With "The Art of Really Living?"

So What Do Strengths Have to Do With "The Art of Really Living?" (and, what is that anyway?)

WHAT: We all have had moments that were so intense, so memorable, and so full of life, that they created indentations in our memory. I describe these time-expanding experiences as moments of “really living.” The Art of Really Living (TAORL) is a movement and a philosophy to help people design and live strengths-focused resilient lives by designing powerful experiences that slow time and help you live (almost) forever.

"In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." (Abraham Lincoln)

WHY: Because TIME is the most valuable commodity we have as human beings. Life is short, and thanks to a cognitive bias in our brains that causes our perception of time to accelerate, life is actively getting shorter. People around the globe miss their chances to expand time and “really live,” while they helplessly watch their lives accelerate and race by. They are stuck below their level of capability, trapped by stifling routines and a relentless focus on weaknesses, mired in careers noted by small risks and small rewards, and leading lives of quiet desperation. They are not really living. I want to change that and through TAORL play the role of the chrysalis, breaking the clay of grey men, revealing the colors of the sleeping poet, painter, musician or hidden genius within.

Everyone dies. Not everyone really lives.

HOW:

By designing our lives to reverse this cognitive bias we can slow and expand the ticking of the clock which gives us back the most precious of all currencies: time.

  • S + R x T = TAORL
  • Strengths + Resilience x Time  = The Art of Really Living
  • The Art of Really Living helps people to create these moments by:
  1. Aiding people in designing strengths-focused lives full of willpower, confidence and motivation to pursue these moments that often feature a state of “flow” and create memories
  2. Developing resiliency to weather the intensity and stresses endemic to “really living” moments
  3. Understanding the non-linear nature of experiential time and learning how to design more "really living moments" that will lead to time expansion

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So why is a strengths-focused life essential to "really living" and expanding time? In the end it all comes back to myelin - that mysterious substance in the brain that wraps neurons and increases the speed of impulses and communications in the brain.

Living a strengths-centered life allows for two things to take place simultaneously:

  1. It increases resiliency and the ability to withstand stress and persevere in pursuit of those things that "really matter."
  2. A strengths centered life focuses your time and activity on the myelinated circuits in your brain: those that can communicate up to 1000 time faster than unwrapped circuits - meaning that the amount of data being shared and recorded is orders of magnitude greater than in areas of weakness. Translation: a strengths-centered life records more data, has more moments of "flow," records more memories. More memories = more time.

Living a strengths-centered life allows for us to design and weather the kinds of experiences where "really living” moments take place, and it ensures they are recorded in a high definition camera for a huge databank of time expanding memories.

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Want to learn more about finding your strengths and designing a life for them? I would be so pleased if you would join us for our Strengths 2.0 Summit February 13th in Chicago – details below:

Join John K. Coyle and Dr. David Rendall Feburary 13th in Chicago for our Strengths 2.0 Summit, a half day workshop to use design thinking to find your strengths and design through your weaknesses. Click the link below to learn more and register.

Strengths 2.0 Summit

Strengths and Natural Talent?… Or 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice?

Thought leaders hold conflicting views on strengths. On the one hand, research from Gallup (Now, Discover Your Strengths, Strengthsfinder 2.0) suggests that our innate strengths create the best route for growth and success. On the other hand, studies and stories from authors like Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code), and Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated) suggest a different approach: that “diligent practice” and the 10,000 hour rule form the path to success. Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 5.17.10 PM

So which is it? Natural strengths or practice?

The answer lies in the interaction between the two. The reality is that we all DO have natural strengths and talents that we were either born with or developed at an early age, that we tend to have corresponding mirror-like weaknesses, and that these traits are unique and specific. Deliberate practice overlaid on a natural strength leads to breakthrough performance. 10,000 hours of deliberate practice at a weakness leaves to "lives of quiet desperation."

Want to learn more about finding your strengths and designing a life for them? I would be so pleased if you would join us for our Strengths 2.0 Summit February 13th in Chicago - details below:

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Join John K. Coyle and Dr. David Rendall Feburary 13th in Chicago for our Strengths 2.0 Summit, a half day workshop to use design thinking to find your strengths and design through your weaknesses. Click the link below to learn more and register.

Strengths 2.0 Summit

Stop Playing Whack-a-Mole With Your Weaknesses

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What happens when you let go of your weaknesses and focus on your strengths?
Naturally, with any change in direction in life that involves "letting go," there is an associated feeling of failure, of "giving up," of being a "quitter," words trained into us since we were young children as BAD.
An entire future post will be focused on how to know when to quit, but today's post is about what happens when you finally make the decision to let go of a weakness and move on. Maybe that weakness was in the form of a sport, a career path, a job, a relationship, a hobby: whatever it was, odds are there will be a lot of hand-wringing and anxiety before you finally decide to let it go. But then what happens?
For most people, the first feeling is one of relief. Indecision is a major hidden stress and just the act of deciding is a major release. The second feeling that emerges is a sense of additional willpower, bandwidth and energy emerging. It is a well published fact that human willpower is in limited supply: we use it up. Relentless focus on weakness eats up willpower like Pac-Man eats glowing dots. Letting go of a weaknesses and designing around them can feel like getting half your brain back. Third, refocusing on strengths creates greater resiliency. When less and less of your day is spent playing whack-a-mole with weaknesses and instead is spent building momentum on areas of passion and capability then when the inevitable obstacles emerge, a strengths focused individual will be better able to clamber up and over them.
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Examples: David Rendall was a high strung kid who found himself regularly in trouble with school teachers and officials because he couldn't sit still, talked too much, was the class clown and didn't like to be told what to do. Years of remedial discipline and training to "fix" these weaknesses had little to no effect. Later, however, David decided to let them go... as weaknesses, and instead embraced these same traits for what they are in the right environment: strengths. Now Dave's career is spent talking incessantly, telling jokes along the way, while never sitting down or sitting still, and working for himself as a highly regarded public speaker.
When I (John K. Coyle) was an aspiring olympic athlete, the coaches had me focus incessantly on my weaknesses.  In so doing I went from 12th in the world to not even making the team in two short years. After I let go of my weaknesses, and instead began "racing my strengths," a year later I not only beat my own personal record by more than 5 seconds in a sport where improvements are measured in 1/100ths of a second, but skated faster than the world record and earned an Olympic silver medal.
Gillian Lynne was labeled as having a learning disorder - as artfully told in his excellent TED talk by Sir. Ken Robinson.
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She couldn't concentrate, was fidgety and a poor student. Fortunately someone intervened and recognized a hidden strength, "Gillian isn't sick; she's a dancer. Take her to dance school." And they did. Gillian went on to become a dancer for the Royal Ballet and a choreographer for shows including Cats and Phantom of the Opera, becoming a multimillionaire in the process.
Letting go is never easy, finding your strengths is no small task, and finding the right environment for your strengths to have natural resonance may be the hardest part of all. But... when the rule of (Strengths X Environment(squared)) plays out, world changing performances result.
Have you ever let go of a weakness? Is it time to "quit" something and place your energy elsewhere? Please share your story.

Stop Trying to Be Well Rounded...

“If you spend your life trying to be good at everything, you will never be great at anything" “Although individuals need not be well-rounded, teams should be.”

(Tom Rath, "Strengths Based Leadership")

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Want to learn more about your strengths and how to leverage those of your team? Join John K. Coyle and Dr. David Rendall Feburary 13th in Chicago for our Strengths 2.0 Summit, a half day workshop to use design thinking to find your strengths and design through your weaknesses. Click the link below to learn more and register.

Strengths 2.0 Summit

Strengths-Based Leadership: Creating the Right "Enclosure" (Guest Post by Stosh Walsh)

Strengths-Based Leadership: Creating the Right "Enclosure" (Guest Post by Stosh Walsh) stosh1 stosh2

As I read John’s last post, my first thought was, “An important part of a leader’s job is to decide what kind of ‘enclosure’ to create.”

But before we get to that, we have to understand the 2 factors that inform the decision.  First, direction—where are we going?  And second, culture—what kind of environment must we have to ensure we arrive there?

Leaders can do this in one of two ways.  They either build their team according to the desired direction and culture, or shape the desired direction and culture according to their existing team.  In both cases, a consideration of strengths is paramount.

This reality gives birth to change management, evolution of teams, building and perpetuating a legacy—in short, these things happen over time, not instantly.  Leaders who elect to build a team according to the desired direction and culture have greater margin when selecting the team, but must face the stages of team development.  Conversely, leaders who pursue a new direction with an existing team might enjoy a greater understanding, but face changing the status quo and all that endeavor entails.

Though they face unique obstacles, both approaches can work if the leader employs a strengths-based perspective.  For the leader who chooses to build a team toward a new or existing direction, selecting the right strengths is paramount, after which those strengths can be shaped, over time, into culture.  For a leader with an incumbent team, the key is to understand the team’s strengths and then choose a direction that will see those strengths maximized.

For example, if a basketball coach wants to play an up and down the court transition style, he must select athletes who can perform the tasks associated with that style.  He will likely prefer players who possess the strengths of speed, agility and passing, as opposed to patience, decision-making or rebounding ability.  However, if that same coach has a team full of tall, strong, patient players, he is better served to understand the existing strengths and choose a more methodical style based on ball control and scoring close to the basket.  If, in the first scenario, the coach fails to select the right strengths, his direction will fail and his culture will deteriorate.  Similarly, if the coach tries to take the team in a direction that does not suit their existing strengths and culture well, he will lose games even if his players are more talented.

Why?  Enclosure = Culture + Direction.

Now, if at this point you are thinking, “That sounds too easy,” you are right.  But most of the difficulty leaders face in trying to determine the right enclosure is self-inflicted—they insist on a direction that does not suit their team’s strengths, or they choose teams full of people who are talented in the wrong areas, and therefore unable to further the direction.

So how can leaders avoid this?

They can GEAR UP for strengths:

Grant autonomy—people who are working in an area of strength will exceed your expectations.  Give them the why of their work, and let them figure out the how.

Encourage effort—tell people what you’ve seen them do well and ask them to try it again, or in a different setting because of your confidence in them.

Assess—discover the strengths of people around you by asking, “When was the last time you lost track of time?” or “What do people come and ask for your input or guidance on?”  The answers will provide clues to their strengths.  Put people through assessments that can help them put vocabulary to what they do well.

Reward and recognize—few things on earth feel better than doing something we enjoy and then having someone acknowledge it in a way that is meaningful to us.

Understand motivations—some people work for money, others for enjoyment, still others for mission—whatever their motivation, it will be informed by their strengths.

Position for success—help people do less work in areas they don’t perform well, and more in places where they excel.  We all have to do some things we aren’t very good at or don’t like, but we shouldn’t have to do more than is absolutely necessary, as that serves neither direction nor culture.

As a leader, what strategies have you employed to choose the right direction, shape the right culture—create the perfect enclosure?

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Want to learn more about your strengths and how to leverage those of your team? Join John K. Coyle and Dr. David Rendall Feburary 13th in Chicago for our Strengths 2.0 Summit, a half day workshop to use design thinking to find your strengths and design through your weaknesses. Click the link below to learn more and register.

Strengths 2.0 Summit

Finding Resonance: Strengths x Environment(squared) = Performance

Finding Resonance: Strengths x Environment2 = Performance What’s Your Frequency? A good number of entries in this blog have been about how important it is to find your strengths, and for good reason – only by knowing your true talents can you design a life to maximize them. That said, strengths are actually a relatively small part of the equation for peak performance. Clearly identified, strengths are just a data point unless they are utilized in an environment where they are needed, wanted, and resonate. We have all known a talented co-worker – engineer, accountant, creative director – who just wasn’t “a fit” with the people, work or culture of a company and floundered, eventually leaving or being “exited.” Yet, we all know of situations where a few months later in a similar role in a similar company, this same person with the same skillset is suddenly flourishing. What gives? I would assert that the subtle and unique combination of skills, talents and capabilities of this employee (or leader, athlete, or musician) were out-of-tune with the resonant frequency of their environment. To explain, let me introduce a metaphor from the world of audio.

I have a fascination with subwoofers. For me, there is something compelling about the super-low, even subsonic, bass notes from the kick drum, tympani or pipe organ that cause standing waves in milk, and your insides, to curdle. Sadly, my neighbor, Dolores, does not feel the same way, and these days I have to switch the subwoofer off unless I’m sure she’s not home.

I used to have a 3000-watt subwoofer that was capable of 95 decibels at 20 hertz (the low end of human hearing) which would rattle the windows in the living room. Now, I have a 300-watt subwoofer that is capable of 105 decibels at 20 hertz. By way of comparison, the lower the frequency, the exponentially greater the power required to create the same volume level. 10 additional decibels requires exactly 10 times more power. Yet, this new subwoofer has 1/10th of the power. So how is it possible to achieve 10 times the volume with 1/10th of the power, a 100-fold performance improvement?

Resonance.

The old subwoofer was crammed into a tiny cabinet to save space. The new subwoofer has a large (5’) cylindrical enclosure that allows standing waves to build inside before escaping through a specially-tuned port. Now, I can rattle the windows of the neighbor’s house 100 feet away without even turning the volume up half way.

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The subwoofer came disassembled and it was a fascinating experiment to run a low bass tone through the speaker absent the enclosure, and to hear essentially nothing other than a rubbery whooshing as it emptied its power into the cavernous emptiness of the room. The contrast upon moving the speaker into proximity with the enclosure was startling, as the whole house would begin to shake with the bold power of resonating bass.

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To complete the metaphor: Your strengths are the power driving the speaker (yes more power is better), but your environment is the enclosure that can either amplify your strengths 100-fold, or stifle them to nothingness. Of the two, the enclosure/environment is exponentially more important in determining output and performance.

Are you in the right “enclosure” to amplify your strengths? Are you vibrating at a resonant frequency with your career, your home, your hobbies, your friends, or your relationships? Or are you out of tune with your environment, wasting all your power vacuously shaking in place with no impact on the world?

What about your teams, your children, your family and friends – what kind of environment are you creating for them? Are you helping them find their resonant frequency, and designing the kind of space, culture and environment that allows them to achieve peak performance and output? Or are you cramming them into the predetermined architecture of your world, traditional schools, traditional rules and expectations, stifling them in the process?

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Want to learn more about your strengths and how to leverage those of your team? Join me and Dr. David Rendall Feburary 13th in Chicago for our Strengths 2.0 Summit, a half day workshop to use design thinking to find your strengths and design through your weaknesses. Click the link below to learn more and register.

Strengths 2.0 Summit

Are You Missing Your Hidden Strengths? What Are Your Superhero Powers?

Are You Missing Your Hidden Strengths? What Are Your Superhero Powers? The popularity of Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, and  similar assessments, has given a great deal of exposure to the idea that “discovering strengths” can enhance  productivity, success and happiness.

A quick scan of the field, however, suggests that most  assessments that help people find their natural strengths and talents, tend to focus on cognitive or interpersonal capabilities. Characteristics like “analytic,” “empathetic,” “competitive,” “organized,” “intuitive,” and “extroverted,” have become the language de riguer to describe strengths and talents. Yet, these terms ignore a whole host of other characteristics that clearly play a role in the successes or failures of individuals.

Perhaps we need to expand the strengths playing field.

We know from ample research that people generally make “blink” or intuitive judgments about others based on a host of factors, many of which have nothing to do with their cognitive ability. For example, we know that height is a seriously influential predictor for deciding the next president.

What “non-traditional,” unnamed, or counter-intuitive strengths might you have? Think of other categories of talent and capability:

  • Physical characteristics: height, weight, presence, shape, posture, voice
  • Kinesthetic skills: balance, touch, fine motor control, spacial capability
  • Artistic talents: rhythm, tone, pitch, color sensitivity
  • Physical abilities: lung capacity,  fast twitch muscles,  eyesight, smell, taste

And then there is synesthesia – the mixing of some or all of these elements, where smells or sounds have a color, and people can see feelings or hear a silent activity.

When I think of my super-talented friends and acquaintances, I tend to find a weird intersection of common and uncommon capabilities melded in a counter-intuitive way. For instance, Tina DeSalvo is a tiny, tiny woman. Her physical presence is so diminutive that she could easily be dismissed and marginalized in the business world. Instead, she matches this non-threatening physical aspect with a calm, yet steely, confidence to lead boardrooms of men through exercises of vulnerability that would be nearly impossible with another facilitator.

Steve DeCaspers is the opposite – a large man with a round head and kind features. Steve can make any room in the world laugh and is one of the best MC’s I have ever seen.

Matt Stutzman has no arms, but through his stubborn refusal to consider himself handicapped holds the world record for the longest accurate archery shot, thanks to the strength, flexibility and stability of his legs.

David Rendall was repeatedly rebuked as a child for being a) unable to sit still, b) unable to stop talking, c) being the class clown, and d) unable to take direction. Now he travels the world where he a) never sits down, b) talks for a living, c) tells lots of jokes, and d) runs his own successful business as a public speaker.

Chris Callis was an average student in the classroom. But, one day, when I asked him to help me pack my moving truck, I saw spacial relationship genius of the finest order. It  would have taken me 3 trips to stack, pack and rearrange all my furniture and boxes in that small truck. Yet, Chris managed to reverse, rejigger, scissor and jigsaw into place all my worldly belongings in one trip in a small moving truck. Chris grew up assisting his father, who was an electrician, so he naturally had a talent with 3-D spacial relationships.

I could go on with story after story, but the point is that each of us was born with a series of talents, and has developed a set of skills across multiple spectrums. If we could weave a thread through ALL our superhero strengths and find an environment where we could use them, it would be like being superman on earth – we’d be unstoppable.

What are all your superhero powers?


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Is your current environment full of kryptonite?

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Looking for Your Strengths? Examine Your Weaknesses… (pt. 2 – Guest Post by David Rendall)

By David Rendall: The Rudolph Principle: Discovering Uniqueness by Embracing Weakness Last year I was watching the classic TV version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with my daughters and I realized that the story has a lot to teach us about strengths and weaknesses.

Just let the song run through your head for a minute . . .

“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose, and if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows.”

The Rudolph Principle

Rudolph was different. He had a major obvious flaw. This is the same for most of us. We are too impatient or too messy or too silly or too serious.

“All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolph, join in any reindeer games.”

Rudolph’s flaw made him unpopular and led to his rejection and isolation. No one wants to be rejected. So what do we do? We often try to hide our flaws and fix our weaknesses. We become ashamed. We wish that we could just be normal, like everyone else. We want to be accepted, so we try to change. This is just what Rudolph and his parents tried to do. They covered up his nose with a black rubber cone. It didn’t work. The red nose still shined through. It looked like Rudolph was destined for a life of pain and misery, but then the situation changed.

“Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight.”

Rudolph’s nose was a weakness, but it was also a strength in disguise. In the right situation, a “foggy Christmas Eve,” Rudolph’s nose was an irreplaceable advantage. That is why he got the call, from Santa himself, to save Christmas for the whole world.

He didn’t succeed in spite of his weakness; he succeeded because of his weakness. What would have happened to Christmas that year if Rudolph had gone to Beverly Hills for a nose job?

“Then all the reindeer loved him and they shouted out with glee, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you’ll go down in history.’”

Rudolph’s legacy, his enduring fame, was a result of his uniqueness.

Do you want more happiness, fulfillment, success and energy? Find your red nose. Look to your apparent weaknesses and flaws. They offer clues to your greatest strengths. Don’t try to hide them or fix them. Just look for the right situation, the one that offers a perfect fit between who you are and what is required. This takes courage, to wait, to endure ridicule, to be rejected by others. But remember the end of the story. Santa called on Rudolph and he saved Christmas.

Looking for Your Strengths? Examine Your Weaknesses… (pt. 1)

Matt Stutzman: IMG_5076

In many ways, Matt Stutzman is just your average guy. A hardworking, married, 33-year old with three children, Matt, like many fathers, goes to work, changes diapers, hunts and fixes cars.

However, unlike most other fathers, Matt Stutzman has no arms. Born with a rare medical condition, Matt has had to learn to navigate life without the benefit of arms, opposable thumbs and everything in between.

Clearly this is a very tangible weakness that created significant adversity for Matt to overcome. Matt had to learn to do all of life’s tasks — mundane or significant — without the benefit of arms and hands. Tying shoes, opening doors, driving, feeding himself, all of this, Matt learned to do with his feet.

What is fascinating about Matt’s story is that in his case, his significant weakness is also an extraordinary and fantastic strength. In 2012, Matt became an Olympic silver medalist and he holds a world record…

…in Archery.

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How is it possible that a man without arms holds a world record in a sport for the “armed”? Matt’s legs and feet are nearly every bit as nimble as the average man’s arms and hands, but are two — or perhaps three — times as strong. So, Matt can shoot more arrows in practice than your average archer without getting tired, use a greater level of resistance on his compound bow when shooting, and hold his aim steadier than, well, anyone on the planet.

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Consider this: Matt’s greatest weakness, when analyzed in a new light, is also his greatest strength.

Seeking to find your strengths? Sometimes the best place to start is in your weaknesses.

What Strength Will You Focus on in 2015?

“It doesn’t take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go.” (J. C. Watts) In 2015, I will focus on developing some relatively newly-discovered strengths and deliberately designing around the well-trodden paths of my weaknesses.

  • Strengths: I will spend more time writing and speaking (a relatively newly-discovered strength). Both of these activities fill me with energy and purpose, and bring color into my life. I have already discussed this with my employer and designed my job description to focus on these areas.
  • Weaknesses: I will stop pretending that I have significant strengths in detail orientation and follow-through. I will rely on people who are strong in these areas, so that I can dream big and still deliver.

Please share: What strength will you focus on in 2015? Or what weakness are you chasing that you will let go or turn over to someone else?  Please share with our community by commenting below.

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