We tell others about our experiences through stories
September, 2012 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
The global nature of our work means that we spend a fair bit of time in the air, and we're definitely clocking up the frequent flyer points in the next month or two. As this newsletter goes out, Shawn and Mark are in India running two of our popular workshops as well as taking in the sights and experiencing the local culture.
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Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
- by Joshua Foer
About 10 years ago I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t remember people’s names and it seemed to be getting worse. So I made a visit to my local bookstore and found Learn to Remember by Dominic O’Brien (eight times world memory champion). Over that weekend I read the chapter on remembering names and on Monday I drove out to my client’s office at the Centre for Army Lessons. I was keen to use this new technique and as it happened I was introduced to Lieutenant Colonel Rowan Martin. So, as I was saying hello I imagined him rowing backwards in an Austin Martin. It was a brief encounter but about a year later I bumped into Rowan and his name immediately came to mind. It worked. And when I remember to use the technique it rarely fails me.
Memory is important to my work with stories. Stories start with memory. So when it was suggested that I might enjoy Moonwalking with Einstein I downloaded it to my Kindle and I must have read it in a fews days. I couldn’t put it down.
There are many reasons why I found this book fascinating. Firstly it’s written as a story. And not just any story – it follows the familiar yet effective hero’s journey structure with our author, Joshua Foer, as our hero. He’s on the journey to be the USA memory champion and his mentor, Ed Cooke, is helping him learn the myriad of memory techniques needed to make the finals.
On his quest Joshua shares with us the research that illustrates how our memory works, and how we’ve changed the way we use our memories as we outsource them to external sources such as our computers and iPhones. No longer do we have those fun conversations trying to guess the names of actors in films because within the second of asking, “who’s that actress in Drive with Ryan Gosling?” someone is on their iPhone looking up IMDB for the answer. End of conversation. No need to exercise our minds.
There are so many interesting facts embedded in this book. For example, how we all have a great memory for faces and places. Have you ever been in a house for the first and only time and had a bit of a look around. Then 6 months later, with no thought about that house in the interim, you can give a pretty accurate description of the floor plan. Our spatial memories are extraordinary. The memory champs make use of this natural ability and so do ancient oral storytellers.
This book also explodes some of the myths of memory. For example, that some remarkable people have photographic memories. To date there are no confirmed examples of people having photographic memories in the sense that they see a page and can remember it verbatim. It’s true however that some people have very good memories and some of these have a condition called synesthesia which enables them to see, for example, words as colours or textures or to taste different sounds. This mixing of the senses makes information so much more memorable.
I found what Foer had to say about Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey, and how scholars believe that it was an oral story that was eventually written down. The vestiges of the oral nature of the story is evident in the repetitions, the rhythms, and the way in which the hero, Odysseus, and other key characters are referred to in similar ways to help with remembering the oral tale. It’s a great reminder that oral stories are quite different from literate ones, a fact that is persuasively described by Walter Ong in his book Orality and Literacy.
I highly recommend Moonwalking with Einstein. It’s fun to read, packed full of ideas and you really want to find out if Josh succeeds in his quest. I also like how it is well referenced so you can track down the experiments and research findings he mentions along the way.
We're working on some exciting projects at the moment. Here's just a few:
Running our Making Strategies Stick program for a life insurance company.
Delivering several Storytelling for Leaders programs for a variety of organisations, including a large science agency, and as a part of leadership programs at a large bank, and an educational leadership provider.
Exploring employee engagement within a division of a technical manufacturing organisation.
Wrapping up a three–year research program establishing communities of practice on sustainability in ten NSW councils.
Facilitating a number of Leading to Engageprograms for regular clients.
Upcoming Events that we're running or attending:
Shawn is convening the Origins Asia Pacific Business Narrative Conference on the 5th October. The aim of Origins is to foster the practice of business storytelling and narrative techniques in the Asia Pacific region and to build awareness among government agencies and corporations of the power of storytelling and narrative for business. For further information and to make a booking, go to the registration site.
Kevin will be in Auckland to run our Influencing change with the natural power of stories workshop on the 1st November. This workshop is for leaders who need to make change happen and want to learn how to use stories to diagnose what's really going on, trigger new stories that inspire action and design initiatives that really engage employees in acting their way into a new way of thinking. To find out more about this workshop and to register please go to the registration site.
Some time ago I blogged about a short video from The Collaboration Lab describing the difference between communication, consultation and collaboration. In a nutshell, the communicator and consultor remain accountable for what happens whereas collaborators are jointly accountable (i.e. we're all in this together).
We have worked with many organisations to break down silos and build more collaborative workplaces and have seen a lack of shared accountability be a major barrier to collaboration. When working with Communities of Practice (CoP), it often manifests itself in the coordinator making comments like "its really hard to get people to do stuff. They attend meetings, come up with great ideas and then look at me as if its my job to get them done."
There are two key lessons for developing successful CoP. The first is to follow the passion. Always ask people what actions they are interested in being part of. The following example is from the project we have been working on to build collaborative networks focused on sustainability in ten NSW councils.
At the kick-off day for one of the networks, the group identified a list of actions needed to make sustainability an integral part of the council culture. The actions listed included introducing electronic timesheets, surveying the council, encouraging sustainability to be embedded in policies etc. But when asked to identify the things they wanted to work on, the priorities were completely different. This time the top two priorities were to introduce ‘boomerang bags‘ and to conduct a lunchtime ‘Food4Thought’ session. The things people are interested in are the things that will get done.
The second lesson is to be prepared to drop actions that network members aren't prepared to contribute to, no matter how important the action is. If the CoP coordinator shoulders the bulk of the work, there is no shared accountability, and a pattern of behaviour is set that turns the group into a committee rather than a network. Collaboration requires everyone to ‘have some skin in the game’.
Our office can become quite crowded and busy at times, and while I enjoy the camaraderie, and being able to bounce ideas off colleagues, it can become a little distracting and hard to concentrate. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can create a space that is more conducive to getting things done.
I recently came across a lecture by John Cleese where he talks about creating the right conditions for creativity, and outlines five factors you can arrange. The first thing he recommends is finding a space you can work uninterrupted. No great surprise in that. However, he goes on to say that ...
It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.
So, his second recommendation is time – create space for a specific period of time, somewhere in the order of 90 minutes is perfect. He notes that it’s far better to do 90 minutes than four hours.
That led me to researching ultradian rhythms and how the human body has these natural cycles that occur at intervals of between 90-120 minutes throughout the whole day. During this time we feel energized and are able to get things done. This is followed by a 30 minute stretch ofclow energy levels. Then the cycle starts again and you’re on your way towards another period of high energy.
Serendipitously, I was invited last week to a talk by Tony Schwartz — author and CEO of The Energy Project — about managing energy to maximise performance.
He spoke about the process of using ‘ultradian sprints’ to write his latest book and how he was able to focus far more intensely and get more done in far less time, by limiting each writing cycle to 90 minutes and building in periods of renewal.
For the first several books he wrote, he often sat at his desk for up to 10–12 hours at a time. He never finished one in less than a year. For his new book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, he wrote without interruptions for three 90-minute periods, and took a break between each one. Writing for no more than four and a half hours a day, he finished the book in less than six months.
So, how can you take advantage of this?
For a start, build at least one period of uninterrupted focus into each day for 90 minutes and see how much more you get done. If this works for you, extend the number of 90–minute cycles. To operate at our best, we need to renew our energy, so remember to take a break between each one.
Experiment. Become aware of your own natural rhythms and notice your energy levels at different stages throughout your day. Just imagine the great things you could achieve if you learn the optimal times for performing at your best.
I’m going to put these ideas into practice and see how it goes. Now, to find that quiet uninterrupted space.
Storytelling for Leaders – Deliberate Practice Program
A couple of months ago, we announced that we were launching a new product — a deliberate practice program for business storytelling.
Well, there's been plenty of excitement around the office in recent weeks, and a few anxious moments as the finished product arrived and the first group of learners received their hardcover folders and the first module: 'Continuing to build your story–spotting skills'.
We're really pleased with the end result. The folders and printed materials have a great look and feel, and are high quality — something you'll be proud to have on your desk (we certainly are). We're also excited about the new content we've produced. It's a nice mix of new, in–depth information along with a series of self-guided exercises that gives you a practical feel for learning about, and applying story–work to everyday work situations.
If you've attended one of our Storytelling for Leaders workshops you can participate in this six–month program and receive a new learning module every month that builds your skills and helps you practice storytelling in the workplace.
There's more information about the Storytelling for Leaders – Deliberate Practice Program on our website, or get in contact if you'd like to know more.
Being good at something takes practice, not just talent
For regular followers of our blog and these newsletters, you will know that we talk a lot about the concept of deliberate practice in improving performance, and building expertise. The research paper that started the whole movement about how expertise is created was the 1993 paper by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer titled: The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. 1.
Ericsson and his colleagues studied expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts. They gathered all the data they could find, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.
The paper’s goal was to investigate the factors that go into expert, world-class performance in any given field. The standing theory that it challenges is the importance of “natural ability” or “innate talent”, as opposed to something that can be built up and attained over time. This view argues that people who are great at something are just born that way. They have these natural talents and capabilities that the rest of us just don't have.
Ericsson et. al. reject the talent view and present a large amount of evidence that shows innate talent counts for very little. Even things like lung capacity, heart size, capillary density, dexterity, etc., that we might assume to be genetically endowed, turn out to change considerably with years of practice. Or to take another example, excellent pianists don’t have faster reaction times than amateurs; they only outperform the amateurs on tests specifically related to training on the piano. Nor is there a clear relationship between chess ability and IQ. And so on.
They conclude the section dispelling this myth by saying ...
The search for stable heritable characteristics that could predict or at least account for superior performance... has been unsuccessful.
So, if its not natural talent, is it just the amount of time you spent doing a task that predicts expertise? The answer to this is also no.
Most individuals who start as beginners in a domain increase their performance for a limited time until they reach a certain level. Beyond this point however, further improvements are unpredictable and the number of years of work and leisure experience in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance. It's therefore not how much time you spent doing something as part of your job or just for fun. Work is extrinsically motivated, and performance stability and predictability (i.e. that you’ll get the job done) are paramount, performance growth is not. Play is intrinsically motivated and pleasurable, but not goal-directed, and not structured to improve performance. Hence, continued improvements (changes) in achievement are not automatic consequences of more experience.
So, if its not natural ability and just time spent doing a task, then how do experts become expert?
Ericsson et. al. discovered that experts undertake, what they call 'deliberate practice' - activities designed for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance. Deliberate practice is structured, effortful practice, usually not pleasurable, focused on specific performance bottlenecks.
They go on to outline the characteristics of deliberate practice. These include that deliberate practice:
Is tailored to subject’s existing level and weaknesses;
Often involves getting immediate feedback on performance;
Involves trying out new methods and refine them to match new performance goals;
Involves a high degree of motivation amongst its subjects. Since deliberate practice is effortful and not pleasurable, subjects must be motivated enough by the promise of increased performance to go through it;
Must have a high degree of intensity and push the subjects limits;
Has to ensure there is adequate recovery time. Deliberate practice is intense and exhausting, and can only be sustained for a limited time; and
Involves strong support structures. The commitment to deliberate practice involves not just the individual, but an intricate support structure consisting of parents and teachers and facilities, sustained over a long period of time.
Therefore deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting golf drives until your shoulder aches. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. It is about working on the edge of failure, struggling to get better and improve your skills. It's not meant to be enjoyable, it's meant to make you better.
This paper started off a wave of new thinking and research on how expertise is achieved, and how each one of us can improve. From Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated, to Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code, to Carol Dweck's Mindset and Matthew Syed's Bounce. These are all fantastic books that owe a huge amount to Ericsson et. al. for their thinking, research and this paper. It really is worth the time and effort to read.
 Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R., and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993): "The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance" in Psychological Review, vol. 100: 363-406.