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10,000 Hours of Practice? Would That ‘Twere So Simple

The human mind

I’ve written here before about Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Outliers, published in 2008. This year another book on talent, improvement, and mastery was published, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Anders Ericsson, importantly, is one of the pioneers and top experts in this area of psychology, and it was partly on Ericsson’s work that Gladwell make his conclusions.

Anders Ericsson

Anders Ericsson

Unfortunately, Ericsson says, Gladwell made some leaps that are misleading and, in some cases, inaccurate. The general principal that it takes a great deal of practice to become a world-class talent at something remains, and Ericsson reiterates that there aren’t exceptions, people who become masters without practice at things that require a lot of work for other people to learn. Phrases like “natural talent” contain an embedded error.

However, there are several important points where Ericsson disagrees with Gladwell’s conclusions–and since those conclusions were based on Ericsson’s work, these merit some attention! Here are some of the key points from Ericsson’s response:

  • 10,000 hours is an arbitrary number. The amount of time mastery takes will depend on who’s doing the practice, what kinds of practice they’re doing, who you compare them to, what thing they’re trying to master, what you consider “mastery,” and other factors.
  • There’s nothing in that research that implies that anyone can become a master at any chosen activity after putting in 10,000 hours–the research just shows that people who do achieve mastery put in a great deal of practice. However, there is compelling support for the idea that practically anyone can become excellent at practically anything: see “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?
  • The type of practice is crucial: it’s deliberate practice, and it has to be for the specific skill in question
  • There’s no limit to how good we can get with further practice, however. There’s not a point where we “achieve mastery” and can consider ourselves “done.”

You can read Ericsson’s more detailed response here, on The article is adapted from that new book I mentioned, Peak.

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The Power of Vulnerability

The human mind

Social work professor Brené Brown gave a startling TED talk a while back, and her basic point was this: we usually want things to go a certain way. We usually want to be able to predict what happens and for it to be something we’ve identified as good. What we don’t want is to screw up, to look bad, to open ourselves up to pain, loss, or embarrassment, or to invest ourselves in something that doesn’t pan out. Yet Brown makes a compelling case that without the willingness to be vulnerable, we shut ourselves down and make it impossible to enjoy or make the most of our lives.

To tell you the truth, I’m especially enthusiastic to share with you Dr. Brown’s following TED talk, but it’s important (and rewarding!) to see this one first. If you’re not already one of the roughly 8.5 million people (at the time of this writing) who’ve heard what she has to say, please find 20 minutes now, or as soon as it’s practical, and hear her out. I’ll follow up with a related post soon.


Ten Ways to Detect a Lie or Secret

The human mind

Body language is like a key to a hidden language: understanding it helps bring out another whole level of communication that isn’t normally visible to us, even though we sometimes react to it without knowing what’s driving our reaction. Of course, one of most the useful applications of understanding body language (as well as speech patterns and facial expressions) is detecting lies. This article offers ten ways to do that.

Unfortunately, body language isn’t as simple as one position or gesture always meaning one thing, but it can provide strong clues to what other people are thinking. Multiple clues taken together can provide a clearer and more definite picture of what’s going on in another person’s mind, especially when we take speech and facial expressions into account.

Sometimes when we hold something back or are feeling anxious, we act as though we’re lying even when we aren’t–so lie detection can sometimes mean just detecting that there’s something hidden, even if the words being spoken are true.

Here are ten indications that someone may be lying:

1. The nose touch. When we lie, we have a built-in urge to cover our mouths. However, most of us naturally learn to curb this at a young age because it’s such a clear giveaway. The urge is still there, though, and so the movement often turns into touching the nose or another part of the face.

2. Repetitions and hesitations. When we lie, we are more likely to hem and haw, and also more likely to say something more than once or with more emphasis than it requires.

3. Crossed ankles. This one usually happens when someone is sitting, and it tends to mean that something is being held back or hidden.

4. Looking to the left. When we remember, we’re more likely to look to the right; when we’re making things up, we’re more likely to look to the left.

5. Touching the back of the neck. As funny as it is to hear, touching the back of the neck is often an unintended signal that someone or something is “a pain in the neck.” This move may happen when an unwanted question is asked, or when dealing with something the person considers a nuisance.

6. The mouth smiles, but the eyes don’t. Telling real smiles from fake smiles isn’t always easy, but one of the bigger giveaways is that the mouth may change shape while the eyes don’t move. Real smiles usually include crinkles around the eyes. (See “How to Tell a Real Smile from a Fake Smile.”)

7. The lopsided smile. Real smiles are usually made with the whole mouth. If a smile is lopsided, it’s often not completely sincere.

8. A flash of worry. A “microexpression” is a very brief facial expression that occurs without the person intending or generally even knowing it has happened. A worried or angry microexpression that’s replaced by a happier look can indicate a lie.

9. The mouth says yes, but the head says no. When a person is saying something positive but accompanying it by shaking the head, that’s often a signal that they don’t believe what they’re saying. If the statement is negative, though (for instance “I am not interested”), then a head shake is a natural way to emphasize and confirm.

10. Freezing up. When we lie, we tend to have trouble reacting the way we normally would, and we stop using our normal gestures and maintaining a comfortable person-to-person body relationship. A person who’s lying will usually be more physically awkward and less physically expressive. That’s not surprising: deep down, we know our bodies can give us away, and we may try to shut them down.

If you’re interested in body language, you might like to read some of my previous posts on the subject, which include

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Do You Have Hidden Reserves of Creativity?

The human mind

Not long ago I was part of a panel discussion on creativity at Readercon in Burlington, Massachusetts along with psychologist Steve Kelner and writers Andy Duncan (“Beluthahatchie”), Toni L. P. Kelner (Who Killed the Pinup Queen?), Matthew Kressel (who is also publisher of the magazine Sybil’s Garage), Jennifer Pelland (“Captive Girl”), and Joe Haldeman (The Forever War). In the course of that discussion, which it appears will be available online in audio format some time down the road (I’ll post when it happens), two realizations came to me that hadn’t really had the chance to settle in before: first, we use creativity in many more activities than I would have thought, and second, creativity has a lot more uses than I had imagined.

Creativity we don’t realize we’re using
In Steve Kelner’s 2005 book Motivate Your Writing! he talks about a set of misconceptions that he calls The Seven Deadly Myths of Creativity–things like The Muse (the idea that creativity is reserved for special people, who have to wait on inspiration), Similarity (the idea that our creative process has to resemble somebody else’s creative process), and so on. In the course of debunking these myths, he points out that we use creativity in a lot more circumstances than we imagine–for example, in finding a new route to work.

I honestly don’t think I would have come up with that activity as an example of creativity, but he’s certainly right. As a rough working definition of creativity, we could say it’s trying an approach other than the ones that are obvious or that other people have pointed out. For example, if a kid in elementary school writes a story from the point of view of a sock, that kid will be branded “creative” before you can say “men’s garters.” If, on the other hand, that kid has grown up and now works in insurance, and if that grown-up discovers that a slightly longer route to work avoids the most dangerous intersection along the way and passes by stores where she would regularly be able to pick up things she needs, no one is likely to brand her creative–but she’s using her intelligence, coming up with new ideas, and even ignoring the obvious conclusion that she should always take the fastest route. This is clearly creativity in action.

Creativity can express itself in any number of ways that we might not immediately recognize, for example: a novel way to organize correspondence, an unusual routine that gets the kids to bed without arguments, or a series of themed study parties that keep a group of college students on task. If you don’t consider yourself a creative person, ask yourself if you always do things the way you’ve been shown or that’s most obvious. Do you ever innovate instead … even if it’s only in the most mundane things?

Making more use of creativity
That second realization for me was that creativity could be used in many more situations than I would have imagined, and that immediately comes in handy to me. For example, take the Deadly Myth that affects me the most of the Seven, something I might not have thought about if Dr. Kelner hadn’t put that question to us (his fellow panelists) directly: spontaneity. Kelner describes this myth as making us think “that great creativity comes from full-blown, complete inspiration rather than through rewriting, tinkering, or refinement.”

If you happen to believe this one, consider the example of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which started out as something not far beyond a collection of loosely-related stories, but which Lee and her editor edited and re-edited laboriously to finally arrive at the novel we know and (in many cases) love.

In any case, my spontaneity hangup wasn’t so much that I believed that rewriting couldn’t sometimes transform a good or even a bad work into a great work, but that I didn’t think of the act of editing or rewriting as creative. My general attitude has been “I wrote it–now the editing part is just a bunch of grunt work.”

This is really a misguided idea about editing, considering how much subtlety, detail, life, surprise, and freshness can be worked into a story or novel even after a first draft is complete. I hadn’t been thinking of editing as a creative task, and so I tended to equate it with drudgery. Realizing now that it’s an inherently creative activity, I’m much more eager to go ahead with the editing and rewriting my partly-finished works need before they can be sent out. This simple shift in perspective changes editing from something I reluctantly force myself to do into something I’m eager to do. There’s real value in that.

Whether or not your hangups about creativity (if you have any) match mine, I’m willing to bet that if you look, you’ll find hidden examples of creativity in your life, not to mention unexpected ways you can bring creativity to bear to make your life better.

Image by jef safi

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Singing Scientists Describe the Wonders of the Human Brain

The human mind

Musician John D. Boswell, known on YouTube as MelodySheep, has a unique and startlingly beautiful way of sharing his love of science: he takes video footage of some of the most brilliant modern scientists talking about the subjects they most love, uses Autotune to transform their speech into singing, composes symphonic pop-electronica pieces around the quotes, and offers the result freely on YouTube and for pay-what-you-please download.

Actually, he doesn’t only do it for science, although his love of science and natural philosophy drives most of the work he has on offer: he has also done pieces starring personalities like Mr. Rogers and Yoda. While I would recommend any of his compositions to you, though, the one strikes the closest to my area of fascination–understanding who we are, why we do what we do, and how to change for the better–is this one, on the human brain.

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Research Suggests Self-Awareness Helps Maintain Willpower

The human mind

I’ve extolled the virtues of mindfulness here on in a number of articles, such as “A Very Clear Example of the Power of Awareness” and “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” A 2011 article  by Hugo Alberts, Carolien Martijn, and Nanne deVries in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (“Fighting self-control failure: Overcoming ego depletion by increasing self-awareness“) offers some insight on why and how mindfulness–specifically self-awareness (which we might also call “mindfulness of self”)–may aid willpower.

You may well have heard the ideas of Dr. Roy Baumeister and others, who describe willpower as being a resource that can be used up. Although this idea is popular, I’m inclined to think it’s off the mark: some of the concerns are described in my article “The Debate Over Whether Willpower Tires Our Brains.” Alberts, et al’s work seems to support the idea that willpower isn’t used up so much as misplaced.

In their study, the authors had participants work at a task that required willpower: holding an exercise handgrip closed for as long as they could. They would test a subject with this task once, then have them perform a slightly tedious task or else a highly annoying task that according to previous research should cause them to have reduced willpower on their next attempt. However, before that second attempt, they had one group unscramble sentences with the word “I” in them and another group unscramble sentences about other people, reasoning that the people who unscrambled the “I” sentences would think more about themselves–i.e., be more self-aware.

What happened? The group that unscrambled sentences about other people, as expected, had reduced willpower on their second attempt in holding the handgrips–the normal result. The group with the “I” sentences, however, did just as well as they had the first time: their willpower wasn’t diminished.

How cool is that? Paying attention to yourself, it appears, can help you maintain willpower. This is good news in situations, like dieting, where exercising willpower repeatedly is essential.

Thanks to Dr. Art Markman, whose post about this study brought it to my attention, and Vince Favilla for tweeting about that post.

Photo by _ado

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Sudden perspective shifts

The human mind

One of the things that fascinates me and that I continue to try to fully understand is the sudden perspective shift that changes everything. For instance, if you’ve ever read Les Miserables (or seen the musical or a movie of the story, even), you’ll remember the moment when Jean Valjean, an escaped convict, has been caught by the authorities while is was fleeing the home of a bishop who sheltered him and is in possession of valuables he stole from the bishop. The bishop, instead of accusing Valjean, tells the authorities that the stolen goods are gifts, and even adds to them. This utterly unexpected turn changes Valjean’s perspective for the rest of his life–much for the better, I might add.

But Valjean is fictional, and while the example is fascinating, though there’s much to think about in the debate that plays out in the rest of the story (what I read of it–while I know it’s not considered respectable to purposely put aside a classic, Hugo’s novel wanders too much to keep me engaged. He lost me after the whole Napoleon interlude).

Cartoonist Randall Munroe, whose work I often find absolutely brilliant (for instance, see my post on his Zombie Marie Curie comic from about a year ago), recently posted a cartoon that illustrated, literally and dramatically, what a real perspective shift is like, with plenty of dark humor. Here is that comic:

You may be worried to know that this cartoon is based on life, but Munroe, who is usually pretty private, kindly shares with us that “She’s doing well.”


How to Change the World: Simon Sinek on Leadership

The human mind

Are you familiar with TED talks? These are fairly short presentations given by passionate and insightful people on all kinds of subjects. Recently I got to see what is probably one of my favorite talks of all time, because I want to change the world*, and Simon Sinek explained to me how it’s done.

Sinek’s central message, which applies to everything from the discovery of flight to the civil rights movement to iPods, is “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” He explains this using what he calls the “Golden Circle,” which looks like a target made out of three rings. The Golden Circle explains what the difference is between the mostly uninspiring things in the world and the things that set us on fire.

The outer ring is “what”: we mostly know what we do. We earn money at jobs, or find some other way to live. We spend time with family, or friends, or both, or neither. We have hobbies, or we look for entertainment, or we try to get outside a lot.

The middle ring is “how,” the way we do things that’s different from the way most people do things. Maybe you don’t have a TV, or maybe you have big family movie nights. Maybe you work for a large institution, or you’re self-employed, or you take care of the house and the family while your partner works.

The center ring is “why,” and Sinek contends that in most endeavors, people don’t have a good “why.” He points to Samuel Pierpont Langley, who could have been the man who invented the airplane, the way Sinek tells it, if he’d had a better reason to do it than to be wealthy and famous. He has other examples. He is rather convincing.

So if we want to make a difference in the world, to hear Sinek tell it, we have to have a reason that other people care about. If we are acting for ourselves only, our powers are very limited. If we are acting for a cause that other people can get behind, then we have the power of the whole world behind us.

*In case you’re interested, my goal is this: I want to understand and spread the knowledge of how we can bring the best of ourselves out into the world instead of flailing around looking for things to make us feel better.

Deferring and Sharing: The Well-Being of Others and Our Future Selves

The human mind

You don’t have to delay gratification or help other people to be human. Not delaying gratification can lead to a lot of suffering, and not helping others can lead to loneliness and insecurity, but they’re not strictly necessary.

To some extent, though, the better we are at delaying gratification and helping others out, the more we start experiencing benefits out of the blue. Being a dependable and altruistic member of a community creates a network of people who are willing to do things for us, look out for our interests, lend us assistance when we most need it, and support us when we’re recovering from a loss or setback. Handling our own desires intelligently has a similar effect: we continue to reap benefits from things we’ve done in the past.

Yet both helping others and delaying gratification pose a problem: we have to give things up now with a chance that we won’t be paid back. For instance, if I have a box of fudge and I hold off on eating some or all of it, I have to give up the experience of eating the fudge right now and run the risk of someone else eating the fudge, of losing it, of it going bad, etc. The surest way to get all of the “benefit” from eating the fudge is to consume all of it, right away.

The problem with that approach is that taking everything you can get the moment you have it often leads to a cornucopia of troubles. In the case of the fudge, eating a lot of it at once can make a person sick, contribute to unwanted weight gain, create an unpleasant sugar rush and crash, and cause the person to look like a pig to onlookers. To eat all of the fudge, I don’t have to give anything up, but in the end I bring on suffering and fail to experience the same kind of satisfaction I’d get from managing the fudge over time.

In a similar way, if I have a pound of fudge and some people I could share it with, the surest way to get all of the “benefit” of the pleasure of eating the fudge is to eat it myself, whether I do that now or later. Yet sharing the fudge with others makes others more likely to share with me, and over time is likely to yield a variety of benefits that a pound of fudge alone could not confer—especially if I don’t want to eat a whole pound of fudge.

Evolving as individuals, becoming more enlightened and compassionate, and learning how to handle ourselves better therefore means a lot of saying “I’m going to give up on this pleasure I could get right at the moment” and “I’m going to give up on this surer thing for this more uncertain thing.” It’s counterintuitive, and to a large extent we’re not built for it, and yet our lives become much happier the more we learn to defer and share. We can’t experience the pleasure our future selves will experience when we set things by for them now, or directly experience the pleasure others feel when we do things on their behalf. Fortunately, we can experience the immediate goodwill we call forth when we do things for other people and the satisfaction we get from making good choices. While these things don’t give us the immediate animal response we’d get from eating a pound of fudge, they also tend to make us feel healthier, happier, and in better harmony with our lives and environments–rather than making us sick.

If you’re interested in this topic, you may enjoy reading my article “The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness.”

Photo by Xiangdian

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A Simple Trick for Remembering Things That Are on the Tip of Your Tongue

The human mind

There’s a recent post on the Psychology Today site entitled “The Science of Rick Perry’s Brain Freeze,” in which psychologist Ira E. Hyman attempts to explain how a governor of Texas and presidential candidate could have had trouble remembering the Department of Energy, obvious jokes aside.

You may be pleased, annoyed, or uninterested to read that Dr. Hyman thinks Perry’s gaffe isn’t an indication of stupidity, but I’m guessing you’ll come away from the article happy based on the following potentially helpful tip. In it, he refers to the problem of “blocking,” a situation in which our brain has so much related information readily available that the specific piece of information needed can’t be found in the pile. Dr. Hyman says:

In cases of blocking, a brief period of thinking about something else may be enough to remove the block. In essence, you remove the competitors from active thought and then the next attempt to retrieve the information works more effectively.

I haven’t had the opportunity to try this yet, but you can bet I will next chance I get. If you try it, or have other tricks, I’d love for you to post in comments, below.

Photo by Dr Craig

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