Posts Tagged ‘practice’

There are different “stages” of fear, and different types of fear. There is mental fear, and physical fear. Mental fear could be something like the fear of public speaking, while physical fear could be the fear of physical injury (like you might experience skydiving). This does not relate to actual phobias, which I will not address in this article. Types of fear could include the fear of success, the fear of a break-up, etc. I will be addressing what I call the “stages” of fear:

1. Panic
2. Fear
3. Nervousness
4. Confidence

The purpose here is to discuss how fear can be greatly mitigated, and brought down from one stage to a lower stage.

Panic is often experienced in the heat of the moment. You could be at stage 2 (fear) and suddenly , unexpectedly be elevated to stage 1 (panic), and you could also be feeling confident and suddenly be elevated all the way to panic.

The question is, how do we prevent this?

Read the rest of this entry »

There are no wrong notes. To see what I mean, check this out:
1) If you play a wrong note, play it again so it sounds like you did it on purpose, and it will often sound like its tension-building rather than a bad note. That leads me to….
2) There is no wrong note, just the wrong note played after. Play a bad note and if you pick it up quickly enough, you can slide into the right note (see #4).
3) If you play a wrong note on purpose as a neighboring tone leading into the right note, it sounds good. It also sounds just like #2 above.
4) When playing in the standard modes, no matter what note you hit, if its a “wrong” note you are NEVER more than 1 fret away in EITHER direction from the right note. If you are quick enough and you hit the wrong note, you don’t have to think about where to go from there to make it right, just go SOMEWHERE. That of course leads into #3 and then #2.
5) If you are playing a CMajor chord, people, the music, your ears will tell you that a C# note clashes with the chord. However, if you play it an octave up, it doesn’t clash! Its just a b9 and sounds fine. Play a C#Maj chord with the root on the 5th string, and hit the note C# on that 5th or the 4th string and it clashes. Hit that C# on the 3rd string (an octave up) and the b9 (C#) doesn’t sound so bad. So, is it REALLY a wrong note, or is it the close interval? And if its the close interval, then why does the 3rd sound OK? So its not necessarily that either.
6) If you practice playing the wrong notes enough, they start to sound good.
7) If wrong notes are so bad, then why is it that even some more rock guys like Steve Morse make heavy use of them and they never sound bad? Bach can hit notes out of key and use those notes as part of a main melody, and it won’t sound bad at all.

All food for thought!

“If you hit a wrong note, then make it right by what you play afterwards” – Joe Pass

It was either Vai and Satriani or Becker and Friedman (I think it was Jason Becker and Marty Friendman) when they were younger used to sit back to back with guitars in hand. One would play chords while the other, having no clue as to the chord name or key or anything, would have to improvise over it. They learned quickly how to “fix mistakes” as well as play “wrong” notes on purpose for tension, etc.

In Victor Wooten’s book “The Music Lesson” (an excellent book!!!) a chapter deals with this. His teacher starts playing some chords, and Victor sits there and tries to find they key before jumping in. His teacher asks him what he is doing, and tells him to just jump in, and that there are no wrong notes, or at least you can fix them, etc.

Of course, simply knowing that playing wrong notes can be good, or that there are no wrong notes, etc. isn’t enough. You have to actually practice it (something that I really need to incorporate into my practice regimen too!)

Could we use the principles of early startup and deliberate practice to turn out lots of Donald Trumps?  Yes and no.  Because of the nature of business (can’t sign contracts before 18, etc.) it is very difficult to get any kind of business experience for many kids before the age of 18.  Some can help with the family business, but most don’t have that option.  However, some skills needed in business, such as writing, etc. can be developed.  So to a certain extent you can, and to a certain extent you cannot.  Its not because of human nature or physiology, but rather because of the circumstances of the field (like contract laws).  However in other fields where such restrictions are not in place, it can be done.  The best example is the Polgar sisters.


Today, there is very little use of the apprentice system.  Back a century ago you would go to school until you were able to work on a farm or in the family business, or able to get a job and bring home some money.  As time went on, and the country developed, we realized the value of an education.  We also started adding more classes in different subjects (as opposed to early high schools that were mainly vocational schools), making High Schools into liberal arts schools.  Then slowly, more students started going to College.  This all detracted from early vocational education.  However, there are more things to life than your vocation, and sometimes, people move into a vocation not knowing any better, and going to school, especially College, might allow them to discover their true passion.


Again, as I stated previously, these days its easier to see some great performer, or someone on their way to being great, and say they have a gift, or God-given talent.  But if you look behind the talent, you will see that there is generally a lot of work behind it (the iceberg effect).  Even the young girl down the street that has the magical singing voice and has never taken a vocal lesson.  Ask and you’ll probably find out that she’s been singing since she could talk, and sings all the time, everywhere, and her parents or siblings helped her when she encountered difficulties.  But saying that it’s a “gift” or talent is an easy way for many to justify that they would never reach that level.  The very definition of talent in this case would be someone who possesses a special innate skill for something and can achieve success at it with great ease.  Talk to the greatest performers, and you will find out that they ALL say that it was a lot of hard work to get where they are.  In reality, no one gets there (or very far at all) with great ease. 


But saying that some people have a natural god-given talent and others do not allows people to say that since we do not have this god-given talent, we can just be satisfied with not being the greatest, and go on with other things in our lives.  It takes the idea of great performance out of our hands.  If we were really a natural at anything, we’d know it by now, right?  Because of this, there hasn’t been as much study into this idea until recently, and the study that has been done has not made it into the minds of the public.


However, that’s all wrong.  Great performance is within our capabilities more often than most of us ever suspect.  Our knowledge of great performance hasn’t really made its way into the average person’s head.


There have been many, many studies across professions from sports to writers to scientists and doctors and business.  They all have the same thing in common, and that is what creates great performance.  The gifts possessed by the best performers are not at all what we think they are.  Some argue that specifically targeted innate abilities are simply fiction.  You are not a naturally born great guitarist, skier, stock trader, or cardiac surgeon, because no one is.  In fact, “talent advocates” who feel that they can provide specific examples of natural talents can not prove that these talents are needed or important in attaining great performance.  Some people believe that those that do exceed in their fields have a high IQ or have huge memories.  As we have seen previously, the memory idea is a myth.  There are internationally renown chess champions that are of less than average intelligence.  Many were never highly educated.  Where those performers rate higher is on tests of intrinsic motivation.  Many that start out and are recognized as “gifted” never actually show any signs of precocious accomplishments until they begin a course of intense study.  And most of the people who end up being the top performers in their fields as adults did NOT show early signs of great performance as a child at all. 


None of this suggests that talent does not exist, but what it does suggest is that if talent does exist, it may mean nothing.  It could be that the ability to motivate yourself to practice whether you enjoy it or not, and the ability to push yourself and get feedback are each FAR more important than any talent.  We’ve seen, for example that Mozart only had a precocity index of about 130, whereas today there are children with precocity indexes of 300-500.  Where are their great symphonies?  Why is it that the best performers in their fields don’t all uniformly and unanimously have the highest of precocity indexes?  Because, talent, precocity, etc. ultimately means very little.  Someone who works hard, gets the right feedback and challenges himself will excel beyond that of the talented or precocious child who doesn’t get that.  In a study of great pianists, you could not have predicted their ultimate achievement level even after they had been engaged in intense study for a period of 6 years.  Most were still not standing out from their peers, who ultimately did NOT go on to be one of the greatest in their field.  In many cases where parents talked about very early, sudden displays of precocity, such as in talking at an early age, when the researches looked further into it, they almost always found that the parents in that situation had taken a specific interest in their child, and had fostered an environment which was inductive to learning faster.  Then you have essentially a chicken and egg question.


Over and over again, the same facts reveal themselves.  Of those who exhibited early “gifts” for a particular field, almost none of them went on to be among the best in their field.  Of those who became the best in their field, their parents did not know that they would become the best until much later in life, and after years of intense deliberate practice.


Some people will say “its in her genes to sing.  Her mom was a good singer” – there is zero evidence that this is actually true.  Levels of “talent” or skill have risen far faster than evolution could hope to keep up.  She is probably a good singer because her mother is one, and sings with her, and corrects her pitch when she is off, etc. 


Edward de Bono (look him up on – he’s written too many books to list here!) came up with the “Eminence Curve” according to Geoffrey Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated (check the “About the Practice Project tab for a direct link to the book on This curve shows the relationship between education and success. The curve is a bell curve, and it shows that as education increases, so does success. However, it also shows that too much education detracts from success! How is this? Well, it relates to a concept discussed in the book Zen Guitar (also linked on the “About The Practice Project” page) that can be described as The Empty Cup. It is an old Japanese idea that if you have a teacup full of knowledge (tea), a teacher can’t pour anymore knowledge into the cup. It will overflow and spill, and add nothing. So the idea is to walk around with “an empty cup.” In other words, open yourself up to new ideas, and learning new things. Don’t assume you have all the answers.

Edward de Bono’s Eminence Curve displays the same principle. The more education you get, the more full your cup of tea is. There is a margin of diminishing returns for many. It’s good to get some education to open you up to the possibilities, to get the basics and foundation down, but do not get so much education that you believe it is the only way. Of course there are some people who can get a lot of education and still keep things in perspective and be open. You may be one of them.But this isn’t always true on average. de Bono further illustrates this by stating:

“In education we are concerned with literacy and numeracy. That leaves out the most important aspect of all, which I call “operacy”. The skills of action are every bit as important as the skills of knowing. We neglect them completely and turn out students who have little to contribute to society. In a stable world, knowledge of standard situations and the routine ways of dealing with them is sufficient. Not so in a changing world. Routines and category judgments from the past may be inadequate, misleading and dangerous.”

Basically he is saying that too much education can lead you to make inflexible decisions in a world where flexibility needed because and the unexpected can be almost common place. Only experience (the skills of action) can teach you that. So in many cases, too much education can leave you too rigid and married to ideas as well as the fact that without experience you cannot correctly apply what you have learned.

The lesson here is to go forward with an empty cup. Fill it with knowledge and experience, be open to new ideas and ways of thinking that may challenge you. Knowledge is not a substitute for experience. They are both equally important.

Edward de Bono also says that “Instead of analysis and judgment, we need design. We need to be able to “design” ways forward.” And that there are 3 aspects of thinking; what is, what may be, and what can be. Humans today are obsessed with “what is.” When we look at problems of the world, we look at what is. We debate it. We analyze it. But new ideas don’t come from “what is.” What is is about ideas that are already there. New ideas, and solutions to problems come from “what may be” and “what can be.” In order to get there, we have to design a solution. We don’t, however, practice that. We tend not to design the future. It just sort of happens. When you design a way forward you have a sort of blueprint to follow rather than just moving blindly. Most progress in science begins with what may be! But not many other areas of study do. But we can apply this to ourselves. A musician can look at what is (his current skill level), look at what can be, and design a program of deliberate practice to get himself there.

Though this is extreme, Einstein once said about Faraday (who discovered electromagnetism) “This discovery was an audacious mental creation, which we owe chiefly to the fact that Faraday never went to school, and therefore preserved the rare gift of thinking freely”


When you are first learning something (like a piece of music, or a forehand spin in tennis or ping pong) and you’re learning the mechanics of it, it is difficult.  You are trying to learn all the parts of the motion.  In the case of a forehand spin, it’s the motion of the racket, the angle of attack, how your hips and torso twist, etc.  There are many parts that come together to complete the action.  In the case of music on the guitar it’s the movements of the left hand, the picking of the right hand, the rhythmic placement of the notes (timing, melody, etc.).  At some point after many years of practice it becomes second nature.  You can just do it without even thinking.  Its like driving.  When you first start you are nervous, and you have to coordinate your feet (on the gas or brakes) with steering, and situational awareness (and even more if you are learning how to drive a stick shift).  Once you’ve been doing it for a long time, you can pretty much drive without thinking.  You still have to concentrate on situational awareness (because it is never the same), but the rest of the mechanics are done without thinking about them.


Studies using MRIs have shown that when you are learning and what that activity becomes second nature you are using different parts of your brain.  When you are learning you are using what you could call the “extrinsic” (or “learning”) part of the brain, and once it becomes second nature you use the “intrinsic” part of the brain to perform that task.  When you “choke” what is really happening is you start performing tasks with the extrinsic part of the brain rather than the intrinsic part of the brain.  The skills change from 2nd nature to the skills of someone learning the activity. 


You can actually see this happening yourself.  If you drive a stick shift and have done so for a long time and shift gears without even thinking about it, next time you get into your car and drive start thinking about what you are doing when you shift gears every time you shift gears.  THINK about how much the ending should rev before you switch.  THINK about how much you release the gas pedal as you push in the clutch.  Think about WHERE the gear is that you are getting to as you shift.  THINK about how much gas you give the engine as you let go of the clutch.  Odds are that if you trusly do this your shifting will either become sloppier, or slower, if even slightly, or less smooth, or some combination.


If you are a touch typist you can try this out as well.  Good typists don’t think about every letter they are typing, they think of the words or sentences (chunking memory, as discussed previously in this blog) and their fingers move on automatic pilot.  Now if you are or know someone that is a really good typist, have them think about each and every letter that they type, instead of the whole words.  They will likely slow down, and could also make more mistakes.  This is because now instead of using the intrinsic part of their brain they are using the extrinsic part.  Their “units” are also different.  If their unit before was a word, their unit now is a letter (this is called “de-chunking”).  If the word has 5 letters, that is now 5 units of information that their brain must think about and process to type that word when it used to be one.  There is also more potential for mistake.  With every “unit” there is new potential for screwing it up.  The typist starts using more of the extrinsic rather than intrinsic part of the brain.  Their performance changes EVEN THOUGH they really have these things internalized!


Some may say that if you are chocking you just need to focus on what you are doing and try again.  The problem is that choking comes from TOO MUCH focus!  With that added focus, as we have just seen, comes a shift in the area of the brain used, and hence a downgrade in skill and capabilities. 


Another example.  If you are a guitarist and are adept at sweep picking, for example…  If you are adept enough at it you can sweep through an arpeggio without thinking about it, no problem.  But if you suddenly force yourself to look just ahead to see where you need to be in a second, and concentrate on what you are doing – i.e. concentrate on what fret each finger is on, rolling off to mute the previous string played, making sure that the picking hand hits the right note at the right time, etc. you will find that you suddenly can’t sweep pick as well as you could when you weren’t thinking about it.  Again, its because instead of using the automatic part of your brain, by concentrating upon it you start using the learning part of the brain.  It’s known as the “flipping” of the brain system used to perform the task.


If a golfer starts thinking about the mechanics of driving – how and when the hips are moving, the speed and accuracy of the head as it hits the ball, the angle of attack, etc. – the drives will suffer.


The problem is that if we encounter this in real life – in a game, at a jam, whatever – our natural instinct when we start playing sloppily or poorly is to try to re-focus, when that’s about the worst thing we can do! 


As Yoda once said, “there is no try, there is only do”


So what do you do?


The best thing to do is the hardest thing to do at that time, which is to back off, clear your mind, and just play!  Don’t think about it.  Realize that choking is a brain function thing.  Its something that gets in the way of you executing what you know you can already do.  There is no need to relearn it.  Just be in the moment or instant, and stop thinking ahead.  You can also try to prep for it by emptying your head to begin with.  In most major sports competitions like the Olympics if you were to walk around the backstage area where the competitors are prepping you will see some that sit there and visualize their routine ahead of time – not the individual mechanics of a jump, but the routine as a whole (“turn here, them I jump and star this other move”), and a lot will just sit there possibly in silence, calming themselves down (to get rid of nerves, which can easily and quickly lead to flipping of brain systems, aka choking), and emptying their heads, so that they can just get out there and perform, and do what they’ve likely already done 1000 times already.  The book “Effortless Mastery” is essentially as guide to how to get there.  How to make sure that you can properly internalize your task, and even empty yourself, which helps prevent brain system flipping.  BTW, the title doesn’t mean “a really easy way to master something” it means “to master something to the point where performing that task is effortless.”



There is a mindset to advancement as well.  There are 2 basic mindset approaches that people tend to take when trying to advance people, or students, or whoever.  One is based on effort-based praised, and one is intelligence-based praise.  Studies mentioned in the book “Bounce” including those of University students as well as a world-champion ping pong player show that those who get praised for their intelligence “Oh, you did great!  You are so smart and intelligent!” tend to stagnate.  There is no reason for them to advance or push forward.  They think “OK, I did great.  They loved it.  Now all I have to do is keep doing the same thing, and I’ll keep getting this praise” (those that find intrinsic motivation to really push them forward aren’t as affected by this.  They tend to ignore some of it in a sense.  They enjoy it, but don’t take it to heart and just keep pushing themselves like they were before).  If you praise effort rather than intelligence you are praising them for the hard work that they put forth, and it tends to tell them that in order to keep getting that praise they just have to continue to put forth that effort that they already have.  They realize “in order to continue to receive more praise, I have to keep on improving like I am doing.”


An example of how to approach this would be if someone did really well on a test.  Instead of praising their intelligence, praise their effort by saying something like “Wow.  You did really well on that test.  Maybe it was just a little too easy for you.  Next time we will have to give you a test that is a little more challenging.”


Now you are challenging them to continue to improve.  “You did great, and now let’s continue to improve”


When a ping pong player that was great and had a lot of potential was discovered and sent to work at one of the great ping pong academies in the UK.  While there, his performance stagnated.  After much analysis it was discovered that his talent was praised, not the effort.  His mindset went to one of stagnation – just keep on doing what you’re doing.  When he was moved to a different facility where the coach praised his effort and repeatedly challenged him to improve, he changed mindsets back and started to improve his performance again.


According to Edward de Bono, one of the reasons why people can often be reluctant to be creative, is that if you try something and it doesn’t work out, it is regarded as a mistake or seen as failure.  In deliberate practice, (to borrow a phrase from the field of neurolinguistics) there is no failure, only feedback.  IOW, learning from your mistakes.  Mistakes or failure, by the best in their field is seen as a learning experience. 


Simon Cowell

An example is American Idol’s Simon Cowell.  In the program “Master Class” on Oprah Winfrey’s cable channel, Simon details an event during his career working A&R for EMI records in England.  After the success of the Spice Girls the same guy that put them together put together another girl group in the same vein called “Girl Thing.”  Simon Cowell signed them, and spent something like $2 million dollars hyping them.  He didn’t, however, spend a lot of time auditioning them.  He felt that he could make them succeed.  He hyped them, put his name out there backing them, etc. and spent $2 million dollars doing so.  As it turns out, they were not very good, and the record itself (the songs, performances, etc.) were not very good either.  When it came out, it flopped and did nothing.  When this happened, his boss at EMI called him up on the phone and told him that this was “the best thing that’s ever happened in your career” and hung up the phone.  The point that he was making was that this massive failure was a learning experience for Simon.  One of the things that he learned was that he believed his own hype, and stopped listening.  His ego was out of control.  Of course, he tried a bunch of other things while he was at EMI and had plenty of other failures, but not for the same reasons, and he learned from his failures.  There is no failure, only feedback.  And Simon listened. 


“It wasn’t good enough.  You made the decisions, take it on the chin, and learn from it.  It’s the only thing you can do.  And there is a certain positive you can take from that because you’re not killing yourself.  If you start killing yourself, you’re dead”  IOW, don’t beat yourself up about your mistakes and get depressed or whatever, learn from them and move on.  Keep going.  This is the same philosophy espoused by Mark Burnett (creator of Eco-Challenge, Survivor, The Apprentice, etc.) in his book “Jump In!  Even if you don’t know how to swim”


Simon, during his rise at EMI by the way, employed several of the principles of deliberate practice. 


The major one was getting feedback and listening to it as we have just seen.  When he worked at EMI he started in the mailroom.  He had no problem putting himself in front of other people and letting them know that he was listening, interested, and should be promoted.  He says that while he was there learning, he spent 90% of his time listening (to mentors).  He followed around a producer named Pete Waterlin there for 2 years, learning everything that he could.  Waterlin was the guy behind Rick Astley, Bananrama, and other 80’s pop groups.  It was during this time that Simon followed him around and learned from him.  His mind was like a sponge and he learned and watched all of the successful people the he could find.  Notice the principles in action:


1)      It is activity designed specifically to improve performance (often w/ a teachers help) – watching Pete Waterlin in meetings, writing pop songs, producing records, etc.  Just watching him do it was an education.

2)      It can be repeated a lot – He watched Waterlin do this over and over again for 2 years.  Then when it was his turn, he tried to emulate that success with his own acts.

3)      Feedback on results is continuously available – feedback from the teacher, and feedback from his own failures.


He also has intrinsic motivation and passion.  He states that not only does he want to teach others, but that on an hourly basis he wants to teach himself.


The Olympic Figure Skater

There is the story of the Japanese Olympic ice skating champion who it was estimated, likely fell onto the hard ice at least 20,000 times trying to get to the Olympics.  She didn’t become an Olympic champion despite her falling 20,000 times, she became a champion BECAUSE she fell 20,000 times.  The top ice skaters fall more than the lesser ice skaters because they are continually pushing themselves to do the things that they cannot do.  Failure can actually help push them forward.  When you stop failing, its often a sign that you are getting comfortable and not challenging yourself anymore.  You are sitting in the comfort zone, even if you don’t realize it.


Michael Jordan said mental toughness and heart are much stronger than some of the physical advantages that you may have.  He also missed 900 baskets, lost 300 games, and 26 times was given the ball for the game winning shot and missed.  This shows that behind every success is an iceberg of “failure” or learning). 


It’s what you do with that failure that helps determine whether you get better or not.  Do you learn from them, or let them discourage you?  Thomas Edison said: “If I find 10,000 ways that something won’t work, I haven’t failed… because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”


IOW, there are no failures, just learning experiences (or there are no failures, just opportunities to improve).  Failure itself, if analyzed correctly, can be a wonderful teacher, rather than something to fear and be dejected and de-motivated by.


Mindset is everything.


The Musician

Recently I was discussing on a forum the story a musician related where he was considered an excellent guitar player where he was from.  However a few nights before another guy came along and jammed with him and outplayed him in every way.  He felt like just giving up.  He felt like he would never be as good as that other guy.  Aside from the obvious “music should not be a competition” comments, the consensus was that this “failure” should be viewed as a learning experience.  Typical comments were along the lines of find out where you are lacking, and work on those areas.  This is the type of advice that often seems somewhat obvious to everyone except for the person who asked for it! 


The comments also went into practicing getting quiet before getting on stage (meditation, IOW) and clearing your mind on stage.  One of the issues was that the musician felt like he forgot everything that he knew and things that used to be effortless suddenly became difficult.  He felt like he was listening to someone else play, rather than himself.  But I am getting ahead of myself and will discuss this specifically in an upcoming post on Choking.




But wait, there’s more…

Here are a few random concepts


Types of Creativity and building creativity

There is a theory of creativity that basically defines several levels of creativity, and that you can progress through them.

-          Mini-C – Personal creativity, insights, etc.

-          Little-C – Everyday problem-solving and creativity

-          Pro-C – creativity from people who are professionally creative, but not eminent

-          Big-C – reserved for those who are considered truly great in their field.


Each one builds upon the other.  For example, many instances of mini-C and cumulate into Big-C eventually.  IOW, Big-C is built upon multiple Pro-Cs which is built upon multiple Little-Cs, etc.  Anyway, the guys Beghetto & Kaufman who came up with these definitions also state that

 “Big-C performance is more likely influenced by intense deliberate practice within a particular domain than by some special genetic endowment of a few individuals.” They believe that Innovators become great the same way that everybody else does.


The Home Environment as it relates to deliberate practice and greatness

Benjamin Bloom did research into the help of the home environment.  The subjects were all among the top performers in their fields; piano players, swimmer, tennis players, mathematicians, neurologists.  Their home environments all shared similar traits.

-          The homes were child-oriented.  IOW, the kids were very important in the household (as opposed to some parents who ignore their kids, etc.).  The parents were willing to do anything to help their kids.

-          The parents modeled a strong work ethic –work and obligations had to be met before play time.  Goals were to be made and pursued. 

-          Emphasis was continually put on excelling, doing ones best, working hard, and spending one’s time constructively

-          Parents gave their children general, but strong guidance on the children’s field (of study).

-          Parents didn’t force the kids, but did choose their teachers.

-          Ultimately the children moved on to some sort of a master-level teacher.

-          Many of them would not continually seek challenging new experiences that stress their weakest professional muscles.  The coaches must keep pushing them to develop.

-          The parents monitored the children’s practice, made sure there was time for it, and made sure that they did it.  This is important, because the kids seemed to hate practicing, so the parents had to force them.


Does this look at all familiar?  Sometimes parents who believe that their child is gifted in one way or another will follow at least some of the above precepts.  If they don’t believe that, they may not.  IOW, once they believe that their child is gifted, they focus on it, give encouragement, find teachers for the child, support the child, etc.  But the truth of the matter is if a child picked up the clarinet and did not seem very gifted at all, if the parents gave the same sort of support and the child remained sufficiently motivated to learn, that child could reach the same great levels of performance if not completely surpass those of the “gifted” child.



Corporations can behave in the same way.  Most do not, and this is why so few produce a steady stream of top performers.  For example, most will not tolerate a period of inactivity from an employee while he or she trains in a new skill.  Most organizations are not intellectually stimulating, even if their field is fascinating.  The corporations don’t foster that kind of culture or environment.  Startups tend to, but they then grow out of it to the detriment of everyone.  Rather than offering opportunities to learn, and rewarding curiosity, the typical corporation leaves it to their employees to find their own way to learn.  Instead of furnishing structure and support in a positive, forward-looking, build on successes environment, many operate in a cover-your-ass mentality, avoiding blame.  Research on creativity and great performance and supportive environments shows that these typical corporate cultures are poisonous to their people.  Corporations that can buck the trend by offering stimulation, structure, and support is not only rare, but also powerful.


Picasso’s lack of creativity when he was young – he drew lots and lots of figures in difficult poses and showed none of the creative sense that he later had.  He didn’t show any of his crearive sense till decades later after years and years of study.  It was through his study for many many years that he became creative.  Picasso was able to build the knowledge necessary to reach his creative breakthroughs through deliberate practice.


Creativity is often thought of as a divine source of inspiration, only that person could have thought of that, etc.  It may be true that “only that person could have come up with that” (such as Picasso), but its not because of divine inspiration.  It stems from a combination of life experiences, what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown through deliberate practice, etc. 


In most cases for any artist, the creative element doesn’t show up until after years and years of study.  Yes, there are guys that start writing songs after a couple of years of playing the guitar, but you will find that they have likely been singing and even writing poetry since being a kid, and they really aren’t breaking any new ground on their instruments after a couple of years playing them.


Creativity comes from a lot of deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice can force you to look at things in a new ways and build new techniques.  Of course, creativity is not simply limited to just deliberate practice.  (And there’s probably other things that build creativity, its not just limited to that). 


Standing on the shoulders of giants…

Lets look at the example of the song “Tomorrow Never Knows.”  Wikipedia states that it is “one of the first songs in the emerging genre of psychedelic music” and that “included such groundbreaking techniques as reverse guitar, processed vocals and looped tape effects.”


Where did this come from?  Some divinely inspired spark of creativity?  No.


First of all the tape effects came from Lennon and McCartney’s experiments with tape effects at that time, which were inspired by the electronic music experiments of Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940’s and later. 


The basis of the actual song was honed by Lennon and McCartney in playing and writing and working together to write songs for over 10 years already, not to mention their years learning their instruments and craft before The Beatles were even formed.


Then they went to India to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Maresh Yogi.  While they were there studying, being the musicians that they were, they also discovered and listened to Indian music.  In fact George Harrison learned to play some sitar while he was over there in India.  So, when The Beatles came back, they took 2 things they knew; pop-music, and Indian music, and combined them together.  The experiences in India may have been unique to him, sure.  Its not that it was some creative diving spark, but rather his life experiences that came together.  The life experiences of pop music and Indian music (along with the tape loops) merged into a single song as we got “Tomorrow Never Knows.”  Instead of some divine spark, it shows that he was clearly simply standing on the shoulders of giants (Indian musicians, American musicians, etc.).  He was only building up or combining in new ways previous styles and types of work done by those who had gone before him.  It’s not so well known that before George Harrison and the Beatles brought the influence of Indian music to modern music, a blues guitarist by the name of Michael Bloomfield incorporated Indian music into his blues music on the album East-West.  He too had studied Indian music intently, but at home in and around Chicago.  The same thing, if you think about it, could be done with heavy metal and say Innuit Eskimo music (not that anyone would want to listen to that), but the point is, its not divine spark or unique genius.  It is, like most everything else, a combination of past experiences and past studies brought together in a culmination.  Sometimes those culminations end up being something new and unique that we haven’t really heard before.


Great innovators aren’t burdened by knowledge, they are nourished by it.


They acquire it through a process of many years of demanding, deliberate practice activities.  Innovation doesn’t strike, it grows. 


Most of the great innovations, in fact, are based upon the work of others, and the innovators ability to see the whole picture.  A few examples:


Watson & Crick (DNA)

Researchers Watson & Crick were trying to determine the structure of DNA strands as were a number of other researchers.  The general questions were things like is it a double helix, or a triple helix?  Are the protein strands (the ladder rungs) on the inside or outside? And a lot more.  A lot of these individual questions were actually answered by other scientists.  However it was Watson & Crick that put all that work together, and that along with their own work allowed them to finally “discover” the actual structure of DNA.  IOW, they stood on the shoulders of giants.


Innovation doesn’t reject, or ignore, or operation in isolation of the past.  Innovation relies and builds upon the past.  It comes most readily to those who have mastered the “domain” of their field as it currently exists.



Take Picassos 1907 Mademoiselle D’Avignon painting:


Some claim this to be the most important painting of the 20th Century (debatable, of course).  This painting seems more disconnected and different than anything by any artist that came before it.  It shows a completely new and unique way of looking at the world.  A true original and innovation in art, you could say. 


But this painting was the algam of a variety of influences that he brought together:

Iberian sculpture (6th century BC)


African art


There is a great page on Geometric Abstraction here:


He was also influenced by the paintings of specific figures of Cezanne and Matisse.  Cezanne, for example, would reduce landscape elements to simple geometric shapes (you can see examples on the page of geometric abstractions above).


So, Picasso was an innovator much like Watson & Crick!  Watson and Crick, more so than anyone else, were aware of the research that was done before them (masters of their “domain”), and pulled it all together into a cohesive, single, unified definition or structure description.  Picasso was aware of the art that happened before him, and put painting, African art, and Iberian sculpture together into a cohesive, single, unified style called cubism, and come up with the Mademoiselle D’Avignon in 1907!  He did not come up with this artistic vision out of nothing, or pure “divine inspiration”.


Watt’s Steam Engine

Watt invented the steam engine.  Sort of.  Many steam engines were in fact around before Watt came up with his in 1763.  Several invented by Thomas Newcomen were already in commercial use.  Watt is often credited with inventing the modern steam engine, but what he really did was simply improve upon designs already created and in use.  He in fact developed his over a period of about 12 years, and he started work about 50 years after the Newcomen steam engine.


Newcomen’s steam engine was similar in that Newcomen didn’t invent it either, but rather improved upon designs before his. 


Watt’s design was much more efficient than Newcomens.  But it wasn’t the result of “divine inspiration”.  Watt was “master of his domain” and thoroughly understood that which came before him (Newcomen’s design) and improved upon it.  He could improve upon it because he was also trained as a maker of precision scientific instruments.    He combined the 2 and came up with his own, more efficient design.


Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney, contrary to what many History text books may say, did not invent the cotton gin.  There were actually many cotton gin-like machines around that could remove the seeds from cotton balls.  The problem was they only worked on long-staple cotton.  In the South, what they needed was a machine that could remove the seeds from short-staple cotton.  Long-staple cotton was not grown in the south, the heart of cotton production, because it didn’t grow on a large scale.  Again, Whitney’s cotton gin was not the result of some “divine inspiration” but rather an improvement on what came before.  Whitney was the mast of his domain, or area of study in that he understood thoroughly those designs that came before his, and he understood the need for those designs to work on short-staple cotton to be truly a “revolutionary” (read: useful) device.  He too, stood on the shoulders of giants.



These inventions, including the Wright Brother’s invention of the airplane we surely the result of great insight in order to improve upon existing designs, but they were not wholly original designs unto themselves.  Their insight and innovations came about because they thoroughly understood the designs of the past, and in some cases understood those design’s specific failings in accomplishing the task that they (Watt, Whitney, Wright) wanted to achieve.  They also utilized their own outside but relevant expertise in order to facilitate these innovations; Watts training as a maker of precision scientific instruments, Whitney’s understanding that he needed to apply Newcomen’s principles to short-staple cotton, and the Wright Brothers skills as bicycle makers (which allowed them to create the steering and pulley system that flexed the wings of the Wright Flyer, plus the physics of lift – Newton’s laws of motion – if the wing exerts downward force on the air, the air will exert upward force on the wing, and the way to get downward force was to increase the surface area of the top part of the wing, deflecting the air above and over, exerting downward pressure).


Apply these ideas to the iPad (and remember that the iPod was NOT the 1st mp3 player.  It was simply the one with the best design, which allowed it to leap past the competition).  Compare this to the previous blog entry in this series on Mozart.


And remember that Edison once said that invention was 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.


Often, talent and genius are seen as God-given talent or ability, as I have discussed.  It’s so easy to look at someone and say “well, he is just a genius.  I could never get to that level,” or “my child could never get to that level.”  As we have seen, that’s not true.  This is also known as the “Iceberg” effect (or “iceberg” something).  One sees the great performance of Tiger Woods on the course, but you never see the extraordinary amount of difficult and deliberate practice that occurred beforehand, perhaps for decades.