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The OK Plateau Is Not OK

I was reading Terry Laughlin’s blog and ran across this article, Secrets of a Mind-Gamer, by Joshua Foer that chronicles his exploration of “memory athletes” and how he was able to apply the techniques he learned to become world-class memory athlete as well.

Laughlin has a good insight on how to use the skills Foer describes to become a “World-Class Improver” in swimming. My slant on the article is in the same vein as Laughlin’s, but I liked how the memory researchers and athletes have dispelled the notion of what is known as the “OK Plateau:”

“Psychologists used to think that O.K. plateaus marked the upper bounds of innate ability. In his 1869 book “Hereditary Genius,” Sir Francis Galton argued that a person could improve at mental and physical activities until he hit a wall, which “he cannot by any education or exertion overpass.” In other words, the best we can do is simply the best we can do. But Ericsson and his colleagues have found over and over again that with the right kind of effort, that’s rarely the case. They believe that Galton’s wall often has much less to do with our innate limits than with what we consider an acceptable level of performance. They’ve found that top achievers typically follow the same general pattern. They develop strategies for keeping out of the autonomous stage by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance. Amateur musicians, for example, tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces. Similarly, the best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. In other words, regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail.”

This is an example of individuals exhibiting the qualities of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset in a specific context. Dweck argues that everyone can improve and everyone can improve constantly if they adopt and exhibit the qualities characteristic of a growth mindset. Foer says the same thing, “To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think out limits lie.”

For me it gets better from there. Foer’s coach sent him a quote from Bruce Lee of all people, “There are no limits. There are plateaus, and you must not stay there; you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.”

I love Bruce Lee – and if constant improvement is something you are interested in, I recommend reading some of his work and learning about his training techniques and philosophy as well.

Go the Distance: Dean Karnazes

UltraMarathonMan, Dean Karnazes is back at it this week.

“Friday morning, Dean Karnazes will strike out for New York from his native California. His plan: to run the whole route.

His coast-to-coast pilgrimage calls for Karnazes to be on the run, rain or shine, as much as 14 hours daily covering an average of 50 miles to 60 miles.

He’ll be under the watchful eye of “Live! With Regis and Kelly,” which invited him to make this odyssey and will track his progress every step of the way. After nearly 3,000 miles on the road, he will arrive around May 11 in Manhattan, where he will cross the finish line at the “Live!” studio to be welcomed on the air by co-hosts Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa.

“This is without a doubt the most intense endeavor I’ve ever undertaken,” said the 48-year-old Karnazes, whose list of endurance derring-do includes this breathtaking achievement: 50 marathons in 50 days in all 50 states.

Dean is in fact awesome.

Big Plans For Everybody

Great post from Seth Godin:

Make big plans

“…that’s the best way to make big things happen.

Write down your plans. Share them with trusted colleagues. Seek out team members and accomplices.

Shun the non-believers. They won’t be easily convinced, but they can be ignored.

Is there any doubt that making big plans increases the chances that something great will happen?

Is there any doubt that we need your art and your contribution?

Why then, are you hesitating to make big plans?”

On Play

Tom Bartlett has an interesting article, The Case for Play, on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website on the importance of play in the intellectual development of kids. The crux of the article is the proliferation and increasing importance of the work by a Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky.

“Before tuberculosis claimed him, at just 37, Lev Vygotsky managed to produce a stack of volumes on topics as diverse as the psychology of art, the relationship between thought and language, the problem of consciousness, the behavior of primitive man, scientific language, and child development. While the amount of work he cranked out is notable in itself, what’s more impressive is how influential that work has become, even though much of it remained unpublished and untranslated for decades following his death.”

According to Bartlett, “Vygotsky viewed play, particularly pretend play, as a critical part of childhood, allowing a child, as he said in one oft-repeated quote, to stand ‘a head taller than himself.’ His biggest theoretical contribution may have been the Zone of Proximal Development: the idea that children are capable of a range of achievement during each stage of their lives. In the right environment, and with the right guidance (which was later dubbed ‘scaffolding’), children can perform at the top of that range.”

There are clearly critics and skeptics who deride the importance of play in childhood development and preparation for future academic success as well as the “Play Purists,” who see free play as the solution to just about everything.

From an athletic development standpoint, I think the value of unstructured game play is clear. In soccer, the most skilled and creative players come from environments where they spend more of their time playing “street” soccer than organized club soccer. This seems to hold true for basketball players in the U.S as well. Players who grew up primarily on the playgrounds have “instincts” for the game that are more highly developed than players whose experience is limited to adult-led, organized play. The trick is to apply the instincts developed through unstructured play in organized, codified sport.

Very good article though with a nice list of “play” books for further reading. Also check these posts for other thoughts on the importance of play – Play For your Life and Play: A Glimpse Of The Divine.

Go Play!

Run For Your Life

David Raichlen of the University of Arizona in Tucson says his research shows we’d out run a Neanderthal in a foot race. The reason – the length of the Achilles tendon:

“He began by studying eight endurance runners on treadmills to find out how much energy they used at given speeds. By looking at MRI scans of their ankles, he found that the distance between a point on the heel bone just below the ankle bone, and the back of the heel bone where the Achilles tendon attaches, was proportional to the runner’s efficiency. The shorter this distance, the greater is the force applied to stretch the tendon – and the more energy is stored in it. This means that people with shorter distances are more efficient runners, using less energy to run for longer.”

Some paleontologists believe this is why the Neanderthals became extinct. “John Stewart of Bournemouth University, UK, points out that H. sapiens remains tend to be associated with animals from open habitats, while Neanderthals are found with animals from closed habitats. He believes that when the forests of northern Europe were wiped out by the most recent ice age, Neanderthals were squeezed out of existence as well.”

Run for your life apparently isn’t a laughing matter.

Excercise Makes You Smarter, Again

Aerobic exercise in older adults has been shown to improve memory. Who knew?!?

“A new study shows that one year of moderate physical exercise can increase the size of the brain’s hippocampus in older adults, leading to an improvement in spatial memory.

The project—conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Illinois, Rice University, and Ohio State University—is considered the first study of its kind focusing on older adults who are already experiencing atrophy of the hippocampus, the brain structure involved in all forms of memory formation. The study, funded through the National Institute on Aging, appears in the Jan. 31 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The scientists recruited 120 sedentary older people without dementia and randomly placed them in one of two groups—those who began an exercise regimen of walking around a track for 40 minutes a day, three days a week, or those limited to stretching and toning exercises. Magnetic resonance images were collected before the intervention, after six months, and at the end of the one-year study.

The aerobic exercise group demonstrated an increase in volume of the left and right hippocampus of 2.12 percent and 1.97 percent, respectively. The same regions of the brain in those who did stretching exercises decreased in volume by 1.40 and 1.43 percent, respectively.”

Friday Night Video: Pete Townsend – I’m One

Jack LaLanne: On Living

Quotes on living a good life from an Esquire interview from 2004:

“As long as the emphasis is on winning, you’re gonna have steroids.

If man makes it, don’t eat it.

Of course I have fears. But what good is thinking or talking about them? Billy Graham is about the hereafter. I’m for the here and now.

You’ve got to satisfy you. If you can’t satisfy you, you’re a failure.

I work out for two hours every morning, seven days a week — even when I’m traveling. I hate it. But I love the result! That’s the key, baby!

The only way you can hurt your body is if you don’t use it.

I’d like to talk to Jesus about those twelve disciples. They were a great public-relations team.

If you want to change somebody, don’t preach to him. Set an example and shut up.

What I do isn’t about money. Can you put a price on a human life?

Any stupid person can die. Dying’s easy. Living’s a pain in the butt.

Read the whole thing

Hard Knock Kids

Hard Knock Kids

I like this article, To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test, by Pam Belluck in the New York Times Online.

From the lede:

“Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.

One of those methods – repeatedly studying the material – is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other - having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning – is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.”

That last point is important, “other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.”

Further along in the article Belluck hits on what I believe to be the key point:

“Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it and creating cues and connections that our brains later recognize.

“When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything  it’s simple playback,” said Robert Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved with the study.

But “when we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access to that information,” Dr. Bjork said. “What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need to do later.”

It may also be that the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains.

Maybe that is also why students who took retrieval practice tests were less confident about how they would perform a week later.

“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.'”

By contrast, he said, when rereading texts and possibly even drawing diagrams, “you say: ‘Oh, this is easier. I read this already.'”

The teaching strategies that seek to lessen or shield students from having to struggle with the material in a meaningful way – make things ‘easier,” also appear to keep them from actually learning the material in a meaningful way.

It is the struggle. It is the effort. If things are too easy we are not fully engaged. We do not learn as fully and deeply as we can.

I believe this goes for any type of learning – academic or athletic or artistic. If you need more data read Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.

Take The Test.

Game On

Game On

Video games, Facebook, and texting are a struggle. In one sense they take away from what is real. A text conversation isn’t a face-to-face verbal conversation. A computer-mediated interaction does not carry the same depth of information a live interaction offers. But there is another aspect to computer interaction of which I’m glad to be reminded.

Jane McGonigal has a piece in the Wall Street Journal that looks at how video games do give players a sense of achievment and can inspire them to take on challenges in real-world situations. McGonigal’s article, Be a Gamer, Save the World, touches on how the truth about games is often the opposite of what we are typically led to belive.


    “We often think of immersive computer and videogames-like “FarmVille,” “Guitar Hero” and “World of Warcraft”-as “escapist,” a kind of passive retreat from reality. Many critics consider such games a mind-numbing waste of time, if not a corrupting influence. But the truth about games is very nearly the opposite. In today’s society, they consistently fulfill genuine human needs that the real world fails to satisfy. More than that, they may prove to be a key resource for solving some of our most pressing real-world problems.

Hundreds of millions of people around the globe are already devoting larger and larger chunks of time to this alternate reality. Collectively, we spend three billion hours a week gaming. In the United States, where there are 183 million active gamers, videogames took in about $15.5 billion last year. And though a typical gamer plays for just an hour or two a day, there are now more than five million “extreme” gamers in the U.S. who play an average of 45 hours a week. To put this in perspective, the number of hours that gamers world-wide have spent playing “World of Warcraft” alone adds up to 5.93 million years.

These gamers aren’t rejecting reality entirely, of course. They have careers, goals, schoolwork, families and real lives that they care about. But as they devote more of their free time to game worlds, they often feel that the real world is missing something.

Gamers want to know: Where in the real world is the gamer’s sense of being fully alive, focused and engaged in every moment? The real world just doesn’t offer up the same sort of carefully designed pleasures, thrilling challenges and powerful social bonding that the gamer finds in virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential or to make us happy.

Those who continue to dismiss games as merely escapist entertainment will find themselves at a major disadvantage in the years ahead, as more gamers start to harness this power for real good. My research over the past decade at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Institute for the Future has shown that games consistently provide us with the four ingredients that make for a happy and meaningful life: satisfying work, real hope for success, strong social connections and the chance to become a part of something bigger than ourselves.

We get these benefits from our real lives sometimes, but we get them almost every time we play a good game. These benefits are what positive psychologists call intrinsic rewards-we don’t play games to make money, improve our social status, or achieve any external signposts of success. And these intrinsic rewards, studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and U.C. Berkeley have shown, provide the foundation for optimal human experience.

In a good game, we feel blissfully productive. We have clear goals and a sense of heroic purpose. More important, we’re constantly able to see and feel the impact of our efforts on the virtual world around us. As a result, we have a stronger sense of our own agency-and we are more likely to set ambitious real-life goals. One recent study found, for example, that players of “Guitar Hero” are more likely to pick up a real guitar and learn how to play it.

When we play, we also have a sense of urgent optimism. We believe whole-heartedly that we are up to any challenge, and we become remarkably resilient in the face of failure. Research shows that gamers spend on average 80% of their time failing in game worlds, but instead of giving up, they stick with the difficult challenge and use the feedback of the game to get better. With some effort, we can learn to apply this resilience to the real-world challenges we face.

Games make it easy to build stronger social bonds with our friends and family. Studies show that we like and trust someone better after we play a game with them-even if they beat us. And we’re more likely to help someone in real life after we’ve helped them in an online game. It’s no wonder that 40% of all user time on Facebook is spent playing social games. They’re a fast and reliable way to strengthen our connection with people we care about.

Today’s videogames are increasingly created on an epic scale, with compelling stories, sweeping mythologies and massive multiplayer environments that produce feelings of awe and wonder. Researchers on positive emotion have found that whenever we feel awe or wonder, we become more likely to serve a larger cause and to collaborate selflessly with others.

With so much blissful productivity and urgent optimism, stronger social bonds and extreme cooperation, it’s not surprising that so many players feel that they become the best version of themselves in games. That’s one of the reasons I believe we can take the benefits of games a step further. We can harness the power of game design to tackle real-world problems. We can empower gamers to use their virtual-world strengths to accomplish real feats. Indeed, when game communities have been matched with challenging real-world problems, they have already proven themselves capable of producing tangible, potentially world-changing results.

In 2010, more than 57,000 gamers were listed as co-authors for a research paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. The gamers-with no previous background in biochemistry-had worked in a 3D game environment called Foldit, folding virtual proteins in new ways that could help cure cancer or prevent Alzheimer’s. The game was developed by scientists at the University of Washington who believed that gamers could outperform supercomputers at this creative task-and the players proved them right, beating the supercomputers at more than half of the game’s challenges.

More recently, more than 19,000 players of EVOKE, an online game that I created for the World Bank Institute, undertook real-world missions to improve food security, increase access to clean energy and end poverty in more than 130 countries. The game focused on building up players’ abilities to design and launch their own social enterprises.

After 10 weeks, they had founded more than 50 new companies-real businesses working today from South Africa and India to Buffalo, N.Y. My favorite is Libraries Across Africa, a new franchise system that empowers local entrepreneurs to set up free community libraries. It also creates complementary business opportunities for selling patrons refreshments, WiFi access and cellphone time. The first is currently being tested in Gabon.

These examples are just the beginning of what is possible if we take advantage of the power of games to make us better and change the world. Those who understand this power will be the people who invent our future. We can create rewarding, transformative games for ourselves and our families; for our schools, businesses and neighborhoods; for an entire industry or an entirely new movement.

We can play any games we want. We can create any future we can imagine. Let the games begin.”