We are works in progress: And we are products of our past. This is true of us as individuals and as a species. Sometimes we can find ourselves thinking that change, growth, improvement or progress gets stalled or stopped. We doubt that we, as individuals or as groups, can do much more than just become resigned to stagnation.
We doubt that we can get out the rut we are in. We are pretty sure that we are not going to reach our aspirations because the journey is taking too long and the path is “crazy” confusing and unclear. We are not sure what to try to “get better” at so we can achieve the desired progress.
I have enjoyed reading and thinking about the book: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. From my point of view Coyle makes the case that continuing to develop, change, grow, and improve is not just possible – it is how biology works. It is not an accident when we get good at something. In fact, we are hard wired to be able to adapt, change and evolve as individuals – and by extension as groups. He also reinforces my belief that effort and intentionality make a difference.
Here are some of Coyle’s thoughts:
Nature/nurture has been a terrifically popular model because it’s clear and dramatic, and it speaks to a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But when it comes to explaining human talent, it has a slight problem: it’s vague to the point of meaninglessness. Thinking that talent comes from genes and environment is like thinking that cookies come from sugar, flour, and butter. It’s true enough, but not sufficiently detailed to be useful. To get beyond the outmoded nature/nurture model, we need to begin with a clear picture of how genes actually work.
Genes are not cosmic playing cards. They are evolution tested instruction books that build the immensely complicated machines that are us. They contain the blueprints, literally written in nucleotides, to construct our minds and bodies in the smallest detail. The task of design and construction is hugely complex but essentially straightforward: the genes instruct the cells to make the eyelash like this, the toenail like that.
When it comes to behavior, however, genes are forced to deal with a unique design challenge. Human beings move around through a big, varied world. They encounter all sorts of dangers, opportunities, and novel experiences. Things happen quickly, which means that behavior—skills—need to change quickly. The challenge is, how do you write an instruction book for behavior? How do our genes, sitting quietly inside our cells, help us adapt to an ever-changing, ever-dangerous world?
To help address this problem, our genes have evolved to do a sensible thing: they contain instructions to build our circuitry with preset urges, proclivities, and instincts. Genes construct our brains so that when we encounter certain stimuli— a tasty meal, rotting meat, a stalking tiger, or a potential mate—a factory-loaded neural program kicks into gear, using emotions to guide our behavior in a useful direction. We feel hunger when we smell a meal, disgust when we smell rotten meat, fear when we see a tiger, desire when we see a potential mate. Guided by these preset neural programs, we navigate toward a solution.
That strategy works well for creating behaviors to deal with rotten meat and potential mates. After all, writing instructions to build an urge-circuit is relatively simple: if X,then Y. But what about creating complex higher behaviors, like playing the saxophone or Scrabble? As we’ve seen, higher skills are made of million-neuron chains working together with exquisite millisecond timing. The question of acquiring higher skills is really a question of design strategy. What’s the
best strategy for writing instructions to build a machine that can learn immensely complicated skills?
One obvious design strategy would be for the genes to prewire for the skill. The genes would provide detailed step-by-step instructions to build the precise circuits needed to perform the desired skill: to play music, or juggle, or do calculus.
When the right stimulus came along, all the prebuilt wiring would connect up and start firing away, and the talent would appear: Babe Ruth starts whacking homers, Beethoven starts composing symphonies. This design strategy would seem to make sense (after all, what could be more straightforward?), but in fact it has two big problems. First, it’s expensive, biologically speaking. Building those elaborate circuits takes resources and time, which have to come at the expense of some other design feature. Second, it’s a gamble with fate. Prewiring to create a genius software programmer doesn’t help if it’s 1850; and prewiring for a genius blacksmith would be useless today. In the space of a generation, or a few hundred miles, certain higher skills flip from being crucial to being trivial and vice versa.
To put it simply, prewiring a million-wire circuit for a complex higher skill is a stupid and expensive bet for genes to make. Our genes, however, having survived the gauntlet of the past few million years, aren’t in the business of making stupid and expensive bets. (Other genes might have been, but they’re long gone by now, along with the lineages that carried them.)*
Now let’s consider a different design strategy. Instead of prewiring for specific skills, what if the genes dealt with the skill issue by building millions of tiny broadband installers and distributing them throughout the circuits of the brain? The broadband installers wouldn’t be particularly complicated—in fact, they’d all be identical, wrapping wires with insulation to make the circuits work faster and smoother. They would work according to a single rule: whatever circuits are fired most and most urgently, are the ones where the installers will go. Skill circuits that are fired often will receive more broadband; skills that are fired less often, with less urgency, will receive less broadband. Pages 69 – 71
In this multifaceted world where forward progress often seems slow or stagnated: Where change often appears to be minimal or retro – There is a reasonable path toward developing and becoming more able to contribute in these complex times.
These are ‘our times’. We, if we want to be contributors, need to be willing to grow and develop ourselves. That means we have to be willing to “do things” poorly at first – so over time – we might do those same things with more elegance, grace and effectiveness.
What kinds of “things” might we want to get better at? That is a good question for each of us to sort out and answer. Here is my vision of what “things” we should consider being willing to “do” enough to improve our practice.
Engaging – reaching out and truly interacting with- others across differences.
Listening deeply to others by truly ‘seeking to understand, as Covey encouraged.
Collaborating with others to reach outcomes embraced by all.
Seeking the common good, as opposed to seeking to ‘win’ while others ‘lose”.
As Coyle suggestioned in The Talent Code: ”Whatever circuits are fired most and most urgently, are the ones where the installers will go. Skill circuits that are fired often will receive more broadband; skills that are fired less often, with less urgency, will receive less broadband.” So, the circuits that will help us, as a species, to get better at the four dispositions and behaviors I just mentioned are the ones we need to be “firing frequently”. Practice does matter!!!
Whatever the ability is, it is located in the brain. So, when we pick up a dime from the table – that is a neural activity. When we really focus our listening as we experience a beloved concert – we are activating and working our brain. So for anyone of us to stretch or grow our ability in any way – the brain is a big part of that growth.
Growth means to deepen your knowledge, increase the effectiveness of your performances and/or shape your dispositions. Personal growth is about you intentionally working at increasing your own growth at your own “edges”. And, any growth you make becomes portable and it shows up where you are. Because it is part of you, it is rooted.
In this post I’ll be sharing information form The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown by Daniel Coyle (2009). This book explains a how ‘talent’ is grown by looking at how our brains work. Coyle reports”
Useful Brain Science Insight Number 1:
All actions are really the result of electrical impulses sent along chains of nerve fibers. Basically, our brains are bundles of wires – 100 billion wires called neurons, connected to each other by synapses. Whenever you do something, your brain sends a signal through those chains of nerve fibers to your muscles. Each time you practice anything – sing a tune, swing a club, read this sentence – a different highly specific circuit lights up in your mind, sort of like a string of Christmas lights.
Useful Brain Science Insight Number 2:
The more we develop a skill circuit, the less we’re aware that we’re using it. We are built to make skills automatic, to stash them in our unconscious mind. This process, which is called automaticity, exists for powerful evolutionary reasons. It also creates a powerfully convincing illusion: a skill, once gained, feels utterly natural, as if it’s something we’ve always possessed.
These two insights – skills as brain circuits and automaticity – create a paradoxical combination: we’re forever building vast, intricate circuits, and we’re simultaneously forgetting that we built them. (Pages 36, 37 and 38)
So, if you want to get better at throwing a baseball, thinking more abstractly, dancing the jig, creating homemade birthday cards or developing your ability to communicate: with individuals, with groups, with subordinates, and/or with those you report to then – find your edge and start trying to throw that ball or dance that jig! Growing, developing and becoming are not passive or lucky ‘brain events’.
For a person to grow and develop that person needs to go to his or her ‘edge’ of the skill, disposition, knowledge and/or understanding and they will need to work through the disequilibrium that comes from moving beyond the ‘what is’ to ‘what might be’. So, learning, growing and developing surely is a courageous journey. Whether it is a song you are learning on your clarinet or a new way of actively listening deeply to the members of your family.
Coyle explains that “struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter. Or, put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.” (page 18)
A person has to be willing to “address” his or her “growth edges” if he or she wants to change and grow. Coyle has reported the science behind this. And he shares how it is that our brains respond to practice, when we are ‘operating at the edges’: To do that he tells the story of myelin.
You are likely asking: What is myelin? Here is how Coyle explains where myelin fits into learning.
“(1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of fibers. (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy. (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.” (page 32) he sums things up this way: “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals. The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.” (page 33)
Myelin is “universal: everyone can grow it, most swiftly during childhood but also throughout life. It’s indiscriminate: its growth enables all manner of skills, mental and physical. It’s imperceptible: we can’t see it or feel it, and we can sense its increase only by its magical-seeming effects. Most of all, however, myelin is important because it provides us with a vivid new model for understanding skill. Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals.” (page 6)
So, learning is about enhancing brain pathways to be open and ready for use. Learning is about putting in time in ways that stretch us. And as we stretch we need to try to process our way to higher progress. These are the rules. These rules are not to be ignored. Working through the challenges at our growth edges is how we progress.
“All skills, all language, all music, all movements, are made of living circuits, and all circuits grow according to certain rules.” ~ Dr. George Bartozokis
Points to ponder:
True or False: More than 98 percent of current human DNA is the same as that of a chimpanzee.
(True): More than 98 percent of our current DNA is the same as that of a chimpanzee: it took less than a 2 percent change of our evolutionary predecessors’ genetic blueprint to give humans extraordinary range and ability. Successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it.
True or False: Most biological adaptations that greatly enhance a species’ capacity to thrive take a long time to evolve into the norm.
(True): Biological adaptations occur radically over time and incrementally in time. So, it is a general biological fact that adaptation takes time.
Think about yourself, how you contribute to your family or your behavior and outcomes at your work place. And think about, “Successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it.” Wanting something to change and actual changing it are two different things.
Maybe you want to: get better at portion control as you sit down to a meal, spend more time reading to your children, and/or be more productive and efficient with your time at work.
Think about what is right with the current situation and build on it as you more toward your desired state.
Remember that there are some and maybe, actually, many meals that you don’t ‘overload’ your plate. Remember that reading to your children was a habit when they were two and four – so why not rebirth that habit now that they are eight and six? And, remember the times when you have been both prolific and well-organized at work. Build on these realities. Grow them. Be intentional about setting targets and strive to meet them.
Be willing to experiment. Try new behaviors that are connected to ‘who you are’. Don’t make a long term commitment or a resolution right off the bat. Look at change as adaptation. Be willing to adapt over time and in ways that work for you.
Here are three “possible” first steps. They are experiments. Set a goal of intentionally watching your portion control at dinner time for the next five days. Make a little chart with the five days on it and make a check for each day of the five that you practiced portion control at dinner. Set a goal of reading to you eight and six year old for 15 minutes twice this next week. Start a little record of the date you read to them and for how long. Set a goal of intentionally focusing on having normal days a t work while being very intentional about being on task and industrious from 10:00 to 11:00 am for three out of the next five days. Keep records of how those special three hours went by quickly recording your impressions at the end of the hour.
Because these are experiments you don’t need to make a solid long term commitment to these specific behaviors. Review your results. Think about how you might want to adapt any one or all of these changes to your behavior. Make new experiments building on what you have learned from these trial tests.
Maybe the next experiments (with reasonable recording keeping like first ones) might be to Set a goal of including lunch with dinner for testing portion control for the next three weeks. [And, you may want to do more. So you begin to weigh herself at the same time each day and recording your weight.] A possible next step for the time you are sending reading to your children is to add a little more time to each session and after reading ask each of your children to share what they liked about the story and what they think will happen next? Over time, are they are sharing more of their reactions and thoughts about the material? At work, think about if the time of day you are focusing on is working. Maybe your next step might be to shoot for an hour in the afternoon, instead. Maybe you might shoot for both a morning and afternoon focus time.
Evolve and adapt as you learn more about what ‘works for you’.
The bottom line is to see yourself as having many things going well: Your 98%. And when you want to change to set and goal and created experiments that you will try as your learn about yourself and your change journey.
I am not happy to report that if the law Michigan is considering passing which would keep third graders in third grade until they learn to read would mean I might still be there.
That is true because I was a non reader in third grade. And more third grade would have likely just led to me being more unhappy, more full of doubt, more worried and bigger a year later. In fact, since I wouldn’t have learn by more ‘drilling’ I may have not more on the next year.
The thought pains me to think about.
At sixty-five, with three college degrees, I look back and can see no good that could come from a retention decision like this.
I do agree with PISA that the best thing that could have happened for me would have been to help you learn reading the first time around.
Here is a great 12 minute YouTube video – Measuring student success around the world
Watching this might open our eyes to the big picture of literacy and how the United States is doing and what makes sense and what doesn’t for moving forward.
I was reading Happiness Is A Choice by Barry Neil Kaufman (1991 pages 39 & 40) and was struck by the following flow of thought. I present here and will react after you have had a chance to read it.
We swim in a river of life. We can never put our foot into the river in the same place twice. In every second, in every millisecond, the water beneath us changes. Likewise, in every second, in every millisecond, the foot that we place into the river fills with new blood. Instead of celebrating the motion, we try to hold on to the roots and stumps at the bottom of the river, as if letting go and flowing with it would be dangerous. In effect, we try to freeze-frame life in still photographs. But the river is not fixed like the photograph and neither are we.
Ninety-eight percent of the atoms of our bodies are replaced in the course of a year. Our skeleton, which appears so fundamentally stable and solid, undergoes an almost complete transition every three months. Our skin regenerates within four weeks, our stomach lining within four days and the portion of our stomach lining which interfaces with food reconstructs itself every four or five minutes. Thousands, even millions, of neurons in our brain can fire in a second; each firing creates original and distinct chemistry as well as the possibility for new and different configurations of interconnecting signals. As billions of cells in our bodies keep changing, billions of stars and galaxies keep shifting in an ever-expanding space. Even the mountains and rocks under our feet shift in a never-ending dance through time. Life celebrates itself through motion and change.
Although we can certainly see continuity – seasons come and go, trees grow taller and people get older – we can acknowledge that each unfolding moment, nevertheless, presents a world different from that of the last moment. We could say that we and the world are born anew in every second and our description would be accurate scientifically. Therein lies an amazing opportunity for change. We can stop acting as if our opinions and perspectives have been carved in granite and begin to become more fluid, more open and more changeable, even inconsistent. We are in the river. We are the river!
Every stroke we make, every thought or action we produce, helps create the experience of this moment and the next. And the beliefs we fabricate along the way shape our thoughts and actions. Sounds rather arbitrary, some might say. It is! Quite simply, we try to move toward what we believe will be good for us and away from what we believe will be bad for us – operating always within the context of our beliefs. Even our hierarchies of greater “goods” and greater “bads” consist only of more beliefs. We hold our beliefs sincerely and defend our positions with standards of ethics or “cold, hard facts.” We treat much of what we know and believe as irrefutable. We talk in absolutes. Once our beliefs are in place, we use all kinds of evidence to support them, quite unaware that we have created the evidence for the sole purpose of supporting whatever position we favor. In essence, we have become very skilled at “making it up.”
“The river is not fixed like a photograph and neither are we.”
Our bodies change.
Our perspectives can change.
On one hand we can fabricate our thinking and we can attempt to never change.
Or, we can be intentional about our growth and development.
We choose the ‘frame’ for our thinking, our actions, our . . .
We might avoid the fact that our bodies are forever changing.
We might attempt to argue the knowledge of the billions of cells in our bodies changing.
We might want to think that our thinking is supreme or correct.
Or, we might see our thoughts, beliefs and awareness as ‘edges of our growth’.
“Life celebrates itself through motion and change.”