Tips Newsletter – August, 2011
Becoming a Mental Athlete: From Just OK to Higher Levels of Performance
Jane Sink has recently read a couple of inspiring books that have some implications for the learning and performance field, both on an individual level and for designing for others. In this tip, she shares some thoughts from the books and how they might relate to improving our approaches to fluency and exemplary performance for specific learning and performance tasks. Thanks, Jane, for your contribution.
Here’s Jane’s tips article:
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There’s a lot of current interest today in how our brains function. I just finished a fascinating account about learning a complex skill in the book titled: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by journalist Joshua Foer (1).
Mr. Foer, as the result of covering the 2005 US Memory Championship, became hooked into learning how people could possibly remember the exact order of 5 decks of cards, and pi to the 1,000th digit, a random list of 200 words, and more. Is this ability due to pure intelligence? Is it a trick? Or a learned skill set?
He learned that just about anyone can become a “mental athlete”, even with an average level of intelligence. He documented his process of qualifying to become a participant in this yearly contest, and indeed, he won the 2006 US Memory Championship, surging ahead of 36 other seasoned mental athletes. His year of training for this event included exercises in memorizing multiple decks of cards, memorizing random digits, lists of random words, memorizing poems, practicing his system of remembering, and timing himself on each activity. There are techniques that aid the memory with recall—chunking, dramatic and vibrant visualization (as is the title of the book), concentration and focus, and making associations with items already stored in the memory bank. Some of these techniques have been around for centuries, used before the written word was common.
What are the parallels for human performance in the workplace, I wondered? Why can’t we remember what we’ve “learned” in the classroom when it becomes time to apply it on the job? What does it really take to learn a skill to the level of becoming an exemplary performer?
Some of the keys to success in becoming a champion – an exemplary performer – that emerged were:
- Reaching a plateau—then breaking through that stage. Without constantly pushing yourself from an OK level of performance to the next level, you will always remain at that ok level. Even if you make mistakes as you are pushing yourself through, that is the only way to continue to excel and learn a skill to a level of fluency.
- Which brings us to – practice. No surprises there. His practice for an entire year consisted of 1/2 hour every morning of focused mental exercises, and 2 ten-minute sessions in the afternoon, with pre-determined goals. And, he insists that the quality of the practice is much more important than how much you practice.
- The Mentor/coach. The coach helped him set goals, helped him with ways to reach – then exceed – his goals and encouraged him every time he succeeded, or gave him guidance when he didn’t.
- Motivation is a huge factor—you have to WANT to expend the mental and physical energy, the time and have the patience with yourself to do it.
- Focus-extreme focus and concentration. Joshua Foer, and some of the other mental athletes, even wore earplugs and shaded glasses to focus their mental energy during practice sessions.
Learning to Fluency: What does it take?
- Are you willing to push beyond the “ok” plateau? Will the people around me (e.g, my boss or supervisor) be willing to accept that I am pushing beyond my current capabilities to learn to become even better at my job?
- Are you willing to allow the time and allow for the focused, concentrated practice needed to learn a skill to fluency? Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers (2), repeatedly talks about the key to success in any field by studying well-known legendary icons and how they became so successful. To a large extent, he found it was a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours, plus the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Yes, that is 10,000 hours.
- Is our workplace structured for concentration without interruptions? What would entail quality practice for my job or for my students?
- Are you able to find a coach and/or a mentor who is willing to push the limits with you?
And, on the practical side of life, should you decide to become a “mental athlete”, does that mean you will remember where you put your car keys? (The answer is in the book.)
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Thanks, Jane, for your thought-provoking tips article.
To contact Jane Sink directly with comments and questions email her at Jane@dsink.com or give her a call at 831-649-8384.
Until next time,
(1) Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, 2011, The Penguin Press, New York, NY.
(2) Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, 2008, Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY