Becoming a Mental Athlete: From Just OK to Higher Levels of Performance

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Darryl L. Sink and Associates, Inc. (DSA) helps organizations design and develop learning and performance solutions that get results. DSA works cooperatively with organizations to:

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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.

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 1000th 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:

Learning to Fluency: What does it take?

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.)

(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

See you next time,