David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting ("remarkable" - Los Angeles Times), Data Smog ("indispensable" - New York Times), and The Immortal Game ("superb" - Wall Street Journal). He is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.
In his column in
Ross Douthat argues that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama represent two different
American ideals of success:
president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background,
can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great
American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that
anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia
It's always great to do well in school and go to a good
college, but does getting your act together a few years earlier than others
represent a completely different American success paradigm? To me, it's all the
same American meritocratic ideal, represented by Obama, Palin, Warren Buffett (University of Nebraska), Arnold
Schwarzenneger (University of Wisconsin-Superior), and many others. There are
plenty of stumbling blocks out there, but anyone from any background can grow
up to succeed enormously. This includes people who get a later start in their
Douthat goes on to suggest that the central lesson of
Palin's quick flame-out (if that's what we're all witnessing here), is that her
gender and social class made for vicious double-standards that few could
Sarah Palin is beloved
by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old
American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually
unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don’t even
think about it.
I see it differently. I think the great moral here is:
"Do your homework."If
you aspire to be a great national leader, lead -- not with empty platitudes,
but with vision and serious plans. Agree or disagree with Obama, few would
argue that he's not a serious man for serious times. He's very young, yes, and
came to the campaign with a relatively thin resume, but made up for it with intellectual
firepower, extraordinary team-building, detailed plans, a sweeping vision, and
a refined temperament. He did his homework, and he did it better than anyone
else running for president. He won.
By contrast, Sarah Palin also sought a quick rise and was
tactically adroit but did little to accrue substance along the way. She burned
through allies, demonstrated petty vindictiveness, and most of all, simply
didn't prepare for the national stage. There's no question she was also treated
harshly -- but were others not? Do we forget the lies about Obama's religion
and the smears of association with terrorists?
The best part of all about America's meritocracy is that it
is full of second, third, and fourth chances. Sarah Palin could decide tomorrow
to become a serious contender, and it wouldn't take but a few years for her to emerge
as a truly formidable force. Her future is still in her hands. Like all of us,
her successes and failures will belong to her.
Put on some decent headphones and set aside eight minutes of your life to enjoy this very special gift from Neil Young and special guest, in Hyde Park, London, June 27, 2009:
This would be a sensational cover even without the playful and warm addition of Mr. McCartney. What makes Neil Young such a transcendent musical force? Here are a few insights:
First, this comment from Kurt Hirsch, an old friend and loyal draft-reader:
"I think it has to do with what you discuss in your forthcoming book – Young’s willingness to experiment and fail. This fearlessness (and, in Young’s case, stubbornness) has probably allowed him to roam in a much larger field."
gotta keep changing....I'd rather keep changing and
lose a lot of people along the way. If that's the price, I'll pay it. I don't
give a shit if my audience is a hundred or a hundred million. It doesn't make
any difference to me. I'm convinced that what sells and what I do are two
completely different things. If they meet, it's coincidence."
"In person, Neil Young is one of the sweetest and most unpretentious rock legends you'll ever meet. But at work, he is one of the most selfish and uncompromising. He yields to no one else's needs or opinions in the service of his deeply personal muse, which has enabled him to create a timeless oeuvre that goes everywhere from heartbreaking acoustic prayers like 'Pardon My Heart' (Zuma) to feedback meltdowns that are like the Norse God of Electricity given its own voice (his recent cover of 'A Day in the Life.') "The late drummer of Buffalo Springfield, Dewey Martin, once said, 'Neil would give you a look onstage that said, *I might die during this solo -- and I'm going to take you with me!*" I have listened to life-long collaborators of his express their anguish over his canceling tours after all the deals had been worked out; one of these famous acronyms once said to me, 'Neil has been getting up every morning for 40 years knowing he won't have to do anything but exactly what he feels like doing that day.' Yet these musicians remain his biggest fans, in a world full of fans. Neil has one of the most elusive qualities of genius: inscrutability. And it's saved his art from the million traps that killed off the gifts of lesser musicians."
[Thanks to David Gans for originally tipping us off to the YouTube video]
many difficult questions emerge from the surreal life and sad loss of Michael
Jackson. Here's one: What do you do when your greatest success is almost
certainly behind you?
lot of people have no patience for a question like this. "Oh, I'd love to have his
problems." (For some reason, this line is best said out loud in a female
for anyone with creative ambition, the emotional aftermath of success is a very
real part of life. If you're lucky enough to have any sort of audience for your
work, it's overwhelmingly likely that one particular piece of work will be a
popular favorite over the rest of your work. It may or may not be your best as
you see it. But because of the timing and the zeitgeist and other unnameable
factors, it will forever be your "biggest work."
How to live with the possibility that your best work is behind you, or at least
that the public will forever think that your best work is behind you?
occurs to me that there are two different responses to this problem. Both are
valid, and they're not nearly as mutually exclusive as they appear at first:
the one hand, any creative person has to accept the reality of creative peaks,
and that one
particular peak will always be the peakiest. As Ricky Gervais once said after
the wildly critical success of "The Office": "Something has to be your best
the other hand, it is the compulsion of any creative mind to constantly strive
for something new and fresh; I don't think it is possible to be truly fertile without the conviction that your best work is ahead of you.
Conan O'Brien takes the helm of the Tonight Show tonight,
and there's been much
talk about how nervous the NBC suits are about the fragility of NBC's $100
But I can see into the future. Conan is going to do very
How do I know? I've learned one big thing in studying the
science of talent and intelligence over the last few years: Greatness is not a
thing, but a process. And Conan figured out a long time ago how to implement a
very smart process that enables him to take risks, adapt, and continually
improve until he gets something right.
Past is prologue here. In one of the most extraordinary
events in the history of television, Conan was picked out of the blue to
succeed David Letterman in 1993. He had little performance experience and zero
on-air television experience. Lorne
Michaels has done some brave stuff in his time, but selecting Conan has to be
at the top of that list. Clearly, Michaels also understands the paramount
importance of process.
Please don't take this as a blanket prediction that the
Tonight Show will reign forever as TV's number one show. It may
well lose viewers. Leno's prime-time might help or hurt Conan. The
radically-changing technology/media landscape will surely deliver its own list
of winners and losers. But on the question of whether or not Conan can win over
the 11:30 Tonight Show audience, I'm quite bullish. I believe in smart, humble people
who keep working at something until they get it right. Conan is one of those
A few weeks ago in a press conference, President Obama said something that really resonated with all my research on how people achieve greatness:
"That whole philosophy of persistence . . . is one
that I’m going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to
come, as long as I am in this office. I’m a big believer in persistence. I
think that . . . if we keep on working at it, if we acknowledge that we make
mistakes sometimes and that we don’t always have the right answer, and we’re
inheriting very knotty problems, that we can pass health care, we can find
better solutions to our energy challenges, we can teach our children more
effectively . . . I’m sure there’ll be more criticism and we’ll have to
make more adjustments, but we’re moving in the right direction." - President Barack Obama, March 24, 2009
Very illuminating profile the other day on George Lucas, revealing glimpses of the both the roots of his success and the dangers of becoming absorbed by it.
I loved the comment from Sid Ganis that Lucas possessed “an intuition that he stubbornly sticks by.”
“There’s something in him, when you’re told, ‘No, it’ll never work,’ it’s motivation to keep it going.”
That refusal to give up is such a key facet of becoming great at something. Many of our highest achievers somehow seem to relish people telling them "no." There are some wonderful stories of Michael Jordan being especially adept at magnifying tiny displays of disrespect or lack of belief in his ability, turning them to enormous challenges in his mind and using that to booost his motivation.
Most of the Lucas article highlights a certain ego sickness that seems to have taken hold of Lucas, a smugness that compells him to make rude remarks to the reporter -- "that's why you're here" -- and to bizarrely indulge in preemptive nostalgia for small, beautiful films that he hasn't yet made.
Another important facet of Po Bronson's recent article: it touches on the nature and nurture of persistence. Is an individual's level of persistence hard-wired and immutable or can it be increased/decreased?
This is critical because, as we know anecdotally and as has been demonstrated by researchers (Renzulli, 1978, and many other studies), persistence is an essential component of greatness. Exceptional skill may look effortless -- the spectacular putt or pirouette -- but getting there takes relentless dedication, years of practice and humility. "It's not that I'm so smart," Einstein once said. "It's just that I stay with problems longer."
Where does persistence come from, and can it be acquired?
Psychologist Ellen Winner argues that persistence --
what she calls the "rage to master" -- "must have an inborn, biological
component” (Von Károlyi & Winner, p. 379,),
and that exceptional performers are “intrinsically motivated to acquire skill" in the
areas in which they are innately gifted because they find it easier to learn those skills. (Winner (1996, p. 274).
Anders Ericsson argues against this second notion. Having spent years studying what he calls "deliberate practice" -- the slow, methodical process of getting better -- he points out that there's nothing easy or fun about it. It is, he says, "associated with frequent failures and frustrations and is not the
most inherently enjoyable or 'fun’ activity available." His research shows that "aspiring individuals typically prefer [the harder, slower work] to playful interactions
So what makes some people spend so much energy on the the harder, slower practice instead of spending less energy on easier, more thrilling, but less skill-building play activities? Are such people simply born with that work-hard impulse?
Maybe some are -- Matt Ridley's Nature via Nurture reviews some evidence of how genes help play into personality. But there's also some emerging evidence for persistence being something we can develop. Bronson's piece cites Robert Cloninger, at Washington University in St. Louis, who not only zeroed in on the persistence circuitry in the brain (Gusnard, Cloninger et al, 1993), but also trained mice and rats to develop persistence. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” explains Cloninger. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.” In other words, yes, according to Cloninger, the animal mind can actually be trained to reward itself for slow and steady progress rather than the more thrilling instant gratification.
If we can marry this neurobiology with some psychology and real-world understanding -- such as Carol Dweck's work in motivating students to work harder, we may actually get closer to a real recipe for greatness that could be useful to any parent, teacher or coach.
A smart piece by Po Bronson in last week's New York magazine pulls together some great research about how to motivate kids to increase effort, take risks and get better at stuff.
The overall message of the article is that parents and teachers need to pay close attention to the type of praise they offer kids. We should praise kids for their effort -- not for their innate abilities. These conclusions come from years of solid research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and others (Blackwell, Dweck, et al, 2006), demonstrating the following.
* Praise for innate ability: - discourages effort by creating a mindset that equates effort with inferiority ("Expending effort becomes stigmatized," writes Bronson. "It’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.") - discourages risk-taking, encouraging kids to play it safe, to avoid things they don't feel "naturally" good at - removes kids' sense of control over their own lives - leads to worse study habits and lower grades
* Praise for effort: - imbues kids with a greater sense of control over their lives - leads to improved study habits and grades
“When we praise children for their intelligence," explains Dweck,
"we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk
making mistakes . . . Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that
they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their
success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s
control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure."
This research backs up some critical points about the development of talent and "giftedness": - effort and motivation are crucial to success - motivation *can* be nurtured - while certain innate advantages may exist in individuals, calling attention to them is demonstrably unhelpful. Kids with *and* without these innate advantages benefit from developing a mindset that equates success with effort. Both groups are hurt by a mindset that equates success with innate ability.