An article in which I explore skill acquisition, the beauty of practicing skills for the sheer appreciation of the craft, and announce that I’ve teamed up with software firm TransLoc…
Magical Thinking & Joshua Foer as Skill Acquisition Gonzo
In 2010 Joshua Foer burst onto the non-fiction literary scene with the book Moonwalking with Einstein (1). It’s a brilliantly conceived piece of gonzo writing in which Foer combs through the academic literature on skill acquisition theories and applies them in his own quest to improve his memory.
Foer is a good writer with a knack for unearthing compelling real-life stories to illustrate his points. In the case of this book, he is the story. The techniques he learned (and practiced religiously) carried him through to become U.S. memory champion – yes, there is such a thing – in about a year’s time.
He went from having an average memory to being a champion by approaching memory as a skill…something that can be developed and improved.
It’s a tremendous feat and an even better book. It should come as no surprise when it landed on many 2010 must-read lists, including that of Bill Gates. This interest in skill acquisition and development is a refreshing trend to watch. It once held a prominent place in our cultural discussions of success. Now we seem to focus more on inborn talent driving outcomes. Or we become sloppier yet, ditching our critical natures altogether when achieving an outcome we want. We neglect our post-mortems; eschewing the autopsy and contenting ourselves with the crudest explanations of why some activity turned out the way it did.
Joshua Foer didn’t become U.S. memory champion because he was endowed with a great memory. Nor was it because he was recipient of a gushing torrent of luck (though luck always plays a role). He achieved the outcome because he considered memory ability holistically, broke it down into a finite set of skills, found techniques for mastering those skills, and then practiced like crazy.
That same methodology can be applied to virtually any set of skills in which anyone wants to get better. It can also be applied to the complex combination of hard and soft skills that compose a craft.
Someone I met recently used the term “magical thinking.” That’s what it is when we achieve an outcome and, rather than think deeply about the process that caused it, we celebrate (or bemoan) the result with little introspection as to its root causes. If we don’t figure out why we got the outcome we did, we might as well believe it came magically.
Jerry Seinfeld, Neural Networks & Cricket Cages
Joshua Foer isn’t the only writer who has taken an interest in skills and craftsmanship. Others I’ve enjoyed recently are Daniel Coyle and Cal Newport.(2) And last December in the pages of The New York Times Magazine, Jonah Weiner contributed Jerry Seinfeld’s story to the effort with an exploration of the legendary comic’s process for perfecting a joke.(3)
It’s no secret I’m fascinated by the ways great comedians have honed their crafts.(4) From Chris Rock and his incessant twitter testing of jokes to Steve Martin and his unflagging dedication to perfecting his routine – well before gaining fame – in ruddy San Francisco night clubs, these great ones seem to have an innate ability to just make us laugh. The funniness flows so naturally that we mistake their skill as inborn talent. We think they were just born funny.
But to master their crafts they worked methodically at getting better. Their best routines are not the product of singular flashes of comic insight that the gods have seen fit to bestow on these chosen few (that’s the magical thinking mindset), but the result of grinding preparation. Their methodology is strikingly similar to the way Joshua Foer got himself ready for the U.S. Memory Tournament.
So it is with Jerry Seinfeld. Weiner highlights his preparation for one of the 100 or so acts Seinfeld puts on each year for small audiences.
Now with all his fame and fortune (estimated at over $800 million), shouldn’t we assume that this legend has perfected his craft? Why does he need to keep working on it? Hasn’t he proved himself? Seinfeld’s responses are telling.
First, in a hat tip Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, Seinfeld refers to the physiology of the brain. He recognizes that the constant honing of your skills is an absolute necessity if you want to keep them. Deep practice enhances the neural connections that allow your brain to do something quickly and masterfully…be it delivering a joke, swatting at a tennis ball, or selling a software solution.
With deep practice you can keep getting better. Your neural networks process information more and more quickly. But without practice your abilities literally atrophy. Those same neuropaths degrade and slow down.
Second, Seinfeld celebrates the craft for the sake of the craft itself. He finds joy, comfort and satisfaction in the process. From the article:
Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”
Let’s call the preceding sections a long and very intentional lead-up to this announcement: two weeks ago I was offered a job as account executive for a growing Raleigh software firm called TransLoc. I start tomorrow, and I’m beyond myself excited for the opportunity, for a number of reasons, to work with this company, its people and customers.
First, it’s an excellent business. NC State grad Josh Whiton founded it in 2004, bootstrapping it from a simple idea to improve the process for tracking bus arrivals and departures into a sophisticated package of enterprise software for transit systems.
Second, I’ll be joining a top flight team from both the product side (development, support and implementation) and sales–marketing. The people love this company, its products and its customers. Better yet, they have a deep commitment to approaching sales as a craft, the skills of which must be continuously honed and the process of which is to be executed with a discipline that holds paramount a high standard of ethics and a deep and conscientious regard for the customer.
In the TransLoc mindset it is not enough to succeed; it must be done the right way. Process matters. Magical thinking doesn’t count. And this philosophy aligns perfectly to my own approach to the selling craft.
And finally, General Manager Daniel Flowe and Director of Business Development Josh Cohen have been generous enough to allow me to throw myself into this new role while continuing to explore the themes and ideas that have comprised this blog for a couple years now.
For the past several months, much of my thinking has trended towards a concept I’ve come to call (tentatively) Authentic Selling. And as I commit to being discrete about the TransLoc business particulars, they will permit me to explore Authentic Selling within the context of my own experiences working with the team.
So opens a new chapter in this blog story. I hope you will continue exploring with me as it all unfolds!
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