Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Irrelevant Talent

Guest Post: I am so excited for todays guest post because it's my long time friend Robin Weeks, who is shopping a fabulous book that I'm over the moon about. But today she's sharing her notes (with permission from the presenter) on a class at LDStorymakers that I was SO bummed I missed. So without further ado, Robin.

I met Shelly waaaay back at BYU when she auditioned for my Mask Club class project. She played Elle in the Theatre of the Absurd play The Dialogues of Il and Elle. (I know you’re all shocked that Shelly was perfect for an absurd theatre piece.) Then came the long, dark period of my life when we fell out of touch. There was less laughter. A dearth of absurdity. Not enough Shelly by half. Then, then came the happy day when I ran into her at last year’s LDStorymakers conference. I was smart enough to get her contact info and my life has been better ever since.

This year’s LDStorymakers theme was Building Better Writers—inspired, no doubt, by the “under construction” lobby we had to pass through to get from one end of the conference center to the other. Shelly and I ran into each other while crossing through this lobby Friday night, and it was the perfect place for a photo-op.

During the conference, since I’ve recently realized that it’s high time I learned to outline, I attended almost every class on plotting I could find. But there was one class that wasn’t on plotting that I am very glad I made time for: Howard Tayler’s class on How to Practice: An Exercise in Rendering Talent Irrelevant. When I mentioned it to Shelly, she asked (pretty please) that I blog about that class for our little blog swap today. I’m happy to oblige, but I gotta say: this is going to be mostly quotes, since Howard provided some excellent links to his sources and they’re all online. I’ll give you the sources, too. (Shelly says Howard gave blanket permission for anyone to disseminate the content of his class, so I’m trusting her on this.)

Editors note: Exhibit A

Intelligence vs. Effort

Howard started by telling us about a study that sought to find out if it was better to be smart or to work hard. This blew my mind (I did all the bolding below):

[Carol] Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

Read the entire article on How Not to Talk to Your Kids here.

The take-away from this? As Howard said, it’s 5 words: You Worked Hard On This. Memorize it. Use it. Tell it to your kids. Save the future.

Free Practice Beats Paid Involvement

First, the graph:


Howard used the example of cooking. When you first start learning to cook, you learn a few basics very quickly, but your skills (performance) aren’t all that terrific. Then you start to practice cooking and, during Domain II, your skills increase for a while and then plateau. You’ve gone as far as practice can take you. Then, you get a job as a chef (Domain III) and your skills take another jump, because you’re doing it full-time. But then you plateau again.

Why do you plateau again? Because you’re not getting paid to improve: you’re getting paid to produce. And because you get paid the same amount for doing less than your absolute best.

If you want to improve again, you need to regress back to the practice domain. For example, Howard was making good money drawing his Schlock Mercenary comic strip. He’d taught himself how to draw over several years and had reached the point where he could draw just about anything with a high level of competence. His drawn hands, though, weren’t really all that terrific. One day, he decided to improve his drawing of hands, so he sat down and drew hand after hand after hand—hundreds of hands that he wouldn’t get paid for. Eventually, his hands improved so much that he was asked to illustrate a card tricks how-to book. (!!!)

Then he asked us if we thought he was now drawing hundreds of free knees and feet… and no, he’s not. He’s not getting paid for that. (Tee-hee.)

The take-away for writers: If You Want To Improve, Do It For Free. For instance, instead of writing the one plot required by my WIP, I should outline six plots—then I’ll have one good plot and five plots that taught me how to plot. (This, incidentally, was eerily similar to the advice I got from the plotting class with J. Scott Savage, Robison Wells, and James Dashner.)

Don’t Force Creativity… Except When Necessary

Howard’s final point came from Jonah Lehrer’s work on creativity. Specifically, this article on How to Be Creative.

Howard summed this up as follows: Relax. Concentrate. Repeat.

The longer summary is a lot more complicated, but it relates to Lehrer’s studies of how creativity works better when we aren’t trying to force it. Which is why we can make connections between random things when we’re focusing on something else.

On the other hand, as Howard pointed out, sometimes we just have to sit down at the computer and bang away: we can’t always wait for inspiration to strike.

Still, if you have the time, the article has a lovely list of creativity boosters:
1.      Blue calming paint for creative insights, red paint for analytic problems
2.      Get groggy—you’ll score up to 50% better on creative tests.
3.      Daydream
4.      Imagine yourself as a 7-year-old to enhance divergent thinking
5.      Watching stand-up comedy enhances insight
6.      If you imagine a puzzle came from far away (like Greece), you’ll have more insight
7.      Use general verbs when describing problems (“moving” instead of “driving”) to avoid limiting your options
8.      Work in an open space instead of a cubical
9.      Travel to other countries to boost creative insight
1.      Move to a bigger city

Howard ended with the following take-aways:

·       Efforts to improve will make a different in performance
·       Failure does not mean the absence of ability
·       Find an expert to help you focus your practice
·       Pay it forward: be the expert for someone else
·       Save the future: tell a child “you worked hard on this

Also, instead of telling our children that everything they do is wonderful and perfect (even when it’s pretty darn good), that it’s okay to point out that the hand they just drew in their fantastic picture didn’t really look like a hand. Kids don’t need to believe they are talented—they just have to be told “You Worked Hard At This.” And you can work harder to get even better results—especially if you have an artist father who can show you how to draw awesome hands.

I’ve already changed the way I talk to my own children . . . and I’m starting to train myself to think of myself as a hard worker instead of someone who is “smart” or “talented.” I can’t control my intelligence or my children’s intelligence—but we can control how hard we work with what we have.

Also, Shelly rocks. Just sayin’.

Aww thanks :)


  1. Excellent post. Very informative.

  2. Howard's presentation sounds close to this one from 2009 that is on Youtube.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4qBSrLe19k&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PL129944246BA6480D Great presentation, I've watched it quite a few times for inspiration and good ideas. Really wanted to attend it this past weekend but ended up at a different class. Thanks for the recap!!

  3. I loved this class! I learned so much. But I mostly loved the empowering idea that I am in control of my own talent through hard work. Great post Robin.

  4. Fascinating post-now I don't feel as bad that I missed the conference.

  5. So I'll be honest. Howard was kind of my conference crush. I loved his class on world building. But I missed this one. So thank you for the awesome summary. I will try this with my writing and with my girls

  6. I went to that class and thought it was one of the best classes I had ever taken. I so needed to hear that!

  7. This class was one of my favorites, for sure. Thanks for sharing that other link, Kevin!

  8. wow--sounds like a great class--fascinating

  9. Great recap. I was a few minutes late and missed the first part. Just an amazing class.

  10. Thanks for the notes from the class. I didn't get to go.

  11. It sounds like the 10,000 hour principle in Gladwells' book Outliers. He theorizes that practice really does make perfect. And now we know that it is also true of writing. KJ

  12. His presentation is on Youtube if anyone missed it (it was recorded at LTUE last year), and is well worth the watch. Completely terrific. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Fabulous guest post! I really wanted to go to Howard's class. The first time he taught was during a master class I was signed up for, and the second time, I had to leave deathly ill. I'm so excited to get all the information here! You totally rock, Robin. And yes, Shelly totally does, too. :)

  14. Great information Robin and Howard. I love it when something changes the way that I think and gives me just a little more hope.

    1. I know--hope is good.

      I keep remembering so many parts that I forgot to include in the summary, too. Like how it takes 10 years to get to the end of the third domain. And how people have been trying to isolate the creativity gene or whatever and can't find it.

  15. Wow! So much wow! Thanks for sharing!

  16. This is TEH Awesomez.

    I'm sorry, not everyone speaks LOLkitteh. I mean this is AWESOME! Thanks for sharing!!

  17. WOW!!! This is beyond awesome! Must.bookmark.NOW!
    Howard does a great class. He's such a neat guy! Awesome guest post!

  18. Great recap! Now I don't have to feel bad that I missed the class :)

  19. Great post Robin. Thanks for setting it up, Shelly.

  20. Thanks for the class recap. I was bummed that I didn't make it to this one. But I listened to a similar talk once (I think on youtube.com) and I felt like it changed the way I felt about writing. It made me really think that with hard work, becoming a published author isn't just a crazy dream, but that there is hope. At least that's what I keep telling myself. ;)

  21. I heard such great things about this class but was unable to attend, thank you for the notes. I'm inspired and ready to work hard! :-0


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