By Carla Silver, Head L+Doer, Leadership+Design
April is nearing a close, and May is about to sneak up on all of us school people - throwing the inevitable curveballs at us. It is actually a perfect month to dig into the eighth chapter in Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future by Jeff Howe and Joi Ito. We’ve been enjoying this book all year, but somehow the topic of “Resilience over Strength” seems to be timely as we prepare for the most relentless month of the year.
As an originator and neophile, I rarely read the same book twice or watch the same movie over and over again. Why would I do that when there are so many other books to read, and movies to watch? I make a strange detour from this behavior when it comes to podcasts. I will sometimes listen to the same podcast two or three times - maybe it is because I can’t easily look back at my favorite parts (although the transcripts are often available) or maybe it’s because I am an auditory learner. Regardless, there is one podcast I have listened to about a dozen times - a Freakonomics episode from March 2016: How to Be Great at Just About Everything which is essentially an ode to the resilient and persistent learner. I guess I listen to this one on repeat because I am ever hopeful that I will become truly great - at something.
Freakonomics host Steve Dubner, builds this podcast around the work of Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University who has studied this topic for most of his career. His work has inspired the 10,000 hours idea that Malcolm Gladwell write about in Outliers and the “growth mindset” theory of Carol Dweck. Ericsson’s research has supported the idea that with enough “deliberate practice” humans can achieve a high level of skill in almost anything. While Gladwell prescribes a magic number of hours, Ericsson believes that 10,000 hours alone is futile and that it is all in the kind of practice we do and the coaches/guides we have along the way. It helps to have some innate talent, but talent alone is no guarantee of greatness. In his 2015 book Peak:Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson writes about the highest achievers in any given field. “The clear message from decades of research is that no matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of “gifted” people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have-the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.”
The most important distinction of Anders Ericsson’s work is that the simple act of repeating a task will only get you so far. You can get to a point of automation and general competency, but simply running 5 miles a day or even 10 miles a day, will not improve your running after a certain point. Instead your practice must be purposeful which according to Ericsson means it is focused, requires feedback and forces you out of your comfort zone. It requires a certain amount of resilience to imperfection and the ability to of fail forward. The brain is amazingly adaptable when put to the right training conditions, and with these three elements in place, anyone can drastically improve.
The implications for us as educators from this research are profound and go beyond promoting a growth mindset in students. While growth mindset is probably a prerequisite to deliberate practice - one needs to believe they can actually learn something and get better at a skill or knowledge - it is really just scratching the surface. As educators, it means we also need to design the right kind of practice - not simply repetition and regurgitation - and it means we need to be giving feedback - lots of it. Most importantly, we need to be prepared for our students to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. John Kotter calls this the “productive range of distress” and it is necessary for growth to occur.
This isn’t just about student learning either. I believe it means that as the profession of teaching evolves, we are all going to need to engage in deliberate practice if we are going to be truly great at our work of designing meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences for our students. And as leaders, we will need to hold ourselves and our faculty and staff in that same “productive range of distress.” Like a good coach, we need to know how hard to push and when recovery is necessary, but we can’t expect growth and improvement without discomfort.
My friend and colleague Christian Talbot of Basecamp often asks whether a school seems to operate from a position of scarcity or abundance. In other words are there a finite amount of leadership opportunities or awards or experiences that are limited to the “top tier” of students - the innately strongest? Or are there ample opportunities for those who might have a budding interest and are willing to work hard to improve, excel or even do what it takes to become truly great at something? What does your school do to provide opportunities for the students who may not be the strongest, but just might be the most resilient - and what are you doing to cultivate that resilience and allow it to emerge? This is not the same as giving everyone a trophy for participation. This is about helping every student to pursue a level of greatness at something.
Meanwhile in our organizations, we need to be more resilient than ever as we adapt to rapidly accelerating world with paradigm shifts. As Ito and Howe smartly write, “We are all infallible. No matter how strong we try to appear, something can take us down. There is no institution or person that is too big to fail. We know that now, in an age of disruption and dislocation.” Therefore, none of us personally or institutionally can rely on what have perceived as our strengths simply because those are things we have always done well. How can we be so sure that those same attributes still hold the same value to a new market, and what if some other school or organization or individual can simply do those things better and add more value? We need to develop greater adaptability, a willingness to take risks and try new things, and a tolerance for failure. These three things will provide us, as Howe and Ito write, an “immune system” for the future. We don’t always need to be proving our strength, but rather practicing resilience if we want to thrive.