Top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status

May 5th, 2021

Studies of athletes, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status:

According to the scientific literature, the average sport-specific practice hours to reach the international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are closer to 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000, respectively.

In a sample of Australian women competing in netball (sort of like basketball but without dribbling or backboards), arguably the best player in the world at the time, Vicki Wilson, had compiled only 600 hours of practice when she made the national team.

A study of athletes on Australia’s senior national teams found that 28 percent of them started their sport at an average age of seventeen, having previously tried on average three other sports, and debuted at the international level just four years later.

A wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose

May 4th, 2021

The London Underground was governed by a sort of theoretical rule book that no one had ever seen or read, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), and that didn’t, in fact, exist except in the unwritten rules that shaped every employee’s life. One of these unwritten rules was, don’t panic the passengers. Another was, stay in your lane. Then someone spotted the early signs of a fire:

Yet the safety inspector, Hayes, didn’t call the London Fire Brigade. He hadn’t seen any smoke himself, and another of the Underground’s unwritten rules was that the fire department should never be contacted unless absolutely necessary.

[...]

Hayes, the safety inspector, went into a passageway that led to the Piccadilly escalator’s machine room. In the dark, there was a set of controls for a sprinkler system specifically designed to fight fires on escalators. It had been installed years earlier, after a fire in another station had led to a series of dire reports about the risks of a sudden blaze. More than two dozen studies and reprimands had said that the Underground was unprepared for fires, and that staff needed to be trained in how to use sprinklers and fire extinguishers, which were positioned on every train platform. Two years earlier the deputy assistant chief of the London Fire Brigade had written to the operations director for railways, complaining about subway workers’ safety habits.

[...]

No one inside King’s Cross understood how to use the escalator sprinkler system or was authorized to use the extinguishers, because another department controlled them.

[...]

The entire escalator was now aflame, producing a superheated gas that rose to the top of the shaft enclosing the escalator, where it was trapped against the tunnel’s ceiling, which was covered with about twenty layers of old paint. A few years earlier, the Underground’s director of operations had suggested that all this paint might pose a fire hazard. Perhaps, he said, the old layers should be removed before a new one is applied?

Painting protocols were not in his purview, however. Paint responsibility resided with the maintenance department, whose chief politely thanked his colleague for the recommendation, and then noted that if he wanted to interfere with other departments, the favor would be swiftly returned.

[...]

Shortly after the explosion, dozens of fire trucks arrived. But because the fire department’s rules instructed them to connect their hoses to street-level hydrants, rather than those installed by the Underground inside the station, and because none of the subway employees had blueprints showing the station’s layout — all the plans were in an office that was locked, and none of the ticketing agents or the station manager had keys — it took hours to extinguish the flames.

[...]

During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down.

[...]

NASA administrators, for instance, tried for years to improve the agency’s safety habits, but those efforts were unsuccessful until the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.

[...]

Airline pilots, too, spent years trying to convince plane manufacturers and air traffic controllers to redesign how cockpits were laid out and traffic controllers communicated. Then, a runway error on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 killed 583 people and, within five years, cockpit design, runway procedures, and air traffic controller communication routines were overhauled.

In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.

[...]

Fennell began by interviewing the Underground’s leadership, and quickly discovered that everyone had known — for years — that fire safety was a serious problem, and yet nothing had changed.

[...]

So he decided to turn his inquiry into a media circus.

He called for public hearings that lasted ninety-one days and revealed an organization that had ignored multiple warnings of risks.

[...]

A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis — or create the perception of crisis — and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.

You never see the average novel

May 3rd, 2021

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” as my annotated The Big Sleep notes, Chandler establishes the genealogy of the form that he chose to work in:

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic. Old-fashioned novels which now seem stilted and artificial to the point of burlesque did not appear that way to the people who first read them. Writers like Fielding and Smollett could seem realistic in the modern sense because they dealt largely with uninhibited characters, many of whom were about two jumps ahead of the police, but Jane Austen’s chronicles of highly inhibited people against a background of rural gentility seem real enough psychologically. There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make bestsellers, which are promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.

The detective story for a variety of reasons can seldom be promoted. It is usually about murder and hence lacks the element of uplift. Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news. If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it. The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway. The detection of quality in writing is difficult enough even for those who make a career of the job, without paying too much attention to the matter of advance sales.

The detective story (perhaps I had better call it that, since the English formula still dominates the trade) has to find its public by a slow process of distillation. That it does do this, and holds on thereafter with such tenacity, is a fact; the reasons for it are a study for more patient minds than mine. Nor is it any part of my thesis to maintain that it is a vital and significant form of art. There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

Yet the detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels. Rather second-rate items outlast most of the high velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all. They are as durable as the statues in public parks and just about that dull. This is very annoying to people of what is called discernment. They do not like it that penetrating and important works of fiction of a few years back stand on their special shelf in the library marked “Best-Sellers of Yesteryear,” and nobody goes near them but an occasional shortsighted customer who bends down, peers briefly and hurries away; while old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue. They do not like it that “really important books” get dusty on the reprint counter, while Death Wears Yellow Garters is put out in editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies on the news-stands of the country, and is obviously not there just to say goodbye.

To tell you the truth, I do not like it very much myself. In my less stilted moments I too write detective stories, and all this immortality makes just a little too much competition. Even Einstein couldn’t get very far if three hundred treatises of the higher physics were published every year, and several thousand others in some form or other were hanging around in excellent condition, and being read too. Hemingway says somewhere that the good writer competes only with the dead. The good detective story writer (there must after all be a few) competes not only with all the unburied dead but with all the hosts of the living as well. And on almost equal terms; for it is one of the qualities of this kind of writing that the thing that makes people read it never goes out of style. The hero’s tie may be a little off the mode and the good gray inspector may arrive in a dogcart instead of a streamlined sedan with siren screaming, but what he does when he gets there is the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.

I have, however, a less sordid interest in the matter. It seems to me that production of detective stories on so large a scale, and by writers whose immediate reward is small and whose need of critical praise is almost nil, would not be possible at all if the job took any talent. In that sense the raised eyebrow of the critic and the shoddy merchandizing of the publisher are perfectly logical. The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average — or only slightly above average — detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold in small quantities to rental libraries, and it is read. There are even a few optimists who buy it at the full retail price of two dollars, because it looks so fresh and new, and there is a picture of a corpse on the cover. And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is not terribly different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a little grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious; but it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way. There are reasons for this too, and reasons for the reasons; there always are.

You can read the whole thing.

It would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy

May 2nd, 2021

When An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change came out in 1982, Charles Duhigg notes (in The Power of Habit), few people noticed, but its message became quite influential:

“Much of firm behavior,” they wrote, is best “understood as a reflection of general habits and strategic orientations coming from the firm’s past,” rather than “the result of a detailed survey of the remote twigs of the decision tree.”

For instance, every big company gives its employees a handbook with the formal rules of how the company works:

Now, imagine what you would tell a new colleague who asked for advice about how to succeed at your firm. Your recommendations probably wouldn’t contain anything you’d find in the company’s handbook. Instead, the tips you would pass along — who is trustworthy; which secretaries have more clout than their bosses; how to manipulate the bureaucracy to get something done — are the habits you rely on every day to survive. If you could somehow diagram all your work habits — and the informal power structures, relationships, alliances, and conflicts they represent — and then overlay your diagram with diagrams prepared by your colleagues, it would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy, a guide to who knows how to make things happen and who never seems to get ahead of the ball.

[...]

For an organization to work, leaders must cultivate habits that both create a real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge.

10,000 hours, plus or minus 10,000 hours

May 1st, 2021

In The Sports Gene David Epstein tells a tale of two high jumpers.

Stefan Holm was inspired by the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which he watched on TV as a four-year-old in his native Sweden, to jump over the sofa. He broke his arm but was undeterred. When he was six, his father built a high-jump pit in their backyard out of pillows and an old mattress. He became obsessed with the sport. At 15, he won the Swedish youth championships.

But Holm was just 5’11″, not 6’7″, like his idol Patrik Sjöberg. To compensate, he developed a sprinting approach and started taking off from farther and farther away from the bar.

In 1998, he won the first of eleven consecutive Swedish national championships. He trained 12 sessions per week.

Without a running start, Holm’s standing vertical jump hovered around twenty-eight inches, which is perfectly pedestrian for an athlete. But his blazing fast approach allowed him to slam down on his Achilles tendon, which would then act like a rebounding spring to propel him over the bar. When scientists examined Holm, they determined that his left Achilles tendon had hardened so much from his workout regimen that a force of 1.8 tons was needed to stretch it a single centimeter, about four times the stiffness of an average man’s Achilles, making it an unusually powerful launching mechanism.

In 2005, a year after he won the Olympic title, Holm earned a qualification of the perfect human projectile: he cleared 7’10.5″, equaling the record for the highest high-jump differential between the bar and the jumper’s own height.

In 2007 he entered the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, as the favorite, and was facing a competitor he barely knew, Donald Thomas, from the Bahamas. Thomas had just begun high jumping, in the U.S. A friend at college had dared him to high-jump a 6’6″ bar, and he did. Then he cleared 6’8″. Then he cleared 7 feet. So they told the track coach:

Two days later, in a black tank top and white Nike sneakers and shorts so baggy they blanketed the bar as he passed over it, Thomas cleared 6’8.25″ on his first attempt, qualifying for the national championships. Then he cleared 7’0.25″ for a new Lindenwood University record. And then, on the seventh high jump attempt of his life, with rigid form akin to a man riding an invisible deck chair backward through the air, Thomas cleared 7’3.25″, a Lantz Indoor Fieldhouse record. That’s when Coach Lohr forced him to stop out of concern that he might hurt himself.

[...]

In his first full season, Thomas cleared 7’7.75″ to win the NCAA indoor high jump championship.

Thomas won the 2007 world championship.

There are no organizations without institutional habits

April 30th, 2021

There are no organizations without institutional habits, Charles Duhigg reminds us (in The Power of Habit):

There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.

Elegant and concise language used to describe an ugly and possibly irredeemable world

April 29th, 2021

I recently mentioned that Neovictorian’s Sanity nudged me to read (and then comment on) The Maltese Falcon and then The Big Sleep. The introduction to my annotated copy of The Big Sleep is full of interesting tidbits, like this 1950 reflection from Chandler:

“I arrived in California with a beautiful wardrobe, a public school accent, no practical gifts for earning a living, and a contempt for the natives that, I am sorry to say, persists to this day.”

The introduction describes Black Mask magazine as one of the best regarded (of the lowly regarded) pulp fiction outlets. I’d heard of it, but I didn’t realize its origin:

It was founded in 1920 by drama critic and editor George Nathan and journalist, culture maven, and scholar H. L. Mencken as a way to fund their tonier magazine, The Smart Set.

Mencken’s Wikipedia entry doesn’t even mention Black Mask.

Detective fiction was a definite genre by this point, with its own rules:

One of these authors, S. S. Van Dine (the pseudonym of American art critic Willard Huntington Wright), even published the rules for this type of literary game in his 1928 essay “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” (Rule number one: “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.” Just try this with The Big Sleep!)

These rules evolved as the new hard-boiled style emerged:

Carroll John Daly broke in the hard-boiled style with his story “The False Burton Combs” in 1922; his success was enormous, and he was emulated by Black Mask writers throughout the decade.

[...]

In the eloquent words of novelist Walter Mosley, the hard-boiled style is “elegant and concise language used to describe an ugly and possibly irredeemable world,” a style that captivates us “the way a bright and shiny stainless-steel garbage can houses maggots and rats.”

[...]

For Chandler, as for Hammett, Hemingway was “the greatest living American novelist.”

[...]

Hemingway’s 1926 The Sun Also Rises became the hard-boiled touchstone, with its interior monologue, stark prose, and colloquial turns of phrase.

Hemingway’s novel didn’t move me when I was forced to read it in high school. I may have to give it another go.

Starbucks has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide

April 28th, 2021

Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit) how companies are teaching their employees the kind of habits they didn’t learn at home:

The training has, Travis says, changed his life. Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially, it has taught him willpower.

[...]

For Travis and thousands of others, Starbucks — like a handful of other companies — has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide. With more than 137,000 current employees and more than one million alumni, Starbucks is now, in a sense, one of the nation’s largest educators. All of those employees, in their first year alone, spent at least fifty hours in Starbucks classrooms, and dozens more at home with Starbucks’ workbooks and talking to the Starbucks mentors assigned to them.

[...]

At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.

[...]

“Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not….Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

[...]

Scientists began conducting related experiments, trying to figure out how to help kids increase their self-regulatory skills. They learned that teaching them simple tricks — such as distracting themselves by drawing a picture, or imagining a frame around the marshmallow, so it seemed more like a photo and less like a real temptation — helped them learn self-control. By the 1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.”

[...]

Employees with willpower lapses, it turned out, had no difficulty doing their jobs most of the time. On the average day, a willpower-challenged worker was no different from anyone else. But sometimes, particularly when faced with unexpected stresses or uncertainties, those employees would snap and their self-control would evaporate.

[...]

The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the responses became automatic. The company identified specific rewards — a grateful customer, praise from a manager — that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.

[...]

“One of the systems we use is called the LATTE method. We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.”

[...]

There’s the What What Why system of giving criticism and the Connect, Discover, and Respond system for taking orders when things become hectic.

[...]

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

[...]

Starbucks isn’t the only company to use such training methods. For instance, at Deloitte Consulting, the largest tax and financial services company in the world, employees are trained in a curriculum named “Moments That Matter,” which focuses on dealing with inflection points such as when a client complains about fees, when a colleague is fired, or when a Deloitte consultant has made a mistake. For each of those moments, there are preprogrammed routines — Get Curious, Say What No One Else Will, Apply the 5/5/5 Rule — that guide employees in how they should respond.

At the Container Store, employees receive more than 185 hours of training in their first year alone.

More informative was the range of hours

April 27th, 2021

David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene) the original research behind what we now know as the 10,000-hour rule:

For a 1993 study, three psychologists turned to the Music Academy of West Berlin, which had a global reputation for producing world-class violinists.

The academy professors helped the psychologists identify ten of the “best” violin students, those who could become international soloists; ten students who were “good” and could make a living in a symphony orchestra; and ten lesser students they categorized as “music teachers,” because that would be their likely career path.

[...]

All of the musicians from all three groups had started taking systematic lessons at around eight years old, and all had decided to become musicians around fifteen. And, despite their skill differences, the violinists from all three groups dedicated a whopping 50.6 hours each week to their music skills, whether taking music theory classes, listening to music, or practicing and performing.

Then a major difference surfaced. The amount of time that the violinists in the top two groups spent practicing on their own: 24.3 hours each week, compared with 9.3 for the bottom group.

[...]

By age twelve, the best violinists had a head start of about 1,000 hours on the future teachers.

And even though the top two groups were spending identical amounts of time on their craft at the academy, the future international soloists had accumulated, on average, 7,410 hours of solitary practice by age eighteen, compared with 5,301 hours for the “good” group, and 3,420 hours for the future teachers.

“Hence,” the psychologists wrote, “there is complete correspondence between the skill level of the groups and their average accumulation of practice time alone with the violin.”

By age 20, the top-tier music students had accumulated an estimated 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, the kind that is often done in solitude.

Chess players follow a similar pattern:

Campitelli and Gobet found that 10,000 hours was not far off in terms of the amount of practice required to attain master status, or 2,200 Elo points, and to make it as a pro. The average time to master level in the study was actually about 11,000 hours — 11,053 hours to be exact — so more than in Ericsson’s violin study. More informative than the average number of practice hours required to attain master status, however, was the range of hours.

One player in the study reached master level in just 3,000 hours of practice, while another player needed 23,000 hours.

[...]

For the chess players, differences in progress showed up right away. “If you look at those players who go on to be masters and those who remain below that level,” Gobet says, “some of them have the same practice the first three years, but there were already large differences in performance.

Looking at it with a tad more statistical sophistication, he quips, “Somehow, the 7,000-to-40,000-hours rule just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

Small wins convince people that bigger achievements are within reach

April 26th, 2021

Keystone habits, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), offer what is known within academic literature as “small wins” — and small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach. This goes well beyond losing weight:

Then, in the early 1970s, the American Library Association’s Task Force on Gay Liberation decided to focus on one modest goal: convincing the Library of Congress to reclassify books about the gay liberation movement from HQ 71–471 (“Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes”) to another, less pejorative category.

In 1972, after receiving a letter requesting the reclassification, the Library of Congress agreed to make the shift, reclassifying books into a newly created category, HQ 76.5 (“Homosexuality, Lesbianism—Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement”). It was a minor tweak of an old institutional habit regarding how books were shelved, but the effect was electrifying. News of the new policy spread across the nation. Gay rights organizations, citing the victory, started fund-raising drives. Within a few years, openly gay politicians were running for political office in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon, many of them citing the Library of Congress’s decision as inspiration.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association, after years of internal debate, rewrote the definition of homosexuality so it was no longer a mental illness — paving the way for the passage of state laws that made it illegal to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.

And it all began with one small win.

Why does reading Lucan’s The Civil War make more sense in 2021 than it might have 30 years ago?

April 25th, 2021

Tyler Cowan asks, why does reading Lucan’s The Civil War make more sense in 2021 than it might have 30 years ago?

To me, it seems remarkably contemporary — more than Virgil. People are crazy. They’re at each other’s throats, but not really for any good reason.

[...]

I think the lack of obvious self-interested motivation for the polarization is what strikes me as so contemporary about Lucan. It’s not primarily about rent-seeking. There’s simply some logic of escalation that never stops. Now, maybe at the end of the poem, there’s a return to sanity in some ways, but there’s still this total immersion in violence, and the dynamics of that, the nonrationality or arationality — it struck me if I had read Lucan in 1991, I would have been quite puzzled, like this is something of antique interest. But I read it today — I’m not so pessimistic about the Western world, but it seems to hit much closer to home.

[...]

There seems to be a logic in contemporary politics where people take opposite sides of an issue because other people have taken a side. They don’t necessarily care anymore what it’s about. This may have moderated in the last few months, but there was a sense, if Trump tweeted some view about Turkey, some people would agree, and other people would take the other side, whether or not they had agreement about Turkey.

His top priority would have to be something that everybody could agree was important

April 24th, 2021

Charles Duhigg explains the concept of keystone habits (in The Power of Habit) through the example of Paul O’Neill, who took over as CEO of Alcoa with a promise to make Alcoa the safest company in America:

The audience was confused. These meetings usually followed a predictable script: A new CEO would start with an introduction, make a faux self-deprecating joke — something about how he slept his way through Harvard Business School — then promise to boost profits and lower costs. Next would come an excoriation of taxes, business regulations, and sometimes, with a fervor that suggested firsthand experience in divorce court, lawyers. Finally, the speech would end with a blizzard of buzzwords — “synergy,” “rightsizing,” and “co-opetition” — at which point everyone could return to their offices, reassured that capitalism was safe for another day.

[...]

“Now, before I go any further,” O’Neill said, “I want to point out the safety exits in this room.” He gestured to the rear of the ballroom. “There’s a couple of doors in the back, and in the unlikely event of a fire or other emergency, you should calmly walk out, go down the stairs to the lobby, and leave the building.”

[...]

“I’m not certain you heard me,” O’Neill said. “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”

[...]

Within a year of O’Neill’s speech, Alcoa’s profits would hit a record high. By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion.

[...]

O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization.

[...]

These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.

[...]

At the time, Alcoa was struggling. Critics said the company’s workers weren’t nimble enough and the quality of its products was poor. But at the top of O’Neill’s list he didn’t write “quality” or “efficiency” as his biggest priorities.

[...]

O’Neill figured his top priority, if he took the job, would have to be something that everybody — unions and executives — could agree was important.

[...]

The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to study how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work. In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa needed to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth.

He identified a simple cue: an employee injury. He instituted an automatic routine: Any time someone was injured, the unit president had to report it to O’Neill within twenty-four hours and present a plan for making sure the injury never happened again. And there was a reward: The only people who got promoted were those who embraced the system.

Unit presidents were busy people. To contact O’Neill within twenty-four hours of an injury, they needed to hear about an accident from their vice presidents as soon as it happened. So vice presidents needed to be in constant communication with floor managers. And floor managers needed to get workers to raise warnings as soon as they saw a problem and keep a list of suggestions nearby, so that when the vice president asked for a plan, there was an idea box already full of possibilities.

To make all of that happen, each unit had to build new communication systems that made it easier for the lowliest worker to get an idea to the loftiest executive, as fast as possible. Almost everything about the company’s rigid hierarchy had to change to accommodate O’Neill’s safety program. He was building new corporate habits.

[...]

Then, as email habits became more ingrained and comfortable, they started posting information on all kinds of other topics, such as local market conditions, sales quotas, and business problems.

[...]

This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cultures where new values become ingrained. Keystone habits make tough choices—such as firing a top executive— easier, because when that person violates the culture, it’s clear they have to go.

[...]

He got fired because he didn’t report the incident, and so no one else had the opportunity to learn from it. Not sharing an opportunity to learn is a cardinal sin.”

[...]

On average, workers are more likely to get injured at a software company, animating cartoons for movie studios, or doing taxes as an accountant than handling molten aluminum at Alcoa.

“When I was made a plant manager,” said Jeff Shockey, the Alcoa executive, “the first day I pulled into the parking lot I saw all these parking spaces near the front doors with people’s titles on them. The head guy for this or that. People who were important got the best parking spots. The first thing I did was tell a maintenance manager to paint over all the titles. I wanted whoever got to work earliest to get the best spot. Everyone understood the message: Every person matters. It was an extension of what Paul was doing around worker safety. It electrified the plant. Pretty soon, everyone was getting to work earlier each day.”

Thinking is the sign of a novice

April 23rd, 2021

In 1975, as part of her graduate work at the University of Waterloo, Janet Starkes invented the modern sports “occlusion” test, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), and found that one volleyball players’s blink of light was another’s fully formed narrative. Bruce Abernathy expanded on this work while an undergraduate at the University of Queensland in the late 1970s:

Abernethy started out using Super 8mm film to capture video of cricket bowlers. He would show batters the video but cut it off before the throw and have them attempt to predict where the ball was headed. Unsurprisingly, expert players were better at predicting the path of the ball than novice players.

[...]

Top tennis players, Abernethy found, could discern from the minuscule pre-serve shifts of an opponent’s torso whether a shot was going to their forehand or backhand, whereas average players had to wait to see the motion of the racket, costing invaluable response time.

(In badminton, if Abernethy hides the racket and entire forearm, it transforms elite players back into near novices, an indication that information from the lower arm is critical in that sport.)

Abernathy found that novices were already looking in the right place; they just didn’t have the cognitive database the read what they were seeing:

“If they did,” Abernethy says, “it would be a hell of a lot easier to coach them to become an expert. You could just say, ‘Look at the arm. Or for a baseball batter the real advice wouldn’t be ‘keep your eye on the ball,’ it would be ‘watch the shoulder.’ But actually, if you tell them that, it makes good players worse.”

As an individual practices a skill, whether it be hitting, throwing, or learning to drive a car, the mental processes involved in executing the skill move from the higher conscious areas of the brain in the frontal lobe, back to more primitive areas that control automated processes, or skills that you can execute “without thinking.”

[...]

To return to Abernethy’s point, “thinking” about an action is the sign of a novice in sports, or a key to transforming an expert back into an amateur.

(University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has shown that a golfer can overcome pressure-induced choking in putting — paralysis by analysis, she calls it — by singing to himself, and thus preoccupying the higher conscious areas of the brain.)

Psychologists who research expertise like to say, “It’s software, not hardware.”

The cues and rewards stayed the same

April 22nd, 2021

Asking patients to describe what triggers their habitual behavior is called awareness training, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), and it’s the first step in habit reversal training:

At the end of their first session, the therapist sent Mandy home with an assignment: Carry around an index card, and each time you feel the cue — a tension in your fingertips — make a check mark on the card.

[...]

Then the therapist taught Mandy what is known as a “competing response.” Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation — such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk — anything that would produce a physical response.

The cues and rewards stayed the same. Only the routine changed.

They practiced in the therapist’s office for about thirty minutes and Mandy was sent home with a new assignment: Continue with the index card, but make a check when you feel the tension in your fingertips and a hash mark when you successfully override the habit.

A week later, Mandy had bitten her nails only three times and had used the competing response seven times. She rewarded herself with a manicure, but kept using the note cards. After a month, the nail-biting habit was gone.

How does Thibault cancel out Capoferro?

April 21st, 2021

The Princess Bride features some of the earliest — maybe onlyreferences to historical fencing masters in film:

Inigo: “You are using Bonetti’s defence against me, huh?”

MIB: “I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.”

Inigo: “Naturally, you must expect me to attack with Capoferro!”

MIB: “Naturally. But I find that Thibault cancels out Capoferro.”

Inigo: “Unless your enemy has studied his Agrippa!” [does great big somersault] “Which I have!”

Thus inspiring a legion of potential historical fencers to look up Bonetti, Capoferro, Thibault and Agrippa. Huzzah!

However, the actual choreography turns out on further study to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the fencing methods of the historical masters in question. This should come as no surprise, given that the goals of stage and screen combat are that no-one should die, and everyone should see what is happening: and the goals of real combat are to kill the enemy, which is best accomplished if no-one can see what’s going on. There are skills common to both, of course, such as control of measure and weapons handling, but the core intent could not be more different.

The Princess Bride was a book for 14 years before it was a film:

So, from the 1998 edition (pp 130-135) here are the actual references:

They touched swords, and the man in black immediately began the Agrippa defence, which Inigo felt was sound, considering the rocky terrain, for the Agrippa kept the feet stationary at first, and made the chances of slipping minimal. Naturally, he countered with Capo Ferro, which surprised the man in black, but he defended well, quickly shifting out of Agrippa and taking the attack himself, using the principles of Thibault.

Inigo had to smile. No one had taken the attack against him in so long, and it was thrilling! He let the man in black advance, let him build up courage, retreating gracefully between some trees, letting his Bonetti defence keep him safe from harm.

Quite different, I’m sure you’ll agree. But this was 40 years ago, long before the resurgence of historical swordsmanship in the 90s: where was Goldman getting his information? The next reference is also interesting:

“Inigo…was not entirely familiar with the style of the attack; it was mostly McBone, but there were snatches of Capo Ferro thrown in…”

I assume McBone is McBane (though why the change when the other masters are spelled normally: a little joke, perhaps?); has Goldman read Aylward’s The English Master of Arms?

That’s Guy Windsor, author of The Duellist’s Companion: A training manual for 17th century Italian rapier, who produced a short video on the topic: