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How to be better at almost anything


Earlier we talked about why the fast-talking guy sounds smarter than the guy who understands more than he can say. We talked about how wrong that is, and how if the glib always win, we all lose. But the more important battle is not between articulate vs. less-articulate people... it's between the articulate vs. non-articulate parts of your own head. Your brain has both a quick-talker and a quick-thinker, but the good-talker "know-it-all" gets the glory. In other words, there's a smart part and a dumb part of your brain, and the problem is...the dumb part talks.


If we can get the dumber part to STFU, we can learn much faster and perform much better at just about anything. The dumber chatty part is hurting us.

It's the part that makes you self-conscious:
"Do I look OK? Am I going to say something stupid?"
"Am I overlooking something in this code?"

It's the part that criticizes:
"DOH! I can't believe I just did that. Idiot!"
"This code is inefficient... you need to fix it."
"That paragraph reads like a six-year old wrote it. It's dull.

It's the part that gives you "helpful" instructions:
"Make eye contact for three seconds. Watch your posture, don't look at your slides."
"Look for a design pattern to apply. Don't duplicate that code over there."
"Stay close to the fall-line. Don't lock your knees. Turn quicker!"
"It's safer to use formal terminology than risk looking silly."

While your brain is chatting away evaluating, judging, instructing, criticizing, directing, etc... the smarter parts sit in the corner, ignored. Alan Kay--often called the father of object-oriented programming and one of the greatest thinkers/researchers/designers/teachers/engineers of our time-- talks about the implications of this for education... something we talked about earlier.

But Alan Kay was inspired by the work of Tim Gallwey, whose work arose from one simple question, "... is all this inner dialogue really necessary? Is it helping...or is it getting in the way?" Until I heard Alan Kay talk about it (and explain some of the cognitive science behind it), I had always thought Gallwey's "inner game" thing was just one more bit of 60's self-help new-age nonsense. I was dead wrong.

Gallwey showed that the parts of our brain that learn from experience are far more capable than the parts that learn from talking through it. We think we need to tell ourselves things like, "keep your weight over your front don't press so hard on the violin bow..." when we're trying to learn something new or improve our performance, when that's exactly the thing that inhibits learning and improvement.

We did learn to walk, after all. And we did it with virtually no explicit "talking" instruction. Nobody compared our first steps to the steps of an expert (i.e. a parent) and "told" us how to adjust. Nobody outside or inside our head was evaluating, judging, or correcting. Think about times when people are telling you what to do when you're trying to concentrate and you finally yell at them to STFU. All we need to do is take that attitude we have to people outside our head and apply it to the chattering inside our head.

Easier said than done, of course. Gallwey makes the point that most of us can't turn off the talking parts with brute force will, although that's the basis for so many ineffective self-help or creativity books that tell you to change the way you talk to yourself or "silence your inner critic" simply by telling yourself to do so. (pretty tough to tell yourself not to tell yourself...)

For Gallwey, the answer is focus of attention. In tennis, for example, he has people learn to focus on the ball--the seams turning, the way it bounces, and the moment at which someone hits it. Bounce-hit. Bounce-hit. Nothing about feet, arms, rackets, weight shifts. Nothing talking to--or about--you. (Yes, technically your brain is still 'talking' through this "here's the bounce, there's the hit, etc." but the point is that it's not annoying and influencing you.)

Example Techniques

* Art
Nobody does a better job of this than Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a program created by Betty Edwards. I'd recommend it to everyone whether you ever care about drawing or not, just for the way it changes your brain. Betty (and a zillion students) demonstrate that the part of your brain that talks is also the part that draws like a three-year old. That part talks its way through, say, what a car or horse or human looks like, and it does a really lame job. But if you get your brain to stop saying, "this is a horse, and they have four legs and..." and instead focus on seeing shapes and lines, the better-performing parts of your brain can kick in.

* Writing non-fiction
If you plan a book by making outlines, you're indulging the talking (linear, step-by-step, rational) part of your brain. The focus is on what you do and say and when and how you say it. With our books, we do not use outlines--we do everything from storyboards. By focusing on the story of the learner's journey, it keeps the brain focused on the learner's experience rather than what WE do/say/write. This is not a trivial thing--last week our books represented 25% of the O'Reilly Top 20 bestsellers. And we're not all that good at writing. It really is about focusing on the reader instead of focusing on what the reader will think of us.

* Design
Mind-mapping--if you do it quickly--stops the talking parts from jumping in and evaluating what you're writing, so the creative parts can do things. That's what makes mind-mapping so powerful and fun--after you're done, you look at the paper and find things you'd never thought about... things that wouldn't have come out while talking your way through an outline.

* Programming
Pay attention to Code Smells, which is another way of saying a gut "bad feeling" that tells you something is wrong even if you can't yet say why.

* Everything
Read Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, which I talked about in this post. And while you're making sure that glib people don't always win, try to do the same within your own brain.

Listen to the comments of our readers, who I'm sure will have suggestions for other resources : )

Posted by Kathy on December 11, 2006 | Permalink


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Great post.

Made me think of a profound quote from Heidegger:

“Thinking only begins at the point where we have come to
know that Reason, glorified for centuries, is the most obstinate adversary of thinking”

As I have grown older I have tried to think more intuitively like Heidegger suggests. You really have to teach yourself to not dismiss it - our reasoning brains, at least in the Western world are often the default, if you will, way of interfacing with the world of objects (which unfortunately includes people).

Heidegger may not be accessible to many people but his ideas continue to amaze me.



Posted by: Jason Becker | Dec 11, 2006 4:38:44 PM

I tried to get the voices in my head to shut up, but they just got angry and shouted at me! :-)
Another intriguing and thought provoking post.
I'm not sure how I can apply it to programming, unless I already am without thinking about it. I think the way I tend to program is let the "chatter" flow out onto the screen, and then go back and critically carve out the superfluous code that doesn't add anything. It's the way I was originally taught to program (although when I started, the critique was offered by a mentor), and it works well for me.

Posted by: CodeMonkey | Dec 11, 2006 4:47:45 PM

There's a brilliant anthem to that "STFU-you-stupid-voice-in-my-head". It's called "DIE VAMPIRE, DIE" from an off-Broadway musical called "[title of show]". In the third part of the song, they say, "Why is it, if some dude walked up to me on the subway platform and said these things, I'd think he was a mentally ill asshole, but if the vampire inside my head says it, it's the voice of reason?"

Go to iTunes, type in "Die Vampire, Die" and pay the 99 cents. It's great to listen to whenever you need to silence those voices.

Posted by: John Windsor | Dec 11, 2006 4:48:00 PM

I teach my clients "mindfulness" so they can see (feel?) their brain 'working': most people don't even realize they have this inner dialogue. The best part is when they can begin to get a handle on it, they can choose to shut it off, or make more efficient choices before being swayed by the chatter. Of course, sometimes the chatter can be useful, but in many cases (as Blink shows), the inner dialogue is simply second-guessing ourselves. In physical movement (like sports, dance, martial arts, etc), we call the non-chatter physical part : "kinesthetic sense": a better way of describing this is "the body will know what to do [as it has learned this already]". Galway's description of a baby walking falls under this, except the baby is using an 'evolutionary sense': the baby learns how to walk because walking is part of survival.

Additionally, this subject is also part of aethetics ("we can't tell ourselves what is beautiful or appealing"), as well as a broad anthropological idea that "people learn better/deeper by doing something themselves, than by someone instructing them". Ever meet someone who almost refuses to take advice, preferring to discover on his/her own? It's so frustrating for us outside of him/her, but he/she learns the lesson FAR more deeply (and lasting!) than by anecdote!

Posted by: Lauren Muney | Dec 11, 2006 4:54:07 PM

That infernal internal dialogue. Really useful at the right time, but unfortunately way too overused. When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I had breakfast the other day with friends who have an 8 month old child. I was awed by the silence in her. She was simply there, watching, learning and experiencing the world. Of course, being 8 months old, she does not yet have the capability for any dialogue.

There are a few tools that can be easily explained to get control over this internal dialogue. There are a whole bunch of other methods that take a lot more explanation that I can do here.

First method: Restate your internal dialogue immediately after hearing it. This brings your internal dialogue under your conscious control by breaking the pattern.
Second method: Move the location of your internal dialogue into your voice box. Most people listen to their dialogue coming from a specific location. Often from the back of their head and off to one side. Move that location to where you physically speak from and it usually silences the chatter.
Third method: Pick a personal mantra, then use it. "Shut the hell up" is one such mantra. :-)
Forth method: Not really a method, but helps understanding. Who, when your internal dialogue is chattering away, are you speaking to?


Posted by: Michael Vanderdonk | Dec 11, 2006 5:15:26 PM

The first thing I thought of when I saw the top diagram in this post was how do you stop the effective self-publicist from winning the job over the quieter (but more able!) person. Too often i see the flashy person getting the job. All fluffand bluster but no substance once the honeymoon period wears off.

Posted by: greg carroll | Dec 11, 2006 5:53:43 PM

I agree with what you say about the importance of the emotional side of the brain, even for language learning which is typically associated with the left or rational side. Here is what I recently put on my blog on this subject.

“I want to learn to speak English better. I do not like to hear myself pronounce English. I have trouble writing English. I cannot remember my new English vocabulary. I need to improve my English grammar. I have trouble expressing my ideas in English. When I am with native speakers I do not understand much of what they say.”

These are some of the comments that often I hear from our new learners at The Linguist. I had these feelings when I started studying languages. So what is to be done?

My answer is simple. Make the language your friend. In particular, make the words your friends. Let the words be the focus of your learning. Learn to like the words of English. Put all your effort into words, how they sound, how they come together with other words, and all the different meanings they can have. Be patient as you get to know these words. They will be your friends for a long time. Make sure you take the time to meet them often in your listening and reading.

Do not judge or criticize yourself. Do not push yourself. When you feel like listening, listen. Choose content that you like. It may be old familiar content or new content. It may be easy content or difficult content. Make sure you like it enough to listen. Listen many times if you feel like it. Listen only once if you feel like it. Then choose something else. Just follow your interests.

Listen as much as possible to content read by someone whose voice and intonation you like. Imitate the voice and the intonation. Stop the recorder from time to time and replay short sections and imitate the tone and accent. The more you like the content and the voice, the easier it will be to imitate.

Read when you feel like reading. Look at the words and phrases. Notice them. Focus on the ones you have trouble using. Save them. Learn to admire how these letters come together to convey so much meaning. Enjoy the powerful feeling of making sense out of the words of a strange language. Sense the joy of exploring another culture. Try to feel that you are a part of that culture.

When you feel really energetic, try to review lists of words and phrases that you have come across in your listening and reading. You should do this, not in the hope that you will remember them, but because know it will help you to get to know them, gradually. When you get tired of reviewing words, you just go back to listening and reading. Or you can take a rest.

Do not let anything frustrate you. The happier you are, the more positive you feel about the language, the more easily you will be able to imitate the sounds of the language. The less stress you feel, the more easily you will figure out the meaning directly, without translating into your language. The more time you spend listening and reading, the sooner you will be able to express yourself in English in all situations. And your pronunciation will improve. Language learning really is that simple.

I know that this is true because I have done this for nine languages. I am doing it know in order to learn Russian.

Posted by: Steve Kaufmann | Dec 11, 2006 6:05:11 PM

I blog internally for my company and I recently wrote a long post about making design decisions based on your "gut." I think the key to winning this argument with people is:

1) Convince people that your gut is actually your subconscious. Then, convince them that the subconscious is this low energy, enormously powerful, honed-by-evolution snap decision making machine that produces advice in the form of urges or hunches by digesting 500 times the amount of input you can consciously handle. It then, rather painlessly, gives you a simple, synthesized and distilled nudge in the right direction.


2) Be right all the time, for no apparent reason. People like to model people who seem magically brilliant.

I make an unhealthy number of major design decisions for big global businesses and I really do trust my gut. It never overthinks, it never underthinks. It's quite deterministic. It gives you the best possible advice from every shred of evidence you've encountered. You just have to listen to it. It won't always be right, but it will never be less right than you would, overall, with much more effort.

Posted by: Justin D-Z | Dec 11, 2006 6:10:26 PM

One of the attributes of achieving flow is that you lose the self consciousness that keeps distracting you. I suggest reading Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He pioneered flow theory. In his first book on the subject, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, he writes about the original research that he did on this subject. He interviewed rock climbers, dancers, and surgeons to understand how they were able to order their minds and turn off the little voices that prevent us from achieving optimal experiences.

Posted by: Vanessa | Dec 11, 2006 6:48:07 PM

I wonder how many have read, or heard of, Martin Buber. About 100 years ago, he wrote of the importance of "being there" or "being present." And you can't "be there" and also know that you are "being there," because as soon as you begin to think that "you're there," you've actually stopped being there. You can't be both meta and present at the same time.

I also wonder if George Lucas read him, and based the Jedi concept of being there on Buber's writing.

Posted by: Mitch | Dec 11, 2006 7:06:07 PM


I often read your weblog with interest and admire you. I get motivated by your wonderful articles.

I just wanted to point you to Jiddu Krishnamurthy. One of his books "Awakening of Intelligence" was a very deep, marvelous reading. You may want to see if you can read it. Some info you can get here (http://www.kfa.org/) and here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiddu_Krishnamurti on his "teachings".


Posted by: Shivaswamy Raghunath | Dec 11, 2006 7:14:37 PM

Context for my approach to this: Supposedly this is my Virgo-ness ...tendencies to be hypercritical, highly methodical, and super-detailed. (These come in really handy if I'm the one making shopping lists. At one point I had it down to only 2 trips a year to a drugstore for a family of 4-6.)

When I'm doing something important, though, that involves more than a simple physical function, or drawing one basic line from A to B, I completely detach from any single movement or directed thought process. The goal and result is smooth co-ordination and unity of concentration. With complex processes that do require lots of planning, my method is to identify the components, put them in order if necessary, and then reduce it all to the barest skeleton. The more complex the process, the better I'll do it if I've gone through the 'reduction' first. This works for a personality like mine, since my nature will insist on every detail and piece being filled in along the way.

The most effective people I've worked with, not necessarily perfectionistic like me, each have their own individual ways of getting to the the same place, which is completely 'in' the story we're writing. Some of it is confidence and un-selfconsciousness, but mostly it's a way of totally focusing on what is happening. Prepare beforehand as appropriate, then put it aside and go 'there'.

Posted by: Vera Bass | Dec 11, 2006 7:14:43 PM

Please, please, please, please, please share - how in the world do you storyboard a non-fiction book? I'd LOVE to see that!

Do you just storyboard main ideas, and then focus writing on getting those main ideas out, do you storyboard outline points (which would be odd, since you don't outline), or something else entirely?


Posted by: david lee king | Dec 11, 2006 8:20:23 PM

Great post.

Of all the books I've read in my life, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain may be the most influential. My grade 10 art teacher based our entire year around the book, and I was as amazed by it then as I am now.

The fact that you can drastically improve your skill at something simply by thinking about it differently is a very powerful idea. Once you see what that can do to your drawing, you wonder what it might do for other areas of your life. It's one of the only books that I find myself referring to again and again in casual conversations.

My other vote is for Neil Postman's "Teaching as a Subversive Activity". It advocates question-directed learning in the public schools, but the core message can apply to many other things. Engaging the creative side of your brain to ask questions, rather than letting the logical side of your brain dictate answers, can be a very rewarding process.

Posted by: Patrick D | Dec 11, 2006 8:36:51 PM


i just visited ur website...check out this 3d mind mapping tool Nelements http://nelements.net


Posted by: zahid | Dec 11, 2006 8:38:39 PM

Hi Kathy, what you write about designing books by storyboards and not by outline is very interesting. Btw, I wanted to tell you that I'm re-reading the book about servlets and JSP and it really rocks.
BR, Lionel

Posted by: Lionel | Dec 12, 2006 12:54:04 AM

what if you're a talker *and* a blink analyst? is that still glib?

Posted by: James Governor | Dec 12, 2006 3:45:28 AM

This storyboard thing looks very promising. Do you mind to share some pointers ?

Posted by: Norbert Klamann | Dec 12, 2006 5:12:07 AM

FWIW, a technique that I use to shut up "the ugly little voice" is to write a dialog. I think I got the idea from The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, which is another one of those change your life books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

The idea is that you just write down what the UGL says, and answer it. Lots and lots of "Yeah, buts..." when I do it, but eventually I can argue the stupid thing to a standstill.

And, PLEASE talk about storyboarding non-fiction. Mind-mapping, yes, but I can only see storyboarding page layout, after the subject is down, so I'm clearly missing something, and I suspect it's something terribly important...

Posted by: Rebecca Riordan | Dec 12, 2006 8:28:52 AM

Photography: Pay attention only to the negative space and its relationship to the edges of the frame.

People photography: Pay attention only to peak gestures, that is, when arms, legs, hands, mouth, eyes, etc. are most extended. Press the shutter when those gestures serve your composition. Don't try to "capture" feelings, either yours or theirs.

Posted by: Steven H. | Dec 12, 2006 11:45:52 AM

Stimulating comments and article.
There is a joy of recognition. Personally I refer to the inner voice as my rational part/ my mind. I consider the intuition part as my heart. Listen to your heart, follow your heart, trust your gut feelings. It's all wonderful stuff and all based on this idea.

Posted by: Peter | Dec 12, 2006 12:15:55 PM

Sometimes going with the gut feeling is the right way and sometimes it is just a total disaster. That intuitive feeling that is the first flash of insight.

I believe but am far from sure that it fails most when I am working on something I don't know enough about, but do have some familiarity with. What I think I know, just isn't so.

So I have to remember to do some quick and dirty testing to make sure what I am doing is the right direction, if not the most correct way. Just to make sure.

But I still get surprised sometimes when some bit of trivia jumps out of my brain, LIke yesterday when I had to guess who said "The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard
accordingly.", I don't remember anyone saying, yet I had a flash to say Marcus Aurelius, which is the right answer.

Posted by: Stephan F | Dec 12, 2006 1:15:52 PM

Great food-for-thought-burger!

I'd add another book to the reading list - How to Create Zero-Search-Time Computer Documentation by Schorer...

BTW its not really about creating documentation... it's about creating insanely great software (from the users point of view)!

Posted by: Steven Fletcher | Dec 12, 2006 4:53:08 PM

I am listening to 'Precious' by Depeche Mode.
So Kathy for me its simple.
I just wanna have youre babies.

Posted by: Peter | Dec 12, 2006 5:30:41 PM

John Windsor: I'm forever in your debt for sending me to iTunes for "Die Vampire, Die."

Lauren: thanks for bringing up the relationship to aesthetics, and yes you're so right -- the person learns the lesson far more deeply when they experience it themselves. And just as it's frustrating when we can't get someone to listen, it can also be frustrating when the opposite happens--someone insists you give them the shortcut and just *tell* them when you know they really need to do it.

Michael: "Shut the hell up" as a mantra... works for me!

Steve Kaufmann: your students are very very lucky indeed.

Juting D-Z: "the subconscious is this low energy, enormously powerful, honed-by-evolution snap decision making machine that produces advice in the form of urges or hunches by digesting 500 times the amount of input you can consciously handle. It then, rather painlessly, gives you a simple, synthesized and distilled nudge in the right direction."

Best. Explanation. Ever.

Vanessa: Thanks for bringin up Flow-- it was one of two required reading books for the little division of Virgin I worked for (the other was "Understanding Comics"), and I've dog-eared just about every page over the years. I consider putting people in "flow" to be the most significant thing that we can do for our users, which is why much of what we talk about here is how to help encourage, support, and not break flow.

Mitch: "You can't be both meta and present at the same time."
well said! No, I didn't know about Martin Buber. Smart guy, though.

David Lee King and others: Storyboards, yes. We get a lot of requests to talk more abut that, so I will. I'm trying to figure out how to explain something that normally I do in a week-long workshop! But I promise to say much more about it.

Lionel: Thanks!

James: "what if you're a talker *and* a blink analyst?"
I'll try not to hate you. ; )

Steven H: What a GREAT recommendation on photography. While most of us have probably heard the advice about negative space (but don't remember it enough to actually do it), it was a great reminder. But the one on gestures -- looking at them just as more shapes rather than representations of "feelings", that's awesome.

Steven Fletcher: I haven't checked that out yet, but I already love the title.

Peter: Awwwwww. Sweet. : ) But I'm already expecting. (a baby horse, next summer... Leira is pregnant to a gorgeous Icelandic stallion)

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 12, 2006 6:18:52 PM

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