Recap: The 31 Day Writing and Running Challenge and the Power of Habit

writeandrun31

First, thank you to Matt Frazier and Christine Frazier for the idea and execution behind this 31-day challenge. It has been a highly rewarding experience in so many ways.

While I have always been an avid exerciser, starting and maintaining a blog is something I have often thought about, but never did anything about. But there was something about this challenge that caught my eye, and so I dove in, with the goal of writing a blog post every day in January. And once I hit the publish button on this post, the goal will have been met.

There were a few nights around 10:00 where I was just staring at the screen waiting for my inner muse to spark some writing. Somehow, something always came to me, and I was able to  continue the streak.

While the primary goal of the writing part of this challenge was to push myself to develop creative output, there have been many other positive side effects as well.

It was great getting comments from current and former students, old friends from high school and college, neighbors, members of the #writeandrun31 and #YourTurnChallenge communities, and family. Special thanks to my wife for reading every blog and providing useful feedback before I posted it and  potentially embarrassed myself, or at least kept such embarrassment to a minimum.

It was amazing to experience the reach of the web, since the blogging enabled me to reconnect with people I have not heard from in years, even decades. In addition, I feel like I have made some new friends from the #writeandrun31 and #YourTurnChallenge communities.

I’ve learned a lot during the challenge – information about running, exercise, the power of goal setting, how to be a better writer, how to form habits, and the power of community.

And while I certainly have a sense of accomplishment, I also realize in the grander scheme of things, writing for 31 days is not all that impressive. Seth Godin has over 5,000 blog posts (that link is from a year and a half ago, so add another 500 or so to that total) and Fred Wilson has been posting to his blog every day since September 2003.

I plan to continue my daily writing (I’m sure that comes as a relief to my legion of followers), and my new goal is for 100 straight days, which I am almost a third of the way to already.

I think 100 days should help to firmly establish my writing as a habit. While many people have indicated that it takes 21 days, or 30 days to establish a habit, recent research has shown that it takes, on average, 66 days to establish a habit.  And it’s no surprise that how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In the research study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.

But before you look at those numbers of 66 days or 254 days, and think that seems way too long, there are some helpful takeaways from the research.

  • “First, there is no reason to get down on yourself if you try something for a few weeks and it doesn’t become a habit. It’s supposed to take longer than that! There is no need to judge yourself if you can’t master a behavior in 21 short days. Embrace the long, slow walk to greatness and focus on putting in your reps.”
  • “Second, you don’t have to be perfect. Making a mistake once or twice has no measurable impact on your long-term habits. This is why you should treat failure like a scientist, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and develop strategies for getting back on track quickly.”
  • “And third, embracing longer timelines can help us realize that habits are a process and not an event. All of the “21 Days” hype can make it really easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just do this and it’ll be done.” But habits never work that way. You have to embrace the process. You have to commit to the system.”

So I view the completion of the 31 days as a beginning. I’m at the same place Seth and Fred were after their first 31 days, and look where they are now. It’s just a matter of taking one day at a time. As Seth puts it, drip, drip, drip…

 

 

 

In Search of Excellence, Creating My First Test of the Semester

in-search-of-excellence

I would have hoped after doing this for 29 years I’d know how to make up the perfect test. But I’m teaching a new prep this semester, and so I am filled with the usual doubts.

Will the test be fair, will there be enough time for the students to complete the test, will the test be at the right level of difficulty. My hope is that the test will be a useful learning experience for the students.

I think the fairness issue is the easiest one to deal with. As long as the test covers what we have discussed in class and the students have read in their textbooks, then I should be OK. But I’m guessing that at least one student will comment that something on the test wasn’t fair, or that I was trying to trick them.

The time issue is a little harder to deal with. The students will have 75 minutes for the test. It’s not a good sign if a few students are done such a test in 20-30 minutes, probably a sign that it was too easy. On the other hand, it’s also not a good sign if no one has handed the test in when the 75 minutes have passed. Usually a lot of stressed out students when that happens. I’ve also learned over the years that many students will take as much time as is given. They may have completed the test in 60 minutes, but they will double-check and triple-check every answer, and always be the last ones to turn in their tests.

The level of difficulty is the one I struggle with the most. I think it is fairly easy to make up a really hard exam, as well as a really easy exam. I’d like to be somewhere in between, to find that sweet spot.

I know many teachers believe that  difficult tests motivate students to perform at their highest level possible. That approach is consistent with a good deal of the goal setting and motivational research available. I’ve heard about many engineering tests where the class average is a 40, and I’ve never understood what the point of such tests were. Is it for the teacher to prove how much smarter he or she is than the students? Is it to remind the students how difficult the material is? Is it designed to motivate students to try harder on the next test. To me, such a test does not reflect poorly on the students as much as it does on the teacher. The test may not have been designed properly in terms of fairness, or time, or level of difficulty, or it may indicate that the teacher is not very effective in teaching the material. I’m also thinking I would never want to drive across a bridge that was designed by one of these students…

I’ve also heard about tests where the average score is in the upper 90s. I think that’s too easy, and does not serve to motivate students to push themselves at all.

I view designing a test that is in the sweet spot as a two-part process. First, I need to decide what the sweet spot should be. Is a 65  average the sweet spot, is it an 80, is it having at least half the students score in the 90s?

While much of the goal setting literature talks about setting goals that are relatively difficult to attain, I am more aligned with the approach that IBM used with its salespeople, discussed in what I consider to be one of the best business books of all time, In Search of Excellence.

In the book the authors talk about how IBM (one of the excellent companies) sets the standards for its sales people. Rather than setting the quotas at level where perhaps only 40% of the sales people would achieve that level, IBM sets the quota so that 70 to 80% of its sales people make quota.

Such a finding was consistent across the “excellent” companies, and the authors concluded that the reasoning was fairly simple; people like to consider themselves winners. And the excellent companies designed their systems to continually reinforce that notion; most of the people are made to feel like winners. So even though its workers are distributed around a normal curve like any large population, the excellent companies reinforced degrees of winning rather than degrees of losing. Thus, most of its people make their targets and quotas because such goals are set to allow that to happen.

In a company where only 40% of the employees are hitting their goals, such an approach means that at least 60% of the people think of themselves as losers, leading to dysfunctional, unpredictable, and frenetic behavior.

So I have long been a believer in the IBM approach, and try to set goals for a test where the majority of the students do well, which I translate to having test averages in the low to mid 80s. My sense is that this is a good bit higher than what most teachers strive for, but I am quite comfortable with this approach.

So all the above is really the first step, deciding what I want the sweet spot to be. Once I have settled on that (low to mid 80s), the second part of the process is now designing a test where that is the outcome. That is the hard part, and usually takes some trial and error.

Since this will be the first test for a new course, I will likely err on the side of being a little easy. To me, it’s helpful to build some confidence, to get an early win. I think that creates motivation to want to continue at that level for the rest of the semester, or at least until the next test.

So while I may have made it sound like designing a test is a lot of work, I’m still glad that I am on the designing side, and not the taking side. It truly is better to give (a test) than to receive.

 

What’s Your Personality Type? I’m an INTJ

intj

I was reading multiple blogs today for some inspiration, and I came across this post about the Myers Briggs personality types from Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist who has been blogging every day since September 2003.

So I decided to take the test (it took less than 5 minutes), and I was identified as an INTJ (Introvert, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging) type.

I then went to a profile page site to learn more about the INTJ type, as well as site that identifies some famous INTJ personalities.

I would certainly agree with the Introvert rating, and that has been consistent since i was a little kid.

I was somewhat surprised by the Intuitive rating since when I look at  examples of Intuitive vs. Sensing, I don’t feel I have a strong preference for either type.

I’d agree with the Thinking over Feeling, and when I look at the description of the differences, I’m surprised it didn’t indicate an even stronger preference for Thinking than the results show.

The final one is no surprise, since the Judging type likes to plan, and that would certainly describe me.

Overall, an INTJ is labeled as a Scientist, which probably fits me better than most of the 16 personality types identified by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother Katharine Cook Briggs, based on the earlier work of Carl Jung.

When I started looking at famous INTJs, I was excited to see people like Isaac Newton, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. However, when I scrolled further down the page I also saw the Unabomber.

So while it is a fun and possibly insightful test, I think it’s important to realize that the test results don’t define who we are as a person.

Like most things in life, it’s what you do with what you are given that makes all the difference.

If you would like to take the test, here is the link.

Sir Ken Robinson Was Right

ken_robinson

Every semester for the past several years I have shown my students the Ken Robinson TED talk on how schools kill creativity. One of my favorite parts of the talk is where he talks about how women are better at multitasking, and uses his wife as an example.

“…if she’s cooking, you know, she’s dealing with people on the phone, she’s talking to the kids, she’s painting the ceiling, she’s doing open-heart surgery over here. If I’m cooking, the door is shut, the kids are out, the phone’s on the hook, if she comes in I get annoyed. I say, “Terry, please, I’m trying to fry an egg in here. Give me a break.”

I still laugh every time I hear the line, as do my students.

But last night it hit home.

It was my youngest son’s birthday (Happy Birthday Pat!) and my wife was preparing a special meal for him. She was busy in the kitchen cooking London Broil for our son, crab cakes for herself, along with mashed potatoes and crescent rolls. At the same time she was cooking this variety of items, she was also putting together a root beer taste test using multicolored index cards and separate serving trays for each of us. And as if all that was not enough, she was also having a texting conversation on her phone.

In the meantime, I was responsible for making my own meal, which consisted of simply heating up some noodles and vegetables in the microwave (yes, we all have unique dietary habits). As I was walking towards the microwave to pop my food in, my wife got to the oven before me to check the London Broil. So I had to wait for about 20 seconds until I could put my food in the microwave. While I was waiting, I was getting annoyed with the fact that my wife didn’t realize the importance of what I had to do to prepare my dinner.

Then once we sat down to eat, it struck me. I was living proof of what Ken Robinson was talking about. And as I thought about it a bit more, I realized it had been happening right in front of me for quite some time, and I was never aware of it (I was probably too focused on the one thing I was probably trying to accomplish at the time).

My wife can be watching TV, texting with her sister, answering an email, reading a book, finalizing her lesson plans, creating her weekly newsletter for parents, and making play-doh, all at the same time.

Meanwhile, when it is time for me to write my blog, I sit staring at my computer trying to block out every possible distraction. I wish I could listen to music while I am at my computer doing work, but I’ve tried, and I  just can’t do it. If I get a phone call, I have to walk out to another room to have the conversation.

Given women’s ability to multitask so well (here’s proof), it makes it even more surprising that there aren’t more women in positions of leadership in business and politics.

Leaders today require the ability handle crises of all types, coming at  them all at once from a variety of directions.

Politicians need to deal with problems in the Middle East, terrorists in France, immigration issues at home, and difficulties in dealing with members of the opposition party.

Business executives need to deal with new products from competitors, working with unions, responding to changes in regulations, and the pressures from Wall Street to deliver outstanding financial performance.

My wife would be perfect for either job.

And here’s an early shout out to Hillary.

And by the way, all three of us picked a different root beer as our favorite – I went with Hank’s, my wife picked IBC, and my son chose Stewart’s.

Springsteen Concert Canceled for Lack of Interest!

springsteen_canceled
(click to enlarge)

OK, I’ll admit I was trying to grab the reader’s attention with the headline. And while the statement is true, it is somewhat “chronologically challenged” (credit to Neil Gaiman for that phrase), since it happened over 40 years ago.

The concert was to be held at my old high school, Archbishop Carroll, on May 25, 1974. Maura McKinney, a junior at the school, was an early fan of Bruce and was able to convince Springsteen’s booking agent to cut the concert fee in half to $2,000. However, partly because he was still relatively unknown, and partly because it was Memorial Day weekend,  the student organizers were unable to sell the 400 tickets required. Since the administration was unwilling to support the event, the concert was canceled.

I’ll confess to being one of the students who had never heard of Springsteen in 1974. I’m sure it was only the cool students who knew his music, and as you can see from the picture below, I was the furthest thing from cool in high school (as well as today).

borden_soph_high_school

I’ve since made up for it by attending multiple Springsteen shows, but I still wonder what it would have been like to see him at the start of his career, at such a small venue.

But I also wonder what it was like for Bruce, only 24 years old at the time, when he found out that he couldn’t sell out a 500 seat venue, at only $5 a ticket. Did it cause any doubts in his mind about the path he was trying to blaze? I’m sure it must have, but somehow he was able to push those doubts away, and continue moving forward.

Seth Godin refers to it as the lizard brain.The lizard is a physical part of our brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive. The lizard hates change and achievement and risk, but our job is to overcome that resistance, that voice in the back of our head that tells us to be careful, to take it slow, to not take any risks.

Springsteen was obviously able to overcome his lizard brain, and so have many others.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, talks about being on the brink of bankruptcy and barely making payroll in the early years of Zappos, in his great book, Delivering Happiness.

JK Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers before securing a book deal, only then to be told to get a part time job as there was no money in children’s books.

Kurt Warner, won two NFL MVP awards in 1999 and 2001 as well as the Super Bowl MVP award in Super Bowl XXXIV. However, five years prior to that success, not a single NFL team drafted Warner. He was invited to the Green Bay Packers training camp, but he was cut after 5 weeks. He took a job stocking supermarket shelves, trained during the day at his old college, and told anyone who listened that he would play in the NFL someday.

So what is that makes such people push on, despite the many obstacles they faced?

I think the answer is simple – a passion for what you are doing and the confidence that what you are doing matters. Passion and confidence will enable you to keep your focus, to ignore the naysayers, and to learn from your failures.

The lizard brain isn’t going away, but it can be disabled.

By the way, do you think there’s a chance Springsteen would allow my high school the chance to redeem itself? I’ll gladly pay the $2,000 myself…

 

What Does It Take to be a Great Coach/Guru/Leader/Adviser?

tiger woods

It’s a question I actually called into the local sports talk radio show a few years ago – “Do you think the best players make the best coaches?” Unfortunately, the question never made it on the air, so I was left to figure it out on my own.

It seems that the evidence is fairly clear that there is no need to have been a superstar player in order to become a great coach; otherwise all of the  successful sports teams would be coached by former all-star players, which is not the case.

Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, and arguably one of the best pro football coaches in history, never played professional football, although he did play at a small college. His opposing coach in the Super Bowl, Pete Carroll (my favorite coach in any pro sport), also just played college football. Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks are the defending Super Bowl champions.

And it’s not just sports that I think this question is relevant to. Are the most successful sales managers at a company the former top salesmen? Do the best students become award winning teachers? Are the best editors former best selling authors?

Again, my belief is that it is not necessary that you were the best at some functional skill in order to become successful at helping teach that skill to others. But is it even necessary to have at least had some experience with what you are trying to coach or teach or provide guidance on? 

My belief is that it helps tremendously to have had some personal experience. I think there’s more trust if your players and students know that you were once in their shoes and as a result you can  empathize a bit more with them.

But I don’t think it is necessary.

Does an editor have to have written a novel in order to be good at helping authors edit their novels?

Does a drug counselor have to have been an addict in order to provide outstanding help to someone who is recovering from addiction?

And at some point, the capabilities of an athlete or a student are going to surpass those of the coach or teacher; does that mean the coach or athlete can no longer provide useful advice?

Again, I think the answer to that is obvious. Why else would Tiger Woods hire a coach? He’s the best golfer of his generation, and certainly a better player than any possible coach he could find, yet he still finds value in having one. Why does a successful book author still find value in having an editor, even if that editor never wrote a novel? Why would a CEO hire a business coach?

I think the answer is that no matter what skill level we achieve as an athlete, no matter what success we have had in the business world, or how many best selling novels we have written, or how many “A”s we have earned as a student, there is always room for improvement. There is always the goal of  moving forward. And it seems the more successful people are, the more they realize the value in seeking the advice of a coach or a mentor.

And it’s those same traits that make for a successful coach or guru; the desire to continually learn coupled with the passion to share that knowledge with others to help them get better.

I was shocked a few months ago when I came across this passage from the book of a highly successful self-help guru. This guru is worth millions of dollars, and at one point in his book he is talking about money management. Here is the passage I find troubling:

“I get a lot of calls from brokers wanting me to do business with them, and I always ask how much money they make…If they don’t make more than I do, there is no reason to do business with them.”

If everyone thought like this, Tiger Woods would never use a coach, Bill Gates would never need a financial advisor, and John Grisham would never use an editor.

But they do, and I think that’s a good lesson for all of us.

Why I Love DonorsChoose.org

donorschoose

Imagine making a donation to a cause that you really believe in, one that you believe will make a difference. Then imagine getting personalized hand-drawn thank you notes like the one above, telling you how awesome you are.

Well that pretty much describes how the online charity DonorsChoose.org works. Its mission is  to “engage  the public in public schools by giving people a simple, accountable and personal way to address educational inequity. We envision a nation where children in every community have the tools and experiences needed for an excellent education.”

This is accomplished by allowing public school teachers from anywhere in the U.S. to post classroom project requests on the DonorsChoose.org web site, and then donors can give any amount, from $1 to the full amount requested, to the project that most inspires them.

Over the past couple of years my wife and I have actively sought out projects that are focused on areas that we are passionate about, such as reading, math, special needs, and fitness. Below are examples of some of the projects we have donated. Similar to Kickstarter, if a project does not get all of the money it is seeking, the project does not get funded. For projects that do not get funded, donors get their donations returned as account credits, which they can use in a variety of ways. Fortunately, all of the projects shown below received fully-funding.

  • Let’s Get Bouncy With It! “Some students with autism need more movement than others. When students with autism use a ball chair, the movement allows their brains to be engaged. They tend to focus better.  My students need 2 ball chairs to help with their sensory processing disorders.” Project cost $320
  • Math Mania: “My students are high energy with a desire to have fun while learning! They are averaging 2 to 3 years below grade level, and have become frustrated with routine learning. This could be the year that they not only learn to love Math, but improve their Mathematical knowledge. My students need high-interest Math games and flashcards to spark their interest in Math and provide an opportunity to increase their mathematical knowledge.” Project cost: $352
  • Non-Fiction Book Nook: “Non-fiction books bring the wonders of our world to young readers. My students love to read and are interested in everything. I hope to promote their interests by providing them with non-fiction books that are written on a level they can comprehend. My students are 2nd grade girls and boys (7 and 8 years old). They love school, love books and want to succeed. They enjoy helping me in our classroom and are very sweet children. Our K-4th grade school is in a large urban area and dearly needs additional funding.” Project cost: $769

Google is such a believer in DonorsChoose.org that it recently  “flash-funded” every project in 11 different communities, for a total donation of over $3.5 million. Other organizations have done similar flash-funding. The College Football Playoff Foundation and ESPN fully funded all DonorsChoose.org classroom projects in the host cities of Dallas Independent School District and the Arlington Independent School District in Texas. News Corp has “flash funded” hundreds of classroom projects for schools in Brooklyn.

These organizations recognize the power of education, and the importance of giving every child access to a quality education. At a time when many schools are faced with inadequate public funding. initiatives such as DonorsChoose.org play a critical role.

I also feel better knowing that DonorsChoose.org has earned a 4-star designation (the highest rating available) from Charity Navigator, an organization that evaluates the Financial Health, Accountability, and Transparency of charitable organizations.

DonorsChoose.org is a brilliant idea, showing the power of the Internet to bring people together to make a difference.

Plus you get cool pictures like this:

bookdonorthankyou2

and as Seth Godin says, “Applause is great. We all need more of it.”

 

Brilliant but Boorish vs. Competent but Charismatic

imitationgame

Shortly after watching “The Imitation Game” I started thinking about whether I would want to be brilliant but boorish or competent but charismatic.

My first thought was to go with the brilliant but boorish combination, since it seems that brilliant people are the ones that change the world. They are so driven by their ideas and capabilities that they don’t care what people think of them.

However, it would probably be a lot easier to get through life as someone who was competent but charismatic. Plus, it’s the charismatic ones who are perhaps better able to get others to buy into their ideas.

Since most of are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, I then wondered which trait would be easier to develop. Is it easier to be “naturally” brilliant (a prodigy) and then work on becoming charismatic, or is it easier to be naturally charismatic and then learn to become brilliant? My guess is that brilliance is harder to develop than charisma, but I have no evidence to support such an assertion, since I am neither brilliant nor charismatic.

So while the ideal combination might seem to be both brilliant and charismatic, I think that what makes life so interesting and full of possibilities is that we have all types of intellects and personalities, and that any combination is capable of making a difference.

 

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

borntorun

You’re a college student and a die-hard Bruce Springsteen fan. You bought a ticket for $150 two months ago to see him in an upcoming concert. The day of the show has finally arrived, but you have a big Accounting test the next day. If you go to the show, you will miss some valuable studying time. You decide to go because you don’t want to waste the $150 that you paid for the ticket.

It’s the end of the semester, and the same college student is desperate for cash. You bring your textbook to the bookstore to try and sell it for some cash. The book buyer looks at your Accounting book and offers you $65 for it. You get in an argument with the book buyer, yelling “But I paid $280 for  this book.” The book buyer calmly replies, “Well I can tell you didn’t learn much.”

A baseball coach on a local sports talk radio station gets a call from a fan asking the coach why he continues to play Mr. X in left field, when he is only batting .185. The manager responds “We paid him a $4 million signing bonus, we’ve got to get our money’s worth out of him.”

You’re out to dinner and you’re full after eating just half of your meal. But you keep eating because you don’t want the food to go to waste.

All of the above are examples of irrational decision-making, representative of what is known as the sunk cost fallacy.

In economics, sunk costs represents costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. The amount you originally paid for something, e.g., a ticket, a textbook, or a left fielder, should not play any role in any rational future decision making about what you bought. All that should matter are the costs that you may incur in the future.

However, as you know, people do not always make rational decisions, particularly when money is involved.

The sunk cost fallacy explains the tendency of entrepreneurs to not abandon their failed startup because of the money they’ve invested into the business, and so they continue to pour money into a losing cause.

So what do we do about this; how can we avoid getting caught up in such a common trap as the sunk cost fallacy when making decisions?

First, there needs to be recognition of our tendency to think this way, which should help us to ignore sunk costs. Second, there needs to be a logical analysis on what is relevant to the decision; only costs that will be incurred in the future are relevant.

I’ve noticed a few people in the #writeandrun31 challenge apologizing to the group for having missed a workout, or not writing something the previous day. There’s no need for such an apology; those misses represent a sunk cost, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

All that is relevant is what are you going to do from that point forward – are you going to run today, are you going to write today?

I think understanding the sunk cost fallacy makes it easier for us to not get caught up in regret for past decisions and to just concentrate on moving forward and working to become the best person we can be.

For some further reading on sunk costs, here are a few brief but useful articles:

How the Sunk Cost Fallacy Makes You Act Stupid
Sunk Costs
Why Evolution May Favor Irrationality

By the way, if you’ve read this far and thought “I just wasted 10 minutes of my day” – don’t worry, it’s a sunk cost.

 

Short and Sweet

Oh,_the_Places_You'll_Go

Dr. Seuss’s best-selling book, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” is less than 1,000 words. The Gettysburg Address is 272 words long. Seth Godin wrote a blog post with only 38 words.

Apparently word count is not the critical factor in deciding if a published work will be a success or have an impact; it’s the content of what the author has to say.

Einstein has a famous quote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

I think I need to apply that to my blog writing.

When I sit to write my blog, one of my first thoughts is that I have to get at least 800 words, otherwise I won’t be doing justice to what I am writing about, that I won’t be able to get my message across, or that the readers will think that I haven’t worked hard enough on my post.

I need to change my thought process. My goal should be to get my point across using as many words as needed, no more and no less.

And that’s all I’ve got to say on the matter. It’s no Gettysburg Address, but at least it’s shorter.