How should you choose an executive coach? If you are in an organization or if you are working on changing careers, how do you know who can help you with that process? How can you choose someone who will know enough about you, about your business, and about your goals that that person can become like a sports coach for you – giving you exercises, training, homework, and most importantly, direction? In the case of executive coaching, often the direction comes from the client but with the in-depth question-asking and assessment-taking of the coach.

How do you find the best executive coach for you or your organization?

1) Know what you want to work on. (The Topic, The Goal)

You can’t start training unless you know whether you’re training for a marathon, a dance recital, or a mountain bike ride. What are the general parameters of the question you’re asking? What is the general topic? What even is a goal – whether at this point specific or not?

Do you want to be promoted? Become a stronger manager? Create a full work-life balance? Become a better salesperson? Become more valuable to your organization? Grow your own business?

In positive psychology coaching, the goal is the question and the answer. It can always be further refined – and should be! because people are changing. In positive psychology coaching, the client knows – whether logically or not yet logically – but the client himself and herself knows what the goal is. It’s the role of the positive psychology coach to draw out the larger goal and then work on creating subgoals and plans and a training routine (and potentially even some veering directions off the main one), but the formulation of the goal comes from the client. The client knows.

2) Know how you want to work. (The Style)

Are you a rusher or a through planner? Are you in a hurry or do you want to cover all the details? Are you a multi-tasker or a single-tasker? Are you looking forward to this goal or is it a chore?

In positive psychology coaching, there are many assessments that the coach usually presents to the client – many upfront and many during the coaching process. Again, as with the goals, in positive psychology coaching, we believe that the client knows. These self-assessments are just that – self-assessments. They are ways for the coach to isolate certain parts of a client’s personality so that both the coach and the client can examine the subparts together. For example, an assessment may be about strengths or learning style or optimism or various routes to happiness. When the coach and client look at the summaries of the self-assessments, this allows the coaching experience to be more targeted.

3) Know how the coach works. (The Fit)

Do you like to be challenged? Do you like to be listened to? Do you prefer many exercises or few? Do you prefer more general talk or more specific exercises?

In positive psychology coaching, exercises are important for two reasons. Trying something in a new way through exercises allow the mind to play (which is question #5) and exercises isolate various experiences.

Know how the coach likes to work. What kind of exercises does the coach prefer? How frequently? Is this how you like to improve? Is this how you like to train? Does the coach’s demeanor fit with yours? Does it complement yours? These are all questions of fit.

4) Know how much you want the goal. (The Motivation)

Sometimes motivation and self-regulation are large issues and sometimes they almost disappear as issues. Coaches can provide motivation and increase a client’s self-regulation. Is this part of your goal (your answer to #1)? In most cases it is. The key is to realize that for some reason, the client may not have made certain changes before, and that the client may be looking to the coach to change the experience so that in this case the changes stick.

In positive psychology coaching, both self-regulation (mindful self-control) and self-efficacy (the belief that one can do something) are key parts of a coaching experience. Like an athletic coach giving exercises and training regimens, an executive positive psychology coach creates the environment for success in the coaching. Some of the tools of positive psychology make self-regulation fun, and the tools that do this for hte client are the best ones to use for that particular client.

5) Know what is fun for you in coaching. (The Play)

How do kids learn best? By playing. One of the only ways to learn so that it doesn’t feel like learning is by playing. If it feels like learning, often the brain closes down, and says, “not now, no thank you.” Play jumps right through that barrier. The brain never knows that it’s working. Some of the best ways to learn are by making mistakes and trying new ways. The best place to make mistakes is in practice (although often in real events the mistakes stay stronger), and that practice can come in the form of play.

In positive psychology coaching, there are many tools and techniques that you can play with on an active level, experientially. But you don’t ever need to be “working” or “intellectually learning” to get something. A lot of the tools from positive psychology allow a person to get himself fast and thoroughly. Many of the assessments and exercises in positive psychology do not appear to be work or effort, but appear to be unusual and sometimes inexplicable until they are completed. That’s what makes many of these tools games as opposed to work.

In summary, you will end up choosing an executive coach based on the coach’s jizz, that overall impression of Goal, Style, Fit, Motivation, and Play. Enjoy!

I enjoyed two posts recently about “WHAT IS YOUR GENIUS?” – Evelyn’s and Dwayne’s.

The way my friend H asks this “What is your genius?” question is
What is the one thing that you do that ONLY YOU can do?

Evelyn Rodriguez writes a couple of weeks ago in “What is Your Genius?” that she was at a party and was asked to write down the answer to the your-genuis question in fifteen minutes. Evelyn writes that this is a question that she would think it takes years and much insight to answer, and so was initially resistant to trying to do the same thing with minutes and a pencil? She writes that the way she jumped into it is through her curiosity and by thinking:

(Write what Allen Ginsberg calls “first thought”, first impulse, go for the raw unpolished unedited uncensored spew your guts forth wear your heart on the page just write as if no one is watching and no one needs to see it. Forget grammar, forget sentences that make sense, quickly before any “but” can sneak in.)

That’s the way to get to your subconscious is by asking details, and not giving yourself time to find a “but.”

And if you want to think about your wonder and genius in a more logical way, Dwayne Melancon of Genuine Curiosity writes how he does it. He writes the post “When are you at your best?” Dwayne says:

“At the recommendation of a mentor of mine I’ve been interviewing people I work with and asking them four simple questions, developed with help from my office mate Gene. The questions are simple and humbling […]:

  • In your opinion, what am I good at? […]
  • What am I not good at? […]
  • What is the highest value I provide to you or the organization? […]
  • How could I double or triple my value to you or the organization? […]

Obviously, I picked people I trust (to be honest, to keep my best interest in mind, etc.) but it’s still difficult to have these conversations with people you admire or respect. Trust me – it’s worth it to power through the anxiety.”

So, whether you want to PLAY (i.e. Evelyn’s style above) or DISCOVER (i.e. Dwayne’s style), it would be fun to try yourself out on this one! In both cases, though, just keep going. You know the little child who asks his Mom, “why is the sky blue?” and she answers that it is the only color that is reflected to our eyes, and then he says, “well, why is that the only color?” and she tells him about how the eye works, and he asks “why is the eye like that?” – be like that little child…. in both the intuitive PLAY and the logical DISCOVER cases, go deeper. Don’t stop at the outer level. Find out what your genius really is.

As Dwayne says:

One thing that can be challenging is to simply listen during these sessions. Fight your impulse to dispute what you hear, or play it down, or even lead your interviewee down a different path. Try to limit your commentary responses to, “Thank you,” or, “I didn’t realize that,” and make liberal use of phrases like, “Tell me more…,” and, “What do you mean by that?”


Alvaro Fernandez has started a wonderful blog: the Sharpbrains blog, all about brain fitness! I posted once about the company that Alvaro runs, Sharpbrains, and the interesting articles on that website.

Here are some of my favorites from his posts so far:

And today’s Sharpbrains post relates to both #2 mind-body and #3 decision-making: Mind/Body and the Role of Emotions in Decision-Making.

My favorite section of the sharpbrains blog is the brain exercises section. This section, which is updated with a new brain puzzles every few days, has you shuffle around different parts of your brain – sometime doing estimates and calculations, sometimes interesting word exercises, and my favorite is that Alvaro puts up many visual puzzles, such as the penny question, the Stroop test, and the classic old-lady/young-lady (see the post for an explanation of the below image):

Old Lady / Young Lady

So enjoy Alvaro’s blog! And he says that any questions you have on the brain to email him or to post comments on the blog.

In closing, here is the New Yorker’s recent update of the Old Lady / Young Lady discussion. :)

Turning Into

Two Ways
There are two ways to live life:
1) like a fast lottery ticket – by having one-time-payoff goals and going after them, and
2) like a squirrel gathering for the winter – by surely and consistently going after your plans.

Here are some arguments for the benefits of consistency. Sure, the lottery ticket is a draw – it is exciting, it is potential, and it can be huge! The squirrel, however, will always make her nest for the winter.

The Lottery Ticket. A friend of mine is a film reviewer. (I love dance movies: you name me a dance movie, and I’ve probably seen it!) My film-reviewer friend and I were talking about dance movies recently, and he said, “Senia, doesn’t it seem that most dance movies give the performer one chance or one performance or one try-out, and that that is the one that counts? And that things better be right for that one dance because it’s the one big chance?” And I thought about it, and he’s right – typically, dance movies are structured towards one dance or one night or one show or one try-out. It’s the lottery ticket – it’s the one chance to get things right. It’s what everything in your past training as a dancer has been moving you towards.
So you give it your all. And that’s the right thing to do. But it’s so hard to live life that way, anticipating one big hit every several years, and other than that, barely eeking by. It’s possible, but so hard. As Hugh MacLeod says (via Dave Seah’s post), “If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.” Living the lottery ticket is looking for big breaks all the time – looking for the job in which in a couple of years you can make enough money to retire, looking for the business contact that will bring in the company’s annual revenue for the entire year in January, looking for the book publisher who’ll love your idea for a novel and want to make it into a major motion picture.

The Squirrel. On the other hand, “slightly, lightly, and politely,” as I once heard a guy say at a dance club, the squirrel gets things done. She knows that she doesn’t have all summer to play, and so she builds and gathers for the winter. And the squirrel may be able to get even more things done while she rushes with the winter preparations. Yes, the lottery ticket is exciting. At the same time, a lottery ticket may not pay the bills. And if it does take 10 years to become successful at something, or if it takes 10,000 hours, then YES, start now, and consistently work at it. Just like after college, in your first job, some folks show you the benefits of investing early into a retirement account – that it is the amounts you put in earlier that reap the greatest gains later – just like that, the consistent attention to your chosen activity reaps the greatest gain from consistency. Just ask anyone who plays an instrument. Putting it down for a year definitely moves you back a bit.

There are two brief stories that illustrate the squirrel’s deliberate life of consistency:

The Fisherman
The story goes that a business school student was on his spring break in a small fishing village, and saw one fisherman who seemed to be more efficient than all the other fishermen. He watched him day after day, and just before returning to school, he approached the fisherman and said, “I’ve been watching you, and your catch is larger than all the other fishermen. I think if I help you out, we could get a few more boats out here, and you could train me and my friends, and we could make a lot of money very fast, and then, just think, you could retire very soon.” The fisherman just looked at him. And the business school student continued, “Just think, if you could retire, what would you do?” And the fisherman replied, “I would fish.”

“Sew a Little at Night”
There was a man who was the main tailor to the king, but one day a genie came to him and told the man that he would now be rich beyond all his beliefs, and the king would let him go as his servant because the king would have a tailor who could do things magically for the king, and that the man was free to go and enjoy his life. The man thought that was fine. Then the genie asked him, “What will you do all the day long now that you don’t have any cares and now that you have all the money that you want?” The man answered that he would live a relaxed life during the day, including walking, reading, eating, and then, he added, “I would sew a little at night.”

It’s what he does well – he would “sew a little.” Plus, even at that point, a little more money wouldn’t hurt. Of course, both these tales are exaggerated tales that show two things: the benefit of doing what you like to do and the benefit of consistency. I bet you would argue with me, “Well, Senia, why wouldn’t I want to do both? Shoot for the lottery and keep consistently improving at what I’m doing?” Actually, YOU WOULD! That would be the ideal!

DO BOTH – Shoot for the Moon and Keep the Day Job

Dana Gioia One of my heroes in this sense is Dana Gioia (pronounced “JOY-a”). Dana Gioia has a Stanford MBA and worked for General Foods for 15 years, becoming a Vice President. Currently, he heads the National Endowment for the Arts, and here is his bio on the NEA site.

For years, Dana Gioia did both – published poetry books and worked a corporate job. I find that wonderful and incredible and inspiring. That’s the whole point. That’s what Hugh MacLeod means by “Keep your day job” and “Put the hours in.”

Dana Gioia has been masterful on two levels – at work with a corporate managerial role and in his spare time with poetry. That’s incredible! That’s like a story I heard from my friend that you are what you do in your spare time. If you consistently work at a hobby (or work more at your job like most entrepreneurs) in your spare time, you will be good at it. You will be good – whether it’s guitar-playing or rock-climbing or golf or running or writing. Whatever you consistently do, you will be good at. There are other ways to push yourself to improve at your chosen activity (through incremental challenges, asking raw questions, etc.), but you are already good at it if you do it consistently.

I heard once that John Grisham wrote his first few legal thrillers by getting to his law firm at 5am and writing from 5 to 8am. That is consistency. That is perseverance.

“Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

You are sure to wake up somebody. Like the little squirrel who finishes all her preparations for the winter, and then goes to the store to buy a lottery ticket … just in case. Although her affairs are in order, she thinks, “Why not?”

What did Willa Cather do when she wanted to become a great writer? She took Henry James’ books and she copied entire sections, entire sentences from them. She felt the music of each sentence, and its richness, and the fall of the words. Then, Willa Cather wrote many stories in Henry James’ literary style. And then she wrote her own stories and novels.

First, you copy.

Alex Ross describes Mozart’s early work in music in this issue of the New Yorker in an article called “The Storm of Style.” Between the ages of eight and ten, Ross writes, “Young Mozart shows an uncanny ability to mimic the styles and forms of the day: Baroque sacred music, opera buffa, and opera seria, Gluckian reform opera, Haydn’s classicism, the Mannhein symphonic school, Strum und Drang agitation, and so on.”

This is the 10,000 hours of practice, practice, practice (some of which is copy, copy, copy) that I mentioned here.

Ross continues, “Hearing so many premonitions of future masterpieces, I got the feeling that Mozart’s brain contained an array of musical archetypes that were connected to particular dramatic situations or emotional states—figures connoting vengeance, reconciliation, longing, and so on. One example appears in “La Finta Semplice,” the merry little opera buffa that Mozart wrote when he was twelve. In the finale, when all misunderstandings are resolved, there is a passage marked “un poco Adagio,” in which Giacinta and her maid Ninetta ask forgiveness for an elaborate ruse that they have pulled on Giacinta’s brothers. “Perdono,” they sing—“Forgive.” Not just the words but the music prefigures the tremendous final scene of “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which the wayward Count asks the Countess’s forgiveness—“Contessa, perdono!”—and she grants it, in a half-hopeful, half-heartbroken phrase. I looked at the New Mozart Edition scores side by side, and noticed that the two passages not only waver between the same happy-sad chords (G major and E minor) but pivot on the same rising bass line (B-C-D-E). It is unlikely that Mozart thought back to “La Finta Semplice” when he composed “Figaro,” but the idea of forgiveness apparently triggered certain sounds in his mind.”

Programmer and writer Paul Graham says, don’t copy things mindlessly: copy what you like. He points out that it’s very important to copy those things that you like and not those in fashion to copy or those that it may be useful or good for you to copy. Plus, he says, when you copy, copy the good things about the item, not the bad things (such as when artists used to draw with a brownish haze to copy Rembrant’s colorings that just made paintings look a little muddier).

Two friends of mine both just pointed me to one of the best articles that I’ve read in a long time. It’s called The Expert Mind by Philip Ross in the Aug 06 issue of Scientific American.

The main points are:
* Expertise is Trainable (in the argument of nature vs. nurture, nurture appears to often win in developing experts)
* Expertise is Developed through Practice
* The Practice That Has the Best Results is Repetition with Increased Difficulty (This article emphasizes Anders Ericsson‘s words of “continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence.”)

Expertise is Trainable (Nurture Wins!)

In the argument of nature vs. nurture, it seems that each side is always looking for evidence to support it. In this article, the author Ross several times repeats that nurture wins. He bases most of the article on the work of Herbert Simon and on the work of Anders Ericsson, and uses chess throughout as the study case.

Here are some examples of practice proving to lead to expertise (the first two are from a 2001 Economist article):
1) A 26-year-old man could in a few seconds find the fifth root of a ten-digit numeral or could raise a two-digit number to its ninth power. The most interesting part is that he had taught himself how to do such calculation-intensive math by studying math-specific memorization for four hours a day – but having started this only at age 20!

Nature vs. Nurture 2) Ericsson trained volunteers to increase the size of their memory significantly. Regular people can remember up to about seven digits easily. Ericsson trained volunteers in increasing their memory, and after one year of practice, two of the volunteers could remember up to 80 and 100 digits at a time.
3) A third example in both the Economist and the Scientific American article is of Laszlo Polgar, who trained his three daughters to become one masters and two grandmaster at chess. Interestingly, Polgar wrote a book called “Bring Up Genius!” before he had children. Then he followed his own techniques, including giving his daughters six hours of chess exercises per day. The youngest is now the 14th best chess player in the world.

Expertise Through Practice. (Not All Practice is the Same.)

Increasing “Chunking”. Increasing the Quality of Connections.

neural connections Now the article gets a little more involved, but I’ll give you just the summary here. How are experts able to remember and recall so much more information, and with such detail and complexity? There’s the Herbert Simon concept of chunking: this means, for example, grouping several different chess game openings into one. Or if you’re a chef, grouping several different ways that you might serve tomatoes into a list of the five best ways.

Using chunking, you are creating a memory “well-organized system of connections,” describes Philip Ross. And the brain remembers best in maps.

Using those well-organized connections, expert chess players are able to look quickly at a chess board that’s had a game in process and even if you were to overturn the pieces, the experts would be able to quickly reconstruct where the pieces had been. But…! (and here’s an example from the article) if you “asked players of various strengths to reconstruct chess positions that had been artificially devised–that is, with the pieces placed randomly on the board–rather than reached as the result of master play,” the opposite would happen! When it came to randomly arranged pieces, the chess experts did not recall the placement of the pieces any better than the amateurs, and in fact, they recalled the placement worse than the amateurs! Because the chess experts were used to recalling piece placements in chunks.

(Here I’m not summarizing, but this is my favorite example from the entire article!)

Mary Had a Little Lamb “Take the sentence “Mary had a little lamb.” The number of information chunks in this sentence depends on one’s knowledge of the poem and the English language. For most native speakers of English, the sentence is part of a much larger chunk, the familiar poem. For someone who knows English but not the poem, the sentence is a single, self-contained chunk. For someone who has memorized the words but not their meaning, the sentence is five chunks, and it is 18 chunks for someone who knows the letters but not the words.”

10,000 Hours and 10 Years

In this 1994 NYTimes article on Peak Performance, author Daniel Goleman describes Herbert Simon’s and Anders Ericsson’s research on expertise. Goleman writes, “The old joke — How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice — is getting a scientific spin.” Ericsson’s research led him to conclude that virtuoso violin performers often have 10,000 hours of practice by the time they are in their early 20’s. Ross in the SA article writes, “Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. ”

10,000 hours or 10 years. This has come to be a calling card for expert knowledge: the 10/10,000 rule.

Dave Seah breaks down the 10,000 hours into more manageable groupings, and he has fun ideas on how to use those hours towards becoming your own “niche” of expert. Alvin describes the trainable structure of expertise and discusses how to increase the impact of your training through – suprisingly and very interestingly to me – your five senses.

Best Practice: Repetition with Increased Difficulty

Nadia Comaneci Tiger Woods

Larry Bird One of my friends who pointed out this article to me said, “it’s not about hitting a golf ball 100 times, it’s about hitting each time at the edge of your abilities.” At that edge, at the brink of challenge, that’s where you can grow. So the best thing you can do to improve within a field is to have an incredible coach, who can lead you along your brink of challenge – or to keep yourself on a very increasingly difficult carefully-paced training system.

Ericsson says that what matters is not experience but “effortful study” and specifically “continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence.”

So, in summary,
expertise is trainable at any age,
practice, practice, practice,
and increase the difficulty continuously!

Hi guys, happy Friday!
Clarification: not “how would you become an expert?” but “how DO YOU become an expert?”

How have you become an expert on any topic?
What did you do? What was the most effective part of what you did?

Here are my items in which I’ve become an expert (I guess answering this question kind of makes you brag):
* How to run a start-up company
* How to do accounting for a company
* How to rock climb
* How to ballroom dance

“Expert” is a person’s own definition, but when you’re commenting here, please just brag! :) Don’t hold back. Let it all out. I’m a fan of bragging among friends! One of the ways that I define expert is that I could teach an intro class in any of those above topics, and that’s my personal indication of expertise.

How do I become an expert?
* Practice something diligently – e.g.: rockclimbing 3x per week
* Do it a long time, for many years – e.g.: running a company and accounting
* Take classes! – I love taking classes and learning from experts – rock climbing, dance, going to hear CEO’s speak
* Form my own opinions on the topic, OWN the topic – be able to teach rockclimbing, implement company decisions, take a position on the correct way to do something in business.
* Read or watch videos or go live to see more of the topic.

Welcome to Friday questions! Look forward to reading your answers. :)