Steer With the Skid

When you learn to drive in Canada, one of the most important lessons is what to do when your car enters into a skid. It’s not a question of “if” really. In Canada, it’s definitely “when”. Usually it will happen in your first winter of driving, so you’d better be prepared. The technique is to steer with the skid. It means that you have to fight your natural urge to steer in the direction you’d like for your car to go, and instead actually aim your wheels right at that concrete median your car has suddenly decided to crash into. Then, once you and your car agree on the direction you want to go, you gently steer the car away from disaster. It works, and in fact it’s the only way to handle the situation, except perhaps throwing open your car door and launching yourself out onto the pavement.

The physics behind why it works are fairly straightforward. When you enter into a skid your car has momentum which is carrying it in a direction that is usually not conducive to healthy living, and there’s nothing you can do about it because the friction between your wheels and the road has suddenly been reduced significantly by ice, water, gravel or some other non frictiony substance. This means that gross corrections where your wheels are pointed at an extreme angle to the skid won’t work, because the momentum of the car is overcoming the minimal friction at the wheels. So by pointing the wheels in the direction of the skid you force the momentum to cooperate with your goal of non-disaster, and then make relative small corrections which work because the little bit of friction you do still have is only slightly off from the massive momentum. Baby steps of correction eventually get you out of trouble. And it happens pretty quickly, as anyone who has ever done it can attest to. When you don’t understand the physics, it almost seems like magic.

The reason it has to be taught though, is because it’s so counter-intuitive. Aiming in the wrong direction so that you can go the right way feels like slowing down so that you can speed up. As it turns out, this driving lesson is actually an incredibly important life lesson as well. It shows up in so many ways. I’ll illustrate with a few examples of skids.

Skid 1: The Determined Daughter

Imagine this scenario. It’s 5 minutes before you have to leave the house to walk your daughter to school, and she is insisting that she does not want to wear a jacket. The problem though, is that you happen to know it’s 3° Celsius outside. If your daughter is anything like mine and she has her heart set on not wearing a jacket then you have 5 minutes to fight and win World War III. Good luck. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a bona fide skid. Your car is careening into two kinds of barriers. Frostbitten Child and Late Slip. Solution? Steer with the skid. Instead of fighting the momentum, agree that she does not need a jacket, but bring it with you and leave. If you really want to be fancy, don’t wear yours either. You carry hers and she can carry yours. Or you carry them both — it’s not really important. Once again if your daughter is anything like mine she will have a true aversion to discomfort, which is something she’ll start to feel within about 20 steps. She’ll ask for the jacket. If you didn’t wear yours, you can ask her for yours before she asks for hers. That will make it okay for her to ask for her own and still save face. Skid averted. No frostbite and no late slip.

Skid 2: The Quadratic Quandary

Here’s another scenario that I often encounter at school. Let’s say I’m helping a student solve a quadratic equation (apologies for this if you don’t know what that is — feel free to skip this part). Take this one for example:

x² − 5x − 14 = 0

If you’re a math teacher you know that a goodly portion of students unused to solving quadratics are going to try and isolate the variable the nice old fashioned way. You also know that it won’t work – totally destined to fail. You might be tempted to intervene before they try, and suggest a different method, but if you do then in the back of their mind they’ll always be wondering why not just isolate.

The best strategy pedagogically is to let the student try it. Agree that isolating the variable is a good plan. Help them with the operations – steer with the skid. As you work with them to isolate the variable generally this will happen:

x² − 5x = 14

At which point you can have a very valuable discussion about why we are stuck. The student may try some fancy footwork here, but thanks to you being on their side, you can navigate it with them and they’ll see that there’s nowhere to go. Then you can gently steer them toward other options. What do we know we can do with quadratic expressions? Factor them. So what? Let’s find out. I won’t get into the actual solution here, because it’s not important right now and in any case if you were following until now I’m fairly confident you can finish up. But for those who need to know, the solution is x = 7 or x = −2.

Skid 3: The Perturbed Parent

Once more this scenario is one I encounter as a teacher, but in fact it generalizes to any customer service industry. I actually really learned this well in my previous life as a software engineer when I would spend quite a bit of time on the phone with our users who would call when they were struggling with our software. Readers who are teachers will understand this situation pretty well. It goes like this:

Hanz is a student in your class who has written a math test for you and earned a fairly low grade – say, 54%. Hanz has plans to go to university (or college if you’re American – here in Canada college doesn’t mean quite what it does in the States) to become a doctor. Hanz needs a high school average of 91% to get into medical school. Thus the 54% on your test is a somewhat sub-optimal result. The next day you get a call from Hanz’s father, Franz. Franz opens the conversation by informing you that he is a lawyer, and that he has a real issue with the mark you gave Hanz on the test. Franz tells you that Hanz is extremely gifted in math and has always earned grades in the 90’s until your class. Hanz worked extremely hard preparing for the test and his tutor guaranteed that he was ready to ace it. Franz concludes that the whole mess is therefore your fault, because you are an unfair marker, a bad teacher, a horrible human being and quite possibly a chronic hater of children. Franz insists that you raise Hanz’s mark so that it is consistent with Hanz’s abilities and also consistent with his goal to become a neurosurgeon.

At this point it is incredibly tempting to get defensive, or be offensive. After all, Attorney Franz has attacked your professionalism (unfair marker, bad teacher) and your motivation for being a teacher (child-hater). Furthermore, if you know Hanz you know that “gifted” and “math” are not two words that you would put together in a sentence describing him, unless you could liberally sprinkle said sentence with the words “extremely” and “not”. However there is nothing to be gained by this response. All it will do is exacerbate the situation.

Instead, steer with the skid.

First, tell Franz that you understand why he’s upset. In fact you are upset by the grade as well – who wouldn’t be? Ask him about the hard work Hanz put in to prepare. Commiserate with Franz about the difficulties of watching young people work so hard and then not have it pay off. I am not being facetious here, and neither should you be in a situation like this. Put yourself in Franz’s shoes. Hanz worked hard, and hard work is supposed to equate with success. So why didn’t it? You and Franz can discuss this question. You can provide Franz with some questions to ask the tutor about the work he does with Hanz. You can recommend that Hanz come and see you to go over the test to see where the disconnect was. After all, since Hanz is so talented in math, there must have been a disconnect. When Franz sees that you have no intention of fighting him, his momentum joins yours and you can then steer him in the direction he needs to go, which is ultimately to realize that you did not “give” Hanz his mark – Hanz earned it. And getting to the bottom of why he earned a mark as low as he did is what you both want so that you can both help Hanz. This will ultimately help Franz see that it is Hanz who was at fault, and will also eliminate the need to address some of the more insulting parts of Franz’s opening tirade. It is entirely possible that during the conversation Franz will admit that the “marks in the 90’s” comment was not completely true, and referred to 2 quizzes Hanz wrote when he was in the 3rd grade. By the end of the conversation, Franz will know that you are on his and Hanz’s side, and that the energy of all three people is channeled in the same direction – not the direction of the skid anymore!

There are countless other scenarios I can come up with, all of which I have experienced personally (no, I never taught anyone named Hanz …), but the theme is always the same. A situation arises and the temptation is to fight against it, but fighting only escalates the problem. The solution is counter-instinctive and often requires strong self-control but pays huge dividends. Leverage the momentum of the skid for a quick and successful course correction.

Works in cars, works in life. Steer with the skid.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Dare To Be Exceptional

I’m kind of a strange guy, in that most of my favourite movie quotes come from animated films or sci-fi, or both. Yoda, Master Oogway, Jean-Luc Picard, Optimus Prime … all have wisdom to share. But today’s blog is about one of my very favourites, from Mr. Incredible himself, when he found out his son was going to be part of a graduation ceremony at the end of grade 4.

“It is not a graduation. He will be moving from the 4th grade to the 5th grade. It’s psychotic! They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but when someone is genuinely exceptional…”
–Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible

How sadly appropriate in today’s society. Our children are bedecked with meaningless medals, they stare at shelves lined with trophies for participation, and they are celebrated in ceremonies commemorating inevitability. Society has decided that recognition of excellence must not come at the expense of the runners-up. So everyone wins. Every moment is a photo opportunity. When my son finished Kindergarten the photographer at the school put him in a cap and gown and handed him a fake diploma for the portrait! How proud we were meant to be, I wonder, that through hard work and dedication he had earned his Kindergarten diploma? I mean truly, how many parents can say their kids have managed that milestone?

We manufacture their success and then we celebrate it. Then we lament the fact that this new generation comes off as underachieving, entitled, and uninspired.

Thankfully we are wrong about them. But sadly the reason young people often come off this way is because we give them little choice. How is a child who is constantly rewarded in the wake of mediocre performance to learn the benefit of striving for excellence? What will inspire them if, having put forth little to no effort, they are lauded as champions? Because that is what we do. And for those children who truly shine, what is their reward, when all the others are painted with the same glorious brush? How long should we expect those kids to put in all their effort when they watch their peers work half as hard, accomplish half as much, and get praised twice as often? Because the other sad truth is that for fear of hurting those who under-perform, we under-reward those who excel. Are we doing anybody any favours with this?

Of course, it’s not always like this. Happily younger generations still have the human condition, and still want to truly excel. They are inspiring, they don’t all think life is a free ride, and many of them achieve their potential. And I know many teachers – myself included – who still push for excellence and reward it when we see it, and who do not praise mediocrity or manufacture success. That may sound harsh, but it is not. Kids know when they have put forth their best effort. They know when they have broken past old boundaries. In short, they know the difference between success and failure. And when they feel that nothing special has occurred, but the world around them still celebrates their “achievement”, it is confusing for them and makes them feel like a fraud. In other words, in trying to build self-esteem by making sure everyone gets a trophy, we really reduce it significantly. By recognizing true excellence, we foster it. We dare kids to be exceptional.

There is another quote I love, this time from a real-life person. It’s actually often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela, because he quoted it in a speech, but the original author of the quote is Marianne Williamson:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
–Marianne Williamson

I have read and reread this quote to many of my students, and often just to myself. If you’ve never heard it or read it, spend some time reading it over a few times right now. If you have read it or heard it before, read it again now. Think about what she’s saying. I think about it all the time. Every time I am tempted to, say, dumb down a sentence because I think maybe the audience won’t understand it. Or every time I am singing in public and catch myself deliberately about to use my “I don’t really think I’m a singer” voice so people won’t think I’m showing off. Every time a student asks me about how I did in math when I was in high school, and I almost lie because I don’t want them to feel bad about the mark they are getting. Every time these things come up, I remember that I should dare to be exceptional, so that others will too. So I use my full vocabulary and let my students use context to figure out what I mean, I sing with intent every time, and I tell them that I was very good at math and that I had an average of 97% in my last year of high school, which was only as low as that because my English mark brought it down.

So my advice is this:

  • Parents – love your kids but please don’t confuse love with empty praise. Challenge them to be better and praise/reward them for true excellence. Don’t be afraid for them to try something and fail, because failure feeds desire.
  • Teachers – let’s continue to raise our expectations and celebrate when the students achieve at these higher levels, rather than lower them (as current culture would have us do) so that everyone can “succeed”. Let’s breed true success.
  • All of us – don’t shrink from your own brilliance. Go all out every time, and watch how everyone around you starts to do the same thing. We can be so impressive when we want to.

Let’s want to.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Practice Makes …

So imagine someone comes up to you and says “practice makes …” and gives you that annoying lilty tone at the end that suggests you’re supposed to finish the sentence for them. If you’re in the mood and want this imaginary person to be extra irritating, imagine they are raising one eyebrow when they do it. Got the picture? Good. Now assuming you decide not to punch them in the throat, the word that comes to mind is most likely “perfect”. Practice makes perfect. That’s the saying and that’s what we’ve always been told. Math teachers assign homework to exploit this principle. Gymnasts spend hours doing handsprings for the same reason. Orators rehearse speeches. Singers croon in the shower. The list goes on and is lengthy indeed. There’s only one problem though, and it’s a big one. Practice does not make perfect.

Practice makes permanent.

And there’s a gigantic difference between the two concepts. Now I wish I could take credit for the saying “practice makes permanent” but I can’t. I first heard it at a PD day seminar, and if you Google the phrase (go ahead, open a new tab and try it – I just did), you’ll find tons of bloggers and videos discussing it. I guess I’m just one more in the sea of philosophers on this. But it’s my blog so I have no compunctions about sharing my take, especially as I was very recently stung by this concept, and I should know better. Here is the sordid tale:

3 years ago at the age of 40 I performed in my first ever play, and it happened to be my favorite play – Les Miserables. It was an amateur production, and I was overjoyed just to be a part of it. I had many different roles in the ensemble and the experience was unforgettable. I forged many friendships and have been performing in musicals ever since. The day we finished our last performance of Les Mis, I vowed that if I got the chance to do the play again I wanted to get a lead role – Valjean or Javert. I committed to improving my singing so that when the time came, I would nail the audition. I began singing every day, every chance I got. In the shower, in the car – even just hanging around the house. I do have some natural talent which I credit my paternal grandfather with, since he was a world-famous Cantor. He used to coach me when I was young, before my voice changed. However I had no real formal training and had let my voice decay in my adult years. So I had a long way to go but a foundation on which to build.

Fast forward to June 2012. I performed in Jesus Christ Superstar and, owing largely to a paucity of male talent in the cast, I got the role of Jesus. I was elated but also scared to death. That is a ridiculously difficult role vocally, and would never have gone to me if there had been a tenor around (I’m really a baritone). Preparing for and performing Jesus did things for my technique and range that I had only dreamed of. Working with the director, who is an extremely talented vocalist and teacher, I brought my voice forward light years. My performance wasn’t perfect for sure, and Ted Neely certainly has nothing to fear, but I was pleased. Now skip to the present. Les Mis is back! This is my chance. I am a significantly improved singer and I’m ready to nail the audition. The circle has come full. I will redeem myself and fulfill the dream.

Here’s the thing about Les Mis. It’s been my favorite play since I was 20 years old. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for 23 years. 23 years! I know every word of every song from beginning to end. I can sing the play – all the parts – from memory from beginning to end. And I do. Often. With the car windows down and my kids in the back. They love it. I think.

The thing is though, I mostly do it a capella. Because I can’t play any instruments and my iPhone objects to being used in the shower. So for over 23 years I’ve practiced every song, mostly without any accompaniment. That’s a lot of practice!

OK. So the audition comes. The director asks me to sing a song of my choice and I sang Stars. Then he asked me to sing parts of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Bring Him Home, Master of the House, and Do You Hear the People Sing. I sang them all getting happier each moment at how well my Jesus-trained voice was holding up. I really thought I sounded amazing. This director takes a few days to cast the show after auditions. Unlike Jesus, there is a lot of serious male talent in the cast, so even though I thought I did the best I could, I was prepared to not get the fairy tale of a lead role.

I did not. And the men that did beat me fair and square. They are truly amazing. But I still wanted feedback from the director, who knows me very well. I went to see him the following week and told him I thought it was my best singing to date. He disagreed. He told me my pitch was off in quite a few places.

My pitch? Off? I did not see that one coming.

I’ve had and continue to have pitch problems for sure. It plagues me. But I can always hear it. That’s a good thing, because if you’re going to have pitch issues at least if you can hear it you can take steps to repair it. But I honestly did not hear a single bad note this audition. What the hell? I really had to think about that one. And then it occurred to me. Practice makes permanent. I’ve been singing Les Mis for so many years a capella that I’ve grooved notes into my subconscious that sound right to me without an orchestra, but that are a half-tone off in certain places. And when I was singing at the audition, I didn’t even hear the piano, because I’ve sung these songs so many times it’s like putting on an old baseball glove. I practiced the wrong notes. A lot. And they became permanent.

Lesson learned. The only consolation is even had I been pitch-perfect I still would not have landed a lead, because the male leads are completely out of my league. But it hurt to hear I was off.

Well that’s the story that I wanted to start off with, and as it turns out it tells the tale pretty well. What it all boils down to is that practice is invaluable, but it is imperative that we be sure we are practicing perfect. The saying should not be “practice makes perfect”. It really should be “perfect practice makes perfect”. And the key is to make sure we are practicing correctly. It’s not a trivial thing. How can we know? Some easy tips:

  • Check regularly with an expert (your teacher, your coach, a trainer etc), even if you are an expert. For example, in the gym I’ve often seen experienced lifters consistently lifting with bad form and they don’t even know it.
  • If it’s singing or something physical, record yourself and listen/watch often. Seeing or hearing yourself from the outside is a whole different experience than what you feel when it’s happening. Using mirrors is good, but mirrors lie. Everything you see there is from the level of your own eyes. Most people won’t be seeing you from that angle. Plus, when the person watching you is not you, you don’t have the same constant feedback you use instinctively to correct things when you are looking into a mirror.
  • Don’t get complacent. Sometimes a slight deviation can creep in to something that was on track and though you think you’re still practicing perfect, you’re not.

For me, I’ll continue to practice. But no more singing a capella! It’s a trap and I fell for it. I won’t anymore. Now if only I could learn to play the piano …

Thanks for reading,

Rich