Friday, January 13, 2017

How to Get Good at Something: Deliberate Practice is a Good Start, But...

Don Siegel
Recently, I ran a module in Project Coach that entailed teaching coaches about how people get good at something. Using the framework popularized by Anders Ericsson, we discussed the essence of deliberate practice, his term for spending time advancing one’s skill on a task. As discussed in a previous blog, deliberate practice, requires someone to commit to regular practice, and to work on task elements that they find difficult in order to acquire an advanced level of skill. As conveyed, deliberate practice, takes discipline, and willingness to spend time developing skills that will ultimately result in achievement. Yet, the process itself may not be particularly pleasant, as it requires pushing oneself beyond current capabilities. As many have conveyed, most folks prefer to replicate what they do well, rather than practice what they do poorly in order to improve.
In any event, after discussing deliberate practice with a group of eight adolescent PC coaches, I challenged them to follow the tenets of it by learning to juggle 3 balls with the criterion being to do so for 10 seconds without a mishap. During the session, I demonstrated what the juggling pattern looked like, showed some videos from Youtube of individuals juggling and teaching juggling, identified where videos could be found if they wished to refer to them at home, and gave them each three tennis balls to practice. Coaches were given four weeks to meet the criterion, which was extended to six weeks, due to changes in PC programming. During the six weeks, I checked in with coaches to see how they were doing, whether they were making progress, and to encourage them to stick with it.
What Happened?
On week six we met to find out what happened. Being conscious of individual differences in learning a challenging task like juggling, I asked who in the group would like to demonstrate their newly acquired skill. One coach raised his hand and came forward with his three tennis balls and quickly demonstrated his juggling prowess by keeping the balls going for one minute. He did not know how to juggle when we started this experiment. I asked him how he had learned to juggle and he responded that he watched the videos that I had identified in the first session, and then practiced for 15 minutes at a time twice each day for the first week until he had acquired a reasonable amount of skill, and then practiced intermittently thereafter. He seemed quite delighted in meeting the challenge.
The other coaches in the group were less enthusiastic and less successful. One attempted to juggle the balls, but the balls quickly went off in different directions, while others did not even try to demonstrate, indicating that they could not juggle at all. When I asked them what happened, the most common response was that they did not have time to practice or that the task was too difficult for them. We then discussed the time issue, and it was difficult to understand how finding a few minutes to practice every day was impossible if it was a priority. The difficulty explanation also was also problematic, as the whole point of the exercise was to learn a difficult, but achievable skill, if following the principles of deliberate practice.
My Takeaway
As I contemplated what happened in this little experiment and what it teaches us I came to realize that the tenets of deliberate practice were not enough to guide most of the PCers to acquiring juggling skills. Surely, acquiring complex skills requires substantial practice over time, and the guidance of a coach who can provide feedback and direction, but as important, it requires the motivation to continue to work at it when frustrated, when not intrinsically interested in the challenge, when consumed by other responsibilities, or when just plain tired. Consequently, my takeaway and prescription for re-teaching this lesson of how people get good at things is not only to invoke the principles of deliberate practice, a pedagogical strategy, but to also identify and deploy motivational strategies that promote perseverance. My three takeaways are: 
1.     People are attracted to different tasks differently. The PCer who achieved the juggling criterion appeared intrigued by the task, and needed little prodding to start practicing as soon as he understood what was involved. On the other hand, another PCer, after seeing the task, immediately told me that she could not do that and was not good at hand-eye coordination tasks. Interestingly, both individuals did not have prior experience with juggling, but each had a different psychological starting point, and interest in pursuing the activity. I do not know why this was so, and suspect that it had something to do with prior experience with sports containing ball manipulation, but I have no definitive knowledge about this. From past observations of children being introduced to different activities, irrespective of peer, sibling, or parent interests and involvement, kids just seem to have differential intrinsic attraction for some activities. Evidently, starting-off liking and wanting to be able to do something is a much better way to enter deliberate practice than disliking the activity and feeling incapable of success and fearing failure from the outset. Consequently, how I introduced the challenge to PCers could have been better and, perhaps, more playful. Yet, individual differences are important, at least initially, in the attraction or repulsion people have for engaging in different activities.
2.     A second point, that does not come directly from this exercise, but from many stories about athletes who have achieved at high levels is the motivation and sustenance that they derived from a coach. Brutus Hamilton, a former US Olympic Track and Field coach conveyed to his athletes, irrespective of their event, that engaging in a program of self-development that was difficult and took many hours over many years was a noble endeavor, and by such pursuit was ennobling. This philosophy framed what athletes did during practice every day, which often was mundane and not appreciably interesting, but necessary for development. His athletes understood that spending hours sharpening their acceleration off the blocks, or changing the angle of release on a throw was important because development came from the array of nuanced changes that emerged from endless hours of practice over many days. To Hamilton and his athletes, it was the commitment, discipline, and improvement trajectories that, as an aggregate, made engaging in the activity, or any complex activity, meaningful and ennobling. For many, there was nothing particularly intrinsically enjoyable about the activities themselves. It was the pursuit of excellence and their association with Hamilton that provided the enduring motivation to come back each afternoon and strive for every small performance increment.
Clearly, coaches can be transformative to athletes. Their technical knowledge can be used to guide athletes along the path from novice to expert, but equally important is the power of the relationships they form with them. When such a connection is made between coach and athlete, motivational issues, such as I observed in my juggling challenge, become a non-issue. Athletes may go to unusual extremes to please their coach, and in turn, coaches will do whatever is necessary to help their athletes fulfill their potential. 
3.     A third perspective, that also does not come directly from this exercise, but from other observations about individual achievement and deliberate practice, whether it is called such, is the importance of the community in which one spends hours developing expertise. As the saying goes it is much easier to swim downstream than upstream, meaning that when everyone around you values the same activities and goals, and attempts to behave in accordance with them, it is much easier to jump on the bandwagon and move in the same direction. We see this in athletic families with father and sons/daughters such as Archie Manning and his sons Peyton and Eli, Joe Jellybean Bryant and son Koby Bryant, Ken Griffey Sr. and son Ken Griffey Jr., Muhammad Ali and daughter Laila Ali, and Nate Williams and daughter Natalie Williams  One can look at the long list of father and son combinations in the NBA here or father and daughter pairs in the WNBA here. Such examples provide support for fathers cultivating the skills, behaviors, and attitudes of their sons and daughters from an early age.
On another tack, we also see coaches shaping environments in which athletes grow and thrive in a very deliberate fashion. One well known example of this is when Vince Lombardi was hired as head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1959. In 1958 the Packers had a record of 1-10-1. Given such a record, they were considered the doormat of the NFL. One of his first declarations to the ownership and team was that losing was going to be a thing of the past. He asserted, as would be expected from a deliberate practice adherent that: The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand. He also conveyed to the players he had inherited, including five future Hall of Famers, that There are trains, planes, and buses leaving here every day, and if you don’t produce for me, you’re going to find yourself on one of them. In 1959, the Packers were 7-5, and subsequently went on to win five NFL Championships in Lombardi’s seven seasons with Green Bay.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden provides another example of a coach shaping the environment within which his athletes pursued excellence. While not as overtly authoritarian as Lombardi, he too was uncompromising with regard to what he expected of his players. Various observers reported that Wooden was as detail oriented about showing his players how to put on their socks and sneakers (to avoid blisters), as he was about teaching his famed zone press. He also developed and taught to his players what became known as the pyramid of success. This represented a model for achievement that ultimately produced competitive greatness. Basketball technique, tactics, and physical conditioning were embedded within a framework of developing character attributes such as industriousness, enthusiasm, self-control, alertness, and team spirit. He deeply believed in this framework, and created an environment in which the pyramid was operationalized every day. The year prior to Wooden’s arrival at UCLA the team was a mediocre 12-13, but by the time Wooden retired, UCLA had won 10 NCAA Championships over a twelve-year period!
While my juggling exercise may seem somewhat simplistic, it does open the door to asking the important question about why some people succeed at challenging tasks and why others do not. What is evident to me is that developing expertise is a complicated process. It entails a combination of factors working in concert. Some of these exist within individuals, some are contained in the relationship between an athlete and her coach, and others exist in the environment in which an athlete lives, works, and plays.
While deliberate practice describes the pedagogy for developing expertise, such a pedagogy is only an abstraction, that must be embedded in a context for it to be meaningfully operationalized with fidelity. Simply explaining and urging my PCers to follow a deliberate practice process was, perhaps, one part of the puzzle, but as I have pointed out above, not sufficient. Emerging expertise also requires inspiration and guidance from coaches and teachers who are deeply committed to the success of their students. As well, being embedded in an environment in which others are committed to and working toward similar goals, using similar processes, also appears to be validated by examples in sports and business[1].
Consequently, if I wished all of the PCers in my group to acquire expertise in juggling, I realize that simply explaining the concept of deliberate practice is not enough. For a start, I would attempt to pair each person with a coach who could provide them with daily inspiration, feedback, and guidance, to practice. As well, I would have weekly sessions when PCers came together to report on and reflect on their progress and set-backs, and to promote a culture in which achieving the goal became more than simply learning to juggle, but a noble quest for self-development and mastery over all of the internal and external obstacles aligned to prohibit them from attaining what they had set-out to do. 

[1] Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap--and others don't. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Thinking Through the Costs and Benefits of Attending College

Don Siegel

A major goal of out of school time programs working with underserved youth is supporting a child’s academic progress and success. This is because education is viewed as the means for redressing inequality and fostering upward social and economic mobility. Clearly, going to and graduating from college is a major objective. While, this is certainly a worthy goal, as my previous posts discussed the economic valueof a college education, and how to be strategic about planning post-secondaryschool employment, an issue that often is given lesser attention is how the costs of attending college are connected to the potential payback for pursuing a particular field of study. Specifically, what one studies in college is critical in determining how the investment in time and money pays off. In many ways this question is like that of investing in the stock market. Finding stocks that produce positive returns requires forethought. In contrast investing randomly, can produce, negative, neutral, or positive results. The same is also true about selecting a college and a field to study to pursue.

Choosing a College

Clearly, there are as many views as there are advisers and counselors about the best college for a particular student. Small or large, urban or rural, east coast or west coast, rank on various polls, areas of specialization offered, student faculty ratio, diversity of student body, are a few things to consider. Having an updated library, gymnasium, student center, and excellent cuisine are also considerations.

Increasingly, students and their families are focusing on the costs of attendance which can be a very tricky business, since actual expenses for most students are not what colleges advertise as their sticker price, since financial aid and educational tax benefits can offset a large percentage of the sticker price. Thus, the net price of attending college is equal to the sticker price minus financial aid and educational tax benefits. Such aid typically is determined by a student’s financial need. Other factors may also affect aid such as a student’s academic prowess, her athletic or musical talent, attributes such as economic, racial, diversity, the state from which she comes, or whether one or more of her relatives had attended the institution. Nonetheless, even after factoring in financial aid, most students wind up encumbering some debt to pay for college, with the average graduate of a four-year institution owing about $30,000 upon graduation. For the prospective college student and her family, a good starting point to determine the approximate net cost of attending a particular school is to use a college’s net cost calculator. The Department of Education publishes a list of where to find these calculators which can be accessed by clicking here.

As an example of how this works, I identified Holyoke Community College as one that I might be interested in attending and ran the following scenario for an 18 year old having the following characteristics:

·      Living on my own or with roommate
·      Eligible for in-state tuition
·      Married: no
·      Not primary support for children
·      Family household: 4
·      Number in college: 1
·      Household Income after taxes: $30,000-$39,999

And found the following:

·      Estimated Tuition and Fees: $3,574
·      Room and Board: $7,110
·      Books and Supplies: $1200
·      Other Expenses: $5,320
·      Total Cost: $17,204
·      Estimated Grant Aid: $6,050 ((Includes both merit and need based grant and scholarship aid from Federal, State, or Local Governments, or the Institution)
·      Net Cost: $11,154

I then did a similar analysis for attending Westfield State University, and found the following:

·      Tuition and Fees: $8,615
·      Room and Board: $9,615
·      Books and Supplies: $1200
·      Other Expenses: $2,379
·      Estimated Total Cost: $21,809
·      Estimated Total Grants: $7,395 ((Includes both merit and need based grant and scholarship aid from Federal, State, or Local Governments, or the Institution)
·      Estimated Net Price: $14,414

One should note that in each of these computations room and board is included, and it can be argued that room and board will be a cost to the individual whether or not s/he is in college. Consequently, the actual net cost of attendance, in real terms, is significantly less than the amounts shown above ($4,044 and $4,799 respectively). Furthermore, a student’s family may be able to deduct up to $4,000 from their reported taxable income for tuition andfees paid to a college so that actual out-of-pocket costs will be less than the net costs shown above.

Nonetheless, having done such calculations early-on, leads to the question of how to pay college expenses even after financial aid is awarded and tax credits taken. This is something that should not wait until a prospective student and their family is faced with the bill. Clearly, there are no simple answers to this problem, but seeking out additional scholarship aid is certainly something to pursue. A website such as might be a place to start. Depending on one’s race, ethnicity, financial status, geographical locale, and impending major, additional scholarship opportunities are available. By going to Pay Your Way, and Scholarship Finder Search on this website, one can find many scholarships that are targeted to one’s intended field of study, and personal demographic profile. Another more local source of scholarship funding for PCers is the Community Fund of Western Massachusetts, and a list of targeted scholarships can be found here.

To help make up remaining gaps between a college’s sticker price, financial aid award, and scholarships acquired, one can also factor in potential income generated from part-time employment, and work-study programs that various schools offer. As a last resort, taking a low interest loan to fill the gap between college costs and available funds is also an option.


Given that one has the tools to get an estimate of what it will actually cost to attend a college, and some tools to help finance it, another critical issue will be to find a college that offers a course of study that one wishes to pursue. For many high school students, or even college freshman, this question is not a simple one to answer, given that interests vary with age and with exposure to different people and experiences. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that a prospective college student wishes to maximize her payback from the time and money which she invests in attending college. How might she tackle this problem?

To answer this question, one can go to By clicking on All Majors in the Associate’s Degree Category, a prospective student can get information about different majors, the level of degree required, early career pay, mid-career pay, and the intrinsic satisfaction that people employed in a major’s field get from their work. A quick scan in the associate’s degree list shows that at mid-career those in Computer Engineering ($77,300), Economics ($76,500), and Management Information Systems ($76,400) are among the highest paid, while Social Worker ($32,800), Child Development ($29,600), and Early Childhood Education (28,900) are among the lowest paying fields. Running similar queries for the Bachelor’s Degree Category shows Petroleum Engineering ($172,000), Systems Engineering ($121,000), and Actuarial Science ($119,000) as having the highest mid-career median salaries, and Early Childhood and Elementary Education ($41,900), Child and Family Studies ($40,700), and Early Childhood Education ($37,500) having the lowest.

Clearly, monetary payback should not be the only criterion when deciding on whether to go to college and what major to pursue, but it should be a consideration, given the time, expense, and potential debt that one may incur. It is interesting to note that going to college will cost about the same amount to someone who majors in a field which may have a potentially high financial return, as one with a lower one. As seen above, for both associates degrees and bachelor’s degrees the difference between the highest and lowest paying majors is more than two fold!


My conclusion from these analyses and suggestions to a prospective college student are to find a suitable school that offers a course of study that is of interest, use the various on-line tools to: (a) get a ballpark figure for what attendance at different schools will cost, (b) estimate the amount of financial aid for which one will qualify, (c) assess what other scholarships may be available to fill the cost gap, (d) do a rough estimate of tax credits to be had after estimating net costs, (e) determine how much money must be borrowed to make up the difference between costs and various forms of aid,  and (f) apply to schools that will fulfill one’s goals and cost the least. In many ways, going to college can be viewed as an investment, and just like people who invest in the financial world, a higher payback is a worthy objective. But, higher returns often require careful research. Free tools are now available for the prospective college student to do the necessary research required to assess the costs and benefits associated with the decisions that they will make as they enter the world of post-secondary education.