In the Fall of 1998 I was in trouble. My 25-year building career was at an end, I was newly divorced, I’d recently filed for bankruptcy, and the little money I had left was fast running out. I was living alone, with a brain not working very well, spending most of my days in front of my old Dell computer playing game after game of Spider Solitaire. Think functionally autistic. Barely.
One day, a classified job listing in the local weekly newspaper caught my eye. It was an ad looking for a maintenance man at a small think tank – The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. On a whim I called and made an appointment, not so much to interview for a job as a maintenance man – I had a Ph.D. and two masters degrees, after all (I won’t even mention the several professional California Contractor’s Licenses I also held), but mostly because I was curious about the place. I had passed it many times during happier days, on my way up to play golf at Stanford’s famous course where Tiger Woods earned his undergraduate chops.
I drove up to the Center’s campus which sits on a hill overlooking all of Silicon Valley and was interviewed by two women, Nancy and Jane. I liked them both immediately and was able to engage easily and joke with each of them. They showed me around and explained that the Center was an exclusive place where only a select handful of the nation’s most accomplished behavioral scientists were invited to spend a sabbatical year and work on whatever they wished to. Many went on to write best-selling books – like Steve Levitt’s Freakonomics and Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow – not to mention the number of Center Fellows who went on to win Nobel Prizes. I was admittedly impressed. When I got home later that day, there on my answering machine was a message from Jane offering me the job.
Becoming Centered at the Center
“It will be good to get out of the house and it will provide a structure for my day,” I rationalized. My logical left brain was struggling to find a way to justify not putting all my professional skills and education to better use producing a minimum six-figure income. But my right brain wanted me to take the offer. I worked out a compromise between the two – like the visiting scholars themselves, I would only stay at the Center for one year. I ended up staying for nearly ten, however, something I’m sure every one of those scholars wishes they could have done. And over those ten years I wrote seven books (including three novels –The Peninsula Trilogy – one about a sociopath neuroscientist at the Center itself!). I also transformed myself from a teacher who was fired after only one class on his first job, into a pretty decent college professor who’s had a number of students win significant research awards. Why? Because of daily powerful environmental influences – the energy and information constantly flowing around and through the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences changed my brain. During those ten years the people and the physical beauty of the campus itself at CASBS consistently answered the Big Brain Question for me in the affirmative, allowing me to answer it “Yes” for many others – a prime example of how a culture can rewire the brain.
This personal story is only incidentally a triumphant celebration of me. More importantly it exemplifies three significant emerging fields of scientific inquiry that promise to significantly revamp brain integration and organization: Dynamic Development – developing inherent and acquired talents as part of a process paradigm; Social Ecology – the influence of political systems and economic systems and climate and geography on thinking and behavior; and Epigenetics – the study of things other than underlying DNA that cause changes in genetic structure, things like stress and pollution, as well as positive things like growing and connecting massive amounts of neurons in the brain and strengthening our immune systems. Environments inside us and outside us change us for better or worse. They even change our genes.
And at the center of these fields of research is a CASBS fellow that I had the good fortune and pleasure to meet and be a help to, Florida State Professor K. Anders Ericsson. Anders is an expert on expertise. He’s the main man responsible for dispelling the myth of the “greatness gap” – that people who excel, like Alan Francis who bats .900, are substantially different from you and me. He articulated it in the now often-quoted 10,000 Hour Rule: that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of what he calls “deliberate practice” to become an expert at something. Deliberate practice is a method of continual skill-improvement that takes us far beyond the notion of simple hard work. Here’s how Ericsson describes it:
Deliberate practice is a very special form of activity that differs from mere experience and mindless drill. Unlike playful engagement with peers, deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. It does not involve a mere execution or repetition of already attained skills but repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level and is thus associated with frequent failures.
So, in other words, deliberate practice requires us to regularly move out of comfort zones and continually stretch and fail, and practice what scares us and what we suck at. And I would add, don’t try it at home alone – practice with Worthy Opponents, people you like hanging out with, people who respect you and continually inspire you to bring your A-game and more.
And just so you know, as a way to practice what I preach, I’m expecting to do just that with respect to this blog column. I’m going for one more graduate degree later this year by enrolling in a Creative Writing MFA program! 🙂