Tag Archives: learning

Solve the problem in front of you

SOBcon is a conference where 150 people who use social media to communicate and relate and learn, spend 3 days talking with each other about how to do those things better. It’s a combination of church and a cocktail party and an “ask the author” session and an episode of  “This Old [marketing] House”  and group therapy (“no one out there understands me” “I understand”).

Genius tableWe were in the first big discussion session of SOBcon last Friday. As I look at my notes, Jonathan Fields had talked about career success, about finding the intersection of a viable niche (my paraphrase: A group of people, constantly renewing, who are actively searching for something that works to alleviate the pain they are experiencing, and who have the resources for that pain release) and your passion (my paraphrase: the ability to solve a problem in a way that makes us come alive.)

Somehow, the panel discussion that followed turned into a panel talking about fear, about how to deal with fear, about dealing with failure.

And then our table started talking about what to do, both about fear and failure and about actually identifying niches and markets and audiences.  We were the genius table, the trouble table: Becky McCray and Sheila Scarborough and Britt Raybould and Nancy Swanson and Steve Woodruff.

As I look at my notes from that conversation, I see a box with a phrase from Sheila: Solve the problem in front of you.

When she’s dealing with a thousand things, with lots of “what could happens” with fears and ambiguities and distractions, that’s where she starts.

And then in my notes, right below that box, I see a list of names.

The list of names is five guys that I know from church, from my work. I know questions that each of the five regularly think about, regularly ask of themselves and of others. I know the questions that a couple of the guys are asking right now, about their future, about their growth.

And I realize that part of finding your niche, finding your market, living out your passion is simply taking Sheila’s advice.

Solve the problem in front of you.

I don’t look at these guys or their questions as problems. But I do see that I have within my ability and resources and interest helping each of these five guys work on the answers to their questions. In fact, I find that idea quite energizing. And in the process we might work through some answers that may be helpful to other people as well.

As I think about SOBcon, as I think about figuring out passion and niches and social media and the other stuff that comes out of that conference, I can do all kinds of planning, dreaming, speculating, and worrying. Or, I can say to five guys, “Have you thought about this way of answering that question?”

So for the next couple days, among other things, I’ll be working on these questions and talking with these guys. They are, I suppose, a very small niche. But they meet the definition. And it’s not about the size of the market sometimes. It’s about helping people who want to understand.

You know what I mean?


8 ways to give an audience a kit.

This is the first in an occasional series expanding on the 8 ways to get invited back post. I talked about several things to give audiences that will let you have another chance to speak.

Lots of people really like Ikea. Good design. Functional products. When people buy from Ikea, they often get boxes. Several boxes. These boxes don’t look like what they see in the store. They look like boxes full of boards and bags.You get a kit. A very simple kit.

Many of us grew up building cars. Small cars. From Revell. We could never afford a real Mustang, but we could build one. Paint it. Keep it on our shelf.  We got a kit. A more complicated, less expensive kit than the Ikea.

Whether we want the look of fine furniture or the delight of owning a model of a dream, lots of people want kits.

a thinking kitLots of people want life kits, too. They go to a presentation wanting to learn how to build their own success, their own model of your project, your story, your company. They attend a workshop promising that they will “walk away with a website/book idea/practical hand-on applications.” They take a class to learn math formulas or programming shortcuts. They want to build a resume.

They don’t want to do all the hard work of measuring and cutting and drilling and stamping from scratch. They know that they will still look like you, but that’s fine. They want something that works.

(Lest you think this is something I am ridiculing, one of my best examples is what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” Jesus, in the middle of a longer teaching, says “here’s a prayer model.” It can be used as is. It can be expanded on. It has proved to be pretty durable.)

If you are doing that for people, you are giving them a kit. To make that kind of presentation successful, whether it lasts 15 minutes or a day or a semester, here are 8 guidelines:

1. Provide all the necessary pieces.

Every board. Every screw. Every necessary idea or relationship or reference or example or theorem needs to be included in your presentation to give to your listeners. Whatever you want them to be able to build, whether it’s a plastic car or a business plan or a dream, has to made available to them.

2. Include adequate directions.

This is a linear kind of presentation. First you find this piece, then you add this piece. You aren’t trying to be creative, you are trying to be clear. So please be clear.

3. Make sure they are in the language of the kitbuilder, not the designer.

Ever read translated directions? They make us laugh. Then they make us cry. Use words that your audience knows. This isn’t the time to impress, it’s the time to not lose anyone.

4. Provide spare parts of the kind most likely to get lost.

A good kit always has some spare bolts or nuts or washers. A speaker giving a kit gives repetition.  At those points where people are most likely to be confused, repeat. If they are likely to drop the line of thinking, pick it up for them with a clarification, a reconnection to your theme.

5. Have someone who understands test the kit.

Many of us hate to do a presentation more than once. I understand. But you’re trying to give away understanding. You are trying to give success. So have someone who knows what you are talking about listen and critique.

6. Have someone who doesn’t understand test the kit.

What? Present again? Exactly. If you are going to help 30 people build this kit, this model, you need to have someone who is like them in ignorance test it. Otherwise you will frustrate 30 people.

7. Include a picture of the completed kit.

There are some jigsaw puzzles that come in plain white boxes. The challenge is the point. In most cases, however, you want to give your audience a picture of what the business plan or the prayer or the lifeplan will look like, sound like. That way, they can see whether they are getting it right.

8. Show how it can be customized.

Once you have clearly shown how to assemble the kit, show them how to make it their own. What kind of paint works best? What wears out? What do you with the geometry when you are measuring a lot rather than a piece of paper? How does this scale?


Do you give people kits when you speak or teach? How do you make sure the audience understands? What kind of kits are you giving?

everyone knows that pt 2 – intelligent questions

I’ll admit it. I was a bit snarky when I wrote about adapting what we teach for different learning styles and intelligences. But sometimes snarky in the service of thinking is helpful.

It is easier, however, to tell people what they ought to do than to show them how they could do. So, at the risk of being religious-sounding, I’d like to offer an example of adapting instruction to differences in thinking and learning.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be talking with a group of people about what is commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” Many of you have heard of it, have heard it, or have even said it.

Here are some questions that use and challenge multiple intelligences (to use Howard Gardner’s term) to stimulate different kinds of thinking about this familiar text.

  • When was the first time you heard it? When was the last?
  • When you think of these words, what color comes to mind?
  • If you watched the Ken Burns special on National Parks recently, which park could you see this prayer being repeated? (When Jesus was teaching it, everyone was on a hillside, sitting on rocks, on the ground).
  • Is this a speech or a conversation? What difference would that make?
  • As you listen to the words, is there a sequence of requests (I ask A. You do A. I then ask B. You do B).
  • In the text, there is an us (“Give us this day our daily bread”). That suggests that there may be several people involved in this prayer. When Jesus is saying it for the first time, where are they sitting? Are they looking at each other? Are they all repeating it together or taking turns? And is he suggesting that it be an individual or a group conversation?
  • Is Jesus writing a formula, an equation of some sort?
  • Do you think that Jesus is describing how he talks to his Dad? Does that change how you think of the tone of voice of this prayer?
  • Think of all the musical versions of this text. Now, think of doing your own. Does it make more sense as a Bach anthem or as improvisational jazz? What instrumentation would you use to arrange it for your life?
  • Read it out loud. If you were talking to someone across the room, how loud would you say it? Try that. If you were talking to someone right next to you, how would you change your voice? Try it. If you weren’t talking to anyone but yourself, how would that sound?

As you read through the questions, it was likely that you read some and thought “Who would think that” and read others and thought “Oh, that’s easy.” That’s the point. We are different. Now, imagine that all the questions were of the kind that you don’t understand. That’s what we do to parts of our audience/group/congregation/whatever when we don’t take the time to think about how people learn or we ask questions that are comfortable to us.

And if you are interested in helping people understand how to talk to God, for example, or whatever you are teaching, doesn’t that time investment make sense?


For more on this particular text, see my posts at 300wordsaday.com starting with Our Father in heaven

but everyone knows that

Sometimes I think that. I get ready to write a post and think, “But everyone already knows that.” I think, “But that is summarized in a bunch of places.” I think, “It must be summarized somewhere, right?”

I’m sure it is.

But maybe someone reading your posts, listening to your teaching, working in your office has never heard of what you are saying.

For example, everyone knows that there are seven different intelligences, right? Some people are word smart. Others are math (logic), or people, or body, or music smart. Others learn best by talking to themselves or by seeing diagrams.

And everyone knows that if you want to help people who are people smart learn, you won’t put them in a lecture, you’ll put them in a study group. Right? And if you want to help people who think visually, you will give them a picture, help them create a diagram, show them a photograph and given them silence to let them listen to it.

tough neighborhoodAnd everyone knows that you aren’t weird just because you have to take a walk after listening to three conference presentations in a row, just because walking helps you figure out what someone just said.

Everyone knows that stuff, right?

Which is why no one makes the primary way to deliver content in a  conference the words anymore, right? Which is why no one ever says, “I know that I should have more interaction, more movement, more scent or music or poetry…but in the interest of time I’ll just talk.”

Which is why if you are teaching people about loving one another, you would always actually help people to sing together and work together and play together and listen together and talk together and see together and dance together.

Everyone knows that we shouldn’t do that, right?

So I suppose it shouldn’t trouble me that the measure of knowing is a change in behavior.


If you don’t know that, here’s Howard Gardner’s “theory of multiple intelligences”.

And for a previous post in this series on learning and teaching, see “so what, exactly, do you want them to learn?

outliers and talent and hope and deliberate practice

Last fall, when I started learning about deliberate practice,  I wanted to read Outliers. I wanted to read Talent is Overrated. I went to Borders, armed with a coupon to buy one of them.

I looked first for Outliers, having heard more about Malcolm Gladwell than Geoff Colvin. If I was going to read one, that was it.  It was supposed to be on the shelf. It wasn’t. So I picked up Talent is Overrated. It has transformed my thinking about learning and goals and spiritual formation and organizational development.

So I reserved Outliers from the library.  It finally arrived on Saturday. I finished reading it on Monday, several weeks after reading the other book. I finished it thinking, “That was a great read, but it won’t change my life.”

Just think what would have happened if I had read them in the other order and not followed through to read both?


That story illustrates a central point of Gladwell’s book, that a significant function of success is timing rather than great talent. And that point is why I find Colvin’s book to be transforming.

Both books set out to consider success. Both take issue with our cultural assumption that the reason some people are so successful is that they are gifted or talented. Both go behind the curtain surrounding people we see as talented and provide a richer explanation.

Outliers: The (real) story of success

Gladwell is the better storyteller. He identified individuals, helps us see them, and then explains how they got to where they are. His ability to use anecdotes to see patterns seems an incredible talent…until we remember that he has been writing for years, telling stories.

  • He talks about opportunities which open because of unique timings in culture (The Beatles get invited to Hamburg, Bill Gates gets access to a time-share computer while still in high school).
  • People take the opportunity and work hard, 10,000 hours of working hard. “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.” 150
  • Some of the capacity for hard work comes from patterns in the cultures of origin. (This is a major theme of the book. However, to offer specific examples without the way Gladwell would sound almost racist. So I’ll send you to the book.)

The stories–why professional hockey players are born in the first three months of the year, of why top professionals come from certain cultural backgrounds–are incredibly compelling.

And in the end, Gladwell argues, the best thing we can do to help anyone is to provide opportunities.

But I end up thinking, “how?” To explain patterns and then to say, “imagine if there had been more people offered the same opportunity” feels flat.

Talent is Over-rated: How to be more successful (however you define it)

Colvin, on the other hand, chooses to work with just one part of success. He focuses on the hard work part and spends his book exploring ways that the right kind of hard work, what Colvin and others call “deliberate practice” can help anyone.

[Deliberate practice]  is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, page 66.

Colvin spends time, like Gladwell, showing the ways that success isn’t just about being talented. But then, after outlining deliberate practice, Colvin talks about how it works, how it can be applied as an individual, how it can be applied in organizations. He spends a chapter talking about where passion comes from.

The book reads more slowly, but that’s because you are jotting notes in the margin about what you can do, how you can help someone else.

Read them both, own just one

I’m glad for both of these books. I was afraid that they were redundant. Having read both, it’s clear that they overlap in concept but differ completely in application.

To be delighted in how a story is told, read Outliers. Gladwell will give you stories to tell to friends (as happened twice today)

To change how you live however, to identify the weakest parts of what you are best at and to improve them, Colvin will challenge and teach you.


Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else


If you haven’t been part of my word of mouth project to help my son, go here.

time to learn again

I stood at the free throw line, close to tears. All it was going to take was a couple dribbles and then a shot. And for a moment, I just couldn’t do it.

I wish that I was talking about some grades school experience. But I’m not. That little experience happened this week. I was standing in a gym, one other person in the room. Absolutely no pressure, no risk, nothing to fear. Nothing but my own fear of messing up.

Deliberate Practice in practice

I’ve written about deliberate practice before. It’s one of my words for the year. Let’s see if I can explain it simply. Assume that there is something that you are good at. If practice is repeated activity in what you are good at, deliberate practice is focusing those repetitions on the weakest part of what you are good at.

If you are  a great golfer, practice is playing extra rounds. Deliberate practice is working on the most difficult shots. If you are a writer, practice is writing a lot. Deliberate practice is writing sonnets if you regularly do prose so that you work on maximum impact from minimum syllables.

My challenge is to bring that level of intentional learning into spiritual formation, helping people learn how to follow Jesus.

So what does this have to do with basketball?

Last night, Greg wanted to talk with me. He’s working with a new group at church and we’re talking about how to approach it best. I had to take care of a few things and he waited for me in the gym. Shooting baskets. I walked in, took a couple shots, and realized that I needed to learn from Greg.

(A year ago I tried shooting baskets. It was a miserable experience. It was time to try it a different way.)

So here’s what I learned last night.

1. I had to decide to learn to learn. I could have continued not knowing how to shoot baskets. However, for some reason, I decided that now was the time to change that. It was tough. There were a million other things to do. But I decided.

2. I had to let Greg be smarter than me. I’ve known Greg for more than twenty years. When we met, he was a college student and I was a faculty member. We went different ways and now we are at the same church. He’s working on a teaching degree. I’ve taught, one way or another, for years. Neither of us are smarter than each other. However, last night I had to acknowledge that this former student knew more than I did about shooting baskets.

There is a humility that is necessary for learning. First, there is a vague sense of “I need to learn.” After that, however, comes “you know more than me.” The first can happen in my head. The second involves my body.

3. I had to look foolish. When Greg watched my shooting, he quickly diagnosed the problem. I was doing a shot put. I was shoving the ball toward the basket. Instead, Greg said, use your wrist.

In order to find out what that felt like, I had to stand in the gym holding my arm in the air, practicing the motion. I had to stand near the wall, practicing the motion with a ball. I had to stand at the free throw line, practicing the motion and then practicing with a ball.

For someone who is not an athlete, trying to train my arm was hilarious.

4. It’s hard to learn. Now we’re back to the beginning of this story. After we had been shooting for awhile, after a lot of coaching and demonstrating, I stood at the line. I dribbled. I lifted the ball to shoot. I put it down. I practiced the motion. I lifted the ball again. I wanted to walk away. I couldn’t.

I realized standing there that this wasn’t about shooting a basket. This was about whether I was willing to try something that I couldn’t do. This was about whether I was willing to commit to learning how to shoot, no matter what.

This was about whether I was ready to learn a new lesson about learning.

And I was feeling tears of frustration and tears of joy. I don’t remember the last time that I said, “I just have to learn this.” And it was hard.


Deliberate practice is about improving process, about how we go about doing what we are doing. I only made a couple baskets last night. In fact, my percentage of completion was worse than it had been last year when I was shooting 50 baskets.  However, I made a significant change in the process of shooting.

I’ll let you know more about how much I improve at making baskets. I think I just let you know how I’m improving at learning.

slowly, but still, learning

For the past eight years, almost every month I’ve walked into a board meeting carrying a sheet with numbers on it. The numbers reflect the previous month’s income and expense.

Most months the news has been marginal. Non-profits are frequently no profits, and because giving to churches and other non-profits is usually highest in December and spending is highest in other months, I have often had to do some explaining.

I am an explainer. It is what I do. However, I have a confession. It wasn’t until this week that I realized that my explaining would benefit from pictures. I always do pictures to help people understand, whether with photographs or words. Except when it has come to these reports.

I spent yesterday making graphs that would give perspective, that would give context, that would help us understand the numbers.

It sort of worked.

As I talked about it this morning, trying to figure out what to do better, a colleague said, “with all the differences in learning styles, how do you make the information understandable to everyone?”

It was a great question.

But, I said, there are only 10 people. It wouldn’t be that hard to spend the 30 days between meetings thinking about the audience and considering how to express numbers as trends, as relationships, as investments, as changed lives.

That would take all your time, she said.

After the first time, it wouldn’t. I would know what I was doing. And they would help each other understand in their own styles. And they, these other leaders, would feel like they owned the information.

And isn’t understanding some of the key indicators of your organization, whatever they are, pretty important?

On one hand, I feel annoyed with myself. Eight years and I just figured it out. On the other hand, I find myself still learning. And that is a key indicator itself.