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Sal Khan of Khan Academy and Angela Duckworth discuss the science behind motivation and boredom, as well as the importance of framing deliberate practice and having autonomy when it comes to challenges.

Angela Duckworth, author of "Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverence," shares her thoughts on what happens at CLPS and the science of learning music
  • Angela Duckworth is the Founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development.

  • She is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change For Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics.

  • A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Angela has advised the White House, the World Bank, NBA and NFL teams, and Fortune 500 CEOs.

Angela interviews Cindy on the Practice Game, intrinsic motivation, the meaning of talent and mistakes, and building grit, kindness, and character through the intentionally unconventional studio culture of CLPS.  Recorded at NPR West in Culver City.

On excellence, mistakes, and kids as teachers -- 

There are three key lessons from the Practice Game that pretty much any parent or teacher can apply. And though Cindy discovered them on her own, there’s a wealth of science to back them up. 

First, excellence is consistency. Teach your kids that there is a world of difference between doing something right once, and being able to do it right three times in a row. Once could be luck. Twice, and maybe you’ve gotten something there, you’re on your way. But three times, consistency -- three times means you’re in control. You know what you’re doing. When you bring world-class experts into the lab -- not just pianists like Cindy but also chess players and really any other kind of performer -- what sets them apart is consistency. 

The second lesson is that getting better at anything requires making mistakes. There are no shortcuts. You try something, you don’t quite get it the way you want, and you learn what you need to do differently the next time. You try again. It’s probably still wrong. You get more feedback, and you start over, again and again and again. 

This is how experts practice. And it’s an incredibly efficient way to spend time. The opposite is how a lot of students practice or study. Which is to mindlessly go through the motions. Maybe with one eye on the clock. And here’s the crucial thing: not enough feedback on what went right—what Cindy calls “glows”—and what could be improved next time—what Cindy calls “grows.” 

Research shows that beginners need a lot of positive feedback. They need confidence. They need to know they’re not wasting their time trying to get better. More advanced performers look for more negative feedback. They’re already committed to piano, or basketball, or whatever they’re doing. They want to know what they should work on next time. But either way, feedback is key. 

Every time I give a public talk, I ask for feedback. I send a note that asks, what’s one thing I could do better next time -- a “grow.” I’ve trained myself to think of mistakes the way Cindy teaches her students to think of mistakes. Mistakes are information. 


And finally, much earlier in life than you might imagine, kids can give each other feedback. Kids are so perceptive. They’re also kind. A researcher named Lauren Eskreis-Winkler has been studying what happens when you ask people to give advice others. It turns out that giving advice is incredibly motivating. For instance, in one study, middle school students who gave motivational advice to other students did more homework than kids who got advice from teachers. I don’t think kids have to be students 100% of the time for the first two decades of life. They can also be teachers. 

So, from Cindy Lam, three lessons: Excellence is consistency. Making mistakes is the way we learn—mistakes are information. And finally, we should be asking kids what they think more often than we do. 

On intrinsic motivation and the perils of using of the"T-word" -- 

One of the most common mistakes I see in parents who want their children to one day have a lifelong passion is forcing them to do something they absolutely have no interest in doing. 

This is what is stereotypically is called “tiger parenting.” And in my view, it’s a real killer to intrinsic motivation. 

Research on why people do what they do shows that intrinsic motivation is so much stronger, in terms of motivating effort over the long-term, than extrinsic motivation. What’s extrinsic motivation? Doing things to please others, for money or status, or really any reason other than that you really want to do it. 

If you want kids to develop a love of what they do, let them choose. And maybe, like Cindy, don’t use the T-word without thinking, first, how that kind of judgment lands on the ears of a young person. Do we really need to say, “Oh sweetie, you’re so talented!” 

When psychologist Carol Dweck gave kids puzzles to solve, and feedback that they were talented, they were more easily discouraged by a string of really tough problems.  In contrast, when kids were praised for their effort, they enjoyed themselves more and, even after failing on really tough problems, voluntarily chose more challenging problems. 

That study took place two decades ago. What scientists are learning now is that even better than praising kids for being “hard workers” is focusing our attention, and our words, on the task at hand. This is called “process praise.” Do you like the opening paragraph of your son’s English essay?  Tell him what you like about it! Are you proud of your daughter’s foul shots in last night’s basketball game? Tell her she was shooting accurately, and celebrate that! The process is what parents should be directing attention to, not summary evaluations of future potential. 

Like Cindy, I also think kids need to practice. Particularly when they’re young, they’ll need Mom or Dad to remind them. Cindy didn’t need any reminding—but I think most kids do need help practicing. Kids don’t yet have the self-control to resist all the fun and games, like Snapchat and Fortnight, that are in the moment way more enjoyable, and a heck of a lot of easier. 

But what they practice should be a choice. 

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