Funders and Typists—The Failure Series

For most Argentineans my generation, the name "Pitman Academies" produces a sort of nostalgic smile: a bizarre reminder of a bygone era. Pitman was a technical school that taught secretaries — the term wasn't "assistant" back then — how to type fast and accurately in old mechanical typewriters. 

High School students that were receiving a "proper universal education" needed to know how to type blindly at a rate of 65 words per minute. So most high school students would join the hosts of aspiring typist and take a few weeks of typing courses at the Pitman Academies. There, students toiled on old "Remington" typewriters in which the letters had been purposefully erased from the keyboards. Instructors would shout orders above the dry crackling of hundreds of metal letters hitting the barrels of the Remingtons. The system was crude, but it worked. In a few weeks my high school classmates and I could type without looking at the keyboard or the paper at a speed of 65 to 80 words per minute. Good enough to pass the "mechanography" exam. Virtually nobody continued the course after reaching the "good enough" level, despite the claim that Pitman made, that they could teach you how to type 200 words per minute in just an extra few weeks.

After reading so much about the "10,000 hours rule" — the idea that if you pass a certain "tipping point" of practice (10,000 hours) you'll become an expert — I started to wonder why, after countless more hours, I'm still typing at roughly the same speed that Pitman taught me. If practice makes us perfect, why is it that I still type like a 10th grader in the "Carlos Pellegrini Superior School of Commerce"? Why did I never reach the stellar typing speed promised by Mr. Pitman? Most of us drive cars, and if you are over 35, you have probably driven well over 10,000 hours. Why aren't we all like Michael Schumacher? Why is that we stop improving a skill after we reach a "good enough" performance plateau? Wasn't practice supposed to make us perfect?

Some pin the difference between "good enough" and "great" on innate talent. "Well," they say, "not all of us have the talent of a Michael Schumacher". Others will delve into the billion links of the human genome to try to identify the 'talent gene' for each discipline, the specific genetic mutation that will make us outstanding curling players or astonishing proctologists.

After reading articles by Anders Ericsson, one of the world authorities in performance and expertise, I realized that this question has been troubling us for quite a long time. There were people who back in the 19th century wondered why Morse code operators weren't able to attain further improvement after reaching a performance plateau. In the 1900s researchers tried to help typesetters to compose pages faster, and since the 1920s people are trying to understand why typists don't go beyond a certain typing speed. We feel it in our leisure activities as well; those of us who started practicing golf or tennis as adults experience rapid advances at first. Then we start enjoying the game, and at the same time our performance stagnates.

It seems that the 10,000 hours practice is a myth that, besides making Malcolm Gladwell rich, has made little to explain why some people raise from good the great. The reason is that — and Ericsson and others prove it — practice is not enough. Rather what determines your capacity to break a performance plateau is not the quantity of practice, but its quality.

The culprit is—as usual—our brain. One of the most useful features of our brain is the capacity to convert a complex task in something that gets done automatically. Our brain allows us to do many things without thinking about them. As I type these lines, I think about the words I'm using, the flow of the content and the style, but I'm not thinking about how to type. The good ladies at Pitman — and years of repetition — have created and fixed neural pathways in my brain that command my fingers with a sort of auto-pilot. Myelin has accumulated around those neurons marking a sort of highway through which the information flows automatically. Once my brain is satisfied with the speed of my typing, it converts typing into an autonomous, unconscious activity. I'm not deliberately thinking about how I type, I don't engage in "reflective typing". And that's why I don't break the "good enough" plateau. My brain is very happy with my 'auto-pilot' typing that saves energy and allows me to focus on other things.

That is why mere repetition doesn't make experts. Repetition does not create new neural pathways, it simply take impulses through the known and well tested routes. Repetition doesn't create huge coatings of myelin around our neurons that would move the impulses much faster. Conscious, self-aware practice does. In order to get beyond the good-enough, a conscious mental effort is needed. This is what Ericsson and others call "deliberate practice". More than anything else, "deliberate practice" has proven over and over to be the key to outstanding talent and breakthrough talent.

Deliberate practice starts by taking the brain out of its comfort zone, so that it becomes conscious of the activity it's performing. In order to engage in deep practice, it needs first to make the typing conscious. For the pilot to improve her skill, the auto-pilot has to be off. The key to greatness is not innate genius. Most chess great masters have pretty average IQs. From outstanding musicians, to excellent sportsmen, from chess masters to ballet dancer, the key to extraordinary talent is deliberate practice. Aristotle said "excellence is habit". Yes, but a conscious habit.

Now, what does all this have to do with philanthropy? A lot. In fact, I think it's an excellent metaphor and inspiration for how to improve what we do as a field.

We need to be honest with ourselves, and ask "Is our grant-making 'good enough' or 'great'"? How many grants are we doing on auto-pilot? Are we true masters at what we do or are we simply repeating old formulae over and over? How are we practicing and how are we learning from our practice?

In fact, the keys to excellence that "deliberate practice" suggests can be reduced to seven principles that are as useful for typists as they are for funders.

  1. The importance of failure. Yes, failure again. There's nothing like failure to take the brain out of its comfort zone. In an airplane, a system failure automatically disengages the autopilot and forces flesh and blood pilots to focus on what's wrong. A failure is like a truck that is blocking the neural highway during rush hour: it first stops us, but then forces our brain to look for alternative routes. Embracing failure is key to deliberate practice.
  2. Mistake-focused practice. A world class tennis player will focus not on what she does well, but on the mistakes he made in the previous match. Those of us stuck in "plateaus" don't focus on our mistakes. When we make a typing error we simply hit backspace and keep writing, we don't dwell on it, we don't analyze it and we don't practice on precisely that mistake. In philanthropy, I often wonder why our presentations, conferences and round tables focus on sharing our successes rather than analyzing our mistakes. When we do our granting, do we consciously think of the mistakes we made in previous grants or do we brush those mistakes away and move on?
  3. Feedback. There's a paradox in medical practice. Surgeons almost invariably become better and better with time but, statistically, radiologists become worse: their diagnosis shows more mistakes the more experienced they are. What explains that is feedback; while surgeons get immediate feedback, radiologists write a diagnosis that is send to the doctor, who then may or may not circle back to the radiologists. For funders feedback is as necessary as it is problematic. Too many times grantees will tell funders what they want to hear. To be blunt, honest and objective feedback is a rare commodity in the foundation world. And yet, feedback is vital. Funders need to encourage open relations with grantees and community stakeholders in which honest and timely feedback is appreciated and encouraged. If the perception is that honest feedback is penalized, we all lose.
  4. Self-criticism. The great basketball players never believe they have a 'streak' or a "hot hand". They will always be critical and they'll be focus on the mistakes they made in the game. Positive self-criticism is key. Being self-critical in the funding world is hard because funding is about personal virtue. And yet, if we are to be great strategic funders, we need to make sure that we regard our work with humility and are lovingly critical about everything we do. Funders are regularly honored, praised and flattered. We can't let that cloud our self-criticism.
  5. Intelligent evaluation. Too often we see evaluation as a threshold rather than a lever of change. We've learned to collect data, but we fail to act on it on a deliberate way. The funding world has made great strides towards evaluating and measuring, but now, we need to align evaluation to motivate and achieve specific goals. We need to hard-wire the evaluation into our deliberate practice system.
  6. Effort. When I mentioned these ideas to an amateur golfer who was — in my opinion — deep in the plateau he said "you may be right, but I play for fun and what you say is a lot of work". He is right. Deliberate practice takes a lot of conscious effort, it can be exhausting and it may take the fun out of the game. And it never ends because we can always be better. The effort though, is generally rewarded when we become truly great and we leave mediocrity behind.
  7. Passion and persistence. This is key. Effective practice takes a lot of effort, and it won't work if we don't have the passion and the persistence to do it. It's hard to be passionate about typing, and that's why probably very few typists are going to attain the 200 words a minute that Pitman promised. But we're lucky, because it's much easier—and rewarding—to be passionate about the work we do. If we believe that our funding can change the world, our passion to be great at it is not simply a desire but a necessity.