Archive for May, 2009

Continuing with some notes from Dan Coyle’s The Talent Code. The single most important factor in developing any skill is effective practice — what Coyle calls “deep practice.” He gives three rules for deep practice:

Rule 1: Chunk it up. Break down the skill into its component parts. Chunking takes place in three dimensions:

a. Absorb the whole thing. This means spending time staring at or listening to the desired skill . . . as a single coherent entity. Example: Ray LaMontagne, a shoe factory worker at age 22 decided he wanted to be a singer. He bought dozens of albums by Otis Redding, Al Green, Ray Charles, and others and spent two years listening to them, singing along with them, until he could reproduce their sound. Eight years after he started this he made an album. Sold nearly a half million copies.

b. Break it into chunks. Break a skill into its components; memorize those pieces individually, then link them together in progressively larger groupings.

c. Slow it down. Going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision. It also helps you to develop a working perception of the skill’s “internal blueprints.” At the famous Meadowmount School of Music in upstate New York, one teacher has this rule of thumb: if a passerby can recognize the song you’re playing, you’re not practicing it correctly.

Rule 2: Repeat it. There is no substitute for attentive repetition. What’s the simplest way to diminish the skills of a superstar (short of inflicting an injury)? Answer: Don’t let them practice for a month. Vladimir Horowitz says, “If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip practice for three days, the world notices.” But, when it comes to “deep practice” more is not always better. Anders Ericsson’s research shows that most world-class performers practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they are pursuing.

Rule 3: Learn to feel it. Deep practice involves the feeling of straining toward a target and falling just short. Deep practice involves a cycle of distinct actions: 1. Pick a target; 2. Reach for it; 3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach; 4. Return to step one.

It’s the feeling of being a staggering baby who is just learning how to walk. “The staggering babies embody the deepest truth about deep practice: to get good, it’s helpful to be willing, or even enthusiastic, about being bad. Baby steps are the royal road to skill.”

[to be continued]


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Today is the birthday of one of the most gifted (and most quoted) essayists of the 19th century, G. K. Chesterton. His more well-known books include The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Heretics, The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, The Ball and the Cross, What’s Wrong With the World, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. When he converted to Roman Catholicism he saw that priests learned more about depravity by hearing confessions than anyone else — and that became the basis for his famous “Father Brown” mysteries. He was brilliant, quick witted, and hilarious. Everybody has a favorite Chestertonism, so its dumb to try to pick out the “best” ones, but here are a few pretty good ones:

“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”

“Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance.”

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”

“Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.”

“What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism.”

“The aesthete aims at harmony rather than beauty. If his hair does not match the mauve sunset against which he is standing, he hurriedly dyes his hair another shade of mauve. If his wife does not go with the wall-paper, he gets a divorce.”

“When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.”

“Do not enjoy yourself. Enjoy dances and theaters and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; enjoy jazz and cocktails and night-clubs if you can enjoy nothing better; enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to the other alternative; but never learn to enjoy yourself.”

My favorite Chesterton story comes from his years-long “war of words” with playwright and skeptic George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton was a very large man and Shaw never tired of gigging him about his girth. Once, at a party, Shaw came over to Chesterton who was entertaining a small group of listeners and said, “By the way, Chesterton, I see that you’re pregnant and was wondering what will you name the baby?” Chesterton never hesitated, “Well, if it’s a boy we’re going to call him George and if it’s a girl, we’ll call her Betty, but if it’s just gas, we plan to call it George Bernard Shaw.”

[Visit this page for more Chesterton]

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Picking up on something alluded to earlier regarding the practice of the Roman (and Orthodox) uncatholic Church:

Whenever someone warns against or condemns the invocation of the saints, you’re sure to hear this response in one form or another: “Look, ‘praying’ to the saints is the same going to another believer and requesting them to pray for you in a time of need. It’s no different than asking one of your friends at church to pray for you. It’s not treating the saints as if they are God, it’s simply asking them to pray for you before God’s throne.”

Yeah. Right. Well, there are lots of problems with this whole business (can the departed saints really hear us and know our thoughts? how?; why is there a special class of “saints” when all believers are called “saints” in the Scriptures? etc., etc., etc.) but let’s set them aside in order to consider just this one: When you actually read some of the prayers that are offered to the saints, it is FAR MORE than merely asking Thomas a’Becket, or Anselm, or Mary, to pray for me the next time they have the opportunity. Here are a few of the approved prayers that the devout may offer:

To St. Augustine: “At the beginning of the new millennium marked by the cross of Christ, teach us to read history in the light of Divine Providence, which guides events toward the definitive encounter with the Father. Direct us toward peaceful ends, nourishing in our hearts your own longing for those values on which it is possible to build, with the strength that comes from God, the ‘city’ made to the measure of man. May the profound doctrine, that with loving and patient study you drew from the ever living sources of Scripture, enlighten all those tempted today by alienating illusions. Give them the courage to undertake the path toward that ‘interior man’ where the One awaits who alone can give peace to our restless hearts. Many of our contemporaries seem to have lost the hope of being able to reach — amid the numerous opposing ideologies — the truth, of which their innermost being still keeps a burning nostalgia. Teach them to never cease in their search, in the certainty that, in the end, their effort will be rewarded by the satisfying encounter with the supreme Truth who is source of all created truth. Finally, St. Augustine, transmit to us also a spark of that ardent love for the Church, the Catholic Mother of the Saints, which sustained and animated the toils of your long ministry.” (from Pope John Paul II, November, 2004)

Here Augustine is asked to “teach,” “direct,” and “nourish our hearts” in his longing for particular values; to give courage; and finally to “transmit to us a spark” of his own love for the Church.

Prayer to St. Alphonsus: “St. Alphonsus, afflicted with curvature of the spine and nailed to a wheelchair cross in your final years, teach us to unite all our pains with the dreadful sufferings of Jesus on the cross. We ask you to ease our pains but more so to enable us to be one with Jesus in his great act of dying and rising. Amen.”

Alphonsus is asked to “ease” pain and to “enable” us to be one with Jesus in His death and resurrection.

Prayer to St. Anthony: “Saint Anthony, perfect imitator of Jesus, who received from God the special power of restoring lost things, grant that I may find (mention your petition) which has been lost. As least restore to me peace and tranquility of mind, the loss of which has afflicted me even more than my material loss.”

Anthony is asked to help find something that was lost or “at least” to restore the “peace and tranquility of mind” which has been lost through the trauma of losing something.

Prayer to Mary: “Most Holy Virgin Mary, Help of Christian, how sweet it is to come to your feet imploring your perpetual help. If earthly mothers cease not to remember their children, how can you, the most loving of all mothers forget me? Grant then to me, I implore you, your perpetual help in all my necessities, in every sorrow, and especially in all my temptations. I ask for your unceasing help for all who are now suffering. Help the weak, cure the sick, convert sinners. Grant through your intercessions many vocations to the religious life.” (Prayer of St. John Bosco)

Mary is asked to “help the weak, cure the sick, and convert sinners.”

And again: “Most Holy Immaculate Virgin and my Mother Mary, to thee, who art the Mother of my Lord, the Queen of the world, the Advocate, the Hope, and the Refuge of sinners, I have recourse today, I , who am the most miserable of all. I render thee my most humble homage, O great Queen, and I thank thee for all the graces thou hast conferred on me until now; particularly for having delivered me from hell, which I have so often deserved. I love thee, O most amiable Lady; and for the love which I bear thee, I promise to serve thee always and to do all in my power to make others love thee also. I place in thee all my hopes, I confide my salvation to thy care.” (Prayer of St. Alphonsus Mary Ligouri)

Mary is thanked for conferring graces and for delivering from hell. The worshiper places “all my hopes” in her and confides his salvation to her care. (more…)

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My copy of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle finally arrived last Friday. It’s a pretty quick read and very interesting. Coyle offers the following formula for greatness:

1. Ignition — the spark that gives a “vision” strong enough to motivate you to devote yourself to being able to do *that* (whatever *that* may be).

2. Master coaching — someone who is able to show you how to do *that* correctly and point out errors.

3. “Deep” practice — not just “practice” but practice that pushes your present skill level to an even higher level. It doesn’t have to be long, but it must focus upon the extending the limits of your present abilities.

Coyle refers to a finding by researchers called “the Ten-year Rule”: World-class expertise in every domain (violin, math, chess, piano, tennis, golf, etc.) requires roughly a decade of committed practice (approximately 10,000 hours). Thus, Coyle suggests that world-class skill is the result of deep practice x 10,000 hours. Of course, it isn’t quite so clean and neat as all that (and Coyle is quick to point this out) but this doesn’t seem unrealistic to me.

Though this is all a tad more naturalistic than we would like (the subtitle of the book is “Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.”) there is a great deal here from which to profit and, as I mentioned a few days ago, this is, I think, an important corrective to the way some of us have come to think regarding gifting and calling.

Somehow or other we think that if God has ordained us for a particular vocation (or given us gifts in sports, arts, or crafts), then excelling in that calling (or activity) will be relatively easy and painless. But excellence is never easy and attaining it is always painful. Coyle interviewed a number men and women who have become (or are in the process of becoming) world-class talents and asked them for words that described their sensations in their most productive practices. They responded with words like “attention, connect, build, whole, alert, focus mistake, repeat, tiring, edge, and awake.” Coyle observes, “Here is a list of words I didn’t hear: natural, effortless, routine, automatic.”

Gifts must be developed, trained, instructed, honed, sharpened, corrected, disciplined, and matured — and that doesn’t happen automatically or without sacrifice and hard work. But too often we give up something because it is difficult, thinking that it’s hard for us because we don’t have the gift or talent for it — when in fact, all we are really saying is, “I’m not willing to put in the time and effort to learn to do that well.” Coyle relates the story of an old, experienced piano teacher who upon meeting his father asked him if he ever played an instrument. Mr. Coyle remarked that he had tried piano but didn’t have the knack. “Didn’t have the patience, you mean,” replied the teacher. Exactly.

None of this means that God-given gifts and abilities are irrelevant but, as Coyle points out, we must not think of this so narrowly that we miss the amazing breadth of God’s gifts (I should say Coyle doesn’t speak of it this way, this is my reinterpretation). Here’s how Coyle puts it:

“This is not to say that every person on the planet has the potential to become an Einstein . . . Nor does it mean that our genes don’t matter — they do. The point, rather, is that although talent feels and looks predestined, in fact we have a good deal of control over what skills we develop, and we each have more potential than we might ever presume to guess.”

[continued later]

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Saw this the other night. Moving. Thought provoking. Based on the play written by John Patrick Shanley, the story revolves around a new priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wants to add “humanity” to the orthodoxy of the Roman Church. He is portrayed as a friendly, compassionate, all-round good guy and, by contrast to his nemesis, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), a sterling fellow for sure. He enjoys his meals with his brother priests, laughing over stories and sipping good wine. She sits in stone-cold silence eating primly and somberly with her sister sisters, drinking milk. He enjoys being with the students and seems genuinely to care for them. She enjoys rapping them on the back of the head and making them tremble with her threats. He thinks ‘secular” music at the annual Christmas pageant would be just fine. She thinks “Frosty the Snowman” is Satanic (No, really. She does — and, at that point, she almost won me over!). He doesn’t like what the Roman Church has become and wants to change it. She’s not only concerned but offended that he would even begin to think anything amiss.

The movie begins with a homily by Father Flynn on the benefits of “doubt.” Sister Aloysius immediately begins to doubt the integrity of any man who thinks that doubt can be beneficial. Things spiral downwards from there and in the end, what seemed so clear in the beginning is no longer quite so certain: Sister Aloysius is filled with doubts. Father Flynn has moved on rather than allow the doubts about him to be confirmed or discredited. So, all we are left with is . . . . .

I’m no good at analyzing movies, so I probably missed the point completely, but one thing I did think this film demonstrated (in a very painful way) was the destructiveness of suspicion. Spurgeon (I think) once said that he’d rather be deceived a thousand times than to live a life of suspicion. Amen. Nothing is more soul-killing . . .

and there’s no doubt about that.

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Today is the anniversary of the convening of the council of Nicaea. The council met in the city of Nicaea in Bythinia, in 325 A.D. and was attended by more than 300 bishops from around the world. Many of the bishops came still bearing the scars of tortures they had endured at the hands of persecutors just a few years previous. One of the chief issues before the council were the beliefs of the followers of Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria. The Arians had been spreading a divergent view of the pre-incarnate relationship Christ Jesus bore to the Father. The Arians taught three things in particular that were troublesome:

1. Christ was not eternal. Only God is eternal, only God has no beginning. The Son is not eternal but begotten.
2. Christ is a creature of God. He was the firstborn of all creation, created before all worlds and all things. He is the Creator of the world, but He is not uncreated Himself.
3. Christ is not of the same substance as God. Since He was created, He is not divine like God. He is totally distinct in substance from God for this reason.

The conclusions of the council were critical to preserving the Biblical teaching of our Savior’s person and work. They adopted a statement which affirmed (among other things) the following teachings:

1. Christ is very God of very God. Jesus is God in the same sense in which the Father is God. We may differentiate the Father and the Son in terms of their respective works and the relationship they sustain to each other, but they are equally divine.
2. Christ is of one substance with the Father. He is absolutely equal to the Father in every respect.
3. Christ is begotten not made. Jesus is eternal not created. From eternity He exists as the Son of God.
4. Christ became human for us men and for our salvation. Christ could not have brought salvation if He were only a creature. Salvation can only be accomplished by One who is God.

Almost all the bishops signed on to the creed (including almost all the Arians) so this didn’t settle the controversy, but the formula of Nicaea was a vital affirmation of Biblical truth in a time of great uncertainty. The books of Arius were burned and his followers branded as enemies of Christianity. Phillip Schaff notes that “The council of Nicea is the most important event of the fourth century, and its bloodless intellectual victory over a dangerous error is of far greater consequence to the progress of true civilization, than all the bloody victories of Constantine and his successors.” (vol. III, p. 631).

Good job guys.

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Did you hear? They’ve finally found the missing link! Balloons and cupcakes for everybody! The picture above is it. Yep. Believe it or not. That’s her. Ida. The 97% complete lemur monkey skeleton. They say she’s 47 million years old but, really, I don’t think she looks a day over 23 million. Remarkable. The 8th wonder of the world! Finally! We can now move the theory of evolution into the “absolute sure thang” column.

What a relief. Pardon me while I catch my breath.

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