Friday, July 5, 2013

Don't Study Success to Learn How to Be Successful

Don't Study Success to Learn How to Be Successful

We like to look at successful people in our field and ask what they did right, but we really ought to ask what they (and others) did wrong. Attempting to distill the virtues of triumph erases the most important element: failure.

We favor a look at success due to a phenomenon known as "survival bias," which causes our brains to ignore anything but what went right. For example, we look to old people on advice for living a long life when we should really examine those who died early to learn what to avoid. David McRaney, author of the blog and book on self-delusion You Are Not So Smart, explains why we commonly make this error:

It is easy to do. After any process that leaves behind survivors, the non-survivors are often destroyed or muted or removed from your view. If failures becomes invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes. Not only do you fail to recognize that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognize that there is missing information at all. You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other.

So what do you do about this? Whenever you're looking at why someone succeeded, consider their mistakes and the mistakes of others on the same quest for success. Don't focus narrowly on their path and what they did, but rather remain open to other experiences. You must look at the entire picture, because if you don't you'll miss the lesson altogether.

Survivorship Bias | You Are Not So Smart

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Recordium Records and Edits Audio Right on Your iPhone or iPad

iOS: Recordium is an audio recorder and editor all rolled into the same simple, powerful tool. The app also lets you annotate, mark up, highlight, and share your recordings, and back them up to DropBox, Evernote, or any other storage service you choose.

Recordium is free for a limited time (until June 1), so if you're interested in the app, grab it now. it's also a universal app for the iPhone and iPad, so grabbing it once makes it available for all of your devices. Recordium records audio in MP4 (although you can opt to save in WAV, CAF, or AIFF if you want) and can import audio of various file types for editing. You can record in the background, auto-pause recording when you get a phone call and auto-resume when the call is over, and the app auto-saves while it's recording so you don't lose your session if it crashes or your phone loses power. You can choose from three different sampling rates (8, 22, 44.1 kHz) to adjust the quality (and the resulting file size) of your recording.

The app is a fairly powerful audio editing tool too, and is especially well suited for the iPhone and iPad's touch displays. If you're recording a lecture or a class session, you can highlight areas of the recording that are important or that you want to pay attention to, add tags so you can find important tidbits easily again, insert typed notes to go along with the recording at specific times, and more. If you need to edit the audio, you can just tap and select parts of the waveform in the display at the bottom and either snip, trim, or delete the sections entirely. When you're all finished editing, you can save the final file without overwriting the original (if you choose), upload it to Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, or any other cloud service you choose, or share the file over Wi-Fi to your desktop or another computer.

Recordium is surprisingly powerful for a mobile app, and since it's free until the end of the week, there's no reason not to try it out. If you ever do voice recording with your phone or tablet, or wish you could but didn't have a solid app to use, it's might be a good fit for you.

Recordium (Free) | iTunes App Store

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Get Social With Lifehacker and Your Favorite Writers

Every day, we post selections of our stories to different social networks so you can stay up to date and share with friends. Why not join us on your preferred network and add a little awesome to your day?

While you're around, you can make your social networks of choice even happier places by following your favorite Lifehacker writers. You can see what kinds of things they get up to in the off hours, what they're reading on other sites, and sometimes even pick up extra tips and tricks.

And don't forget—you can always keep up with our stories by adding our RSS feed to your favorite newsreader. Whatever way you choose to keep up with us, thanks for joining in on the fun!

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The Science of Practice: What Happens When You Learn a New Skill

You've heard the expression “practice makes perfect” a million times, and you've probably read Malcolm Gladwell's popular “10,000 hours” theory. But how does practice actually affect the brain? What's going on in there when you're learning something new? The team from social sharing app Buffer investigates.

When we learn a new skill, whether it’s programming in Ruby on Rails, providing customer support over the phone, playing chess, or doing a cartwheel, we're changing how our brain is wired on a deep level. Science has shown us that the brain is incredibly plastic–meaning it does not “harden” at age 25 and stay solid for the rest of our lives. While certain things, especially language, are more easily learned by children than adults, we have plenty of evidence that even older adults can see real transformations in their neurocircuitry.

But how does that really work? Well, in order to perform any kind of task, we have to activate various portions of our brain. We've talked about this before in the context of language learning, experiencing happiness, and exercising and food. Our brains coordinate a complex set of actions involving motor function, visual and audio processing, verbal language skills, and more. At first, the new skill might feel stiff and awkward. But as we practice, it gets smoother and feels more natural and comfortable. What practice is actually doing is helping the brain optimize for this set of coordinated activities, through a process called myelination.

A little neuroscience 101 here: neurons are the basic cellular building blocks of the brain. An neuron is made up of dendrites, which receives signals from other neurons; the cell body, which processes those signals; and the axon, a long “cable” that reaches out and interacts with other neurons' dendrites. When different parts of the brain communicate and coordinate with each other, they send nerve impulses, which are electrical charges that travel down the axon of a neuron, eventually reaching the next neuron in the chain.

The Science of Practice: What Happens When You Learn a New Skill

Imagine a row of dominos stacked closely together: when a neuron fires, it's like knocking down the first domino in a long chain. This process repeats from neuron to neuron, until the nerve signals reach their destination. These firings happen at incredibly fast speeds.

We sometimes refer to our brains as “grey matter” because from the outside, the brain looks mostly grey. That’s what color our neuron cell bodies appear as. But there is also a lot of “white matter” that fills nearly 50% of our brains. That white stuff is myelin, a fatty tissue that covers much of the long axons that extend out of our neurons. Scientists have found that myelination increases the speed and strength of the nerve impulses by forcing the electrical charge to jump across the myelin sheath to the next open spot on the axon.

The Science of Practice: What Happens When You Learn a New Skill

In other words, myelin turns the electrical signal into the brain version of Nightcrawler, the teleporting X-Man. Instead of traveling in a straight line down the axon, the charge is BAMF-ing down at much faster speeds.

Ok, so how do we get myelin onto our nerve axons?

First off, a lot of myelination happens naturally—much of it during childhood. Kids are like myelin generating machines, soaking up information about the world and themselves. As we get older, we can continue to generate more myelin onto our axons, but it happens at a slower rate and requires more effort.

Scientists believe that two non-neuron (or “glial”) cells that exist in the brain play a role in creating new myelin. The first is a glial cell called an astrocyte. Astrocytes monitor neuron axons for activity, and lots of repeat signals from a particular axon triggers the astrocyte to release chemicals that stimulate the second cell (known as an oligodendrocyte) to produce myelin, which wraps around the axon.

The Science of Practice: What Happens When You Learn a New Skill

So as we practice, whether by writing every week, hitting jumpshots on the basketball court, or playing Call of Duty, we trigger a pattern of electrical signals through our neurons. Over time, that triggers the glial cell duo to myelinate those axons, increasing the speed and strength of the signal. It's like going from dial-up to broadband.

There’s one final point to make here–how do we know myelin improves performance?

Well, that’s tough to prove definitively. We can tell for sure that it increases the speed and strength of the nerve impulse–which seems helpful for learning, but not conclusive. However, we can’t just cut into people’s brains and look for myelin directly without running afoul a whole bunch of ethical and legal issues.

One compelling piece of evidence comes from brain scans of expert musicians. There’s been a lot of research done on how musician brains differ from the brains of ordinary people. One specific study used a particular brain scan called Diffusion MRI, which gives us information about tissues and fibers inside the scan region in an non-invasive way. The study suggested that the estimated amount of practice an expert piano player did in childhood and adolescence was correlated with the white matter density in regions of the brain related to finger motor skills, visual and auditory processing centers, and others. Most significantly, there was a direct correlation between how many hours they practiced and how dense their white/myelin matter was.

The Science of Practice: What Happens When You Learn a New Skill

Another strong point in favor of myelin’s performance-enhancing abilities is what happens when it's missing. Demyelination is a known factor in multiple sclerosis and certain other neurodegenerative diseases which cause symptoms such as loss of dexterity, blurry vision, loss of bowel control, and general weakness and fatigue. This suggests that myelin is an important factor in allowing us make the most of our brain and bodily functions.

Understanding the role of myelin means not only understanding why quantity of practice is important to improving your skill (as it takes repetition of the same nerve impulses again and again to activate the two glial cells that myelinate axons), but also the quality of practice. Similar to how the science of creativity speaks about idle time and not crushing through one task after the other, practicing with a focus on quality is equally important.

As a young gymnast, my coach put a spin on the old phrase and would always say: “Perfect practice makes perfect." If we practice poorly and don't correct our mistakes, we will myelinate those axons, increasing the speed and strength of those signals–which does us no good.

The takeaway: practicing skills over time causes those neural pathways to work better in unison via myelination. To improve your performance, you need to practice frequently, and get lots of feedback so you practice correctly.

Why practice actually makes perfect: How to rewire your brain for better performance | Buffer

Jason Shen is a startup founder, blogger, and fitness enthusiast. His blog, The Art of Ass-Kicking, has been featured in Lifehacker, Outside Magazine, and Mashable. His new book, Winning Isn't Normal, an illustrated collection of his best articles on entrepreneurship, fitness, and personal development, comes out later this year.

Image via baranq (Shutterstock).

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Dear New Intern: Don't Be the Intern Your Fellow Interns Hate

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