Primates mimic. That is how we learn. Do as I say, not as I do is not an effective parenting method because children learn by observing and imitating. If they see you smoke, they are twice as likely to take up the habit. Imitation and mimicry are a natural part of primate instinct — it saves a great deal of time.
Monkeyland is a multi-species free-roaming primate sanctuary in South Africa. They work to rehabilitate previously incarcerated (caged) primates. Primates are rescued, quarantined and then eventually released into the open wilderness area. Monkeyland is an outstanding opportunity to see happy, healthy primates. When the facility was first established there were already local monkeys — vervet monkeys — resident in the area. There was some concern that they might leave as new primates were introduced, but they did not. This was fortunate because they already knew which plants were edible and which were not — the other primates watched and learned, saving them from a painful, uncomfortable and possibly lethal trial-and-error process.
But, for humans, there is an even faster way to learn, thanks to language. Straight out imitation can be very effective — one golfer can watch the swing of another and potentially learn something, particularly as a novice. But, as a golfer becomes more proficient, this method becomes less effective. Significantly greater improvement can be achieved by understanding what is happening in the mind of the better golfer — ‘the other mind.’
Wayne Gretzky is generally accepted as the greatest hockey player in history. He set records that will probably never be broken and logged more points for assists than any other player has logged in total points (goals and assists). But other than being exceptional, he is not exceptional. He was not the fastest. He was not the biggest. He didn’t have the hardest shot. In fact, he didn’t really stand out for any one thing except being the greatest hockey player — so great, in fact, that he became known as The Great One. His number, 99, is the only number ever to have been retired across the entire league. He obviously had an incredible work ethic and commitment to the game. He also had something else — a powerful mental model for the game.
Any armchair athlete can predict the flow of a game and then shout incredulously at the screen when their favorite player fails to see what they see so clearly. It is a matter of perspective. Sitting in a chair, with a wide angle view of the rink (or pitch) gives the viewer the ability to see the game in a more holistic light — to see the ebb, flow and rhythm of the game that is sometimes hard to see objectively when you are down on the ice.
I read once that a sports psychologist worked with The Great One to find out not so much what he was doing but, rather, what was going on in his head while he was doing it. Perhaps, by understanding what his mental strategies were, one could teach them to others? Gretzky had many great skills but perhaps the most amazing and magical of them was to understand where his teammates were and where they, their opponents and the puck were going to be next.
As I recall the story, by looking inside Gretsky’s thought process, the psychologist determined that he would create a visual image of the entire rink — an image that he ‘saw’ in the air above his head. This would, I suppose, give him a similar perspective that our armchair athlete has, but coupled with information he could only have by being on the ice; how well people were playing, who was on or off their game, where the ice might be less perfect and so on. He would then fast-forward the visualized game and skate to where the puck was going to be, or pass to where his teammates were soon to be. It was like magic — he would pass without looking and the puck would land right on the stick of his teammate. All while skating at breakneck speeds and working to avoid bone-crushing body-checks from opponents.
In these two videos, Gretzky makes outstanding blind passes:
I was playing both roller and ice hockey when I learned about The Great One’s trick and decided to try it out. It works! Of course, that by itself was not going to make me a Great One but I can now see, clearly, how that skill could make a tremendous difference when added to his dedication, years of practice and outstanding attitude.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky
Years later, I would have an experience that would demonstrate this concept to me in powerful and visceral terms. I attended a two week training program being led by a friend of mine, Topher Morrison. Topher explained to me that we were, one afternoon, going to undertake an exercise in ‘modeling‘ that would involve jumping off a 35 foot platform onto a hollywood crashpad. I thought he was insane. And so did the stuntman who was arranging the demonstration and equipment. The professional stuntman explained that it was highly unlikely that any one of the 30 or so students in the class would make the jump but that he could lower the platform to a more acceptable height. It takes months, after all, to train someone to make a 35 foot jump for the first time — this was not something we were going to achieve in an afternoon. Fear of heights, he explained, is exponential; 25 feet is twice as scary as 20 feet… 30 twice as scary as 25 and so on. And we were planning to jump from 35.
The afternoon of the jump arrived. We were shown outside to the platform — which didn’t look so bad from the ground — and the crashpad. The stuntman did a demonstration jump, as did Topher if I recall, and then we went back into the classroom. We now had an hour or so to learn how to make the jump. I was nervous. My hands were sweating. The stuntman taught us some basics — how to jump, where to land and how to hold our bodies. My hands were still sweating and now breathing had become challenging. At this point we were given the opportunity to ask the stuntman some ‘modeling’ questions: What did he say to himself before the jump? What did he feel? What did he see? What pictures or movies did he make in his mind?
As we heard the answers two very interesting things happened:
1) I noticed that his answers were completely different from my own. Where his internal dialog was, “its gonna be okay, its gonna be okay, its gonna be okay…” mine was rather more like a mantra of destruction: “We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!”
2) That his answers had a deeply calming effect on me. As I heard each answer, and changed my own mental approach to the event, my hands stopped sweating and my body relaxed. It was amazing.
When I was a boy, I stood on a 30 foot platform at our local pool, looked down, chickened out and walked down the stairs. I did this just about every time I visited the pool. I wanted to jump but I simply could not force myself to do it. Now, as I stood on the platform and looked down at the crashpad 35 feet below, my mind tried for a moment to revert to my previous internal processes. Instead I forced my mind to focus, repeat the positive mantra and see the jump the way I wanted it to turn out. And then I jumped. It was easy. And it was, to the stuntman’s shock, easy for all of us.
Modeling the stuntman’s internal processes was far more powerful than modeling his physical strategies. I got the impression that his approach to teaching was impacted by his experience with us that day.
In the quest for exceptional results, it is very easy to get caught up with the idea that you must, somehow, figure it out for yourself. Instead, I am suggesting, that you find someone who is already getting the results you desire and model two things:
1) How specifically they create the result you want.
2) What is going on in their head while they are creating those results.
The first step might get you part of the way but the second step is where the magic happens.
Understanding ‘the other mind’ is one of the most important aspects of your own personal evolution. With this understanding comes improved communication, a better understanding of the people around you and the ability to achieve extraordinary results in unbelievably short times.