Developing control

Human beings have a natural tendency to control. You see it on many levels. We try to arrange and decorate our homes in a way that satisfies us. It may be an image we are trying to project, and the process of control would manifest itself in decorating our homes to reflect this. If you want to project a glamorous lifestyle, you fill your home with glamorous things, perhaps such as expensive art, or pictures or artifacts from far-flung places. If you want to have a functional home, or if perhaps your lifestyle demands so, then you would fill it with multifunctional furniture.

But it is not just physical surroundings that people try to order. We control our relationships with others this way too. For example, we join groups or clubs that we have an affinity with. We go out with people whose company we enjoy. At the root level there is still a level of control at play. After all, being surrounded by people who have little in common with you, or those you are not familiar with is hard work.

In our work, too, there is a need to develop mastery of tasks instead of being controlled by our circumstances. For instance, developing knowledge and experience to deal with situations is what people get paid for! If a firm wants to hire a banker to make money, they go for someone who has sound financial knowledge and the experience to deal with emerging situations.

It is a good idea to involve ourselves in situations that demand control over a multiplicity of tasks. Learning driving? You have to manipulate controls while instinctively looking out the window instead of blindly adhering to the steering wheel. You can even start people younger with music lessons, where individuals have to adapt to read music, manipulate the instrument, while receiving aural feedback and attuning to it. The Finsbury Park piano teachers website estimates that it is learning to manage six or seven different tasks at the same time!

Control is an essential aspect. Developing control is the way we remain positive about our ability and our skills, and ultimately our place in the world. It may be worthwhile, hence, to involve youngsters in areas such as sport or music to develop control and refinement.

Going on holiday!

Why do people go on holiday? For most of us, the main reason would be to get away from the daily grind, to do something away from what is a mundane life. Now there is nothing wrong with doing the same thing over and over again. Many people, especially those with children, may appreciate that level of familiarity of daily life. Where some may point to their lives as mundane and boring, others might appreciate that the lack of excitement and adrenaline-inducing work might free them with energy to spend elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with routine. But holidays are a good way to break up the regularity of things because with regularity comes stagnation, and then trying to find something interesting to go into work for becomes difficult.

You can see it in people whose jobs involve a great deal of repetition. Checkout supervisors, shelf stackers, or other occupations that involve manual repetition are those hit most by routine. Unfortunately, manual jobs – such as those involving physical work such as road sweeping – are the most important, yet pay the least because of the perception that they don’t involve much thinking and are hence not highly skilled. Those who need a break most are the ones most unlikely to be able to afford it!

With a new year, why not seize the chance to take a break? Start the year with a fresh approach and you will remember in years to come about the time when you went away on New Year’s Day, and it will give you the positive motivation to face new opportunities and start new phases in life. Now it might not need to be an expensive affair, with bargains to be had from every corner – you need not have to fly overseas; you can go somewhere on a train. Or if you really cannot afford the cost or the time away, maybe do something new like learn a musical instrument or pick up a different skill – you will feel refreshed for it, and it will give you a welcome distraction over the course of the year. Until the next resolution!

Inventions – non-musical and musical perspectives

Many of us are creative by nature. Inherent in the human being is a drive to be curious, to make things, and to find solutions for problems in our daily lives, to enhance them. Perhaps it is an evolutionary trait passed down from our ancestors, who had to improvise weapons and devices and improve on existing items in order to be successful at capturing animals, or at growing food. You may even surmise that to be human is to be creative, and part of life is about inventing stuff. (Just look at the number of new products made every year that manufacturers try to convince us to buy.) There have been many inventions made, but there will be no end to them.

One of the simplest inventions ever made was the barbed wire fence. It consists of two coils of barbed wire, interlinked with another wire so that the barbs do not separate. 36 miles of barbed wire were produced in the late 1800s by one company, six years later this had expanded to 236,000 miles of wire! This is astounding growth and made its inventor, a John Gates, one very rich man.

Gates showed his business acumen by rounding up some wild Texan longhorns and putting them in a barbed wire enclosure, then betting with others that his creation could contain the wild beasts. Of course, there were no lack of takers on the bet that his flimsy looking fence could not hold them, but Gates must have been successful, because he earned the nickname and reputation of “Bet a Million” Gates!

Inventions can come about by many ways. This can include finding new ways to improve on things. Or sometimes they may involve creative breaks from the past in the search of new ideas. In the latter case, this is especially true of musical inventions. Genres and styles such as bebop, tone poems, expressive dissonance (as personified by the composer Richard Wagner) have all come about this way. Even Beethoven, John Cage and other composers found a new way of utilising silence to create heightened tension.

Invention is key to the human spirit. We cannot cease creating just as we cannot cease being human. What would your next invention be?

Talent and practice

In 1991 Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, and two colleagues conducted the most extensive investigation ever undertaken into the causes of outstanding performance. Their subjects – violinists at the renowned Music Academy of West Berlin in Germany – were divided into three groups.

The first group comprised the outstanding students: the boys and girls expected to become international soloists, the pinnacle of musical performance. These were the kids who would normally be described as supertalented, the youngsters supposedly lucky enough to have been born with special musical genes. The second group of students were extremely good, but not as accomplished as the top performers. These were expected to end up playing in the world’s top orchestras, but not as star soloists.

In the final group were the least able students: teenagers studying to become music teachers, a course with far less stringent admissions standards. The ability levels of the three groups were based on the assessment of the professors and corroborated by objective measures such as success in open competitions.

After a painstaking set of interviews, Ericsson found that the biographical histories of the three groups were remarkably similar and showed no systematic differences. The age when the students began practice was around eight years of age, which was the same time they began formal lessons. The average age when they first decided to become musicians was just before they turned fifteen. The average number of music teachers who had taught them was 4.1, and the average number of musical instruments that they had studied beyond the violin was 1.8.

But there was one difference between the groups that was both dramatic and unexpected; indeed, it was so stark that it almost jumped out at Ericsson and his colleagues – the number of hours devoted to serious practice. By the age of twenty, the best violinists had practised an average of ten thousand hours – more than two thousand hours more than the good violinists and more than six thousand hours more than the violinists hoping to become music teachers.

These differences are not just statistically significant; they are extraordinary. Top performers had devoted thousands of additional hours to the task of becoming master performers. But that’s not all. Ericsson also found that there were no exceptions to this pattern: nobody who had reached the elite group without copious practice, and nobody who had worked their socks off but failed to excel. Purposeful practice was the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest. Ericsson and his colleagues were astounded by these findings, sensing that they heralded a paradigm shift in the way excellence is understood – that it is practice, not talent, that ultimately matters.

‘We deny that these differences [in skill level] are immutable; that is, due to innate talent,’ they wrote. ‘Instead we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long persistence of deliberate effort to improve performance.’

What is talent? Many people feel sure they know it when they see it; that they can look at a group of kids and discern from the way they move, the way they interact, the way they adapt, which of them contain the hidden genes necessary for success. As the managing director of a prestigious violin school put it: ‘Talent is something a top violin coach can spot in young musicians that marks them out as destined for greatness.’ But how does the teacher know that this accomplished young performer, who looks so gifted, has not had many hours of special training behind the scenes? How does he know that the initial differences in ability between this youngster and the rest will persist over many years of practice? In fact, he doesn’t, as a number of studies have demonstrated. An investigation of British musicians, for example, found that the top performers had learned no faster than those who reached lower levels of attainment: hour for hour, the various groups had improved at almost identical rates. The difference was simply that top performers had practised for more hours. Further research has shown that when top performers seem to possess an early gift for music, it is often because they have been given extra tuition at home by their parents. But what about child prodigies – kids who reach world class while still in adolescence? Have they not learned at a super-fast rate? Well, no. As we shall see in the next chapter, child prodigies may look as if they have reached the top in double-quick time, but the reality is that they have compressed astronomical quantities of practice into the short period between birth and adolescence. As John Sloboda, professor of psychology at Keele University, put it: ‘There is absolutely no evidence of a “fast track” for high achievers.’ Jack Nicklaus, the most successful golfer of all time, has made the same point: ‘Nobody – but nobody – has ever become really proficient at golf without practice, without doing a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots. It isn’t so much a lack of talent; it’s a lack of being able to repeat good shots consistently that frustrates most players. And the only answer to that is practice.’

The same conclusion – about the primacy of practice – is reached by widening the perspective, as Ericsson has shown. Just consider the way in which standards have risen dramatically in just about every area of human endeavour. Take music: when Franz Liszt composed Feux Follets in 1826, it was said to be virtually unplayable; today, it is performed by every top pianist. The same is true in sport. When the winner of the men’s 100 metres in the 1900 Olympics clocked 11.0 seconds, it was considered a miracle; today that time would not be sufficient to qualify for the final of the secondary school national trials. In diving, the double somersault was almost prohibited in the 1924 Olympics because it was considered dangerous; now it is routine. The fastest time for the marathon in the 1896 Olympics was just a few minutes faster than the entry time for today’s Boston Marathon, which is achieved by thousands of amateurs. In academia, too, standards are spiralling ever upwards. The thirteenth-century English scholar Roger Bacon argued that it was impossible to master mathematics in less than thirty to forty years; today calculus is taught to almost every college student.

And so it goes on. But the key point is that these improvements have not occurred because people are getting more talented: Darwinian evolution operates over a much longer time span. They must have occurred, therefore, because people are practising longer, harder (due to professionalism), and smarter. It is the quality and quantity of practice, not genes, that is driving progress. And if that is true of society, why not accept that it is also true of individuals? So the question is: How long do you need to practise in order to achieve excellence? Extensive research, it turns out, has come up with a very specific answer to that question: from art to science and from board games to tennis, it has been found that a minimum of ten years is required to reach world-class status in any complex task. In chess, for example, Herbert Simon and William Chase, two American psychologists, found that nobody had attained the level of an international grandmaster ‘with less than a decade’s intense preparation with the game’. In music composition, John Hayes also found that ten years of dedication is required to achieve excellence, a verdict that features centrally in his book The Complete Problem Solver. An analysis of the top nine golfers of the twentieth century showed that they won their first international competition at around twenty-five years of age, which was, on average, more than ten years after they started golfing. The same finding has been discovered in fields as diverse as mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running. The same is even true in academia. In a study of the 120 most important scientists and 123 most famous poets and authors of the nineteenth century, it was found that ten years elapsed between their first work and their best work. Ten years, then, is the magic number for the attainment of excellence.

The composer William Walton did not write as many works as his contemporaries but he did try to perfect his art and career over many years. His work spans several decades and it is arguable that his later works, when he had chances to practice his craft, are better than his earlier ones. (You can learn more about Walton from the Piano Teacher Crouch End blog.) Like many composers, musicians and writers, when they have written lots and perfected their craft, the word is great!

Need a break? A holiday … or a music skill?

When the term relaxing is put to you, what is the first thing that comes naturally to mind? For some it may involve a weekend away to somewhere different, away from the stresses of daily life. A change in surroundings is good. It allows you to recharge your batteries so that you return back to work ready to take on the tasks ahead. That’s the theory anyway. For other individuals relaxing is a longer term project, which may involve a week away in the more exotic climates of Europe, such as traditional cities such as Spanish ones like Barcelona or Madrid.

If you are on of these lucky people then good for you! Some people actually go so long away for a holiday that in the middle of it they may sit up and decide that they have had enough time away and are ready to go back to work. They may just declare that the time away, while beneficial, has been too long and bordering on disruptive, that they are starting to disassociate with the essence of themselves. In other words, they are starting to lose links with work and family, and the routine is so drastically different that if they carried on with the holiday they would have to think of setting up a new life!

Which is what some people actually do. Some decide to put life on hold, traveling to different cities in a caravan or motorhome, paying their way by teaching, or more recently, blogging. Blogging is a digital job that has sprung up in recent years, but don’t be deluded – the majority of us can’t blog our way travelling through expensive cities like New York or London, so don’t get caught up in the hype, thinking you can make a living in the big city, traveling and enjoying life, while money for a mortgage plonks itself into your bank account!

But relaxing does not involve going on away – it may just mean taking up another pursuit as a sort of mental deflection from daily activities. Taking up a new skill such as computer programming, web design, a sport like football or a musical instrument like the piano can provide equal mental distraction and make you feel refreshed when you go back to routine. It gives you a jolt from stability. And developing the patience to improve one’s craft can also lead to the development of learning skills. For example, piano skills are not hereditary, but if you take it up, you will learn about how you yourself learn new things, strategies and techniques which you can apply to other situations.

So the next time you feel you need a break, and can’t go away – try a new hobby instead!

The Education Game

Every job is perceived differently in different societies. If you were a banker, you might be saluted in Switzerland, or bashed in Britain, although the latter really depends on the state of the economy and how much people think it is down to you! If you were a teacher, it is really also the same. Where you choose to practice your career may be heavily influenced by the viewer’s perception of your job. In other words, you are probably going to work in a country where you are respected for the job you do.

Studies have shown that the Far East is the area where teachers are respected most. In places such as Malaysia and China, the teaching profession is held in high regard. Why is this so? It may be because in these countries, education is seen as a highly prized route out of traditional labour jobs such as agricultural farming, or retail. Education gives people a chance away from menial work which not only does not pay well, but demands long hours under harsh conditions. Those that teach are those who hold knowledge and can disseminate it to others who will pounce on every nugget of information, studiously copying it down and making voluminous notes.

The composer Irving Berlin was – according to his teachers – a bit of a day dreamer, singing in class. Perhaps Berlin did not see how all this education would help him in his musical pursuits, but there’s a lesson to be learnt for teachers: a key skill to impart to your students would be to show them the relevance of what they are learning to their future vocation. Even if it may be knowledge that does not directly have influence in one’s chosen vocation, teachers need to be able to show students how something might be useful or have some bearing in their future life, or simply even as common knowledge. You may not be able to change the perception of the job in your country, but you are able to shape the perception of yourself in the eyes of your students!

The Case of Chopin: To go or not to go?

For many years Katherine Hough, now a twenty-seven year old woman, suffered excruciating pains in her body that made daily life difficult. She seemed to suffer from strange symptoms that started out from a sense of unease and tiredness and progressed on to stomach pains. And when she was off at University her health declined even more. She began to faint frequently. Her hair fell out. She suffered from severe joint pains and was often simply just tired. Her mother thought it was down to what she termed a hectic student lifestyle. Then Katherine visited her GP.

For many of us a trip to the GP may come perhaps at too late a stage. We all suffer from niggles here and there which do not warrant a trip to the doctor’s – such as having a cold and a temperature. In fact, the better thing to do would be to have a rest at home instead of trekking out to the doctor’s office, possibly infecting other patients, or picking up something worse from the airborne atmosphere of ill patients. What do you do? You simply phone in work or school and then leave a message to say you are unwell.

This may be the most common occurrence in Great Britain, but strangely enough, in the Far East, in some countries you are expected to go to the doctor’s to be certified unwell, receive a medical certificate advising of home rest of a certain duration (usually two days’ leave for a temperature or a cold) then produce this certificate when you return to work or school. This medical certificate, or MC as it is commonly abbreviated to, is your proof that you were unwell and a legal work requirement in some countries.

Imagine have to trek to the doctor’s for him or her to write you a note, telling you that you are unwell when you already know that in the first place!

Footballers have to continually find a balance between playing, or knowing they cannot perform at their best. Arsenal captain Mesut Ozil has often been slated for missing big games with colds, but perhaps it is good to give up your place to a team mate who can do better if you cannot perform to your best.

The classical piano composer Frederic Chopin died young – on a trip to Majorca in the winter, he and his partner George Sand failed to find accommodation and had to seek refuge in an abandoned monastery. Chopin was quite frail anyway, but no doubt spending a whole winter in the wet and without heating didn’t do much good for him! Perhaps he should have sought medical help instead of toughing it out. Always two sides to a tale!

Food for thought

What would your first thoughts be if someone ran this idea past you – that before entering a store, you would have a small amount of money debited from your bank account, and then after you had done your shopping and paid for that, you would be refunded the amount taken from you initially in the first place?

If you were open-minded, you might investigate the idea further. What would the store do? Would it cost customers to simply have a browse? No. What would the store do with the money? Invest it and then return it after three days, like banks do? No, it would simply give it back to you. Would it affect the cost of shopping in any way? No, the cost of your shopping is a separate matter altogether. So why would a store charge you simply for the duration of your time in the store?

It seems like a crazy idea but this is of a refundable entry charge is to discourage shoplifting. If someone enters a store with the intention of leaving with a few items without paying, the entry tax is twofold. One, it would make it financially unfeasible to steal a few small items, and secondly, if someone were emboldened by the idea, there would be an electronic trace by examining the time on the CCTV that the perpetrator entered the store and matching it to the corresponding entry charge.

The purpose of an entry charge is to discourage theft, although it may nor be immediately apparent.

It has been such a successful idea that some are considering extending it to combat theft in another area. Fuel theft costs the economy and also takes up police time when incidents have to be investigated.

It may be a silly idea, but in the future if it is proven to reduce crimes such as fuel theft and other forms of petty theft, maybe this will catch on. Already this has potential in other areas. New ideas always start out on the periphery and get established with time. For example, when Arnold Schoenberg pioneered his twelve-tone music, it was not widely popular at the time, but it has at least claimed a place in music history, and been accepted (not necessarily liked) over the generations. The same oould go for what amounts to security payments for entry to supermarkets and service stations.

Population growth and the need for new skills

The current rate of world population growth has reason to give us cause for alarm. Every fifteen to twenty years, the world population increases by a billion people. That is the staggering reality of the world population growth. In fact, in the year 1999, it was estimated that the world population surpassed six billion then. It is difficult to forecast populations exactly of course, and as population growth is a derivative rate from the population itself, growth is also difficult to estimate.

Population growth is difficult to estimate because factors such as natural disasters may skew the number of deaths each year through earthquakes, typhoons and famine. Other factors such as migration, and when census in different countries are taken may also affect data. (If for example, a million people in the United Kingdom migrate due to Brexit into Europe, and the census dates between the United Kingdom and Europe are different, a million people could lapse in between somewhere.)

At this current rate of growth the world population is expected to reach eleven billion by the turn of the century. By 2200 we would double the existing world population. The world population growth at its current rate is hence unsustainable. We must take measures to curb it, it appears. And why? If you think about it, at its current level there are already people who suffer from poverty and hunger and do not have enough to eat. The world’s resources cannot feed so many people at its current level; how is it going to feed an additional billion or two?

It is unsurprising then that there have been greater publicity towards a move towards less meat, more vegetarian and even vegan diet. Meat such as beef from cows accounts for nearly a quarter of greenhouse emissions. If we were to reconsider our diet, some reason that it just might allow us to produce enough to feed a growing world population.

Population growth also means a drive towards accumulating more skills for employment. When there are people than there are jobs, it means greater competition, and a need to be more skilled and creative in promoting one’s skills and knowledge. If you were a footballer, for example, you need to have more football skills on the pitch, but also to know how to market yourself. It is no point being the best footballer if you do not take advantage of the opportunities to make income through sales of jerseys, advertising, promoting products and off the pitch.

So that is the case for footballers, but what about the rest of us? We could look at developing more general skills. For example, just because you are an accountant does not mean you can’t have musical interests. You may be an actor, but have good computing skills, Or if you are an artist, there is nothing stopping you from doing other non-artistic courses in your free time. These skills may come in handy and give you the edge over someone else with the same qualifications. The hardest part is finding time to practice what seems like irrelevant skills to the job, but developing these may be a good way to stand out in an ever-populated world!


People often make interesting remarks as if to demonstrate the breadth of their knowledge (if you can call it that) or awareness of daily trivia. You may know of someone who knows so much trivia, is a font of the weird and wonderful, that people simply call him “weird”, or perhaps say about him that “he’ll know about this” whenever there is a juicy bit of information flying about.

Is this sort of behaviour perhaps a sign of insecurity? Is it because people are really uncomfortable with the silence because they feel the whole world is looking at them, and judging them, that they feel they have the need to break the silence with some sort of a strange anecdote, either to take the heat of self-judgement, or to turn attention on to themselves?

If you know someone like this, who is always piping up with comments, here’s an anecdote you can tell them: What did the flight attendant say to the pony? Quit horsing around. Now, the Mr Trivia in your midst is likely not to find it funny, and pipe up with some comment about how you will never find a pony on a plane. How it is so much of an impossibility. You should let this person go on a semi-rant and talk, because the build-up before the fall will then be great and greatly self-inflicted.

So when Mr Know-it-all gives what he’s worth and then looks at you, this is when you whip out the picture below and show it to him.

Yes, it’s not been edited or photoshopped. It is a picture of an actual pony on a plane.

Now, having a pony on a plane might seem odd, but there are many facets of life which may seem different. We have just to accept it.

But it would be interesting to see how your Mr Know-it-all responds to all that! It might just keep them silent for a while!