Startup Weekend Delivered a Magical Weekend in the Magic City

Florida International University was the site of some incredible magic as Startup Weekend EDU saw one of its most diverse group of people come together to learn and practice critical entrepreneurship skills in order to take ideas from concept to creation in less than 54 hours!  It could not be more fitting that Miami, Florida also known as the Magic City was home to a magical experience for a diverse group of aspiring entrepreneurs that included: students from elementary, middle, and high school; university students; university professors; K-12 teachers; parents; ex-convicts; developers; entrepreneurs; and local professionals.  The youngest participants at this event were 8 years old and they both presented with their respective teams!  

SWmiami2Startup Weekend EDU is a 2.5 day event whereby educators, developers, designers, and entrepreneurs come together to pitch ideas to solve problems in education and form teams around the selected ideas.  Teams then spend the weekend taking these ideas from concept to creation, culminating into a final presentation to a panel of all-star judges from the community.  Judges assess pitches based on clearly defined problem statement, prototype design, validation of problem and prototype, and finally, the business model. This theme was critical for a region that is home to some of the largest school districts going through difficult challenges.  

Having facilitated over 16 events around the country, I thought I had seen it all.  However, nothing could have prepared me for this incredibly diverse group of people and all of the challenges and possibilities that would manifest over the weekend.  To be honest, I was concerned about whether the event could be a success and if everyone would figure out how to work well together quickly enough to deliver a final presentation by Sunday evening to a panel of all-star judges from the Miami community. Continue reading

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Could There be a Silver Bullet to Learning Math?

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to explain the most challenging aspect of teaching math to students of any age.  She said she is not a math person and as a result always struggled with it.  Perhaps she wanted to know what I find most difficult about teaching students that might have been like her.  For years, I have been asked variations of this question.  “How do you do it?”  “What do you do with students that are just not meant to do math?”  “Why do you do it?”  “Is there a secret for teaching math?”  The list goes on and on.  If you are a math teacher, surely you have heard dozens of versions of the same inquiry.

I believe every person is meant to be a math person.  In fact, I believe this so wholeheartedly that I look forward to working with the students that people believe are the most difficult to teach math to.  I look forward to the cases where the uphill climb is the steepest.

It was in circumstances like this where I began to discover something very interesting.  I discovered that all people are wired to reason and use logic every single day of their lives.  People are constantly running complex algorithms in their mind to make decisions and conclusions in situations with friends, dealings with family, scenarios in sports, and many more challenging and high pressure contexts.  Essentially, people are practicing and getting tested in the fundamental skills of math every single day.

Lack of reasoning and logic ability are not the problem.  The problem is how do we leverage math, which is a simplified version of the complex algorithms we face on a daily basis, in order to continue to build our ability to evaluate, analyze, and make complex decisions?  And related to that, how do we take our existing reasoning and logic ability and apply it to learning math successfully? Continue reading

Change Your Life, Do One Thing Differently Today

DecisionsLast night, I had three intriguing firsts. One occurred because I chose to turn left instead of right. Another occurred because I chose to go upstairs instead of downstairs. A third occurred because I trusted someone’s suggestion and said yes. Each of these decisions led to outcomes that were significantly more valuable than the cost of the decision itself. The decision was not complicated at all, it was nothing more than changing or tweaking one thing and trusting in one person’s suggestion without question. The return on this investment however was quite spectacular given how minimal the investment was to begin with.

This made me think, how close are we every day to significant returns if we do even ONE thing differently?

If we choose to praise instead of criticize?

If we smile at one stranger instead of walking right passed?

If we order a tall drink instead of a grande?

If we take the stairs instead of the escalator?

If we text him or her instead of waiting for him or her to text us?

If we call instead of text someone?

If we visit instead of call someone?

If we listen instead of speak?

If we motivate instead of manipulate?

If we inspire instead of intimidate?

If we coach instead of criticize?

If we stop to compliment one service provider (i.e. waiter, barista, doorman, etc.)?

If we choose to get off the subway one stop early?

If we choose to simply trust one person on one thing today?

If we apologize for one mistake we make today?

If we simply go left instead of right today?

Small tweaks, small changes, minor decisions, left instead of right, up instead of down. What if we invested this small change once a day? What about twice a day? What would the returns be like? What if changed that typical linear path we live each and every day, the same things, the same outcomes, the same pain, the same problems, the same issues, and the same happiness. What if it took one change to modify that linear path for the better? Might we end up on a new path? Might we create an alternate future? Might our problems improve? Might our happiness improve?

There’s only one way to find out. Do one thing differently today. Be intentional about it.

Design for Awesome: How 19-hour School Days Can Transform Education

What if school were open from 5am to midnight?  That is, what if school was open for 19 hours a day?  Well, anytime I have brought that up, people in education have dozens of reasons why it can’t be.  Anything from those hours are not humane to it’s just not possible.  None of the answers have ever sounded convincing.  What’s more is that everyone is looking at it from the perspective of his or her own lives, not the people schools serve.  Most of the reasons I have heard have to do with not wanting to work longer hours, there’s not enough in the budget, or there just aren’t enough people.

I beg to differ though.  I think everyone is reading into the question the wrong way.  When people talk about extending the school day, it’s often to extend classes, make them longer,  extending the teacher work day, or adding more class time.  But that isn’t the only way to martial arts schooldesign a 19-hour school day.  When I was in 7th grade, my dad enrolled me in a martial arts school.  I went to about one class a day that ran about 60-90 minutes.  I absolutely loved it.  As the weeks went on, I started showing up a little earlier to warm up on my own and practice.  I would then stay a little later so that I could get in a little extra practice time.  Then one day I finally decided to ask the instructor (owner) if I could come in during non-class times to practice.  And what he told me I would never forget.  He said I am a student at his school and this is now my school.  I am not just welcome for class, but at anytime.  As long as the doors are open, I am welcome to come by, practice, talk to him, or just hang out.  Essentially, he said this was my second home and I should feel welcome.  So I did just that, I started showing up anytime I wanted.  On days off from school I spent several hours there practicing, talking to Master Lee, and reading the martial arts magazines.  It was pretty awesome! Continue reading

Children are Awesome. Let’s Keep Them That Way.

Kids are awesome, even when they don’t seem to be.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with them.  What we do and say to them are the only things that can ruin that perfection.  Alternatively, what we do and say to them can also make them even more awesome.

Kids just want to play, have fun, learn, be inspired, be heard, try new things, come up with great ideas, have those great ideas heard, be cared for, care about someone, run around, crash in and out of love, run passionately after crazy ideas, challenge the status quo, be given a chance to succeed, have someone believe in them, have someone find the genius in their ideas and words, have deep and meaningful conversations, be rebellious, be fearless, be vulnerable, and most importantly, be awesome.

Children are awesomeEssentially, kids are everything we want to be and spend lots of money to try to become through self-help books, coaches, psychologists, motivational speakers, conferences, workshops, etc.

As teachers, parents, and citizens, it is our opportunity and responsibility to help them become the awesome adults they can become.  It is our opportunity and responsibility to: listen to their ideas and problems; support them when they try and fail; encourage them to fall madly in love again after heartbreak; support their subsequent events after failure; give them a chance even when we don’t think they stand a chance (they will surprise us); help them believe in something again even after they were let down; not tell them I told you so; inspire and motivate them; redirect their rebellious behavior towards situations that need that kind of behavior; look for and encourage the genius in their words; teach them what they want to learn; help them find something they can be awesome at, even if just for the short-term; be delicate when they are vulnerable; buy them a burger and have conversations with them for hours; and most importantly, believe they can be awesome.

So it’s really up to us as teachers, parents, and citizens.  Children are ours to ruin or make great.  Let’s focus our efforts on the latter.  It’s really that simple.

3 Steps for Building a High Performance Team

Successful businesses do well because of their amazing teams, not their products and services.  Many of us will probably agree that people and teams are the most valuable asset any business possesses and also your most critical competitive advantage.  Rowing Team - HPTUltimately, ideas can be copied, modified, and upgraded.  However, it is difficult to copy teams and/or steal them (well, most of the time).  Furthermore, a well-functioning team is more productive and efficient and thus delivers more value and output for the same money.  However, this is all a moot point if you are not unleashing the power of your team.  If your team is not producing and performing at its best, you are not enjoying these benefits and are susceptible to competition.  This puts you in a position to have to fight competition in more dangerous (i.e. costly, detrimental, etc.) battlefronts like pricing and advertising.

Barcelona Team

A great example of a high performing team.

Building and developing a high performing team requires many important ingredients.  However, there is one fundamental element that forms the foundation for high performing teams and that is clear and concise objectives and roles.  To use a sports metaphor, consider one of the most high performing soccer teams in the world, FC Barcelona.  They are very clear about their objectives (i.e. hold the ball, control the flow of the game, take high percentage shots).  For the record, not all soccer teams have the same objectives.  They also have clearly defined roles and operational strategies for how they execute their objectives.  For a better understanding of what this looks like in action, click on the image of the team for a short video.  You can see from the video how their team looks like a thinking and breathing organism of its own.  It’s not about one person.  It’s about an entire team coming together.

The following is a list of steps necessary to ensure you too have a strong foundation from which to develop your high performance team.

1.  Design and consistently communicate clear and concise business objectives.  This typically begins with the vision of the organization – a clear picture of what, where, and how the business will look, feel, and operate at some point in the future.  The vision also includes what the environmental context will look, feel, and operate like in the future.  In other words, this is the future that the organization is running after.  Next comes the mission.  This will clearly communicate “how” your business will run toward the vision.  From the mission, come your specific objectives.  The more clear the vision and mission are, the more easily you can create, communicate, and evaluate objectives for the business.  These clear and concise objectives are critical to the foundation of high performing teams because it gives way to the next important step.

2.  Design the operational strategy, plan, and processes that will define how the business operates in order to achieve its objectives and execute its mission on a consistent basis.  Imagine your business as a thinking and breathing organism.  When you design your business operations strategically, your business takes on a life of its own.  This has many benefits from a competitive and operational perspective.  Competitively, it is difficult to copy or steal an entire operations strategy and process.  Operationally, it means that the business does not rely solely on people like the owners or top executives to operate successfully.  Instead, the leaders can focus on doing what they are supposed to do – lead – while the business is positioned to operate efficiently and effectively on its own.  With this strategy and plan in mind, you are now ready to begin the next critical step.

3.  Design clearly defined and concise roles that support your operational strategy.  With your operational strategy, plan, and processes, you now have what you need to design the most effective roles for your organization.  These roles will be the ones necessary to maintaining the operation and if clearly defined and communicated, your team will have a deep understanding of the essential role they play within your operational context.  Furthermore, when roles are designed clearly and fit effectively into an operational context, it significantly reduces friction (i.e. employee stress, operational inefficiencies, miscommunication, etc.) in the business.

Equipped with this strong foundation, you can begin to build and develop your high performance team.  This insight is just as important for a three-person company as it is for a 20,000-person organization.  Two weeks ago, I was coaching a startup company that was suffering from some friction and we realized it was due to a lack of clearly defined objectives and roles.

Leaders from successful startup businesses, with anywhere between 2-10 employees, all the way to Fortune 100 companies like General Electric (specifically during the Jack Welch era) have leveraged this framework for building and developing powerful teams.

Start by evaluating your vision, mission, and objectives.  Then look at your business-wide operational strategy to ensure it lives and breaths to accomplish the objectives and execute on your mission.  Finally, take a look at the roles in your organization to ensure you have all of the right people on the bus and sitting in the right seats.

How to Hack Your Ability to Learn Quickly

I recently started reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, a book about unlocking the neurological insights for developing skills in sports, art, music, math, and just about anything. What interested me most about this book was the neurological perspective that Daniel Coyle wrote from. He truly dedicated this book to unlocking our ability to develop skills and talent all the way from the cellular level. His writing style is great and easy to follow.

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

In his book he talks about the significant role that myelin plays in learning and developing skills. Essentially, if you consider brain cells (neurons) the data and the connections (axons and dendrites) the reporting, synthesis, and insight from connecting the data then myelin is the auto-reporting feature that consistently extracts and executes on the insight from these established connections even as the data evolves and updates. So imagine an automatically generated report that runs periodically pulling updated data on a regular basis. You have essentially locked down this reporting insight and turned it into an actionable tool. Myelin is the wrapping that insulates the connections made between and among neurons in your brain. It exists in order to lock down skills and abilities you learn so that you can use them again on-demand and at increasingly difficult levels. Significant myelin forms when you achieve a deep level of practice on a regular basis. This is the kind of practice that the best athletes engage in on a regular basis, thus where we get the saying, practice makes perfect. However, Coyle makes a slight change to that by adding that perfect practice makes perfect.

MyelinIn his book, Coyle writes a great deal about perfect practice and cites a case where a girl learned to play a song on her clarinet in 6 minutes. Essentially, she captured a month’s worth of learning in 6 minutes. The student, Clarissa, was considered mediocre and not significantly talented prior to this event. What she did, successfully, was fall into a deep level of practice where she was aware of and worked through every mistake she made. She started by working through the entire piece with all of her mistakes and then broke it down into pieces. She hacked her learning ability in order to produce an outstanding result in a short amount of time.

Speed BagI recently tested this with an experiment of my own. I have wanted to learn the speed bag at my boxing gym for a couple of months now. I attempted it a few times and couldn’t get any rhythm going at all. So the other day I stepped up to the bag and committed to deep practice no matter how bad I looked (ignoring self-consciousness is key to deep practice). Five minutes into it, the on-duty instructor came by and offered some help. He demonstrated the entire skill and then broke it down into the steps. I gave him 110% of my attention. Then he left me to practice. I made so many mistakes but this time I was aware of them and simply kept making adjustments to correct for them. I started to become aware of my timing, the location on the bag I would hit, my positioning (feet and hands), my rhythm, my pace, and my posture. At this point I am adjusting each of these as I correct each mistake. All of a sudden I can hit the bag several times in a row. First I go for 5 in a row. Then what I felt was an impossible 10. Took some effort to get to 10. All of a sudden I am at 20 hits in a row. Then I set a goal of 100. I could not stop until I hit 100 with each hand, straight through, no errors. Thirty minutes later, I did it. I had completely acquired the skill of hitting the speed bag. I essentially compressed a month’s worth of practice into 30 hyper-focused minutes of deep practice. I felt like a video game character leveling up! I went back two days later and tried again. I picked up right where I left off. Except this time I had a new goal. I wanted to incorporate a little footwork into it and move while I was hitting it. Fifteen minutes into the practice, skill acquired. Two days after that, I had a new goal. To hit the bag at least 10 times in a row with my eyes closed. Thirty minutes of deep, hyper-focused practice later, skill acquired, level-up achieved.

This simple experiment helped me realized we can all do this for just about anything we choose. We simply need to spend time in deep practice and not care even one bit what others think. I have already begun a new experiment for taking penalty shots and direct kicks with a soccer ball. In my first two hyper-focused practice sessions I saw dramatic improvements in my consistency and accuracy with the ball.

Breakdown of the steps I took:

1. Decide that you truly want to learn something.  This is important because deep and focused practice requires dedication and commitment.

2. Observe a demonstration of the entire skill in action by an experienced person.  This is very easy thanks to YouTube.  Focus on all of the movements, steps, etc.

3. Break up the skill into smaller chunks (i.e. steps).  Ask someone or yourself, what are the steps this breaks down to.  Watch the demo carefully for these steps.

4. Attempt the entire skills with mistakes and all.  Just run through it so you get a feel for the entire skill you decided to acquire.  You MUST not care what others around you think.

5. Begin practicing and pause with each mistake, reflect on what the mistake was, make corrections and start again.  Focus 110% on this step.  No distractions, just you and the desired skill at hand.  Each time you will notice different steps that need tweaking so that they all come together for successful execution of the entire skill.

6. Repeat step 5 as many times as you need to complete a full demonstration of the skill.

7.  Celebrate with a big HELL YEAH when you can successfully execute the entire skill.

8.  Don’t stop there, keep increasing the challenge and practicing.  Myelin can eventually break down and with it goes your skill. This is why the best athletes practice even the simple skills (i.e. free throws) every day.

I share this with everyone because this is something all of us can do with almost anything we choose. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the learning process. While high levels of mastery do take time, you can acquire the necessary skills a lot faster than you think.

What skill are you going to experiment this method with first?

5 Steps to Planning for Success

I’ve learned something over and over again. It seems no matter how much I plan for success, it never quite happens how I planned. In fact, my success turns out better than I planned.

To be honest, some things went according to plan, however, with reflection I realized that I never planned things quite as well as the situations that simply just happened spontaneously. When I strictly followed the plan, I was focused more on the individual tasks or objectives. And sometimes I would wonder what the purpose of all of this was. I was so focused on “the plan” that I would lose sight of “the goal.”

So, here’s what I learned about how to plan for success.

1. Decide on a goal and make sure it is as clear as can be at that moment. Truth is our goal today will never be as clear as it will be tomorrow. Tomorrow we will know more, we will have experienced more, and we will see things differently. It’s ok if your goal is not incredibly detailed. Just make sure you can share the essence of the idea with someone else. With each day that passes, it will become clearer.

2. Make a plan. This probably sounds contrary to my introduction, however having a plan is essential. A plan maps out the steps that you believe it will take to achieve your goal at that moment in time. You need a plan for things to NOT go according to plan. So make a plan 🙂

3. Be mindful. Be mindful and aware of your growth and development. Each day you learn something new based on the steps you detailed in your plan. With that development comes new ideas and new interpretations. What you know today is not what you knew yesterday, nor what you will know tomorrow. So stop for a minute to be mindful of your development.

4. Pay attention to the distractions. What may seem like a distraction from your plan may be a great opportunity to bring you closer to your evolving goal. When we allow our minds to step away from our goals for a little while we gain more perspective on them and begin to learn new frameworks from which to reflect on them. This is why TED is so successful, it provides people with an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and take a delightful journey into someone else’s comfort zone and broaden their perspective. That distraction also gives your brain a break from your goals and allows you to process your thoughts and ideas in the background.

5. Be flexible. This is perhaps the most important step. As your goal evolves, as your framework expands, as your perspective widens, you will see more and think differently about your own goal and plan. You will have ideas for altering your plan or what will seem like “deviating” from your plan. Be flexible. Allow that to happen. This is your brain and heart’s way of saying “I have a better idea now.” Listen and be flexible enough to “deviate” from the plan because you aren’t deviating from your goal, which may or may not be the same as it was on day 1. And that’s ok. Most of the startup founders I have spoken to say that what they eventually created was quite different from what they originally set out to do. Their advice was to be flexible and let the idea evolve along its journey.

Consider your goals and previous plans you have set.  Often these 5 steps occur naturally, but resisting them may be limiting your potential for success.  Decide on a goal, set a plan, allow some distractions, develop your idea, and readjust your plan.  As long as you are moving toward your evolving goal you will be on the path towards success.

Oh, and please take the time to enjoy your journey.  The journey is where you will spend most of your time, so make it fun.

How to Gain Clarity and See New Opportunities

A couple of weeks ago I had a great conversation with a friend about finding the clarity to see new opportunities.  Thinking back to when I made my decision to leave my corporate career, I really could not have ever imagined the journey that I have been on for the last four years.  Although I had my reasons for leaving and some sort of plan of what I might do, I was not even close to what actually happened.

During that conversation two weeks ago I realized that it is quite hard to see what’s possible when your mind is preoccupied with distractions (i.e. your current circumstance or situation, related stress, etc.).  It’s almost as if when it comes to our mental capacity, we only have so much “screen space.”  It’s like we have a 13″ – there’s only so much you can fit in it.

So let’s look at few aspects of this analogy and how it compares to finding clarity.

When you are in a situation or circumstance that does not inspire you or just doesn’t make you happy, your screen fills up with stress, dissatisfaction, thoughts of getting out, and eventually fear of making a change for the better.  Fear because we are hard-wired to fear change and the unknown.  While some may seem more spontaneous and risky in their behavior, they too experience fear – the difference is they have learned to control, embrace, and convert it to enthusiasm and positive curiosity.

When your 13″ screen is all filled up, you simply cannot see opportunities and possibilities – even the ones right in front of you. It feels as if there may not be anything waiting on the other side if you take the plunge.  By the way, this can go for career, relationship, and/or personal circumstances.  However, what I found after I left my career circumstance was that all of a sudden I had new ideas, I was having different conversations, and I considered new possibilities (some out of necessity so that I could earn a living).  It’s as if leaving my career at the time closed all the open windows on my 13″ screen, rebooted my computer, and left me with a blank slate.  I was open to anything and everything.

Here’s where the second aspect of the analogy comes in.  Once my screen was free to have new windows open in it, it was as if my screen got upgraded to 15, then 16, then 17″.  When the negative stress and feelings of fear went away, I felt like more was possible than I had ever thought before.  All of a sudden I was meeting new like-minded people with their own awesome stories and ideas.  And this is when things got really good.  As I explored my own strengths and interests, now I felt like I was taking on additional screens.  One screen was for my passion in education, another screen for student leadership development, and yet another for neuropsychology.  It’s as if I was now running multiple apps that all interface with each other on multiple screens.  Everything was coming together and connecting in ways I never thought possible.

Clarity on multiple screens!

Operating with more apps and on more screens, my other capacities began to upgrade as well.  I felt happier, stronger, healthier, more intelligent, more passionate, more outgoing, etc.  Today, four years later, I see much clearer than ever before.  Here’s the best part though, I haven’t even reached full clarity and I don’t know if I ever will.  However, every year, every month, every day I feel like I have just a little more clarity than I did before.

More apps!

If you are in a circumstance that isn’t working for you, consider finding some clarity.  It won’t come from staying in the bad situation – even if you know all of this now.  The clarity can only come when close all the negative windows on your screen and start fresh again.

Maybe it’s time for a reboot in your life.

How Close Are You To Success?

In my last few posts, I’ve spent time focusing on learning, mistakes, and failure and how they relate to success.  Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with a young entrepreneur from Penn State University, Kevin Merlini, to discuss his new company Clipboard +.  I came to know Kevin via one of his co-founders, Patrick Ryan, whom I have been advising for over a year now.  Patrick connected us so that we could talk about the new startup and some of the lessons he learned along the way.

According to Kevin, Clipboard + “value(s) simplicity and functionality to help make your life easier. Since technology changes faster than your habits, we help you keep pace.”  Their product is a “personal mobile workstation, and there really isn’t anything else quite like it.  A must have for any smartphone power user.” 

Clipboard + for iPad (backside)

In short, it’s clipboard meets mobile device and you get a sum that is far greater than its parts.

After I learned about the product, I talked to Kevin about the journey he and his team embarked on and asked about the lessons they learned.  I could tell he was ready to

Founders of Clipboard+

answer this question and he explained so clearly and concisely the importance of building a team.  Kevin talked at length about how critical it is to bring the right people together and provide them with clear direction.  There are so many things you cannot do well, but others can and he has learned through this experience that you just have to ask for help.  As Kevin puts it, “I spent plenty of time doing things that would have been much more easily accomplished by anyone who specialized in it. Even if it doesn’t mean getting someone to officially join your team, never hesitate to ask for help.Continue reading