Jeff Pagano—Guitar Learning Hero

Last Friday, I sat out under the stars and watched a friend of mine push himself up the learning curve.  He did so with grace, humor, courage, soul, and a great deal of rhythm.  Jeff Pagano, a long-time singer, newly-minted guitarist, and absolute beginner as a paid performer, organized his first concert as a soloist in the back yard of his home in Eugene.

As is so often the case, while I sincerely enjoyed his music, I was more entranced by his learning story.  Jeff only began learning to play the guitar after he turned 40.  Now he is an accomplished musician and eager to continue learning so that he can share his love of music with even more people.

I am eager to share his stories of powerful learning with everyone that I can.

Jeff started learning to play the guitar because of his passion for singing.  He’d sung with other musicians who could play instruments, but realized that if he could accompany himself, his opportunities to sing would increase dramatically.

“I decided to start learning guitar at age 40 because that’s a good age to learn something new.  And the motivation for doing so, was the fact that I was a singer, and I performed with other musicians—but only as a singer.  And it was really hard to show up at an open mike and ask people, ‘Say, hey, do you know to play this song so I can sing it?’ “

Jeff’s confidence that “age 40 was a good age to learn something new” was inspiring to me.  I gave up on my own musical aspirations a long time ago (after a spectacular failure at an open mike in Alaska) but my journey into learning how the brain learns has encouraged me to think that it might not be too late for me or anyone else.

Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero:  The New Musician and the Science of Learning, is a neuroscientist who undertook a similar journey to learn guitar in his 40s.  Here’s what he had to say,

“All my life I wanted to become musical, but I always assumed that I never had a chance.  My ears are dodgy, my fingers too clumsy.  I have no natural sense of rhythm and a lousy sense of pitch.  I have always loved music but could never sing, let alone play an instrument; in school I came to believe that I was destined to be a spectator, rather than a participant, no matter how hard I tried.”

Jeff Pagano, did not start his musical journey with as much emotional baggage as Gary and I, and he had other musical skills that he’d honed through his love of singing that he could use to help himself learn guitar.  However, I believe the biggest gift that he had, was that strong belief that he could learn and a strong desire to learn fueled by his love of singing.

As a teacher, I see too often learners that have given up on their own learning journeys. Who have said to themselves that they just don’t have what it takes.  As a learner, I too, have given up on my own learning more times than I want to admit.  I asked Jeff if he had ever wanted to give up.

“No.  No, because the desire to sing was always in the forefront.  One of the things that I always say when I talk to musicians, is that I am a singer that plays guitar.  And there are a lot of guitar players that sing.  So, because I am a singer that plays guitar, I knew that I wanted to sing and that this was my way in.  I never wanted to give up the singing and I was missing the opportunity to sing.  There is a part of me that just has to sing.  I’ll be a singer for the rest of my life.  It’s just the best thing I know how to do.”

Jeff Pagano possessed both a growth mindset—the belief that he could learn—and what Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, calls ignition—that “set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.”

That powerful one-two punch—a growth mindset combined with ignition—is what had Jeff continue to engage in the sometimes arduous deliberate practice that leads to learning and mastery.

Jeff’s learning journey is also filled with stories of teachers who made a difference in his progress.  Some of those teachers were friends.  Some were other musicians.  All of them helped him take on new challenges and view himself and what he could do in a different way.

“One of my first and best teachers was a musician here in Eugene named Tony Gilchrest.  He was a great teacher for me, because he didn’t study music theory and he wasn’t a professional teacher.  He was just a smart guy who was a musician, who played in bands here locally, and he understood how to teach.  He taught me how to listen to a song and how to figure out what the chords were in real simple songs.  So he set me on the right path right from the start because he showed me how I could play songs that I liked.”

Once Jeff started building some skill at playing guitar, he encountered another problem.  The challenge of playing and singing at the same time.  He could play songs.  He could sing songs.  He just couldn’t play and sing at the same time.  This all changed one evening with some very powerful coaching from a friend.

“So, once I started playing music, it was basically just me and the dog sitting in my little cabin off of 8th street.  And I would very happily pound out two chords and feel like I was a rock star.  I think the dog liked it.

And then, at some point, there was another person in the room where I would play guitar and the evening that I spoke of was the night that Michael Glownia came over.

He was sitting across the room from me and I was strumming chords on the guitar.  I wasn’t, at that point, singing and playing, I was just playing guitar.  I wasn’t able to coordinate the hands and the vocals at the same time.

As I was strumming some chords, he was talking to me and he noticed that every time he asked me a question or it was time for me to contribute to the conversation, I would stop playing the guitar.  And at one point, he said, “Why did you stop playing?” when I was answering one of his questions.  And I said, “Well, it’s because I can’t play guitar and speak or sing at the same time.”

He said, “Oh, that’s interesting.  Why don’t we make a game out of this?”

So he told me, “Just pick three easy chords.  A nice easy progression.  Just play those chords over and over again and I’m going to ask you questions. And I want you to answer them for me.”

And I distinctly remember the first question that he asked me.  I’m strumming guitar and he said, “What color is the sky?”

The strumming stopped and I said, “Blue”.

So he said, “Okay, let’s try that again.”

And then, for the remainder of the evening, he would have me strum these three chords on the guitar and then speak or sing my answers.  He started with really simple one-word answers like, “What’s your name?”, and I would sing, “Jeff” while I was playing guitar.   We would celebrate that.   Like, “Wow.  That’s great!”

And then he would say, “What’s your last name?” and I’d say my last name.  “Okay.  What’s your full name?”

Then he asked me what my address was.

Then he started to ask me questions that required more than three or four words to answer.

It was a wonderful evening.

It was a definitely a breakthrough for me, and the next day I had to get on a plane and fly to Florida to go visit family.  And I was sitting on the porch of a friend’s house playing guitar and I was able to sing songs that I had already worked out with Charlie where I already had all the chords and all the words together.  And from that evening on, I was able to play and sing at the same time.”


Jeff’s story of this learning session moved me when he shared it during his concert on Friday, and it moved me again when he shared it during our interview, because it is such a powerful example of deliberate practice and giving the brain exactly what it needs to figure something out.

Michael Glownia may not have been a trained music teacher or a trained neuroscientist, but he definitely employed some powerful learning principles during that jam session with his friend Jeff.

First, he decreased the complexity of the guitar playing while adding in the complexity of strumming and vocalizing at the same time—just three chords over and over instead of playing a complex song.

Second, he had Jeff engage in a cycle of Attempt-Fail-Attempt Again over and over, thus allowing the brain to analyze and adjust implicitly when something wasn’t working.

Finally, he gradually increased the complexity of the vocalizations as Jeff’s skill increased.  This allowed Jeff to be always working in that “zone of proximal development” or, said another way, always stretching outside of his comfort zone.

Jeff himself thought that evening was powerful because his friend made a game of it and made it fun.  But I don’t think Michael Glownia made that evening fun.  I think Jeff’s brain did.  Jeff came to that session already with a growth mindset and with ignition—that powerful desire to get better.  Michael helped him practice really effectively by creating the right conditions.  The fun came because there was no fear of failure and Jeff’s brain reliably supplied dopamine every time he struggled and then succeeded.

Jeff Pagano 2

Lance Lisenby was another musician who helped Jeff move up the learning curve.  Jeff speaks of Lance with such love and admiration in his voice.  He said that Lance was one of those people who was always encouraging other musicians regardless of how skilled they currently were.

“He always was a very positive person.  Especially with musicians.  He always wanted to make sure musicians had an opportunity to share their talent at whatever stage they were at in their talent.  For example, he’d bring up Carl to play drums.  And Carl, at the time when we knew him, was a terrible drummer. He loved to drum, but he couldn’t keep beat or pay attention—it was just awful.  But, he loved to drum.  He loved to collect the equipment.  And to Carl’s credit, he really kept at it.  He didn’t quit.  And Lance would keep bringing him up.  And when we were playing together, he’d call Carl, and we’d say, “Yeah, let’s do it.  We know that he is on a path and let’s encourage that.”  And with every musician that I know of that Lance was involved with he always said, “You can do this.  I can see the desire in you.  Have faith in yourself.  Have confidence in yourself.”

Lance and Jeff performed as an acoustic duo in Colorado Springs for about five years.  Lance would play guitar and both of them would sing.

It was during this time that Lance taught Jeff another really valuable lesson about performing.

“I had just started singing with him.  Sometimes I would forget the words.  That’s still a problem that I have sometimes because I get nervous.  We had played at one of our favorite places, the U-Pass Tavern in Woodland Park, Colorado.  And afterwards someone had come up and he was talking to Lance about it and he was complementing me.  He said, “Wow.  Your voice sounds great.  I really love your song selection.” And I interject with, “Yeah, but on the third song, in the second verse, I forgot…” and I started going through my laundry list of mistakes that I had made in my head.  And Lance very gently cut me off and thanked the guy for his complement.

And as he walked away, Lance turned to me and said, “I understand.  We’ve all got the list of things that we didn’t do right.  But, when someone gives you a complement.  Smile.  Look them in the eye and say ‘Thank you’.  Turn off all that other stuff that’s running through your head about what you need to fix and what you did right.  Because you’re just bringing that other person down.  They’ve got all this enthusiasm and gratitude.  Don’t bring them down.  Smile.  Look them in the eye and say, ‘Thank you’.”

And that was a lesson that Lance taught me that I have never forgotten and I’ve actually shared that with other people as well.”


Another important teacher in Jeff’s life was his friend Alex Ogburn.  Jeff and Alex met at the gym in Sedona, Arizona.  At first, Jeff didn’t realize that Alex was a musician until one night he invited Jeff to a show.  It turned out Alex was a professional musician and a “phenomenal” guitarist.  Alex started an open mike night at a martini bar in Sedona.  Jeff decided that this was the perfect place to make his debut as a public performer as singer and guitarist.

“He was a professional musician at the time.  He would do shows all over Sedona for his living.  And since he was a friend of mine, he and I would talk about music a lot.  He decided to start doing an open mike at the Martini Bar in Sedona which is a great little venue.  And I practiced and practiced and practiced.  And I set a goal in my mind that I was going to start doing open mikes because I had been through a progression where it was me and the dog on the sofa at home, and then one other person in the room, then Michael taught me I could sing, and then I could sing for small groups in the living rooms of my home and other homes, and then it was get together for jam sessions with the musicians on the back porch and that was really intimidating.  I kind of wished that I had had someone to hold my hand and guide me through that process, but a mentor didn’t appear.

So the next level for me was performing in public and that was doing open mikes.  By that time, I believe, I’d been playing for about five years.  And Alex was my friend.  It was a safe place to go.  He was the host of the open mike.  It set my mind at ease.

I practiced for three months.  I just worked on two or three songs.  I was gonna go do an open mike.

At the first open mike, I did a song.  I couldn’t remember the words.  I couldn’t remember the chords.  I was so nervous.  I just completely destroyed the song.  My first song was just absolutely wretched.  And the second song wasn’t too bad and after that I pulled the plug and said, “Thank you.”

I got off stage and I remember the conversation.  I was standing at the bar next to Alex while the next guy was performing.  I had my guitar in my hand and I was putting it away.

Alex walks up and holds up his hand in that ‘stop’ motion and he says, “I know what you’re going to say.  Don’t say it.” and I start to say, “Yeah, but…” and he says, “I know what you’re going to say.  Just promise me you’ll come back next week.” and I go, “But, I…” and he says, “I know.  I know.  Just promise me you’ll come back next week. Promise.”

And I said, “I promise.  That’s not a maybe, that’s a promise.  I’m going to be here.”

And so I showed up the next week.  And I practiced playing the guitar every single day for that whole week.  I was horrified by my performance.  So I was like, “Okay, that’s not going to happen again.”

So, I showed up the next time.  And I can’t actually remember how that second performance went, but I know that I became a regular on the open mike circuit.  I got to know a lot of musicians like the people that worked at the Martini Bar because I was always there.  I would show up.  I would invite friends to come.

And by the end of that summer, when it was time for me to leave Sedona and come back to Eugene, I was at the open mike and Lance got a text and he said, “Oh.  I’ve got to go.  Jeff, do you mind?  Could you just run this?  Could you just play a bunch of songs and if anybody comes in that wants to play let them play?”

So I was like, “Sure.”

So, I sat up on stage with my song book and I played four or five songs.  And this girl came in that wanted to play.  And I’m like, “Oh Hey.  Here’s Heather.  She’s going to play some songs.”  And she played some songs and then I got back up on stage.

And, I got over that hurdle of the open mike and performing in public.”


This story resonated strongly with me.

Years ago, I gathered up my courage and stepped out on to a stage in Alaska and sang my song.  And everyone kept drinking their beer and talking and laughing instead of leaning in and listening like my friends did when I sang for them.  I wanted to disappear.  I was horrified.  I never wanted to feel that feeling again.

In that moment, I made up a very unhelpful story about who I was as a singer and what kind of courage I possessed.  I did not have an Alex in my corner.  I didn’t have anybody telling me that failing didn’t mean you don’t have what it takes—that it just means you need to try again.  That it just means you need to show up next week.  And I didn’t show up the next week, or the next month, or the next year.  I haven’t sung in public since that night.

So, as a teacher, now that I know about how learning works, I am passionate about ensuring that the message that the brain learns from failure goes out loud and clear.  I aim to be an Alex.  I aim to keep asking others to promise to show up.  To come back next week.

Jeff Pagano 3

The final teacher that Jeff shared about was Marty Chilla.  Marty is the acoustic guitar player in a Eugene band called the Sugar Beets.  He is also one of the few formal instructors in Jeff’s musical journey.

“He is a fantastic music instructor.  I took lessons with Marty—which is kind of a strange way to put it because when you sit down with Marty you’re not really taking a lesson, you’re playing music with a friend.  And he and I talked about songwriting.

I haven’t fully explored my songwriting.  I’ve only written about a half dozen songs and there aren’t any that I really feel comfortable sharing because some are really sad and are personal or are about something in my life.

But Marty taught me.  He said, “Whatever you create is whatever you create.  Don’t put any expectations on it.”

He said, “Why don’t we just start with a lullaby—something really simple.  Just go home this week and just write a lullaby.  It doesn’t have to be good.  Who cares if it’s bad.  Anything that you do—it’s just yours.  So just completely release any thoughts of judgement, because that’s what stops you from creating.”

So, that was a really powerful lesson that Marty engrained in me.  Just be free.  Be yourself.  Do things that are really simple.  Turn the judgement off.  And have fun!

And I came back the next week with a lullaby.

I haven’t really taken to songwriting.  Only because that genii isn’t out of the bottle yet.  But there will be a time when I do start writing.  And, I’ve already got songs in my head and I’ve already got songs that are half written.

But, it’s okay that I’m not writing my own songs at this point.  I think that my next adventure is to be the guy that is the music at the winery that people go visit on a Sunday afternoon and I do James Taylor and really fun sing-along songs for them.  No one’s paid me to actually sit on a bar stool in their pub and be the entertainment—as least not as a solo performer.”


So that was what Jeff is taking on next.  Learning how to become a paid solo performer.  So he organized a concert.  He invited his friends and pushed himself to step outside of his comfort zone once again to help prepare himself to take the next step in his quest to become a professional musician.


I asked Jeff if there was any time when he felt stopped or scared of taking the next step.

“I never felt stopped, but I certainly have had many times where I felt stagnated, where I wasn’t moving forward and everything that I did sounded the same.  And, as you know, when you go through a learning process with something like this, which is a lifelong learning process, you have plateaus where you have these great increases in learning and knowledge and then it levels off and there is nothing really new or significant happening.

I remember this great, great answer that my buddy Lance gave me onetime.  I said to him, “I can’t wait until I get really, really good at playing guitar.”

And Lance said, “Me too.”

And, you know, Lance is really the most phenomenal guitar player on the planet as far as I was concerned.

But, it is a lifelong learning process—something like this.

And I would say, for me, when I got to those plateaus, they’re definitely frustrating.  I might go out and look for a new music teacher—someone that might inspire me.  Or I might try to sit down and tackle some of the videos that I’ve saved on YouTube.  It’s like, okay, here’s something that I want to learn.  But, most often, if I’m in a plateau, what will happen is I’ll sit there for just an unbearably long time and then something will pop out at me that will be so inspirational that I’ll go, “Oh my gosh.  I have to learn this song.”

And the song that I did towards the end of the set that was really soft and I finger picked some strums, was a song called This Town.  And it’s such a beautiful song.  As soon as I heard it, I immediately gravitated toward it.  And as a musician, I had to listen to it a thousand times before I could pick up the guitar and try to play it.

And I realized I couldn’t really do justice to the song by just strumming the chords. So, what happened out of desire to be able to play the song.  I’m like, “I really love this song.  I really need to play this song.  It doesn’t sound right with me just strumming through these four chords.  I’m going to keep toying with this music in different ways.”

And sometimes it just meant hitting the off-switch on trying and sitting on the sofa watching football while I’m absent mindedly strumming the chords.

And for that particular song, I was absolutely at a plateau.  I hadn’t done anything new  or different with my music in months.  I was completely stagnant.

And for some reason, somehow, my fingers found this way to pluck the strings rather than strum the chords.  And so, I found a way to finger pick that song.  And I even had to change where the chords are in the song.

If you listen to the original, he’s not playing the same chord that I’m playing during certain verses because I had to change the songs chords to make it fit how I sang or what sounded great for my ears.  So, I probably worked on that song for three weeks.

That was definitely another breakthrough for me—a next level experience.  And I didn’t know it until I played it in my house and Joseph said, “Wow.  You’ve just evolved.  I’ve just witnessed the evolution of you as a player and a singer.”

So, thank you Jeff Pagano.  Thank you for sharing your music with the world.  Thank you for being a lifelong learner.  Thank you for sharing your learning journey with us and for  inspiring people like me, who still feel like we have a song to sing, to keep the dream of becoming musical alive no matter how old we are.  Cheers.

(Gary Marcus, by the way, for all that he started with less musical skill than Jeff started with, also succeeded in transforming himself into a musician and a songwriter.)

Kindness Challenge Week 2: Self-Compassion

This week I’ve been engaged in growth exercises from two different sources that—at first—seem almost directly opposed to each other.

The first assignment was to notice areas of my life where I have become resigned and justified to the “way it is”.  Places where I have given up.  Places where I have no hope.  Places where I justify my lack of action, lack of growth, and lack of responsibility.

Bleak stuff, this.  It is challenging to look at this stuff.  Challenging to admit it to myself—all the areas where I push my awareness away and say, “Not today.  Not tomorrow.  And maybe not ever.”  But it is even more challenging to say it out loud.  To share it with others.  To be authentic about how often and in how many places I let myself go numb and pretend not to care because I don’t want to do what it would take to make a difference.

The list is long: politics, the environment, homelessness, poverty, my weight, my health, my finances, relationships, my house, procrastination, my debt.  The weight of all these things—when I allow myself to get present to them—feels heavy and overwhelming.


And that is where the second exercise comes in.


This week I am also practicing self-compassion as part of Niki Meadows’ 2017 Kindness Challenge.

“Having compassion for others entails sympathy or empathy for their discomfort and suffering. This week we’re going to work on showing ourselves compassion. For some of us that might mean not being so hard on ourselves, not holding ourselves up to standards of perfection, or easing up on the negative self-talk. Many struggle with being their own worst critic, this week we are going to strive to be warm, understanding, and encouraging with ourselves.”

I am bringing that warmth, understanding, and encouragement to myself as I allow myself to get present to places where I’ve previously been numb.  I am bringing compassion for myself for the fact that I have allowed myself to go numb.  I am telling myself that, while going numb may not be the most empowering place to be—and I am grateful for the push to get present to all that I actually care about—going numb is not bad or wrong.  It is not a failing.  It does not make me a loser.  It is natural.  It is human.

Bringing this compassion to the practice of getting present eases the burden.  It allows me to look more deeply because the urge to push the “bad stuff” away is lessened.  I do not have to expect perfection from myself.  I do not have to regret the time I have wasted in justification and inaction.  I do not have to accept responsibility for all that is wrong in the world or even in my own life.

I am human.  I am flawed.  I procrastinate.  I owe.  I avoid.

And… I am amazing.  I love.  I act.  I share.  I create.  I wonder.  I appreciate.  I contribute.

Practicing self-compassion does not mean that I have to stay stuck in my flaws or in my numbness.  It means that I do not castigate myself for those flaws or that numbness.  I love myself in all of my flawed amazingly beautiful humanity and continue to strive to grow and learn.

Can You “Learn” Your Way to Health?

How Viewing Being Healthy as a Skill Can Transform Your Life

In high school, I used to listen to the skinny girls in the bathroom complain about gaining a pound and how fat they were.  I’d slink my extra-fifty pounds past them and wonder why they weren’t more grateful for their current state of health and beauty.  How I longed to be like them—thin, vibrant, beautiful, healthy—but that vision seemed like an out-of-reach dream—something impossible in my current body and current life.

I didn’t consciously subscribe to a philosophy of gene-driven body shape and health, but those girls seemed like a different species than me.  They had something I did not have and did not know how to get.


Over the years, my obesity has persisted despite many attempts to shift my eating and exercising habits.  Eventually, I grew extremely resigned.  Whatever it took to be thin—I didn’t have it.

I pushed my dreams of health and vitality to the back of my mind and focused my energies on other matters—like training myself in the science of learning and the growth mindset.


Funny thing, that.  Once you start adopting a growth mindset in one area, you start to want to apply it to all areas of your life.  If I acknowledge that I am capable of learning and growing in math and science, how can I not acknowledge that I am capable of learning and growing in the area of health and well-being?

I also started to see that some aspects of health that just seem natural and inherent—like sleeping—are actually skills (now that we live in a modern culture). 

Turns out, sleep is something you can get better at!

And, it turns out, getting better at sleeping is a big step in getting better at having a healthy weight and metabolism. 


I discovered this by accident when I had a hysterectomy.  After the surgery, the nurses kept waking me up and telling me to breath.  I found this extremely irritating.

Turns out, that I had sleep apnea.  And I had a pretty severe case of it.  I checked with my husband and he said that I regularly quit breathing every night.  I had no clue.

I started doing research.  Research which initially was very discouraging.  Sleep apnea is frequently caused by obesity.  And, not sleeping well often leads to greater obesity.  It also can cause all kinds of other health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

I started picturing my future as a fat lady on a scooter.


But I decided to try some other remedies first.

I got a C-PAP machine.  This is a machine that one wears while sleeping.  It delivers a constant stream of pressurized air into the nose.


The results were immediate.

For the first time in years, I slept through the night without having to get up four or five times to go to the bathroom!

And over the next nine months, I lost 65 lbs.


That is a pretty significant result and I am very pleased.


But, I am not done.

I am just beginning to learn how to get better at sleeping.  I am reading Shawn Stevenson’s book, Sleep Smarter, and my husband and I are embarking on a journey of getting better at sleeping.

Here are some of the things I have learned so far:

·         Turn off the screens.  Our brains respond to blue light by producing more daytime hormones which interfere with the quality of our sleep.  Shawn recommends turning off our devices at least an hour before our bedtime.

·         Maintain consistent sleep and waking times.  Even changing your sleep schedule on the weekends can have significant impacts on your health.

·         Sleep cool.  Shawn states that the optimal room temperature for sleeping is around 60° to 68°.


My husband and I will have to engage in some serious habit transformation to incorporate these suggestions into our lives, but I believe the effort is worth it.  And—adopting a growth mindset for areas of health—I believe I can learn how to make these changes work in our lives.


But, I am still not done.

I am bringing a growth mindset to the arena of nutrition and how to eat well.


I’ve struggled with this my entire life.  I’ve tried all sorts of programs and diets.  They either didn’t work or I couldn’t maintain them long term.

Again, this led to extreme resignation.  Whatever other people had that allowed them to change their diets and lose weight and keep it off, I didn’t seem to have.


But, I’m bringing a growth mindset to this as well.


It turns out, in our modern world, eating well is a skill.  We’ve been told that all we need to do to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.

That has never seemed to work for me.

And, it turns out, it is something that isn’t working for a lot of other people as well.  Gary Taubes lays out a lot of the research about how (and why) the common approach—eat less and exercise more—isn’t working for so many of us.

Perhaps there is a better way.


So, I am embarking on a learning journey on how to become excellent at eating to sustain energy, health, and vitality.

My journey has just begun.  Here are some of the people I am turning to for information to light my path:

·         Shawn Stevenson:  The Model Health Show

·         Robb Wolf:  Wired to Eat: Turn Off Cravings, Rewire Your Appetite for Weight Loss, and Determine the Foods That Work for You

·         Gary Taubes:  Why We Get Fat:  And What to Do About It

·         Robynne Chutkan:  The Microbiome Solution:  A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out


Shawn Stevenson talks about the stages of getting better at a skill or habit.  They are:

1.       Unconscious incompetence—when you’re doing something wrong and you don’t know you’re doing it wrong

2.       Conscious incompetence—when you’re doing something wrong and you know you’re doing it wrong

3.       Conscious competence—when you’re doing something right but you have to consciously focus on doing it the right way

4.       Unconscious competence—when you’re doing something right and you don’t have to think about it.

In terms of getting better at sleeping and eating, I am hovering between stages one and two for a variety of different habits.  In some areas, I know what changes I need to make, but haven’t yet figured out how to make them—like not using electronic devices for an hour before sleeping or ensuring that we go to sleep on a consistent schedule—and in other areas, I haven’t yet figured out what exactly I’m doing “wrong”.  I have a feeling that a big part of the secret to achieving health is discovering how to achieve (and maintain) a healthy gut biome, but I don’t yet know enough about it to determine the changes I need to make in my diet.

But, hey.  Like I tell my nephew, I have a super-hero brain and I can learn anything I really want to.


Discovering the Difference between Self-Love and Self-Indulgence

Kindness Challenge Week 1:  Self-Love

Sometimes in life, the Universe seems to bombard me with the same message over and over again.  It has been like that this week.  First, I stumbled upon Niki Meadows’ blog, The Richness of a Simple Life, and her 2017 Kindness Challenge.

I’ve never participated in a social media challenge, but this looked like exactly the topics my husband Tim and I have been delving into lately, and I happily signed on even though I was late to the party (the first week began May 7).

The topic for Week 1 was self-love.

A little bit of a coincidence, that.  I’d just finished listening to James Altucher on Shawn Stevens’ podcast, The Model Health Show.  They were discussing James’ book, The Power of No, and how important it was to put yourself first—even if what you are up to is contributing to others.  How putting yourself first is actually necessary in order to have the health and energy to contribute to others.  It is similar to putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

Tim and I have also been engaged in some pretty deep conversations about shifts we’re wanting to make in our habits to improve our health and well-being.  We’re getting ready to launch our Year of Sobriety experiment—giving up both processed foods and alcohol for a year.  We’re also taking on getting ourselves into a regular sleep routine and building capacity for daily exercise.  All big projects that promise to take a lot of intentionality and creativity to fulfill on and that offer big rewards in well-being.

Finally, in my Landmark Education seminar, Causing the Miraculous, I am engaged in practicing “being not deserving”.  Practicing being not deserving may seem counter to practicing self-love, but I think they actually go hand in hand.  Practicing being not deserving is about seeing life as a gift not as something we have to earn or that is owed to us.

Okay, Universe, your message is clear, it is time to ponder the meaning of self-love.  It is time to figure out what is my personal version of an oxygen mask.  What do I need to take care of first, before I can contribute to others?

Oxygen mask

I have never been one of those selfless persons who is always sacrificing herself to ensure others’ happiness.  Not that I don’t care about others or that I’m selfish, but I have always seemed pretty capable of putting myself first.

It’s just that, honestly, the way I’ve put myself first hasn’t always put myself first.

I’ve become pretty adept at putting my self-in-the-moment ahead of my self-in-the-future.

I hit the snooze alarm and don’t get up and go on my walk.  I let myself put off unpleasant tasks.  I have dessert because “I’ve been so good and I deserve it.”  I watch too much TV or play games for hours.  All of these things feel good—in the moment.  But they don’t leave me feeling vital, alive, and connected to the wonder of life.

I think it is time to say no to myself more often.  No to eating foods that leave me feeling sluggish and acidic.  No to choosing inactivity over movement.  No to staying up too late.  No to binge television watching.  No to binge game playing.  Saying no unhealthy self-indulgences is saying yes to a future of health, vitality, community, and contribution.  Saying no is an act of self-love.





A New View of the Learning Curve

Quite some time ago, I found myself holding back tears of frustration and embarrassment as I failed to keep up in a Zumba class [Zumba, in case any of you don’t know, is the twenty-first century version of aerobics.]  I wasn’t even trying to master what the rest of class was doing with their arms—I was only trying to match what they were doing with their feet.  I couldn’t do it.  Not even close.

By the time I had a little bit of a handle on what the steps were, the instructor cheerfully called out the name of another move that I didn’t know how to do.  I was turning left when the rest of the class was turning right.  I was grapevining—in my awkward arms-at-my-side fashion—while they were all doing the box step.  I was out-of-sync and out-of-my-league and very, very much, out of my comfort zone.

I have not been back for another class.

And that was not the first time I have given up in a learning environment that felt threatening.

I could blame this failure on my lack of a growth mindset at the time—and indeed I do remember saying something to myself like, “This sucks!  I just can’t do dance classes because I suck!”

But now I have a new understanding of why that learning environment did not work for me and what I could do in the future that would allow me to box-step and grapevine with the best of them.

Now I have a better understanding of the learning curve

Now I have some compassion for myself when I am struggling to learn something, but I also have some powerful new tools that I can use to help myself to persist when learning is slow and painful.


Introducing the Learning Curve

When I first started teaching people about how to get better at reading, I thought of learning to read as a straight line with non-readers at one end and excellent readers at the other.  I would draw the line, point to some place in the middle, and say to students, “You started here, and we are working to move you up the line closer to here.”

Reading Line


Then, I saw an interview with a musician who talked about learning music and how learning worked on a curve. He drew an s-like curve and explained that when you first start learning a new skill, learning is hard and slow.  There is too much to learn at once and you have to really focus your attention.  As you master the skill, the pace picks up and you learn faster.  Practicing becomes more fun and fulfilling since you can see your progress and it actually resembles real music.  Eventually, however, your pace of learning slows down as you approach excellence.  Each new bit of learning is subtle and hard for your brain to figure out.  He said that top level musicians approach excellence, yet never quite arrive.  They are always striving for new learning and ever increasing skill.

[Note:  I didn’t realize at the time how significant this interview would be to my thinking and learning—I didn’t pay attention to the artist or interviewer and have never been able to find it again.  If anyone sees something like this, please forward me a copy.]

This interview changed the way I think about learning to read.  I started talking to students and teachers about learning to read from the perspective of a learning curve rather than a learning line.  I talked about approaching excellence, rather than arriving.

Reading Curve

This shifted how the teachers I was training went about working with their students, and the conversations they engaged in when helping students to understand what it means to develop excellence in reading.  I believe this distinction and way of looking at learning to read has made us more effective at creating powerful learning environments and developing growth mindsets.

The real power of this way of looking at learning, however, came about as I broadened my perspective from a focus on reading to a focus on all learning and a growing understanding of the brain science that underpins learning.   I am beginning to see that the brain needs different kinds of practices for different parts of the learning curve.


The Lowest, Slowest Part of the Learning Curve

When a person is first learning a complex new skill, the learning is slow and laborious.  The brain doesn’t readily release dopamine during this stage of the learning process as it is filled with far more failures than successes.   It is also the stage of learning that is most likely to trigger what some scientists call our “reptilian brain”—the part of our brain that is ever alert to threat—and cause us to experience feelings of something being wrong.

Zaretta L. Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, calls this triggering an “amygdala hijack” due to the brain’s action of releasing cortisol to prepare us for a fight or flight response.

“The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep inside the limbic layer of the brain.  It is the seat of our fear system that is involved in emotional processing.  It is designed to react in less than a second at the very hint of a social or physical threat.  It has the “authority” to bypass the brain’s communication dispatch hub in the thalamus and send distress signals directly to the lizard brain in the form of the stress hormone cortisol.  We call this bypass an amygdala hijack.  When the amygdala sounds its alarm with cortisol, all other cognitive functions such as learning, problem solving, or creative thinking stop.  An amygdala hijack leads to our natural “fight, flight, freeze, or appease” responses.”


The amygdala hijack is why I have never made it past the beginning stages of any class that called for coordinated movement—be it ballet, aerobics, or Zumba.  Without an understanding of the learning curve, I just naturally compared myself to others, and felt like an imbecile.  Everyone else always seemed to “get it” so much faster than I could.  Not liking that feeling, I would high tail it out of there and go back to pursuits where I was more “gifted” and learning was not so hard or embarrassing.  (Ahh!  Don’t I wish I could go back to my younger self and tell her a thing or two.)


Tools for Learning When Learning is Hard

So here are some tools for getting better if you (or your students) are at the low end of the learning curve.

Stop comparing yourself to others.  All people learn at different rates and come into any learning environment with different prior experiences.  If you notice yourself getting anxious because someone else is better than you, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that that is perfectly natural.


Build positive social relationships.  Zaretta Hammond points to the polyvagal nerve as one key to calming the amygdala.  Building trust in the learning environment helps our brains stay calm and fell less threatened.

“This nerve is part of our “social engagement system” and is focused on keeping us connected to others…It encourages social bonding through the release of hormones such as oxytocin when we are in the presence of others.  Social activities such as laughing, talking, and even hugging release oxytocin, the bonding hormone.  When we feel safe in the presence of another, our breath comes easily, our heartbeat is regulated, we don’t sweat nervously, our thinking is clear, and we feel open expansive, and in sync.  Oxytocin is the brain’s “stand down” signal to the amygdala.”

Too often in schools we feel pressure to get through the curriculum and can feel that taking time for building social relationships is a luxury we do not have.  However, especially if we are working with students that have not been successful in previous learning situations, taking that time can make a big difference in their ability to engage and learn.


Engage in deliberate practice of small “chunks” of learning.  Deliberate practice, according to psychologist Anders Ericsson, is repeated practice of small chunks (how small depends on your current skill level) with a focus on finding and fixing mistakes.

This is where Zumba failed me.  The instructor moved on way too fast for my personal learning curve.  I needed to practice each individual move over and over until it could become fluid and natural.  Only then could I put the moves together into a functioning routine.


Progress at your own pace.  If your learning environment allows it, do not increase the complexity of what you are working on until you have achieved a level of mastery.

Unfortunately, this is hard to accomplish in group learning situations. (Except in places where they are reinventing the paradigm by developing personalized learning models that allow students to progress at their own pace.)  However, with the advent of technology it is becoming more and more possible.

My new gym has a system where an individual can pull up Zumba routines to practice solo without the pressure of a class.  Now, I have the opportunity to practice the moves as many times as I need to on my own.


So, armed with a new understanding of brain science and the learning curve, I am ready to head back to the gym and get dancing again.


Unhelpful Stories

It starts so early—the stories we make up about ourselves and our capacity to learn.  My nephew, the golden-haired king of playfulness and daring flips off the trampoline, came home from first grade and told his mother he was stupid. 

She is concerned about his abilities to learn too—as are his teachers. 

He is not keeping pace with his classmates.  His ability to shape his letters, use scissors, and make meaning from little squiggles on a page is not progressing as fast as his age-level peers. 

My sister got a letter sharing his teacher’s concerns and plans for “intervening”.

She is worried.

I am not.

I work with students all over the country who did not keep pace with their peers.  They did not excel at making meaning from squiggles on a page.  They too made up stories about themselves and their abilities to learn.  They too were labeled and given interventions—which maybe helped and maybe didn’t.  Regardless of the effectiveness of those interventions, they all ended up with a seat at a Read Right table.

They were placed at those tables by their schools because previous interventions had not worked well enough to help those students master the complex task of making meaning from text.

They likely were not given a choice (a mistake schools often make), but placed into this program because their test scores or their grades were too low.  They usually start out hating the work that we ask them to do—or the fact that they have a seat at that table at all—because they think it means that their school thinks they’re stupid…or slow…or unmotivated…or some other unhelpful story.

But they got a seat at that table and now they are working with a tutor who is trained not to “intervene” but to empower. 

They got a seat at a table with someone who is trained to ask not, “What grade is this person?” but, “What is the right level of challenge for this person?” 

They got a seat at a table with someone who is trained to ask not, “When should this group move up to more challenging text?” but, “When should this person move up to more challenging text?”

They got a seat at a table with a tutor who is trained to help students understand that the brain learns by making mistakes and fixing them, that there is nothing wrong with making mistakes, and that there is nothing wrong with not yet being excellent. 

It can take a while for those students to switch from disempowering stories about themselves to empowering stories, but when they do—they unleash the amazing learning power of their brains and make incredible progress in making meaning from text.  The results are usually life changing. 

It doesn’t just help them to become better readers, it helps them to see themselves as people capable of learning, of growing, of risking and daring.

So, no, I’m not worried about my nephew.

I work with him on reading.  He is making great progress.  His joy as he reads “Green Eggs and Ham” is a beautiful thing.

I teach him that all people learn at different rates and that his job is not to compare himself to his classmates, but just to show up and be a superhero-brain man who is always willing to learn, to fail, and to try and try again.

When we finish reading, I smile at my sister, and tell her not to worry—he is doing just fine.


Please note:  To all teachers and educators involved in interventions—I am not intending to demean the work that you do.  I recognize the intent and the challenge of working with students who are falling behind and needing extra support.  I applaud all efforts to make a difference for these students.  I am intending to suggest that our schools and our systems need to shift to a different mental model that does not view these students through the lens of, “Something is wrong,” but rather through the lens of, “Where are you on the learning curve?” and “How can I give you what your brain needs at this moment of learning?”

 Image by Joao Silas at

Shame and Learning

I am up for creating a world full of vibrant learning for all—and one of the biggest obstacles in my path is shame.  There is not much that shuts down learning faster.  There’s not much that shuts me down faster—that keeps me from taking risks, taking on new projects, or saying what I really believe.  And I’ve been playing the shame game for as long as I can remember.

My earliest, most vivid memory of shame is from first grade.  I made the dreadful mistake of forgetting to wear underwear to school.  But that wasn’t my biggest mistake.  I also was wearing a dress.  Forgetting to wear underwear when you’re in first grade is not such a big deal—unless you’re also wearing a dress.  Then, it’s a big deal.

But even that wasn’t my biggest mistake.  Forgetting to wear underwear when you’re wearing a dress in first grade is recoverable.  Just remember to sit and keep your skirts down.  Don’t go on the monkey bars, don’t go down the slide, and don’t do cartwheels.  Fairly simple.

Or it should have been.  But first grade didn’t come with an instruction manual and nobody told me that the worst thing to do when you’re in first grade and wearing a dress with no underwear is to sit down and cry about it.  I sat and cried.

I sat and cried with my legs splayed, my head in my hands and my sobs bursting forth—and every naturally curious elementary student came over to find out what was wrong and ended up peeking up my skirts.

It took me years to share this story.  And even now, my cheeks are pink with embarrassment and shame.  Yes.  Shame.  Still, after all these years.  I keep thinking, “How could I have been so stupid?  Why didn’t I just hide my mistake instead of blaring it to the whole schoolyard?”

As an adult, I have some compassion and empathy for my seven-year-old self.  But I don’t always have that same compassion for my fifty-year-old self.  I still find myself saying unhelpful and unkind things about myself:  “How could I be so stupid?”  “How come I am still so fat?”  “Woman, you are ugly!”  “You should be better at this by now.”

What does any of this have to do with learning?

In some ways everything.

When I am in the throes of shame, I am not capable of the risk-taking that learning requires.  I pull in.  I shut down.  I hide.  I may not still be sobbing on the playground with my legs splayed, but that little girl is still alive in me shouting, “Don’t be mocked!  Don’t let people laugh at you!  Don’t let them judge you out loud!”

When I pull in, when I hide, when I shut down—I stop learning.  Because learning requires participation, engagement, and being willing to fail.

Learning requires failing and being willing to try again and again and again.  Learning requires asking for and being willing to listen to specific feedback about where we are not yet excellent and how we can improve our product or our process.  Learning requires us to acknowledge that we are not yet perfect.  Learning is an act of courage.  Learning is an act of daring.

In the words of Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, learning requires shame-resilient cultures that “nurture folks who are much more open to soliciting, accepting, and incorporating feedback.  These cultures also nurture engaged, tenacious people who expect to have to try and try again to get it right—people who are much more willing to get innovative and creative in their efforts.”

Schools around the country have been engaged for years in fostering growth mindsets and building grit and resilience in their students.  In my work in schools I have seen evidence of this work that teachers and districts are doing to foster greater resilience.  All of these efforts are admirable and are helping to build shame-resilient cultures in our schools.

Yet, at the same time, the national conversation about schools and teachers is often a shaming conversation.  We blame teachers for the failures of schools to change.  We blame teachers for low test scores.  We blame teachers for lack of student engagement.  We blame teachers for making schooling so expensive. The list of things we blame teachers for is long and often strident.

And even when it is not coming from outside, we often blame ourselves.  “I should have known better.”  “I should have been able to reach that student.”  “I should be better at engaging students.”

And we blame students too…and parents…and subcultures…and ethnicities…and socio-economic status.  The list of who or what is to blame when learning doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen fast enough, is also long and frequently aggressively articulated with ugly words.

But blame and shame are not very effective tools for bringing about the changes we really want and need in public education.

Peter Sheahan, author and CEO of Karrikins Group says:

The secret killer of innovation is shame.  You can’t measure it, but it is there.  Every time someone holds back on an idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part.  That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us from taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.

I love how the Maine Department of Education says it:

It is important to point out that our schools are not struggling due to a lack of effort.  Educators in Maine and across the nation are working harder than ever… [O]our schools are not failing, they are simply obsolete:  They were built for a bygone era, and the world of the 21st century requires something new.  —Education Evolving, Maine Department of Education

Perhaps we can stop talking about how are teachers are failing, or our students are failing, or our schools are failing, and start talking about how to build the new kinds of systems that allow vibrant learning to take place where shame is no longer part of the equation.

To create the kinds of learning environments that allow students to dare greatly, requires allowing educators to dare greatly.  We have to trust in the talents and integrity and creativity of the adults we have entrusted with the education of our children.  We have to empower them to be risk takers, to be willing to seek and receive feedback, to be willing to try new things, to be willing to invent the “something new” without fear of losing jobs or public shaming.