The ability to learn new skills is the entry ticket for being a knowledge worker. If you can’t learn and adapt, you fall flat on your face. But not all of us learn at the same pace, and not all of us reach the same level of mastery. Some of us get better with experience, and some of us seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over. Why?
When we learn any new skill, we usually learn just enough to become competent, and then our brains switch to autopilot. They’re lazy that way.
The brain tries to conserve as much energy as it can. And while practice is easy, deliberate practice is not.
So much of success is just showing up day after day and grinding away at the hard parts in a deep and focused way. However simple that sounds, it’s not easy. And that’s why most of us struggle to get better.
Perhaps an example will help illustrate what I’m talking about. Consider driving. Most of us can drive. It’s a skill we learned. At first, we were terrible and nervous. Through deliberate practice and coaching, we got better and better. We reached some level of competence and verified this through a test. I don’t know about you, but despite having spent thousands of hours behind the wheel since then, I’ve probably gotten only marginally better at driving.
There are many reasons. One is that I lack feedback. There is no expert coaching me and telling me where to improve. Another reason is that I don’t even know what I want to improve. What does it mean to become a better driver? Getting better sounds like a lot of work. And that’s the rub.
We’re hard-wired to avoid pain. This tendency includes reflecting on our decisions as well as practicing skills. Once we reach some base level of competence, we practice that part over and over and shy away from the parts that might make us better. In short, I’ve been driving the same way for thousands of hours, practicing skills I already had instead of trying new things.
“By nature, we humans shrink from anything that seems possibly painful or overtly difficult.”
— Robert Greene
However, a base level of competence doesn’t get us ahead of anyone or set us apart. The base-level comprises the most easily acquired aspects of any particular skill and the bare minimum we need to do to claim that skill. And most of the time, we’ve learned the conventional way of doing things — it’s a form of social proof where we just mimic what other people have done. Because we acquire the most easily accessible parts of any skill, we also over-estimate our competence. (I think this is why we all rate ourselves as above average at very basic things like driving.)
Stopping here is a hallmark of amateurs.
The only way to get better at a task is through deliberate practice. The idea is simple: instead of avoiding pain, you dive in. How?
First, use the mental model of Galilean Relativity to switch perspectives and see yourself through the eyes of others. This will allow you to recognize the areas that you need to improve. Recognizing these areas is necessary if you want to improve.
Second, set aside time for dedicated focus on the specific area you want to improve. A lot of people don’t understand this, but when you’re really focused on something, you can rapidly get better at it. At any given time, most of us are only half-focused on what we’re doing. (How many browser tabs are open right now? What’s on your grocery list?) You really need to immerse yourself in the task at hand.
You also need feedback. Sometimes the task itself can give you feedback, sometimes you’ll want a coach, and sometimes you can have both. When I was learning to drive, the car was giving me instant feedback, but my learning was accelerated by having a coach tell me what was happening, why, and how I could handle it.
Third, push the limits of what you can do so you understand your boundaries. This also helps you stay calm if things don’t go as planned. Driving in the snow is not easy, and it’s often dangerous. I remember one day when my instructor took me to an empty parking lot covered in snow. He looked at me and said, “I want you to go as fast as you can and lose control of the car.”
I was shocked.
“You’re going to lose control of a car in the snow at some point. Might as well be here where no one is around.”
And that day probably saved my life. I knew what it felt like to lose control of the car. And because I knew what to expect, I wasn’t panicked when it happened. More important, through practicing over and over for hours, I knew the best strategies to regain control of the car.
Finally, rinse and repeat over and over again.
You don’t want to do this level of work with every skill. But if you can identify the ones that give you leverage, doing this work is how you get better.