Becoming The Best At What You Do
How great would you feel if you could dramatically and quickly increase some skill or area of expertise in your life? What doors might open that are now closed? Or, at a more basic level, how much more fun might life be if you could become much better at the things you love doing?
Max Deutsch is a 25-year-old entrepreneur who decided to challenge himself to ‘master’ one new skill a month over the course of a year. These challenges included solving a Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds; playing a 5-minute improvisational blues guitar solo; hold a 30-minute conversation in Hebrew, and more. In none of these areas did he already possess significant skills.
After having succeeded in meeting each of the first eleven challenges Max came to the final test… learn to play chess well enough to compete with, and defeat, the top rated chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen.
I won’t spoil the ending of the story, but the important point is how Mr. Deutsch prepared himself for the match. That is, how he approached the task of rapidly increasing his prowess at chess (and each of those other challenges he had set for himself). Although the particulars of this approach are found in the previous link, the more general principles guiding his approach are what you really need to know.
Why? Because this approach can help anyone dramatically increase his or her skills in whatever area of life it is applied. It still requires time and effort (you’ve got to pay your dues) but the learning curve becomes accelerated. Put somewhat differently, using these principles means you get a lot more ‘bang for your buck’ from each hour of practice time.
The Road To Peak Performance
So what is the secret to winning such rewards? PRACTICE.
Not just any type of practice, but deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology in Florida, is a leading researcher in the field of skill acquisition. He coined the term ‘deliberate practice’ to distinguish it from regular practice.
In regular practice for sports, music and other areas where success requires developing a high level of skill, there is a tendency for many people to “go through the motions” of repetitive routines. This is often justified by the idea that such repetition will develop “muscle memory”, or it will “lay down a solid foundation.”
Partly, this is true. But for most people that approach leads to an early stagnation of skills, and they never come close to developing to their real potential.
What makes matters worse is that after someone acquires basic skills in some area of interest, they are then likely to spend more of their practice time focused on whatever abilities fall within their ‘comfort zone.’
The new guitar player, for example, having learned several basic chords is likely to focus much of his practice time continuing to play songs requiring those finger positions that have already been learned. The more challenging aspects of the guitar (barre chords, finger picking) will receive less attention.
Why does this happen? The answer is straight forward. The new guitar player derives more enjoyment from practicing those skills that provide immediate enjoyment, or a sense of competency. When the young guitarist plays familiar chords and the result is a familiar melody, gladness and great joy fill his heart.
On the other hand, when the earnest young guitarist plays barre chords, or attempts an adagio, the resulting sounds can be similar to a feral animal being caged and tormented. Not pleasant, and this fills the young guitarist with great sadness and a sense of futility.
At this point in the learning curve it becomes much more rewarding to focus one’s practice time on those skills that have developed nicely. Those skills that make the would be guitarist feel that progress has been made.
The unfortunate consequence of focusing practice time on one’s strengths is that overall progress begins to taper off. An early plateau is reached. If one strategically includes a focus on building skill where weaknesses remain, however, the learning curve looks very different.
In this case, learning continues to advance. Often in a series of step wise progressions wherein gains are made, followed by a brief leveling off before further gains are then made.
It takes persistence, a modicum of confidence, and a steady grasp of long-term rewards, in order to focus one’s practice sessions on shoring up weaknesses. Focusing on strengths is much more rewarding in the present, but as you can see from the graph above, in the long run it keeps you from living up to your potential.
This principle applies throughout many areas of our lives. Consider the financial impact of this dynamic when applied to family budgeting. Most of us are strongly tempted to focus on immediate rewards, and as a result spend money that could go toward the future on things that provide pleasure in the present. That may include new cars, clothes, large homes, vacations, dinners out, and so forth.
Other souls, those who have trained themselves to be more Spartan in their immediate indulgences, put aside large sums of their earnings and apply them to investments with the aim of enhancing their future financial success. These are the people who are most likely to have acquired a tidy ‘nest egg’ sometime later in life. As Dave Ramsey would say, they have “lived like no one else so that later, they can live and give like no one else.”
The principle is the same whether it be applied to finances, health, exercise or the practice of a skill. By overly focusing on what is immediately gratifying one ends up forfeiting greater rewards in the future.
What Is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice takes the opposite approach to ‘practice as usual.’ It contains the following components.
1. Focus intensely on a small piece of the full skill set that you wish to acquire. Over time each component of the skill set will be focused upon with great intensity, and the various parts then integrated into a whole. In judo, for example, this could require the athlete to spend several weeks practicing just the initial step and body positioning required when executing a shoulder throw. After expertise is acquired on this part of the throw, the judo player then focuses on the skills needed to grasp an opponent’s arm and gi. Eventually all components of the throw will be mastered and integrated.
2. Spend more time training on areas of weakness than areas of strength. For example, the aspiring singer will spend more time learning to hit those notes that she find difficult to reach rather than focusing on those songs with melodies that are well within her current abilities.
3. Practice with intentionality. Take the time to consider what goal is to be reached, then break down the skills required to reach that goal into a sequence of steps. The focus of practice sessions is then placed on developing mastery of these specific skills in the order outlined by the sequenced steps. As the number of skills that have been mastered increases, you begin to integrate them one with another (just as was described in the example of learning a Judo throw).
4. Feedback is required to practice most effectively. This can be provided by a coach, tutor, or self-observation (e.g., if your goal is to become a strong public speaker, you might record yourself giving a talk to an empty room, then listen to the recording and make notes on how your speech could be improved, and based on this self-feedback give the speech again).
Practicing without feedback is similar to trying to navigate across the ocean without looking at the stars, or referring to a compass. Feedback is necessary in order to make adjustments that lead you to your destination. That’s true whether your destination is the other side of the world, mastering a new dance step, or making a gourmet meal.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen that people are nearly always capable of achieving more than they realize. When motivation, support, and a plan for moving forward are present, people will often surprise themselves by achieving what they had thought impossible.
My challenge is that you pick a goal (it need not be lofty goal, just one that appeals to you). Then set a date to begin working toward the goal. Also set aside blocks of time throughout the week that will be devoted to practicing. Use the deliberate practice approach for developing your skills, and watch your progress steadily climb.
Once you see how well this approach works with one goal, you’ll want to use it on other goals as well. After a time, it will become a well-honed skill that you can apply to many areas of your life.