How to get better at anything

You probably have at least a skill or two that you would like to improve. What kind of exercises do you need to do to get better as fast as possible? There are people who seem to learn and progress much faster than others who have been at it for years. Why is that so?

K. Anders Ericsson has studied for many years how top performers in a variety of activities train and what he has found is this:

  • Experts spend a lot of time training.
  • How they train differs a lot from how others who don’t reach the same level of performance train.

In other words, if you want to improve at something you are going to need to spend time practicing and spend it intelligently.

He also found that inborn or genetic talent may have an impact but the difference between people deemed to have talent and no talent is minimal after they reach a certain level.

Deliberate practice is the name he dubbed to this intelligent and conscious way of training that separates the good from the best and that allows you to improve as fast as we know.

Principles of deliberate practice

It is an activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help

Every person and every level of performance has different requirements. The same exercise may be effective for one person because of their physical attributes and not for another, and the same exercise may help a rookie chess player but may not help anymore a grandmaster. The more complex a skill is the more benefit from a good teacher or coach with wide experience.

This blog, however, is designed to help people who want to improve by themselves without access to a coach and as a poor substitute of a teacher. You will regularly find in this blog new exercises, principles related to high performance and knowledge acquisition and interviews with people who are experts of their fields to try to learn from them.

It can be repeated a lot

This is what differentiates deliberate practice from doing a task for real. In order for high repetition practice to be effective you need to make sure that you “choose a properly demanding activity in your learning zone” and that you practice a mindbogglingly number of times. In other words, you need to choose exercises that represent a challenge for you, and do them a lot. The less repeatable an exercise the harder it will be to improve from it.

Feedback on results is continuously available

“You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring. […] Getting feedback on most practice activities is easy. […] Difficulties arise when the results require interpretation. […] These are situations in which a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”

If you hit a golf ball and it goes awry it’s easy you see it immediately and you can correct course meaning that you will be able to improve faster. However if you are a doctor making a diagnosis it’s way harder for you to improve through normal contact with patients because the feedback you will get, if any, can take place weeks or months after you have made your prediction and correcting in that scene is much much harder.

It is highly demanding mentally

“Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in. Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities.

[…] The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.”

This means that you shouldn’t expect to be able to practice for eight hours a day, no matter how fast you would like to improve, we are not physically able to do it.

It isn’t much fun

“Instead of doing what we’re good at, we insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see—or get others to tell us—exactly what still isn’t right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we’ve just done. We continue that process until we’re mentally exhausted.”

You can think of it as forcing our bodies or minds to fail, take advantage of their antifragility, their ability to grow when pushed past their limits, and get prepared for doing it better the next time. As you can imagine this is painful at a physical and mental level

Takeaways

When you are designing your own deliberate practice exercises make sure they pass the following checklist to get the most results:

  • The exercise is targeting a specific performance area that I’m doing poorly.
  • I can repeat the exercise with very high frequency.
  • I can get feedback on how well I’m doing immediately.
  • It’s so exhausting I can’t do it for more than 90 minutes.
  • It’s not necessarily fun (optional).

More info

All the quotes from this article were extracted from the book “Talent is Overrated” by Geoffrey Colvin.

In the past few years several good books have been published on the topic of expert performance and deliberate practice. Here are some of the books that I have read and that I recommend:

If you want to learn more about antifragility:

comments powered by Disqus