Let’s learn how to play Bizaroo. The fictional game invented by me, five minutes ago. How would you start? Your first attempt would naturally be followed by immediate failure and maybe amused laughter from experienced onlookers.
We would then probably say, ”Wow! It’s hard”, followed by a healthy dose of self deprecation. From there we would seek some help, and it would definitely be useful. As long as you don’t have some serious mental handicap, most people would experience a lot of initial growth. Then eventually a plateau.
More than likely a plateau that lasts most of their lives. Quick basic skill acquisition and then long period of plateaus are the norm for most people learning anything. Plateaus are where dreams of mastery go to die. We either become complacent at our current level or just give up. This is the difference between novice level athletes/artists/musicians and exceptional ones.
Enter the 10,000 hour rule
Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, the notion that mastery requires at least 10,000 hours received a lot of notoriety and pushed Gladwell’s book to best seller status quickly. Although this idea was originally proposed by Florida State Psychology professor Anders Ericsson. Dr. Ericsson is a prominent researcher in the field of skill acquisition and mastery.
Ericsson’s research showed a massive gap in the difference between how ordinary people and experts practice. He concluded,” we know that superior performance does not automatically develop from extensive experience, general education, and domain-related knowledge.”
Instead he proposed there is a huge difference between automatic practice and focused practice, which he called DP (deliberate practice).
“Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” – Bobby Unser
How you practice is MORE IMPORTANT than how long you practice
Our brains are great at running on autopilot, most of the activities we perform flawlessly every day are extremely complicated cognitive tasks.
The problem is running on autopilot while trying to improve just doesn’t work. We might perform well but we aren’t improving. The main reason is simple. Neuroscience research shows that we simply aren’t encoding information as deeply when we’re running on auto pilot mode.
Luckily Dr. Ericsson has researched this extensively and he has broken deliberate practice down into 4 main areas, which we will look at today. I have incorporated these into my own life with huge improvements. If you use these principles you will destroy your own plateaus and improve much faster.
Here are the 4 steps to help you improve much faster:
Step 1: Create a well-defined goal
Yes goals. They are important. Here is an example of a bad goal: Get good at public speaking.
Now a good one. Speak at the next meeting for 1 minute without any pauses, umms, or awws while looking at everyone in the eyes and standing confidently.
The more specific your goal, the more focused your practice can be. Laser sharp focus. Think of one SPECIFIC situation. Answer these questions and visualize yourself in that situation:
- Where are you?
- What are the people around you doing?
- How will you react?
- Feel your body as you imagine yourself going through each movement.
Research shows that just imagining yourself doing something activates all the same areas in the brain as ACTUALLY doing it. Let me rephrase, visualizing something and doing it look the same in MRI scans.
Step 2: Motivation to improve
Motivation is the juice in the engine. It’s the motor oil in your brain keeping all the parts moving and flowing. Experts have clearly defined goals but they are also highly motivated to succeed.
If you want lasting motivation you’ll need a story. A story is the narrative that ties all the ups and downs together to become one continuous landscape. Motivation should be like a journey somewhere through different landscapes.
Don’t focus on one beautiful tree or only an ugly bush, pan out and see all the scenery and know where you are going. Having this clarity is more important than working towards some hedonistic reward as your reward.
Define your story. Ask yourself; Where are you going in one year? Two years? Three years? How does achieving goal 1-10 fit into your overall story?
Step 3: Feedback loops
This may be the hardest part. Ericsson’s research showed that experts always had feedback. Either in the form of a mentor, coach or individual self-directed research where they examined others’ performance.
A mentor or a coach will be instrumental in having a second pair of more experienced eyes examine what you are doing. It is hard to objectively evaluate what you are doing by yourself Don’t have a coach? Ericsson’s research showed that many experts don’t either.
Instead he found many expert chess and tennis players spent hours watching videos of other competitors in an attempt to understand their moves and strategy. If you can’t objectively evaluate yourself, the next best thing is evaluating others.
Learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Just watching others make mistakes can activate our “mirror neurons”. Mirror neurons are special sets of neurons that mirror the behaviour of others as though the observer was acting themselves.
Step 4: Repeat and refine
Focus on your specific goal and don’t get side tracked. This is where persistence comes in. Put in the work but be careful. Stay conscious every time you engage in the process. Don’t just do it automatically while thinking about your weekend plans or what you want to eat.
If you can’t focus now it’s not worth doing it now.Practice time isn’t made equal. Focused practice beats just doing it half heartedly. While you are engaging in practice constantly adjust what works and get rid of what doesn’t work.
“The harder you work the luckier you get.” – Gary Player
Putting it all together!
While none of these points are new, using them all together will be able to shift your skill acquisition from that of a normal person to an expert.
Focus on these four fundamentals to learn more efficiently and faster:
- Create an extremely specific well defined goal-Specific over general goals. One thing at a time.
- Stay Motivated-What is your story? Why are you engaging in this particular goal? What its value in the long term?
- Get feedback-Either a coach or watch others perform the same action while observing and learning
- Repeat and Refine-If you can’t focus now, it’s not worth doing now.
Be persistent. Laser focus, backed up by indomitable motivation refining what works and killing what doesn’t, this is Ericsson’s deliberate practice.
Whenever we encounter something truly awe-inspiring that we can barely comprehend how it was created we naturally wonder how someone could be so talented. But every time we receive the same answers, focused work and years of effort.
Apply these principles and be consistent and one day someone will be wondering how you became so good.