I started taking driving lessons when I was 14. Then transitioned into Driver’s Ed. when I was 15 and a half. My first driver’s test was atrocious. I passed, but barely.
I took the turn WAAAAAAY too wide when I was backing up.
And I might have driven the wrong way down a one-way street. (HINT: I did.)
I like to imagine that in the 20 years since I started driving that I’ve gotten better. Of course, I have, right!? I’ve been doing it for nearly 2 decades now.
So imagine my surprise when I still can’t manage to parallel park. Or backup successfully. Or read street signs worth a damn.
• • • •
Most of us approach skill acquisition in a pretty haphazard way. We see something we want to get better at. We get “good enough” to manage that skill. We rest on our laurels for eternity.
Time may heal all wounds but it can’t make you better at something.
Not in and of itself, anyway.
The way I drive is very much the way I’ve always driven. And that is due, in part, to the fact that I don’t think about it much when I do it. I’m just trying to get from one place to the other without crashing.
In other words, I’m on autopilot.
How true is this of a lot of the skills we develop?
- You download a new software app. You know *just* enough to get by. Then 6 months later someone shows you something amazing that you never knew it could do. Because you were using it on autopilot.
- You play a song on your guitar a couple times a night. But you can’t say for certain how many times you played it correctly because you were playing it on autopilot.
- You go to open skate once a week. Your skating never seems to improve, though. Because you’re strolling around the rink on autopilot.
For a lot of things, it doesn’t matter. Good enough is, indeed, good enough. But what happens when good enough ISN’T? How do you practice when you want to be BETTER than good enough?
MAKING YOUR PRACTIC PURPOSEFUL
According to the book Peak: The New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericcson and Rober Pool, the type of ‘practice’ listed above is naive practice. For awhile, this type of practice can produce results because you’re SO new at the skill you’re trying to develop that you can’t help but improve.
However, the learning curve of naive practice levels out over time. Once you’re good enough to get by, you stop getting better. Autopilot, remember?
Here’s how to make your practice purposeful instead:
1) Set a well-defined and specific goal.
Since it’s so easy to drop into autopilot when you’re practicing something, set up a marker against which to measure your progress as you go.
In the case of playing a musical instrument, don’t just play the music through 10 times because that’s what you were told to do. That’s a recipe for your brain to take a break and for you to continue making the same playing mistakes that you always do.
Pledge to play it all the way through without a mistake 3 times in a row.
The general goal of “getting better” as to be turned into something specific. What will you do to get better? What can you realistically work on based on where you’re at right now? What will you have some measure of success at doing? Then proceed to do just that.
2) Get focused.
The exact opposite of autopilot.
The truth is that, with most skills, we’re eventually trying to reach automaticity. Being able to do the thing WITHOUT having to think too hard about it. But when you’re first starting out, your brain needs to be involved fully.
According to Anders Ericsson, “You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.”
3) Accept feedback.
Feedback is a scary word. For most of us, it implies some sort of judgment. But feedback isn’t critical. It’s simply another tool at your disposal.
Feedback needs to exist within whatever you’re practicing to help you identify successes and failures. Not to berate yourself for all the things you can’t do but to help you pinpoint the specific things you can change right now.
This is your check-in. How close are you to reaching your goal? What strengths are you developing? What weaknesses need to be shored up? Is it time to jump to a new, specific goal?
4) Escape your comfort zone.
If you never leave your comfort zone, you’ll never improve.
This is the hard truth of learning how to do anything better. Your comfort zone is the place where your autopilot lives. If you give them a chance to take over, they will. So you need to ensure that your specific goals are designed to push you outside of what you can currently do.
You HAVE to attempt to do things that you couldn’t do before. That’s how skills build. Incrementally. From one thing you couldn’t do into the next thing you couldn’t do into the next thing you couldn’t do. Until you can do a lot of things that you couldn’t do before.
TRY DIFFERENTLY, NOT HARDER
But what about plateaus?
They happen. And they will continue to happen as you gain new skills. But the above approach ALWAYS works.
Often, when we hit a plateau we want to push ourselves HARDER. “If I just put in more effort,” we think, “I’m bound to continue improving.”
Sometimes that’s true.
However, it’s also possible that you’ve reached the end of your current training strategy. Once you reach a certain point of improvement and get stuck, take some time to look around at your current barrier and devise a new approach to tackling the barrier.
“Whenever you’re trying to improve at something, you will run into such obstacles — points at which it seems impossible to progress, or at least where you have no idea what you should do in order to improve. This is natural. What is not natural is a true dead-stop obstacle, one that is impossible to get around, over, or through. […] it is surprisingly rare to get clear evidence […] that a person has reached some immutable limit on performance. […] people more often just give up and stop trying to improve.”
Try harder AND smarter.
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