In the last couple of years new research and books have been released on the topic of learning, talent, and success. As it turns out, much of what we assume about learning and talent doesn’t hold up. Two common fallacies are that some people are just naturally talented at certain things, and that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.
According to the studies, pretty much anyone can become awesome at pretty much anything, it just depends on whether you are willing to make the commitment necessary.
This interesting thing for me is that reading these books came at the same time as i started learning a new skill – playing the Indian Bansuri flute – so it was a great opportunity to understand how my own learning happened in reference to these new ideas.
The key concept to understand is called Deliberate Practice. Most of us have many skills that we can perform reasonable well – swimming, cooking, giving presentations, a sport, business negotiations, Sudoku etc etc. When we were learning these skills, we practiced, and we made mistakes and we learnt. The reason that most people never take their skills from a ‘fun’ level to an ‘expert’ level is that they stop practicing, and stick within their comfort zone. They swim laps the way they know how, they play piano for pleasure by performing entire pieces, they give the sale sales pitch that has worked in the past.
Taking that skill to the next level requires Deliberate Practice. This means identifying a weak area, and practicing that area intensely. It could be correcting a swimming stroke, accuracy in hitting a backhand, delivering a sales line convincingly, correct timing of a musical piece. Anything. You figure out what is lacking and practice that skill again and again, without interruption, for up to 90 mins at a time, until it improves. And they you pick the next weak area and do the same again. Why don’t people generally do this? Because it is not fun and it requires draining concentration, and typically people want to use these skills for pleasure.
I’ve been able to utilise this in my own learning. When i just play for fun, i don’t get better. When I pick something difficult, and play the same thing again and again (like a tricky scale) it shows up as improvement in other parts of my playing as well.
To become truly awesome at something, requires about 10,000 hours of this type of practice, but we don’t necessarily have to go that far 🙂
To push yourself through this process, you need to be seriously motivated towards success. There is no way you will be able to apply Deliberate Practice in an area in which you are not really that interested. There are a million tips and tricks on how to motivate yourself, but for those times that you are really struggling…..
You need a great support network. Part of the reason that kids learn so much is that parents force them to learn, making them go to classes, no TV until homework is finished etc etc. The same thing holds true even as an adult, the more people you have around you who will push you in the right direction, and stop you missing practice, the faster you will learn.
Finally, you need coaching and advice. There are many problems in your performance that you will never notice or understand until an expert tells you how to make yourself better. The better your coach/advisor/mentor, the better you can become.
And that is pretty much it. There is a lot of science behind all this – including changes to your body that result from Deliberate Practice that increase the speed of signals travelling along your nerve fibres.
In some ways it’s great to know that you can succeed at whatever you choose, but it also removes the excuse that “I’m not talented at that”.
A couple of references: