PART THREE: SUSTAINING PROGRESS – Embrace Repetition, Cultivate Grit, and Keep Big Goals Secret
Developing talent is like taking a cross-country hike. You will encounter challenges; you will hit snags, plateaus, and steep paths; motivation will ebb and flow. To sustain progress, it’s necessary to be flexible one moment and stubborn the next, to deal with immediate obstacles while staying focused on the horizon: in short, to be a resourceful traveler. The tips in this section are meant to give you a few tools for the journey.
TIP #43 EMBRACE REPETITION
Repetition has a bad reputation. We tend to think of it as dull and uninspiring. But this perception is titanically wrong. Repetition is the single most powerful lever we have to improve our skills, because it uses the built-in mechanism for making the wires of our brains faster and more accurate (see the Appendix, this page).
When U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 mounted its May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, it prepared by constructing full-scale replicas of the compound in North Carolina and Nevada, and rehearsing for three weeks. Dozens of times the SEALs simulated the operation. Dozens of times, they created various conditions they might encounter. They used the power of repetition to build the circuitry needed for the job.
Another example: Moe Norman was a shy Canadian who played briefly on the professional golf tour in the 1960s and ’70s. He was also, in most estimations, the most accurate golfer in history. Norman shot seventeen holes in one, three scores of 59, and, in Tiger Woods’s estimation, ranked as one of two golfers in history who “owned their swing” (the other was Ben Hogan). Norman was also a likely autistic who, at a young age, became enraptured by the power of repetition. From the age of sixteen onward, Norman hit eight hundred to a thousand balls a day, five days a week; calluses grew so thick on his hands he had to pare them with a knife. Because of his emotional struggles, Norman had difficulty competing in tournaments. But at a demonstration in 1995, he hit fifteen hundred drives in a row, all of them landing within fifteen yards of each other. As Woods put it, Norman “woke up every day and knew he was going to hit it well. Every day. It’s frightening how straight he hits it.”
Embracing repetition means changing your mindset; instead of viewing it as a chore, view it as your most powerful tool. As the martial artist and actor Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.”
TIP #44 HAVE A BLUE-COLLAR MIND-SET
From a distance, top performers seem to live charmed, cushy lives. When you look closer, however, you’ll find that they spend vast portions of their life intensively practicing their craft. Their mind-set is not entitled or arrogant; it’s 100-percent blue collar: They get up in the morning and go to work every day, whether they feel like it or not.
As the artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs.”
TIP #45 FOR EVERY HOUR OF COMPETITION, SPEND FIVE HOURS PRACTICING
Games are fun. Tournaments are exciting. Contests are thrilling. They also slow skill development, for four reasons:
1. The presence of other people diminishes an appetite for risks, nudging you away from the sweet spot.
2. Games reduce the number of quality reps.
3. The pressure of games distorts priorities, encouraging shortcuts in technique.
4. Games encourage players, coaches, and parents to judge success by the scoreboard rather than by how much was learned.
At Spartak, the tennis club in Moscow, coaches enforce a simple rule: Young players must practice for three years before entering competitive tournaments. (See Tip #10.) While I can’t imagine that such a rule would fly in America, it reflects Spartak’s determination to build trusty, reliable forehands and backhands before injecting the distorting pressures of competition.
Don’t get me wrong. Public competition is a great thing. It teaches invaluable lessons about teamwork, it helps build emotional control, and it’s fun. But it’s also, in many cases, a deeply inefficient way to improve skill. One solution to the problem is to make public performance a special occasion, not a routine. A five-to-one ratio of practice time to performance time is a good starting point; ten to one is even better.
TIP #46 DON’T WASTE TIME TRYING TO BREAK BAD HABITS—INSTEAD, BUILD NEW ONES
When it comes to dealing with bad habits, many of us try to attack the problem head-on, by trying to break the habit. This tactic, of course, doesn’t work, and we’re left with the old truth—habits are tough to break. The blame lies with our brains. While they are really good at building circuits, they are awful at unbuilding them. Try as you might to break it, the bad habit is still up there, wired into your brain, waiting patiently for a chance to be used.
The solution is to ignore the bad habit and put your energy toward building a new habit that will override the old one. A good example of this technique is found in the work of the Shyness Clinic, a program based in Los Altos, California, that helps chronically shy people improve their social skills. The clinic’s therapists don’t delve into a client’s personal history; they don’t try to “fix” anything. Instead, they focus on building new skills through what they call a social fitness model: a series of simple, intense, gradually escalating workouts that develop new social muscles. One of the first workouts for a Shyness Clinic client is to walk up to a stranger and ask for the time. Each day the workout grows more strenuous—soon clients are asking five strangers for the time, making phone calls to acquaintances, or chatting with a stranger in an elevator. After a few months, some clients are “socially fit” enough to perform the ultimate workout: They walk into a crowded grocery store, lift a watermelon above their head, and purposely drop it on the floor, triumphantly enduring the stares of dozens of strangers. (The grocery store cleanup crew doesn’t enjoy this quite as much as the clients do.)
To build new habits, start slowly. Expect to feel stupid and clumsy and frustrated at first—after all, the new wires haven’t been built yet, and your brain still wants to follow the old pattern. Build the new habit by gradually increasing the difficulty, little by little. It takes time, but it’s the only way new habits grow. For more insights on this process, read The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.
TIP #47 TO LEARN IT MORE DEEPLY, TEACH IT
We instinctively tend to separate learners into groups based on skill and age—the twelve-year-olds over here, the thirteen-year-olds over there. Many talent hotbeds, however, use an open floor plan, where groups of various ages are mingled so they can watch, teach, and learn from each other. I saw a baseball practice on Frank Curiel Field in Curaçao that featured ninety kids, aged seven to sixteen. Each older player was paired off with a younger player, teaching them how to bat, throw, and catch. I also saw this dynamic at several successful Montessori schools I visited, where classes were intermingled to create this same dynamic: The older kids teach the younger ones.
This works because when you communicate a skill to someone, you come to understand it more deeply yourself. Mixed-age groups also provide younger children vivid models to stare at (see Tip #1), and nourish empathy in older children. When you see someone struggle, and help them through it, you improve your ability to deal with your own struggles. The saying “Those who can’t do, teach” should be rewritten as “Doers who teach do better.”
TIP #48 GIVE A NEW SKILL A MINIMUM OF EIGHT WEEKS
When it comes to growing new skills, eight weeks seems to be an important threshold. It’s the length of many top-level training programs around the world, from the Navy SEALs’ physical-conditioning program to the Meadowmount School of Music program to the clinics of the Bolshoi Ballet to the mission training for the Mercury astronauts. A recent study at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that practicing meditation for twenty-seven minutes a day created lasting brain changes in (you guessed it) eight weeks.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can be proficient in any skill in eight weeks. Rather, it underlines two more basic points: 1) Constructing and honing neural circuitry takes time, no matter who you are; and 2) Resilience and grit are vital tools, particularly in the early phases of learning. Don’t make judgments too early. Keep at it, even if you don’t feel immediate improvement. Give your talent (that is, your brain) the time it needs to grow.
TIP #49 WHEN YOU GET STUCK, MAKE A SHIFT
We all know the feeling. You start out in a new skill, you progress swiftly for a while, and then all of a sudden … you stop. Those are called plateaus. I hit one recently, in fact, after our family bought a Ping-Pong table. For a few months, I improved each time I played. Then, suddenly, the progress stopped. This was a problem, because my teenage son, who hadn’t hit his plateau, started thumping me. The scores went from being fairly even to 21–10, 21–8. What happened?
A plateau happens when your brain achieves a level of automaticity; in other words, when you can perform a skill on autopilot, without conscious thought. Our brains love autopilot, because in most situations it’s pretty handy. It lets us chew gum and walk and ride bikes without having to think about it, freeing our brains for more important tasks. When it comes to developing talent, however, autopilot is the enemy, because it creates plateaus.
Research by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and coeditor of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, shows that the best way past a plateau is to jostle yourself beyond it; to change your practice method so you disrupt your autopilot and rebuild a faster, better circuit. One way to do this is to speed things up—to force yourself to do the task faster than you normally would. Or you can slow things down—going so slowly that you highlight previously undetected mistakes. Or you can do the task in reverse order, turn it inside out or upside down. It doesn’t matter which technique you use, as long as you find a way to knock yourself out of autopilot and into your sweet spot.
In my case, it turned out that one half of our Ping-Pong table could be raised into a vertical position, creating a practice wall. I started hitting against the wall a few minutes a day. At first it felt awkward and wrong—the ball, rebounding from a few feet closer than I was accustomed to, shot back at me so quickly that I could barely get a paddle on it. But I got used to it, gradually adjusting to the faster pace. The games with my son got a lot more competitive; I even started winning a few.
TIP #50 CULTIVATE YOUR GRIT
Grit is that mix of passion, perseverance, and self-discipline that keeps us moving forward in spite of obstacles. It’s not flashy, and that’s precisely the point. In a world in which we’re frequently distracted by sparkly displays of skill, grit makes the difference in the long run.
Recently, a University of Pennsylvania researcher named Angela Duckworth measured the influence of grit on twelve hundred first-year West Point cadets before they began a brutal summer training course called the Beast Barracks. Before the course began, she gave the cadets a brief test: seventeen questions that asked them to rate their own ability to stick to goals, to be motivated by failure, and to persist in the face of obstacles. It turned out that this test—which took about two minutes to complete—was uncannily accurate at predicting whether or not a cadet succeeded, far exceeding West Point’s complex set of predictive criteria, including IQ, psychological test results, grade-point average, and physical fitness. The grit test has since been used to predict success in schools, business, and a variety of other settings.
TIP #51 KEEP YOUR BIG GOALS SECRET
While it’s natural and oh so tempting to want to announce big goals, it’s smarter to keep them to yourself. In a 2009 experiment at New York University, 163 subjects were given a difficult work project and forty-five minutes to spend on it. Half the subjects were told to announce their goals, while half were told to keep quiet. The subjects who announced their goals quit after only an average of thirty-three minutes, and reported feeling satisfied with their work. Those who kept their mouths shut, however, worked the entire forty-five minutes, and remained strongly motivated. (In fact, when the experiment ended, they wanted to keep working.)
Telling others about your big goals makes them less likely to happen, because it creates an unconscious payoff—tricking our brains into thinking we’ve already accomplished the goal. Keeping our big goals to ourselves is one of the smartest goals we can set.
TIP #52 “THINK LIKE A GARDENER, WORK LIKE A CARPENTER”
We all want to improve our skills quickly—today, if not sooner. But the truth is, talent grows slowly. You would not criticize a seedling because it was not yet a tall oak tree; nor should you get upset because your skill circuitry is in the growth stage. Instead, build it with daily deep practice.
To do this, it helps to “think like a gardener and work like a carpenter.” I heard this saying at Spartak. Think patiently, without judgment. Work steadily, strategically, knowing that each piece connects to a larger whole.