How NOT to Develop Your Talent: The 3 Deadly Habits



We spend a healthy amount of time here trying to identify good habits for building skill. In fact, we do it so much that I can’t help but wonder: what if we turned the question on its head? What if we tried to identify the worst, most unproductive, most deadly habits? What habits are skill-killers? What’s the fastest way to slow down your talent development?

Let’s start with a well-established truth: many top performers are obsessive about critically reviewing their performances – either on videotape or with a coach or teacher.

A good example of this is Bill Robertie, who’s a world-class poker player, world champ in backgammon, and a grand master in chess (and who’s written about by Alina Tugend in her soon-to-be-released book Better by Mistake). Robertie reviews every game obsessively—even the ones he wins—searching for tiny mistakes, critiquing his decisions, breaking it down. The same is true of many top athletes, musicians, comedians, and (I can vouch) writers.

Which leads us to Deadly Habit #1: Thou Shalt Ignore Your Mistakes.

  • In order to develop your talent slowly, you should never, ever review your performance. You should regard errors as unfortunate, unavoidable events, and do your best to immediately hide their existence or, even better, erase them from your memory.

Another general truth about top performers is that they love rituals. Whether Rafael Nadal prepping for a serve or Yo-Yo Ma prepping a sonata, a lot of top performers are addicted to idiosyncratic, persnickety rituals that seem, to the neutral observer, insanely detailed and RainMan-esque. They tie their sneakers just so, they place their violin case at a certain precise angle.  These behaviors are usually described as a superstition, but I think that misses the point: their ritual is their unique way of prepping themselves to deliver a performance.

Which brings us to Deadly Habit #2: Thou Shalt Avoid Ritual.

  • In order to develop your talent slowly, you should approach each practice and performance as if you’ve never, ever done it before. You should be casual. You should avoid any repetition of actions, thoughts, or patterns of any kind, and instead make every day completely different.

A third commonality of top performers is that they are thieves. They are incurable shoplifters of ideas and techniques, constantly scanning the landscape for something they can use. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Which gives us Deadly Habit #3: Thou Shalt Not Steal.

  • In order to develop your talent slowly, you should regard your talent as your own private creation, and your challenges as private challenges that only you can solve. Don’t look elsewhere for guidance; certainly not to other performers.

It’s interesting to note that each of these deadly habits is not a big thing. They are small, nearly innocuous-seeming patterns that we can all fall into. We’ve all ignored past mistakes, avoided ritual, and failed to find guidance in the experiences of others. But here’s the real point: perhaps these little habits are a lot bigger than we might think.

This point is underlined by a fascinating paper I just bumped into called The Mundanity of Excellence, by Daniel Chambliss. Chambliss makes a powerful case that top performers aren’t great because of any overarching superiority, but rather because they do a lot of ordinary things very well. They pay attention to detail. They make each repetition count. They seek small, incremental improvements one at a time, every single day. And these little habits, over time, add up to great performance.

As Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Mary T. Meagher puts it, “People don’t know how ordinary success is.”

Of course, these three habits aren’t the only ones. What other deadly habits are out there? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Rate This

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Share This

Bookmark and Share

21 Responses to “How NOT to Develop Your Talent: The 3 Deadly Habits”

  1. Mark P says:

    If we are to avoid rituals, how come folders are always told to have a preshot routine.

  2. Joe Trinsey says:

    Seemingly in contradiction to #2, but not really:

    Deadly Habit #2a: Thou Shalt Avoid Experimentation.

    * In order to develop your talent slowly, you should approach each practice and performance the same way you always do. You should be robotic. You should avoid any experimentation with new action, thoughts, or patterns, particularly those observed from others. Seek to do things, “the way I usually do,” or, “how I was taught.” At all costs, avoid doing things that will draw unwanted attention.

  3. Dustin C says:

    The paragraph after #2 is in complete contradiction with rule #3. Top performers steal ideas and techniques, but you shouldn’t if you want to be successful. That makes so much sense..

    “A third commonality of top performers is that they are thieves. They are incurable shoplifters of ideas and techniques, constantly scanning the landscape for something they can use. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.””

  4. Scott B says:

    Here’s a deadly habit – constant distraction. That is, consumption of media, TV, internet, gaming, and music. We’re “amusing ourselves to death” with entertainment (not to mention snacking).

  5. Peter V. says:

    Nice post and complete agree on the point, “they do a lot of ordinary things very well.”

    However, Joe brings up an important aspect of practice – experimentation, or more generally, adding variation. The motor learning and skill acquisition literature is clear in the benefits of random over blocked practice and variable over constant practice. Dr. Richard Schmidt (motor learning authority) said it most concisely: “Repetition without Repetitiveness”.

    Variable/random practice is invaluable in preparing the performer to execute, not in practice, but when (and where) it counts. And this means that performance when it matters and NOT performance during practice should be the criterion against which we evaluate the effectiveness of our practices.

    As always, great stuff – looking forward to Alina’s book.

  6. djcoyle says:

    I think that’s spot-on — as is Joe’s point — and thanks for summing it up so nicely. I should have been clearer: the rituals I’m referring to have mostly to do with pre-performance — the kinds of idiosyncrasies (like a pre-shot routine in golf) used to cue the mind for performance. When it comes to practice, however, experimentation rules. As the ski coach Warren Witherell says, great practice is about exploration, not execution.

  7. Joe Trinsey says:

    Peter V, the comment on random vs block and constant vs variable makes me ask… are you by any chance Peter Vint?

  8. Chris Frank says:

    Great post! I think this is the converse of the HSE you write about in the book….

    Look at the gap and become demoralized. If you’re a musician, compare yourself to someone like Yo-Yo Ma, notice the gap between his skill and yours, get depressed, give up. This happens to kids a lot, especially in math class.

  9. Bill Forward says:

    Love this post. How about this habit:

    “Always bear in mind that your successes are the result of dumb luck and your failures are your inevitable norm. After all, if you were really any good, most of your efforts would be excellent.”

  10. Jason says:

    Thou shall not start unless thou knows exactly what thou is going to do.

    There always comes a point where you need bundle up what you know and leap.

  11. JohnGM says:

    Hi. I was wondering is it okay to listen to music while you delibrate practice. Does it help you. I think it does. Personally it helps me focus better on what im doing ad ignore the outside the outside world and focus on what im doing. Also i dont feel tired or strained when i listen to music while practicing. Before when i didnt listen to music while practicing i would be exhausted after a good practice sessoin. Now when i listen to music my brain doesnt feel as tired. as before. Is this alright. I was just wondering.

  12. Kat S says:

    Peter & Dan –
    Love it – love it – love it. I just got back from a 2-day high performance summit, during which we discussed the need to prioritize these exact aspects of practice during high level / elite level skill acquisition. The interesting problem presented with a few of these events, however, how to introduce repeatability of a mechanically taxing task without introducing injury, and how to introduce variability while maintaining event specificity (with respect to mechanical loading & motor control strategies).

    With limited time & resources, my suggestion was to initially focus on practice strategies – validating current aspects of training and working to improve practice models in order to facilitate & maximize positive transfer when it counts, and to increase communication by pooling practice strategies & performance outcomes nationwide in order to deepend our current talent pools. What do you think?

  13. David says:

    “Thou shalt avoid discomfort”

  14. Macsuga says:….html

    I related it to my students and my class. Thank you for this!

  15. Peter V. says:

    Hi Joe – Yes, that’s me.

  16. michaelchasetx says:

    In strength & conditioning we talk about the adaptive effect of getting into a rut of the same challenges, the need to try different methods to stress the body, stabilize what needs to stabilize, motivate what needs to move, innovate to improve effectiveness, video to critique technique. How refreshing to see these same principles applied in other domains!

  17. Great conversation here, too. I love what Chris Frank says! There are moments when inspiration can turn to something akin to comparison and then desperation.

    In that vein, here’s another idea for a negative/deadly/bad habit:

    -Discount what you’ve already achieved.
    That’s just a great way to be hard on yourself. We need to give ourselves credit for how far we’ve come.

  18. Oh and one more idea for a bad habit that just came to mind:

    -Worry about what others think when you’re trying something new in practice.
    This is something that I’ve seen even in some top musicians. They don’t want anyone around when they practice possibly because they don’t want to look silly…or perhaps they know it affects their ability to explore. We humans don’t like to be ridiculed or look silly in front of other people. So the minute you know someone is listening, you might accidentally go into performer mode. Now you’re not going to be at the edge of your exploration. One thing I experience is when I try to play something with my eyes closed. Oh, well, if I’m used to playing it with my eyes open, it’s probably not going to sound as good with my eyes closed. Then I wonder what my neighbors are thinking – “gosh, she can’t even play!” I have to silence those voices. I do think it is hard to really practice and experiment fully and test your limits when others are around, but if there is no choice, then I think it is good to be aware of the possible performer who might come through. Basically, I would say: “Beware of the performer rearing his head during practice”. Do everything you can to make sure the performer in you stays in the green room/dressing room during regular practice.

  19. djcoyle says:

    Wow. These are tremendous and insightful, Manisha. Thanks for sharing them — both here and elsewhere. Best, Dan

  20. @Dan, Thank you. After interacting with your blog, I was inspired to check out your book. I got the audio version (unabridged) because I wanted to get it right away and I’ve been under the weather. What a relief just to rest and listen as if someone were reading me a story. (It was my first-ever audiobook experience). I really enjoyed it! The book has a way of enabling people to adjust their mindsets by working smart and also by thinking about what they can control (as opposed to circumstances out of control such as our family history, etc.). Myelin may not be everything, but its role in what many commonly refer to as “muscle memory” is clear. Developing automaticity takes time, but if people choose to try, they will likely be in a better position to let their unique lights shine through. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  21. Peter says:

    I agree that it is a deadly habit to avoid mistakes. It is where we learn so we should never ignore our experiences and mistakes.

Comment On This