Breaking Ceilings

We got a ping-pong table at Christmas, and within days my 15-year-old son and I were seriously, hopelessly addicted. At first, I beat him regularly — 21-15 would be a typical score. Occasionally, I even dialed my game back a notch, so the game would stay excitingly close.

But then one fateful week something changed. The games were suddenly getting closer. Uncomfortably close. Then, with quiet inevitability, something tipped. The kid started winning. Not just winning, but thumping me with increasing ease, to the point where I began to suspect he was dialing it back for me.

Something had changed — or rather hadn’t changed. While my son kept getting better, I’d stopped improving. I had to face the unpleasant truth: I’d bumped into my ceiling.

We bump into ceilings all the time — at work, in sports, in music, in every area of performance. But when we look deeper, this area is wrapped in mystery.  What’s causing the ceiling, and how do we get through it? The mystery is deepened by the fact that our skills in navigating that encounter — our ceiling IQ — might be one of the most important factors of our longterm performance.

When we encounter a performance ceiling, we instinctively make a couple natural presumptions:

1) That we’ve reached our natural limit — the point where our skills plateau.

2) That the best way past the limit is to keep grinding – to grit our teeth, stick with our methods and to defeat the ceiling through sheer cussed persistence.

The question is, are our instincts right? Or are there other, smarter ways to crack through our ceilings?

We get some insights from this article written by Josh Foer called Secrets of Mind-Gamer. Foer, a twenty-something science journalist, transforms himself into a memory champion in the space of a single year (memorizing, among other things, a shuffled deck of playing cards as quickly as possible).

At one point in his journey, Foer hit a ceiling. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t memorize a deck of cards any faster. He then sought out an expert (who in a parallel familiar to Talent Code readers, turns out to be Dr. Anders Ericsson). The ever-resourceful Ericsson gives Foer some surprising advice: speed up your practice. Force yourself to go too fast. Force yourself to make mistakes. Analyze those mistakes, find your weak points, and fix them.

Foer and Ericsson’s speed strategy works beautifully. Foer goes on to win the memory championships and set a new American speed record for card-memorization.  It’s an intriguing story (and looks to be a fascinating book). But mostly it’s useful because it shines a light on a new way to think about ceilings.

Foer and Ericsson didn’t think of the ceiling to be a limit. Instead, they thought of it as a level of automaticity — a point at which Foer became fast, unthinking, and proficient. Automaticity – sort of like our brain’s autopilot for specific tasks — is usually a good thing. It helps us walk and talk without thinking too much. But when we want to improve beyond a certain level, automaticity becomes a barrier. We try harder — we grind away — but that just reinforces the automatic circuit. Progress stops.

The solution, then, is not to grind, but to disrupt.  To choose a new strategy that breaks up the automaticity, reveals our shortcomings, and allows us to rewire our circuit.  To change some factor — in Foer’s case, speeding up time — so that he’s prevented from being automatic, and thus can improve.

And in light of that, here are a few disruptive tools for ceiling-busting, stolen from various hotbeds:

  • Use Overspeed: Foer’s technique is relatively common among musicians and athletes. Going too fast breaks up the normal rhythms of a skill and allows them to be rebuilt and improved.
  • Use Underspeed: slowing way down to develop new feel; common to musicians (who, perhaps by many-laddered nature of the work, tend to become ferocious ceiling-busters. For example, world-champion speed typist Albert Tangora likes to type at half-speed when he hits a plateau.
  • Single Out: Focusing on one key element and working on it in isolation. For example, major-league batters will practice identifying various pitches. They are singling out the visual, pattern-recognition element of hitting.
  • Seek Fresh Feedback: Finding new metrics — such as videotaping your performance, or seeking out a consult from a new teacher — can quickly lead to new insights and experiments.
  • Give it Time: Ceilings are as much emotional challenges as anything else, best encountered with a sense of perspective. As George Leonard points out in his book, Mastery, “this is the inexorable fact of the journey: you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”

Normally, we think of stories like Foer’s as inspiration: he tried harder, so he broke through. But this story is not about inspiration; it’s really about strategy. He didn’t succeed merely because he tried harder, but because he tried in a highly methodic way that was consistent with the way our brains learn — by getting in the zone where we make mistakes and fix them. Talent’s not a possession — it’s a construction project.

As for my ceiling: it turns out that one half of our ping-pong table can be raised into a vertical position, creating a practice wall. At first it felt strange — the ball, rebounding from a few feet closer than I was accustomed to, shot back at me so quickly that I could barely catch up. It was overspeed in excelsis. But I’ve done it for a few days now, and I’m hitting the ball pretty well. Playing a real game seems weirdly slow.

Okay, so I still haven’t beaten the kid. But the last two games were 21-19 and 22-20.  Now I just have to make sure he doesn’t find out about my secret practice technique.

PS  — From the kid:  “Hey Dad, if you don’t want me to find out about your practice technique, maybe you shouldn’t write about it in your blog!”

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