How to Get Better? Be Like Evolution


I got an interesting note the other day from reader Will Newton from Toronto. He told me about a wildly addictive videogame called StarCraft.

If you want to get really good at StarCraft, you have to do the usual deep-practice stuff: put in the hours, focus like a laser on your mistakes, and mimic the best players. But when it comes to making progress, StarCraft learners have a tremendous advantage: a massive database of millions of game replays they can access and watch, where you can search out the best players and go to school on them. In other words, the game has a built-in platform for stealing, mimickry, and, thus, intensive practice and fast improvement.

The deeper point Will makes — the truth that applies not only to videogames but to every skill under the sun — is that all techniques are Darwinian. Meaning, every skill is like an ecosystem filled with competing techniques. Weak techniques disappear; strong techniques thrive; refinement never ends.

We instinctively think of our technique as being personal — a unique extension of ourselves. But as Will points out, this is mostly an illusion. It’s not about us; it’s about how we navigate a giant, invisible decision tree of choice and possibility. To improve technique, then, it’s best to behave exactly like evolution would behave — that is, be quick, clear, and ruthless. To experiment and copy. To replicate what works best. To quickly discard what doesn’t work. And to never, ever stop the process.

It also poses an interesting possibility: can we, in our own lives, use this idea to help our own techniques evolve? Could we, for instance, create a cache of “replays” were we capture the best techniques, the best decision-making, and use them as a learning tool?

  • For instance — in an English class, would it be possible to create a “game replay” of the best writer in class as they built a prize-winning essay?
  • Or in tennis — could you have a “replay” of someone learning how to hit a good backhand?
  • Or in music — a “replay” of someone learning a tough new song?

The thing I love about this idea is that it flips the way we normally think about our success. We usually think of defeat or victory as personal — as a verdict on ourselves our our worth, our potential. But that’s not true. What we think of as a personal problem is often more of an information-access problem.

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16 Responses to “How to Get Better? Be Like Evolution”

  1. Will says:

    It’s such an honor to trade ideas with Daniel Coyle!

    I realized that the email I sent you about StarCraft was me trying to imitate an expert— you! I was trying to:
    1) examine a talent hotbed,
    2) gain insight into its effectiveness in producing talent,
    3) and then summarize it in an inspiring and enlightening way.
    Now, after seeing you explain the ideas way faster than I did, I can compare my unrefined technique to your refined technique.

    When you mentioned “a ‘replay’ of someone learning a tough new song” I thought of You kick off your book with a replay. Cool Cool Cool Cool Cool!!!!

    Your personal vs information access distinction is relevant to concepts like “accumulative advantage.” With the internet as a means of sharing replays, there are no borders so the advantage accumulates less.

    I have thought of this information access problem before, like this:
    1) Do you have access to high quality feedback or coaches?
    2) Do you have access to high quality reference material (for technique)?
    3) Do you have access to high quality peers (for trading information with)?
    If “no” for any of the above, discard what is not high quality and find what has *proven* to work. Surviving evolution is a form of proof that a thing is fit in a certain environment. Techniques are “fit” relative to certain games/goals/objectives. The difference between evolution and games is that with evolution, anything that successfully reproduces lives on, but with games, it’s more like “there ain’t room enough in this town for the two of us.” Success is not judged by whether a technique still works, but whether it is better than other techniques. So the evolution analogy is more accurate when you’re looking at some species or sub-species that are competing over the same resources.

    Thanks for being so friendly to your fan.

  2. Will says:

    And when I say I’ve thought of this information access issue before, that’s probably because I was reading about it in your blog! Those 3 questions are probably an internalization of something I read here.

  3. The “replay” idea is a great one, and although I don’t know of centralized repositories for sharing replays, in this age of YouTube and self-monitoring, I can imagine learning communities arising based on replays. There is one big obstacle, I think: historically, experts have wanted to protect their charisma by pretending that they did not work hard to get where they get. Expert musicians and writers often destroy their drafts, for example. It is through sheer luck that we can see how hard Beethoven worked on his music, and how silly his initial ideas often were when they had not yet been refined.

    In the computer programming world, people have been making screencasts of their work as they do it. In fact, I keep on meaning to experiment with doing that, inspired by a call for volunteers from Software Carpentry:

    For writing, I don’t know how many examples there are of watching someone write something, based on keystroke capturing: I know that Paul Graham did this for one of his essays:

    And there are lots of language learners out there who blog and make videos while learning a new language, e.g.,

    And of course, there are before/after photos for fat loss and muscle gain, but what we really want is videos of actual workouts through the entire history.

  4. David says:

    It’d be fun to have a website/blog where people post videos of learning things, and then other people could comment on it.

  5. djcoyle says:

    Great idea. Now: what would it be called?
    The Practice Room?

  6. David says:

    Yeah, that’s great. I’ll try to set something up tonight…

  7. Dave Sellar says:

    Great post Dan. Really interesting reading the comments about some kinds of blog for learning vids. I got myself a video camera a couple of weeks for this very reason. I would be really interested to get involved if you manage to get anything set up David. 🙂

  8. Rob says:

    I was told another interesting thing about this highly popular game, which professionals play in stadiums on an intense level:

    In order to stay up with the competition’s speed, players constantly give orders, without purpose, just to prevent getting slow and be ready when they have to give their soldiers real orders.

  9. djcoyle says:

    Hey Franklin,
    Thanks so much for those — they look like fantastic resources. This seems ripe for someone to put it all under one tent, doesn’t it?

  10. Cody Groves says:

    Hmm, I like this idea and I wont lie Ive used it and continue to use it to this day. I use something I took from the concept of kazien,where you use small simple improvements to combine into massive improvement..over time. (very popular in japan) Personally I like to keep journals of what I’m trying to improve at. I call them ARP journals, Act Review Plan. I guess you could call them PAR journals as well, which might be kind of fitting/ironic Lets say for example your working on your jump shot, you would first take a shot(ACT), then you would analyze it (REVIEW) for problems and strengths, then you would make a new plan(PLAN?) using these observations and act upon it. Then repeat the process again and again. I think the strong point of this system is the structure it provides, its simple and easy to implement. However for sports and some things it might not work that well during the performance part because the reviewing processes can kinda mess up your flow when your in the moment. However for learning and slow improvement it seems to work well.

    One thing to observe about evolution that my high school biology teacher, who was a genius I think, noted that its not survival of the fittest always, many times its survival of the fit enough. So your only as evolved as your environment in some cases. This reminds me of a study done on professional typist. They typed at lets say 110 words a minute on average, but using special software they made it so the typist had to type at 120 words a minute to keep up. After a week of trying to meet the demands of this new environment, all (if i remember correctly) of their average words per minute had improved significantly. This makes me think of hot beds where the environment is key, making for the evolution of a fit enough, that just so happens to be, THE fittest.

    You might also be interested in these books “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doige for neuroplasticity and “The 10x rule” by Grant Cardone

  11. Rod Roth says:

    There is another element in the idea of accessing replays of whatever we are trying to do: the process rightsizes our ego. Far better, I think, to be open to how others succeed than to insist on doing it on our own. Great post. Thanks

  12. liz garnett says:

    Another thought-provoking post, Dan, and also some stimulating responses. I think Cody’s connection of the evolutionary thing with how hotbeds emerge is really effective, and Rod’s idea of a process ‘right-sizing our ego’ is great too.

    I’ve been blogging about the addictive quality of complex activities recently, and the second post gets into evolutionary things that resonate rather with your ideas:

    Mind you, I think I’m talking about ignition here as much as technique development (as I’m looking at the psychology of dedication), but I think your point about techniques being social/cultural/shared attributes rather than personal is articulating the same kind of idea from another perspective.

    Oh, and the ‘replay’ repository has existed for musicians since they invented recording 🙂

  13. Dave says:

    Check this out Dan: Genetic algorithms (which mimic evolution using computer programming) have been applied to create optimum Starcraft II tactics.

  14. djcoyle says:

    Hey Dave — That is cool and amazing. Thanks so much — D

  15. Gigi says:

    Great posts and comments!
    Check out NLP and Richard Bandler’s books on modeling people’s behavior and learning from it:)

  16. Anders Mossberg says:

    Fascinating stuff here. I have, a very humble, comment. As a pro musician/teacher since the 70s I know that we use a kind of replay in learning. I, and many with me, seek out specific song-influences of musicians we admire and in learning the same exact songs-recordings as they did when young we try to mimick parts of their development in that area. Of course there are lots of other factors in play here, but we get to play/transcribe the same recordings as our heroes. And in doing that we can find some sometimes crucial answers to the sounds/thoughts etc that grew from there. And we get to listen to and play some timeless music as well :-).

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