To Improve Faster, Think Like a Startup


Whenever we take on a new project, our first instinct is to behave like a student — to seek out the best teachers, to immerse ourselves in information.

This instinct makes perfect sense. But it might be the worst thing you can do.

Meet Karen Cheng, a California woman who spent the past year transforming herself from an awkward beginner to a remarkably skilled dancer.  Click this video (2.7 million views and counting) to see a cool time-lapse version of her improvement.

Cheng’s real accomplishment, however, is giving us a useful blueprint for changing the way we think about practice. She didn’t focus on receiving knowedge; instead she focused on action — specifically on constructing a lean, focused, entrepreneurial plan to construct her skill. (You can read more here.) Her plan has four basic principles:

1) Set small process-oriented goals, not big performance goals. Instead of aiming at grand achievement (being chosen for a dance troupe, for instance), Cheng’s initial goal was modest: to practice for at least five minutes each day. The allowed her to keep expectations low and avoid disappointment. As she improved, she increased the goal to two hours per day. She controlled the goals, instead of being controlled by them.

2) Be opportunistic. Rather than set aside a prescribed time to practice, Cheng constantly smuggled moments of practice into her everyday life. As she writes:

Here’s my secret: I practiced everywhere. At bus stops. In line at the grocery store. At work — using the mouse with my right hand and practicing drills with my left hand. You don’t have to train hardcore for years to become a dancer. But you must be willing to practice and you better be hungry.

3) Be your own coach. Keep a journal, use videotape, find ways to be organized about evaluating and strategizing your strengths and weaknesses. At every turn, Cheng sought out ways to take honest, realistic assessments and use them as platforms for learning.

4) Connect to people. Find good teachers on YouTube and in person; seek out places to watch good performers and learn from them. Here’s she plays the role of a student, but it’s anything but passive. She’s active, engaged, and targeted. She doesn’t worship at the altar of a single teacher’s wisdom; instead she hunts and gathers useful stuff she can apply.

The real payoff, however, is enjoyment. Check out the expression on Cheng’s face as she improves (especially between days 30 and 86). She’s intense but smiling, radiating hard-won satisfaction. In other words, she’s exactly where a good startup wants to be: utterly lost in the challenge, in control, and loving it. 

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8 Responses to “To Improve Faster, Think Like a Startup”

  1. Skippy says:

    This is great advice for taking a “big” goal and simplifying it. I love stories like this.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Walter says:

    Daniel. Nice piece. I think passion has a lot to do with this too. Passion and a love for something is not something you can teach. No doubt Cheng loves to dance and sets time aside to work on her passion. The subway thing somewhat hits home. My 10 year old is a soccer nut and a very very good player. He and i often go for walks that can take up to 45 minutes. It was his idea to bring a soccer ball along for our walks. We walk on the side walk, on grass, through a park, to a school and back to our house. With the soccer ball we just kick it back and fourth, heel passes, flicks, what have you. When we get to the school we even try to flick it in the basketball hoops. One day i decided to count how many touches he was getting on the ball during our walks and i stopped counting at 320. We walk 3 times a week, so he is getting almost 1000 extra touches on the soccer ball that kids his age are not AND he isn’t even aware of it because to him it’s just him and dad going for a walk kick/passing around a soccer ball to kill time. Soccer is a true passion for him just as dancing is for Cheng.

  3. I LOVE THIS!!!
    How more empowering can this get?
    I have no words.
    I’m so motivated (not only do I want to become a dancer, but I see how other skills that I lack can be honed in the same way).
    Thank you.
    So sorry… I wish I could sound smarter, but I’m lost for words.
    I just want to go start practicing now.
    Much love and gratitude,

  4. t-bone says:

    She’s not “practicing”, as we usually understand the word, she’s working on improving stuff every day. She closes the feedback loop with footage. Later, once she’s good (which I would argue is now!), she’ll practice.

    Filming yourself is painful! You’re never doing what you think you’re doing, and it’s awful to watch. But if you don’t get the feedback, you’ll just keep repeating your comfortable mistakes.

  5. William says:

    Thanks for the story Daniel, Karen Cheng is obviously doing the deep practice part very well of the talent code.

    The 10,000 hour rule only applies to becoming world’s top ten (mastery) in any talent, but you can get amazing skills in just 500 hours of practice, as the dancer’s story shows.

    What I also find interesting that I haven’t found an ‘Ignition’ part to Karen’s practicing (so far).

    She mentions wanting to be in a Coca Cola commercial at some point, but there could be something else motivating her that she just doesn’t want to write about.

    Cheng’s story inspired me to keep a daily journal of progress, not just a journal for writing down ‘swipe files’ of useful information (that progresses my knowledge on a talent) that I come across.

  6. Rob Anderson says:

    This is a video of my friend who started weightlifting 3 years ago, he is now in contention for the commonwealth games. The video shows 3 years of progression in 3 minutes

  7. Looks like there is now a new startup that’s looking to help other people achieve this:

  8. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Takeshi — I’m writing a blog about that right now!

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