The Mental Trick that Unlocks Improvement

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Question: How much better would you be if you practiced a skill every day for one or two years?

Would you be ten times better? Twenty? Fifty?

Here’s the answer (tip: watch the first few seconds, then fast-forward to the end):

 

 

This guy did a similar experiment, learning a skateboard trick in six hours.

 

You wouldn’t be ten or twenty times better; you’d be immeasurably better. Comparing their skill at the beginning and end of the process is like comparing a Model T to a Ferrari — it’s not an increase; it’s a complete transformation.

Which raises a question: if intensive daily practice is so transformative, then why aren’t we all doing it? In other words, what do these people have that the rest of us don’t?

I think one answer is this: they have a willingness to feel stupid. To endure the unique social-emotional burn of repeated clumsiness. And this willingness is the secret foundation of their development.

Check out the first few seconds of the videos. They are trying hard — really hard — and they are barely progressing. They move woodenly. They make stupid mistakes. The violinist can barely play Happy Birthday; the skateboarder is falling over and over. It’s not pretty.

Now imagine doing that, hour after hour. Imagine focusing all your energy toward a task that you are, by every possible measure, terrible at — and then doing it again and again, day after day. This doesn’t qualify as normal practice — it’s an exquisite form of mental torture.

The real key to their progress, in other words, is not cognitive or muscular — it’s emotional. The real key is getting past the burning pain of feeling stupid. The question, then, is, how do you do that?

I think the key is to flip the way we think about this torturous feeling, to reframe it as an essential part of the process. To reinterpret the pain so that it isn’t pain; it’s a positive sign of progress.

Funny thing is, we already do this with physical exercise. When we work out or go for a run, we expect to feel discomfort — if we don’t, we know that we aren’t working hard enough.  As the saying goes, no pain, no gain.

When it comes to learning new skills, the same rule applies. If we’re not willing to experience this social-emotional burn of awkward failure, we won’t improve. No burn, no learn, you might say. Here are a few ideas on how to do that.

  • Target and celebrate small wins. Amid the clumsiness of the start, there are moments of figuring out fundamentals, of making small improvements. Find them, name them, and highlight them.
  • Share your screw-ups. Seek people and cultures that encourage openness about failure.
  • Embrace irrationality. Forget the notion of steady, linear progress, because that’s not the way learning happens. Learning happens slowly and painfully at first, and then with surprising speed. These big leaps don’t seem logical. But if you put the time in, they are inevitable.

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13 Responses to “The Mental Trick that Unlocks Improvement”

  1. Scott says:

    This is just awesome enforcement of much of what you have written about in “The Talent Code”. It does make you wonder about genetic limitations..

    Glad to see you posting again!

  2. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Scott — much appreciated! And you’re absolutely right that genes matter. They just don’t matter quite as much as we presume they do!

  3. KJ says:

    Thanks for sharing this awesome and so inspiring content !
    Every time I check in on your blog and see a new one up, I´m really exited. (Not Joking!)
    Could you Please write a Blog post on Achieving a Goal and having Motivation like the tips in your great book LittleBookofTalent ?
    Or do you know any great blogs on setting goals and achieving them.
    Thank you so much, Daniel !

    Also Ray Lewis is hosting a new Podcast called “Tackling Life“.

    KJ

  4. Thorlakur Arnason says:

    Great videos, makes one think that everybody can achieve what they want if they put the effort into it..

  5. Howard K says:

    Approximately how much time was spent per day practicing in the above videos? It would also be interesting to understand if the practice was”deep practice”. If so, how was that done?

  6. djcoyle says:

    Hey Howard, that is a good question. In the case of the table-tennis guy, his coach estimates that it was somewhere around 600 hours over the year. which works out to around an hour and a half per day. Here’s a fascinating post by Ben Larcombe, who organized the experiment (and who wrote a cool book about it called Expert in a Year): http://www.experttabletennis.com/possible-master-table-tennis-12-months/
    The post is worth reading, as Larcombe analyzes his process, and points out several areas that he would have approached differently.

  7. Lisa Jacobi says:

    Hey Daniel – from one of your freelance underlings back in the Outside days. My husband, Joe, sent your post over to me. And he’ll be sharing it to his Sunday Morning Joe readers this coming Sunday. So beneficial.

    AnyHoo, a year ago in January I decided to completely change music genres (Bluegrass/Americana) and instruments (Fiddle) and turn my attention to learning Chicago blues on electric guitar. With a goal of becoming completely accomplished on the guitar to return to the stage with this new direction.

    Year one has been an emotional sludge. It is frustrating to be really good in one area of music, only to start over from basically scratch when you (and your perception of people around you) expect rapid success. Knowing that the first 3 months of learning any new skill is the drop out zone, I pushed through. The next phase had the challenge of music colleagues offering me gigs in my previous world. Took some <- bad mistake = back pedal and derail. Got back on track and finally I'm seeing results. I'm buckling down as I enter the second year, because it is much more engaging to have a handle on new skill execution as a place to increase the accomplishment factor. And it must be an EVERY DAY practice. It does come… hard to believe sometimes that it will… but it does.

    Much love…
    LxoJ

  8. djcoyle says:

    Hey Lisa,
    Thanks so much for your insightful comment — it’s great to hear from you! I love the phrase “emotional sludge” — that is exactly what it feels like. Congrats on your musical career, and on this latest exciting move. Is there a place online we can go to hear your music?

  9. Garnet says:

    Hi Dan, very interesting as always, however I don’t agree that it’s an unwillingness to feel stupid, at least not with me. I’ve seen myself persist with some skills while dropping others and the only difference I can see is motivation.

    The one’s I’ve stuck with are the things I deeply want to master or make me who I want to be. The ones I’ve dropped are skills I’d like to have, just not enough.

    Cheers

  10. Martin says:

    SHe developed her skills playing the instruments and got better over the years as she became better. What I want to develop is my right had layups .another skill I want to learn is in school and having a high GPA.

  11. Jamie Rice says:

    Dan, so glad you are back at it! This is an amazing piece, and aside from your usual increible insight, I think the ping-pong piece reinforces one of your earliest teachings I took from you; the role of the “expert coach” in deliberate practice. Passion + Practice + Dedication + Quality Instruction = Learned/Improved Skill.

    I try and use your stuff every day….keep it coming! Thank you for always providing inspiration.

    Jamie

  12. David says:

    If I might offer a suggestion to Martin on the right hand layups. When I coached basketball I had a lot of success teaching layups by NOT using the ball at first. Just focus on stepping with the left foot and extending the right hand upward for the right hand layup. Once that becomes second nature, and it won’t take long, take a few steps and pretend to dribble the ball and keep stepping off of the correct foot and extending the hand. After that gets to be comfortable pick up a ball and it will be easy. You have trained the brain in the movement patterns and once that is done you’ve just about accomplished the task. If you notice in the ping pong video there are times in which he is practicing the movement of the paddle without using a ball. Same concept.

  13. JB says:

    Does a baby adhere to the no pain, no gain mantra to learn incredibly complex skills like sitting up, crawling, walking, and running? Children learn best when it is effortless effort and fun. Why does the child approach change to become a slog once we are adults, and does it have to? What do we lose in the learning process from child to adult that makes learning and practicing new skills hard?

    It is the disconnect from what we fee (not emotions) through our senses in any given moment. All information enters the brain from the senses. The senses are activated by movement. Movement is the source of how we learn. Once we disconnect from feeling our movements we are at a great disadvantage.

    Reconnect with how it feels to move, respond to what we feel as the brain works, and we are poised to learn the way we evolved. Practice becomes a form of play that improves with every ‘repetition’.

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