How NOT to Develop Your Talent: The 3 Deadly Habits

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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.

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