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.