I’m talking about people in their thirties, forties, and beyond — people who are miles past any of the “learning windows” for talent, and who yet succeed in building fantastically high-performing skill sets.
People like Dr. Mary Hobson, who took up Russian at 56, and became a prize-winning translator. Or Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist who took up guitar at the age of 38 and taught himself to rock, or pool player Michael Reddick, or Dan McLaughlin, a 31-year-old who took up golf for the first time four years ago and now plays to an outstanding 3.3 handicap (and who also keeps track of his practice hours — 4,530 and counting, if you wanted to know).
We tend to explain adult prodigies with the same magical thinking as we use to explain child prodigies: they’re special. They always possessed hidden talents.
However, some new science is shedding light on the real reasons adults are able to successfully learn new skills, and exploding some myths in the process. You should check out this article from New Scientist if you want to go deeper. Or read Marcus’s book Guitar Zero, or How We Learn, by Benedict Carey (out next week).
The takeaway to all this is that adult prodigies succeed because they’re able to work past two fundamental barriers: 1) the wall of belief that they can’t do it; and 2) the grid of adult routines that keep them from spending time working intensively to improve skills. In other words, it’s not so much about your “natural talents,” as it is about your mindset and your habits. From the New Scientist piece:
“A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around,” says Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests. “If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”
With all that in mind, I thought I’d try to fill in a gap by offering a few basic rules on how to apply these ideas to regular life.
Rule 1. Pick a skill you were always fascinated by — one that you’ve already spent lots of time thinking about and admiring. Because all those hours is not just a sign of motivation; it’s also your head start to high-quality practice. You’ve already built some good circuitry, so use it.
Rule 2. Don’t pick something completely insane. Trying to become the next Steve Jobs or Peyton Manning probably doesn’t make sense for most adults. Focus on ambitious, reachable skills that make sense for you, and will add to your life.
Rule 3. Write down a big-picture plan. It doesn’t need to be too elaborate; it needs to contain some targets and strategies. Most important: figure out a daily routine, see if it’s working, then adapt it as you go along.
Rule 4: Don’t be so freaking conscientious about your plan. One of the traits that makes kids such good learners is their inherent looseness in approach; that is, they don’t get hung up on doing everything 100-percent perfectly every single time. They do the opposite: they try bits and pieces, and if something doesn’t work, they try something else. They’re experimenters, innovators, entrepreneurs of the brain. Do likewise.
Rule 5. Keep it quiet early on. The quickest way to kill motivation is to tell Facebook that you’re developing a new talent — because that creates high expectations, which are the ultimate motivational buzzkill.
Rule 6. Be secretly and irrationally arrogant. Fear is what keeps people from learning new things, and getting rid of that fear however you choose is a good idea. So be cocky, gutsy, and willing to go to the edges of your ability even if (especially if) that means you sometimes look a little foolish. In other words, channel your inner Kobe Bryant.
Rule 6. Practice every day, in short bursts.
Rule 7: Long bursts too.
Rule 8: Also, medium bursts. Dream all you want, but frequent, intensive, high-quality practice is the path forward.
Rule 8: Interleave your practice, which is a fancy word for switching it up a lot. For example, if you want to improve your toss on your tennis serve, don’t just toss 50 balls in a row. Instead, toss 5 while focusing on one element of the move. Then do something else for 5 minutes. Then come back to the toss — this time focusing on a different element. Then go do something else, and so on. Interleaving forces your brain to make connections, and learn faster.
Rule 9: Find the best teacher you can afford. One of the advantages of being an adult is that, unlike a kid, you can choose your own teacher. This is not a small thing. Find someone you like, and who maybe scares you a little (that is often a good sign).
Rule 10: Seek a training group. No matter what skill you’re trying to build, you are more motivated when you are part of a tribe working toward a goal.
Rule 11: Every once in a while, ignore your training group and stay home. The downside of training with people is that you tend to overlook problem areas that you really need to fix — and some things can only be solved alone.
Rule 12. Set aside a space to practice. This doesn’t need to be fancy — in fact, the less fancy the better. But it needs to exist and be convenient, and preferably located in your home, because you’ll use it more often.
Rule 13. Get good tools. If you’re learning guitar, get a quality one. If you’re doing something on a computer, don’t buy one from Radio Shack.
Rule 14: Keep your tools handy, not stored away in some closet. When they’re around, you tend to pick them up more often.
Rule 15. Be opportunistic. Use the little quiet spots in your day to work in some spontaneous practice. A good five minutes can have a huge impact.
Rule 16. Keep a notebook, and track what works and what doesn’t. The notebook is your map: it keeps track of the stuff you forget, the goals you want to track, and (most crucially) the progress you make.
Rule 17. Steal from other people. Even if you’ve picked a wildly obscure talent to develop, there are thousands of other people out there who are doing exactly the same thing as you are, right now. They’re solving the same problems, finding possible solutions. Seek them out (on YouTube, for starters) and go to school on them.
Rule 18. Teach someone else. You might think you know how to perform a skill. But trying to accurately, concisely explain how that skill works to someone else? That’s a deeper level of understanding entirely.
Rule 19. Keep expectations moderately low.
Rule 20: Keep hopes moderately high.
Rule 21. In your self talk, use “You” and not “I.” Research shows that self-talk is significantly more effective when you use the second person.
Rule 22. Practice early in the day. This is when your brain is fresh, and when you’ll make the most progress. Not coincidentally, this is also when there are the fewest interruptions.
Rule 23. Seek to become a world-class napper. This is a skill you likely already possess — and improving it can ratchet up your learning speed.
Rule 24. Plan on showing off, once you get good enough. Even the patron saint of adult prodigies, the painter Grandma Moses, wasn’t discovered until she got brave and started selling her artwork in local galleries. There’s nothing like an upcoming event or performance to direct your work and create a sense of energy. And besides, you earned it.
Two last questions: 1) Are there any stories/ideas you want to share about adult learning? 2) What other rules belong on this list? I’d love to hear what you have to say.