The Mental Trick that Unlocks Improvement

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.