How to Get Better? Be Like Evolution

I got an interesting note the other day from reader Will Newton from Toronto. He told me about a wildly addictive videogame called StarCraft.

If you want to get really good at StarCraft, you have to do the usual deep-practice stuff: put in the hours, focus like a laser on your mistakes, and mimic the best players. But when it comes to making progress, StarCraft learners have a tremendous advantage: a massive database of millions of game replays they can access and watch, where you can search out the best players and go to school on them. In other words, the game has a built-in platform for stealing, mimickry, and, thus, intensive practice and fast improvement.

The deeper point Will makes — the truth that applies not only to videogames but to every skill under the sun — is that all techniques are Darwinian. Meaning, every skill is like an ecosystem filled with competing techniques. Weak techniques disappear; strong techniques thrive; refinement never ends.

We instinctively think of our technique as being personal — a unique extension of ourselves. But as Will points out, this is mostly an illusion. It’s not about us; it’s about how we navigate a giant, invisible decision tree of choice and possibility. To improve technique, then, it’s best to behave exactly like evolution would behave — that is, be quick, clear, and ruthless. To experiment and copy. To replicate what works best. To quickly discard what doesn’t work. And to never, ever stop the process.

It also poses an interesting possibility: can we, in our own lives, use this idea to help our own techniques evolve? Could we, for instance, create a cache of “replays” were we capture the best techniques, the best decision-making, and use them as a learning tool?

  • For instance — in an English class, would it be possible to create a “game replay” of the best writer in class as they built a prize-winning essay?
  • Or in tennis — could you have a “replay” of someone learning how to hit a good backhand?
  • Or in music — a “replay” of someone learning a tough new song?

The thing I love about this idea is that it flips the way we normally think about our success. We usually think of defeat or victory as personal — as a verdict on ourselves our our worth, our potential. But that’s not true. What we think of as a personal problem is often more of an information-access problem.