To Learn Faster, Raise the Stakes

The other day Stephen, my daughter’s violin teacher, pointed out a pattern he’d noticed when he was teaching his students to play difficult passages.

When he instructed students to try to play it perfectly five times, the kids learned slowly. Some kids took thirty tries to get the five perfect ones; others took a hundred; some never got it.

However, when he told the kids to try to play it perfectly five times in a row and if they missed  they started again at zero, they learned it far faster. Instead of fifty tries, it took ten. “Much, much faster,” was how Stephen described it.

When you tell someone they need to do a task perfectly, but are vague about how it needs to be done, part of the learner’s brain switches off. The subconscious message is: take as long as you need, buddy. Every try isn’t really that important. Don’t worry, it’s just practice.

The vagueness serves as an escape hatch. (Which is completely natural — remember, our brains are always searching for an excuse not to give effort.)

However, you provide clarity plus urgency — say, when you tell someone that they need to do a task well five times in a row and if they miss they go back to zero — you’re sending a completely different signal. Now the subconscious message is: every single try matters immensely — and if you get one or two in a row, the importance increases even more. This is for keeps.

It reminds me of this great passage in Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, where he talks about his songwriting technique:

You’d be surprised when you’re put right on the ball and you’ve got to do something and everybody’s looking at you going, OK, what’s going to happen? You put yourself there on the firing line — give me a blindfold and a last cigarette and let’s go. And you’d be surprised by how much comes out of you before you die.

Good practice is designed to create that feeling. You’re on the line. The clock is ticking; every rep is pressurized. Good practice nudges you out onto the knife edge, over and over. Because that’s the place where skills are built.

There are lots of straightforward ways to raise the stakes in practice: limit time, count reps, make it a contest, track progress from day to day and week to week, post results. The real trick is to raise the stakes by the right amount; you want to hit the sweet spot where it’s seriously challenging but still do-able, where each failure teaches a clear lesson, and where each success builds to the next.

How else can you raise the stakes? I’d love to hear your techniques.