We’d all like to be better at what is most important to us.
Top athletes know the secrets to constant improvement but most of us don’t hang out with gold medalists or top coaches and we’re not familiar with the sports research. So I called a guy who is.
David Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.
It’s an excellent read whether you’re a sports fan or not and covers a lot of the science on how we can get better at anything. In this post you’ll learn:
And a lot more. Let’s get to it.
You get told you don’t have natural talent at something. Or you’re not smart enough. Not fast enough. So you get discouraged and quit.
But new research is showing some abilities don’t make themselves visible until challenges get hard enough. Here’s David:
Once things get hard enough, people start to be differentiated and see some skills that they probably didn’t even know they had. Those skills were only activated once they got into the right spot and the challenges got difficult.
There’s a new factor in sports research called “trainability.” Some people may not have natural talent but they may be highly trainable.
They start out below average but improve far faster. When we measure these people on day one they get told they “don’t have it.” But after a few weeks or months they’re blowing away the so-called naturals. The lesson? Hang in there.
(For more on what the most successful people do that makes them great, click here.)
So talent’s not as big an issue as you may have thought. But where should you focus your energy?
What do prodigies have in common? Ellen Winner at Boston College calls it the “rage to master.” It’s an insatiable desire to get better at something specific. Here’s David:
I love some of the work done by Ellen Winner at Boston College on prodigies. She coined this term “rage to master.” It’s the obsessive desire to improve at something.
We think of prodigies as little miracle kids. And yeah, when you look at tests of working memory they score off the charts. But that’s the only metric they all have in common. So they don’t have completely alien super-brains.
A huge part of why they’re so good is they found the thing they had natural talent for and relentlessly applied themselves. And that’s something we can all do. Here’s David:
Real prodigies basically all score in the 99.9th percentile of working memory but after that they score really, really differently. It suggests that while they have some horsepower, they also have individualized unique strengths that have made them good for what they do. They aren’t just interchangeable. They gravitated toward unique strengths that they have.
(To learn how you can go from dreaming to doing, click here.)
So you know what you’re passionate about and you’re working hard. What’s the best way to get started? You’ll be surprised…
When did you learn the most and learn the fastest? There’s no debate: it’s when you were a baby. You didn’t get clear instructions from anybody on anything and yet you learned some of the most complex things in the world, like walking and talking.
This process (“implicit learning”) isn’t just for babies. We’re often too focused on executing very specific steps and so we don’t take the time to fumble around and make mistakes like when we were kids.
As adults we think we don’t have time for it but it’s one of the reasons we don’t learn as well as when we were little. Here’s David:
Allowing implicit learning early in whatever we’re learning, whether it’s chess, whether it’s looking at market patterns, whatever it is, is very important. You don’t want too much explicit coaching early on. You want to learn like a baby. Babies are immersed and they’re given immediate feedback and they have to strive and try. Only later do you formally teach them things like grammar.
And it’s not just speculation. Research with young surgeons is showing the power of learning like a baby. Here’s David:
On the first try those given explicit instructions were better, but very very quickly the ones who started with more implicit-style learning surpassed them in surgical speed and accuracy.
(To learn about grit and resilience from a Navy SEAL, click here.)
What’s the main question you should be asking yourself when trying to improve?
In The Sports Gene, David tells the story of what happened when top baseball batters went up against a female softball pitcher.
She struck every single one of them out. How did she do it?
Because the old advice of “keep your eye on the ball” is dead wrong. In fact, it’s impossible — a baseball moves too fast. It’s not about reaction time. It’s about the subtle cues a batter sees in a pitcher’s body before they throw the ball.
But baseball batters aren’t used to how softball pitchers move. They get all the cues wrong and strike out.
If you don’t know what the important part of what you’re trying to learn is then you’re like a batter trying to keep their eye on the ball. You’re focused on improving the wrong thing. Here’s David:
The hallmark of expertise is figuring out what information is important. And in many cases, these are things that are implicitly learned that the performer themselves would not be able to tell you. They will tell you something that causes their success and in many cases they’ll be wrong. We’ve had to do some pretty complicated studies to figure out what it is they actually do.
(To learn how to find the best mentor for you, click here.)
If you’re smart, you’re getting help with whatever you’re trying to get better at. What’s the best way to deal with your teacher? It’s probably not what you’d expect…
The Groningen talent studies have been following kids in the classroom and in a variety of sports for 15 years now. What do the ones who go on to get the best grades or become pro athletes have in common?
They didn’t merely do what they were told. They questioned coaches and teachers. They pushed back. They asked if this was the right activity for them to be doing. Here’s David:
The kids that outdid their peers in the classroom and the kids that went on to become pros in a variety of sports had behavioral traits in common. The kids who went to the top in soccer, for example, they displayed what the scientists called “self-regulatory behavior.” It’s a 12-year-old who’s going up to their trainer and saying, “I think this drill is a little too easy. What is this working on again? Why are we doing this? I think I’m having a problem with this other thing. Can I work on that instead?”
(To learn how to make your kids smarter, click here.)
So you’re asking questions. You’re engaged. Now how do you apply that to the skill you’re working on?
The kids who questioned their teachers got to know themselves better. So they were better judges of what they could and couldn’t do.
This allowed them to best practice at a level where they were always stretching themselves but not so much that the task was impossible. This is called “optimal push.”
Knowing your “optimal push” means you don’t plateau — you just keep getting better. And when you screw up you’ll learn more from your mistakes. Here’s David:
“Optimal push” is something that’s a little harder than what you’ve ever done but not so hard it’s out of your reach. When the other kids plateau, these kids don’t. And that’s on the playing field and in the classroom. The kids who had these self-regulatory skills get more out of their mistakes than their peers do. Their failures are not wasted opportunities; they draw something from them.
(To learn how to apply “the craftman’s mindset” to your work, click here.)
Let’s say you’re doing everything mentioned thus far. Awesome. If you had to sum up the most important thing to focus on in just one word, what would it be?
David asked the head of the Groningen talent studies if she could sum up in one word the thing that all the top kids (in school or any sport) all had in common.
She said “Reflection.” They think about what they did and ask themselves if it’s working. Here’s David:
When they do something, whether it’s good or bad, they take time for reflection. They asked themselves “Was it difficult enough? Was it too easy? Did it make me better? Did it not?” It sounds simple and sounds facile, but I think we don’t do it. We naturally gravitate toward increasing comfort in everything we do in our jobs. We become more efficient and we fall prey to that efficiency. That’s a disaster. When all your efforts are things that you can do easily and without thinking about them, you’re not going to improve.
(To learn how the lessons of ancient thinkers can improve your modern life, click here.)
Let’s pull everything together and bust one more big myth about being the best at anything.
Here’s what you can learn about learning from David:
Some of you might think the above doesn’t really apply to you. It’s too late to start something. Or you’re too old to learn.
Wrong. The latest research says you’re never too old to learn. You can teach an old dog new tricks. Here’s David:
I think what the science is saying at this point is that a lot of the limitations that were placed on older learners and older athletes didn’t have any empirical backing. As we get older we trade a more flexible brain for one that is more efficient. We see that in sports and we see that in other cognitive skills. Experience and efficiency make up for some of the raw horsepower that we may lose as we age.
It’s never too late to be great.
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