I’m always writing blog posts on how to improve your skills and do more of what you enjoy. But there’s a type of response I’ve gotten used to receiving:
“But what are my skills?”
“But what do I enjoy?”
This is distressing to me. It’s a spiritual catastrophe. Figuring out what you’re good at and what you really enjoy doing are so critical to life. And a lot of people struggle with finding those answers. Well, time to do a post that addresses this issue…
Whether you’re starting out in life or starting over — at anything from careers to hobbies to sports — how do you go from confused, to finding what’s right for you, to becoming an expert at it?
Wow, that’s… intimidating.
I feel like answering that is going to require a big expedition with a team of Sherpas. Hmm.
Okay, in my continuing effort to provide you with the best information possible, I will not provide the information… I’m going to have someone else do it. And that’s why I’m dumping all the hard work on my friend David Epstein.
If you’re just visiting Earth, David is the New York Times bestselling author of the intellectually ravishing books Range and The Sports Gene, both of which caused me to turn pages so fast I gave myself paper cuts. These are the kind of books that make you look forward to people being late for appointments so you can squeeze another chapter in.
He’s also recently launched an insightful and entertaining Substack that I strongly encourage you to sign up for.
If you’ve ever wondered how to find your passion and become an expert at it, you’re going to love this post. (And if you are the person who has to write these posts and you’ve ever wanted someone else to come along and do all the heavy lifting for you, you’re really going to love this post.)
Let’s get to it…
That’s a good line and, of course, David came up with it, not me, but it’s in big bold letters so the people who skim are probably going to give me credit for it, which is what really matters. Anyway…
When it comes to figuring out what we’re good at and what we’re passionate about, we’re told to introspect. To brainstorm. To think deeply about it…
Problem is, that doesn’t work. Thinking often just leads to more thinking. The only way to get real answers here is not to introspect but to experiment. To try stuff. Here’s David:
Herminia Ibarra at London Business School sums it up by saying: “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” There’s this whole industry of quizzes and career advice that tells us that we need to introspect to get a clear vision, and then sally forth and execute. But her work shows that’s not realistic, at least if you want to increase the odds of a good outcome. You have to “act, and then think,” as she puts it.
So how do we begin this journey, David?
Start a “book of small experiments.” What you need to do is what some psychologists call “self-regulatory learning.” Basically, you need to learn about yourself, and you need to learn how to learn about yourself, and the key — in a word: reflection. In your book of small experiments, put down something you want to learn more about and what you’re going to do to explore this a little more. It could be as simple as talking to someone already doing the thing, or as involved as taking a class.
We’ve all heard the stories about Mozart or Tiger Woods, who started practicing one skill while still a fetus and were subsequently born a prodigy. But focusing on one thing isn’t how most of us find that special skill. We need to try a lot of stuff to see what clicks.
Now come back to your book and record what met your expectations, and what didn’t. What was boring or interesting that you didn’t expect? What do you want to learn next? As you go from one low-stakes experiment to another, a key is to keep actively reflecting. What happens — as happened for subjects in Harvard research I wrote about who found fulfilling work — is that you start to better understand what aspects of a hobby or line of work you like, and what you don’t. Basically, be a scientist of yourself.
You’re not going to love or be awesome at most things. That’s fine. Quit them.
But experiment enough and there will be another type of reaction. You’ll find something that burrows into your skull and gets you excited. You’ll be like the one kid at the sleepover who wants to keep talking and won’t let anyone go to sleep. Something that you want to get better at. BINGO.
David has his own experiment book and he’s used it to test and improve at a number of things, including dancing. To illustrate this point and as an attempt to greatly embarrass him, here’s a video of David dancing.
(He’s actually become a pretty good dancer, which is not very embarrassing. This means I will have to try harder.)
Okay, after some experimentation, you’ve found your thing. Now, to get better at it you have to practice for 10,000 hours, right? We’ve heard that everywhere…
Okay, now we need 10,000 hours of practice…
Never mind the 10,000 hours.
HEY. (Sorry, I’m not accustomed to being contradicted in my own blog posts.)
Um… what do you mean, David?
Anders Ericsson, who did the original study, said the 10,000-hours framework does not apply to: “many of the jobs in today’s workplace– business manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, and so on.” Not to mention any creative work.
The more important thing to take away from the study is that we can get better at things – but it takes time. And another key finding, one that often gets overlooked, is the importance of sleep.
In the original “10,000-hours study,” the difference between the better and less good performers that most caught my eye had nothing to do with practice; it was sleep. These days I think of it as the 60.2-hours-of-sleep study instead of the 10,000-hours study. Sleep is really important for both learning and recovery. If you have very limited time to learn something, the best strategy would be to study it, sleep, and then study it again when you wake up. That dramatically reduces the total time you need to learn it.
It’s only natural to wonder, “Why wasn’t the 10,000 hours research more relevant to many of our goals?” Because all arenas we try to improve in aren’t the same. Some are “kind” — and others are “wicked.”
Psychologist Robin Hogarth coined the “kind” versus “wicked learning environment” concept. Basically, by “kind,” he means domains in which patterns repeat, feedback is quick and accurate, rules don’t change, work next year looks like work last year. On the other end of the spectrum are “wicked” learning environments, where there may not be clear rules, patterns don’t just repeat, feedback may be delayed or inaccurate, a lot of human behavior is involved, and work tomorrow may not look like work yesterday.
A lot of stuff we read has been taking what works for straightforward stuff like sports and mistakenly applying it to infinitely more complex things like your career. No bueno.
Okay, so you’ve been experimenting, you found a thing you like, you know you don’t need 10,000 hours but you might need a nap. So what’s the easiest way to learn and improve?
It’s a trick question – because the easiest way is not the best way…
We want things to be easy and we also want to be an expert. Well, you can definitely have one of those. Often, the way your brain learns is like the opposite of Occam’s Razor: the most simple and straightforward way is not the best.
What’s even more devilish is that the inferior way might seem superior early on. As David wrote, “Short-term results can undermine long-term development.” To best learn, we need “desirable difficulties.”
That’s a term that denotes tactics that slow learning down and make it more frustrating, but that make knowledge both stickier and more flexible in the long-term.
What happens when researchers study 1000 U.S. Air Force Academy students taking calculus?
The students who did really well on the tests, went on to underperform in the subsequent classes. Meanwhile, students who struggled in the first course overperformed in subsequent courses. The instructors whose students performed really well right away were basically getting a more narrow curriculum that prepared them for the test, but not for the longer-term development. Difficulty isn’t a sign that you aren’t learning, but ease is. Sorry.
So what are the three ways to make our lives harder so that we can learn better?
Researchers looked at a bunch of middle schoolers studying math. Some were told to work on one type of problem repeatedly: AAAA. And then another type of problem repeatedly: BBBB. And then another: CCCC. They made more progress initially.
Others interleaved. They were told to work on one type of problem. But then a different one, and then yet another different one. It was more like: ABCAACBBBA. It was more frustrating and their progress was slower. But over time, the interleaved group crushed the performance of the first group. They better learned how to identify different problems and then execute properly — which is a super powerful skill.
In the middle school study, the effect size was enormous for an education intervention. It was like taking a kid from the 50th to the 80th percentile, while studying the same exact stuff, just in a different order. Basically, we should do that with everything. Whatever problems you’re trying to solve, or information you’re trying to retain, try to mix up the order, and it’ll suck, but it forces you to build generalized models that make the knowledge more usable, and you’ll remember it better.
Believe it or not making errors helps learning.
There’s a psychological finding known as the “hypercorrection effect,” which is that if you make an error, when you do learn the correct answer or solution, you’ll learn it even better. In fact, the more sure you were of your erroneous answer, the better you’ll learn the right answer or solution.
So test yourself before you study. You’ll get a lot wrong but you’ll subsequently learn better. (Making more mistakes is definitely something I can do.)
Connect what you’re learning to what you already know. This takes longer but cements it better in your head.
The best classrooms included material that forced students to connect procedures to ideas or concepts. It can slow things down and make early learning more frustrating, and early problem solving less smooth. But it can also lead to learning that is actually applicable outside the classroom, and that builds a foundation for more learning.
Okay, the above tips are just about you. But if we left it there, we’d really be missing out on a lot. I was once friends with other people and they were a great resource for helping me learn.
Yes, you need a mentor. But probably not for the reason you think…
We’d all love to learn easily through osmosis but, of course, that doesn’t…
Hold on. Actually, you can learn by osmosis. Here’s David:
Research from Northwestern suggests that the main benefit of mentors comes basically from being around them and observing their behavior, rather than formal mentoring sessions.
The value from mentoring doesn’t come from explicit instruction. It’s more about the support and guidance.
I think it’s helpful for the reflective process to have someone who can sort of — not tell you what to do — but kind of walk hand-in-hand on your development journey. At high levels, coaches aren’t really telling the athletes exactly what to do (they really can’t anyway) so much as observing and helping them find solutions and try and evaluate tweaks.
Now there’s still a practical issue we need to confront: where are you going to find time in your busy schedule to do all this stuff?
You can’t just quit doing everything else in your life to focus on your area of interest. But you can set aside a block of time each week devoted to your experiments or to improvement. In fact, that’s exactly what top performers do.
Two of the Nobel laureates I wrote about in “Range” both set aside time for experiments that had nothing to do with their workday assignments. Andre Geim called it “Friday night experiments,” and Oliver Smithies called it “Saturday morning experiments.” Coincidence! They both made their biggest breakthroughs during these periods on just one day a week that they set aside for exploration. In going through Smithies’s notebooks, I noticed that it seemed like every revelation came on Saturday morning. I mentioned it, and he said: “Well, I’ve had people say, ‘Why did you come to work any other day?!’”
Just a little bit every week, with time, can make a big difference.
Okay, let’s round up everything we’ve learned. And if you’re fearing you’re too old or that the time for a passion project has passed you by, David has some advice for you…
Here’s how to find your passion and become an expert:
This may sound like a lot. You might think the days when you had the time and ability for all this is long behind you…
But in Range, David’s big piece of advice was “Don’t feel behind.” We always hear stories of wunderkind in the media — but that’s rarely the reality.
How old do you think — according to research from MIT, Northwestern, and the Census Bureau — the founder of a fast growing startup (top 0.1%) is on the day of founding? …The answer is 45. I think that would surprise most people. As would findings like that a scientist’s most impactful paper is equally likely to be their last as their first.
Yes, life’s a lot like Hamlet: everyone dies in the end. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore finding a passion for living while we’re here.
It’s axiomatic: when we avoid change, we avoid improvement. We miss the chance to live radically better lives. So become someone who is always learning and growing. It’s not a stage to get past; it should be the default. Become a scientist of yourself.
To know that there’s always something new up ahead. This offers surprises, challenges, excitement, and victories. And it also offers the most important thing of all…