Aristotle, the philosopher, had it exactly right 2000 years ago: “We are what we repeatedly do.” Experience shows that by relying on highly specific practices, we can dramatically improve skills ranging from empathy, to focus, to creativity, to summoning positive emotions, to deeply relaxing.
Anders Ericsson is one of the world’s leading researchers into high performance. For more than two decades, Ericsson has been making the case that it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work — something he calls “deliberate practice That notion can be wonderfully empowering. It shows we can be in control of at least part of our own fate. But it is also daunting. One of Ericsson’s central findings is that practice is not only the most important ingredient in success, but also the most difficult and probably the least enjoyable. Excellence requires dedication and focus. But it worries me on other fronts! Do I want to be excellent at one thing or good enough at a range of tasks that help me lead a rounded and satisfying life? I suppose I want to be more than good at something so that I can make a real contribution to the world! Call that egotistical but there it is! But I want to be pretty good at a range of things and I want to be broad enough to take to take the helicopter view over the world that makes for a good leader!
Anyway if you want to be pretty good at something and still keep your wider perspective here are some pointers!
- Lead with what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance. Choose as your key skill something you really enjoy and love doing
- Do the hardest part first. Learning anything is part grind and grunt! We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice first, before they do anything else. Dedicate the time in the day when you have most energy to the part you like least. Do it well and get it out of the way!
- Practice, practice,practice without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. But don’t spend all day! The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day. And you need the rest of the time for wider pursuits and other interests
- Seek feedback, but not too much. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too often, overwhelms and erodes confidence. Find people you trust, who like you, to give honest feedback in the right doses!
- Take regular breaks. Just like in the gym, relaxing after intense effort provides an opportunity to rejuvenate. But it also allows you to metabolize and embed learning. It’s also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, so you could so something creative during your break and find a whole new world of interests.
- Build you practice into a ritual . Researcher Roy Baumeister has found, that very few of us of us have huge amounts of will and resolutiont. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to build rituals — specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.
- Review, review, review Be prepared to take a step back sometimes and review your progress. How does the skill you are acquiring fit in with your rounded life? How is it going to contribute your future success and happiness? Be prepared to change your plans in the light of your learning.
As for that piano, my aunt was a pianist at concert performance level! When I was a small child she attempted to teach me to play. She became incredibly frustrated because I would find every excuse not to practice. I never did learn to play! But her lesson that the hard work gets done first has stayed with me throughout life! I regret not being able to play but I value my creative childhood! I spent my time exploring and that is a valuable skill that has stayed with me throughout life!