In a previous post we have learned the importance of repetition. However, we all know those people who don’t learn despite trying something over and over again:

  • amateurs taking classes in a given sport / art / language for many years and staying utterly mediocre;
  • incompetent middle managers who like to do things their old way, whether or not that way is working;
  • investment advisors with 10 years of experience who, despite charging substantial fees, can never beat the market (S&P 500 index funds);
  • teachers of any subject with 20 years of experience who are just not good at teaching.

 

The consensus seems to be that those people aren’t flexible. It is infinitely gratifying to think that the world is full of incompetent idiots who would make tremendous progress, had they just opened up to feedback or new experiences. After all, there is a cute little quote attributed to Albert Einstein, that

the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.

 

Are you nodding in agreement? Yet this quote is highly misleading and is generally interpreted as an excuse to give up early.

If you are after building a skill, you absolutely must do the same thing over and over again, expecting a different results a few years down the line. Just think of Michael Jordan practicing free throws or Tiger Woods practicing swings. You may think that every single one of those attempts is intentionally different, a calibrating experiment of sorts; alas, nobody has this level of control at the limit of their current ability, which is where learning happens.  It is actually impossible to do the same thing over and over again, or even two times in a row.  A single word spoken by your teacher or a single thought, such as “I am doing better today”, can dramatically shift the quality of your next attempt. 

It is not that people are not learning because they are not trying new things. It is the other way round: people are not trying new things because they are not learning.  

 

Before we continue, the above examples of mediocre accomplishments should not stop you from trying. You cannot learn without repetition, this one I can guarantee. Consider this hypothetical table,

Bad or mediocre players Really good players
People playing tennis all the time 990,000 10,000
People playing tennis occasionally or never 100,000,000 0

 

This is basic game theory: if you want to get in the second column, your only chance is in the first row! It is necessary, but why is it not sufficient?

 

Repetition alone does not guarantee improvement.

Why is it even surprising?

Expecting otherwise is a logical fallacy similar to “correlation does not imply causation” and the Simpson’s paradox. It is not exactly “survival bias”; I don’t know a term for this effect. Just look at the table above:

  • 100% of really good players are practicing all the time (10,000 out of 10,000);

  • 99.02% of bad or mediocre players practice occasionally or never (100,000,000 out of 100,990,000).

If I had shown you just those two statements, would you not conclude that a large amount of practice is both necessary and sufficient for mastery? I am not picking on your knowledge of statistics; I am making my point: you can have the information and not make the right conclusions!

Fascinating, isn’t it? This is exactly how people are not learning after countless repetition. You can see countless statistics in your life and not realize that two numbers cannot tell you the whole story hidden in a 2x2 table, and bad investment advisors can stare at stock charts their whole lives and not realize that they are missing an essential insight. While lack or organizational learning can come from broken or absent feedback loops, feedback loops for tennis, investing, and teaching are always there. Match results do not lie, neither do stock markets or college admissions, in case you are teaching high school students. Repetition is there, variations there as we’ve discussed, as every day we have different cells in our bodies and do things a little differently; feedback is there, yet learning may not happen for years or decades.

In adult dance classes, I have seen people get worse with repetition, their bad habits ingrained ever more deeply, their egos ever more closed to constructive feedback! Professional schools filter such students out based on poor performance. Studios offering open classes do not have such a luxury, but good teachers eventually realize that “trying to teach this particular student is useless”; the better the teacher, the more strongly they believe in not teaching those who do not want to learn.

 

Then how do I practice and improve?

hadddailI have already given away 2/3 of the “secret”.  These are two simple ideas:

  • A lot of practice is necessary to become really good, and
  • A lot of practice is not sufficient.

See, there is a gap. Just because you put in long and hard hours, doesn’t mean that you will emerge victorious. You can fail, spend time and effort, and stay mediocre. It is a critical point to understand that the future is not pre-determined. There are two possible scenarios, success and failure. If you disagree and think that the future is pre-determined, then I can tell you what it is: in that future you will be and stay a mediocrity.

The practiced has to be aimed at improvement. Otherwise it is called desensitization, which is also a form of learning. If you have a phobia of elevators, spending time in one can help you get acclimated to it and feel less fear. Spending months in various elevators all over the worlds will get you over your fears completely, but you won’t become a master of elevators. There is simply no direction and nowhere to arrive.

In order to move in a direction, somebody has to ask this question. It can be you, it can be your coach or mentor. The question is,

Given my current skill level, and given my desired skill level, how do I practice to get better?

 In order to learn from experience, you have to reflect on this experience. Having experience, and even having awareness of this experience is not enough. If you’ve ever tried tracking your daily expenses by writing them down, it doesn’t do much unless and until you get in the habit of reviewing your notes.

 That is, then, the remaining 1/3 of the ultimate secret: 

  • In order to become really good, it is necessary to regularly review your practice and adjust  the way you do things.

You can call it “journaling”, Navy SEALs call it “debriefing”, agile project managers call it “retrospective”, chess players call it “analyzing your games”. At the most basic level, after a practice session or a real-world experience involving your skills, ask yourself:

  • What did I do well?
  • What did I do poorly?
  • What will I change next time?

 If you do it on a regular basis, preferably in writing, you will begin to uncover patterns of cause and effect. Over time you will notice little things that jointly lead to your poor performance, and solutions will emerge. You will become excited, as what has seemed a matter of luck turns out to be completely within your control. 

Lastly, let me note that everything is a skill, and everything takes time. Reviewing your progress and adjusting the way you do things are skills in their own right. Should you do it once a day? Once a week? Once a month? How do you have the memory and the willpower to keep applying the insights you have just uncovered? If you keep making the same mistakes, does it mean you are on the wrong track? If those questions arise, include them in your learning process. Welcome them by saying — as they teach in Buddhist meditation — “and this, too”.  You can journal about not knowing how to journal efficiently, and debrief not knowing how to debrief. 

Seek the best methods, but most importantly, do it. Resolve today to regularly review your progress and answer the three questions above. This is what it means, “to practice intelligently”, and this is what some day will lead you to mastery.

 

 

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