The What, the How and the How Long of Mastery

One of the reasons we don’t acquire new skills in the way we’d like is because, ironically, we take on too much.

It goes like this. We decide one day that we’re motivated to learn something new. Armed with a vague and imprecise understanding of the new skill we’d like to develop, we engage in an (often haphazard) mimicry of that vision. Then, after trying for a bit and seeing few tangible signs of progress, we give up, falling back on a familiar internal chorus of “change is hard” and “I’m never going to be good at this.”

That’s patently untrue. You could be great at this with a different approach.

One way to rewire our ability to learn and grow comes through a clearer understanding of the What, the How and the How Long of mastery:

What to focus on.

How that focus will manifest.

How Long it will take to master the skill.

What to Focus On?

“What” is a massive point of leverage. The most important “what to focus on” rule is to stick to very small things. These are the types of things that, lacking the skill we aim to acquire, we can still learn and master.

This feels counter-intuitive, because we’ve been wired to think about big changes and big skills. Naturally, we fight against the notion of committing to something small, believing it won’t add up to anything. Yet we take for granted that the flawless abilities of any master—musicians, athletes, writers, public speakers—are comprised of thousands of micro-skills brought together seamlessly. Why would it be any different for great people managers, great listeners, great analysts?

The truth is, the only way we learn is with tiny, incremental changes in small things, coupled with enough follow-through to have these small changes accumulate over time. The specific small things we focus on will depend on the skill we aim to master, but a good rule of thumb is to find the foundational skills that have the most connection to the other pieces of the puzzle and go from there.

How to Focus?

The “How” of successful skill acquisition is marked by consistency, concentration and presence.

Consistency is the most important: each and every day, in very small doses, is a far more powerful approach to transformation than once a week on Saturdays for two hours.

This can seem obvious, but we rarely sign up for 15 minutes a day for 30 days straight. We think “that’s not enough time to (write a book, learn to swim better, become more creative),” when, in reality, this sort of daily commitment is transformational.

We should spend these 15 minutes with full concentration and presence, sweeping away both obvious external distractions and the more pernicious internal (mental) ones that hurt us more.

We do this by cultivating the skill of deep mental focus, learning to redirect our attention, every time it gets pulled away, to the task at hand.  In this act of re-direction, we can remind ourselves to maintain an attitude of curiosity and good humor, rather than one of self-criticism. Think of it like a moving meditation, and gently bring your wandering mind back to the micro-skill you are working on.

How Long?

“How Long” is the doozy.

BKS Iyengar Photo Credit: Jack Cuneo Yoga

Early on in my yoga practice there was a pose I simply couldn’t do, called Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana: standing up, you grab your big toe of one foot, lift your leg and straighten it in front of your hip.

It was the second year of my yoga practice, and, in the midst of a yoga retreat in which, thanks to 4+ hours a day of practice, I could nearly do the pose, I quietly predicted that I would be able to do that pose in another year’s time.

That was 18 years ago, and I still haven’t pulled it off. While some of this mis-estimation was a failure of the right kind of commitment on my part, mostly I grossly underestimated how much further I had to walk on that journey.

“How long” is the silent killer of improvement: the gap between our expected and actual progress creates a cycle of self-criticism, reinforcing our original, fixed story of ourselves. “This is impossible, for me,” is untrue, but it taunts us daily as we soak in small failures.

Each of us needs to find our own way to banish this demon, but it helps to remember that these things truly take time (18 years!!), and to remind ourselves that the journey is the whole point.

With this in mind, today, we commit again. We find our 15 minutes. We focus on the one thing we’ve committed to. We remember that working on this one thing, today, is the only way to be sure that we are moving forward.

Stay the course.

 

My Daughter the Brainiac

My daughter is working her way through a summer book of math and reading. She got to the end and found this Summer Brainiac Certificate on the last page. She was ecstatic.

Brainiac, Brain Quest

After filling it in and cutting it out she asked, “Is this a real certificate?”

Striking to notice how, at just seven years old, she’s already picked up that it might be someone else’s job to tell her if she’s achieved, to decide whether she gets a trophy, a certificate or a gold star.

“Yes,” I told her, “it’s definitely a real certificate.”

This lesson, that someone besides us is judge and jury, holds on tight to us. We started learning it at a tender age, and year after year, our schools and then our workplaces have taught us that a grade is coming from somewhere, that someone besides us decides what the homework is, how we should direct our efforts, what is going to be on the test. If we do it all right, they give us a piece of paper that confirms, to us and to others, that we hit the mark.

Makes me wonder what blank certificates I should be writing for myself for the skills and achievements I’m working towards. So simple to write them out and leave a blank space for my name.

To be clear, I couldn’t be prouder of my Brainiac daughter, most of all that she choose to do the work and then she filled out her own certificate.

Fifty Pounds of Clay

I’ve just started reading The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast  by Josh Kaufman to gain more insight on how effective skill acquisition happens.  Kaufman begins the book with a list of ten principles for rapid skill acquisition, the 10th of which he illustrates with an excerpt of Art & Fear by David Bales and Ted Orland:

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.  All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right side solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” groups: fifty pounds of pots rated an A, forty pounds a B, and so on.  Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an A.

Well, come grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.  It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Kaufman’s conclusion is that, “Skill is the result of deliberate, consistent practice, and in early-stage practice, quantity and speed trump absolutely quality.  The faster and more often you practice, the more rapidly you’ll acquire the skill.”

It’s a familiar pattern in human-centered design – rapid prototyping to get your hands dirty and learn by doing.  It’s how the strongest marshmallow towers are built.  Yet it’s easy to separate that approach from how we imagine our own goals of becoming better  at ________ (building Excel models; finding answers by ourselves online; becoming better public speakers; learning to fundraise).

Indeed my mental model of how to learn and practice started way at the other end: having played classical piano seriously for two decades, I had spent literally thousands of hours focused on the last 20% or 10% or even 3% of getting a piece “perfect.”   So it has felt completely counterintuitive for me to think that “just starting” is an effective strategy for anything but the most rudimentary of tasks.  And yet, through a deliberate process of unlearning, accelerated by plenty of healthy kicks in the pants from mentors, I’ve tried this other way, and over time I’ve started to rewire myself towards a different mindset: that I can learn new skills, and that the approach to take centers around starting first, being willing to feel like a fool at the outset, and sticking with things long enough to get out of that first, terrible phase.

(My first day on a snowboard, 13 years ago, I must have hit my head HARD against the mountain at least fifty times.  I was very close to walking away.  It’s only because I’d been warned that the first day is painful, and that the second day isn’t, that I stuck with it).

Imagine, then, that your job when imagining something you’d like to learn involves just two steps (not 10, not yet):

  1. Breaking that skill into its smallest component parts
  2. Practicing just one of those skills relentlessly

For example maybe the component parts of fundraising are: getting the first meeting, finding new funding prospects, holding engaging meetings, storytelling, listening, , learning to build from one meeting to the next, comfortably asking for money…. (there are more).

If you were to decide today that you’re a terrible fundraiser (by the way, you’re not) BUT you wanted to become a good fundraiser a year from now, data from the ceramics class would teach us that spending as much time as possible practicing just one those eight component parts (and I’m sure there are more of them and each could be narrower) for two weeks would get you much further along than spending two or three or four weeks reading books on prospecting and getting the first meeting.   This is why, for example, deciding to get rejected 100 times works – it is concentrated effort on a specific task, one that unavoidably gets our auto-correct mechanism to kick in an teach ourselves better ways to do things.

We know all of this in principle, but it’s a lot easier to say “fail fast” than it is to actually jump in first.  I find that imagining a giant heap with 50 pounds of finished pottery, some of it beautiful, helps me get out of neutral.

Skills for this century

The deadline for applying for Seth Godin’s summer internship is tomorrow, May 31st.  And the last 15 applications will be discarded, so today is effectively the last day to apply.  It’s a two-week internship from July 22nd to August 2nd.  All the details are here.

I thought the skills Seth is looking for were pretty indicative of must-have skills for the next century, no matter what line of business you think you’re in.  Everyone doesn’t need all of them (though why wouldn’t you learn all of them at at least a minimal level, since today you can, easily)?

Still, it’s impossible to argue that anyone is allowed, any more, to have none of them.

Seth_internship skills

Basically, the list boils down to:

  • Coding
  • Design
  • Writing good copy
  • Coming up with ideas
  • Selling stuff
  • Managing projects
  • Hustle

(I, too, give bonus points for Monty Python trivia but I’ll admit that feels a bit arbitrary.)

Not a bad list, though, sadly, it compares terribly to what we’re teaching in our schools (including business schools).

On this last point, if you have kids or you care about education, you really must watch Seth’s “Stop Stealing Dreams” talk at TEDxYouth.   And once the video inspires you, read and share Seth’s full manuscript with the parents and educators in your life.

Something new

How do you approach absolutely brand new, hey-I’ve-never-done-this-before-in-my-life situations?

If you’re working with someone who HAS done this before, here’s something you might try: “Hey, friend, I’ve never once done this before.  I’m excited to learn, I’m ready to jump in, but as of this exact moment I’ve no clue how to do this.  What should I be thinking about?”

More often than not, with new and tricky things, people jump right into the tricky thing (“this is a big deal, we better get started!”) instead of spending time talking about HOW they’re going to do what they have to do.

“I’m new to this…” ignites a conversation that will inevitably set agendas, define how the work is going to be done, roles, strategies….instead of getting stuck in the weeds of Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 of the project.  It also demonstrate the confidence of showing vulnerability – if you say this in the right way and with the right attitude, what comes across is, “I’m a doer.  I’m planning to do a great job here.  Help me take that first step.”

Plus, more likely than not, by asking this question, you make learning how to do “this” (whatever “this” is) one of the goals of the project.  You put your own learning and growth on the agenda.

Four ways to approach business school

  1. Good students go and treat it like school.  They’re good at school and it’s a familiar model: the teacher knows more than I do, assigns stuff to do, teaches me stuff.  I try hard and get good grades because that’s what I know.
  2. Credential-ers are there for the name and the doors it opens – most of which were probably open anyhow.  Tend not to worry as much about grades, care a lot about affiliation with other classmates.
  3. Career switchers are another version of credential-seekers, though usually much more focused on where they were and where they want to go.  B-school is a ticket to get there, and they’re going to work the system (especially recruiting) as much as they can to get that plum job.
  4. There for themselves know that this is a professional program, a collection of smart people (students and teachers both), and curate their own experience inside and outside the classroom.  They work hard, but not for the grades and not necessarily mostly in the classroom.  They’re there for themselves, since it’s their time and their money.

If I were to do business school all over again I would be a 4 (there for myself), but in truth I was mostly a 1.  That’s what I knew how to do at that time in my life – be good at school.

Maybe that’s all I was ready for then, but I wish someone had grabbed me by the lapels and said: “This isn’t about the job you’ll get, it isn’t about being a good student.  It’s about the trajectory / discovery / exploration / learning you need to do – in whatever way makes most sense for you – to walk from where you are today to where you want to be.”

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The problem with experts

I always feel a little uncomfortable when someone I don’t know well asks me for career advice.  Without knowing a person, who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, and the path they want to walk, the most I can do is explain what I did and why I did it, and (intentionally or not) share all of my own biases along the way.  But that’s not what they’re asking…they’re asking what they should do.

It’s the same problem when you bring in outside experts at work.  Imagine you work at a nonprofit and want to know how you can take advantage of online tools to help raise your visibility, buzz, and raise more money.  So you get a hold of an online media whiz – the founder of an innovative ad agency or someone who had a breakthrough online success at one of the big brands, or maybe even someone who worked on the Obama campaign – and are thrilled when they open their playbook to you.

It’s great, but what you’re learning about is what worked for them.

There’s no doubt that what worked for them matters.   But remember that they probably know very little about you – your audience, your budget, your brand, your community, who your rabid fans are.  So most of the conversation will be about “here’s what we did” with no one around the table knowing enough to understand how their and your situations are similar or different.

(The only remedy here is getting the guru to invest enough time that they truly know you well – then they’ll be in a position to combine their experience with a knowledge of what might and might not be applicable for you.)

Unless you get there, you’ll come up short.  If you’re trying to do something new without your own playbook, once a guru has told you what they did, you’ll need a lot of fortitude and guts to look what they did squarely in the eye and say, “You know what?  That’s not going to work for us.”

It’s terrifying to wake up one day and realize that the only person who has all the answers is you. May as well face that music now if you want to create something great.

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Twoverwhelmed

I’m feeling twoverwhelmed.  It’s not Twitter’s fault – it’s just another tool.  But I did get on Twitter this week.  The Twitter roar (“you don’t use Twitter?”)* was getting deafening, and I know enough about myself to know that the only way I can learn something is to use it.  (I finally got a handle on Squidoo this week too).

I’m not ready to commit to tweeting just yet – at least for now.  This blog and my day job are more than enough for now.  But how can I pass up the opportunity to follow the latest musings of Nicholas Kristof, Sarah Jones, Chris Anderson, and Evan Williams, to name a few?  It’s a window into what’s top of mind for some pretty amazing people.

But wait, let’s take a step back.  Evan Williams, Twitter’s founder, recently tweeted, “Contemplating new email strategies. Current practice (responding to most of them) not scaling. Interested in doing other stuff.”

Of course Evan doesn’t just care about his Inbox, it’s one of many streams of incoming information / communication he’s managing.

If conquering your email inbox was the “can we be productive in a wired world” question of 2002, things have gotten exponentially more complicated.  (If you want to be surprised by how exponentially, this video gives you all you need to know).

My A-list (stuff I truly want to stay on top of) looks something like: all my email, “must read” blogs in my RSS feed, articles and reports that are forwarded along by colleagues and friends, and now maybe Twitter.

What about the B-list: “contender” blogs in my RSS feed, magazines I subscribe to, the NY Times, Facebook….oh, and don’t forget all the absurdly amazing TED talks that are out there free to the world.  Like Bill Gates talking about what he’s doing to save the world.  And there’s always the Guardian’s 100 greatest works of fiction of all time, which has been nagging at me for some time.

And then there’s the C list, divided between stuff I haven’t spent any time on and stuff I, regrettably, don’t seem to have any time for: Digg, Reddit, YouTube, etc, but also Huffpo, CNN.com and the Economist.

And have I mentioned that I have a full time job?  And a family?

Pratically speaking, there’s always been an infinite amount of content out there.  But the ease of getting truly fabulous, up-to-the minute content delivered right to my laptop is categorically different than the world of even 5 years ago, before the explosion of user-generated content and social networks.

It’s suddenly realistic to expect that every day, in the 30-60 minutes I have to read up on things, I’ll discover something amazing.

This is my (and your) new curriculum – which is different from “the news.”

I can get really smart about just about anything now.  So I have to choose from whom I want to learn: Greg Mankiw (great economist), Seth Godin (brilliant marketer), Mark Bittman (fabulous chef), Google (organizer of the world’s information), or Michael Sandel (to take his Harvard course on moral and political philosophy – at home!). Or I could forget all that and just take free drum lessons online from a pro.  You get the idea.

Multiply that by a few decades, and I end up a whole lot smarter about some things, but not about everything.  It’s impossible to keep up with everything.

This forces hard choices, not only for me, but for content producers who are trying to find ways to make money in this new world.

Oh, and here’s the kicker: this is all going mainstream, and 10-year-olds today who are growing up on Facebook and with iTunes won’t have any vestiges or nostalgia about the daily paper being delivered at their doorstep every morning and of mom and dad reading that paper over breakfast.

If you don’t figure out how to succeed in today’s world – personally, as a consumer of all this information; and as a content producer / business / nonprofit / you name it – you’re going to end up as quaint and finished as some soon-to-be-defunct weekly news magazines.

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* For the tiny sliver of you who are die-hard Marx Brothers fans, the line that comes to mind is “You no gotta’ a Breeder’s Guide?!” uttered by Chico Marx to Groucho Marx in a Day at the Races.

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