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” is the doozy.
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.
Swimming is a funny thing: on a planet covered by water, more than 37 percent of adults cannot swim the length of a 25 yard pool. I was nearly part of those numbers. Though I’m a lifelong athlete, from the age of 6 swim lessons terrified me, and as recently as three years ago, while I could swim 25 yards of freestyle, I’d grab at the end of the pool, panting, looking incredulously around me at the people of all ages, shapes and sizes swimming lap after lap without needing a breather.
In 2015 an arm injury finally got me back into the pool. Over the course of a year, I willed my way to swimming a mile. But there was always a sense of lurking panic, always a survival instinct kept at bay that could kick in at any moment—never mind that air is literally an inch away and all I need to do is turn my head to breathe.
I finally decided that muscling my way through the water wasn’t my goal, and, urged on by a friend who can swim across the Long Island Sound, I bought some of Terry’s books and videos.
The funny thing about these books and videos is that they don’t start with swimming. They start with floating.
Terry’s entire philosophy is based on the notion that all of swimming is taught the wrong way. In Terry’s view, we spend most of our energy in the water trying not to drown, which is why we get so tired and why we move forward so little. If we could learn to float and balance, we could swim effectively, efficiently, and with joy. As Terry famously states, “it’s not the size of the motor [how hard you stroke and kick] that matters, it’s the shape of the vessel.”
That may be, but “vessel shaping,” Terry Laughlin-style, can feel like a pretty silly activity.
Having read much of Terry’s Ultra Efficient Freestyle book, I eventually find myself in my local pool trying out Lessons One and Two from the book. They are titled “Torpedo” and “Superman,” and both involve pushing off the bottom of the pool and just floating with arms at your side (Torpedo) and extended (Superman). Over and over again.
Imagine, if you will, those same swimmers speeding past me, cranking lap after lap, and I’m just trying to float the right way. Funny, right?
But eventually I learn how to float face down and not sink.
And then I learn how to float on my back and not sink.
And then I learn to float on my side and not sink, and to extend one arm and not sink.
And then I learn to float on my side, with one arm extended, and face my head down and kick. And then I’m supposed to effortlessly rotate up to breathe.
But I can’t.
Whenever I try, I start to struggle, and then strain, and then panic. After a few tries, and lots of water up my nose, I stop. A few weeks after that, I skip to the next lesson and tell myself that this step probably wasn’t all that important after all. I work my way to the end of the book. I’m a bit of a better swimmer. But in my heart I know that I skipped the most important parts.
When Terry passed away, I had a sense of loss, and, in honor of him, I went all the way back to the beginning of the book to start again. A year later after I’d given up, I find myself back at lesson two, trying to learn to breathe on my side without panicking.
And it still doesn’t come easily to me. But I’m keeping at it. And this time, with a bit more perspective and appreciation, I’m also using it as a chance to learn about how I learn: to observe how committed I really am; and to notice the gap between the narrative I tell myself about what I’d like to learn (the videos I’m happy to watch, the book I’m happy to read) and how many hours I’m willing to spend in the pool—when I have lots of other priorities and lots of other ways to exercise that come more easily.
Most of all, it’s a chance to watch my own narrative of failure, because mostly I feel like I’m failing. Each time I fail, after blowing up water out of my nose and cursing a bit, I ask myself: do I really, truly, believe that I will fail at this forever? Is it possible that if I put in time and concerted effort, that I am the one person in the world who simply cannot accomplish this?
Yes, it’s possible. But it’s unlikely. And since each next “thing” that Terry has me do is such a tiny increment on the last thing, failing this time means I never really mastered the last step, or I’m not willing to master the next one.
The frustrating, amazing thing is, it’s never Terry’s fault, and it’s never a lesson that doesn’t work. It’s really about what I’m willing to do: the time I am willing to put in, how deliberately I am willing to practice, how well I deal with the plateaus.
And while part of this endeavor is about my interest in learning how to swim, beyond that, I am interested in what Terry has to teach me, and teach all of us, about mastery. Because what Terry has done is to take his passion for swimming and create a program for self-taught mastery that literally anyone can accomplish. Each step is so clear, so well thought through, and broken into such small pieces that each can be digested and practiced if you have the will and the persistence and the capacity for reflection and self-observation.
And what Terry’s done with swimming could be applied to just about anything. It’s a question of our willingness to take the time to deconstruct something, to deeply understand its component parts, and to commit ourselves to the often repetitive, focused, intentional work of rewiring our nervous system or our limbic system or our musculoskeletal system or our habitual thoughts and feelings, until they, slowly but surely, change.
This is how we can learn anything, without all the false stories about our own limits and the talent we do and don’t have.
In the meantime, I’ll keep going to the pool, less than I’d like to think I would, but more than not at all. I believe that one day I will become an effortless swimmer, and I commit that until then, I will keep walking the path.
A little while back I decided to make breaded, baked zucchini “chips” at home. My mother has made them a bunch of times, and when she makes them they rarely make it to the dinner table because everyone (including the kids) nibbles away at them like they’re French Fries.
It’s a very simple recipe: slice zucchini thin (like coins), dip them in eggs, then dip them in seasoned bread crumbs, then lay them out on a baking sheet and bake them at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes. The clunky bit, I discovered, is the painstaking, one-by-one dipping of the zucchini. I started doing it one slice at a time, and was going well at first. Then the bread crumbs started to get messy, and I started getting cement-like globs of egg-and-breadcrumb mixture on my fingers, nearly doubling the size of my thumb and pointer finger. Frustrated, I started experimenting with different approaches: dipping five zucchini slices in the egg at a time, then dropping them in the bread crumbs, then shaking the whole thing around a bit. That sort of worked, but it made more of a mess, the breading was inconsistent and I’m not sure it sped things up much. I kept on fiddling with my approach, but nothing seemed to make much of a difference. Mostly I was slow, messy, and either got too thick or thin a coating of bread crumbs on each zucchini slice. It took me nearly a half an hour to get through three zucchini’s worth of chips (filling up two full baking sheets) onto the pan, and I’m sure that someone out there could do what I’d just done in one-fifth the time.
“If you can’t take the heat…” is a phrase that is at least 50% metaphor: professional kitchens are hot, sure, but that’s as much about the intensity of cranking out each dish quickly, all night long, as it is about the actual temperature back there. Kitchens are a (high-class, sometimes) assembly line, and all new cooks learn that the quality of what they’re able to produce is meaningless if they’re too slow and they mess up the line. If they can’t produce at a high quality, with a high degree of consistency and a high speed, they won’t last long.
In professional environments there’s little talk of how fast people do things. Yes, there is vague hand-waving around the notion of an 80/20 rule (that you can accomplish 80% of what you need to with the right 20% of the work), which is an acknowledgment that what you choose to work on is the most important leverage point you have. But we rarely talk about how long it took to produce ______ (that email, that document, that strategy)? Or, likely a more productive question, are you getting better at taking the core parts of your job that aren’t going away and doing them as efficiently as possible, to create space for yourself for the non-repetitive, value-added work where you’re really going to make a difference?
It seems somehow belittling of the important work we’re doing to ask how long it took us to do it.
In a kitchen, the chef stands over you and barks out orders, tells you what’s wrong and right. Your speed and quality of workmanship are both out in the open. In an office, only you know how long it took you to get that email just right, how much you dawdled before picking up the phone to make a cold call, how many hour-long meetings could have taken 20 minutes if you and your team had approached them differently.
I’m not advocating for rushing all day long – indeed the point is to be fast in some places so you can be slow in others. But when I watch the demands on many of the top professionals in today’s world, I see that in order to survive and create space to do the real work, they have to get really good and really fast in areas that might seem like they should be hard and slow. That requires nothing short of mastery – you get neither good nor fast at things if you don’t do them often and if you don’t focus on getting them right (and getting them fast).
The catch is that it’s going to be rare for anyone but you to have enough visibility into your day and your workflow to help you set a new standard for the pace of your work. It’s also up to you to figure out what needs to be faster, what needs to be slower, and what work you’re simply not doing because your day is too full of everything else. I’d just encourage you to remember that fast is your friend, when you apply it in the right places.
(Addendum: not only did my chips take forever to make, they also came out a bit dry and salty. I later revived them by throwing them into a lasagna the next day. Nothing wrong with salvaging a failed first attempt.)
Angela Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long term goals.”
She also has found grit to be the single best determinant of long-term success. The single one. And, she tells us, we know very little about it – little about how to instill it in our kids or in ourselves.
But perhaps the definition itself, in its simple economy, gives us some insight about the way forward.
Passion: meaning that you have to care.
Perseverance: meaning that you have to push through, that this won’t be easy, that there are going to be many hard days (weeks, months), many times when things aren’t looking good. This is going to test you.
Long-term: as in years, in most cases.
Goals: you need to have an objective, somewhere you’re trying to go, a point on the horizon or, at least, a north star.
It strikes me that we get tripped up on the “passion” bit. Enough people have found a way to be part of something that they care passionately about. Yet even if the big Mission with a capital “M” is motivating, the day-to-day also needs to hang together for years on end.
And what if you’re not actively working towards something that moves you? What if you don’t even know what moves you? Here is where people get and overwhelmed by the notion of “finding their passion.”
Two suggestions. First, that mindset may be starting at the wrong end of the sentence. If we’re working on grit then we can start with “perseverance,” “long-term” and “goals” and devote ourselves fully to doing great work and getting our ego out of the way. Second, I don’t think we need to start with “Passion” with a capital “P.” We can be passionate about small things (figuring out pivot tables once and for all) or about pieces of our work (coaching others) even in situations where the whole is leaving us flat.
The shift comes when we realize two things: that we do have the ability to decide where to apply our energies (agency); and that through applying ourselves we grow in amazing ways over long periods of time (mastery).
I find that – whether as a husband, a professional, a father, a squash player, a blogger, a speaker, a boss, whatever – I’m always aiming to improve, and the only thing that works is focusing on one thing at a time in each area of my life (as in, in squash I’ve been working on my drop shot for about a year now). Each thing I’m passionate about changing is part of a longer term goal, and through the process of focus and dedicated work, that change happens – slowly, one thing at a time. Each change takes months or sometimes years. But, mostly, I progress. And knowing that’s possible changes everything.
Angela’s 6-minute TED talk on grit just might change your whole perspective. It certainly pulled a lot of threads together for me.