How do we close the gap between average and exceptional?
No one wants to be that person who talks like an expert, but operates like an amateur. God forbid anyone should think of our work as, dare I even say it—mediocre. It’s like a dirty word. So how do we avoid such a terrible fate? What does it take to close that gap between just average and exceptional?
Last week, I re-watched one of my favorite insightful talks by published author and journalist, Joshua Foer, which tackles this very subject. You see Joshua came across the field of competitive memorization when he was assigned to cover the US Memory Championship. As a science journalist, he was fascinated by the bethinking prowess of the competitors, and he decided to embark on a one year journey to uncover not only the secret behind impressive memorization, but the very core of what it takes to achieve expert skill.
He questions, if it's true that "practice makes perfect," then why is it that we can do the same activity every day, like typing or driving, and yet not see any improvement over time? I think it's safe to say that most of us who’ve typed on a daily basis over the last few years don't really type any faster than we did a year ago.
So, this commonly held belief that practice makes perfect must not be the case.
Apparently, the biggest enemy to achieving excellence in any given field is what Joshua refers to as the “OK Plateau." It's fascinating stuff, I highly recommend you watch the video (posted below), but just in case you’re short on time, I took notes. You're welcome.
In the 60s psychologists discovered that there are basically three phases we humans experience when acquiring a new skill. Most of us learned this back in college, but just for review, they are:
- Cognitive phase - This is where we intellectualize the task and start discovering new strategies to improve performance. We’re still making mistakes, and consciously focusing on what we're doing.
- Associate Phase – At this stage in the learning process, we are making fewer mistakes, and start to get better. I love this phase, P.S.
- Autonomous Phase – Now we’re comfortable with the level of skill we have achieved and we start coasting on auto-pilot, or as Joshua puts it, we've reached the “OK plateau.”
Now, do we want to be highly focused on every little thing that makes up our daily routine all the time? No. Can auto-pilot can be a good thing? Yes.
However, when it comes to areas that we want to excel in—it can also be our worst enemy.
Turns out, if you want to get better at something, you really can’t do it when you are in the autonomous stage. Once you hit auto-pilot it becomes extremely difficult to achieve excellence, because we’re satisfied with just being OK. Conversely, people who reach expert status use strategies to keep the skill that they are trying to develop in the associative stage and under their cognitive control.
Scientists have studied people who excel in almost any field that you can think off, and Joshua has used their work to complile a set of general principles that help explain what differentiates experts who are the best, from the rest of us, and why their practice produces extraordinary results.
And the principles for excellence are
Operate outside of your comfort zone and study yourself failing
At first this can be awkward, because nobody likes to see themselves fail. But eventually you start to pick-up on the physical, cognitive or perceptual hic-ups that are slowing you down—and you begin to get better. So, practice the hard parts, no matter how painful it is to see yourself suck.
Walk in the shoes of someone who is more competent than you are
As Joshua says,
"One of the best predictors of how good of a chess player is going to be is not how many hours they've spent playing chess, but rather how many hours they have spent studying the chess games of grand masters."
Excellence in anything, like winning in chess, is the result of a series of decisions. If you're studying someone who is your superior, you get to see the space between the decision of someone who knows what they are doing made, and the one you made, and you can start to figure out how to close that gap.
Crave and thrive on constant feedback
This is why they say that gravity is the best teacher. When you were learning to walk, the feedback you received was both instant and consistent. You didn’t have to wait weeks to find out if those first few steps were going to work out, one miscalculation in balance and… boom! Down you went. You were able to quickly learn from your mistakes, and make the necessary adjustments. Just ask your mom—you went from crawling to walking in no time at all.
Apply this same principle to what you’re trying to learn now. Don’t wait until you think your work is good enough to seek out feedback. Do it now, do it often. That’s the only way you’re going to get better.
Treat what you do as a science
Scientists collect data, analyze it, and create theories about what works and what doesn't. Then they put their ideas to the test. We can also employ this method to discover what our best practices are. Keep a journal, or some other way of measuring your progress. Review it often and look for patterns that lead to successful outcomes, or identify traps that are holding you back.
For more information on this process check out the video below, or order Joshua’s book (like I did) called Moonwalking with Einstein. Happy learning!