Great habits are built through constant practice. The idea is to take a simple idea, and then take it seriously.
In the previous issue of Life 2.0, we talked about habits as a way of simplifying and taking control of your life. Let’s now take it one step further and explore how we can build skills at an expert level.
Everybody aspires to be really good at something. It could be a sport, an art, playing a musical instrument or any other activity like reading, painting or drawing. Sometimes when we see somebody who displays an extraordinary talent in any of these fields, it not only leaves us awestruck but inspires us.
A common myth about talent is that it’s a genetic gift and talented people are born with it. However, nothing can be further from truth. Some people do have a natural inclination towards few activities but it’s not what makes them talented.
So how do you become good at something? How do you improve your performance in a chosen activity? Well the cliché “practice, practice and practice” isn’t the entirely correct answer.
Talent is an outcome of “deliberate practice”. If you haven’t heard of this term before let me give you the definition first.
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance.
The idea was made popular by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers. According to Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a world class expert at any skill.
However, simple practice isn’t enough to rapidly gain skills. Mere repetition of an activity won’t lead to improved performance. It’s not the quantity but the quality of practice. And how do you increase the quality of your practice?
Continuous evaluation, feedback and thinking are required for improvement. Without adequate feedback about your performance during practice, without thinking about what you’re practicing, efficient learning is impossible and improvement is minimal.
The results of deliberate practice are beautiful but be warned that deliberate practice in itself isn’t fun. It requires lot of effort, mentally as well as physically. While you are involved in deliberate practice, you are at the boundary of your limits and knowledge, stretching out for a goal which is just a little out of reach.
So now the most important question is – why would you want to go through so much pain and discomfort of deliberate practice, especially if you aren’t a professional sportsperson or musician?
You see, one of the key ingredients of long term happiness is the feeling of being exceptionally well at any specific task. Many recent studies in the field of psychology have found that people who are improving their performance constantly (even if the progress is slow) in some chosen activity, are happier than average people. How do you know if this is true?
Have you ever noticed a rush of feel-good emotion in your body when you find that you have successfully completed a task which you couldn’t do earlier e.g. winning a table-tennis match against your friend, or completing a 2-km walk or even finishing few quick games of Angry Birds on your smart phone (explains why these games are so addictive)?
You know the reason behind that feel-good effect? When you are getting better in something every day, it boosts your ego and releases a feel good hormone called serotonin in your body. This hormone is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness.
Even if you don’t want to be world class performer, there are at least few things where you would want to be above average. For example, for being a value investor, the most important skills that you want to develop are reading and thinking.
Charlie Munger says –
We make actual decisions very rapidly, but that’s because we’ve spent so much time preparing ourselves by quietly sitting and reading and thinking.
So how do you implement deliberate practice in developing this critical skill of “reading and thinking?” Latticework of mental models comes to your rescue again.
One of the important mental models that come from Literature is the idea of “how to read”. This mental model was covered in the Feb. 2015 issue of VIA in the Bookworm section. If you haven’t read it, please go back and read that section of VIA again.
Pick an idea you think you have a grasp of and write it out on a sheet of paper as if you were explaining it to someone else. The simple act of explaining the idea to somebody else reveals the gaps in your own understanding. Check out The Feynman Technique if you want to improve retention.
One idea that I have found useful is described in the book The Little Book of Talent. The author Daniel Coyle writes –
A high percentage of top performers keep some form of daily performance journal…write stuff down and reflect on it. Results from today. Ideas for tomorrow. Goals for the week. A note book works like a map: It creates clarity.
Of course practicing too much can also become counterproductive. After you’ve finished your period of practice, it’s time for some self-care. Don’t strain yourself mentally too much. Do something that doesn’t require a lot of mental focus. Reward yourself. Go for a walk or take a nap. In fact, adequate sleep plays a very important role in deliberate practice.
Famous value investor and a Buffett disciple Mohnish Pabrai takes a nap every afternoon. He even has a bed in his office. According to him, sleep helps him assimilate all the reading and he wakes up with new insights.
For multidisciplinary thinking to work, you should be able to connect the ideas, and a relaxed mind helps you do that.
I will end this post with a quote from Charlie Munger –
Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading; cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day…go to bed smarter than when you woke up.