We all feel stuck sometimes.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a wonderful book called Outliers, examining what exactly goes into the making of experts. It’s a wonderful book, and I highly recommend giving it a read. A major theme in the book is the 10,000 Hour Rule. Based on some scientific studies (which have recently been questioned), it states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. While the research is more subtle than the 10,000 Hour Rule makes it sound like expertise is simply a matter of putting in the time. If you’re patient and disciplined enough, you will become an expert.
Though true to a certain extent, there’s more to it than that. I’m sure you’ve been there before; you’ve decided to pick up a new skill, and you’re making pretty good progress. You’re now past the ‘beginner’ stage, and are starting to really get the hang of things. All of a sudden, your progress stagnates; you keep pushing to get better, and putting in the practice, but the results just aren’t following. I know I’ve had this happen far more frequently than I’d like to admit.
The solution is usually something minor that you’ve either neglected to focus on, or hadn’t known about until it was too late. But there’s never a general method for dealing with this situation, right?
Wrong. While the specifics will obviously vary from skill to skill, there is a systematic method of practice to avoid stagnation on your way to mastery. That method is known as deliberate practice. Practice by itself will not lead to mastery; you have to know how to approach each lesson or practice session to maximize the bang for your buck.
Shoring up the fundamentals
When you first take up a new skill— knitting, writing, running, whatever— you must pass through the beginner stage. At this point, you’re learning the basics, and most of your practice time is spent thinking very hard about things that will later be as natural as breathing. Once you get comfortable with the basics, your skills begin to stand out.
Passing to the intermediate stage— the longest, most difficult stage to escape— means that you’ve completely internalized the fundamentals, and now you’ll never have to think about them again, right? Wrong again, bucko. Now that your focus is dedicated to more advanced techniques, you’re focusing less attention on the fundamentals, and that can mean you start to get sloppy.
One of my hobbies is weightlifting. I often notice that my lifts are feeling off, and I spend ages trying to find little fixes that make everything smooth again. Sometimes these work, but more often than not I find that I’m neglecting the fundamentals. I’ll go back to the beginner stage at the start of each workout, and make sure I go through the movements consciously hitting all the ‘basic’ cues. I always find at least one major thing that I have drifted away from consistently doing during my lifts. When I remind myself of the importance of the basics, the rest falls into place.
In general, you want to make sure that you spend a little bit of time every now and then going over the basics. It will refresh your memory, and ensure that everything else on which the basics depend rests on solid foundations. This is one of the aspects of deliberate practice.
Push yourself into new territory
Okay, so you’ve got the fundamentals down, and you’ve even mastered some more advanced skills. But you’re nowhere near an expert yet. What gives? Should you just spend another 8,987 hours doing the same things over and over? Is that how the 10,000 Hour Rule works? If you’ve made it this far into this article, you’ll probably be catching on to a pattern in answering my rhetorical questions. The answer is No, of course not!
To become a better writer, for example, you need to find your weaknesses. Writing 1000 words everyday will only get you so far if you don’t reflect on that writing. Read your work critically. Have someone else read it, and get external feedback. What do you do well? What needs work? Now, spend the majority of your practice time working on your weaknesses.
If you’re bad at writing dialogue, look up some authors that write excellent dialogue. Copy out their work, then reconstruct large portions from memory. Compare your work to theirs. Try to paraphrase your own work in the style of a better author. In short, get creative in addressing your weaknesses. Do things that feel awkward and uncomfortable. The point is that, with deliberate practice, you’ll extend your comfort zone to include what was once horribly uncomfortable. Experts have a large toolbox of skills to draw on, and you’ll have to build your toolbox before you can ever become an expert.
Now, deliberate practice puts you on a better path toward becoming a true Outlier, but you still need to put in the time to get to the top. Where do you think you can implement deliberate practice to get over a hurdle? Even if you don’t want to be the best at something, mindfulness in practice will make you better faster, and make practice more fun.
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by Adam Koberinski
Adam is a PhD student studying the philosophy of physics. He is also an avid reader and weightlifter. He wants to help people organize and gain control over their personal and financial lives. He's also my husband.