Five ways to sharpen any skill.

Five ways to sharpen any skill.

You?ve probably heard the theory that it takes ten thousand hours for skill mastery.

It?s been a huge part of the self-development community since Malcolm Gladwell released his book Outliers.

If you?re anything like me you?ve already run the math to determine how many hours a day for how many years you?ll have to spend in order to master the violin, yoga, martial arts, and everything else from writing to cooking.

In some ways, this has been empowering. I feel like I can pick up any task, give it twenty years and master it. In other ways, it?s been overwhelming. I mean that?s a lot of practice.

But there?s good news. Malcolm was wrong.

You see he didn?t actually interview Anders Ericcson, the scientist whose work Malcolm based his 10,000 hour rule on. So he ended up misinterpreting the information. (Which is a discussion all it?s own, how journalists and self help gurus handle scientific data.)

So let?s set the record straight, it?s not exactly how much we practice, but rather how we practice.

According to Anders Ericcson, there are two essential parts to practice, which he shares on a Freakonomics episode you can find here.

Purposeful Practice

Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target ? something that you want to improve ? and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.

Deliberate Practice

We think of deliberate practice requiring a teacher that actually has had experience of how to help individuals reach very high levels of performance.

Behavioral shifts occur when we break larger tasks down into their smaller components and practice them one step at a time, with some good teaching, self-awareness, and coaching.

Now, in my own experience, a skill?s learning curve tends to be in your favor.

You might not achieve quick mastery, but you can get exponentially better with just a little effort.

Today we?ll be exploring five key points that will help you gain proficiency in any skill.

Then I?ll share some of my peer experience in my own recent skill development and we?ll sum up why mastering new skills is so important.

Whether it be painting, drawing, interpretative dance or cooking, new skills reshape your mind, give you new outlets for a healthier life as well as better self-expression and can help you overcome anything from a mental health challenge to addiction or a mid-life crisis.

Gladwell got one thing right. Mastery doesn?t seem to come from genius, it comes from hard work. Building mastery in a skill takes practice, and not just any sort of practice, it takes challenging, critiqued practice.

But before we get there let?s cover the first step. Ericcson is studying masters in a field, and he can help us in how we understand the need for practice but as a life coach I want to set you up for success before we touch on the work itself. So:

Step 1. Accept where you?re at.

I recently started to work on two very different skills that I have no experience with, drawing and Chinese.

With drawing, I was able to tell myself that I am a complete beginner, no different than a preschooler. So when my work looked like a preschooler?s I laughed and asked the Prof. how to make it better.

This carefree attitude allowed me to evaluate my work as it was, be honest with what needed to be changed, and delight in what was actually accomplished.

Chinese was different, it felt more academic. While drawing was my first art class, Chinese certainly wasn?t my first academic class. Normally I do great in classes, but not so hot in foreign languages.

So when I couldn?t perform my mind didn?t go down the ?you?re just in kindergarten? route of the drawing classes, it instead started wondering what was wrong with me and making up excuses for why I?m so bad at languages.

I got incredibly stressed out in class and lost hold of information I totally knew, which led to embarrassment and more stress.

That?s what stress does, it shuts down portions of our brain and makes us less functional. You can check out how it does this in my article on How Stress is Sabotaging You and Your Goals.

The thing is I was completely new to both subjects, the difference was I was willing to accept this in one and couldn?t in the other.

My performance in the drawing class ended up far better and when I finally got the hang of letting go and treating Chinese like I was a preschooler babbling to myself, I started doing better in that class as well.

Whenever we start a new skill we really need to be honest with where we are and allow ourselves to be humbled by the process of our skill mastery.

If you haven?t deliberately practiced something you?re going to be an amateur at it. Laugh it off and let yourself be a child.

This will cut down on your stress and allow you to amaze yourself when you start to improve your skills.

And it?s a whole lot more fun and rewarding than beating yourself up for not being great at something you haven?t practiced yet.

Step 2. Challenge yourself with deliberate practice.

?Learning isn?t a way of reaching one?s potential but rather a way of developing it.?

? Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

What Ericcson has really honed in on is that skill mastery isn?t a matter of genes or genius. Skill mastery boils down to hard work.

If you want to get good at something you need to work at it, and not just what you?re good at, you need to work at what stretches you.

Constantly challenge yourself to step into further unknowns.

For instance, I write free verse poetry. I love it and I?ve been practicing for years, but I?m hitting the wall with what I can do.

I need to start challenging myself to work with other forms of structure, haikus, sonnets, hexameter, whatever will stretch me past what I already know.

Similarly, you can practice other forms of drawing, techniques in painting, ways of pitching, forms of exercise, ways of cooking. Find appear to be weaknesses and work on those constructively.

They?re not really your weakness, they?re just the bits you haven?t practiced yet.

This is how you stay fresh and young at heart, not to mention constantly growing, you seek out what you don?t know and step into the role of a child learning it through endless curiosity.

It?s also a great practice at remaining humble, even while you accumulate greater and greater proficiency.

Here are some other tips to maximize your practice:

A. Practice in the morning.

You have more energy and focus then and deliberate practice takes a lot of focus.

B. Don?t practice too long.

Practice takes focus and focus is a chemical process in the brain and body. (For a fascinating read check out this AIMS Neuroscience study)

Norepinephrine, Acetylcholine, Dopamine and Serotonin are all used for attention.

You only have so much in the way of these neurotransmitters. When you use them faster than they replenish you become less focused. If you press yourself too far you?ll lose focus and get frustrated, creating resentment in the field you?re working in.

C. Shoot for quality over quantity.

It?s better to practice the same problem over and over in the same context than it is to switch everything up.

This is what Ericcson means by deliberate practice and he talks about it some more in that Freakonomics episode.

Purposeful practice is very different from playing a tennis game or if you?re playing basketball scrimmages. Because when you?re playing, there?s really no target where you?re actually trying to change something specifically and where you have the opportunity of repeating it and actually refine it so you can assure that you will improve that particular aspect.

So if I want to master drawing the human figure rather than drawing twenty different people I should draw the same one over and over again until I have him or her down perfectly.

Otherwise, my proportions, detail, and posture change each time and I can?t practice on the few isolated problems that came up with my first piece.

Step 3. Get a coach.

?The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach.?

? Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Expertise is what allows someone to really see what is going right or wrong in a practice. There is no better way to figure this out in your own practice than to get an expert to coach you.

Whether it be meditation, behavioral change, drawing, writing or shooting three-pointers, working with an expert is going to take you there faster and more efficiently.

Often times it?s hard to see where we?re going wrong.

After all the brain is limited. It?s amazingly complex and efficient, but it is limited and doesn?t have enough resources to process everything.

Having a coach or a teacher means there?s someone else there adding their brain and training, catching what you?ve missed and pushing you on when things start to stall.

As a life coach, I know how useful teachers and coaches are. So when I wanted to pick up some new skills I signed up at the community college.

It was great because I had the professor there to help me when I needed pointers, but I also got to see how everyone else in the class was doing what they were doing.

Particularly in drawing it helped me figure out a bunch of different skills much faster than if I were going at it on my own.

Step 4. Become a teacher.

My best professors always set me up to lead class discussions or help other students study for quizzes and homework.

Typically I?d learn more trying to explain a concept to the other students than just reading it or taking it in from a lecture.

When we study something we?re taking in passive knowledge and often times we?re only grasping it in theory.

Maybe I can draw a tree rather well, but until I know how to talk about that tree in shape, line, shading, and form I?m going to have a hard time taking those skills and using them to draw another object or an abstract piece.

When I have to describe these techniques and components of image to someone else it gives me a much better grasp of what I?m actually doing.

If you really want to master a skill start sharing what you know with other people.

The attempt to communicate it to another person?s learning style and comprehension will get you to see the subject in a whole new light and will sharpen your own skills.

Step 5. Start

Whatever you choose to do, choose to start it.

Skill development requires practice and practice starts with you. Don?t worry about your proficiency or how much time it?s going to take, just dive in and get started.

Put the tools we?ve talked about to use and get someone to help guide you, or plug into a community who is also practicing the skill for some peer critiques.

You?ll be surprised how fast a bit of practice can affect your skills.

Learning curves are easier than you think.

My story.

Last fall I took a drawing class. I had no idea what I was doing when I first started. The professor on the first day asked us to draw some shapes from paper cutouts she made just by eyeballing them.

I did horribly.

I couldn?t even draw a straight line and my images didn?t line up at all. I filled in the differences in black so it?s easier to see just how off they are.

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The assignment was a nice lesson in humility. It got me to understand exactly where I was.

I was a complete newb and I needed to focus and pay attention so as to learn more.

And that focus, attention, and practice started to pay off. With just two classes I drew the following.

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And then when I got frustrated about not knowing how to put things to scale she taught us a gridding method, which got me this after just two weeks of class.

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I must have redrawn the nose some 15?20 times.

When it started looking like anything other than an ogre?s and her eyes started staring back at me it was a pretty powerful experience.

When you start to see your skills grow in leaps and bounds you feel pretty good.

By the end of the class, I was producing pieces far better than anything I could have imagined at the beginning.

And it wasn?t just me. The entire class was doing far, far better regardless of their previous experience drawing.

With just seven class sessions a class of complete amateurs drew this mural.

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What?s amazing about it is that we scaled it by eye and weren?t able to see what anyone else was working on. We just had to draw what was on our tiny little cutout.

This was the first drawing class for nearly everyone there and yet we were able to create a rather well-done mural. (If I do say so myself.)

This is one of the reasons why I love the classroom environment for learning new skills such as creative writing, painting or sculpting. You get to see others developing and expressing their own skills and talents.

I?ve been blown away by the skills and talents of people in every writing and art class I?ve ever taken.

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, it can be pretty hard to believe that the people walking past you on the street have impressive skills in drawing, singing, reporting, fiction crafting or story telling.

We?re used to thinking that great skills are the realm of the celebrity, but in reality, celebrities are simply people who got recognized for their skills.

Great skills are all around you and you can access them yourself if you do the work.

Why do this work?

If you?re throwing in the average 47 hours a week, commuting, taking care of the kids and cleaning up the house why would you want to be dedicating your limited time to developing anything else?

Well first off, all of those activities are composed of skills, from time management to interpersonal relationships and communication.

Each of those skills can be practiced just like we?ve outlined above and you can find coaches, teachers, and therapists for each and every one of them.

Secondly, the development of any skill develops your brain. It gives your brain the practice of practicing.

The brain is always adapting to what we do. If what we?re doing is creating a life where we?re constantly developing and honing new skills and old, then the brain will adapt to this.

It will become better at everything that is necessary for good skill development, such as self-control, dedication, increased ?grit,? self-observation, adjustment, and coaching.

And these are critical skills for everything we do whether it be weight loss, addiction recovery, balancing mental health, getting that next promotion or painting the kid?s portrait.

We can practice our way into truly transforming ourselves, one skill, one practice session at a time.


While it doesn?t take 10,000 hours to develop a skill, it does take work. And you can make the most of that work by practicing smart.

Be honest with yourself, challenge yourself and seek good coaching and you?ll be amazed at how quickly you can develop your new skill.

As a plus, the practice will go beyond the development of the skill itself and help you practice your own self-creation. And that is pretty awesome.

Call to Action:

What skill or behavior do you want to change? Not tomorrow, but today.

Take a minute and identify something you want to change in your life and already know clearly the next step to take.

Don?t pick something you need to research or have to put off, pick something you have already done the research for.

Something you can start practicing for just 3?5?10 minutes today.

This is how I get a lot of my clients to start increasing their exercise or meditation. I challenge them to start right here, right now, just for one minute if they need to.

Once you?ve made that practice consistent, challenge yourself further not only with more time spent but by targeting what you need the most work on.


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