CEO.COM
July 15, 2013
How To Improve Any Skill. Any Skill.

The intersection of skill and effort is a funny place.

Think about a skill you’ve tried to develop, whether business, sports or personal. At first you improve at a rapid rate. Then your improvements slow down.

Eventually, no matter how much effort you put in, you just don’t seem to get better.

So you do one of two things:

You decide you’ll never channel your inner Mozart and you quit, or

You decide maybe you haven’t really worked hard enough, and you keep digging.

Most of the time we quit. Most of the time we stop trying to improve because we assume our natural talent has taken us as far as we can go: We decide we can never be the Mozart of our field.

Clearly that’s a problem.

But if we keep digging we still don’t tend to improve (at least not much), mainly because doing more of what got us to the level we have reached rarely results in further improvement. Think of that as my Modified Einsteinian Definition of Insanity: Doing (more and more) of the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

At some point the problem isn’t effort; the problem is how we apply that effort.

Why? Say you’re trying to improve a physical skill. Over time your skills become automatic. Automatic is a good thing, because it means you’ve internalized a skill, but automatic is also a bad thing because anything automatic is hard to adjust.

The key to improvement is to find ways to adapt or modify what you already do well so you can do that even better.

One of the best ways to adapt and modify is to learn from making mistakes. Sometimes all you have to do to improve is find different ways to make mistakes. Try one or all of these:

1. Go a lot slower.

Forcing yourself to go slower breaks habits as well, and is a perfect way to uncover adaptations that weren’t apparent at normal speed.

2. Go a lot faster.

Go much faster than normal. Sure, you’ll screw up, but in the process you’ll break old habits, adapt to new conditions and find improvements.

3. Break a complex task into its component parts.

Almost every task includes discrete steps. Pick one, deconstruct it, master it—then put the whole task back together. Then choose another component part.

4. Measure differently.

Pick a different measurement than you normally use to analyze performance. Measure speed instead of accuracy, for example, or use video or audio. A friend taped four initial meetings with prospective customers and identified several bad habits he was unaware of.

Watching yourself on video isn’t particularly fun, but it’s darned objective.

Why does making mistakes help us improve? The cliché, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect” is accurate because each time we practice perfectly we perform a task as well as we possibly can. When we try to do our best, every mistake is obvious—and then we can learn from those mistakes, adapting and modifying our techniques so we constantly, even if only incrementally, improve.

And that’s where talent and effort intersect. Skill, like talent, isn’t an end result.

Skill is a process.

Want an example? Try Mozart. Everyone knows the musical prodigy Mozart, who was composing and performing by the time he was six years old. Less well known is the Mozart who put in thousands and thousands of hours of focused practice—starting at age three. His genius lay not just in talent but also in effort.

Talent took him far; hard work and focused practice took him a lot farther.

Here’s a business example, one that might surprise you: A friend of mine runs an excavating firm. He spends a lot of his time on a backhoe. Speed and efficiency are critical in his business because he’s paid by the job: The longer it takes to dig footers for a new building, for example, the less money he makes. So he constantly tries new techniques and loves experimenting in unusual conditions like muddy or frozen ground or different types of soil.

He approaches excavation like it’s an Olympic sport—and he’s gotten really good at it.

So can you. Whatever you do, you can do better. It doesn’t matter if it’s a physical task, or making sales calls, or managing employees, or conducting interviews. Any task can be performed better and more efficiently. To improve, don’t make the mistake of simply working harder. Shake things up. Reinvent a skill that has over time become automatic—but not perfect.

If you do, the results will be messy and frustrating at first, but with the right kind of effort your skills will improve. And then you can have your own Mozart moment. (If you’re not familiar with the movie “Amadeus,” in the clip Salieri composes a welcome piece, the king performs it, then Mozart takes Salieri to school.)

Want to know more about how to develop your own skills? Check out Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, Gladwell’s Outliers, Matthew Syed’s Bounce, Colvin’s Talent is Overrated or Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Read a little, then practice a lot.

  • http://www.NextMoveStrategy.net/ John Banks

    Great read Jeff. As a business owner and a firefighter, I train how I fight. I don’t train until I get it right, I train until I can’t get it wrong.

  • http://www.supportingroles.com/ Anne Coughlan

    Couldn’t agree more Jeff, thanks for a great article, a nice clean rationale that will assist explaining the value of the work we do, providing practice opportunities of all kinds with specially trained actors. I can’t help but see the parallels in your description of how actors work in traditional rehearsal situations. And how effective that is. It’s a bit of a mind “reset” to encourage people to roll up their sleeves and potentially get a little messy as they break down skills or build new ones in different ways. It ain’t always pretty but it works! Anne

  • Vivek Ramji

    Brilliant Article, Jeff! I posted this exact same Amadeus clip that you are referring to on LinkedIn and Twitter a couple of weeks back. I am a big fan of natural talent, but with effort any skill can be mastered even if you are a Salieri! Gracias Seniori!

  • Priya

    Beautiful insight jeff! Couldn’t have put it any other way than you did.I have recently started following linkin and I found your article very useful.Keep up the good work!