In 1924, German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel wanted to learn the Japanese art of archery. His friends were skeptical—Europeans rarely succeeded. But with the help of a colleague at the University of Tokyo, Herrigel convinced master Awa Kenzo to accept him as a student.

Training began. Awa said the arrow must fly effortlessly from the bow, like snow from a bamboo leaf. But Herrigel could barely draw the 6-foot bow before his muscles failed. For hours each day, his master corrected mistakes. After a year, Herrigel could draw the bow. After several years, he could shoot wobbly arrows.

Herrigel was frustrated by his slow progress. He accused Awa of being a charlatan. In response, his master placed a stick the width of a knitting needle in the sand and turned off the lights. When Herrigel retrieved the stick, there were two arrows in it—the second embedded in the first. Herrigel was now a believer and devoted himself to practice.

In his fifth year of training, Herrigel finally mastered the art of archery. His master said, “Now at last, the bowstring has cut right through you.”

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

-Alvin Toffler

Learning to learn

Learning to learn is the single most useful skill for improving your life. There are different learning systems if you want to reach the top 20% versus top 1%.

Top 20%

  • Find the proven system

  • Practice 1 hour/day for months

Top 1%

  • Get real-world feedback

  • Practice 2–4 hours/day for years

  • Coaching

Losers have goals. Winners have systems.

-Scott Adams

Top 20%

In most fields, there is a proven system that enables beginners to quickly reach intermediate performance. Find it by asking experts. Note which one keeps getting recommended.


  • Total Immersion (TI) for effortless swimming

  • StrongLifts 5X5 for strength training

  • Suzuki Method for violin

  • Toastmasters for public speaking

  • Consultative selling systems for sales skills

  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards for drawing

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie for social skills

It is possible to become world-class, enter the top 5% of performers in the world, in almost any subject within 6–12 months, or even 6–12 weeks.

-Tim Ferriss

Practice the system until you perform actions without thinking. For example, when you’re learning to drive a car, you think consciously about each action. With practice, you drive automatically.

Performance suffers when you think consciously because it slows reaction time. On average, people have a reaction time of 0.25 seconds for automatic tasks versus 0.75 seconds for conscious tasks. For example, tennis player John McEnroe would deliberately compliment opponents on their best stroke. This caused them to think consciously and play worse.

“Flow” is the state of mind for peak performance. In flow, your conscious and subconscious minds are fully engaged. You’re in the zone and you lose track of time. Flow requires skill level to match difficulty level. Too easy is boring, but too hard is frustrating. There’s a sweet spot in the middle.

Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Top 1%

Psychologists have found that most people overestimate their abilities. They think they’re in the top 20%, but they’re actually average. This “better-than-average effect” makes it hard to assess yourself objectively.

Therefore, the first step in achieving expert performance is real-world feedback to reveal your true strengths and weaknesses.


  • Write a test and see your score

  • Enter a competition and see your ranking

  • Launch a product and see your revenues

After you master one level of competition, move to the next. In the movie Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage dies and is reborn over and over again until he masters skills to fight alien invaders. Real-world competition for survival transforms him from a coward to a warrior. Watch the movie and get a feel for the learning process.

My opponent is my teacher, my ego is my enemy.

-Renzo Gracie

The second step is deliberate practice for 2–4 hours/day. Deliberate practice means specific exercises to fix weaknesses and improve strengths. For example, chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin wanted to become a martial arts champion. He filmed his matches and painstakingly analyzed each frame to discover mistakes. Then he practiced until his muscle memory was perfect.

Deliberate practice is tiring. You’ll need 7–8 hours of sleep each night to rest and recover.

After 10 years, you’ll have one or two elite strengths and no obvious weaknesses. Even at the highest level, there are ways to improve. For example, at age 35 near the end of his tennis career, Roger Federer debuted a better backhand and won 19 of 20 matches. He defeated nemesis Rafael Nadal 3 times in a row. In previous matches, Nadal had won by relentlessly attacking Federer’s backhand.

We’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

-Alex Pang

Finally, get a coach to provide feedback and design personalized exercises for deliberate practice. For example, at age 17, Mikaela Shiffrin became the youngest American skier to win a World Cup. To develop balance and coordination, her coach trained her to juggle while riding a unicycle.

Find coaching candidates by asking top performers for recommendations. Ask candidates for advice on a performance problem. Choose the coach whose advice works best for you.

Your track record of success in competitions will help convince a top coach to train you. The best coaches are looking for students who have the potential to become world champions.

If you want to master something, teach it.

-Richard Feynman


Herrigel E. (1953). Zen in the art of archery. Pantheon Books.

Top 20%

Freeman S et al. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 111(23): 8410–8415.

  • A meta-analysis of 225 studies with science, technology, engineering, and math students found that active learning increased performance (effect size = 0.47)

Libet B. (1981). The experimental evidence for subjective referral of a sensory experience backwards in time: reply to P. S. Churchland. Philosophy of Science. 48(2): 182–197.

  • Human reaction time is typically 0.25 seconds, but this slows to 0.5–1.0 seconds with conscious thought

Flegal KE, Anderson MC. (2008). Overthinking skilled motor performance: or why those who teach can’t do. Psychon Bull Rev. 15(5): 927–932.

  • A study with 80 golfers found that consciously verbalizing about putting caused higher-skill golfers to drop performance to lower-skill golfers (average number of putts increased from 10.6 to 21.2)

Slingerland E. (2014). Trying not to try: The art and science of spontaneity. Crown Publishers.

  • Tennis player John McEnroe complimented opponents to get them to think consciously about their strokes

Csikszentmihalyi M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

Top 1%

Zell E et al. (2020). The better-than-average effect in comparative self-evaluation: A comprehensive review and meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 146(2): 118–149.

  • A meta-analysis of 124 studies with >950,000 participants found that people had a tendency to perceive their abilities, attributes, and personality traits as superior compared to peers (effect size = 0.78)

Dunning D et al. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 12(3): 83–87.

  • A study with 141 students found that those in the 12th percentile of test performance believed they would actually be in the 57th

  • Students were unaware of their incompetence because lack of skill prevented them from realizing they were performing poorly

Adesope OO, Trevisan DA, Sundararajan N. (2017). Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing. Review Educational Research. 87(3): 659–701.

  • A meta-analysis of 118 studies found that practice tests increased learning more than all other methods, such as re-studying, re-reading, and concept mapping (effect size = 0.61)

Murayama K, Elliot AJ. (2012). The competition-performance relation: a meta-analytic review and test of the opposing processes model of competition and performance. Psychol Bull. 138(6): 1035–1070.

  • A meta-analysis of 81 studies with 5,887 participants found no association between competition and performance

  • The reason was competition led to mutually opposing performance-approach goals (effect size = 0.41) and performance-avoidance goals (effect size = 0.29)

  • Performance-approach goals increased performance (effect size = 0.15)

  • Performance-avoidance goals decreased performance (effect size = 0.17)

Deliberate practice

Ericsson KA, Harwell KW. (2019). Deliberate practice and proposed limits on the effects of practice on the acquisition of expert performance: Why the original definition matters and recommendations for future research. Front Psychol. 10: 2396.

  • A meta-analysis of 14 studies of games, music, sports, and spelling bees found that deliberate practice increased performance (effect size = 0.54)

Ericsson KA, Krampe RT, Tesch-Roemer C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychol Rev. 100(3): 363–406.

  • Studies of chess, music, mathematics, tennis, swimming, scientists, and authors found it took ≥10 years of deliberate practice to become a champion, or produce international-caliber work

  • Studies showed reduced benefit from practicing >2 hours/day, and essentially no benefit for >4 hours/day

  • Famous violin teachers recommended practice periods of <1 hour with >1 hour of rest in between

  • While completing a novel, famous authors tended to write for only 4 hours during the morning, leaving the rest of the day for rest and recovery

  • A study of 30 violinists found that top performers practiced 3.5 hours/day; napped 0.4 hours/day; did leisure activities 3.5 hours/day; and slept 8.6 hours/day

Duke RA, Simmons AL, Cash CD. (2009). It’s not how much; It’s how: Characteristics of practice behavior and retention of performance skills. Journal Research Music Education. 56(4): 310–321.

  • Researchers studied 17 graduate and advanced-undergraduate piano majors practicing a difficult 3-measure keyboard passage from a Shostakovich concerto

  • Total practice time did not predict performance

  • Instead, top-ranked pianists spent practice time fixing errors

Waitzkin J. (2007). The art of learning: A journey in the pursuit of excellence. Free Press.

Schmid D et al. (2020). Sleep-dependent motor memory consolidation in healthy adults: A meta-analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 118: 270–281.

  • A meta-analysis of 48 studies with 1,654 participants found that sleep increased consolidation of motor memories (effect size = 0.43)

Roger Federer has turned his weakest shot into a weapon. (2017, April 5). Economist. https://www.economist.com/game-theory/2017/04/05/roger-federer-has-turned-his-weakest-shot-into-a-weapon


Wisniewski B, Zierer K, Hattie J. (2019). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Front Psychol. 10: 3087.

  • A meta-analysis of 435 studies with >61,000 participants found that feedback increased student learning (effect size = 0.48)

  • Feedback improved outcomes for the following activities: physical (effect size = 0.63), cognitive (effect size = 0.51), behavioral (effect size = 0.48), and motivational (effect size = 0.33)

  • High-information feedback (effect size = 0.99) was more effective than corrective feedback (effect size = 0.46) or reinforcement/punishment (effect size = 0.24)

Burt D, Talati Z. (2017). The unsolved value of executive coaching: A meta-analysis of outcomes using randomised control trial studies. International Journal Evidence Based Coaching Mentoring. 15(2): 17–24.

  • A meta-analysis of 11 randomized controlled trials with 696 participants found that executive coaching improved outcomes such as performance, well-being, coping, work attitudes, and goal-directed self-regulation (effect size = 0.42)

Jones RJ, Woods SA, Guillaume YRF. (2016). The effectiveness of workplace coaching: A meta-analysis of learning and performance outcomes from coaching. Journal Occupational Organizational Psychology. 89(2): 249–277.

  • A meta-analysis of 17 studies with 2,267 individuals found that workplace coaching improved individual-level results (effect size = 1.24), affective outcomes (effect size = 0.51), and skill-based outcomes (effect size = 0.28)

Südkamp A, Kaiser J, Möller J. (2012). Accuracy of teachers’ judgments of students’ academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Journal Educational Psychology. 104(3): 743–762.

  • A meta-analysis of 75 studies found that teachers accurately judged students’ academic achievement (effect size = 0.63)

Pennington B. (2014, January 9). Mikaela Shiffrin’s swift, if unplanned, ascent to World Champion. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/10/sports/mikaela-shiffrins-swift-if-unplanned-ascent-to-world-champion.html

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