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.
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%.
Losers have goals. Winners have systems.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Performance-approach goals increased performance (effect size = 0.15)
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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
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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)
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