Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Best Way to Get Better at Anything

Deliberate practice plus feedback equals improvement.

Key points

  • All-or-nothing thinking can impede our motivation to improve our skills.
  • Identifying specific components of skills to work on through feedback can be helpful.
  • Deliberate practice is more effective than our usual way of practicing.

"I've never been good at speaking up in groups."

"I'm terrible at budgeting. It's just not something I can do."

"I don’t do sports. I'm not very athletic."

People hold strong beliefs around what they are and are not good at. Furthermore, in particular areas of their lives, people tend to view themselves through the lens of categorical extremes—they are either all good or all bad at something, rather than somewhere in the middle. In cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), we call exaggerated thought processes like these cognitive distortions, the term used to refer to common "thinking errors." More specifically, the error of seeing things in a black-or-white manner rather than in shades of gray is an example of the cognitive distortion called all-or-nothing thinking, All-or-nothing thinking not only influences the core beliefs we hold about our own abilities but also exerts a powerful effect on the explanations we give for how there can be such large differences in people's ability levels.

As the story goes, some people have got it, and some people don't. We are born with certain strengths and weaknesses that predispose us toward certain pursuits, ergo away from the activities, hobbies, and occupations we weren’t made for, so we should discover what we are naturally good at and uncover our hidden potential. Life is a bit like going on a treasure hunt—looking for clues on the map that will point in the right direction, getting lost and stuck in dead ends over and over again, starting to lose all hope, until, one day... boom. *Dramatic pause.* *Sound of shovel clanging against metal.* You finally stumble upon that which you have been searching for, where "X marks the spot"—the buried treasure/ability/potential/calling/life purpose that has been there the whole time. Or so the story went until a psychologist and leading expert on expertise completely rewrote it.

In his book, Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise, K. Anders Ericsson debunks the myth that the main reason the best swimmers, violinists, chess grandmasters, and other competitors who rank at the top of their fields are so good is simply that they were born to be good at these things.1 Studying violinists at a top music school, Ericsson was interested in what separated the best violinists from the merely good violinists. He found that the main factor that distinguished the top violinists from the rest was that these individuals were spending many more hours each day on average practicing by themselves outside of regular practices and one-on-one instruction from their teachers. Ericsson discovered that the same pattern existed amongst national spelling bee winners—the kids who went the farthest in spelling bee competitions and ended up winning tended to be the ones who spent the most time practicing memorization of words in solo practice.

This begs an important question—did these performers excel because they spent more time practicing, or did they simply practice more because they were already talented in their respective fields and thus enjoyed practicing these activities more than others? When asked how much they enjoyed practicing, the top individuals did not report enjoying practice any more than comparable peers who were less skilled than them.

Does that mean we can train anyone to do anything?

Ericsson concedes that in certain athletic domains, you may be limited by factors like your height and/or body size that are not likely to change dramatically regardless of effort and can give others who have genetic endowments a leg up (think how being taller can help you in basketball but being shorter can help you more in horse riding). However, he was able to prove through experiments that it is possible to teach laypeople how to do things that on the surface you would think are impossible to train or that are reserved for "geniuses."

Ericsson was able to recruit the collegiate long-distance runner Steve Faloon for a study to see if it was possible to improve one’s ability to memorize digits that were read aloud to them. In the beginning, Faloon could recall and say back a fairly average number of digits (seven), but by the 200th “training” session, he could remember a staggering 82 digits, comparable to what the best memory experts at the time could do. Ericsson was able to replicate similar success with subsequent experiment participants, who were able to benefit from using techniques similar to the ones Faloon reported using when asked about his thought processes.

In the domain of music, Ericsson gives examples of how people have been taught how to identify musical notes by ear through training and practice and are able to develop "perfect pitch," a quality you are usually believed to be born with. He talks about how "geniuses" like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart actually got to be so good because he started young, had an enriching home environment and engaged parent, and accumulated thousands and thousands of hours of practice before producing his first real creative works.

What dreams and wishes have we mentally closed ourselves from pursuing because of the societal myth that talent is innate? The problem with believing that talent and skill are genetic is that this belief dissuades us from actually trying and putting in the effort to get better at something, reinforcing the very idea that we aren't very good at it.

How do we get better?

1. Challenge your story about ability.

Being good at something is not about finding buried treasure. It is more like filling the treasure chest up, one coin at a time, every time you invest in practicing a skill.

2. Identify the specific skills you need to improve.

Break down the skill you want to do better into even more specific skills you need to focus on. For example, a basketball player may generally want to work on shooting the ball better, but they would differentiate between lay-ups, free throws, mid-range jumpers, and three-point shots. Working with a teacher who can provide you with real-time feedback can be invaluable. A teacher or coach can help you identify the skills you need to improve and design individualized exercises to hone in on these growth areas.

If it is not possible to work with a teacher, videotaping yourself can be a useful source of feedback too. In my graduate school training, we would tape our therapy sessions; though it was horrifying for me to watch myself on tape at the beginning, this process was vital in forcing me to see what I was actually doing rather than what I thought I was doing in the room.

3. Set a "stretch goal" just outside of your current comfort zone.

The way you will get better is by challenging yourself. For example, if you are trying to get better at meditating for longer periods of time, and you reckon you can currently meditate for five minutes at a time, try going for six, and work your way up.

4. Schedule dedicated time for deliberate practice.

Ericsson differentiates between the way we usually practice something—assuming that we will just get better at something the more we do it—and deliberate practice, the focused, intentional repetition of the specific skills you identified before. He recommends that we dedicate time each day that is free of distractions and obligations to engage in deliberate practice of a skill and to aim to practice this skill intently for an hour or so before taking a break.

5. Fail to move forward.

The most important part of all of this might be the willingness to fail and make mistakes. The way every single expert and peak performer has gotten to where they are is by making mistakes. With this feedback about what they are doing right or wrong, experts are able to update their mental representations—detailed conceptualizations of what a thing should look like and feel like in mind and body—and, in turn, improve their skill level. If we cultivate a willingness to set stretch goals outside our comfort zones, fail, learn where and why we failed, and try again, we too can improve our abilities to do things that we thought were out of reach.

What are your self-limiting beliefs about your own abilities? How can you incorporate elements of deliberate practice, feedback, and stretching your comfort zone into your own life to tell a new story? I hope you let go of old stories that we can go ahead and bury.

References

1. Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Random House.

advertisement