How To Get Better At Things
July 20, 2021
Most of us go through life trying to do our best at whatever we do.
But in many domains which are important for us, we find ourselves getting stuck. We keep doing our stuff, working hard, but we don’t seem to move forward. Our skills plateau, we don’t improve, and we start losing interest because we are not growing. So we look for an escape- Change of job, change of role, change of hobby, etc.
There is a brilliant Ted Talk by Eduardo Briceño: How to get better at the things you care about, that I encourage you to take 11 minutes to watch. In this Talk, Eduardo talks about this very problem and presents some powerful ideas about improving at anything we do.
I’ll share the ideas that Eduardo presents in the Talk from the perspective of my elder son, who is an accomplished classical musician. As a parent, I have had the opportunity to see up close how he has achieved high proficiency in a very technical domain.
My son does his work alternating between two states- the learning zone and the performance zone.
When he operates in the learning zone, his goal is to improve his skill level. He goes through a set of specific practice exercises designed to help him improve and grow. He concentrates on aspects of his musical repertoire that he wants to master. When he is in this learning zone, he is not worried about mistakes. His purpose is to do “deliberate practice.”
What does his deliberate practice look like?
- He breaks down his abilities into component skills, being clear about what specific sub-skills he is working on to improve. Strength of Voice, Pitch, Speed, Rhythm, Musical Improvisations, etc.
- He listens to masters of yesteryears to figure out how they dealt with the different facets and pick up cues to work on.
- He then concentrates on practicing to a high level of challenge, just beyond his current zone of comfort, with constant repetition, feedback(from teachers and us parents), and making adjustments.
The Performance Zone
My son’s work in the learning zone culminates in him giving concerts often, and as he starts preparing for a concert, he shifts from being in a learning zone going into a performance zone. When he is in the performance zone(even in practice), his objective is to execute his musical pieces as flawlessly as he can. He focuses on presenting the musical elements that he is already adept at. And, he is very conscious of not making any mistakes.
When my son is in the learning zone, he tries to maximize his growth and prepares to improve his future performance. However, when is he is in the performance zone, he is maximizing his immediate performance.
Giving the concert is the ultimate performance zone for my son. It is a source of motivation and feedback. It helps him identify specific areas to improve in his musical repertoire when he gets back to the learning zone.
The Secret To Get Better- Alternate Between The Learning And Performance Zone
The lesson I have learned watching my son is this- The way to improve our performance at anything is by moving between the learning and performance zones, purposefully building our skills in the learning zone, and applying them in the performance zone. Eduardo shares this relationship in the Talk, this way.
The Problem For Most Of Us- We Are Always Stuck In The Performance Zone
Music is a domain where there is a clear separation between the learning and the performance zone. So it is easy to track the difference between the two.
But for other knowledge-based domains, the divide between the learning and performance zones is blurred, and we confuse the two.
E.g., At our workplaces, when we start in any role, we learn about the role’s nuances and improve. But after spending a year or two, our performance usually starts plateauing. This happens because once we get comfortable with the basics, , we stop spending time in the learning zone. Instead, we focus all our time on just doing our job, being in the performance zone. Spending more time on something in a task-performing mode may improve muscle memory and efficiency but does little to enhance skill level beyond a point.
Secret To Get Better-Spend More Time In The Learning Zone
If you are looking to get better at anything, be it marketing, sales, finance, leadership, Relationship Management- think about what you can do to learn and practice to improve. For example, you could extend your knowledge by reading books, consulting with colleagues, trying out new strategies, or soliciting feedback. You can then practice what you have learned in a low-risk environment where making mistakes is not fatal, and you get to hone your skills. It is all about spending more quality time in the learning zone and executing better when in your performance zone.