Develop a skill: how to be extremely good
Do you want to develop a skill?
In his book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell analyzed the roots of success by observing hundreds of top performers. We can think about people like Tiger Woods, Lionel Messi or Kobe Bryant. The author later emphasized a certain pattern and deducted that these experts practiced for at least 10 000 hours before reaching such a level.
In a previous article, we already talked about the illusion of instant gratification. Now let’s see why it takes so much time to master a simple skill and why we say “practice makes perfect”. Adapting the same philosophy, we will see that “repetition is the mother of skill”.
Talent is overrated
I always thought that talented people were born this way. At that time, I would really feel bad because I believed I certainly got any talents. Our parents never pushed us to develop a certain set of skills. Nobody in my family practiced a martial art or a music instrument. Because we lived in a modest condition, my Dad would usually tell us: “Study hard now and maybe you will afford the luxury to have leisure and develop your passion later”.
Years passed by without us developing anything. We mostly studied and did nothing else; the goal was to get good grades and someday work in a big corporate.
By the time I was 23, I realized it was too late to learn a musical instrument. We didn’t have time, let alone with a hectic professional life.
Develop a skill: a shift of mindset
It wasn’t until later that I realized it: developing a talent requires time. Tony Robbins maintains: “repetition is the mother of skill”.
Julien Blanc, one of my great models published a video of him 5 years earlier. In that video, he just began his YouTube channel. We could clearly see how much he progressed over the years. At the beginning, he stumbled, he hesitated, he looked everywhere but never in the lens. And that was the moment I realized we can truly get better with enough support and practices.
I kept repeating this mantra: “repetition is the mother of skill”. Maybe it was a great synchronicity too but I started going to the gym at that time. It wasn’t easy at the beginning but there’s a point when we exercise so much, we start to get pleasure from it. When pleasure replaces the pain, it’s there that we really start enjoying doing something.
It’s only at the beginning of a journey that things are tough. As long as we practice, as long as we don’t fall back into instant gratification, we will sooner or later get results.
The pitfalls when we develop a skill: Cut corners
The first time I learned Chinese, I thought I would master the 3000 characters required within a single month. Never did I realize how much time it would take; I simply underestimated the scope of work ahead.
At the beginning, we always want the easy path, we look for the shortcuts. Instant gratification is so hardwired in our brain that we immediately want to be gratified.
A study conducted by Stanford University called: “The Marshmallow test” deeply analyzed that human tendency. In that experiment, we had kids who faced two choices. They could have one marshmallow immediately or if they waited for 15 minutes, they will be granted two marshmallows. Because of our craving to be instantly gratified, most of these kids chose the first option. Some of them were tempted to wait a little bit but then they gave up and ended up getting only one marshmallow.
But real change takes time. So how can we achieve mastery in one field? What can we do to avoid the trap of instant gratification?
Understanding “Deep practice”
Brazil won the World Cup 5 times, making it the first country to realize such a performance. Brazilians seem to produce some of the most skilled players in the world.
We may explain these results with their love of soccer or their relatively poor economic conditions. Most kids dream of escaping poverty by becoming a professional soccer player.
Yet, when we look closer, we understand that there is another explanation. In addition to their great genes and environment (nature and nurture) Brazilians also play and practice football in a very different way.
For over 50 years now, Brazilian players have been training in a very particular way. Their practice produces their high percentage of skilled players. They trained on a much smaller ground than in a regular soccer field. The teams use a smaller but heavier ball which barely bounces. It’s when Futsal was born.
As they are only five or six in a team, Futsal actually helps young Brazilians to handle the ball more often than in a normal game of 11 players. On top of this, the smaller field pushes them to make a series of quick and controlled passes in a condensed amount of time.
This is what we call deep practice or deliberate practice. It is an activity specifically designed to improve our performance. As for futsal, we can see that the players practice more intensely than in a normal soccer game.
A scientific explanation
Acquiring a new skill involves a deeper reality, a neurological process. In his book “The talent code” Daniel Coyle claims that “Every human skill, whether it’s playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse—basically, a signal traveling through a circuit. “Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out.” Neurologists call it “the holy grail of acquiring skill”.
As we develop a new skill, an accurate practice gets the myelin thicker. The thicker the myelin, the better it insulates.
To make it simple, look at it this way: A person with a thicker myelin would have her firing speed like a 5G network at 500GO/s while a beginner will have it at 128kbps. You would understand that there’s no latency but rather accurate and precise control from the professionals.
An expert in any field has practiced long enough, deep enough and deliberately enough to have their myelin thicker. This results in faster, stronger and more accurate movements from their parts. For example, Serena Williams or Kobe Bryant has thicker myelin that accurately controls their movements. On the contrary, a beginner has a sluggish and approximate movement because he’s got his myelin thinner.
This highlights why it takes time to build a skill. It is a natural process because the myelin doesn’t grow overnight and it requires constant practices.
Once the myelin “wraps, it doesn’t unwrap”. Once we learn how to read Chinese characters, it is unlikely that we lose it, just when we learn to ride a bicycle.
The more we put energy and time in a specific activity, the more myelin we earn which in return get us more skilled.
It is possible to develop a talent and a new skill. It can be learning a new language, practicing a musical instrument or learning how to drive a F1. For example, in China, they push their children early in their lives to develop their talents. It can be table tennis; dance, playing the piano or anything, the trend here is that they begin as soon as possible; why? Because it takes time! If only I knew this earlier, I would’ve started learning guitar or piano. One thing I know for sure is that I will also push my children to start an activity for them to master it by the age of 10 or 15.