How to be good at anything

There are only 4 steps:

  1. Do it
  2. Get feedback on how you suck
  3. Study how to improve at where you suck
  4. Repeat

People tell me this is obvious. But it’s ok to be obvious. Knowing and doing are different. Many people know many obvious things they completely fail to do, despite their knowledge.

If someone tells me they want to write, I ask “how much do you write now?” If they say, “I don’t really,”  I say “Go write something. Anything.” There’s often a look of great fear. They’re afraid to even try. Their ego has made just trying something very expensive, when it should be very cheap given how little they’ve done it.

If they tell me they’ve written, I ask them how they suck. If they don’t know, I tell them to get feedback from someone who sucks less than they do. None of this is complicated. It’s not even expensive. The problem is everyone wants to skip steps 1 through 4. No one in history has ever become good at something by skipping these steps, yet everyone wants to try.

Another good question is: how many hours are you willing to spend to become good? It won’t necessarily take 10,000 hours, as that number is mostly just satisfying to say. But it will take many hours. How many? Depends on how good you want to be, and how lucky you are.

For most skills you can do #2 and #3 on your own. Read your own writing. Watch a video of yourself speaking. If you have read good writing, and watched good speakers, you can easily identify your bad habits. A coach or a teacher can help you move through these steps faster, but you can do them on your own, for free, with enough courage and persistence, two things everyone knows about, but few people have.

(This post partially inspired by a chat with Eric Barker and an email from Maria Brophy)

 

32 Responses to “How to be good at anything”

  1. Peter Kruty

    Actually 10.000 hours might be really exaggerated. Recently there was lot of buzz around “deliberate practise”. Just google it to learn more.

    Reply
  2. Paul W. Homer

    So you’ve worked at something for a long long time, and were honest with yourself about your failures, how do you know if you are good now, or will ever be? What if you’re just stuck at some less-than-good plateau and won’t ever get better? There are some things in life in which I am pretty sure I’ll never get beyond ‘amateur status’. I can do them, but most people wouldn’t use the word ‘good’ (cats howl when I sing for instance).

    Paul.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      I don’t think there are absolute measures of good, at least not for anything interesting. Springsteen gave a great speech at SXSW this year joking about how many legendary bands ‘suck’ – consumers are harsh and subjective critics of everything. There is no writer no matter how famous that could call even a majority of readers their fans.

      Most of us are trained to seek absolute measures. We want a score. We want to compare. That’s why many so called creatives obsess about twitter followers, or sales, or a dozen other easy to track numbers. Those numbers do have meaning but the meaning does not equate to ‘good’. Many bad writers have more followers or sales than the great ones ever did.

      I’ve also learned it’s ok to suck at things, even things you enjoy. My best example is guitar. I’ve been at the same level of (low) skill for years, but man do I love to play. Being good isn’t necessary to derive pleasure from something. I am certain I get more value from my lousy playing than many people who are twice as ‘good’ do.

      Reply
      • Shantnu

        “There is no writer no matter how famous that could call even a majority of readers their fans. ”

        Agreed. And to prove it, go read your favourite books 1-2 star reviews on Amazon. Books I couldn’t put down were described as “mind numbing slow and boring.”

        Taste is a very subjective thing. What sucks for one person maybe the greatest thing ever for another.

        And even for the same person, this changes with time. I recently saw some 80s action/martial art flicks I absolutely loved as a kid. Now they made me want to throw up.

        Reply
        • Scott Berkun

          Good points. The watching a film more than once is fascinating. We assume our tastes are static but they’re not. Sometimes the reason we like, or don’t like, a movie much has to with how we’re feeling no that particular day, rather than what’s in the movie or book itself. Yet we burden the movie with all of the responsibility for whether we enjoy it or not.

          Reply
  3. Pam

    It’s hard to understand how to improve something across a wide range of skills. What’s the difference between learning how to golf and becoming a world class writer? Should we follow the same process?

    To that end, there have been some good discussions on Farnam Street recently — especially on a concept he calls “Deliberate Practice” For a primer see, http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2012/07/what-is-deliberate-practice/ Highly recommend it.

    Reply
  4. Maria Brophy

    Scott, thanks for writing this post.

    For me, I want to be a good public speaker. I want people to leave my lectures saying “wow, that was awesome!” and I want to be able to solve their problems in the areas in which I know I’m good.

    I guess I just need to practice, get feedback, practice more. Like my mother always said, “practice makes perfect.”

    I appreciate your time in emailing me and writing this post.

    Your insights are great – I just ordered a copy of your book MINDFIRE – can’t wait to read it!

    Reply
    • Per Rosing Mogensen

      I think Daniel Siegel’s concept of integration might be helpful to understand good communication, including public speaking.
      Maybe this doesn’t work for you, but it has helped me a lot in finding new perspectives on various subjects, and it is fairly new to me so I might not explain it that well.

      Siegel defines integration as differentiation and linkage of the differentiated elements.
      I think a good communicator integrates the audience in the speech.

      This might not make any immediate sense, but if you think about it you might see that your task as a speaker is to help the audience integrate something you understand into what they already understand. This means you should look for what is different in your mind and their mind and figure out how to link these differences. Or what’s different in how you experience something from the audience’s experiences of it, and how do you link these experiences.

      This may explain why story telling is so often part of good speeches, because stories allow us to link experience but also differentiate our own experience from the experience of a story.
      A story activates our mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are functionally the same as other neurons, but they are differentiated in such a way that our minds experience the content of the story yet will not be lost in it as if it was reality. Flashbacks are examples of something going wrong in the differentiation, memories tell a story but because it is not differentiated from current perception it appears to the mind as if it is happening in reality.

      Well, like a lot of other things this might not be an easy concept to understand directly, but rather like understanding electronics, it helps a lot to just experiment with it.

      Just look up Daniel Siegel, or Dan Siegel on youtube and you’ll find plenty of speeches we’re he explains this.

      Reply
  5. Angel Gavin

    Yes, it may seem obvious. Thinking and getting feedback about our own skills should be taught in schools.

    Sometimes “obvious” means those sort of things we know we have to do but we don’t. And we are so shamed that we will never confess it.

    Excellent post (as usual, anyway!)

    Reply
  6. Per Rosing Mogensen

    Attention and emotion have significant impact on learning, unfortunately this seems to be forgotten in most schools.

    In school most of us learned that you need to know answers, and that knowing the right answer or producing “good” solutions is all that will be evaluated. This leads to a simplistic functional view of learning: information is provided by a teacher, the student memorizes the information, the teacher tests the student to evaluate how much was learned. If the student does poorly, then the problem is seen as either lack of motivation or lack of ability. In my opinion the problem is more often in the process.

    The simplified functional view I see as an illusion of controlling something that cannot be controlled. We cannot control the learning process, we can just regulate our communication.

    I’d say learning is a complex process, and complex processes have many feedback and balancing loops, for example stress, distractions, attitude, feelings, emotions and relationships all interact in the process of learning. If you ignore your experience of learning and think it should just follow the formula of more work means more learning this might have little congruence with how your brain integrates new experiences and information.

    Learning takes place all the time, but as we grow older we tend to abstract more and more, such as not noticing what the road, buildings, people look like on the way to work. I suspect that our modern ideal of automation, delegation, and focus on functional optimization has this backside: we become practiced in dismissing sensations and impressions. We focus too much on results, rather than experiences that support, enhance, or inspire us to improve our thinking and learning processes.

    I think this partly comes from education trying to control attention. My impression is that most teaching attempts to dictate what you should pay attention to, you are expected to pay attention what the teacher is paying attention to. Then we may habitually start to believe that expectations should determine what we pay attention to. Use it or loose it would apply here, playful learning is lost as we stop exploring the world without expectations, and instead try to anticipate what we’re expected to pay attention to.

    Reply
  7. P Edant

    “read you own writing” = irony
    Good post though, salutary to remember.

    Reply
  8. Shantnu

    Scott,

    Does ‘shipping’ fit into the 4 points above? (Was it Jobs who said great artists ship?)

    I ask because I have a friend who has been working on a book for many years. She recently submitted it to a competition, and won 1st prize. I asked her if she was planning to publish it, and if I could have a beta copy. Her reply: “There are still a few issues. I’m going to rewrite it slightly. I want the book to be the best I can make it.”

    Technically, she is following the four steps above, but she lacks the courage to ship. As such, I’m doubtful how much she can improve by working on the same book over and over again.

    What do you think?

    Reply
  9. Ted Cory

    I personally disagree. I feel that this is the caveman way of doing things. Look at how to learn, look at outliers that are successful when they shouldn’t be, and then start down your path outlined above. I’m not saying that you should’t actually execute, but that you need to do your homework first.

    “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”- Abraham Lincoln.

    Reply
    • Scott

      I don’t think the order matters. If you want to study before you try, that’s great.

      We’re all different and different approaches work at different times. I’ve seen people who benefit from studying first, but other folks feel great pressure to try something they’ve been studying. They know too much.

      It’s also good to realize everyone is different *each time*. Sometimes researching helps, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes jumping right in works, sometimes not. Most of what matters is the willingness to keep trying. Without that, nothing matters.

      Reply
  10. Mauricio

    It’s good to know how you suck. But it is also good (sometimes better) to know what you do well. We have to learn from success, not only from mistake.

    Reply
  11. David Edward Clark

    Hi Scott: Thanks for another great article. I love this topic and I don’t think enough can be written about it. I need to be constantly reminded of the importance of staying disciplined in my creative pursuits. I commend any effort, even a small blog post, that gets people closer to realizing their visions.

    Thanks,
    David

    Reply
  12. Agus

    Please tell me hot to be good at “how to be good at anything” ?

    Reply
  13. Mike Nitabach

    I tell them to get feedback from someone who sucks less than they do[.]

    Actually, you don’t necessarily need feedback from someone who sucks less at the task than you do. You just need feedback from someone who knows how to identify how someone else sucks at the task and how to help make them better at it. For example, no figure skating coach can actually do a triple axel, but they are the only ones in the world who can teach a figure skater to do one. In relation to writing, it’s the same with editors.

    Reply
  14. Paul

    Spare a thought for professions where getting to actually do your job is limited. Take refereeing/umpiring. Typically games are seasonal, so there is only around 6 months of the year where you can actually even try to umpire something. Add to that, you can only do it for about an hour a week … Without even taking into account the potential for injury, etc, the chances of getting to 10,000 hours are remote. Yet we have some very good referees/umpires. It would be interesting to do a study of professions that have little time to actually do their jobs and to learn more and find out how they do it. I’m not saying your steps 1-4 are wrong, but there are jobs in this world where steps 1-4 just can’t happen with the regularity required to get good … What else are they doing?

    Reply
    • Scott

      Good question. Keep in mind the 10,000 hour number is sketchy at best, and meant mostly to imply skill comes with practice.

      Some skills plateau quickly: I can teach you to cook a scrambled egg in a half hour. If you did it 1000 times you would be only marginally better at it than the 10th time.

      Ref/Umpires are interesting since their job is to evaluate what other performers are doing which may have different characteristics for what ‘being good’ means. It’s harder to evaluate what a good ref is, than a good baseball player.

      Reply
      • Paul

        I know for Rugby Union that Referees are judges mainly on A) Man Management – How well did they manage the people in the contest in order to prevent infringements (this includes communication). B) Accuracy – Simply how accurately did they apply the laws of the game. C) Even-Handedness – Did they apply management and the laws equally to both teams. There are secondary evaluations such as fitness, etc … But essentially that’s it. The big one for me is accuracy. You only get an hour a week to practice accuracy. In other words matching what you see visually to a predefined process of determining how to apply the laws of the game. I would love to see their strategies for developing this tool.

        Reply
  15. Kenneth Vogt

    Many closet-perfectionists never get good at things because they never start. They never start because they can’t do it perfect. You see the problem here. “Done” is the new perfect. Do something. Then do something else. The next one will be better. And the next. It never really gets perfect anyway, it just gets “perfecter”. More on that here: http://www.veraclaritas.com/perfectionism-is-setting-the-bar-too-low/

    Reply
    • Joshua Lundquist

      Ha, “perfecter,” I like that… And it is so true, in my experience with music, that like you said, “The next one will be better. And the next.” And not just a little better, but now after years of making songs, each next good one feels exponentially better. With three or four throwaways in-between.

      I mean, the rewards of finishing and moving on to the next are so huge that not starting looks ridiculous in retrospect.

      I think it’s so easy to make a track, it was even ten years ago when I started, that it’s equally as easy to try to perfect each track. Even the duds. And nothing is worse than an over-polished turd, IMHO.

      Reply
  16. MStokely

    Agree with the article. As a new writer however, and having found success in other careers, I can say the number one way to succeed at anything is Passion with a capital P. If you love something enough, you will do anything to be good at it. In fact the ultimate aspect of success in anything is when you dont even care what others think of you skills or abilities. With enough passion you pretty much enjoy your own journey and writing becomes just a sideline. Its impossible to fail when you love what you do!

    Reply
  17. Scott

    The same advice with a more positive tone:

    1. Do it
    2. Get feedback on where you need to improve
    3. Study how to improve that element
    4. Repeat

    (Suggestion from Sam Greenfield)

    Reply

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