Everybody I know wants to get better at something. Ambition to progress is an essential part of human life. Most of us are eager to learn something new or improve our skills. Somebody wants to become a better guitar player, somebody wants to be a better father or mother, somebody wants to improve gaming skills.
And even though we all want to become better at what we do, not everybody is really getting better. Some people spend months and even years doing something and yet they won't improve their skills. How is that possible?
Why we are not getting better (even if we try)?
There is a common notion among people that if you just do something for a long time, you will surely get really good at it. We often believe that with more experience, we are getting better at what we do.
But there is a lot of research that suggest exactly the opposite.
"In fact the reality is more puzzling than that. Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don't even get any better than they were when they started." Geoff Colvin, "Talent Is Overrated"
Researchers call this phenomenon "the experience trap."
I know many guitar players who play for years and yet their progress is invisible. The fact is that you won't be an awesome player if you play those same four chords over and over again.
But the same thing is true for all other areas of our lives. Once we stop thinking about how to get better at something, our improvement stops. We hit a plateau that seems impossible to overcome. We get stuck in a rut without even realizing it. We are mindlessly repeating the same stuff over and over and wondering why we cannot see signs of improvement.
There is this famous quote by Einstein which sums it up perfectly: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
And yet we fall into the experience trap far too often. But experience is not enough. If we want to become experts in our fields, we need to constantly question effectiveness our methods and strategies. And that is not an easy thing, because we as human beings have a huge desire for certainty and comfort, even if they won't serve us well sometimes.
How to escape the experience trap?
The first thing that we need to do is just stop. Stop working, step back and start thinking. We have to become aware of the fact that there is a problem with the way we are doing things. And this cannot be done if we do not pause for a while. I think the number one reason why we fall into the experience trap is that we are so caught up in the doing, that we stop reflecting. So our first mission is to break this cycle.
Once we have a distance, it is much easier to carefully watch how are we doing things and why is it not working. This observation is critical because here we can find solutions to our problems. In many cases just stopping and observing can give you lots of useful insights.
As a guitar player who wants to do the music full time, I have to constantly examine my ways of doing things. I won't get better by wishing. I have to do the work. And even though hard work is priceless, we also need to work smart. And that's why I think it is very important to embrace the principles of deliberate practice into our daily lives. Deliberate practice can help us achieve what we want faster and with less struggle.
There is one question that I like to ask myself everyday: How can I make this better than yesterday? Before I start practicing anything, I always spend few minutes thinking about improving my ways of doing things and after each practice session I spend some time writing into my journal what worked and what didn't. This way I can make sure that I am constantly improving my skills in the areas that matter the most to me.
So if you feel like you fell into the experience trap, try one of the following suggestions:
1. Stop and observe how you are doing things. Do you work effectively? Is there any room for improvement?
2. Adopt one of the principles of deliberate practice and use it as much as you can.
3. Start writing a journal to keep track of your progress.
If you want to expand your expertise, you have to become an expert in learning first. The way you learn things determines how successful you can be. And if you develop a set of rituals that will make sure that you improve a little bit everyday, you can progress much faster and with more ease.