Practice Makes Perfect

Renato, one of my Jiu Jitsu instructors, has convinced me to get back into grappling in a kimono. “It will be hard at first,” he told me. “But after a few months, when you go back to fighting without the gi, your game will be better.”

I know he’s right. But when he worked with me on it yesterday, I felt like a white belt again. He was slapping arm bars, foot locks, and collar chokes at the rate of one per minute. At the end of my hour-long class, I was ready to cry.

I’ve been practicing this sport for seven years now. But when I put on that kimono, I regressed. Big time. Renato, who competes at 145 pounds, was tossing me around like a rag doll. And I outweigh him by 50 pounds.

I know from experience, though, that if I keep on practicing, I’ll get better. A month from now, after I’ve relearned my gi defenses and have regained a little confidence, I’ll be giving away fewer submissions. And one day, I’ll give none.

I have no great natural talent for submission wrestling, but I am improving every day because I am willing to do what it takes. Making myself a better wrestler is no tougher than improving my Spanish language skills. I simply have to set myself specific goals, put in the time to practice, and keep at it until I succeed.

There is almost nothing you can’t accomplish so long as you are willing to put in the time. This is something we’ve been saying in ETR for years – and now there is a substantial academic work on this subject that confirms our view.

K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, has studied the subject of “expert performance” pretty much his entire professional life. Thirty years ago, he performed an experiment in which he trained people to hear and repeat series of numbers. Untaught subjects were able to remember about seven digits in a row. After 20 hours of training, their memory had improved to the point where they could remember a 20-digit sequence. After 200 hours of training, they could remember a sequence of more than 80 numbers.

Later experiments in this area led Ericsson to conclude that whatever innate capacity a person might have for remembering, that’s nothing compared to how much he can learn by practice.

All of Ericsson’s research and findings have been put together in an 800-page book called The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance that will be published in July. The bottom line: “Talent is highly overrated.”

Do what you want to do, Ericsson advises. Even if that means pursuing something for which you have no evident talent. “A lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with,” Ericsson told The New York Times. “But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.”

That doesn’t mean all people have equal potential. Some people – like my neighbor’s child (who is singing opera at age nine) or Renato – seem to be “hard wired” at birth with a facility for certain skills. But in order to realize their potential, they will have to put in many hours of practice. And if they don’t, they can easily be surpassed by someone who has no natural talent.

That’s one of the important messages in Ericsson’s book: Anyone can learn to be good at pretty much anything so long as he has the time and tenacity to practice doing it.

Of course, it can’t be just any sort of practice, Ericsson warns. It must be what he calls “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice involves more than repeating a specific task. To achieve the kind of expert performance we’re talking about:

1. You have to set specific goals. 2. You have to get immediate feedback on your efforts. 3. You have to concentrate on technique as outcome.

As I said, this confirms what we’ve been saying in ETR for years.

1. Setting specific goals

As Charlie Byrne said in Message #1477, the more specific your goal is, the more likely you will be to achieve it. In The Success Principles, author Jack Canfield explains how to set ultra-specific goals:

* Instead of “I want a new oceanfront house,” say “I’ll own a 4,000 sq. ft. house in Malibu by April 30, 2007.”

* Instead of “I’m desperate to lose some weight,” say “I’ll weigh 185 lbs. by 5 p.m. Jan. 1, 2007.”

* Instead of “I need to treat my employees better,” say “I will acknowledge at least six employees for their contributions to the department by 5 p.m. this Friday.”

2. Getting immediate feedback on your efforts

Getting feedback usually means working with a teacher. We’ve talked about this in past ETR messages about mastering skills. Expert teachers help you in two ways: They chart a course of instruction for you to follow, they correct you every time you veer off course, and they pretty much force you to keep track of your progress.

Getting expert help when you are learning a new skill will shorten your learning curve dramatically and thus significantly reduce the time (and sometimes money) you have to invest in it. It will also greatly reduce the frustration that comes with learning anything new – and that might keep you from giving up.

In Message #1559, I explained that a quality learning program can take you a long way toward acquiring the financially valuable skill of your choice. And I said that you can accelerate your progress by spending several months or a year working at the feet of a master.

The very best athletes, entertainers, and business leaders all have someone in their corner that they can go to for advice, leadership, and teaching. So, if you don’t already have one, make it a goal to find a mentor who will help fine-tune your game, hold you accountable, and who is not afraid to criticize when necessary.

3. Concentrating on technique as outcome

This is a subtle qualification. What it means – I think – is that, in practicing a skill, you should concentrate on the correct execution of that skill and not so much on the rewards you will enjoy once the skill is fully mastered. In other words, the reward for accomplishing any specific technique should be the psychological satisfaction of knowing that you’ve mastered it.

This approach makes sense. It is, more or less, how behavior modification specialists work. And we talked about it in Message #102: “The Jazz Master’s Secret.”

The jazz master was blues guitarist Howard Roberts, who claimed that the secret of his virtuosity was to “never practice a mistake.” His theory was that any learning is the biological process of creating neural networks in the brain. Every perfect repetition beats a good path – one that you can travel on later. Every incorrect repetition beats a parallel but incorrect path – one that you can easily slide onto if you aren’t careful. The more you practice the right moves, the deeper the memory path. The trick is to make the correct paths as deep as possible and the incorrect paths shallow or nonexistent.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]