[This is part three in a series on Self-Determination Theory – the idea that humans have three universal needs to achieve goals: autonomy, competence and relatedness. In part one, I give an overview of the theory and part two is about autonomy.]
What’s Worse Than Believing the World is Flat?
There are a lot of dumb myths out there. Chemtrails. The Earth is flat. Stevie Wonder isn’t actually blind. My favorite dumb myth, however, is one I used to believe in – natural talent. Not only is the myth of natural talent dumb, it’s destructive. Who knows how much scientific discovery, comedy, literature, and popsicle stick sculptures the world has been denied because so many of us thought we weren’t born to do those things. That it’s for other people. Not for us.
This isn’t just my opinion. Through decades of research and dozens of studies on elite performers from just about every field, scientists have concluded four key points:
- Other than height and body-frame size, there is no trait that can’t be improved through practice
- In the childhoods of elite performers, there were generally no early indicators of their eventual virtuosity
- In the family histories of elite performers, there were no patterns which indicated a genetic component to their skills
- Thus, what made an elite performer was not natural talent, but thousands of hours of study and practice.
So, yeah, if you’re seven feet tall and have dreams of being a jockey, I have some bad news. However, for most of us and the goals we’ve talked ourselves out of it, it is neither too late nor out of our reach.
Furthermore, the myth of natural talent isn’t just destructive on a cultural level, but also on a personal one. According psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, humans have a need – one no different than the need for food, water and oxygen – to experience competence. Competence is feeling a task is realistically within your grasp or, in other words, that you’re just good enough. “Good enough” being the operative words in that sentence; this isn’t about greatness.
This is where, just like the weird signals we get about autonomy, popular culture has a way of working against our best interests. A culture obsessed with better, stronger, faster, we’re #1, and if-you-ain’t-first-you’re-last, has a way of making mere competence seem not just kinda lame, but pointless. Who among us, when comparing our abilities to others and finding them wanting, hasn’t said at least once, “Why bother?” By only recognizing greatness, we never give ourselves a chance to be good.
There is a antidote; a way to let go of the myth of natural talent, to stop denying our own potential and to begin fulfilling our need for competence. It requires three steps: engaging in deliberate practice, seeking feedback and tolerating failure.
I’m telling you upfront this isn’t going to be easy.
As a native Philadelphian, I can’t help but have a deep love for one its most famous adopted sons – Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a skilled diplomat, a prolific inventor, an insatiably curious scientist, lover of fart jokes, and an all-around brilliant hot mess. While he was arguably one of the most buck wild of the Founding Fathers, my favorite Ben Franklin story is quite possibly the most tame.
Franklin was born into a disadvantaged position as the 15th(!!) out 18(!!!) children. As such, there was no chance in hell of receiving any kind of inheritance from his father’s meager holdings. Though a voracious reader, his formal education was spotty at best and ended when he became a printer’s apprentice at age 12.
Through his apprenticeship, he became aware of his limited skill as a writer. To remedy this, Franklin devised a process. Every evening after work, he would read and annotate examples of great writing. Next, he would copy it in his own hand and revise in his own words. Finally, he would repeat these steps until he was able to understand the writer’s point and able to eloquently restate it.
Franklin’s aim wasn’t to be a great writer; he just didn’t want to be a shitty one. However, by setting out to become merely competent, he subsequently became one of the wittiest and most persuasive writers of his time. In other words, Ben Franklin understood deliberate practice about 280 years before anyone else.
According to Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated, deliberate practice involves “activity designed specifically to improve performance, it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual…or heavily physical; and it isn’t much fun.”
Sounds amazing, Geoff. I can’t imagine why anyone would prefer to believe in natural talent after reading your explanation.
Colvin’s description is accurate but overly dire. Deliberate practices comes down to this:
- Setting small, clearly defined goals (aka autonomy! You can read about this concept in depth here). In other words, baby steps. I mean, it worked for Bob Wiley:[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl6s6DGapug” title=”Baby Steps – What About Bob?” description=”What About Bob Baby Steps” /]
- Incrementally increasing the challenge level of the task. For example, you did five push-ups yesterday so today you try for six. Challenge. Accepted.
- Willing yourself to practice even the stuff you think is boring. For example, if a marathoner only trained for speed (so sexy) at the expense of endurance (so boring), then she would find herself hitting a wall on race day (well, shit). Improving a skill requires doing things you’re not good at and are sometimes kind of a drag.
- Setting time aside to practice on a consistent basis. This might be the hardest one because it’s probably going to involve sacrifice. However, I promise you the feeling of accomplishment is worth giving up that hour you would have otherwise spend mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. I speak from experience.
Deliberate practice simply means instead of focusing on a skill as a whole – which is daunting to master – you break it down into its most basic elements. Some elements might be your favorite and others might be terribly boring. Nevertheless, you make a habit of practicing each of them regularly. That’s it. I swear!
Back in the early 1900s, Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky came up with a theory called Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). ZPD posits that skills exist on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are the things we can do unaided and at the other end are the things we cannot do at all. In the middle exists those facets of a skill we can do with the assistance of a teacher. The theory was considered groundbreaking in children’s education and remains the basis for how most classrooms are run with a balance of independent, assisted and collaborative work. The theory also holds true for adults who want to, for example, take a few strokes off of their golf handicap.
So, there’s no getting around the fact that if you want to get good at something you will eventually need a teacher, a coach, or a mentor. There a lots of articles out there on how to find a mentor and for many skills there are coaches you can hire. But what do you do if it’s not an option?
You do what Paul Arden advises: “Don’t seek praise; seek criticism.”
Why should you listen to Paul Arden? Well, he was the former legendary creative director of the venerable advertising powerhouse Saatchi & Saatchi. But more importantly, he grew up in council housing, barely made it through school and suffered crippling Imposter Syndrome until the age of 40. In short, the man knew a thing or two about self-doubt and how to get over it.
Speaking from personal experience, I have used Arden’s advice by literally asking people for criticism straight up. “What’s wrong with this and how can I make it better?” Sometimes you have to give people permission to be direct with you; especially people who care about your feelings. In turn, I had to learn how to separate my identity from the skill or work I was seeking to improve. Constructive criticism is a priceless, but strange gift – you’re only able to receive it when you realize it’s nothing personal.
Allow me to repeat a question I asked in the very first post on this site. If I told you it’s possible to achieve what it is you desire most, but the upfront cost is falling on your ass at least 20,000 times, would you do it?
I’m not talking figuratively. I am correctly using the word literally when I say you will LITERALLY have to fall on your actual ass 20,000 times to achieve your heart’s desire.
Would you do it?
That’s the question posed by the intriguing arithmetic in the aforementioned Talent is Overrated. As an example, Colvin points to figure skater Shizuka Arakawa and her speciality, “something called a layback Ina Bauer [which requires] bending backward almost double with the feet pointing in opposite directions leading into a three-jump combination”. He calculates that Arakawa fell down at least 20,000 times in her 19-year career before finally winning Olympic gold in 2006.
Colvin further points out it’s not just the fact that she fell down at least 20,000 times. Moreso, it’s that – before she had mastered the jump – she went into it each time knowing she was absolutely going to fall on the ice. Arakawa did it anyway.
The good news is most of us will not actually have to fall on our asses 20,000 to achieve our goals. The bad news is it will have to hurt in one way or another and it will happen repeatedly.
However, the benefits of failure far outweigh the pain. First, as I mentioned in the introduction to this series, comparing yourself to others tells you nothing of your own abilities. Yet, comparing where you started with a skill versus where you are now is illuminating. Why? Because the only way to see how far you’ve come is by taking of stock of your early mistakes.
Second, in learning from those mistakes, not only can you avoid repeating them, you can better pinpoint weaknesses. This information is essential to your deliberate practice.
Finally, failure gives us the gift of vulnerability. Our vulnerability makes us easier to identify with and likewise enables us to have empathy for the failings of others. Therefore, not only does tolerance for failure increase our competence, it becomes a means to fulfill our need for relatedness.
Like I said, none of this is easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.