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Monday, March 11, 2013

The Secret to Getting Really, Really Good at Something 03-11

The Secret to Getting Really, Really Good at Something

Recently my husband and I were talking about the human will to mastery.  The conversation started as a discussion of the attraction people have toward precision tools as they advance in a craft.  For instance, I was noting how, as I get deeper and deeper into my knitting hobby, I get pickier about the needles I use, and I find I’m accumulating a variety of little tools (row counters, cable needles, stitch holders, needle sizers) that I didn’t even know about – and wouldn’t have understood the use of – when I was starting out.

Sometimes we gather tools in the absence of expertise: I think of all the guys who have expensive and complex garage workshops they never use and probably couldn’t, or the people who have a huge variety of unused cooking implements in every drawer.  Perhaps we think if we have the apparatus, we’ll become experts by osmosis (or perhaps we just want to convince others).
But then we went on to talk about how most people really do love to get good at something. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, cites research that shows the opportunity to build mastery is one of the three most motivating things for most people, professionally. (The other two are autonomy and purpose.)
I know this is true for me – I love getting better and better at things.  The process of finding out how an endeavor works, and then moving through limitation and frustration to build skills and knowledge, and being able to operate at ever more challenging levels – I love that. For example I started doing Sudoku a few years ago.  I began with easy puzzles, realized that the core of solving was logic (which I’m good at) and patience (which I’m not, but in which I am always trying to improve). A few months later, my step-daughter gave me a book called Absolutely Nasty Sudoku.  I confidently began the first puzzle – and I was unable to get even partway through it.
So I got serious. Over the next few years I did a ton of Sudoku puzzles. I discovered lots of techniques, learned some others from books and online, created my own little system of notation. I worked gradually harder and harder puzzles, and every few months I’d try my ‘absolutely nasty’ book again.  Still couldn’t finish them, but I was getting further and further in the puzzles I tried before my expertise ran out. Then finally, a few months ago, I picked up the book and made it through a puzzle.  Then another, and another after that. I had mastered this level of Sudoku-ness.  It was wonderfully gratifying.
I do think the will toward mastery is deeply wired into most of us.  So what gets in the way of our pursuit of it? I think we most often resist going through the process of mastery  for two reasons: it can be deeply uncomfortable along the way and we doubt our ability to become expert.
The discomfort of learning.  I was pretty embarrassed that first time I tried (and failed completely) to work one of those tough puzzles.  And it was frustrating to pick it up along the way and still not be able to complete them. Getting good at something means going through various periods of being not-good, during which you tend to feel dumb, clueless, incompetent. Many people would simply rather not go through that.
We don’t think we can do it. The main element that allows us to make it through the discomforts of non-mastery is a core belief in our own capability.  Over the past 20 plus years, in the process of coaching and teaching thousands of clients and dozens of employees to learn new skills or operate in larger and more complex jobs, I’ve seen that lack of belief in oneself is by far the greatest impediment to success.
In other words, the key to mastery lies in our assumptions about ourselves and the process.  When I decided I wanted to become really expert at Sudoku (or executive coaching, or public speaking, or managing others), I assumed that it would require a good deal of focused effort over time, that I would sometimes feel frustrated and embarrassed at my lack of mastery — and that, ultimately, I would be able to become excellent at the capability on which I was focusing.
So if you want to get really great at something, be realistic about what it will require – and have faith in your own ability. And the results, when we are willing to put our minds to becoming truly good at something, can be much more than fun and entertaining – they can be gorgeous and powerful.  As witness this video.