Years ago, Chuck Yeager (the first person to break the sound barrier) sent me on the wrong path.

Okay, maybe it was my fault. I read Chuck's autobiography and somehow came away with the mistaken impression that a good pilot becomes a great pilot by taking great risks. Superior skills can only be acquired by constantly pushing the envelope, intentionally crossing the line between control and potential disaster and reeling it back in....

So I assumed becoming not just a good but a great motorcycle racer required taking great risks. Hey, I figured, just ride WFO (wide-expletive-open) and by hanging it out over the edge and pulling it back in enough times, I would either become a great rider or... well, I tried not to think about the "or."

Eventually -- way longer than it should have taken -- I was forced to think about the "or" and realize guts had nothing to do with going fast. Maybe it was riding for another hour with (as I later discovered) two broken wrists. Or maybe it was touching an unpadded knee to the pavement at 120 mph and seeing stark visual proof that a kneecap is a bone. Or maybe it was when I realized I didn't think of crashing as an "if" but as a "when."

But what I did realize is that successful people are successful because they approach learning in a consistent, systematic, results-focused way.  Bravery isn't a requirement for success. Innate talent isn't a requirement for success. Talented, highly skilled people don't take big risks yet they still learn to accomplish big things.

How? They prepare. They train. They constantly experiment and adapt and refine, refine, refine. Successful people gain superior skills not by breaking through the envelope but by approaching and then slowly and incrementally expanding the boundaries of that envelope.

The key to learning is to make small, smart changes, evaluate the results, discard what doesn't work, and further refine what does work. When you constantly modify and refine something you already do well, you can do it even better.

Here are two cool ways successful people learn:

Method One: Do a Lot of REPS (but not the kind you think)

But don't just take it from me. Take it from Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent, a cool book filled with easy and proven methods to learn to do almost anything.  

Here's an example. You want to get learn to do something. Simply going through the practice motions provides little or no results, so the key is to make sure you use a method that follows the REPS methodology:

  • R: Reaching and Repeating
  • E: Engagement
  • P: Purposefulness
  • S: Strong, Speedy Feedback

Let's take a brief look at each.

Reaching and Repeating: Practice should require you to operate at the edge of your abilities. In short, you have to consistently reach and constantly repeat.

Say you're leading a training session. Should you:

  • Call on one person, ask a question, and have him or her answer it, or
  • Pose the question first, and then randomly choose someone to answer (and maybe even turn the exercise into a game)?

The second is the best approach, because everyone has to reach, every time -- even if he or she isn't called on. Call on John from accounting, and I know I don't have to answer the question; I can sit back, check my email, and wait until you eventually call on me. I don't have to reach but -- maybe -- once.

Always put yourself -- or the people you're training -- in a position to reach, over and over again. Don't just do what you already know how to do. Try to do what you can't do -- yet. That's how you learn.

Engagement: Practice must command your attention and make you feel emotionally invested in striving for a goal.

Say you're trying to perfect your slide transitions for a presentation. Should you:

  1. Run through the whole presentation 10 times, or
  2. Try to hit each transition perfectly, without mistakes, three presentations in a row?

Running through your presentation 10 times in a row will feel like death; trying to be perfect three times in a row turns the exercise into a game you care about.

Make sure the outcome of every practice session is something you will care about: You'll try harder and be more engaged, and you'll improve more rapidly.

Purposefulness: Practice must directly connect to the skill you want to build. (Sounds obvious, but often what we practice has little to do with what we need to accomplish.)

Say you feel nervous and intimidated when you have to speak to a group. Should you:

  1. Rehearse at home, alone, until you know your material inside out, or
  2. Practice speaking to small groups of people in less formal settings, like in a meeting?

Although solo rehearsing certainly helps, the only way to perform well under the pressure of an audience is to actually practice speaking to people. No amount of solo practice will prepare you for the nerves you'll feel when every eye in the room is on you.

Strong, Speedy Feedback: Practice must provide an immediate and consistent flow of accurate information about performance.

Say you're studying for a certification exam. You purchased a sample test guide. Should you:

  1. Take a complete test and wait until the next day to see how you did, or
  2. Complete a section and immediately grade your answers to see where you went wrong (and right)?

Take the test in chunks. Check your results right away. Immediate feedback is the best feedback; you'll better connect the dots because you're in the flow. Waiting even a day for feedback creates a mental distance and a lack of engagement that are really hard to overcome -- which means much of the time you spent trying to learn was wasted.

Want a concrete example? Watch Danny Macaskill learn to do a new trick.

Pretty cool, right?

Method Two: Change the Way You Practice

Say you know how to do something but you want to learn to do it a lot better.

Try one -- or all -- of these:

Go significantly slower. Force yourself to go slower and you'll identify techniques or strategies that hold you back. Plus you can experiment with new techniques that aren't apparent at normal speed.

Go significantly faster. Force yourself to go much faster than normal. You'll screw up, and in the process you'll adapt and find new improvements.

Break a complicated task into smaller parts. Almost every task includes a series of discrete steps. Pick one step, deconstruct it, master it... then put the whole task back together. Then choose another component part to deconstruct. Incrementally improve enough steps and the overall improvement can be huge.

Use a different metric. Pick a different measurement than you normally use to analyze your performance. Measure speed instead of accuracy, for example. Or use video or audio for feedback. (Watching yourself isn't particularly fun but you'll quickly see you a number of things you never realized you could do differently.)

Set out to practice perfectly. Focus on performing a task as well as you possibly can. When you try to do your best even the smallest mistakes are obvious. Then you can learn from those mistakes, adapting and modifying your techniques so you constantly, even if only incrementally, improve.

You can extend this to almost anything. Whether it's a physical task, making sales calls, giving presentations, managing employees, conducting interviews... you can learn to do anything more effectively and efficiently.

And, in time, be a lot more successful at the things you choose to do.

(If you're wondering how Danny's trick worked out, here's the final video. The fence flip is at the end.)

Published on: Aug 10, 2016
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