"No pain, no gain."

"Learning starts where your comfort zone ends."

"If it were easy, everyone would do it."

We've all heard quotes like these a million times, but no matter how often we've been warned against coasting, most people spend most of their lives doing just that. Why? Because it's comfortable and people are inherently lazy.

While actively sucking at some important skill usually causes us sufficient pain to drive us to get better, once we've reached a basic level of competence, life becomes comfortable enough that we plateau.

Which is fine when it comes to minor things like cooking or riding a bike. But what about more important skills that can level up your career, enhance your enjoyment of a favorite hobby, or enable you to build whatever it is you dream of building? In those cases, coasting usually means the death of your most cherished goals.  

But while pushing through mediocrity to excellence is never easy, it isn't complicated, according to blogger Shane Parrish. In a fascinating recent post on his blog Farnam Street, Parrish argues that the same basic three steps are required no matter what sort of skill you're trying to master. Here's his simple but powerful formula for breaking out of "good enough."

  1. See yourself through the eyes of others. Parrish uses the fancy term "Galilean relativity" for this concept (you can read more about it here), but the idea boils down to being open to seeing the world from other perspectives, as well as a willingness to concede that what seems common sense to you might look radically different to others. After all, if you can't see your limitations, you can't improve on them.
  2. Focus and get feedback. "When you're really focused on something, you can rapidly get better at it," Parrish sensibly points out, but dedicated time for learning isn't enough. "You also need feedback. Sometimes the task itself can give you feedback [i.e. did you hit the baseball or didn't you], sometimes you'll want a coach, and sometimes you can have both." Timely feedback is a pillar of deliberate practice, which has been shown by science to be essential for achieving excellence.
  3. Push your limits. Parrish offers a great anecdote from when he was learning to drive to illustrate his point that real learning doesn't happen without discomfort. "I remember one day when my instructor took me to an empty parking lot covered in snow. He looked at me and said, 'I want you to go as fast as you can and lose control of the car.' I was shocked. 'You're going to lose control of a car in the snow at some point. Might as well be here where no one is around.' And that day probably saved my life," he says of the terrifying but highly instructive experience.

"Obviously, you don't want to do this level of work with every skill. But if you can identify the ones that give you leverage, doing this work is how you get better," Parrish concludes. So pick the areas where you most want to be awesome and make a commitment to push through good enough into true excellence.