Guess what? You can pretty much get better at anything. It may not be easy and it sure won’t be comfortable, but you can do it.
That’s still news to some people, even though Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking book, Mindset, was published almost a decade ago. Dweck demonstrated how your mindset had a greater impact on your improvement possibilities than your “talent” or “intelligence.” Your abilities weren’t fixed at birth, like many of us thought. You could, literally, change your brain and improve your performance.
Can You Say “Plasticity,” Boys and Girls?
Actually, the appropriate scientific term is “neuroplasticity.” It refers to the ability of the brain to change in almost any way and in almost any stage of life. That’s good news. It’s especially good news for those of us who grew up in the era when everyone thought that your “talents” were fixed at birth. You were either smart, or not. You were musically talented, or not. You were good at art, or not. You were filled with talent for business, or that just wasn’t the thing for you.
What Carol Dweck’s research and the research of many other scientists has proved is that we can change in almost any way we want to and at almost any age.
That doesn’t mean that I can go out tomorrow and become a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers. But it does mean that if I want to improve my running and jumping, I can probably do it. More important, if I want to learn to play the guitar or I want to learn to paint, or I want to become a better writer, I can do that too. And so can you. It’s true that there are genetic limits to what we can achieve in any area, but for most of us, most of the time, there’s some much upside that the limits might as well not exist.
You can make changes in the areas you want to make changes. That’s what the “growth mindset” is all about. Once you understand that, the next question is, “How do I do it?”
Make Two Important Choices
The first thing is to decide what you want to get better at. You have a lot of choices. You can decide that you want to get better at your job, or improve your woodworking skills, or become a better spouse. You can pick whatever you want. Just remember, that you’re going to focus your attention on this and that means that other things will be sacrificed to it, so pick something important.
The second thing you need to decide is why you want to do it. That’s not an academic question. If the going gets hard, and it will, you need something to remind you of why you are making the effort. That’s your big why.
You’ve got the main area that you want to improve, such as being a better manager. Now you need to decide what specific skills you want to improve. Perhaps you want to be a better coach. Maybe you want to be better at planning. You could try to become more efficient. The choice is up to you. There are no right answers, only intelligent choices.
Get Better with Purposeful Practice
Anders Ericsson is well-known for his “deliberate practice.” But as he relates in the book Peak, deliberate practice only works in a limited set of circumstances. We’re talking about domains like music, or gymnastics, or ballet. But that’s not you. You’re a manager. What you need is what Ericsson calls “purposeful practice.”
Purposeful practice is what you do if you can’t do deliberate practice to improve. You will have to do a little more planning than the violinists and gymnasts, but you can still get better. The fact is, that the way you go about improving your performance makes a huge difference in how much you improve.
Develop A Mental Model of Good Performance
This is simple. You need to understand what good performance looks like so that you know what to aspire to and what to work toward.
Years ago, when I studied the behaviors of top-performing supervisors, I noticed something interesting. Almost all of them had a role model from early in their career who was an excellent supervisor him- or herself. Anders Ericsson gave me the language to understand what was happening. They had a clear mental model of what good supervision looked like.
Who will be a role model for you for the thing you want to improve? Let’s say it’s coaching. Who have you seen up close who is an excellent coach? What did they do that made them excellent? Once you know what good coaching is, you can start improving.
Trial and Improvement
You’ll notice that I didn’t say, “trial and error.” That’s because the whole purpose of trying is to get better, and you do that when you add feedback and adjustment to the mix.
You know what you want to do. Now you try to do it. You’ll probably fall short of what you aspire to. That’s okay. Figure out how and why. Then try again. And again.
Getting Better Is an Uncomfortable Thing
Your performance will improve as you keep trying things, getting feedback on your performance, and modifying your behavior as you try again. That’s oh-so-easy to say but very, very hard to do and even harder to keep doing. If you want to get better, you will be working at it for a while and you will be uncomfortable the entire time. So, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s the price of progress.
It’s Going to Take a Long Time
You may have heard of the “10,000-hour rule.” You can credit that to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. That was Gladwell’s interpretation of Anders Ericsson’s research. Gladwell suggested that it took 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to make a significant improvement in performance.
Well, not so much. Forget ten thousand hours. Think “a long time” instead.
A long time can vary a lot from person to person and situation to situation. The key thing is, it’s not going to happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks or months. You’re going to have to work at this. You’re going to have to be uncomfortable for the whole time. That’s not fun, but it is reality. It’s the reason you need to know, remember, and remind yourself of why you’re working so hard.
The Bottom Line
So, the good news is straightforward. You can get better at almost anything if you practice the right way. The bad news is that it takes a lot of effort. But that’s okay. If it was easy, everyone could do it. So, remember the advice from Alfred Sloan, the legendary head of General Motors.
“There are no shortcuts.”