They brainwashed us at an early age. They told us, practice makes perfect, as if it were that simple.
Everyone knows the cook who burns their food beyond recognition and can’t seem to get their dough to rise. You suggest a cooking class or a book, but they refuse and cite their years of experience.
Sure, practice is part of the equation, but it’s only a piece. You must practice the right things and learn the proper techniques.
You must develop an understanding of what excellence in your field looks like in order to duplicate it for yourself.
I went through a similar struggle when I began my writing career. I practiced, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Progress came slowly, if at all. It wasn’t until I adjusted my approach to mastery and learning that I finally achieved positive results.
Call it the tortoise approach to mastery. It’s slow but easy. It’s systematic but fun. You won’t find any shortcuts or hacks in this process. Growth comes slowly, but if you stick to the steps, you’ll enjoy your journey.
Develop the right attitude first
Never think you have it all figured out. You don’t. Nobody does. Arrogance becomes your enemy, especially when you taste your first slice of success.
Set the bar low. Your goal is to improve a little bit every day. Daily improvement creates momentum, which motivates you to keep going when you crash into roadblocks.
Great authors, craftspeople, salespeople, and experts of any other field never lose their hunger to develop, learn more, and incorporate a new skill into their repertoire.
Narrow your focus
Committing to daily improvement requires time and focus. Don’t spread yourself thin. Give up your secondary goals to focus on your one thing.
Choose the one craft or skill that both terrifies and excites you. As Gary Keller wrote in The ONE Thing, “extraordinary results are determined by how narrow you can make your focus.”
The LEARN method of mastery
This system won’t compress ten years of learning and experience into six months. There are no shortcuts, but if you can dedicate one hour per day, you’ll see real improvement in your skill.
Don’t fret if you’re not a prodigy with ungodly natural talent. It’s a systematic approach for everyday people who want to reach their potential.
Learning can take any form. You can read a book, take a class, watch a video, work with a private teacher, or listen to an audiobook. If you’re a writer, you already know how to write. I get that. But do you know how to write well? Would you recognize good writing if you saw it?
All of us benefit from continued instruction, no matter where we lie on the continuum of mastery.
Drill down to the smallest unit of work.
Don’t read a book and then try to implement every lesson. It’s too overwhelming. Focus on a single concept.
What does a single concept mean?
Let’s suppose you read the book, The Sense Of Style by Steven Pinker. As you progress through the book, you learn a multitude of lessons, far too many to consume at once. In this example, I chose the following lesson.
Start your narrative strong. Write an opening paragraph that grabs the readers attention.
Can your mind handle more than one lesson at a time? Maybe. But in my experience, a deep focus on a single unit of work yields better results.
Learning is more than the acquiring of information. You need to do something with your knowledge. If you’re a baker, bake. If you’re a writer, write.
Call this the practice stage if it suits you. I prefer to think of each practice session as an experiment. It creates a more positive mindset.
Don’t think of it as a pass or fail effort. It’s an experiment. The outcome is unknown. When you detach yourself from the outcome, you eliminate a chief source of anxiety, which leads to a more conducive learning mindset.
Use your learning from the previous step and incorporate it into your experiment. Let’s suppose you’re a writer. You just learned about the importance of a strong opening paragraph. Make that the focus of your next story. Write a dozen or two dozen openings and compare them with examples recognized as standards of excellence.
Once you complete your experiment, analyze the results. Picture yourself as a scientist in a lab coat who runs experiment after experiment. You observe the results, determine the outcome, and glean lessons from the experience.
It’s too easy to lie to yourself and interpret the results as favorable. That’s your ego getting in the way. Assess the effects like a disinterested third party.
Did it work, or did it not work?
Compare your work against that of proven excellence or a defined standard. If you’re a cook, you know what your stew should taste like. You know how the texture should feel. This method is subjective, but sometimes it’s all we have.
This analysis involves feedback from an outside source. It could be an audience or an expert in your field. This type of feedback is superior, though not always possible or practical.
You’ve consumed a lesson, experimented with it, and analyzed the results. You’ll never get it right the first time. Even if you get it right, you’ll find ways in which you can improve. If you don’t, analyze the results again. There’s almost always room to grow.
Write down the lessons learned from your analysis. Determine what steps you’ll take to improve on your next try. If you feel motivated, redo your previous work. Use these questions to help you glean the lessons learned
- How would you do things differently?
- If you could fix one thing, what would it be?
- What would make it better?
- What did you do wrong, and how would you change it?
You might continue the experiment->analyze->refine loop several times before you’re ready to move on to the next stage. This cycle can frustrate you. You’ll feel like you might never get it right. It’s normal. Fight through it. It’s this cycle where you gain the bulk of your improvement.
Get yourself to a point where you feel competent that the ability is ingrained in your process. Once you incorporate that skill into your toolkit, move on to the next unit of work.
You’ll continue to practice and refine as you move onto newer competencies. Feel free to revisit old skills that need sharpening. Don’t be in a rush.
This process won’t change you overnight. You won’t notice day to day improvements. Give it six months. Compare your before and after work. The growth will amaze you.
If you remain humble, stay focused, and follow the LEARN process every day, you will master your craft. It’s impossible not to.