How We Get Good at Something

It takes mundane, often boring, always repetitive practice. And often a whole lot of it.

We learn by doing and not by thinking.

This strikes me as relevant to mastering any skill, and reminds me of George Leonard’s “Mastery” (a bit of a summary of Mastery can be found by Todd Becker, who prompted me to read Mastery in the first place — it’s a quick, inspiring/challenging book).

Watching that video reminds me of how I “became an artist.” I did a lot of art/cartooning as a kid and people would say to me, “You’re talented.” Being an artist was then, and still is today, looked at as some sort of “gift” bestowed from the heavens (and or my genetics). I’ve never believed this personally though.

How I became an artist was much simpler: I kept trying to copy the cartoon image of Super Mario over and over and over again, doing it better and better each time. I remember doing it 20-30 times one night for my classmates in maybe 1st grade. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was inadvertently practicing how to copy something I saw with my eyes and put it down onto paper. Without any prompting or structured learning from parents or teachers, I trained myself as a five or six year old to draw cartoons.

This is the lunchbox that made me an artist:

A vintage plastic Aladdin Super Mario Bros. Lunch box - this is exactly what I used for lunch in early elementary school.
A vintage plastic Aladdin Super Mario Bros. Lunch box – this is exactly what I used for lunch in early elementary school.

This is how we learn: practice, perseverance, stumbling, and trial and error.

6 replies on “How We Get Good at Something”

Thanks for sending this to me, Justin! It’s another gem!

Up until 6 days ago I was thinking pretty much the reverse of this. I was thinking that now that I have my blog up I’m only going to put out content twice a week. 1) B/c I’m not that good at it yet and I want to get better and 2) Not a lot of folks are reading what I have to say, so I’ll save the “good” stuff until later.

If you check out the comment I left on this show:

The 5th paragraph I wrote you’ll see where I realized the error of my way.

It makes so much sense now that I’m embarrassed by my original thought pattern (not embarrassed enough to not talk about it though).

If I want people to see that I’m a legitimate source of valuable content I need to practice and get better now! How do you do that? BY DOING IT! Write more! Write more frequently! If you want audio and video content, CHURN IT OUT!

By putting out content NOW I’m honing my skills. Also, I’m showing my audience that I have value to provide them and can help them out. So I get better and I become known during the process.

If you don’t do the work early, there won’t be an audience in the future. B/c you won’t be any good and no one will find you b/c you haven’t put enough out even to be found or noticed in my segment.

I definitely understand the reluctance to write often — it’s a bit intimidating to always try and put what you feel is great content up, but the alternative is to overthink what’s postworthy and end up not posting at all (or as much). Meanwhile, and perhaps more importantly, you will be surprised how well thought out posts often end up being poorly received (or just not popular/read much) whereas one-off thoughts you throw into a blog post get picked up and shared around. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened — I’ve spent a ton of time on a post and thought it was super insightful only to publish it to the sound of crickets. And then alternately, publish something in rapid fashion on a whim and it gets huge attention.

More evidence that we don’t know what will work and what won’t. We stumble. This is why doing is paramount!

Great post, Justin. You are right on about “learning by doing”. Unfortunately, that became the catchphrase of John Dewey’s formulation of experiential education, later adopted as the mantra of “progressive education”. But somehow modern progressive education has mangled the original intent, and the core of plunging in, taking risks, and persisting despite failure — does not seem to exist in today’s schools. So “learning by doing” has mostly devolved into the avoidance of rigor or theory, replaced by dumbed down “practical” exercises, rather than embracing real experiential learning. So unfortunately, Dewey’s original idea has been lost.

As my day job is that of a scientist/engineer, I really do believe that a good scientist has to have strong theory, but can’t “convert” that understanding without tons of “feedback” from the real world — much of it from failure.

By the way, thanks for the mention of my post about Mastery, a great book. I tested the hyperlink, and it seems to have been corrupted, so here is the actual link:



Fixed the link! Not sure what the problem was there.

I wasn’t aware of the history of “learn by doing” a la Dewey. Thanks for the insight and background. I’m not surprised that the concept got ruined by systemic education.

I think theory is useful so long as it is balanced with feedback. Science works when it’s done correctly!

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