How to Become Deliberately Better at Anything

At the start of 2018, I launched an idea called Deliberately Better.

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Deliberately Better was created with two main aims in mind:

  1. It was intended to inspire people to believe in positive change, and
  2. It was meant to motivate others to want to put some tangible and small steps into place towards achieving their overall goals and improving their life.

While these are admirable aims, I’m not quite sure if this vision has been fully realised. The Facebook group has over 300 members presently, but engagement has been variable, and it hasn’t been as much of a community of people sharing their positive improvements as I initially hoped…yet!

One of the reasons for this could be put down to how busy everyone is. But that is the case for every group on Facebook, so I’m not going to rationalise it away like that. Another possible explanation is that I haven’t been clear enough with the basics of skill acquisition, to begin with. Before we can improve anything, we must first know what steps to take if we want to develop something.

person sitting on hill
Photo by Manoj Bisht on Pexels.com

My Journey Towards Becoming Deliberately Better

My love of learning has now been my #1 key strength the last two times I have taken the VIA Character Strengths Survey. My curiosity and interest in the world have also climbed from 3rd to 2nd, which means I am always taking in new information and trying to see how I can apply these findings into my own life. I haven’t always been like this, and I definitely don’t expect everyone else to be either.

Growing up, I had a fixed mindset for sure. It meant that I thought that things like personality and intelligence and even sporting or academic capabilities were what they were and could not be changed, even with practice. It is for this reason that I hated training for sports such as basketball, and hated homework even more. It’s also why I managed to go from being second in my class and getting A+ in Mathematics in year 9 to nearly flunking out in year 11 and getting an E+ on my end of Semester exam. I had always been told how “good I was at Maths”, and equated this with being able to do it quickly without putting in much effort. That is the definition of talent, and maybe I was naturally talented with Maths to some degree, but talent can only take us so far…

Some books really helped me to change my view on this:

  1. ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell
  2. ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ by Carol Dweck
  3. ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ by Angela Duckworth
  4. ‘Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise’ by Anders Ericsson

‘Outliers’ was the first book that I read. The main takeaway message I got from this is that to really become an expert at something, it requires a lot of effort and a lot of time, and there is no such thing as an overnight success, even though the media likes to portray things in that way. The Beatles, Bill Gates, and especially any fantastic violin player all had to put in many hours of deliberate practice – as many as 10,000 hours before they are truly exceptional.

‘Outliers’ helped me to focus less on what I was talented at, and more on thinking about what I would be willing to spend 10,000 hours doing. Psychology came back as the logical answer for me, and I’ve been applying myself towards learning as much as I can about the field and the latest research ever since.

‘Mindset’ was the second book I read and taught me that a fixed mindset can be turned into a growth mindset. The way to do this is to focus on the process rather than the outcome, and to focus on effort applied rather than results achieved. By being happy with how much I apply myself towards something and how quickly I try something again after a setback, I just feel more and more encouraged to keep pushing myself and growing rather than being afraid of making a mistake or staying in my comfort zone.

‘Grit’ was the third book and highlighted to me the simple equation that success = talent x (effort x effort). Essentially, how much effort we put into getting better at something is much more important than how talented we are initially at something. Talent is still valuable, and factors such as height do play a role in likely someone is to be a successful jockey, gymnast or basketball player. However, it will never carry you all the way to the top or help you stay there.

Both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have remained atop the tennis world for so long based on how meticulous and reflective and hard-working they are. Bernard Tomic never realised his potential for the opposite reason. He didn’t like to work hard, and even found the “I’m a celebrity…get me out of here!” jungle to be too harsh an environment to stick around in. If we want to be grittier, we need to identify our passion first, and then persevere through whatever obstacles and challenges may come along in pursuit of our goals.

The last book that I read was ‘Peak’, and this really highlighted the difference to me between play and deliberate practice. Play is generally fun, not too specific and not too challenging. Deliberate practice is very focused on learning a particular skill, that is challenging and just outside of one’s comfort zone, and can be very draining and often not that enjoyable. I’d previously wanted to get better at things while having fun, but knowing that this may not be possible was actually a relief. Now if I want to get better at something, I expect it to be painful and frustrating at times. The fun comes when I see my improvements, and the next time I apply these newly acquired skills through play.

silhouette people on beach at sunset
Photo by Dana Tentis on Pexels.com

How Do You Get Better At Something Though?

With most things, people do get better quite quickly when initially learning something new, even without too much effort. If you are willing to spend 20 hours on actually trying to learn a skill, and schedule these hours into your daily and weekly schedules, you will always get better than someone who doesn’t prioritise the task or put in the time.

If you follow the following 10 principles of rapid skill acquisition, as set out by Josh Kaufman in his book ‘The First 20 hours: How to Learn Anything Fast’, you will improve:

  1. Choose a loveable project
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time
  3. Define your target performance level.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into sub-skills.
  5. Obtain critical tools.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice.
  8. Create fast feedback loops.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts.
  10. Emphasise quantity and speed.

After 20 hours, learning and further skill acquisition then begin to plateau off, and you will then have a further choice:

  1. If you are happy with where you are at concerning this skill, then enjoy it. Go out, have fun, and put any of the time that you spend on this skill into play. You will have fun, but may not get much better, and that’s okay too. I’ve been that way with juggling since high school, and still enjoy it when I do it. OR
  2. Keep striving to improve, highlight areas for continued improvement and what skills to focus on, get feedback on your progress and/or coaching from an expert in that field, and alternate periods of deliberate practice with periods of play too. It won’t always be fun, but you will get better.

Tim Ferriss is also a bit of a role model for me when it comes to his dedication towards lifestyle design or self-improvement. His third book ‘The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life’ is mostly a cookbook but also goes into skill acquisition in the first 100 pages, which makes it the most random cookbook I’ve ever seen. He uses the acronym DiSSS to help you to remember the steps of getting better at any skill:

D = Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?

i = Nothing, DiSSS is easier to remember than DSSS.

S = Selection: Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?

S = Sequencing: In what order should I learn these blocks?

S = Stakes: How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?

Now that you know what the experts say about improving any ability quickly and efficiently, I want to share with you my 8-step process towards becoming deliberately better.IMG_7016

The Deliberately Better 8-Step Process

Step 1: Determine if there is a skill that you would like to learn that you would be willing to spend 20 hours learning. If there is, write it down.

Step 2: Find an expert in this skill who has done what you would like to do or has helped at least five people to do what you want to do. This could be either in person, in a book or over youtube.

Step 3: If their learning process is not easily described, ask them if you can book an appointment in with them in person or over the internet or if you can send them a few questions via email.

Step 4: Ask them to deconstruct the skill for you, help you to select the 20% of this learning process that is likely to give you at least 80% of the outcome you are going for, and what you should be tracking to assess progress and get feedback along the way when you are stuck or need help.

Step 5: Obtain a baseline assessment of where you are at with the overall skill or the areas that you would like to improve so that you can monitor your progress and see how much you have grown by the end.

Step 6: Learn the skill for 20 hours and track what you did and your progress by writing it down or recording it in some way (audio or video), getting feedback along the way as needed.

Step 7: Conduct a final assessment to measure how much you have improved since you first began at the skill and all crucial areas that you wanted to upgrade.

Step 8: Share how you found the whole process with the Deliberately Better Facebook group, show us (and the expert if you want to) how much you improved, what the science suggests for people who wish to develop this skill themselves and where people can go to learn more, including:

  • experts to see
  • books to read
  • videos to watch
  • courses to take

This is where I see the real benefits of having a community of like-minded people, all coming together to support and encourage each other with whatever it is that we are trying to improve, and providing guidance wherever it is needed along the way.

beach ocean sand sea
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I hope that you found some of this information interesting, but more importantly, I hope that it does inspire you to believe that change is possible and motivate you to try something new and grow. If you do, we’d love to hear about your challenges and successes over at Deliberately Better. I wish you all the best on your journey!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

25 thoughts on “How to Become Deliberately Better at Anything

  1. I think your most important point in the article is reading. Read! Read and don’t stop. In 2015 I became upset that I was merely meeting expectations at work year after year, so I challenged myself to break out of my current habits and set a goal for myself to read 25 books in the next year that would help me in my job. That changed not only my work life (I’ve been above expectations since that decision), but it also helped me let go of a lot of baggage that I didn’t even realize I was carrying around with me. If there is a “magic bullet” that can help anyone do better, I believe reading voraciously is it. And Tim Ferriss rocks. So does Ryan Holiday.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good post! I read Outliers and a few other Malcolm Gladwell books. Does your formula apply to non-whites in particular black people like me? I gather one desires to be good at something to achieve success, often financial success or recognition.

    The narratives and motivations used by whites to gain success don’t necessarily succeed for black people. Also when white people attain success and fall, they are safety nets stacked upon each other to limit and cushion the fall. Majority of black people don’t have those nets, so you find cum laude Yale graduates in their 50’s bagging at Trader’s Joes to make ends meet while they pursue their passion.

    I use to buy into the positivity stuff until I realized it doesn’t work for people like me. We don’t have a community of like-minded people supporting or encouraging us. And that may be a fault of ours, but there are potent influential external factors at play.

    Then there is also the age factor to consider and the limitations it puts on one’s success.

    Note I’m not saying your formula doesn’t apply to non-whites I just saying there is a huge racial disparity in the success rate.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Angela,

      You make very valid points. Most of the authors I mention are white and writing from their perspective. They are also likely to be based on research involving predominantly white participants. I do believe the steps of improving any skill are universal, but I would be very interested to hear if this wasn’t the case.

      Many of the issues are systemic and historical for the disparity that is often found when it comes to success. I don’t know enough about all of the different reasons to comment too much on it, but I agree that an upper class, 30-year-old white male will generally be given an unfair advantage, especially when it comes to occupational success in comparison to people of other races, ages, socioeconomic status or gender.

      I hope that a supportive community makes a big difference, and that’s what I would love to be able to create. I’m currently volunteering in Vanuatu for the next 2 years, and the level of community and social support here is amazing to see.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Dr Damon
        “I do believe the steps of improving any skill are universal, but I would be very interested to hear if this wasnโ€™t the case.” I am not sure they are that universal if racism is not a factor for whites. Racism is a monumental barrier to success for POC. It’s one reason black people can only live in specific neighborhoods targeted for them; usually, those are concentrated areas of poverty. It’s hard to escape poverty if there is a system designed to keep you there. Positivity works up to a certain degree. Ignoring the psychological trauma of discrimination and bigotry can cause devastation later leading to what I call Chronic Discrimination Syndrome, CDS.

        There many successful black people but not enough to make an impact where black people have the choice to support only black-owned businesses.

        Volunteering in Vanuatu is terrific. How did you go about it? It’s difficult for most black people to volunteer when living hand to mouth. How many volunteers? Are there POC volunteering not including those native to the island?

        Btw, I don’t mean to hijack the discussion. I felt the steps and ingredients for success in white people are different than in black people. Many black people follow this stuff and move nowhere so maybe an asterisk that this approach was proven successful in white people but may not apply to other races.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Hi Angela,
        I appreciate your comments and the different perspective they provide. I think that they will be helpful for anyone who reads them. I have taken on your feedback and will definitely consider this when writing any future post.

        I don’t mean to ignore any of the trauma or discrimination that has taken place, and didn’t mean that the steps towards success were universal, merely that if we focus on a specific skill, like learning how to play basketball or cooking, there are similar steps that we can all take to improve these skills. Success in one’s career or society, where there is a clear and pervasive history of discrimination is a different story, and it is much more complicated to know how to overcome these things.

        I really like what they do in symphony auditions now to try and remove the potential bias that discrimination can have. They do all of their auditions where the person can not be seen and their name is not known, but they can be heard. This way, the person who plays the instrument the best is the one who is chosen, regardless of race, age, gender, disability, physical attractiveness, or any other form of potential discrimination.

        I’m volunteering through the Australian Volunteers Program, which is funded by the Australian Government. It’s our version of Peace Corps, but it is set up a little bit differently. I am truly honoured to be in the position that I am to do something like this and do know that many people would not be able to consider it. I’m sure that there are many other ways that discrimination impacts people too that I am not aware of, and that is why it is so good to have respectful conversations about these topics. And yes, there are some POC volunteering here too.

        I guess one final thing I’d like to say is that we can all only change the things that are within our control. The more things that are out of our control that hold us back, the harder it will be to achieve success in the traditional way of looking at it. As frustrating as this is, it is still possible to improve within these limitations.

        Liked by 2 people

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