Charles Thomas: The Secret to Getting Good at Something

At this point in my life, I’m confident enough to admit that I’m pretty bad at most things and good at only a few. Just recently, I saw a tweet that got me thinking about how it was that I got good at one of the things that I feel like I do well: writing essays.

The tweet in question was written by Eliezer Yudkowsky, an artificial intelligence researcher from Berkeley. Whatever you may think of Twitter, one of the things I love about it is it exposes me to people and ideas that I wouldn’t otherwise come across. Yudkowsky was a person I knew absolutely nothing about until I stumbled across him because someone I follow retweeted something he wrote.

Here’s what Yudkowsky tweeted that caught my attention: “Has any decent essayist, in all Earth’s history, ever said that they first learned their Art by way of being forced by average teachers to write essays due Monday?”

Now because being an essayist is one of the handful of things I think I do well, Yudkowsky’s tweet intrigued me. How had I first learned the art of essay writing, something that I’ve done regularly now for over a decade? The honest answer to that question is I became a decent essayist because I was forced to write essays due on Monday by excellent teachers who knew the secret of becoming good at something.

Let me explain.

When I was studying psychology at Grand Valley State University, I had a professor named Dr. Patricia Rourke for a class called Learning. Dr. Rourke was fairly young, well liked, and was a truly great teacher. The format she used in our class was requiring students to write essays on topics from the lectures multiple times a week. I had never written so much in my life! Page after page after page I turned out as I struggled to keep up with the deadlines. Honestly, it was all very difficult and not fun at all.

But what happened during the course of that semester will surprise no one who has every worked hard to achieve a new skill: doing all that writing forced me to hone my skills, and made me a much better writer.

Fast forward a few years to graduate school. I had an assistantship doing career counseling and one of the duties I was assigned was to do orientation trainings multiple times a week over the summer. I spoke both to new students and their parents about the services my department offered. I had to speak in front of large groups of strangers multiple times a week, and keep them engaged in what I was talking about.

It was pretty rough at first, but eventually I was able to craft my presentation so it reached my audience, and got both students and parents interested in the career assessments my department offered. Even better, over the course of that summer, I became a pretty good public speaker. In the subsequent years, I’ve been able to develop into a pretty decent trainer for the agency that I work for now.

The way I became a good essayist was that I regularly wrote a lot of essays, and Dr. Rourke gave me feedback so I could improve each week. I became a good presenter because I did a lot of presentations and deliberately worked to make each one better than the last.

In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that if you want to become an expert at something you must practice it for 10,000 hours. That idea is based in social science research. But the research goes farther than that and tells us not any old kind of practice will make you an expert. If you want to become a real expert at something, you must engage in what’s called “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is practice centered on progressively improving your skills. It’s the kind of practice that looks closely at performance, evaluates it often, and makes frequent adjustments so improvement becomes more or less continuous. It’s the kind of practice that requires patience because it is very slow and honestly, it’s usually not all that much fun.

But here’s the thing, deliberate practice works. Ten thousand hours of deliberate practice will make you very good at whatever you’re practicing.

The new year is a time when many of us—myself included—hope to develop new skills. Some of us may want to develop better dietary habits or to exercise more. Others may want to drink less alcohol or achieve a better work-life balance. Whatever it is we hope to improve in the new year, deliberate practice and patience is a path that can get you where you want to be.

Developing expertise takes a long time. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you struggle at first or if you have to begin again. Both of those things are normal. Failure is often the cornerstone of future success and persistence is almost always rewarded. As Albert Einstein said, “it’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]