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How to Acquire Skills That Set You Apart From the Crowd

M&S 7.21.16

Have you ever wondered how did the greatest people who have ever lived on this planet reached the top? I certainly did. At first, we tend to think that it’s probably because they were “lucky” or “talented”. However, when you take a closer look at their lives, you find that what they have in common isn’t actually natural talent, but rather rare acquired skills. For instance, Pablo Picasso, who is one of the greatest artists of all time, lived approximately 26,000 days during which he produced 26,000 works of art.  Bill Gates’ programming skills didn’t fall of the sky either, he actually went into one of the first high schools in the US that had computers and allowed students to have unsupervised access to them, which gave him the opportunity to learn programming at an early age, and that was a rare skill at the time so it gave him a huge advantage over his peers.  The psychologist Anders Ericsson wrote: “when the scientists began measuring the experts’ supposedly superior powers of speed, memory and intelligence with psychometric tests, no general superiority was found”. Well, that’s good news for all of us who didn’t think we were talented enough (or at all!), because now we have all these new options available to us, and we get to choose which one we like, with full confidence in our ability to succeed at it, IF (and that’s a big if) we are willing to put in the work needed to acquire and develop new skills.

What’s the best way to gain skill in any field?

The most effective way I know to get good at something faster than others is by Deliberate Practice. It’s a term formed originally by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, who defined it as an “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance”. I was first introduced to this concept in Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The author emphasizes the fact that real improvement comes when you focus on stretching your abilities and receiving immediate feedback on your work. A lot of people think that by working really really hard for long hours every day, they’ll continue to grow until they attain mastery someday. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes you definitely need to work hard to reach mastery, but you got to do that in a smart way. In other words, it’s more about how you work than how long / hard you work.

You see, in order to stretch your abilities you have to do “difficult activities”; ones that take you beyond your current comfort zone. But there are two super important things most people overlook:

  1. You need to do these activities consistently; by setting aside a number of hours every week dedicated to your training and improvement. Keeping a spreadsheet where you count exactly how many hours you spend each day on your deliberate practice can massively help you stay on track.
  2. You also have to seek ruthless feedback on your work from a coach, mentor or even a book. So you won’t be just blindly working hard day in and day out, having absolutely no idea whether what you are doing is right or wrong, or how you can possibly move to the next level in your training.

I have to warn you though; receiving feedback on your work might sting a bit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it will encourage you to get better in the future as well as help you identify your strengths and weaknesses. Deliberate practice isn’t something you would describe as enjoyable, I admit, but its outcome is always worth it. Muhammad Ali who knew all about the importance of serious training, once said: “I hated every minute of training, but I said ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’”.

The bottom line is that consistent improvement is something we must all seek. Even Experts must commit deliberately to serious practice. Because otherwise, they’ll eventually reach a certain plateau for their performance, because continuous improvement isn’t a direct result of expertise.

Don’t waste your time on useless time consuming activities such as checking your emails, hanging around in social media, etc. Your time is much more valuable than that, in fact, investing it in practices that make you better at what you do, can actually turn you into a legend in your field, and people will start looking at you as “talented” and “lucky”, just how they do for all great people who has lived before you. Now that’s definitely going to set you apart from the crowd.



Guest Blogger:

Mariem El Majdoubi is an 18 year old Moroccan writer. She is a high school student who likes reading and enjoys writing short stories. She’s also all about helping people achieve success, by driving them to focus on personal development through her various articles.

About mariemelmajdoubi

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