“It’s not what we don't know that gives us
trouble; it’s what we know that just ain't so". Recent discoveries show that Will Roger’s
famous dictum applies to the process of learning -- much of what we think we
know about how to learn and build skills is wrong. The good news is -- if you know how -- you
can learn faster, achieve higher, and have more fun doing it. Thank goodness! With the accelerating pace of change and
innovation, if there is one thing we need to be good at, it is learning.
What We Know That Just Ain't So
long-held assumptions about how people grow their skills that don’t hold up
under the scrutiny of science. And these finding
apply to all types of learning -- even workplace learning and leadership
The Importance of Ability
One of the most
surprising findings is that natural ability is not as important as we
think. We believe that people are gifted
in art, music, sport, leadership, etc.; but, hard evidence shows that it is an
illusion. We assume that performance is
capped by innate talent; but, in reality, it is limited by the way we learn. This
does not mean that ability is irrelevant - it means that the factor that
distinguishes ‘good’ from ‘great’ is not natural ability.
The Value of Experience
thinking -- if it isn’t natural ability, it must be experience. Well, not exactly. Expertise does not automatically come from many
years of experience. When the
performance of people that were considered experts by their colleagues was
measured objectively, many ‘experts’ demonstrated remarkably unremarkable
performance. In the workplace, job performance only increases within the first
two years (or less) of experience. Don’t
believe me? Ask yourself -- how much
better am I at driving than I was five years ago? If you are typical, your
driving skills will not change much between the ages of 25 and 65. We do
something for 40 years and don’t get any better at it! Is your golf game getting better? Is your cooking getting better? How long has it been since you made a
significant improvement in your job performance? In all
endeavors, we generally learn a great deal at the beginning and then our
performance plateaus. When we get ‘good
enough’ for our purposes, we stop learning and more time spent doing the
activity does not improve our skills. Experience is necessary for learning; but, it
is not nearly as efficient or effective as we believe it to be.
The Truth about Learning
If it is not
ability or experience, what does make us great at something? In
the last 10 years, research on the neuroscience of learning, the acquisition of
high-level expertise, and motivation to learn has produced an explosion of
understanding about how people build skills and become world-class performers
and high-level experts -- and, why most of us never come close to achieving the
potential that is easily within our grasp.
It’s Your Brain
The truth is that
all expertise -- from baseball to brain surgery – comes from physical changes
in the structure and functions of the brain.
Every action we take, idea we
have, or memory we make, creates a new neural pathway or reinforces a current
path or connection. The more times we
repeat an action or thought, the faster and easier it becomes to process that information.
In addition, as we progress from novice to expert, we move from processing information
with our working memory to processing in our long-term memory. Working memory, like computer RAM memory, is limited
and easily overwhelmed. Long-term memory is more like a computer’s hard drive
and is virtually limitless.
These changes in
the brain allow an expert to process information so quickly and easily that
performance is effortless and automatic.
At this level, the expert is no longer really aware of how they know
what they know. Can you quickly describe
how to tie your shoes? No, you cannot
(unless you have a five year old at home). This action is so well practiced
that you don't really “know” how to do it anymore - it is done on
auto-pilot. Automatic processing makes
performance effortless – but, skills on auto-pilot never improve. That is why
you aren’t any better at driving than you were 5 years ago. And there is a
50/50 chance that you have been tying your shoes wrong since you first learned
how. Don’t feel bad, it’s not your fault. The natural process of learning causes these
Four Requirements for Achieving the Highest Levels of Performance
The research on how
people reach the highest levels of performance shows us that it is not some
magical alchemy of innate talent and pathological drive that creates a champion
– it’s the way they learn and train. There
is a remarkable consistency in the path to excellence for high-level experts
and performers. In all areas studied, people
who became world class had four things in common:
first glance, the list looks obvious -- practice, get support, work hard and
have some ability. But, if you dig into
the truth, these four things are quite different from how we typically think of
Regular Practice is Not
For most of us,
practice equals doing. We practice for a piano recital by repeatedly playing
the musical piece, we practice golf by hitting a bucket of balls, or we practice
leadership by taking on a stretch assignment or by using a new approach with
our direct reports. We focus our
attention on improving our results – playing the song perfectly, driving the
golf ball farther, improving our team’s performance. This is not what champions
are doing when they practice -- world-class performers practice with a unique
approach called deliberate practice. Deliberate
practice is an intentionally designed drill that includes three things 1.) a
small, concrete, segment of performance 2.) deep concentration; and 3.)
correction of mistakes. During deliberate
practice performers pay close attention to what they are doing, make small
adjustments, and repeat the practice drill until they can execute flawlessly
are so important that when we look at historical records of performance, the
improvements are startling. Olympic swimmers from the early 1900s would not
qualify for today's competitive high school swim teams. When the Soviets opened their book of
practice techniques to the rest of the world, the Russians' chess domination
was lost. Learners who use well-designed
deliberate practice techniques improve their performance five to ten times
faster than learners who spend the same amount of time practicing, but do not
use deliberate practice.
One of the
biggest differences between regular practice and deliberate practice is that
deliberate practice focuses on the techniques that produce good
performance, not the good performance itself. Great golfers don’t practice golf
or even practice their swing; they practice not bringing their hips forward on
the downswing. The best pianists practice new music very slowly, working on
small passages at a time until the mechanical execution is perfect and then
practice the subtleties of the piece. Leaders practice observing and scripting feedback
in behavioral terms, without actually giving the feedback to anyone. Practicing
by doing doesn’t work very well because we cannot slow the process down and pay
attention to whether we are doing it correctly or not. If we
don’t practice perfectly, then we are wiring our brains wrong.
Expert Support is Essential
If you have ever
tried to teach yourself something with no help from anyone or anything else,
then you know how important support is for learning. Generally, when we want to learn something
new in the workplace, we find someone who is already good at it and have them guide
us through the basics. Then we continue learning on our own through
experience and experimentation. The problem with this is that, because of auto-pilot,
experts are frequently not very good at describing what they know. They go too
fast, skip key details, and have trouble telling us exactly what we are doing
wrong in a way that helps us correct our mistakes.
Those who reach the highest levels of performance have a great variety of support, but the most important is coaching by an
expert teacher -- not an expert doer. People who are experts at teaching can break
performance into the small segments that can be practiced deliberately. They can
identify and tell a learner precisely what they are doing wrong and show them exactly
how to fix the problem. Expert teachers provide the deliberate practice techniques
that are needed to learn quickly.
teacher is the most critical for accelerating learning, but to reach the
highest levels of performance you also need support in the form of resources
for training, motivation and encouragement, as well as feedback on how you are
doing. This is where traditional
workplace support like mentors, role models and supervisors play an essential
Learning Can Be Self-Motivating
No one doubts
that learning is hard work - the thorny question is "how do you motivate
yourself to work that hard"? Have
you ever had the experience of trying to learn a new hobby or skill and, after
failing miserably on the first few attempts, giving up? The reason we lose interest and quit is that
we tried to master too much at one time and failed. We like to do things we are good at and we
don't like to do things we are bad at.
structured, learning is self-motivating and feeds the desire to continue to
learn. Consider, for example, the
birthdays of professional soccer players -- they are born in January, February
and March much more often than would be expected by chance. What would cause
such an anomaly? It is very simple.
The cutoff date for participation in youth soccer leagues in Europe is
December 31. This means that children born in the first of the year are slightly
bigger, faster, and stronger than the others and therefore are better at
playing the game. It is this early success that causes them to enjoy playing the
game and receive extra attention from coaches and parents. This tiny success starts a snowball of advantages
in motivation and coaching which accumulates throughout their careers.
of slight advantages is seen in the histories of nearly all world-class
performers. With champions, or anyone,
the motivation to work hard at building skills comes from a series of small
successes. One of the best ways to
ensure success is to attempt something new that is just slightly above your
current level of ability – an optimal zone of learning called critical stretch. You can see the principle of critical stretch
in video games. The game proceeds by
levels that are just a little above a player’s current abilities and rewards
their mastery with points, privileges, or other (relatively meaningless)
rewards. It is not surprising that
people become addicted – the games were designed just for that purpose. Critical
stretch is important because it motivates us to keep at the hard work of
learning, but also because the continuous pursuit of critical stretch
activities is what keeps us from stagnating on auto-pilot.
All of this is
interesting, but how does it help you to develop your skills in leadership or
anything else? The conditions required
to accelerate learning and reach the highest levels of performance – deliberate
practice, hard work, support and ability – can be summed up in ten practical and
simple principles. Using any single principle by itself will help; but the more
principles you use the greater the improvement you will see in the speed and
effectiveness of your learning and skill building. These principles, called the
Prodigy Method®, are:
The Ability Principles – What do you need to learn?
it down -- Break the skill or activity down into small parts and only
attempt to master one part at a time. Expert teachers (including expert
sources like books, classes, or the web) can help you identify the key parts of
where you are right now - Assess your current skill on each of the small
parts. What can you already do and what do you still need to learn? Learning must be highly individualized to be most effective.
The Hard Work Principles – How
do you stay motivated?
early - Expertise is a
result of changes in the brain and that takes time. Plan ahead to give yourself plenty of time to practice without having
to worry about performance. During deliberate practice, your performance
is slow, awkward, and does not produce good results.
learning rewarding – Set yourself up to succeed. Practice just slightly
above your current ability in the optimal zone of critical stretch. If you
don't stretch yourself, you don't learn; if you stretch too much, you fail and
lose the motivation to keep trying.
The Support Principles – How do
you get the help you need?
for support - Ask for coaching advice from the best teachers, not
necessarily the best doers. Ask expert coaches for ways to
practice, for feedback on your performance, and to point out what is
causing your mistakes. Ask mentors, supervisors, and peers for advice and
resources for your development.
wisdom with questions – Share the learning principles with experts so they
understand better how they can help. Watch them perform and ask
questions about what they are doing and
why -- wisdom is in the answers to the "why" questions.
The Deliberate Practice
Principles – How do you practice and learn by doing?
deliberate practice drills – Practice small parts of performance where you
can slow down, pay close attention to how you are doing and make corrections in
your execution. Repeat a drill until you get that part right, and then
move on to another drill.
the right kind of goals for practice – Focus practice on proper execution
or correct technique, not the result you want to produce. For example, you should practice
making eye contact when you talk with people, not improving interpersonal
relationships; or practice using the correct grip on the golf club, not
distance or accuracy.
practice into regular activities – Find creative ways to fit practice
drills into your regular work. For example, during meetings you can
practice listening, problem solving, creativity, empathy, and more,
without detracting from the meeting at all.
from success – Review and analyze your good performances and
experiences. We learn from mistakes because mistakes make us think about
what we did and motivate us to make changes, but we can learn more from our
successes if we take the time to reflect.
We tend to think
of people like Mozart, Michelangelo, Serena Williams, or Jack Welch as somehow
inherently gifted, but when you dig in to the truth -- "it just ain't
so". They were simply training in a
way that is consistent with what it takes to change your brain. We have isolated
the ‘active ingredients’ in learning and now the secret is out - anyone can use
the training methods of prodigies to accelerate their learning and reach their
The Prodigy Method was
developed by Sandra J. Miller, PhD and is based on research from several
disciplines including the neuroscience of learning, the acquisition of expertise
and high-level performance, motivation in learning, and leadership
development. Dr. Miller has over 30
years’ experience translating the empirical evidence on leadership and
leadership development into practical advice for practicing managers and organizational
leaders. You can contact Dr. Miller at
(423) 265-8700 or firstname.lastname@example.org.