Learn from your mistakes. Learn from your failures. These are solid pieces of advice. You’ve no doubt heard them countless times. There’s another thing you should do that gets said less often.
Learn from your successes.
When a Zen Madman sets along a Rambling Path, he doesn’t know where he’s going unless he’s lost. (Jan 16, 2009)
I spend a lot of my time making big plans. I usually want to feel like I’m going somewhere that matters. Sometimes I get there, and sometimes I don’t. Not arriving at my intended destination can be a unique delight, like leading a group of taekwondo travelers into a Buddhist institute where a monk serves us tea and gives me rice bars that function like lembas bread. Other times it can lead to the question, “What the hell happened and how did I end up here?”
When I hit that second scenario, I can benefit from examining the path I took. Maybe there was a better path available to me. I can learn from my mistakes and my failures. I’ve had plenty of those to learn from! But today I’m going to take a look at the flip side of that equation. I’m going to look at the times when I was a bit less of a Zen Madman and more of an ordinary citizen. Or maybe just less of a rambler and, instead, a more zenned-out madman.
One area where I’ve had consistent success is the acquisition of skills. I love learning new concepts and information, but what I really need is to be good at something. Whenever I want to do something, I feel driven to learn to do it well. Whether it’s catching a baseball, playing guitar, kicking and punching, crushing at Tetris, or writing, I have a deep-seated passion to do well the things I do.
For the most part, developing skills takes consistent and focused effort stretched over time. Let’s look at a few of these skills, one at a time:
Catching a baseball: I wasn’t much of a hitter when I was in Little League, but I was the best fielder I knew. I could run, catch the ball, and throw the ball. My coach would shift me around the field depending upon the tendencies of a particular batter. But why was I such a good fielder, yet just a mediocre hitter? Approach to practice.
When young kids play catch, they make a lot of bad throws. Most kids watch the ball sail over their head or bounce off to the side. I didn’t. I jumped for, ran to, and made a play on every ball that came near me. I’d slide, dive, fall down, and do whatever was necessary to make a play. If I had only caught the balls that were thrown right to me, I probably would have gotten good at throwing the balls that were thrown right to me. But by always stretching for the balls at the edge of my range, I expanded my range and became good at fielding the balls that were hit or thrown at the edge of my range.
Contrast that approach to fielding with my approach at the plate. I had a discerning eye when I held a bat in my hands. I never took a swing at a ball outside the strike zone. Most young kids are terrible pitchers. So I racked up the walks and got hit by a lot of pitches. This was helpful to my team, since I was on base a lot. Getting on base is a valuable skill. But by only swinging at the best pitches, I never learned to hit the tough pitches. I didn’t even get that good at hitting the best pitches. I guarantee that Vladimir Guerrero had a very different approach when he was a kid, and that’s why adult Vlad was able to get hits in the Major Leagues on pitches that bounced.
Playing guitar (and bass): I was not a very musical child. Up until I was 13, my musical experience was comprised of Suzuki violin as a 3-year-old, some recorder and glockenspiel in school, and a lot of Weird Al records and tapes. Then I started listening to Metallica and Guns N Roses and Nirvana and a lot of other music.
On my 14th birthday, my mom took me to Sam Ash Music. The dude there (and he can only be described as a dude) asked what kind of guitar I wanted. “A black one,” I answered. I got a black Charvel Charvette and played the hell out of it. I was lucky enough that we could afford lessons, but only every other week. This gave me ample time to practice between lessons, so I was always ready to learn something new and challenging.
After about 6 months, I decided that I wanted to learn Slash’s shredding solo at the end of November Rain. Not the easy one in the middle. The sick one where he’s standing on the piano at the end. I wasn’t remotely good enough to play it yet. My teacher transcribed the first repeat of it, anyway. I took it home and spent 8 hours a day practicing 13 seconds of music. My fingers bled as I tore through the callouses I’d built up over the prior 6 months. Two weeks later, I could play that part of the solo. The next part was even harder to play, but much easier for me to learn because I was a different guitarist. I had gone from late-beginner to early-advanced through sheer force of will.
It’s not always possible to skip an intermediate phase, but sometimes an exceptional level of motivation and focus can lead to fantastic results. I had spent months building up the vocabulary necessary to understand what I wanted to do, and then did the 10,000 reps necessary to change the muscles in my forearms and the pathways in my brain.
Kicking and punching: I wrote a book called Way of the Poker Warrior that discusses how I learned, and what I learned from, taekwondo. It also explores how I learned to play poker at a high level. I won’t delve too deep into that here. But I will say that it was a matter of consistent effort applied over a long period of time, combined with occasional bouts of exceptional motivation and focus applied over a short period of time.
Taekwondo patterns were always easy for me to practice and easy to do well. Fighting and breaking took more work. Breaking boards often involved practicing a single technique ad nauseum, which happens to be the sort of thing I enjoy doing. So maybe that was pretty easy, too. But fighting? That was tough.
The thing about fighting is that it’s extremely improvisational.
- “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” That’s one oft-quoted gem.
- “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” The Marines will tell you that.
- “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That’s Mike Tyson at his most eloquent.
It’s hard to learn improvisation. We get little habits. I got a lot of my guitar improvisation habits from “November Rain.” I got a lot of my fighting habits from drills that we practice 100 times, 1,000 times, maybe 10,000 times. But as I practiced actually applying them against a live opponent, I learned to adapt. I learned to improvise and overcome. This is where actually practicing the skill in context is critical. Hitting pads is one thing. Hitting an unpredictable moving opponent is quite different.
Crushing at Tetris: Repetition, repetition, repetition. I played a lot of Tetris. I got very good at it. But there’s a reason I got so good at it, whereas my chess game has stagnated. When I played Tetris, I worked my way up to the highest level and constantly played the game on level 19. Level 19 pushes the limits of what is possible. So I was always training myself against tough competition. In chess, I’ve been playing against the same weak robot player. Why? I like to win. But it’s lazy. If I have a goal to become legitimately good at chess, I need to study the game away from the board, and then play against challenging opponents.
Writing: I took two years of creative writing in high school. After that, I did some practice by writing an autobiographical novel and a not-so-autobiographical screenplay. But I also wrote about poker on poker forums. I wrote about baseball on baseball forums. And I wrote a lot of instant messages to my friends. I would carry on conversations for hours.
Can messaging (or texting) really improve a person’s writing ability? I think so, yes. Maybe this is worth an entire Write the Lightning post, but I’ll give a few thoughts here. If you write full sentences with proper capitalization and punctuation; if you converse with people who challenge your vocabulary or your ideas; if you are never too afraid of using the wrong word, but always interested in finding the perfect word; if you wonder why I suddenly turned into Rudyard Kipling, then you can probably improve your writing skills by conversing with your friends in text. In fact, you may even learn how to write in a more conversational tone by literally conversing in writing.
The main thing is getting the repetitions in while maintaining a curiosity and consistency of focus. There may be good and not-as-good ways of doing this, but I think any kind of consistent and challenging effort is better than irregular effort.
Playing Limit Holdem Poker: I started playing poker as a teenager, and became serious about it when I was 20. I learned how to play a lot of variants of the game, but Limit Holdem quickly became my best publicly-spread game. (I was pretty ridiculous at high-low chip declare, but good luck finding that at a casino.)
When I first started playing poker, it was easy to win. A little study and a lot of discipline did the trick. No one was playing great.
After taking a break from poker and missing the poker boom, I started playing seriously again in 2006, right before UIGEA went through. The game became harder in the post-boom era. I struggled with various forms of No Limit Holdem before deciding to dedicate my full energy to shorthanded Limit Holdem.
At the beginning of 2008, I watched every Limit Holdem instructional video on the internet. I read every decent book on the game. I took notes and dissected hands. I also played almost every day, usually with a very high level of focus. I played Limit Holdem almost exclusively for three years. I went from a very simple approach to the game to a very sophisticated approach, making more money in those three years than I had in the first thirty years of my life.
So what have I learned from examining my successes in skill acquisition? I see a few common threads here.
- Consistent work over an extended period of time.
- Spurts of exceptionally hard work over shorter periods of time, often drilling a component skill until it is automatic.
- Finding something that I can’t do well yet and making that the next thing to practice, so that I’m always challenging my limits.
- Actively applying the skill to real scenarios.
What do you see? Do you enjoy acquiring skills? Got any tricks or techniques for getting good at something? Let me know in the comments below.