How to Learn and Master Any Skill (part 1)

When you’re learning and developing any skill, it’s better to have a growth mindset, than a fixed mindset. Talent and natural ability do matter. But your attitude towards failure and setbacks are more critical. There are two modes of learning theories: entity versus incremental theories of intelligence. Entity theorists think, "I am smart at this." Success or failure is based on an ingrained ability. Intelligence or skill is a fixed entity. Incremental theorists think, "I got it because I worked hard.” Success or failure depends on effort. Intelligence or skill can be developed.

Is lack of skill holding you back from getting a desired result?
Do you believe your abilities are fixed or predetermined?
Are you making the same mistakes over and over?

This is Episode 36: How to Learn and Master Any Skill (part 1)
Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, a productivity show on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your host and productivity coach.

When you’re learning and developing any skill, it’s better to have a growth mindset, than a fixed mindset. Talent and natural ability do matter. But as developmental psychologist Carol Dweck points out, your attitude towards failure and setbacks are more critical.

With a growth mindset, you believe you can learn with hard work and consistent practice. You can achieve more when you explore potential. If you have a fixed mindset, you’re devastated by obstacles and give up more easily. You think no matter how much time and effort you invest, your accomplishment is capped by innate ability.

You can help your brain make new connections and strengthen existing ones. It’s not too late to learn and benefit from brain plasticity.

In his book, The Art of Learning, author Josh Waitzkin describes how he rose to the top of two different fields: Chess and the Martial Art of Tai Chi Push Hands. There’s a 1993 film on his life, “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” which came out when he was about 11. His dad Fred wrote the book on their journey together in the chess world.

To develop skills in chess and tai chi push hands, Josh applied universal principles that you can also use in any field of endeavor.

There are two modes of learning theories: entity versus incremental theories of intelligence. Entity theorists think, I am smart at this. Success or failure is based on an ingrained ability. Intelligence or skill is a fixed entity.

Incremental theorists think, "I got it because I worked hard.” Success or failure depends on effort. Intelligence or skill can be developed.

You can learn difficult material step by step, incrementally, to move from being a novice to becoming a master. This takes a growth mindset.

Your mindset will influence whether you rise over time or quit too soon. If you have a learning helplessness orientation, you’re brittle, and you perform poorly under pressure. If you have a mastery-oriented response, you’re more adept at overcoming failure, mistakes, obstacles, challenges and criticism.

You have a process-oriented approach that thrives on feedback. You aim for organic, long-term results instead of quick results or static mediocrity.

When it comes to growth, painful losses can be more valuable than great wins. Both happen along the way. Keep a long-term perspective when you're under fire and feel like giving up in the middle of a struggle.

A running theme in Josh’s book is incremental growth, one small improvement every day. With consistent, deliberate practice and conscious effort, you can build any skill. The step-by-step approach to learning is especially useful when you have limited time and energy, multiple responsibilities, and distractions that pull your attention.

Here are key takeaways to learn and master any skills:

#1: Decide whether you just want to be decent, good, great or among the best. It’s okay to just want to be decent. But if you really want to be at the top, you’ll need to really work at it. Maybe you want to be a decent cook. Or a good guitarist. Or a great writer. And if you want to be among the best, the stakes will be higher. The standards will be higher. You will need to step up your game with intense effort.
In competition, the difference between winning and losing is small. Your minute actions aggregate and compound over time. Take incremental steps to growth and mastery. Lose to win. Enjoy the struggle instead of wanting to win before the struggle has even begun.

#2: Stay true to yourself and to your style. What is your unique style and personal preference?
In the pursuit of high performance, you keep in tune with your unique disposition. You can try new ideas, incorporate feedback, and new information, but don’t forget who you are.

Josh writes, “I believe that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition.”

It helps to Love the Game and to be able to dictate the tone of the battle. Move into positions that favor your strengths.

As he grew up, Josh had two different teachers with distinct approaches to being great in chess. He preferred to play chess aggressively. He first learned chess, at the age of 6, in New York City’s Washington Park. The adult players there had a quick, attacking style. This is what drew him to this game.

One teacher encouraged him to use and capitalize on his natural strengths. He nurtured Josh’s personal style and encouraged him to follow his instinct.

The other teacher emphasized a defensive style. He made Josh study prophylaxis – which he refers to as playing chess like an anaconda. It’s defensive, calculating, slow kill. You work to predict your opponent’s intentions and prevent aggressive moves by stopping them or reducing their impact.

From age 16, Josh began to try to integrate this different style of chess and lost his center. He lacked an inner compass and became alienated from the game. Meanwhile, the film on his life was bringing him fame, and adding pressure and distractions. His opponents thought he was overrated and didn’t like the attention he was getting. He would rise to the top of under age 18 competitors, earning the title of National Master, and then International Master.

When he became separated from his love for the game, Josh left the chess world around age 18 and luckily discovered Tai Chi Chuan.

Stay open to feedback and be willing to work on your weaknesses. At the same, keep aligned with who you are at the core. Use your strengths to your fullest so your weaknesses don’t hold you back. Who are you when you’re at your best? Double down on your strengths, whether you’re a musician, scientist, writer, athlete.

#3: Maintain soft zones to increase concentration and overcome distraction. Be at peace with imperfect environment, and use it to your advantage. Although it’s great to have quiet, focus time, you can’t always avoid or stop interruptions, noise and other external factors. During my podcast recording time, I can usually hear the sound of a lawn mower outside or my kids playing in the family room. It’s now just background noise and a typical part of the recording.

Josh tells the story of when an earthquake hit during a chess competition in India. He was struggling in the round, but used the disruption to think up a strategy to get back on track. When it was safe to go back in, he made the move and went on to win the game. He used the earthquake as a catalyst for insight.

The internal solution is to use external events that trigger growth and heighten performance. Internalize the effects of those events.

Create your own earthquake, your own triggers of inspiration. Visualize the zone as your peak performance state. Not only do you flow with what comes, but you also use external circumstances to your own advantage. You could build routines to trigger states of focus and to practice rituals to get you in the zone.

Josh describes how he helped a Smith Barney producer develop a routine for peak state. It included eating a light snack, meditating, stretching, listening to Bob Dylan music, and playing ball outside with his son. They later worked on condensing the routine to a shorter time, 12 minutes, which was easier to do, but had a similar mental effect. He would do the routine before an important meeting to trigger the desired state of focus. The mental connection between the routine and the key activity creates a trigger.

If you feel tense in a lesson, competition or high stakes situation, you’re in the hard zone. You want the world to conform to your preferences so you can function and flourish. But when you’re in the soft zone, you’re resilient and flexible. You’re intensely focused, in flow and most creative.

There’s an Indian parable in which a man wants to walk across land, but it’s covered with thorns. One option is to pave the road to tame nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals for the feet. This is the internal solution. You prepare intelligently and cultivate resilience, instead of base success on submission or force.

#4: Avoid the Downward Spiral. You do not repeat the same mistakes whether technical or psychological. Technical is what you do. Psychological is how you feel about what you do. Following any mistake, you need to regroup, stay present, regain clarity, and get back on track. Take a deep breath, get up to stretch, splash cold water on your face to snap out of bad states of mind. Examine habits, routines, patterns that cause mistakes and undo them.

Josh tells the story of an accident he witnessed in Manhattan, New York. A woman, wearing headphones and listening to music, was not paying attention when she walked into the middle of the road on Broadway. She stepped into oncoming traffic on a one-way street. She was confused about the direction of traffic and looked right instead of left. A cyclist came riding down from her left. He swerved but gave her a bump.

Instead of stepping back on the sidewalk, she turned and cursed the cyclist. Just then a taxi came around the corner and hit her from behind. She reeled 10 feet into the air and smashed into a lamppost. She was bleeding badly when the ambulance came for her. The first mistake was to look the wrong way when she stepped into the street. The cyclist was her wake up call. But instead of responding skillfully, she got angry and had a downward spiral. The second mistake of not stepping back onto the pavement was worse than the first mistake.

Josh told this story – without the gory details -- to his young chess students. He used it as an example on why they need to avoid letting mistakes derail them. In a competition, one of the students remembered the woman and the bike story. The 7-year-old made a mistake and hung his bishop. He reached for the queen, and the move would have cost him the game. He paused, took a few deep breaths to clear his mind, and made another move to win a critical game in the national championship.
Don’t let your negative emotions take you on a downward spiral. That’s when you get swept away by your mistakes. If you make an error, don’t cling to what was or what could have been. Deal with the here and now so you can make the next best move toward desired results.

The Art of Learning is one of my favorite books on learning principles. It’s an autobiography in which the author draws from personal stories to lay out a universal framework that you can use to learn and master any skill. I’ll cover more key takeaways in the next episode.

In the meantime, please share this episode with your friends, colleagues and network. And subscribe to the show to get new episodes as soon as they drop. You can also sign up for my e-newsletter for updates on when my online course, The Busyness Trap, becomes available. It will include ways to add margin to your life, be truly productive, and make time for learning.

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