How to become insanely good at anything

The solution might sound straightforward: Practice, practice, and more practice. But not so fast. It does not work that way.

To convince you, let me share a personal experience.

My daughter started playing the violin in 5th grade. When kids start practicing, what comes out of the violin is not music – it sounds more like a cat screaming when someone steps on its tail.

But as she practiced, she kept getting better and within a year, it was quite pleasant to hear her play. However, soon, she plateaued – she stopped getting better despite practicing regularly. We did not know how to make further progress.

At this point, something unexpected happened. We moved from Mumbai to Trivandrum and started looking for a violin coach. So we heard of a very good teacher in Kochi and requested him for a lesson.

And this guy did something different. Normally, my daughter would play a full composition, notice the mistakes she made, and try to fix them when playing it again.

But this coach told my daughter, “Don’t play the whole composition – just play one line of the composition and get the notes exactly right.”

Every time my daughter would try playing, he would identify the mistake and coach her on how to fix it. When she finally got that one line right, they would practice the next line.

And in just that 90 min practice session, she improved her violin playing more than she had in months!

Much later, when I came across Anders Ericsson’s book ‘Peak’, I realized why that violin coach was so effective – he was doing ‘deliberate practice’, which is the ‘secret’ of getting exceptionally good at anything.

Here is the idea of deliberate practice:

A. Set a next-level goal: Set a goal that is beyond your current level of competence. In my daughter’s case, it was to correctly play the notes in the first line of a musical composition.

B. Specific feedback from a coach on how to improve.

– This is what my daughter’s violin coach did extraordinarily well. He would show her how to hold the bow, how to change her movement, etc.

– The feedback was very specific. He would not say, “Play this better.” Instead, he would show her exactly what to change.

C. Focused practice: Don’t just practice for hours without focus – the effort has to be specific to fix the errors/mistakes.

In areas of human endeavor where there is a standardized roadmap to becoming exceptional (e.g., playing musical instruments, sports), a knowledgeable coach can bring about magical improvement.

That is why in any sport, every good player/athlete has a coach. And it is not that Rafael Nadal’s or Djokovic’s coach is better than him – they can observe and give specific feedback. That is what brings improvement.

All this may be good but how do we apply it in our life? After all, we may not be able to hire a coach most of the time.

The answer lies in finding some feedback mechanism. Here is another personal experience.

I once had the habit of using a lot of filler words while talking – words like ‘Umm’, ‘uuu’, ‘you know’, ‘I mean’, ‘right,’ etc. Even though I knew that this was a problem, I could not improve it.

But back in 2020, when I launched HabitStrong, I started doing a lot of Zoom sessions every week. Since I could see myself talking, every time I used a filler word, I would instantly feel a cringe. Watching myself talk was feedback enough. And in just a few months, my usage of fillers went down dramatically! (It may have come back a bit since I don’t do that many sessions now).

Whether we use a coach, a friend, or even a mirror/zoom call – by hook or by crook, we need to find a way to get feedback.

In summary: Just naive practice is not the answer.

We need deliberate practice: Set next-level goals, get specific feedback, and do focused practice.

That is how Olympic athletes train. That is how chess champions train. And this is how we can train to be insanely good at anything.

There is no shortcut in life. Do the work. Follow deliberate practice. Results will come.

Hope you found this instructive.

– Rajan

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