What Makes You Better?

Deliberate practice – even in creative endeavors – is what makes you better at the things you want to improve in.

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What makes you better at doing the activities you want to improve? If you take a second to think about it, what actually makes you better is probably different than what you’re actively doing.

It’s no secret that we become better by doing, but though it’s better to do something rather than nothing, that advice is not fine-grained enough. If it were the case, then people who write every day would improve incrementally through time; such a view predicts that older writers would be better than younger writers, but that’s not how things work out in the real world. Some people grind and grind and grind but don’t improve much through time, while others seem to improve very quickly with very little work.

And the view that some people are innately more talented doesn’t account for why some people improve faster than others. Time and time again, research shows that what makes some people better than others isn’t some ingrained specific or general talent but, instead, the fact that the best people in any given field spend a lot of time in deliberate practice. (For a human-readable discussion of this, check out the article “Why Talent is Overrated” or the book by the same author; if you’d like the rigorous academic analysis, read “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.”)

Deliberate practice has four distinct elements. It is:

  1. Designed specifically to improve performance
  2. Repeatable
  3. Capable of being assessed externally
  4. Highly demanding mentally

Looking at the list above, it should be fairly clear that most of us are not involved in deliberate practice nearly as much as we think we are. What I’m finding, in fact, is that many of us are having a hard enough time doing the actual things we want to be doing in the first place, let alone improving at those things. But the point stands.

Identifying What Makes You Better

If merely doing the activity isn’t enough, then what does count? It’s obviously impossible for me to get down to a lot of specifics, but I’ll work through it by way of examples.

Let’s return to writing. Opening the word processor is an important part of improving, but it’s not enough. However, focusing on a particular element of your writing – say, for instance, brevity – could do the trick. The difficulty is in pulling this off; if you’re too focused on getting a concise statement out, you may in fact kill the creative process.

One way to work on brevity, then, would be to focus on something you’ve already created and edit that to make it more concise. Were you to repeat this every day for a few weeks, you’d no doubt be getting better at writing. (Whether brevity is a positive feature of your writing may depend on the audience you’re addressing, so keep that in mind.)

You’ll probably also find that it’s possible to improve your writing by doing things that don’t involve writing. For instance, it’s not unusual for us to take on the writing style of other authors we’re reading; reading the works of great writers, then, can have the secondary effect of improving your own writing. That, and great literature is an amazing source of great ideas.

But it’s not as if you get the easy pass of “just read great literature,” because many people do and their writing doesn’t improve. You have to think about what you’re reading and why the author wrote the way she did. How, exactly, does Conrad set up the tone in Heart of Darkness? How does Virginia Woolf express her ideas? How is Shakespeare addressing multiple audiences with the same words and images?

That’s hard. But it’s also what will help make you a better writer.

Of course, these same techniques apply to other creative acts. Scraping the HTML and CSS code of a website you like and analyzing how the designers created the design is going through the same process. So is breaking down the lyrical structure of a song or story to see how and why it works. As is finding your business hero and charting how she became successful and why she made certain decisions at certain times.

You probably already know what makes you better. You probably also don’t want to do it because deliberate practice isn’t inherently enjoyable. Take a while and reflect on what makes you better, and don’t forget that other people are a critical component of your improvement. Make a list – yes, I know, another list! – and incorporate those activities into your projects for the week. If you don’t plan to practice, it’s not going to happen.

At the end of the day, though, don’t forgot that it’s the practice component of deliberate practice that makes you better. Having a great practice and/or improvement plan is worthless if it’s yet another thing that you’re not going to do. Start in the smallest way possible – i.e., work on a section of a piece for 30 minutes rather than on the whole thing for four hours – but start nonetheless.

You’d be surprised at how small bursts of deliberate practice, carried out routinely and consistently, make you a lot better in time.

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