In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.
Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.
During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the “OK Plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.
What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”
Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.
When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.
Pretty interesting! Things to remind ourselves of, no doubt. But also, if we are teachers, things to suggest to our students.
One quick point: These three factors involved in improving one’s practice are in fact different sides of the same coin. Focusing on technique means seeing what happens if you do something this way, and how it is different if you do it this other way. In other words, focusing on technique is not simply settling for one right way of doing things. Its not focusing on what we imagine to be the ‘best’ technique, or the only way we know how. Instead, its acknowledging the advantages of doing things certain ways; that this is what you get if you do it this particular way.
Also, then, being goal oriented means knowing what you are trying to do. So this links up with our focus on technique. It means trying to do something and putting yourself in the position of discovering the best way to get there. Technique and goal go hand in hand. And the goal can be as simple as finding out what a certain technique itself brings to the table. “What are the advantages of doing it this way?” Or, “How many different ways can I get this one result?” “Is there a better way of doing it?” “How can I get from here to there?” Or simply, “If I do it this way, what do I get?” Having a goal means asking a question of the world. Either its a question we already know the answer to, or its something we are trying to find out.
Improving just means asking questions that are currently beyond our reach, where the answers are as yet unformulated. The goal isn’t simply to teach us what we already know. When we are focused on improvement the goal needs to be finding out what things we didn’t know. How to do better than we had been doing. And I don’t mean that we won’t know what it looks like to improve, from the outside, as it were. I mean simply that we have yet to become the instrument of that change. We don’t know the improvement from the inside as yet.
And so the third part, getting constant immediate feedback on our performances, is in effect looking at how our goals and our techniques line up. Its the perspective of how we monitor our aim and the means we have for getting there. Its paying attention. As soon as we go into that autonomous phase the goals and the techniques become self evident. They become things we can take for granted. We no longer need to pay attention because our autonomy guides us. We are not reacting to new things in the world as much as we are tracing out well worn paths, and the sleepy safe roads of our habituation.
But in the area of improvement we are still taking risks, and we need to be vigilant about where we are going and how we get there. Its adventure in an untamed world. We need to embrace a willingness to fail, and live on the edge of that unknown in order to not simply keep repeating ourselves. We need to live outside that comfort zone where its all so very easy, because its all been done before. We need to step off the garden path and into the woods. Improving, by definition, means moving beyond wherever we are at. It means stretching ourselves in sometimes uncomfortable ways. It means inhabiting the change. It means becoming the instrument of change. Not as an end point, not simply as a new place to hang our hats. Rather, improving as a creative way of life. A life of exploring…..
And THIS is how we do it. As Foer says, artists willing to improve are “intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes.” Paying attention to feedback, to technique, and to questions that don’t always have the answers we expect, or lead where we think they will.
Something for all of us, perhaps.