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February 20, 2015 12:01 AM EST
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

We’d all like to be better at what is most important to us.

Top athletes know the secrets to constant improvement but most of us don’t hang out with gold medalists or top coaches and we’re not familiar with the sports research. So I called a guy who is.

David Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

It’s an excellent read whether you’re a sports fan or not and covers a lot of the science on how we can get better at anything. In this post you’ll learn:

  • The one word that top students and top athletes both use to get better.
  • The thing babies can teach us about learning.
  • How being difficult to deal with can boost your learning ability.
  • The quality all prodigies have in common.
  • The question that accelerates learning.
  • How to leverage your unique abilities to be your best.

And a lot more. Let’s get to it.

Don’t Let Anyone Say You Don’t Have Talent

You get told you don’t have natural talent at something. Or you’re not smart enough. Not fast enough. So you get discouraged and quit.

But new research is showing some abilities don’t make themselves visible until challenges get hard enough. Here’s David:

There’s a new factor in sports research called “trainability.” Some people may not have natural talent but they may be highly trainable.

They start out below average but improve far faster. When we measure these people on day one they get told they “don’t have it.” But after a few weeks or months they’re blowing away the so-called naturals. The lesson? Hang in there.

(For more on what the most successful people do that makes them great, click here.)

So talent’s not as big an issue as you may have thought. But where should you focus your energy?

What Do You “Rage To Master”?

What do prodigies have in common? Ellen Winner at Boston College calls it the “rage to master.” It’s an insatiable desire to get better at something specific. Here’s David:

We think of prodigies as little miracle kids. And yeah, when you look at tests of working memory they score off the charts. But that’s the only metric they all have in common. So they don’t have completely alien super-brains.

A huge part of why they’re so good is they found the thing they had natural talent for and relentlessly applied themselves. And that’s something we can all do. Here’s David:

(To learn how you can go from dreaming to doing, click here.)

So you know what you’re passionate about and you’re working hard. What’s the best way to get started? You’ll be surprised…

Don’t Follow Instructions. Learn Like A Baby.

When did you learn the most and learn the fastest? There’s no debate: it’s when you were a baby. You didn’t get clear instructions from anybody on anything and yet you learned some of the most complex things in the world, like walking and talking.

This process (“implicit learning”) isn’t just for babies. We’re often too focused on executing very specific steps and so we don’t take the time to fumble around and make mistakes like when we were kids.

As adults we think we don’t have time for it but it’s one of the reasons we don’t learn as well as when we were little. Here’s David:

And it’s not just speculation. Research with young surgeons is showing the power of learning like a baby. Here’s David:

(To learn about grit and resilience from a Navy SEAL, click here.)

What’s the main question you should be asking yourself when trying to improve?

Ask “What’s Most Important Here?”

In The Sports Gene, David tells the story of what happened when top baseball batters went up against a female softball pitcher.

She struck every single one of them out. How did she do it?

Because the old advice of “keep your eye on the ball” is dead wrong. In fact, it’s impossible — a baseball moves too fast. It’s not about reaction time. It’s about the subtle cues a batter sees in a pitcher’s body before they throw the ball.

But baseball batters aren’t used to how softball pitchers move. They get all the cues wrong and strike out.

If you don’t know what the important part of what you’re trying to learn is then you’re like a batter trying to keep their eye on the ball. You’re focused on improving the wrong thing. Here’s David:

(To learn how to find the best mentor for you, click here.)

If you’re smart, you’re getting help with whatever you’re trying to get better at. What’s the best way to deal with your teacher? It’s probably not what you’d expect…

Be A Pain In The Behind

The Groningen talent studies have been following kids in the classroom and in a variety of sports for 15 years now. What do the ones who go on to get the best grades or become pro athletes have in common?

They didn’t merely do what they were told. They questioned coaches and teachers. They pushed back. They asked if this was the right activity for them to be doing. Here’s David:

(To learn how to make your kids smarter, click here.)

So you’re asking questions. You’re engaged. Now how do you apply that to the skill you’re working on?

Find Your “Optimal Push”

The kids who questioned their teachers got to know themselves better. So they were better judges of what they could and couldn’t do.

This allowed them to best practice at a level where they were always stretching themselves but not so much that the task was impossible. This is called “optimal push.”

Knowing your “optimal push” means you don’t plateau — you just keep getting better. And when you screw up you’ll learn more from your mistakes. Here’s David:

(To learn how to apply “the craftman’s mindset” to your work, click here.)

Let’s say you’re doing everything mentioned thus far. Awesome. If you had to sum up the most important thing to focus on in just one word, what would it be?

The #1 Thing Is Reflection

David asked the head of the Groningen talent studies if she could sum up in one word the thing that all the top kids (in school or any sport) all had in common.

She said “Reflection.” They think about what they did and ask themselves if it’s working. Here’s David:

(To learn how the lessons of ancient thinkers can improve your modern life, click here.)

Let’s pull everything together and bust one more big myth about being the best at anything.

Enough Reading. Time For Doing.

Here’s what you can learn about learning from David:

  1. Don’t Let Anyone Say You Don’t Have Talent
  2. What Do You “Rage To Master”?
  3. Don’t Follow Instructions. Fumble Around.
  4. Ask “What’s Most Important Here?”
  5. Be A Pain In The Behind
  6. Find Your “Optimal Push”
  7. The #1 Thing Is Reflection

Some of you might think the above doesn’t really apply to you. It’s too late to start something. Or you’re too old to learn.

Wrong. The latest research says you’re never too old to learn. You can teach an old dog new tricks. Here’s David:

It’s never too late to be great.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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