It is easy to convince yourself that you’re good at something when you’re not; one can go their whole life thinking they’re “at least above average” even when that is far from the case. We’ve all met people like this, and we have probably learned that it often behooves us to simply humor them if they’ve been living this way for a while now.
This self-deception does certainly serve a purpose: it can make us feel a little better about our self-worth (at least in the short term), yet it also is very much in the way if we want to build up some skill-sets and actually become legitimately valuable and highly proficient at something. So we need to move past it if we honestly want to improve ourselves.
To get good at something you need to know a few things:
1) Where you are with the skill right now.
2) Where you want to be with the skill and by when.
3) What strategies are available and what will yours be.
That’s it. Now let’s look at each one of these in a bit more detail.
#1: Where are you with the skill right now?
This precept is all about determining where you currently stand, and it comes down to that old maxim “Know Thyself.”
In concrete terms, let’s say you want to gain a few ranks in chess. You’d be well advised to figure out where you stand and what your weak points are. Here are a few ways to find this out:
1. Look for how others react to you
Are you getting a lot of praise? From whence is that praise? Are good players starting to take note of you? How are your games going? Where are things going poorly? Is your beginning good but then you fall behind in the midgame? Etc.
Follow the stream of your thoughts and feelings. Ride the wave. Simply observe the workings of your psyche. This is what meditation is all about: learning to be aware of the tides of your mind.
Where have you been? How do you compare now to how you used to be? What is your growth curve looking like? Be as concrete as possible with these.
4. Pretend you aren’t you
When people invite you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes they usually mean this: pretend you are someone else. Attempting to do this is a good way to get some perspective. It’s like an artist trying to see their painting with “new eyes”. I think there is some value in this idea, though linguistically it’s become painfully cliché.
5. Compare yourself to people who are really good at the skill already
Look at masters and find out what they do or have that you don’t, then work you’re way around to getting those things or finding alternative solutions to addressing the same problems.
Don’t compare yourself to them in general, be sure to only choose specific attributes that you recognize them at being admirable in. No one is perfect; people are dynamic. This way you avoid turning someone into an idol, which can get in the way of your growth. Leave idols to the idle. We may dislike Hitler’s politics, for example, but we can admire him as a public speaker.
#2: Where do you want to be with the skill and by when?
This is where you actually set goals. Choosing goals is both easy and hard. It’s easy in that you can choose anything, but it’s hard for that same reason. It can also be hard because, to set good goals, you need to have at least a decent understanding of the problems you face, which brings us back to needing to know where you currently stand on the learning curve. You also are limited by your beliefs about what is and is not possible, as well as what is actually possible and impossible. Beliefs you can change; reality… now that’s debatable. Just don’t go jumping off a building thinking you can fly anytime soon, okay?
With this question you are primarily asking yourself what is possible, what your needs are, and what you want to do; that is, what’s important enough to you to suffer for.
#3: What strategies are available and what will yours be?
The sub-questions here are the questions every general in history has had to find answers to:
• How to maintain troupe morale?
• How to keep supply lines secure?
• How to assault the enemy camp?
• How to navigate the terrain?
Strategy, tactics, organization… this is all very much necessary not only for regimenting an army but also for disciplining yourself towards concrete goals. We are beings of habit, and by disciplining yourself in this way you demonstrate that you understand this and plan on using it to your advantage.
I recommend reading some books on military strategy; they’ll give you a lot of ideas about leading a well-planned life and how to deal with issues and have contingency plans and the like. Some classics are A History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and of course there’s Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which both still have practical application today. Some less well-known (but still not obscure) books I’d recommend are The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi and The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene. Just read the books while keeping in the back of your mind that much of what is being dealt with on larger scale campaigns in them are the same kind of things you yourself inevitably encounter in your personal campaigns.
After this stage, all that you can do is practice deliberately and work both hard and smart. That means you don’t just keep trying the same thing over and over again, day in and day out, nor does it mean that you sit and plan all day long, never actually getting anything done. Minimize planning, maximize taking action and seek to get as much feedback as you can so you can course-correct more effectively as you go along.
The working hard side of things… that’s on you. There’s nothing I can do for you there. However, working smart… that’s what I’m here to talk about.
Useful Tools for Intelligent Skill Building
Some tools I find useful for systematically and deliberately upgrading a skill-set are:
1) Setting Challenges for Yourself
For the longest time I had a very abstract, unwieldy goal structure. It was practically a beaurocracy in my head! I finally cleaned that up though with the idea of giving myself daily and weekly challenges. This was great for morale and kept me pushing against my edge even when I wasn’t feeling motivated.
An example of what I mean by a challenge is: Write at least 1000 words a day. I can’t go to bed until I have done this.
Another could be: I will finish my book by the end of the year and when I do I will reward myself with a trip to China.
Notice how I give myself negative repercussions for failing and rewards for succeeding. This is a big part of how I get things going in the right direction at a steady clip.
And if you have trouble sticking to your challenges, one thing that I find works well is joining a forum online with people trying similar things or sharing the challenges with your friends. You will help each other by holding one another accountable and you will also make it more fun.
Imagining what the future will be like is just a good exercise in general, but for our purposes today we’ll be looking at how we can use our imaginations to motivate us to deliberately work on a new skill.
When we get an image or idea in our minds, and it recurs over and over again, eventually we will become more and more conditioned to take that mental pathway and it may after a while even become the new default. So if we wanted to be rich, we would just imagine what it would be like in as much detail as we can and this will motivate and help focus us (you can also use other emotions like fear to motivate you by imagining what will happen if you fail. Go ahead: be dramatic). Doing so also gets you thinking like the kind of person you are trying to become, and you will start to attract the kind of things you need into your life and also be more alert to opportunities that will get you moving in your desired direction.
This is also good for getting a better grasp on where you are, as well as in verifying the validity of your goals. If the image is irreconcilably blurry, or just plain unrealistic, it might be time to choose a different, more attainable but still challenging goal.
When I write, I always find out new things about myself and what I’m writing about. I never feel my time is wasted when I’m writing.
Fundamentally, writing encourages you to give your thoughts structure, and this is useful on so many different levels. I’d recommend journaling every day and also keeping a folder for reflections, good quotes, lists, etc. on your desktop for starters.
I don’t think I need to go much into praising reading here, as this website is all about that. Just note that it is a great way to acquire understanding and become a more effective, elegant person across the board.
5) Interacting with Lots of Diverse People
When you hang out with people from all sorts of different backgrounds you will be forced to think in new ways, you will be naturally challenged socially, and you will learn a lot more about how people think and act than if you’d just stayed with one close-knit group. This will also help you think about your own beliefs and actions, which affects your ability to get good at things and be well-adjusted the same way that reading can.
So, to wrap this all up, just remember to seek understanding in these three things when you are setting out to master a new skill:
• Where you are with the skill right now.
• Where you want to be with the skill and by when.
• What strategies are available and what yours will be.
When you do this, you may start to realize on a deeper level what Francis Bacon meant when he said “knowledge is power”; you may realize that that statement is not only applicable in an abstract sense, but in a normal, day-to-day one as well.
If you can figure out these three things you will have taken a big step forward in getting out of your own way so you can improve faster than you ever thought possible.