One of the hardest lessons in life is accepting that to be good at something we need to practice it. Why we believe we should be good at something immediately is a mystery.
Somewhere along the way we adopted the “you should be good before you’ve started” fallacy.
Comparison compounds the situation.
We are aware of Bobby Fisher before we sit down to learn chess.
We are aware of Mark Zuckerberg before we decide to create a new social media business.
We are aware of Mstislav Rostropovich before we learn to play the cello. I’m just kidding, I didn’t know who Mstislav Rostropovich was before searching “famous cello players,” but you get the point.
Before we start any business we’re aware of all the masters of industry who have come before us.
The first steps of any new, unpracticed endeavor will not be great. That is when the self-judgment and comparison will kick in.
You can stop or you can persevere. Those that persevere become successful, who become skilled, who you can point to and say, “He/she is good at that.” Those that give up not only never become good at said skill they also tend to believe it wasn’t in the cards in the first place.
So were those that pressed on when they hit roadblocks so much better than the rest of us? Most of the time, no. What they did was practice and what practicing does is change your brain chemistry.
It’s not magic, and it’s not just doing something for 10,000 hours, though doing something for 10,000 hours does support the brain science behind the “magic” of practice.
Neuroscientists have discovered that myelin – the white matter in our brains – is responsible for making new tasks become rote.
Myelin is a white substance that covers axons (think of them as cables) that connect neurons. Nerve impulses travel between neurons via the axons and they travel best when there is myelin present. In fact, the more myelin the better.
You can think of myelin as grease on the axons that keeps the nerve impulse moving along to the next neuron. When you practice a new skill repeatedly it triggers particular cells in your brain (astrocytes) to release chemicals that stimulate another group of cells (oligodendrocytes), which then produce myelin.
Thus, practicing something repeatedly increases the production of myelin, which allows nerve impulses to travel between neurons faster and smoother.
Stop practicing too soon and you don’t give your brain the chance to produce the required myelin to make the skill or task rote.
It’s akin to walking an untraveled forest path that hasn’t been cleared. If you’re the first traveler there will be rocks and branches that need to be cleared and your progress will be slow. After enough people walk the same path it becomes smooth. That is what you’re doing with your brain: you’re creating a smooth path for nerve impulses to travel, and that’s what improves your abilities.
So when it comes to practice – rather than think, “I have done this three times and I am not good at this” – we can think, “I have done this three times and I have not yet produced enough myelin in my brain to make this skill easier for me.”
Still, the undeniable truth is that true geniuses do exist. Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of four. Perhaps he was born with tons of myelin in one area of his brain.
When you’re alive during the same period as a Mozart it can be discouraging. We will forever think, “I’ll never be great.”
And maybe not, but can’t you be very good? Do we all have to be great? I call this the delusion of insignificance: if we’re not amazing then we’re not worthy. We often don’t begin something when we don’t see immediate signs that we’re great – or will be great soon enough.
The secret to staying on track is cultivating a growth mindset, which I wrote about recently.
There are five points worth mentioning that relate directly to practicing a skill and not getting discouraged when you’re not as good as you wish you were as soon as you wish you were:
- Get pumped about self-growth: Folks who are excited when faced with an opportunity to grow and develop are more likely to take on perceived challenges. Being open to growth means you are evolving; you are alive and kicking – versus stagnating.
- Reshape your relationship with time: Learning and growing takes time. Be patient; afford yourself the space and time to learn new skills just as you would for a seed to grow.
- Set Goals: Goals help set the course and structure your path, as well as help to motivate. Set small, accomplishable goals and keep revisiting and resetting throughout the process.
- Reward: Reward your progress by focusing on the effort you have put in and the lessons you have learned to date, even if you are not there yet.
- Be Realistic: You’re going to be less than perfect with any new skill you attempt. Be realistic about your progress and remember, you once didn’t know how to talk, walk, write, and eat. These too were all learned skills and they took time and a lot of effort, even if you don’t remember.
I love the Thomas Edison quote, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This completely embodies the growth mindset as well as the key to unlocking the magic of genius.
When it comes to leadership and self-awareness, changes to your behavior will initially feel awkward and contrived. For instance, if your body language is off-putting then making a conscious effort to unfold your arms and establish an open stance will feel weird…at first.
If you have trouble engaging a room because your personality is dry, then learning to incorporate stories and humor will feel weird…at first.
Going a step further, if your company culture is built on a foundation of trusting the status quo then it will feel against the grain when you take your first step out of that unhealthy arena…at first.
Those first steps are crucial, but so are the second and third and fourth (and so on) because they create the neural pathways that build your confidence.
In the future they’ll probably come out with a pill that produces myelin in the brain, requiring less practice for a new skill. Until then, sorry to say it, practice makes perfect.