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There Are No Shortcuts
Why a hacker’s mindset may be limiting your potential
Any search for self-help related topics produces thousands of results with headlines like, “4 Ways to Motivate Ourselves” or “16 Life Hacks to Take You from Good to Great,” or “5 Ways to Win a Nobel Peace Prize by Next Week” (OK, that last one is made up).
These titles grab our attention because they simplify the complex science of self-improvement into an easy-to-digest formula. Their promise? Click the link, read the tips, and BOOM — your transformation is halfway done.
There’s just one problem with these articles: they’re complete and total bullshit.
And it’s not because they’re bad or inaccurate — it’s because they’re selling a false bill of goods. In today’s society, with the ever-increasing pace of technology and over-emphasis on fast outcomes, we yearn for bite-sized chunks of advice to make us better. The internet excels at simplifying the nuanced into a deluded set of principles, and then assumes we know how to best apply them.
But the reality is, if motivating yourself to take action for real, lasting change was as easy as four steps or five hacks, we’d all follow that exact same set of guidelines — and all end up jostling for position at the top.
Even attempts to illuminate just how much work is required for mastery have been oversimplified. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the (inaccurate) “10,000 hours rule” as an easily digestible metric for what it takes to achieve true mastery. But if we’re being brutally honest, at the end of 10,000 hours, there’s a chance we’ve mastered just one set of skills. Research on the study of expertise actually suggests that 10,000 hours might be the minimum time required.
Of course, 10,000 hours is a more realistic, less bunk timeline for mastery than four steps. But even the idea of having a set number of hours to hit before you “achieve” greatness mistakes process for outcome. It emphasizes a mark to hit, but misses the value of each hour.
How getting better really works
What we need is a real framework for finding the value in each hour — for engaging in ongoing, continuous learning and practice over time. What we need is deliberate practice.
Gladwell’s popular rule is really based on the work of Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist who coined the term “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice flies in the face of numbered lists, shortcuts, and hacks. In fact, as the name suggests, it’s not enough to just practice. It has to be deliberate.
Evidence of the value of deliberate practice abounds. There are the famous stories of Tiger Woods picking up a golf club at two years old or chess prodigies like Magnus Carlsen and the hours they put in to hone their craft. When comedian Jerry Seinfeld was asked how to get better at comedy, he suggested writing at least one joke every day — and then he would place a red X on his calendar indicating an act of deliberate practice, crossing the day off and adding to a string that eventually became weeks, months, and years.
So what makes practice deliberate? The act of focusing, almost exclusively, on what we need to improve and attending to that with methodical focus.
We place this focus systematically on what holds us back, breaking complex tasks into simple steps and working at them over, and over, and over — monitoring our progress in mastering them, learning from our failures, embracing discomfort — until we can execute that component at a high level. Then we move to the next.
And perhaps the most important, and often overlooked, rule of deliberate practice is this: there are countless ways to fine-tune the skills necessary to succeed, once we start looking.
For example, if you want to improve your public speaking skills, you don’t have to stand at a lectern to engage deliberately — instead, every conversation can become an opportunity to practice. Have someone film you and watch it back yourself. Visualize in bed at night or in the morning. Watch and study great movie speeches. As long as the effort is on addressing a limitation, it's moving you forward.
If you want to become a better chess player, it doesn’t only have to happen solely at the board. Solving complex problems of any kind — math, people, logistics — can all serve as opportunities to engage in deliberate practice, if we approach them that way.
In the world of hacks and numbered lists, we miss these opportunities. What’s worse, we don’t learn what works or doesn’t work for us; what we like or don’t like; how our thoughts and fears hold us back or how our emotions influence our behavior. We don’t learn how to learn. We fail to take our growth into our own hands.
We substitute the real learning for following a recipe, and go from concept to action (or let’s be real, mainly inaction), without ever showing up to meet ourselves. We miss the real opportunity to develop.
True mastery is ultimately learning who we really are. How we respond to adversity, how to believe in ourselves, how to get ourselves up after failure, what we truly value. Nobody ever lost weight, got a promotion, or won a championship by reading about the “4 simple hacks” to get there.
There’s no substitute for doing the work—- but doing it systematically, in a focused, deliberate way, just might get you where you want to go.
Where are you currently taking shortcuts?
What aspect of your craft can you commit to focusing on for the next 30 days?
What gets in your way of practicing deliberately?