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“Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.” –Author Unknown

This post originally appeared in the Optimal Performance Series, but is also vital for a strong Mindset.

Doing something for a longer period of time doesn’t necessarily make you any better at it.

In fact, it often just makes your bad habits stronger.

If you really want to improve at something, you need to use a specific approach to your improvement process. Today we will learn steps you can take in your quest to become a master of your craft.

The BIG IDEA: Research from performance psychology reveals that true experts practice differently than everyone else. And you can use this method to improve in many areas of your life including your leadership, a sport, music, or marriage.

You cannot have a genuinely strong mindset if your ego is always getting in the way, feeling insecure, or being wounded by criticism.

True experts—in any field—learn to put their ego’s aside.

They continue to get feedback and look for holes in their game. They care more about growth than they do about impressing people, which paradoxically, often causes them to become impressive people! 

My friend Kelly

I’ve been riding a mountain bike pretty consistently for almost 25 years, and until recently—never gained any real skill at it.

I mistakenly believed—You just hop on it and pedal right?

I never put any effort into the multitude of micro skills that help you actually get better at mountain biking—I simply climbed on my bike and logged hours on the trail.

This approach resulted in very little improvement in my abilities over a long period of time.

But when I met my friend Kelly a few years ago, his approach helped me improve rapidly in a very short period of time.

He hates when I write about him, so hopefully he will skip this week’s post.

Kelly grew up in Jackson Hole as a die-hard skier and gymnast, and went on to study exercise physiology in college.

He knows the body—and balance—better than anyone I know.

His passion and purpose is to introduce people to the joy of mountain biking, and help them improve their skills—which in turn, improves their enjoyment.

I now hear his voice in my head every time I ride my bike—keep your eyes up, look ahead on the trail, lift the front wheel over small obstacles, keep pressure in the feet, enter the corner from the outside, shift before the uphill, pedal hard in the flats….

I had no idea there could be so much finesse to riding a bike. My perspective has changed, and I now see there is infinite room for improvement.

Because of learning this concept from mountain biking, I now apply this method of improvement to other important areas of my life.

Experts practice differently than other people

K. Anders Ericsson was a Swedish psychologist who dedicated his life to understanding how expert performers acquire superior performance.

He passed away in June 2020, and I am writing this post to honor his incredible contributions to the field of psychology.

Most of you have probably heard that you need 10,000 hours of practice to really master something—that is partially true.

Ericsson’s research found that experts don’t just log more hours, they practice their skill differently than most other people. Whether they are trying to improve athletic performance, a musical skill, or their profession—they are constantly examining their personal areas of weakness looking for ways to improve.

Yes, many experts are naturally talented—but talent is not enough. You need to continually practice and improve in order to reach mastery of any skill.

In my current role, I help lead a large team, and my colleagues have developed a robust peer review and quality assurance process. One of the most common responses we get when people on our team resist feedback is, “but I have been doing this for decades.”

We always wince when we hear this because it might just mean this person has really strong bad habits! Time is not necessarily an indicator of expertise, and the research confirms this.

Sometimes the people with the most experience in a field have the most ingrained bad habits that prevent them from growing and improving in the future.

Real experts know that as long as you are alive, the growth process is never complete.

As author and researcher Dan Coyle has said in his wildly successful book The Talent Code, “In order to be good, you have to love being bad.”

Turn information into action

Here is how you can apply the process that Ericsson identified:

Experts set challenging goals. Whatever skill you want to improve, you should set challenging goals. Ericsson found that experts regularly set goals that would stretch them and take them out of their comfort zone. You will never reach mastery without leaving your comfort zone.

Experts look at every session as an opportunity for improvement by examining weaknesses. Experts regularly examine the holes in their game. They look for small ways to improve every single time they practice their craft. This is what really sets them apart.

Experts elicit immediate feedback. Most people hate getting (and giving) feedback. Receiving and eliciting feedback are both difficult. But experts are so dedicated to their craft that they see feedback as the only road to improvement. They know that we all have blind spots and need to seek out what other people see in our performance. Therefore, they discipline themselves to elicit regular feedback—and integrate it. They may not use every piece of feedback they receive, but they make a habit of asking for it consistently.

Experts take feedback and apply it right away in the next practice session. Once the expert has feedback, they attempt to apply it right away in the next practice session. They experiment and see if what they learned improves their performance. They aren’t afraid to make mistakes along the way, but rather see this as the only way to truly improve at their craft.

Experts break down bigger skills into micro-skills and then set about perfecting them. Remember my friend Kelly in the biking example above? He spends entire days practicing extremely mundane skills like balancing on his bike when it’s not moving, or doing drills on high-speed turns—things other bikers might find extremely boring and tedious. But after years of working on micro-skills, they begin to link together into a kind of symphony of overall mastery and performance. Many people would rather avoid the boring elements of any skill—which is why most people do not become experts.

Whether you want to improve at a sport, a musical ability, a work skill, or your marriage—you can apply this essential personal leadership skill to any area.

Don’t let yourself drift on autopilot, mindlessly gaining more hours at things that are important to you, take the time and be intentional about improving.

Have a great weekend!


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Suggested resources

  1. Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise—Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool
  2. So Good They Can’t Ignore You—by Cal Newport






Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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