Have you ever tried to teach an adult to float?
It’s really difficult.
For me (a swimmer) I just float, I don’t think how I do it, I just do it. It’s the most natural thing in the world for me.
So why is it so hard to teach it?
Precisely because I am not sure how I am doing it. Its automatic.
When we learn a skill, psychologists have fond we go through 3 stages:
- Have to think hard what we are doing to get it right
- Think a lot less and it feels more natural
- Skill becomes automatic
For me floating sits firmly in no.3 – it’s so automatic that I battle to break it down into its component parts. Automation is great for a good many skills because it frees up our brain to focus on more important things. But, it can stop improvement. When we no longer think about performing a skill we reach what Joshua Foer calls the OK PLATEAU. It’s a place of goodenoughness.
OKAY AND GOOD ENOUGH ARE THE ENEMIES OF EXCELLENCE.
I am good enough at floating that I don’t need to think about it – but could I be better at it? Probably. But I would have to start at no. 1 again, thinking about the skills and how to improve it, which takes time and mental energy.
And it feels uncomfortable.
Most of us like being comfortable. But, this is exactly what elite performers avoid. They constantly put themselves in an uncomfortable position where they are practicing things they can’t do, pushing their limits beyond the good-enough.
Anders Ericsson, author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, studied expert performers across fields and found they spent a significant amount of time ‘failing’ in practice. In other words, they practiced things they were not good at, avoiding just doing the automatic, easy bits. As Foer says, you have to practice failing.
This is the concept of deliberate practice. Its hard work, requires tolerating being uncomfortable and being okay with failure. But only by consciously putting yourself in this position will you override the automation that can prevent improvement.
I wrote on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in a previous post being one of the foundations to performance. Without a high EQ which helps you tolerate ‘negative’ emotions and see value in them, you will avoid the uncomfortable and difficult, and plateau out at OK.
Foer identifies four principles that can help you push through your own OK Plateau:
- Operate outside of your comfort zone and study yourself failing.
- Try to walk in the shoes of someone who is more confident than you.
- Seek out critical and immediate feedback.
- Treat what you do like a science (test, hypothesize, theorize).