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How to Become Better At Almost Anything


By Abhijit Bhaduri

Do you have a good head for recalling numbers? I asked a group of participants in a workshop how many digits they could try to memorize. Most people spoke of a 7-10 digit number. The largest number they have committed to memory is a mobile phone number, a fact that may have restricted the limit they set. I, however, challenged them to memorize a random 15 digit number – 395408217608441. Before you read any more of this post, take a minute and try to memorize the number, and then write it down. Try it until you get all 15 digits right and in the correct sequence.

While most people in the workshop failed a few times, the person who first got it correct memorized the number by “chunking”, i.e., remembering the number in chunks of four. 3954-0821-7608-441. Using this technique for remembering numbers helped many others boost their ‘working memory’. Would this technique work if the number had 40 digits? Since chunking seems to work, and people are already used to remembering ten digit mobile numbers, could it help us remember a 40 digit number? Try it and tell me.

There is one barrier that we need to overcome – repetition.

Is it fair to say that when you practice doing something over and over again, you work towards gaining mastery? There is one barrier that we need to overcome – repetition. Most people hate doing the same task over and over again. But it is only through repetition that our skill improves. Wait a minute…

“Practice makes a man (or woman) perfect.” Is that true? What do the experts say? What does research tell us?

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “10,000-Hour-Rule”. He says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master of a skill. Gladwell’s book Outliers told people that if they put in 10,000 hours of practice, they could master any skill. Anders Ericsson’s research paper – The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance provides the basis for his findings.

10000 hours

The 10,000-hour-rule, as illustrated by the author.

Anders Ericsson does not agree with the 10,000 hour rule. He differentiates between practice and deliberate practice. Hence, spending 10,000 hours practicing a wrong move will not make you an expert. It is deliberate practice and not simple practice that builds expertise.

It is deliberate practice and not simple practice that builds expertise.

In deliberate practice, you fix the snag by doing just that section over and over again till you perfect it. For instance, if you are getting a line of a song wrong, practice just that one line for the entire hour until you get it right and it becomes muscle memory. Most people will sing the full song over and over again, but that little wrinkle never goes away. Only deliberate practice will lead you towards expertise.

Deliberate practice means getting outside your comfort zone, getting feedback on what can be done to improve your performance, and see what the experts in your field do to set themselves apart.

When someone boasts about having played a particular role for years, they may have had practice. However, without deliberate practice, they will remain marginally better than a novice. Regular practice will take you from 0 to 30 on skill; deliberate practice takes you from 30 to 100. Or at least much closer to 100.

Abhijit Bhaduri works as the Chief Learning Officer for the Wipro group. Prior to this he led HR teams at Microsoft, PepsiCo, Colgate and Tata Steel and worked in India, SE Asia and US. He has been voted to be one of the top HR influences on Social Media by SHRM.

Feature Image Source: Michal Jarmoluk via Pixabay

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