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← How to get better at the things you care about

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Showing Revision 6 created 02/01/2017 by Brian Greene.

  1. Most of us go through life trying
    to do our best at whatever we do,
  2. whether it's our job, family, school
  3. or anything else.
  4. I feel that way. I try my best.
  5. But some time ago, I came to a realization
  6. that I wasn't getting much better
    at the things I cared most about,
  7. whether it was being a husband or a friend
  8. or a professional or teammate,
  9. and I wasn't improving
    much at those things
  10. even though I was spending a lot of time
  11. working hard at them.
  12. I've since realized from conversations
    I've had and from research
  13. that this stagnation, despite hard work,
  14. turns out to be pretty common.
  15. So I'd like to share with you
    some insights into why that is

  16. and what we can all do about it.
  17. What I've learned
    is that the most effective people
  18. and teams in any domain
  19. do something we can all emulate.
  20. They go through life deliberately
    alternating between two zones:
  21. the learning zone
    and the performance zone.
  22. The learning zone
    is when our goal is to improve.

  23. Then we do activities
    designed for improvement,
  24. concentrating on what
    we haven't mastered yet,
  25. which means we have to expect
    to make mistakes,
  26. knowing that we will learn from them.
  27. That is very different from what we do
    when we're in our performance zone,
  28. which is when our goal is to do something
    as best as we can, to execute.
  29. Then we concentrate
    on what we have already mastered
  30. and we try to minimize mistakes.
  31. Both of these zones
    should be part of our lives,

  32. but being clear about
    when we want to be in each of them,
  33. with what goal, focus and expectations,
  34. helps us better perform
    and better improve.
  35. The performance zone maximizes
    our immediate performance,
  36. while the learning zone
    maximizes our growth
  37. and our future performance.
  38. The reason many of us don't improve much
  39. despite our hard work
  40. is that we tend to spend almost
    all of our time in the performance zone.
  41. This hinders our growth,
  42. and ironically, over the long term,
    also our performance.
  43. So what does the learning zone look like?

  44. Take Demosthenes, a political leader
  45. and the greatest orator
    and lawyer in ancient Greece.
  46. To become great,
    he didn't spend all his time
  47. just being an orator or a lawyer,
  48. which would be his performance zone.
  49. But instead, he did activities
    designed for improvement.
  50. Of course, he studied a lot.
  51. He studied law and philosophy
    with guidance from mentors,
  52. but he also realized that being a lawyer
    involved persuading other people,
  53. so he also studied great speeches
  54. and acting.
  55. To get rid of an odd habit he had
    of involuntarily lifting his shoulder,
  56. he practiced his speeches
    in front of a mirror,
  57. and he suspended a sword from the ceiling
  58. so that if he raised his shoulder,
  59. it would hurt.
  60. (Laughter)

  61. To speak more clearly despite a lisp,

  62. he went through his speeches
    with stones in his mouth.
  63. He built an underground room
  64. where he could practice
    without interruptions
  65. and not disturb other people.
  66. And since courts at the time
    were very noisy,
  67. he also practiced by the ocean,
  68. projecting his voice
    above the roar of the waves.
  69. His activities in the learning zone

  70. were very different
    from his activities in court,
  71. his performance zone.
  72. In the learning zone,
  73. he did what Dr. Anders Ericsson
    calls deliberate practice.
  74. This involves breaking down
    abilities into component skills,
  75. being clear about what subskill
    we're working to improve,
  76. like keeping our shoulders down,
  77. giving full concentration
    to a high level of challenge
  78. outside our comfort zone,
  79. just beyond what we can currently do,
  80. using frequent feedback
    with repetition and adjustments,
  81. and ideally engaging the guidance
    of a skilled coach,
  82. because activities
    designed for improvement
  83. are domain-specific,
  84. and great teachers and coaches
    know what those activities are
  85. and can also give us expert feedback.
  86. It is this type of practice
    in the learning zone
  87. which leads to substantial improvement,
  88. not just time on task performing.
  89. For example, research shows
    that after the first couple of years
  90. working in a profession,
  91. performance usually plateaus.
  92. This has been shown to be true
    in teaching, general medicine,
  93. nursing and other fields,
  94. and it happens because once we think
    we have become good enough,
  95. adequate,
  96. then we stop spending time
    in the learning zone.
  97. We focus all our time
    on just doing our job,
  98. performing,
  99. which turns out not to be
    a great way to improve.
  100. But the people who continue
    to spend time in the learning zone
  101. do continue to always improve.
  102. The best salespeople at least once a week
  103. do activities with
    the goal of improvement.
  104. They read to extend their knowledge,
  105. consult with colleagues or domain experts,
  106. try out new strategies,
    solicit feedback and reflect.
  107. The best chess players
  108. spend a lot of time
    not playing games of chess,
  109. which would be their performance zone,
  110. but trying to predict the moves
    grand masters made and analyzing them.
  111. Each of us has probably spent
    many, many, many hours
  112. typing on a computer
  113. without getting faster,
  114. but if we spent 10 to 20 minutes each day
  115. fully concentrating
    on typing 10 to 20 percent faster
  116. than our current reliable speed,
  117. we would get faster,
  118. especially if we also identified
    what mistakes we're making
  119. and practiced typing those words.
  120. That's deliberate practice.
  121. In what other parts of our lives,

  122. perhaps that we care more about,
  123. are we working hard but not improving much
  124. because we're always
    in the performance zone?
  125. Now, this is not to say
    that the performance zone has no value.
  126. It very much does.
  127. When I needed a knee surgery,
    I didn't tell the surgeon,
  128. "Poke around in there
    and focus on what you don't know."
  129. (Laughter)

  130. "We'll learn from your mistakes!"

  131. I looked for a surgeon
    who I felt would do a good job,
  132. and I wanted her to do a good job.
  133. Being in the performance zone
  134. allows us to get things done
    as best as we can.
  135. It can also be motivating,
  136. and it provides us with information
    to identify what to focus on next
  137. when we go back to the learning zone.
  138. So the way to high performance
  139. is to alternate between the learning zone
    and the performance zone,
  140. purposefully building our skills
    in the learning zone,
  141. then applying those skills
    in the performance zone.
  142. When Beyoncé is on tour,

  143. during the concert,
    she's in her performance zone,
  144. but every night when she
    gets back to the hotel room,
  145. she goes right back
    into her learning zone.
  146. She watches a video
    of the show that just ended.
  147. She identifies opportunities
    for improvement,
  148. for herself, her dancers
    and her camera staff.
  149. And the next morning,
  150. everyone receives pages of notes
    with what to adjust,
  151. which they then work on during the day
    before the next performance.
  152. It's a spiral
  153. to ever-increasing capabilities,
  154. but we need to know when we seek to learn,
    and when we seek to perform,
  155. and while we want
    to spend time doing both,
  156. the more time we spend
    in the learning zone,
  157. the more we'll improve.
  158. So how can we spend
    more time in the learning zone?

  159. First, we must believe and understand
  160. that we can improve,
  161. what we call a growth mindset.
  162. Second, we must want
    to improve at that particular skill.
  163. There has to be a purpose we care about,
  164. because it takes time and effort.
  165. Third, we must have an idea
    about how to improve,
  166. what we can do to improve,
  167. not how I used to practice
    the guitar as a teenager,
  168. performing songs over and over again,
  169. but doing deliberate practice.
  170. And fourth, we must be
    in a low-stakes situation,
  171. because if mistakes are to be expected,
  172. then the consequence of making them
    must not be catastrophic,
  173. or even very significant.
  174. A tightrope walker doesn't practice
    new tricks without a net underneath,
  175. and an athlete wouldn't set out
    to first try a new move
  176. during a championship match.
  177. One reason that in our lives

  178. we spend so much time
    in the performance zone
  179. is that our environments
    often are, unnecessarily, high stakes.
  180. We create social risks for one another,
  181. even in schools which are supposed
    to be all about learning,
  182. and I'm not talking
    about standardized tests.
  183. I mean that every minute of every day,
  184. many students in elementary
    schools through colleges
  185. feel that if they make a mistake,
    others will think less of them.
  186. No wonder they're always stressed out
  187. and not taking the risks
    necessary for learning.
  188. But they learn
    that mistakes are undesirable
  189. inadvertently
  190. when teachers or parents
    are eager to hear just correct answers
  191. and reject mistakes
    rather than welcome and examine them
  192. to learn from them,
  193. or when we look for narrow responses
  194. rather than encourage
    more exploratory thinking
  195. that we can all learn from.
  196. When all homework or student work
    has a number or a letter on it,
  197. and counts towards a final grade,
  198. rather than being used for practice,
    mistakes, feedback and revision,
  199. we send the message
    that school is a performance zone.
  200. The same is true in our workplaces.

  201. In the companies I consult with,
    I often see flawless execution cultures
  202. which leaders foster
    to encourage great work.
  203. But that leads employees
    to stay within what they know
  204. and not try new things,
  205. so companies struggle
    to innovate and improve,
  206. and they fall behind.
  207. We can create more spaces for growth

  208. by starting conversations with one another
  209. about when we want to be in each zone.
  210. What do we want to get better at and how?
  211. And when do we want
    to execute and minimize mistakes?
  212. That way, we gain clarity
    about what success is,
  213. when, and how to best support one another.
  214. But what if we find ourselves
    in a chronic high-stakes setting

  215. and we feel we can't
    start those conversations yet?
  216. Then here are three things
    that we can still do as individuals.
  217. First, we can create low-stakes islands
    in an otherwise high-stakes sea.
  218. These are spaces where mistakes
    have little consequence.
  219. For example, we might find
    a mentor or a trusted colleague
  220. with whom we can exchange ideas
    or have vulnerable conversations
  221. or even role-play.
  222. Or we can ask for feedback-oriented
    meetings as projects progress.
  223. Or we can set aside time to read
    or watch videos or take online courses.
  224. Those are just some examples.
  225. Second, we can execute
    and perform as we're expected,
  226. but then reflect on what
    we could do better next time,
  227. like Beyoncé does,
  228. and we can observe and emulate experts.
  229. The observation, reflection
    and adjustment is a learning zone.
  230. And finally, we can lead
  231. and lower the stakes for others
    by sharing what we want to get better at,
  232. by asking questions
    about what we don't know,
  233. by soliciting feedback
    and by sharing our mistakes
  234. and what we've learned from them,
  235. so that others
    can feel safe to do the same.
  236. Real confidence is about
    modeling ongoing learning.

  237. What if, instead of spending
    our lives doing, doing, doing,
  238. performing, performing, performing,
  239. we spent more time exploring,
  240. asking,
  241. listening,
  242. experimenting, reflecting,
  243. striving and becoming?
  244. What if we each always had something
  245. we were working to improve?
  246. What if we created more low-stakes islands
  247. and waters?
  248. And what if we got clear,
  249. within ourselves and with our teammates,
  250. about when we seek to learn
    and when we seek to perform,
  251. so that our efforts
    can become more consequential,
  252. our improvement never-ending
  253. and our best even better?
  254. Thank you.