How to Improve

Mastery is one of the three elements of motivation,* according to the current research. From childhood lego castles, to weekend golf, to our professional craft, we all want to be good at something and find ways to get better. So how can we improve skill? And what gets in our way?

Quantity over quality?

One clue comes from this story, from the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of the work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

What seems paradoxical about this story is the idea that we can somehow achieve more quality by choosing not to pay attention to quality. Why would this approach work?

Deliberate practice

Music teachers and sports coaches admonish: practice slowly! The reasons for this include:

  1. Our muscles learn habits, either good or bad. If we practice with hasty and sloppy motions, our muscles will learn the mistakes just as easily as they could have learned effective motions.
  2. Going slowly lets us observe our performance more accurately, so that we can make corrections and notice when we are acting at cross-purposes with ourselves.

The basic idea is that to improve performance, we have to spend time performing better! Slow practice is a venerable technique for doing this, as suggested by this story about Mozart (from Ernest Dras’s book, Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster):

The elder Mozart would place ten dried peas in his son’s left coat pocket, and for each successful attempt at a difficult passage, Mozart would move a single pea to his right pocket. When he failed on any piece, even if it was the tenth repetition, all the peas had to be placed back in his left pocket — Wolfgang had to begin anew. What usually happens when using this method is that the student slows down his tempo in order to play the passage perfectly.

However, the latest technology for effective practice calls for not just slow, but deliberate practice.** Playing a piano piece through 100% correctly, whether fast or slow, will not necessarily help you get to be a better piano player, no matter how many times you do it. What is required to improve your skill is to select passages that are just outside your ability level, and practice those passages (slowly, if necessary) until you have mastered them. This is hard work, because this type of practice does not involve the relaxing satisfaction of flow.

The slow / deliberate approach to improving skill emphasizes correct performance. This seems to be in contradiction with the earlier, ‘quantity not quality’ result. One approach pursues quality, the other ignores it. Could there be an underlying principle that reconciles both?

Prioritize ‘getting it right’ over ‘avoiding getting it wrong.’

What these two approaches have in common is that they both reward the positive while ignoring (instead of punishing or avoiding) the negative. When you prioritize the prevention of mistakes, you are unable to do your best work because it is more important to prevent a mistake than to improve. You automatically get into a reactive mode instead of a creative mode.

Focusing on producing a large number of pots was a tactic that prevented the pottery students from worrying about making bad pots, which would have inhibited them. Practicing slowly makes it easier to produce correct performance, which bolsters confidence. The link is the lack of focus on the possibility or actuality of bad performance, when practicing.

Quoting Ben Horowitz, from his blog post The Most Difficult CEO SKill: Managing Your Own Psychology:

When they train racecar drivers, one of the first lessons is when you are going around a curve at 200 MPH, do not focus on the wall; focus on the road. If you focus on the wall, you will drive right into it. If you focus on the road, you will follow the road. Running a company is like that. There are always a thousand things that can go wrong and sink the ship. If you focus too much on them, you will drive yourself nuts and likely capsize your company. Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.

Of course, it’s important not to put your head in the sand and fail to think about possible pitfalls or dangers. The key word in this passage is focus. Where you put your emotional energy is where your mind will naturally guide you. This is why defining and visualizing a clear picture of what you want to achieve is such a powerful tool for achieving it.

An anonymous expert piano player, via the Study Hacks blog, illustrates this nicely:

Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.


* The other two elements of motivation, along with Mastery, are Autonomy and Purpose. Dan Pink’s RSA talk (here, illustrated by RSA Animate) goes into more depth.

** The Study Hacks blog has a whole series of fascinating articles on deliberate practice. I recommend:

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