Today, I invite you to take the Beat Your Brain Challenge™! The rules are simple: don’t think of something you’re good at! Seriously, that’s it! Don’t think of anything you’re better than most people at. Don’t consider how long you’ve been doing that thing, or how you started doing that thing in the first place.
If you’re like most people, you’re now thinking of something you’re good at and how you got there. Congratulations! Keep that in mind for a minute. If you somehow avoided thinking of something you’re good at, please take a moment, call and ask someone who knows you well, and then come back to this post.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s focus on how we get good at things – study and practice, lots of it. Our brains are like plastic, capable of being molded through time and effort. When we try new things, our neurons make new connections. These connections eventually become efficient enough that we can complete a task without much conscious effort. Stop using the skill for an extended period and connections atrophy, or are used by the brain for other tasks.
We all perfect new skills this way, as evidenced partly by your memory of how you got good at something. Further evidence comes from findings that (1) people who perform at expert level needed approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to get there and (2) people with an average affinity for a task but who put in a lot of work will outperform those with a natural affinity for the same task but who put in little work. If you accept the Ask a Friend Challenge™, I suspect you will find that all your friends objectively put a lot of work into getting good at whatever they are good at, too.
“Objectively” in the prior sentence is important – subjectively, we mistakenly tend to associate the word “work” with things we dread doing. This dread can be so strong that we will look for shortcuts – or simply not even try – to avoid the unpleasant experience of “work.” In fact, we build skills regardless of whether we enjoy the tasks that build them. And since many subjectively lousy tasks are also important life skills, how can we convince our kids, students, and mentees to engage in necessary skill-building work?
If I may be so bold, might I suggest the Compliment Challenge™? How does it work, you ask? First, take time to explain to your kids, students, or mentees that our brains grow with work, and work leads to success. Then, instead of complimenting people for being smart (or worse, insulting them by calling them stupid), compliment them on how hard they have worked. These factors have been shown to help inspire learners to put more effort into study, with a resulting increase in performance.
The title of this piece implied that I’d be offering shortcuts, and since “working harder” is a kind of a long shortcut, I also offer the following: (1) don’t multitask; (2) cut off the internet when you’re studying; and (3) put your phone in another room. Multitasking and internet use distract you from your work. If you don’t have them available to you, you can concentrate on what you’re doing, finish your work faster, and get back to the more pleasurable things in life.
Thanks so much for playing today! Good luck with your learning, or helping someone else to learn! I’ll see you soon in my next post!
 Extra points for anyone who got the Doctor Strange reference.
 After all, when’s the last time you had to think about how to move your mouth when you speak?
 Savants, who can perform a task at expert level with little training exist, but they are rare. It also seems to be the case that their expert skill set is limited to one or two things. Everything else, they must learn.
 A bit over a year if you could skip sleep, food, and life. Closer to ten once real life is factored in.
 Deliberate practice differs from just practice. The term indicates an intense form of practice, characterized by detailed feedback from a mentor and attention to detail by the practitioner. Imagine a singer practicing a single note for an hour, then going to a vocal coach to discuss the note for another hour. This is not the only factor that leads to expert performance, but it’s a definite contributor.