How to improve your talent – by Wayne Blackburn
What’s that you say? You know how to improve? “Practice, practice, practice!”?
Well, you’d be right, of course, but that’s not the whole story.
I’ve heard (ok, read) Sarah and others talk about “the myth of talent”, with which I have had my disagreements. It turns out, though, that I have never actually encountered the myth of talent, which apparently says that if you have talent, you don’t need practice to be good at something. I’ve only encountered the reality of talent, which is that talent allows your practice to be more effective.
Now, how much is talent genetic and how much is early experience? We may never know, because the factors that determine it are probably incredibly complex and intertwined. So much so that it’s far too large for a blog post, so I’m not going to go into that here. I am, though, going to show you ways to improve the talents you have.
“Improving your talent” is actually something that will help you in a broad range of things, not just the thing you’re practicing.
My father was a Jack-of-all Trades. I won’t say, “Master of none”, because as far as I could tell, he was a master carpenter, even if he didn’t have a piece of paper saying so. He could have been quite wealthy, had he gone into business for himself and been able to bring himself to charging a reasonable rate for his work (which latter part is why he wasn’t building houses with his friend, because they couldn’t bring themselves to charge enough to make a living). Instead, he retired in 1989, after 25 years working for the YMCA, and when he retired, he was making $6.99/hr. Needless to say, when I learned that last, I was a very unhappy person on his behalf.
But living with my father was an educational experience. He was, as I said, a Master Carpenter in all but certification – he could decide on a project, start pulling out tools and supplies, and setting up workspace, and then, in an astoundingly short time, produce a quality piece of work. He may not have been a Master Plumber, but he could do general plumbing and do a quality job. He wasn’t really an electrician, but he could wire your house, and it would pass an electrician’s inspection.
But more than that, dad could look at something and figure out how to do it. My brother recently told me that dad once tore down and rebuilt a friend’s manual transmission because the friend couldn’t afford to replace it. Dad could also pack things into a smaller space than you would believe. I joke that he could pack a two-bedroom house into a pickup truck and a hatchback. So one of the things I decided early on was that I would become as good at doing things as dad was (I never really hit that mark, but I did better than average).
And on my journey, I came up with things that help. I’ll tell you up front that they work a lot better when you’re young and your body and mind are more elastic, but they’ll still help the old farts in the audience.
Much of this, I figured out on my own, but I also cribbed from several other sources, even including one little tidbit from Dune, though I suspect that it was originally from some Eastern martial arts practice.
This article is for physical talent. That is, the kinds of things that will help you learn to do physical labor, or sports, or things like martial arts or dancing. Not all of these will be for everyone, but most of them will be useful as standalone improvements. And these are by no means an exhaustive catalog. I’m sure there are tons of other ways to improve.
Let’s start with the bottom of the pyramid. I know I said they can all help separately, but they definitely work together, and this one will help the others the most:
FEEL YOUR BODY. (Sigh. No, stop that. I didn’t mean… Hey, you in the third row from the back! I DEFINITELY didn’t mean THAT! Ow, my eyes! OK, let’s start over.)
You can do this standing, sitting, or lying down, or you can move from one to the other. I don’t care. First, close your eyes. No, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but for me, it makes it easier to concentrate. Now, starting with your toes, try to move each one individually. Now, for most people, this is hard, so don’t expect to do it immediately.
Here’s the important part – As you try to move your toes, concentrate on feeling your muscles as they move. Some people find this difficult, but it gets easier over time.
After you’ve tried that a few times, try to curl your foot under as much as you can, then uncurl it and extend your toes to the sky. Next, move to your ankle. Move it up and down, tilt it in and out, and roll it around. Do all this slowly, and focus on the muscles that are moving as you do it.
Work your way through your muscle groups like this. Slowly, focusing on the muscles as you go. It’s not necessary to turn this into a stretching exercise, but you certainly can. The point, though, Is not to push yourself to increase your flexibility (it will help, but you can work on pushing it later), but to learn how to pay attention to your body as you learn other things.
Once you have learned how to feel your body, you will be able to tell better how you are progressing as you learn physical things, and will be better able to tell what you are doing wrong when you make mistakes, which will help you figure out how to correct the problem.
Next, at the beginning of learning, if you have the opportunity, MOVE LIKE A ROBOT. (Hey, third row from the back – are you trying to get me to fling a carp at you? I did NOT say, “Do the Robot”. Sheesh.)
Moving on – what do I mean by “move like a robot”? Just this: Once you learn what movements are needed, you go through the motions slowly, deliberately, and as absolutely precisely and accurately as you possibly can. It’s possible that you may not be able to do this if you’re learning a new job, but often you can get the basics down and then do the intense part later.
To begin, push away all the distractions you possibly can from your mind (don’t push away things that would affect your safety, you need all the fingers and toes you still have to stay attached). Next, go through the motions in your mind, thinking about how to make them. Finally, go through the actual motions, making certain that you are doing all of them as nearly perfect as you can.
The previous exercise is very helpful, because you can feel when you are making mistakes, or if you don’t realize you’re making a mistake until later, you can tell how to modify what you’re doing to make it right. It also helps when you’re doing it right, because you can remember how it feels so that later, you can even tell if you made a mistake when you’re not paying as much attention.
Slowly speed this up as you go along, but for the first couple of hundred repetitions, do your best to focus on the job, and nothing else. Once you have programmed your muscles, you can loosen up and start paying less direct attention to what you are doing, because a) you will be doing it automatically, and b) your muscles will tell you if something is wrong – you won’t have to watch so closely any more.
I have used this technique to learn, in a single day, jobs that I saw other people take more than a week to learn, and some never did really learn to do them correctly.
Note: This technique can also be helpful later on, if you find yourself in need of hurrying. The absolute focus, the attention to prefect motions, perfectly repeatable, can bring you to a pace you would previously have found incredible.
Next, PRACTICE EVERYWHERE. (No, no, no! Man, you’re really starting to get on my nerves. It means to practice wherever you happen to be. It does NOT mean to practice on someone else’s person! You’re lucky you only got slapped.)
Some people. Anyway, this means to find ways to practice the components of what you want to do when you’re not in the environment where you NEED to do it. Now, this is one that many children do anyway. How often have you seen a child prancing around as if they are still at dance class? And many times, their parents tell them to stop.
But it’s a REALLY good thing to do! Most of you probably already know this, but studies have indicated that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice in order to become competent in a field of work or study. To put that in perspective, a standard full-time work year is 2080 hours (40 hours/wk, 52 weeks/year). So that’s just about 5 YEARS as full time, just to get COMPETENT (I’m talking about something that encompasses the full complexities of a professional job, not the packing job I said I learned in one day above).
So, how do you get better faster? You find ways to practice when you’re not practicing. This increases the number of hours you actually get practice in, overall.
Now, at home, you can probably at least practice the movements just as you would if you were doing the real thing, but in public that might be problematic, what with the pointing, and the laughing. More on that in the next section.
When you’re practicing at home, do your movements slowly, and perfectly, unless what you are practicing is timing the movements to something else, and then of course, you have to keep in time. I often will practice the two (movement and timing) separately for a time (that is, when practicing timing, paying very close attention to that and not so much to getting the movements perfect in placement), before combining the two.
One of the good things about practicing at home is that you don’t need to do it in a dedicated fashion. You can work it in while you’re fixing supper, while you’re watching TV, while you’re in the shower (maybe), or whatever else you’re doing, as long as what else you’re doing doesn’t take a lot of concentration. It may not give quite as much benefit as dedicated practice would, but it’s still better than not practicing.
Finally (and you’ve probably seen versions of this from self-professed self-help gurus numerous times): TURN PRACTICE INTO A GAME. (What, you again? Somebody load the carp launcher. I’ll show you a GAME, pal!)
Sigh. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Make it a game. This one is a very free-floating suggestion, really, because there are many ways to make games out of practice.
As an example: One of the things that I struggle with, and have since I was little, is controlling the force and speed of my movements. I can do gentle, or I can do nearly my full force (likewise for speed – either very slow or very fast), but I have a hard time moderating in between the extremes. So, one of the things I make a game out of is shutting doors. Yep, shutting doors. Here’s how: When I shut a door, I give it a single push, and attempt to gauge the force I use to make it shut perfectly. That is, it should completely shut and fasten, but with an absolute minimum of striking against the frame. This is particularly difficult with microwave ovens.
But, you say, what if I pack light bulbs for a living (something I’ve done)? Well, that IS a rather specialized motion, but you can still improve your ability to do it by setting yourself to do things precisely – when you’re at home, set an empty can that had vegetables in it, or maybe baked beans (soup cans will be too small), and set your drink in it. You may have to pick a particular glass or something so that you can easily pick it up and set it down. Then make a game of setting your glass into the exact center of the can every time. When you can do it without really thinking about it, you’ll find that the job that requires exact placement will be significantly easier and you can do it much faster.
The secret is finding things that are similar to things that you would do in whatever you’re practicing for. My baseball coach recommended that his players practice batting by taking a tobacco stick (a hardwood board approximately 1 inch square, and pointed at both ends), and some bottle caps (if you don’t know any beer drinkers, you might need to use pebbles, or maybe just wad up some paper balls), throw a cap into the air, and hit it with the stick on the way down. Why? Well, the tobacco stick is much thinner than a bat, and the bottle cap much smaller than a baseball, so if you can almost always hit the cap, you can surely hit a ball.
Now, the title of the article was how to improve your talent. How does this improve your talent? Well, to begin with, the first part, about learning to move your body more effectively, and to feel how you’re doing it, is the most effective part of improving your talent, because those exercises will feed into making it far easier to learn new physical activities from the bottom up. The others go towards learning techniques to add practice when you’re not formally practicing. And turning it into a game makes it more fun, which makes it easier to motivate yourself to do the practice.
So there you go. Four basic components:
- FEEL YOUR BODY.
- MOVE LIKE A ROBOT
- PRACTICE EVERYWHERE
- TURN PRACTICE INTO A GAME
Follow these principles, and you’ll find that your activities become easier, more precise, less awkward, and more useful. And you can learn new skills faster and easier.