Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Skills

Human skills are created by chains of nerve fibers carrying electrical impulses. A simple skill involves a chain of hundreds of thousands of fibers and synapses. The faster and stronger the signals the more automatic is the skill. There is a matter called myelin, which insulates the chains of nerve fibers. Myelin keeps electrical signals from leaking out from the chains. There is always an optimal way of doing things. When we repeat an action in an optimal way, we add some myelin around the right chain of nerve fibers. The more we do it in the right way, the thicker the layers of myelin come and the faster and more accurate your movements or thoughts become. There is a downside of myelin. If we practice in a wrong way, we add myelin into the wrong chain and you get better at doing the things in a wrong way. This doesn´t mean we cannot make mistakes while we are learning. But it means we should avoid repeating them.

All movements are made of chains of nerve fibers and all the chains grow according to certain rules. The chains decide the timing and the strength of each muscle contraption. A fast, synchronous chain produces a fast, synchronous movement. The more we develop a chain, the more automatic it will become and the less we are aware of the chain. It takes a long time to learn a complex skill. We have to remember the opportunity cost in learning a complex skill. While our brains can probably handle any changes in the nerve fiber chains, we haven´t enough time to improve all of them. When we practice one skill, we cannot practice another.

Myths about developing skills

We have two common myths about developing skills. First, we imagine some people have an innate talent and without it, it is impossible to develop a skill to the level of expertise. Second, when we practice enough in the right way, we can be a top performer in any skill. Both of these myths are partly right. The first one is more wrong than the second.

Lets start with the first one. Truth is, a person with a mediocre talent, with a good process will eventually beat the more talented person with a mediocre process. What happens here, is that more talented person will first beat the crap out of the less talented. Less talented person will practice a skill with a better process and his nerve fiber chains will eventually get stronger and faster. The reason for this is that less talented person will eventually have enough more high quality repetitions, which equalizes the difference. The more talented has an advantage of needing less repetitions, but he will eventually fail to use it for his/her advantage. There are some practical skills, in which expertise can be achieved only by some people. There are some natural properties of the body that cannot be improved. If you want to be a good baseball hitter, you need to have a certain level of vision.

The second myth could be called the myth of 10,000 hours, which was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. His rule basically says, everybody needs at least 10,000 hours to achieve a top performance in any competitive field. He has found that rule from Anders Ericsson who has done research on expertise. Gladwell´s problem is the interpretation of the research. When Ericsson said you need on average 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve expert performance. Gladwell talks about minimum. He basically says, that everybody needs about the same amount of time and the same way of practicing to achieve expertise. This is not true. What Ericsson´s research really means, is the amount of practice varies depending on people´s talent, when other factors are the same. Less talented people may need 20,000 hours of same practice to gain the same skills as the world class talent may survive with only 5,000 hours. I am not denying that we need to put thousands of hours into practice, or saying that the right kind of practice isn´t needed.

Better mental models, better skills

When I introduced a latticework of mental models, I mentioned a need to have two latticeworks and combine them. First is a general latticework of mental models and the second one is specialized to some area of expertise. It is hard to have any expertise in practical skills without having more detailed and accurate mental models in moving your body. Experts in physical fields, have proper mental models to establish a clear picture what the action should look like at every part of the movement. We need to be able to think how it feels to perform the action part by part. Mental models are held in long term memory and can be used to get fast and effective responses in certain patterns of information like a movement in opponents body while playing tennis. We always have to hold on to and process lots of information simultaneously. Any complicated action requires building mental models of one sort or another.

Experts develop highly complex and detail-oriented mental models of the different situations they are likely going to encounter. They have an ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing for the less skilled performers. In some physical actions, experts may use movement that novices do not even see happening. Experts have mental models that let them consider more things at once. They have a better understanding, which enables them to separate the more important data from the less important. They can see the relevant data as larger pieces of larger patterns, not as some isolated bits of information. They can select the best solution from the larger amount of possibilities than less skilled people.

Choose your expertise wisely

We dont´have enough time to learn everything. There is always an opportunity cost between having a skill and time used for acquiring it. It costs less to achieve an expert level in any competitive skill if we are talented. 10,000 hours is almost 3 hours/day for 10 years. If we have no talent, we will probably need at least 20,000 hours and it is too much. And because we need to be concentrated while you are practicing, there is not much possibilities of speeding up the process. Physical and mental skills are different in this, because mental skills do not deteriorate as fast as physical. We all need to practice to achieve expertise and the best way to do it by following the principles of deliberate practice. We are not ready to apply them in our lives yet. We will get back to it, when there is the right time for doing it.

Sources:

Peak, Anders Ericsson
The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
Mastery, George Leonard
Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin
Bounce, Matthew Syed

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