How to Master Any Skill (No Talent Required)

Last Updated Mar 29, 2011 8:52 AM EDT

The intersection of talent and effort is a funny place. Think about a skill you've tried to develop, whether business, sports, or personal.

At first you improve at a rapid rate. Then your improvements slow down. Eventually, no matter how much effort you put in, you just don't seem to get better.

So you do one of two things:
  1. You decide channeling your inner Mozart is impossible and you quit, or
  2. You decide maybe you haven't really worked hard enough, and you keep digging.
Most of the time we stop trying to improve because we assume our talent has taken us as far as we can go. We decide we'll never be the Mozart of our field.

If we keep digging, we still don't tend to improve, mainly because doing more of what got us to the level we have reached rarely results in further improvement. Think of that as my Modified Einsteinian Definition of Insanity: Doing (more and more) of the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

At some point the problem isn't effort; the problem is how we apply that effort.

Why? Say you're trying to improve a physical skill. Over time your skills become automatic. Automatic is a good thing, because it means you've internalized a skill, but automatic is also a bad thing because anything automatic is hard to adjust. The key to improvement is to find ways to adapt or modify what you already do well so you can do that even better.

We learn best from making mistakes. To improve, find ways to make mistakes:
  • Slow down. Forcing yourself to go slower breaks habits as well, and is a perfect way to uncover adaptations that weren't apparent at normal speed.
  • Speed up. Go much faster than normal. Sure, you'll screw up, but in the process you'll break up old habits, adapt to new conditions, and find improvements.
  • Break a complex task into component parts. Almost every task includes discrete steps. Pick one, deconstruct it, master it... then put the whole task back together. Then choose another component part.
  • Measure differently. Pick a different measurement than you normally use to analyze performance. Measure speed instead of accuracy, for example, or use video or audio. (A friend taped four initial meetings with prospective customers and identified several bad habits he was unaware of. Watching yourself isn't particularly fun, but it's darned objective.)
The cliche "perfect practice makes perfect" is accurate because each time we practice perfectly we perform a task as well as we possibly can. When we try to do our best, every mistake is obvious -- and then we can learn from those mistakes, adapting and modifying our techniques so we constantly, even if only incrementally, improve.

That's where talent and effort intersect. Skill, like talent, isn't an end result. Skill is a process.

Take Mozart. Everyone knows the musical prodigy Mozart, composing and performing by the age of six. Less well known is the Mozart who put in thousands and thousands of hours of focused practice starting at age three. His genius lay not just in talent but also in effort. Talent took him far; hard work and focused practice took him a lot farther.

Here's a business example, one that might surprise you. A friend of mine runs an excavating firm. He spends a lot of time on a backhoe. Speed and efficiency are critical in his business because he's paid by the job. The longer it takes to dig footers for a new building, for example, the less money he makes. He's constantly trying new techniques and experimenting in unusual conditions like muddy or frozen ground or different types of soil. He approaches excavation like it's an Olympic sport -- and he's gotten darned good at it.

Whatever you do, you can do better. It doesn't matter if it's a physical task, or making sales calls, or managing employees, or conducting interviews. Any task can be performed better and more efficiently. To improve, don't make the mistake of simply working harder. Shake things up. Reinvent a skill that has over time become automatic -- but not perfect.

If you do, the results will be messy and frustrating at first, but with the right kind of effort your skills will improve. And then you can have your own Mozart moment.


(If you're not familiar with the movie "Amadeus," in this clip Salieri composes a welcome piece, the king performs it, then Mozart schools Salieri.)

Want to know more about how to develop your own skills? Check out Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code, Gladwell's Outliers, Matthew Syed's Bounce, or Colvin's Talent is Overrated. Read a little, then practice a lot.

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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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