The 25 Cognitive Biases: Use-It-or-Lose-It Tendency

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Does it really take 10,000 hours to master a skill? How can you pinpoint your weaknesses and improve on them?

Many people believe that you’re either born with natural talent or that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. However, neither of these is true—perfecting a skill takes careful examination of your weak spots and determining the best approach to strengthen them.

Let’s dive into the right and wrong ways to learn and skill and perfect it.

The Myths Behind Mastering a Skill

Before learning how to properly master a skill, you need to know what not to do. Below we’ll look at the most common misperceptions about skill-mastering, and why they’re actually lies.

The Talent Myth

There exists a highly deterministic idea that your abilities are limited by your genetic characteristics. This is the old idea about “natural” talent: some people simply have it, and others don’t. It shows up in the defeatist statements people make when they don’t immediately achieve what they set out to: “I can’t manage people,” “I’m just not that creative,” or “I’m just not a math person.” We know this isn’t true: except for people who suffer from severe physical or mental limitations, with the right practice, just about anyone can improve in any area they choose.

According to Peak by Anders Ericsson, the idea of prodigies—people born with natural talent that enables them to excel in a particular field with comparatively little effort—is, likewise, largely a myth borne of ignorance about how deliberate practice works. The idea of prodigies can actually be quite harmful. Accepting that some simply have natural talent and others who don’t might discourage people from even trying to fulfill their dreams: “I’m not good at this, so why bother?” 

And it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy—people who develop the idea that they’re “bad” at something never practice, and, therefore, never get good at it. Meanwhile, children who show early promise tend to be lavished with attention and praise from teachers and parents and receive more training and resources to help them develop their skills than children who struggle. The “gifted” students don’t possess some innate ability that others don’t, they’re just given more of an opportunity to develop. This has deprived the world of the talents of countless people who were deemed at an early age to be “no good” at something.

Even Mozart, often regarded as the very embodiment of a musical prodigy, relied on practice far more than raw talent. His father, Leopold, began his son’s training before the boy was even four—ample time for the young Mozart to soak up important hours of deliberate practice in his formative years. Moreover, his early childhood compositions, the supposed evidence of his unprecedented genius, have now been found to have been written in his father’s handwriting—a clue that perhaps the elder Mozart played a larger role in this stage of his son’s career than history cares to remember. 

By embracing the principles of deliberate practice and applying them to every area of human endeavor (not just chess or music), we could create a far more prosperous and happy world, one with profound implications for technology, healthcare, public service, and countless other fields. The lesson is clear. Fulfill your untapped potential. Work hard and practice to take control of your life and become whatever it is you wish to be. Your future is entirely in your hands.

The 10,000 Hours Myth

At some point in your life, you may have learned that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. This myth was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.

K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who led the study from which Gladwell gleaned the 10,000 Rule, has criticized Gladwell for misrepresenting his research findings. In the study, Ericsson and his fellow researchers asked top-ranked violinists to estimate how many hours they’d spent practicing since picking up the instrument; they found that, on average, elite violinists had dedicated 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to their craft. 

Ericsson has argued in papers (including one pointedly titled “The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists”) and in his book, Peak, that Gladwell oversimplified the results by making two mistakes:

  1. He applied data about violinists to all fields, when it’s unreasonable to assume that all fields require the same amount of practice to achieve mastery.
  2. He neglected to specify that the type of practice is far more important than the amount of time spent practicing. Ericsson’s study emphasizes that mastery requires deliberate practice, which is an intensely focused and effortful form of practice that constantly pushes the practitioner to stretch their abilities. 

In response, Gladwell has since clarified that he wasn’t suggesting that 10,000 was a universal magic number (even though he writes in Outliers that “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness,” and he’s the first to dub this concept with the name, the 10,000-Hour Rule). Instead, Gladwell seems to use the theory to reinforce the importance of time in achieving success, which sets up his larger point that having that time in the first place is a privilege that not everyone has. 

This may be another case where Gladwell’s popularity inadvertently fuels the criticisms against him: Because Outliers was so widely read, he is largely responsible for introducing this concept to the masses. As a result, his popularization of the 10,000-hour theory is often conflated with his endorsement of it.

How to Truly Master a Skill

Now that you know what isn’t required to be a master, here’s what you should do if you want to improve your skills. It only takes three steps: addressing your weaknesses, creating mental representations, and practicing deliberately. We’ll go into more detail about these steps below.

1. Address Your Weak Points

The first thing you need to do to master a skill is to determine what your weak points are and work on improving them. To do so, Ultralearning by Scott Young says you need to isolate a weakness in your learning process and concentrate intensively on it, or what he calls “drilling.” The aspect you isolate will be an integral component of the overall skill or subject, and in mastering it, you unblock areas of learning that are impeding progress. By addressing the most difficult aspects of the process, you reduce delays, learn to confront your weaknesses, and improve overall proficiency.

For example, if you want to be a successful YouTuber, you might have developed your video-editing skills. However, if you haven’t learned how to speak in front of a camera in a natural, engaging way, you still might not be able to attract subscribers. Thus, your speaking ability is impeding your progress, so you should focus your learning efforts on improving that particular skill.

Young advises using the previous principle—practice experientially—in tandem with this principle of focusing on a specific aspect of a skill you’re learning. First, practice your skill in the context you want to apply it. Then, identify your weak links and concentrate on improving those. Finally, practice again, integrating the improvements you’ve made.

How to Isolate Your Weak Points

Young writes that it’s important to address any bottlenecks in your learning process, but he doesn’t give specific tips for isolating these weak spots. To this end, it might help to view your learning process as a system based on Donatella Meadows’s tips in Thinking in Systems

  • Make a diagram of your learning process. Doing this allows you to see how each area of the skill you’re learning connects. Having a visual cue makes it easier for you to spot areas that could be causing blocks, impeding your progress in connected areas.
  • Get feedback from reliable sources. Show your illustrated process to credible people (such as others who’ve mastered the skill you’re trying to learn) and ask them for their input. They may be able to see barriers that you aren’t seeing.
  • Make adjustments based on what you’ve learned. Similar to Young’s method of practicing, addressing a weakness, then practicing again, you should incorporate any helpful feedback you receive. This might mean realigning your process with your learning goals or adding a missing component. Once you’ve made the necessary changes, practice your skill again.

2. Create Mental Representations

Another helpful tip for mastering a skill is to create mental representations, as written in Peak.

What are mental representations? At their most basic, mental representations are templates that correspond to objects, ideas, or anything else that the brain might be thinking about. You may not realize it, but you use mental images every day. Think about a famous image, like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. When someone mentions it, you can “see” the painting in your mind’s eye—this is a mental representation. They are pre-existing patterns that are held in long-term memory, enabling us to overcome the limitations of short-term memory.

Mental representations provide meaning and context that aids us as we assimilate and process information. Language itself is a complex network of mental representations, with words (which are abstract) representing real-world things. A word like dog, when a child first hears it, means nothing: it’s just a catch-all label for something that shares a set of common characteristics (i.e., dogs are furry, they walk on all fours, and pant).

But when the child learns more about dogs, she incorporates all this information into the word. When she hears it spoken, she no longer needs to search her memory to find all the relevant information about dogs: she has developed a full mental representation of what they are.

The key to peak performance is developing efficient and effective mental representations. But they are highly context-specific. The mental representations used by chess masters to envision the board and map out their opponents’ possible moves wouldn’t translate to a completely different game, like basketball. There are no “general skills.” When you practice, you are getting better at a specific thing: you’re becoming a better pole vaulter or basketball player, not a better all-around athlete.

Top performers are so good at what they do because they have superior mental representations. Years of practice have changed the circuitry in their brains, enabling them to create highly detailed and effective mental representations, aiding in memory, pattern recognition, and all the other highly developed abilities needed to be a top-ranked pitcher, chess player, or pianist.

Seeing the Pattern

A key part of forming good mental representations is the ability to recognize patterns where others see only random and formless data. Most of us are only seeing a collection of trees: experts see the forest. 

In one experiment, the author and some colleagues showed soccer players video footage from a soccer match and then asked them to predict what was going to happen next on the field. The results showed that the more accomplished players were more accurate in their predictions of what the next move would be than were the less accomplished players participating in the experiment. The better players were able to take a full assessment of the conditions on the field and see patterns that enabled them to predict what the optimal next move would be. They had a mental representation of which players’ movements mattered the most, to whom they ought to pass the ball, and so on. 

The same mental representations allow the most effective quarterbacks in American football to lead their teams to victory. They spend a great deal of time analyzing the video from previous games and from opponents’ games, seeking out patterns of play that will provide valuable information for the next match on the gridiron. This practice enables the quarterback to have a full picture of events on the field and allows him to make good decisions quickly.

This is because people have better mental representations—and therefore, greater comprehension—of subjects in which they are already knowledgeable. To someone who doesn’t understand soccer or American football, the action on the field seems like just a jumble of players running around. But to a skilled player, the play on the field fits into a neat pattern, from which they can make accurate judgments and predictions. 

Indeed, skill/knowledge and mental representations reinforce one another: the more skilled or knowledgeable you are in a given subject, the more effective your mental representations will be, and vice versa. 

3. Practice Deliberately

While hard work is crucial to master a skill, it doesn’t guarantee success. The type of hard work matters. It needs to be deliberate practice: a structured, purposeful, and disciplined way to direct your efforts so that they produce real results. 

Instead of just repeatedly doing the same actions, you must strive to get better each time you do it. This, she says, is the hallmark of successful people: a desire to improve on their existing expertise.

To properly engage in deliberate practice, Angela Duckworth’s book Grit recommends the following process:

  • Set a stretch goal: Focus on a specific, narrow aspect of your larger goal that you want to improve. 
  • Give that goal undivided attention: Concentrate and focus on reaching that goal. Practice in solitude, without the assistance of other people.
  • Seek feedback: Ask for advice or have someone evaluate how you’re doing. Be more interested in what you did wrong than what you did right
  • Reflect on that feedback: Ask yourself what the feedback is telling you—what are you doing correctly? What are you doing wrong?
  • Continue to give your stretch goal undivided attention until you’ve hit it.
  • Set a new stretch goal. 

Note how deliberate and goal-oriented this process is, compared to merely putting in time absent-mindedly and going through the motions.

Make Practice a Habit

To get the most benefit from deliberate practice, Duckworth advises that you make deliberate practice a regular habit to master a skill.

To make developing the habit easier, find an environment in which you most enjoy deliberate practice. This might be a place, but it also might be a time—for example, maybe you enjoy working out in your living room, first thing in the morning, before your kids wake up.

Then, she encourages you to commit to deliberate practice in that environment every day. This will help you engage in your deliberate practice automatically without thinking about it. 

Final Words

Now you have everything you need to know about mastering a skill. While the path to mastery won’t necessarily take 10,000 hours to complete, it’ll still take time. Stay dedicated, motivate yourself with self-assurance, and see improvements every day.

What are some other helpful tips for mastering a skill? Leave us your suggestions in the comments below!

How to Master a Skill: The Myths and Truths

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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