Get Better at Anything is Now Available

My new book, Get Better at Anything: 12 Maxims for Mastery, is now available!

Buy now:

Life depends on learning. We spend decades in school, acquiring an education. We want to be good at our jobs, not just for the perks that come with being one of the best, but for the pride of mastering a craft. Even things we do for fun, we enjoy to a large extent because we feel capable of getting better at them.

Yet learning is often mysterious. 

Sometimes we improve effortlessly—in other cases it’s a slog. We can spend decades driving a car, hitting a tennis ball or working at our jobs without getting better at any of them.

In my new book, I explore the science of skill acquisition, illustrating the core principles that can help you get better at the things that matter most to you.

The Joy (and Frustration) of Trying to Get Better

Few experiences can top the joy of finally getting the hang of a new skill. The first time you have a successful conversation in a new language, solve a tricky programming problem or ski down a hill without falling is thrilling.

But, just as often, learning is frustrating. 

We can spend hours in the library and not understand a subject any better than when we began. We can feel stuck in our jobs and careers, unable to make the jump to something better. Sometimes, we even convince ourselves that entire fields are off-limits—that we’re just not capable of getting better.

Frustrations can come at the beginning—when we have to learn something new and don’t know where to start. It can be daunting to embark on a new profession, pick up a new hobby or take on projects with new responsibilities.

For other skills, the frustrations can occur later—when we have already spent hundreds of hours striving to improve and feel stalled or stuck. It can be discouraging to feel trapped in a career that’s hit a dead-end, or to have a golf handicap that isn’t getting any better no matter what we try. 

The key to transforming frustration to enthusiasm, to go from feeling stuck to making progress, is developing a deep understanding of how learning works. 

Get Better at Anything breaks down the process of learning into three fundamental ingredients, with twelve memorable maxims encapsulating the key concepts you need to make progress.

The Three Ingredients for Getting Better

Three factors underpin our ability to learn:

  1. See. Most of what we know comes from other people. The ease (or difficulty) of learning from others explains much of our ability to improve ourselves.
  2. Do. Practice is essential to progress, but not all efforts are equal. The brain is a fantastic effort-saving machine, which is both a blessing and a curse. Knowing what kinds of actions lead to progress (and which don’t) can save years of wasted effort.
  3. Feedback. Improvement is not a straight line; it requires adjustment. Sometimes, feedback looks like the red stroke of a teacher’s pen, but more often, it comes from direct contact with the reality we’re engaged with.

Engaging in practice loops, where we see examples, practice for ourselves and get high-quality feedback is a proven method that has been used to accelerate progress in skills from novel writing to pilot training.

Details matter, of course. Which is why, in the book, I divide the three factors into distinct chapters, each introducing a central concept drawn from the research, backed with clear examples and practical applications for getting those details right. The twelve maxims for mastery are:

  1. Problem Solving is Search. I’ll share how a new understanding of how people solve problems sheds light on the process of acquiring complex skills.
  2. Creativity Begins with Copying. Imitation isn’t the enemy of originality, but an important precursor to it. I’ll cover research showing why we can sometimes solve problems without learning how we solve them, as well as practical implications of one of the most celebrated findings in psychology.
  3. Success is the Best Teacher. Motivation starts from having the proper foundation. The concept of self-efficacy, pioneered by psychologist Albert Bandura, can explain why we sometimes feel driven to learn and other times shrink from new challenges.
  4. Knowledge Becomes Invisible with Experience. Tacit knowledge, or the things we know without being able to say what they are, plays a central role in mastery. But that same receding of conscious awareness can make it tricky to learn from experts who forget what it’s like to be a beginner.
  5. Difficulty Has a Sweet Spot. Fine-tuning the difficulty is central to making progress. Too hard and we fail to grasp the skill. Too easy and we may not internalize the lessons. I’ll show how you can tweak the difficulty to maximize growth.
  6. The Mind is Not a Muscle. Understanding proceeds from having the right metaphor. Unfortunately, for many of us, we have the wrong metaphor for the mind and the wrong idea about what improves through practice.
  7. Variability Over Repetition. Following the training of jazz musicians, I’ll show the surprising research on variable practice, an underused strategy for making your practice more efficient.
  8. Quality Comes from Quantity. Creative success is, to a surprising degree, the direct outcome of productivity. I’ll explain the difference between routine and creative expertise, and how you can have more creative hits in your career.
  9. Experience Doesn’t Reliably Ensure Expertise. Decades of experience doesn’t lead to great predictive abilities in many professions. I’ll share when you should trust your gut and stick to the numbers, as well as how you can adopt strategies used by professional poker players to enhance your feedback.
  10. Improvement is Not a Straight Line. Progress is not a steady ascent—there are dips and detours along the way. I’ll talk about how you can continue to reach new heights, without getting stuck in the valleys below.
  11. Practice Must Meet Reality. There’s a lot about life we can’t learn in a classroom. But learning in the field has its own dangers that must be avoided. Following the worst aviation accident in history, I’ll share the history of pilot training—and the implications for mastering your profession in the real world.
  12. Fears Fade with Exposure. Despite substantial empirical evidence in its favor, exposure remains an underused strategy for dealing with fears and anxieties. I’ll show how one of the biggest failed predictions in psychology’s history can teach us lessons about dealing with the more mundane trepidations we face in our own quest to improve.

Along the way, the book delves into the fascinating and diverse science of learning, including case studies such as:

  • Why it took two decades for Tetris players to begin to master the seemingly simple game.
  • Why professional poker players make better predictions than psychiatrists.
  • The secret to the artistic training of Renaissance master painters.
  • How jazz musicians learn to improvise.
  • A mathematical problem that took three centuries to solve—and the psychological theory that explains its resolution.
  • What the London Blitz teaches us about the neuroscience of anxiety.

Whether you’re unsure where to begin, feel stuck after years of effort, or simply want a deeper understanding of how learning works, Get Better at Anything will guide you through your learning journey.

Click here to find out more about the book.

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