Life and Stuff

How to be Great at Anything, Part Deux

*This post is Part 2 of 3, find Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

Practice Makes Perfect

Recently, I read Richard Feynman‘s Six Easy Pieces and felt staggered. Not only was this man a brilliant physicist but also an extraordinary teacher. As he described the structure of matter and atomic processes, I could see what he was explaining. It was absolutely breathtaking, in a super nerdy* way.

When I was a kid, I went on a school field trip (an art museum, the Getty, the Huntington?) and saw a marble sculpture of Cleopatra sitting on a cushioned chair. The pillow she sat on was so exquisitely carved it looked as soft as velvet and down. I held my breath looking at it. I wanted to reach out and touch it. I held back but others did not, if the black smudge on one corner of the pillow was any indication. They must have felt just as I did.

I felt the same when I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. That stream of consciousness writing. I’d never read anything like it.

When we come across the work of a master in any field, we’re likely to stand in awe and think there’s no way I could do anything like this. This dude/chick is a genius.

And, when we think genius, we typically think born that way and no amount of work is going to get me there.

Okay, maybe we won’t ever be Feynman or Joyce or whoever sculpted Cleopatra’s pillow. Maybe we don’t need to be. But, I do believe talent can be grown pretty darn large. We just have to want it and work at it.

Last week, we talked about how you need to lie a little to yourself and truth tell a little more and be utterly pigheaded. Here’s a few more ideas on how to grow greatness:


What does greatness look like to you?

Got an image? Super. Now, forget about it for a little while.

Instead, think about what you need to do next. What particular technique do you need to hone right now? Pick just a couple things at a time and break it down into the smallest bits possible. A writer might want to tighten dialogue or eliminate unnecessary tell. A musician might want to work on dexterity to play faster and smoother. A runner, might want to push speed or endurance just a little further.

Whatever your goals, you want to keep them small enough to be doable but big enough to stretch you.


Not the kind that involves endless repetition just to clock the required time. I’m talking about intensely focused, goal oriented practice on a constant feedback loop. You want to work towards specific goals and pay attention to not only where you’re falling short (or excelling) but what exactly is happening during the whole process.

Observe yourself at work as clinically as possible. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? How is your body moving?

When you fail, rewind the situation in your head, try to pinpoint the problem, and go forward trying something else.

When you succeed, you need to do the same thing. Only this time, you’re looking for what went right so you can duplicate it.

I find that my practice tends to involve a lot of both all mashed together. It takes some effort to tease the two things apart, but it’s worth it.

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle calls this Deep Practice. If you’re interested in how talent is grown and how to grow some of your own, I recommend checking this book out. Personally, I wasn’t all that interested in the discussion of talent hotbeds and the role of myelin in the mastery process, but I loved the info on effective practice strategies.

If you want to learn a whole lot more about learning and performance, check out Dr. K. Anders Ericsson. And here’s an interesting article about him from Business Insider.

Expert Help

I’m all for self-directed learning. I’m much too impatient to take classes for everything I want to learn. And a classroom isn’t the best place to learn everything. However, an individual who is a master in your desired area has a wealth of knowledge that you could either figure out for yourself the really hard way or learn from them. For some things, it really pays to find a skilled teacher. The time, effort and headache you save yourself is worth any inconvenience or financial output of taking the class/lessons.


There’s more to come. Stay tuned for Part the Third next week!

You can find Part 1 here.


*Speaking of nerdy stuff, if you have the slightest interest in quantum physics but not necessarily a need for all the math heavy explanation, I highly recommend Other Worlds by Paul Davies (if you can get your hands on a copy). Davies is another fellow who can teach the heck out of a complex subject without making your brain feel like it’s going to leak out your ears.



What are your favorite talent-growing strategies? How do you practice?

Photo Credit
Practice Makes Perfect by Tony Alter, on Flickr | CC BY 2.0

4 thoughts on “How to be Great at Anything, Part Deux

  1. I do prefer having a good teacher over self-directed learning. When I read stuff like The Talent Code I’ll think “that’s good advice” but then never actually apply it to my life. Make Friends and Influence People. I read that an no one listens to me 🙂

    1. 😀 I recently started to focus on practice strategies. It’s exciting to see it pay off. It took me a long time to get to the point where I wanted to invest all that time and effort though.

      I haven’t read Make Friends and Influence People, but I plan to at some point.

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