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How to Become Great at Something

Years ago, I read a fascinating book called Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. I highly recommend it if you like this sort of thing. The theory of the book is that being great at something (anything) is not a matter of having natural gifts when you were born. It comes from practice. This is the same as the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell made famous.

In Colvin’s book, he says that Tiger Woods was not born a great golfer. He was born like you or I, but his “gift” was having a father that loved golf. Tiger Woods was swinging a golf club from his high-chair as a toddler before he could walk. Tiger appeared on the Mike Douglas show at the age of two to demonstrate his putting. By the time Tiger was 13, he was playing against professionals and almost winning. At 15, he was the U.S. Junior champion. And by some coincidence, he had probably been playing and practicing golf for 10,000 hours by his early teenage years. Most professional players don’t even pick up a club until they are teenagers. The theory therefore says, Tiger wasn’t a natural born great golfer. He just had a 10-year head start over every other player his age.

The other thing to know about Tiger Woods is the way he practices. You or I might knock a bucket of balls at the driving range, and then play a round of 18-holes and call that practice. That is not the type of practice that true masters do. Tiger will spend hours in a sand trap, repeatedly dropping a ball and getting it onto the green. He will do this over and over, hundreds of times. This is not fun. He is practicing a single skill. A violinist may practice her hand movements back and forth and back and forth between a particular transition. She is not playing beautiful music, just practicing the placement of her fingers. An artist may waste an entire canvas practicing the shadowing under an eye until it looks perfect. This is not playing around, this is hundreds of hours of practicing a single, specific skill.

So if you believe this theory, any of our so-called talents are just a result of getting better over time. Great writers write a lot. Great programmers solve programming challenges a lot. Great athletes practice a lot. And great astronomers stare at stars a lot.

So the question I want to answer is, can we apply this theory of deliberate practice to MOOCs or online courses? Can I become great at something through online study?

I think the key difference between the Tiger Woods story (and deliberate practice), is that online courses tend to follow the real classroom model. If you want to become amazing at math, you start with 1+1 and work your way up to complex differential calculus (and beyond). Mathematicians don’t practice math in the same way that golfers practice golf. So I think first you need to arrange a topic you wish to learn in a way that you can apply deliberate practice techniques to it.

The MOOC providers I have seen do not lend themselves to the arrangement of their courses in this way. To keep the interest of the audience, they have to provide some engaging video lessons, with slides and pictures, and intersperse that with quiz questions that simply ask you to remember a fact mentioned in the last 10 minutes. This is not at all analogous to deliberate practice.

So what you need to do is arrange your OWN learning method. If you want to learn a particular skill, you need to pick a core lesson (say, addition in the mathematics example), and work on that skill for hours until you are sick of it. You can progressively make it more complicated until you make mistakes, and then practice at that level. Intersperse that level of arithmetic with simpler stuff to ensure those old skills are still working. 40-years later, Tiger Woods still practices putting I bet, just like when he was in a high-chair with his father.

You can vary the skills practiced by day. So one day you are doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and the next you are doing algebra. And you do this every day, over and over, getting the complexity up. And then, you become an expert at it over years.

Perhaps that example is too simple, but you get my point hopefully.

The current online learning platforms don’t do a great job of this. Khan Academy comes closest, in their skills training, in that you are solving many similar problems, gaining points. Trying to get many correct in a row. Not just proving you know the answer one time, but know it 20 times in a row. If you are trying to teach yourself (or your kids) math topics, be sure and check that out.

So what we’re left with in the MOOC space is videos and quizzes. I would suggest this is not the best way to become great at something, and does not in fact demonstrate how great you are except at memorization and test-taking skills. But it’s what we have for now.

Agree? Disagree? I want to hear from you in the comments.


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