I’ve been training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the past couple years, and the great thing about this sport is that every class includes live sparring. This makes it painfully obvious where you stand compared to your training partners.
Since you can’t help but confront yourself to others, I’ve always wondered why some people get better while others stagnate. Is it genetics? Talent? Or just plain old hard work? And does everybody eventually reach a plateau, or can you keep improving indefinitely?
It seems like a commonly accepted fact that the more you do something, the better you get at it. In fact that’s often how society decides how much money to give you: since it’s hard to measure exactly how skilled somebody is, we use job experience as a proxy to judge their value.
I think we intuitively picture something like this:
But this clearly doesn’t match up with reality, and it’s easy to find examples to disprove this theory: for example, even if you drive to work every day, you won’t end up with Formula-1 driving skills.
Clearly the law of diminishing returns is at play here, and the actual curve might be closer to this:
So if driving more doesn’t make you a better driver, does coding more make you a better coder? Or designing more a better designer?
I’m not sure it does.
It’s very easy to find examples of people who have been working in their field for 10 years or more and haven’t made any progress. Just as you can find 16-years old who have amazing abilities.
Don’t get me wrong, you do need time to get good at something. It’s just that time alone is not enough.
Something that really resonates with me is the idea of deliberate practice. This concept states that:
How expert one becomes at a skill has more to do with how one practices than with merely performing a skill a large number of times
In other words, it’s not just how long you’ve been doing practicing, but also how you’ve been practicing it. In other words, I’ll take two years of deliberate practice over a lifetime of coasting any day.
It might seem like an obvious idea, but in my experience people rarely stop to ask themselves if they’re “deliberately practicing”, or just plain old practicing. And what’s more, people with a lot of experience feel more confident in their skills, which means they’re even less likely to question them.
So if you’ve got years of experience behind you, ask yourself if you’re still pushing yourself to improve every day, or if you’re just doing the same thing over and over.
But there’s also a silver lining: even if you’re just starting out, remember that you’ll be able to overtake 90% of people with a couple years of hard focused work, no matter how long they’ve been at it.