3 Ways to Get Better at a Skill Without Actually Practicing
If you can master indirect improvement, you'll never stop learning.
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When you’re a kid, everyone tells you that if you want to be good at something, you have to practice.
“Practice makes perfect”, or whatever.
It isn’t true. “Practice makes perfect” is a scam.
In fact, this statement couldn’t be more false. Perfection doesn’t even exist, it’s just a concept. Plus, practice alone certainly isn’t the way to reach the conceptual understanding of what perfection might be. You can’t just grind your way to the top. The wheels will fall off the bus long before you get there.
I’m living proof.
This year, in particular, I’ve been obsessively practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Perfection has been on my mind ever since my 2020 competition season was ruined due to the Covid pandemic. I’ve found my limits this year and ran through them. My goal was simple: world champ or bust.
But due to an injury (actually, due to a handful of overuse injuries), I’m not even going to get the chance to try to become a world champion. I ran myself to the ground, and now I have to face the consequences. The consequences are pain, depression, and an obnoxious time to sit alone with my thoughts about what could have done better.
To avoid losing my mind, I’ve been focusing a lot on my mental training.
These 3 methods of mental training, in particular, have helped me not only keep up my skills while off the mat but actually improve my Jiu-Jitsu and my happiness, without even doing the thing I love most.
Write about your skill.
I write a lot about how to get better at stuff because I myself want to get better at stuff.
I write about self-improvement because I want to work on myself.
I write about relationships because I want to improve my relationships.
Once I got injured and couldn’t train Jiu-Jitsu, I started writing about Jiu-Jitsu. In fact, I wrote an entire ebook (you can read it here) about how to get better at Jiu-Jitsu faster. I did this not because I want everyone to know how good I am at Jiu-Jitsu, I did this because I want to learn how to train better and more effectively.
I realized that my own training methods were failing, and I have to find a new way to approach training that won’t result in the complete destruction of my body and my physical health.
Writing is the art of processing your experiences, which means that by writing about how you approach your given skill, you are not only going to examine the way you study, you’re going to deeply examine the skill itself.
By writing my ebook about Jiu-Jitsu, I learned about different flaws that I have in my approach to training, how I can improve on these flaws, and I had an outlet to express myself about how freakin’ upset I was that I got pretty severely injured just a week before I was supposed to fight in the world championships (where I was going to be the #1 seed).
And? I realized something very important: my favorite writing that I do is the kind that helps me and my readers live better lives.
Watch the skill meticulously.
Have you ever watched a world-class standup comedian and thought, “this guy is just standing on the stage talking, I could do that!”
I had that thought once as well.
Then, I actually tried to do standup comedy, and boy oh boy, it is a lot harder than it looks. Let’s just say my brief stint on the mic didn’t last very long and it didn’t go very well. Luckily, there aren’t any YouTube videos of me bombing anywhere.
When you watch the best performers in the world, you see a finished product. You see the result of years and years of hard work. After watching this, your brain believes that high-performance can be done, but you can’t learn just by watching the best. If your goal is to be a better comedian, you should watch the best comedians in the world, but you should watch them meticulously and observantly. Take notes. When you watch someone perform, you have to study their mannerisms and their movements, not just awe at their remarkable results. This is how you actually get results from learning from experts.
If your goal is to learn a skill faster, it’s not enough to just show up to every open mic, practice session, or rehearsal. The best performers in the world are also the biggest fans of their given skill. There’s a reason people tell writers to read, and it’s not just for “writing ideas”.
To learn a craft, you have to study the craft. In times where you’re unable to physically practice, this study can replicate part of an intensive indirect training program.
Develop a visualization regimen.
After an absolutely wild breakup earlier this year, I got back into meditation again.
I felt like I had a lot of reflecting to do, and I was way too anxious to even think about all of the different things that were stressing me out. Meditation works as an anxiety treatment. Pretty much everyone who’s ever opened a self-help article knows how important it is to sit and breathe.
Visualization, on the other hand, doesn’t get nearly as much love as meditation. This is surprising to me because I think of visualization as mediation’s way more attractive, more fun sister. Meditation is like your vegetables, visualization is your dessert.
See, after you manage to clear all that extra clutter out of your brain, you get to do the fun part. You get to visualize yourself being the badass version of yourself that you know you can be. You get to watch yourself kick ass in your mind, and after you do it, you can go kick some ass in real life.
The research on visualization is more than promising, it’s incredible. The study I’ve linked here suggests that just 3 days of mental training can lead to performance improvements.
Basically, if you become a master visualizer, you can increase your performance just by “practicing in your head”.
My visualization technique is as follows:
Every other day during my “injured life”, after I do a 10–15 mediation practice to decrease daily anxiety, I get up, stretch a bit, check my phone, and then I plop back onto my bed. For a few moments, I just lay on my bed with my eyes closed and visualize whatever activity I’m trying to improve at. If it’s writing, I imagine myself cranking out viral hits. If it’s Jiu-Jitsu, I imagine myself preparing to step out onto the mat at the finals of the world championships.
I recreate the fear, excitement, and all of the other sensations that encompass performing at a high level. That way, when I experience them for real, I know how to deal with them. That way, I’m focused on giving my best instead of dealing with uncomfortable feelings.
For a more detailed guide on how to visualize like a top-performer, check out Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
This year, I’ve had to deal with injuries, burnout, breakups, financial stress, family stress, and my own constant depression and anxiety.
This has been one of the more difficult years I’ve experienced, but I’ve also learned a lot. I feel like a shadow of the person that I was at the beginning of this year. I’m stronger, sharper, smarter, and I still feel far from my peak.
Part of this is because I show up to work and to training every single day. I carefully evaluate my performance and I assess my performance after each attempt at a given skill.
However, what I feel really sets me apart is my willingness to experiment with mental training. Because of this, my limits go beyond the scope of my physical body. By developing mental training habits, I’m not just learning how to do Jiu-Jitsu better or how to write better, I’m learning how to learn better.
That’s the reason I do this. It isn’t about gold medals, highlight reels, or perfect articles, it’s about developing an approach to skill development that can be transcended across disciplines and skills. I don’t care if I know everything, I just want to know how to know everything.
That’s the reason I do this whole thing.
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