Saturday, April 11, 2015

Becoming the best vs. Becoming good at something

Somehow, to me, he’s good with the Middle Eastern political scenario does not sound as good as he’s an expert in the Middle Eastern political scenario. Bite me, I’m human.

IIM and IIT degrees, and PHD’s, high flying business school MBA’s impress me. But I’d be lying if entrepreneur’s succeeding without the fancy academics too impress me.

Similarly, people may be experts at one thing, or good with either one, or a few things. Both of these types may get successful, both may fail miserable. That is not the premise of my article though.

I’m merely trying to understand the skills sets required to become the best in something, probably an expert,  OR become adept at something, and more usually, many things.
I’m also trying to understand the different personalities that may choose these different paths.

To do so, let us first understand who an expert is, and how it is different from someone who is good at the same thing.

Who's an expert? Who is the best?

Photo by Stuart Miles from
All of us are aware of the dictionary definition of the word Expert. However, when experts (genuine ones at that, of course) are working their magic, it leads us normal folk to look at them with awe, complete overwhelmed, whilst sub-consciously:
  1. Comparing how well we could do what the expert does.
  2. Remark how hilariously inadequate we are in comparison and why we should be thankful we have a family that still thinks we are pretty cool.
  3. Start thinking about how sad our pitiful life is, and how big losers we actually are.

    Depending on my mood that day, the usual process flow of my thoughts would follow this pattern. Used to. 

Some get demoralised by mean feats of physical or mental athleticism, by stories of achievements and challenges overcome by those people.

Some get motivated and excited and energised by their superpowers, and resolve to become the best themselves. Their resolve lasts for about the time it takes this man to down a whole bottle of Jack Daniels (I have nothing but respect for him, and I'm also sure I'll be paying my respects at his funeral soon.)
Therein, lies the problem. And it's true for me, as much as it is for you. We want to be like that role model of ours, but we end up being:
  1. Immediately demoralised, thinking I can never do that!
  2. Motivated to go achieve the best within us, for about a minute.
Becoming the best, becoming an expert, needs years of practice, a string desire, an almost unflinching focus, and a lot of hard work. This isn't feasible for most of us ( My friends lovingly call me Most of Us). According to Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers, it takes 10000 hours of dedication to become an expert. Since I am guessing there are a few other mavericks in a particular field ready and gung ho about investing close to 3 hours everyday, for 10 years, to become kick ass at something, becoming the best, if it can be measured at all, might take a lot more time.

For people who choose to focus on the one thing, and want to become the best at it, an expert, I strongly believe this is the way to go. Now, there is no 10000 hours magic mantra, agreed. A lot depends on your geography, genetics, access to training, financial and physical health, and your life, but to become the best at something requires a lot of time, money and dedication. Discipline leads to habit, habit leads to regular practice, and that maketh an expert. Not easy, but simple. Apply it to most things in life, and there you go, you have your secret sauce. Easy peezy. Not.

But then, how many experts are there? How many people are, and can be the best? The 1 percent of the world? How many are billionaires? How many can run 100 metres under 10 seconds? How many can dodge 8 footballers to score the most beautiful goal? Get the drift? Not many. 1 percent, more or less. 

Become good, at many things.

Photo by jesadaphorn from
For someone like me, expertise isn't a very desirable prospect. I don't want to be the best, as I don't have the focus to do so. Some might say I can't, and I'll say they are entitled to their opinion. I honestly don't want to either. I want to keep learning new things, keep experiencing new challenges, and if I am pretty decent, if not the best at these things, I'll be pretty okay with that.

I want to be a decent footballer, be able to hold my own in chess when pitted against an expert, cook some delicious dishes for my loved ones ( I love myself most), exchange pleasantries with my german friends in German, serenade my wife while strumming a romantic tune on the guitar, etc.

I don't want to be the next Ronaldo ( Cristiano, the original, take your pick), become a Chess Grandmaster, work as a chef, discuss macroeconomics with a German professor, or be the next Carlos Santana. I don't want to be in the 1 %.

So what do I do? How do I become good, at many things?

To be good at something, is also, quite surprisingly, a heck lot better than most. This is one way to look at it. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible to be among the top 1 percentile. Getting into the top 5 however, is relatively easier, and lesser painful. Call me realistically optimistic, but that's pretty fine by me.

The problem is that when I go for glory or bust, and it does work for some, I end up not even pursuing whatever I want to shine at enough to become good at it. Which is why, I've resolved to explore my passions, and interests, and get pretty darn good at time. And if I find that one thing, that sweetest of all mangoes, and body, money and time willing, I might go in for the expert tag. Till that time, here is what I do.

The Master Plan

Follow Pareto's principle. Find the minimum effective Dose.

As so eloquently put and explained by Tim Ferriss ( I'm greatly inspired by that self-experimenting SOB, by the way), instead of the 10000 hours and 10 years, invest about 1 hour and lesser years. Find out the quickest way to become adept at something. Give it thought, and you will find patterns. Patters like these:

  • The English language, or most languages, are close to 500000 words. To be able to speak fluently, eloquently, and understand 95 % of what's being spoken, to be able to convey 95 % ( take the percentages with a grain of salt, it is to convey a point.) of what you mean to convey, you require just a 2500 word armoury. 
  • Cooking revolves around just a few basic techniques, and it take minimal effort to learn to be a decent cook, as compared to becoming a chef and churning out specials.
Study your interest. It may be kite flying, roller blading or parkour. Find out the minimum effective dose. Don't follow the usual set trail. Research, understand and plan your learning. You will find that there is not only an easier way to pick stuff up, which is great for your confidence at the start, you will also find that focussing on 20 % of tasks will provide you 80 % efficiency. Won't attempting to learn 2500 words be an easier target than to being perplexed and overwhelmed by the vagaries of the dangling modifier?
Your planning and observations and identification of the MED will lead you to accelerated learning, boosted confidence, and a good start. Having early wins is a great way to inculcate a habit, and this will ensure all the heavier stuff that might follow will be faced head on by you.

Commit to a small target

Make it a month. Resolve to learn that new thing for a month. Don't think about how god or bad you are, or about the insurmountable task at hand. Just resolve to keep at it for a month. Yes, you can't go shark diving ( I wish!) or jumping off a plane without a parachute ( orgasmic!) everyday, but I am talking about the most mundane and regular hobbies here. Learning to cook, play the guitar, losing fat, writing that book, etc.

Go public

Tell your friends ( the real ones). You post everything from your bowel movements to your brushing patterns on FB anyway, post the desire and the plan to learn that new thing, too. It leads to you being worried about not being able to do what you've declared. A lot. It leads you to be a lot more accountable, as you know that the secret stalker of yours, youe college crush, your degenerate friends ( those assholes!) are watching your every move and you'd better do what you so cooly declared! It is a great accountability tool, I've observed. And won't you rather talk about that when you do met your degenerate friends that how you suck at life?


Keeping track of what you've been upto for learning will be a great reminder and a motivator. You don't want to break your 5 day continuous streak, you feel proud to look at it. You feel mortified at the prospect of breaking that streak, you get things done. 

Well, that's about it! Let me know how this goes for you. If you have any specific quests you want to overcome, let me know and I'll try helping you with it. Have fun!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Awsume Inspiring :)