A top psychologist reveals his best advice for getting better at any skill

You might have all the drive in the world, but if you don’t have an experienced eye to monitor your progress, you may never achieve your goals.

Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson dropped that knowledge bomb in a recent Heleo Conversation with motivation expert Daniel Pink. The two men were discussing the ways people achieve mastery.

According to Ericsson, the prescription is clear: “Find a teacher who has trained individuals like yourself to achieve the level of performance that you want to achieve.”

That’s how you turn aimless, disorganized practice sessions into much more effective sessions of “deliberate practice.”

A product of Ericsson’s own research, deliberate practice involves constantly pushing yourself beyond what you’re capable of to attain new levels of proficiency. Teachers help you maximise the benefits of deliberate practice by constantly nudging you in the right direction.

Even in our DIY era of YouTube tutorials, Ericsson’s research finds immense value in getting outside opinions. Without a teacher, you might top out in skill level. You can only self-correct your errors for so long until you find yourself in unknown territory, simply because you lack the experience of a seasoned outside observer. The value of the coach lies in their wisdom about where you still need to go.

Imagine you’re a basketball player.

Calmly hitting three-pointers from your sweet spot might feel great, but to be a well-rounded shooter, you also need to fire jumpers from around the basket, hone your shots off-the-dribble, and practice driving the lane. Ideally, Ericsson says, you’ll find the coach as early as possible so you don’t develop bad habits in these areas that need undoing years down the line.

“If you start with a teacher who helps you acquire the correct fundamentals, that seems to be a critical factor,” he explains. “I know a lot of coaches who would say it takes a couple of years for them to just change what you’re doing so you will actually have the right fundamentals to build on.”

Often, that element of oversight is what separates the hobbyist from the expert.

The person who is learning to play the trumpet on their own will always have more trouble spotting errors than the person who has the luxury of a teacher, because the self-taught musician is forced to pull double duty. While they’re playing, they must also analyse their performance. The student, meanwhile, can wait until they finish to receive feedback.

“You can see how somebody’s performance changes,” Ericsson says. “Two weeks ago they couldn’t do this, but now they can. This gradually builds up, and eventually, with the right teacher, allows you to reach very high levels of performance.”

So the next time you’re thinking of taking up a new skill, swallow your pride. Find a teacher right away.

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