He may be an American hero and the first man to break the sound barrier, but years agoChuck Yeager sent me on the wrong path.
Okay, maybe it was my fault.I read Chuck's autobiography and somehow came away with the (hey, I was young) impression that great pilots become great pilots by taking great risks: Superior skills could only be acquired by constantly pushing the envelope, intentionally crossing the line between control and potential disaster and reeling it back in....
So I assumed becoming not just a good but a great motorcycle racer required taking great risks. Hey, I figured, just ride WFO and by hanging it out over the edge and pulling it back in enough times time I would either become a great rider or...
I tried not to think about the "or."
Eventually -- way longer than it should have taken -- I was forced to think about the "or" and realize guts had nothing to do with going fast. Maybe it was riding for another hour with (as I later discovered) two broken wrists. Or maybe it was touching an unpadded knee to the pavement at 120 mph and seeing stark visual proof that a kneecap is a bone.
Or maybe it was when I realized I didn't think of crashing as an "if" but as a "when."
I never became a great racer, but I did learn what most successful people -- in any field -- already know: Bravery isn't a requirement for accomplishment. Talented, highly skilled people don’t take big risks, yet they still manage to accomplish big things.
How? They prepare. They train. They constantly experiment and adapt and refine, refine, refine. Successful people gain superior skills not by breaking through the envelope but by approaching and then slowly, incrementally expanding the boundaries of the envelope.
The key to improvement is making small, smart changes, evaluating the results, discarding what doesn’t work, and further refining what does work. When you constantly modify and refine something you already do well, you can do it even better.
Say you want to improve a certain skill. Here are simple techniques:
Go a lot faster.Force yourself to go much faster than normal. You'll screw up, and in the process you'll adapt and find new improvements.
Go a lot slower. Force yourself to go slower and you’ll identify techniques or strategies that hold you back. Plus you can experiment with new techniques that aren’t apparent at normal speed.
Break a complex task into smaller parts. Almost every task includes a series of discrete steps. Pick one step, deconstruct it, master it... then put the whole task back together. Then choose another component part to deconstruct. Incrementally improve enough steps and the overall improvement can be huge.
Measure differently. Pick a different measurement than you normally use to analyze your performance. Measure speed instead of accuracy, for example. Or use video or audio for feedback. (Watching yourself isn't particularly fun but you'll quickly see you a number of things you never realized you could do differently.)
Practice perfectly. Focus on performing a task as well as you possibly can. When you try to do your best even the smallest mistakes are obvious. Then you can learn from those mistakes, adapting and modifying your techniques so you constantly, even if only incrementally, improve.
You can extend this to almost anything. Whether it's a physical task, making sales calls, giving presentations, managing employees, conducting interviews... any task can be performed more effectively and efficiently.
Don’t just push the envelope until it breaks... or until it breaks you. Tweak, refine, and reinvent a skill that you already perform well... with a little time and a lot of focus, you'll perform incredibly well.