Skill Acquisition/Learning [3]

TEDxOaklandUniveristy talk by Barbara Oakley titled “Learning how to learn”

Barbara introduces the concept of interchanging mental states (i.e. focused and diffuse modes) to obtain the insight of how to solve a problem. In short, to learn and to discover we need to allow thoughts to migrate through our brain, from thoughts that are known to us, to new thoughts allowing for integration and synthesis to occur.

There are two corollaries to this process:

  1. Remaining in the focused mode, trying to focus harder and longer, in an attempt to force a solution… is neither effective nor efficient;
  2. Remaining in the diffuse mode and allowing thoughts to simply meander without end point, without application, without experimentation… is equally unproductive.

The operational process for learning is thru a change of state: from focused to diffuse, diffuse to focused, back and forth. To become proficient at this process, it starts by understanding what these two states are, realizing what it is like to be in each state, learning how to enter and exit each state, and then developing the ability to move freely between the two states, both psychologically and physiologically.

If delivering at a higher level is seen as a knowledge issue, as opposed to a lack of strength, endurance, speed, then the solution is in gaining understanding, awareness, then skill, then proficiency in how to generate greater strength, endurance and/or speed.

If performance – be it academic or athletic or artistic – is seen as a problem that needs to be solved through learning, instead of beating, forcing, threatening, coercion, or any other perverse incentive or manipulation technique then a deliberate process of hypotheses, experimentation followed by meditative reflection can be used to identify solutions.

The issue at stake is not whether we have or will have problems, the issue is how we perceive those problems and how we go about solving them.  If we solve problems in an engaging manner labeling them as solvable challenges as opposed to systemic dead-ends arising from a ‘lack’ in (e.g.) talent, motivation, toughness, or physical potential then we can take athletes to far higher levels than could otherwise by achieved trying to drive them harder and harder.

Training harder and harder works to a point, but only to a certain point, a point beyond which the athlete blows up: injured, burnt out, or maxed out. A point beyond which the coach and athlete are forced to believe that they are incapable of moving beyond, because of a lack of talent, of innate ability, of genetic predisposition, of systemic weakness or other excuse. The fact that harder training has no other end result except a blow up or blow out indicates that this mindset to training is unhealthy, both psychologically and physiologically. It is should not be considered training, as it is nothing more than gambling with the athlete’s state of health.

Training harder and harder generates a negative feedback loop: training hard risks with each session blowing up the athlete, but to progress, the belief must be held that harder and harder must be endured for it is the only path to their potential. This is not training, its a form of self punishment stemming from a belief that you aren’t enough to begin, arising from a mindset of lack and insufficiency, and that to become ‘enough’ requires enduring pain and suffering.

Training hard is ignorant training. It may be physically taxing, even abusive, but because it neglects mental and emotional training it avoids true training: addressing what is imagined as impossible, re-envisioning it as possible, then training as if the goal is already achieved (because in the minds eye it already is).  Training hard is ignorant training because it is uni-dimensional, because it believes that peak performance is a competition of brute force, of sheer strength, of desire and willpower. Hard training believes that the athlete willing to hurt the most, wins. No, the athlete willing to hurt the most, doesn’t win, they hurt themselves over and over, come to believe that hurting is how they are to live, and continue to hurt, long after their days of training and competition only to later wonder why they are hurt, battered and broken.

Training hard depends exclusively on a focused mindset, refusing to acknowledge that a diffuse mindset is required to bring balance into training, into life.

Consistent peak performers in sport are not known for the amount of pain they endured, they are known for changing the rules of the game, for changing the dynamics of game play, for zooming out and seeing the sport in a new way, and then zooming in, executing skills and strategies in a never seen before manner which takes them flying by their competition. Consistent peak performers are known for flowing between diffuse and focused states.

Athletes stuck in one extreme – diffuse or focused – punish themselves in and out of both training and competition and fail to achieve their true potential.

Athletes who learn how to flow between extremes, imagine, innovate, create, all the while enjoying the process as they discover their true peak potential in an healthy self respecting manner.

What do you want? To experience your true peak potential, or a tshirt which states “PR or ER“?