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IT is a cliché as old as time that you must fail before you can succeed. Business people lunch out on that, teachers don't do it enough and sports trainers must have counselled this many times before the coming of the present cauldron-less Olympics. Practise makes perfect sense but not if you're unaware of what you do. You must learn where you fail and aim consciously to make amends.
This is an aphorism as true in writing as in sports or in other areas of expertise which we often attribute to inherent skills -- oh the marvels of gifted children -- and then think no more of that. In fact it is in the nature of human learning that once we acquire a skill we start to think no more of it, so we leave things to go as best it possibly can on auto-pilot.
Take a simple thing like throwing a ball into a hoop. A child will probably have a go at it with face screwed up in heavy concentration and then throws the ball a few inches short. And then he tries again with more effort to give the ball an extra lift and then voila, after a few more tries, the ball goes into the hoop.
The child becomes good at it, something of an expert, so he thinks no more of it when he plays in a team. Just take the ball and throw it as the body remembers the routine and chuck it into the hoop without any more thought. You need to practise of course to become adept, so he spends hours, days, months practising because someone once told him that practise makes perfect.
Nathan Milstein was a famous virtuoso violinist. At one stage of his career he became worried because others around him were practising all day long and he thought he wasn't doing enough. When he approached his mentor, this was the answer he got: "It really doesn't matter how long.
"If you practise with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practise with your head, two hours is plenty."
"Practise as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration," was Milstein's advice to budding violinists.
This story was cited by Anders Ericsson, an eminent psychologist at the Florida State University at Tallahassee and one of the world's leading researchers on expertise. To excel in an area of work or sport one needs to learn and re-learn and in that latter work is the key: people succeed when they have learnt how to learn.
People who are gifted have learnt long before everyone else that there are ways of acquiring skills than just mere practise. This is how the "gifted" acquired their gift and so convinced are those who have studied them of this facet of learning that they are saying now that even charisma can be taught.
All those born with skills became virtuosos through motivated self-coaching.
In other words, they became good because they discovered early enough the short cuts to success or they had good teachers at different stages to help them develop. This applies to every genius in every field, Bobby Fischer or Tiger Wood or Mozart. Mozart grew up in a musical background, his father was a skilled composer and teacher. "Like other world-class performers, Mozart was not born an expert -- he became one," say Ericsson and his fellow researchers.
Take Benjamin Franklin, another example mentioned by Ericsson et al in an article in the Harvard Business review. When Franklin wanted to learn how to write well, not only did he read articles in his favourite magazine, the British Spectator, but he also had them thoroughly analysed in his head. He reconstructed the arguments and he re-wrote the article in rhyming verse and then put it back in prose.
We all learned that way once. Two psychologists in the 1960s, Paul Fitts and Michael Posner called this stage of conscious learning the "cognitive stage". Once we've acquired the skills we relegate everything to our "instinct" and let our body do what we have acquired automatically. People who become experts never really leave that cognitive stage. They continue to learn and they are constantly aware that they have to learn consciously to do it right.
JO-HANN IS ONLY NINE and he has emailed me (through his mother) to ask re last week's multi-tasking if he should now stop "eating and reading, reading while in the toilet and walking and talking".
Oh dear Jo-Hann wouldn't life be duller if we all stopped doing all that?
Multi-tasking the way I meant it was doing two or three or more things at once that required your undivided focus. We all do many things at once in our daily life, like listening to the radio while ironing, but I wouldn't ask your mum to iron your most expensive silk shirt while she's listening to her favourite soap. I think this relates to what I have written above: that to do things well you must give your utmost and you must be aware of where you're at.