How to become great at anything

Practice won't help unless it's the right kind of practice
Eric Goodwin

How do you become great at anything?


Okay before you roll your eyes and leave the article because I’m sure you’ve heard this 1,000 times already, I want to tell you that practice will not make you great at something, but the right kind of practice will.

There is a theory called the 10,000 hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers (great read) - where the basis is that if you practice something for 10,000 hours you will become great at it. This isn’t true (thus why Outliers is a book and not a sentence) but all too often people apply this sentence out of context, become discouraged by how many hours that is, and give up. Or worse yet they attempt to apply this rule not knowing that simply doing something for 10,000 hours won’t necessarily make you great at it.

Let’s say the average person cooks for 1 hour per day starting at age 20. To get to 10,000 hours of practice at 1 hour per day would take about 27 years. So blindly following this “rule” would mean that nearly everyone over the age of 47 would be world class chefs.

You might say that 1 hour per day isn’t frequent enough practice, so let’s go a step further. If you work full time as a chef at an average of 40 hours per week and 50 weeks per year - you would knock out 10,000 hours in approximately 5 years. That would mean that if you started working as a cook in a restaurant at the age of 20, by the time you were 25 you would be a world class chef.

Now of course neither of the situations above are guaranteed to yield world class chefs, and yet everyone agrees that to become great at something you must practice. So what is it? Is it just some god-given talent that few possess while the rest of us stand by and watch? No. It’s the kind of practice.

In order to become great at something you must balance two opposing forces. On one hand you have to feel accomplished and proud of what you have made (or done), while at the same time striving to do it better. Too much of either will wreck the equation and doom you to mediocrity.

If you feel too proud of what you have accomplished then there is simply no drive to improve and get better. If you’re happy with where you’re at no need to improve right? But if all you can see is a failed attempt and the various flaws you’ll become discouraged and give up. Either path leads to not becoming great at something, it requires balance.

So how do you balance those to opposing ideals? Well there’s no magic bullet, each person is different and will lean towards one side or the other, but here is a key tip to help:

Exhibition Matches

Definition: An exhibition game is a sporting event whose prize money and impact on the player's or the team's rankings is either zero or otherwise greatly reduced.

To sum it up an exhibition match is a low stakes game that sits between a game for fun and a professional match. It’s not necessarily for fun, but the outcome won’t change your pay or affect your career in any meaningful way. You are trying your hardest but with low consequences.

This is a huge trick, figurative exhibition matches are how you become great at something, especially anything creative. They push you to improve, but you aren’t afraid of the consequences. Essentially you’re practicing in front of friendly audiences and low stakes crowds.

So if you want to become great at something, try figurative exhibition matches. Post your work on social channels to friends, make something for your friends or family, or try something and share it with your existing fans. A common method for this in the creative industry is a “spec project”. It could be a logo, an ad, a video, a photo project, etc. where you create something using your own funds simply for practice. Say you’re a filmmaker, a “spec project” could be creating an ad for Nike using your own funds and sharing it with your fans on social media. This isn’t for money (since it’s very unlikely Nike will ever purchase a spec ad) it’s for practice, it’s an exhibition match.

We recently did a sort of ‘exhibition match’ where we gave our newsletter subscribers access to a special project: Lathley Wallpapers - For us it’s just a fun project and an opportunity to practice our design, web development, photography, etc. And while we’re trying very hard, it’s a low stakes game because we’re giving it away for free to our fans. It has high enough stakes that we don’t want to embarrass ourselves (our newsletter does have thousands of subscribers after all) but it’s low enough stakes that bombing wouldn’t make us want to give up. It’s a way for us to practice so that when those high stakes games come up, like launching a new product, working on a big collaboration, or pitching for seed funding, we have the right kind of practice under our belt.

So if you want to become great at anything, set up some high effort/low stakes exhibition matches - and get the right kind of practice in.