Model to motivate putting in the effort to get good at something

April 17, 2013 by Joshua
in Models, Visualization

[Today is the sixteenth in a series on daily and weekly beliefs that improve my life and may improve yours, in no particular order. See the introduction to the series and the value of flexibility in beliefs for background.]

Today’s model is a simple picture that illustrates the difficulty in getting good at a complex skill. It motivates me to put in the effort to get good at something and prepares me for the challenges.

A model for how hard it is to get good at something

This graph illustrates how hard I think getting good at something is. It shows that before you put significant effort into learning a new skill, it doesn’t create any difficulty in your life.

Difficulty with effort

As you put in more effort, that skill creates more and more difficulty in your life.

Consider, for example, if you want to improve your public speaking. Before you try to improve, you don’t speak in public, so it doesn’t cause any difficulty. As you start to put in effort, it makes your life harder — you speak in front of more people, you try techniques that risk making you look silly, you realize nuances you didn’t know before that you’re doing wrong, and so on.

While you’re still ramping up, more effort makes your life more difficult. It doesn’t seem worth it. Except for that cusp. After that cusp, more effort makes you life easier.

Reaching that cusp doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve mastered the skill, but once you reach it, you tend to want to practice that activity more instead of less. So reaching mastery from there is like rolling downhill.

For example, think of people you know who find playing a musical instrument relaxing. For them to improve is easy since they like it. They are past the cusp. My music lessons growing up never got me to the cusp, so I never took to playing. I was always going uphill. On the other hand, learning math and physics got me over the cusp somewhere in college, so that I liked working on those problems.

Same with sports. When I first starting playing ultimate, my skills weren’t great. I enjoyed playing, but it was hard to improve. I wasn’t a complete player, so playing better only exposed other weaknesses. If I did improve, it didn’t stick. After I reached a certain level, improvements got me more playing time and I enjoyed improving more.

Same with romantic relationships. When you first meet someone, you are nervous to share things about yourself. It’s scary risking rejection. After you share a certain amount you pass that cusp and you find yourself wanting to share things you haven’t before. Then you want to put in more effort.

Same with getting in shape. If you don’t try, no problem. Once you start trying it gets harder—you newly have to pay attention to what you eat, you have to exercise when you didn’t before, people might suggest you can’t do it, you have to work before you see results. The cusp may come when you start seeing definition you didn’t before, or people start to compliment you, or you start enjoying what you eat more, etc. Then you enjoy working harder at it, or cooking with more fresh fruits and vegetables, or whatever made things easier and more enjoyable for you.

When I use this belief

I use this belief when I’m on the left side of the cusp learning a skill. It makes me feel calm about how things keep getting more difficult because I expect it and it motivates me to get over the cusp, because then I know the skill or activity will make my life easier and more fun.

What this belief replaces

This belief replaces feelings of frustration that come when trying to learn something hard with the expectation that it will get easier. Not just easier later, but increasingly easier.

Where this belief leads

This belief leads to putting in the effort to get good at challenging skills and enjoying the process more.

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6 responses on “Model to motivate putting in the effort to get good at something

  1. A powerful powerful article that was immediately useful to me.
    From now on I will replace that feeling of helplessness with “x miles to the ‘peak'”.
    Thanks for this very informative and useful blog.

    • Exactly!

      Thank you. Feedback like yours helps me keep it up.

      (By the way, the image was created using all Free Software — Libreoffice and Gimp on Mint).

  2. Hey Joshua,

    This is a very interesting way to conceptualize the curve of learning a complex skill. In comparison, I guess the learning curve of a somewhat simple skill (ex: play tetris) would be a straight line going up gradually. It almost feels like they are two very different process when you picture it on a graph. What do you think?

    I also think it’s really interesting that the horizontal axis is called “effort” and not “time spent learning” on your graph, because it suggests that even when it becomes easier to keep practicing than to stop doing it, after the cusp, it’s still perceived as an effort and not exactly a walk in the park where time just goes by. I like to believe that you can always improve if you keep challenging yourself, no matter what the skill is.

    Good job on a very well-designed graph!

    • Thanks!

      I think the existence of that cusp is what makes something complex versus simple, though I haven’t thought it through in detail. Tetris has more of an addictive quality that motivates playing. The speed of the game increases, but the difficulty to the player seems the same. It’s just faster, not more complex. Getting past the cusp playing piano means you’ve incorporated other things into it — emotion, performance skills, understanding the music, etc. You don’t just play faster. I haven’t thought through the challenge of learning simple skills as much because they don’t bring as much reward.

      I made the horizontal axis effort because if you don’t practice for a while without getting past the cusp, you move back to the left again — that is, effort from a year ago counts less than effort today, like it decays. So if you haven’t made it over the cusp and don’t practice, you regress.

      If you pass cusp, even when you don’t practice, other things in life contribute to your ability with the skill. Say you get past the cusp on playing piano. Even if you don’t practice, you think about it because it’s rewarding to. So when you hear someone play the piano or even another instrument, you think of how you would incorporate what you hear into your playing. If you haven’t passed the cusp, I don’t think you learn as much from others without practicing too.

      I guess time spent learning could work too, but I’d call it discounted time spent learning. Maybe I’m also thinking of discounted effort. If I were graphing something in physics I’d get the details right, but this graph is just schematic.

      Thanks for the comment and thinking through the post.

  3. Ive only read this far and its a very good article but when you said,”more effort makes you life easier.”You put you instead of your

  4. Pingback: Magic Trick Skill Levels Vs. Effort Levels

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