Back when I was about 7 or 8 years old, my uncle decided that I was old enough to finally learn how to shoot a gun. So, he grabbed an old 30-06 he had, iron sights and all and we went outside for my first training session. I was exited to learn how to work a gun, but at the same time I was kind of annoyed that he picked the old 30-06 over one of his more interesting guns, that had red-dot sights, scopes, were semi-auto and looked more “military”. When I voiced my displeasure to him, he responded with “Son, you couldn’t hit the broad-side of a barn from 3 feet, you have to master the basics first”. What followed were a lot of sessions where I learned gun safety, we practiced trigger pulls, handling recoil, aiming, loading, unloading and a lot of other basic skills. I did eventually get to fire the guns that I found the most exiting, but I learned the most mastering the basics with that old rifle.
Like many men, I’m a bit of an equipment geek when it comes to my hobbies, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that the underlying principle that my uncle told me when I was a kid holds true for most of it. Master the basics, in simple manageable steps first, then you can move on to more advanced equipment and techniques. A simple example would be that before you can handle the recoil of semi-automatic fire, you need to learn how to handle the recoil of single-shot fire.
I found myself thinking of this after having a conversation in a gym not far from my hotel with a gentleman who was there for the first time. The guy had obviously done his research, because because when we started talking training he started mentioning super-sets, drop-sets, breaking down into body-part splits, isolation movements and the likes. The trouble was that he didn’t know the difference between a deadlift and a dead-hang pullup. He had done all his research, read up on a ton of different routines, and made the error of thinking that making something complex would ensure progress.
This made me think about the 3 stages of self-improvement that I devised a while ago and that I use as a short-hand roadmap for any change process. This is based on the fact that in the beginning just making small, simple improvements will get you great results, but diminishing returns kick in and over time you have to dial in your skillset more and more in order to improve further. In essence, this is about going from the big picture all the way down to little details over time.
A Little Goes a Long Way
When you first start out any form of self-improvement in an area where you have very little familiarity or background, or when you’re returning to it after a long period of absence, a little goes a long way. If you’ve never fired a gun before, never fished or never lifting weights, just getting out there and doing something related to that pursuit will garner you quite a bit of progress. This progress is often fast as well.
For instance, if you’ve never lifted weights before, getting in the gym 2 – 3 times a week and doing compound lifts with correct form will get you a lot of progress very quickly thanks to “Newbie gains”. If you’re learning how to cook, learning correct use of temperature and salt will improve your cooking skills very quickly. However, a major problem that I see with many men is the desire to skip the newbie stage completely, and usually they do this either by jumping straight to advanced methods and practices or buying a lot of unnecessary equipment.
This is the guy who has never fished before, who buys a full set of professional deep-sea fishing equipment, then buys a boat to head out to do deep-sea fishing, before he considers tying a rope to a stick, putting a hook on it and testing it out in the pond behind his house. Alternatively, it’s the guy who is sitting at 300 lbs, who could drop a ton of weight by just tracking calories and eating 500 calories less than he burns every day, who is deeply into nutrient timing, the effect of different macro-nutrients on hormones, and who is obsessing about the 3 grams of trace carbs in his protein powder instead of the 700 calories in his triple-pump latte.
What these men have in common is leaving a lot of progress on the table because they are obsessing about things that are important but not for them. It’s the guy who struggles with microwaving hot-pockets obsessing about correct plating technique, as a result he never really improves his skill at the craft. He builds a huge gap between the knowledge that he has in theory, and his ability to demonstrate it in practice.
Perhaps the best example of mastering the basics is that a Japanese sushi chef spends the first 7 years of his apprenticeship just making rice.
If you master your basics, you start to notice that your skill is improving slower and it takes a lot of practice in order to get very little improvement. At this point, you need to tighten up your practice in order to maintain progression. You’ve moved on to the deliberate practice stage so to speak, where it’s no longer enough just to do the basics, because you’ve improved them to a level where just doing them doesn’t help you. If you’ve mastered temperature and salt use in cooking, doing that over and over again does not make you a better cook.
This is when it becomes time to change something up, it doesn’t have to be a major thing just doing something to add a bit of extra complexity. When I learned how to shoot it involved moving from just trying to hit the target, to trying to group my shots, shooting at different distances, and from different vantages to become a more adaptable marksman. When dialing in your diet it may involves watching macro-nutrients in addition to calories. When it’s related to personal finance, it may move from just making sure you are saving a set amount every month, to researching different rates of return in different banks on saving accounts.
If you mastered the basics first, this should give you an added level of challenge where you have to think about doing something again. I’ve always thought that developing a skill means training yourself to do a lot of things automatically so that you free up mental and physical resources and thus you are able to do more. Think back to when you learned how to drive, in the beginning you had to think consciously about hitting turn signals, doing 3 point turns, and shifting gears, after a while you do that automatically. If you’ve been driving for a few years, and you go from automatic to stick, or stick to automatic it takes you a minute you adjust but it’s much faster than it was when you first learned how to drive.
Dialing it In
Once you move beyond the intermediate stage, the level of detail increases at this point you have to maintain the skills and abilities you developed in the preceding two stages and add degrees of complexity to them. At this point progress often becomes unbearably slow, but you’ve also developed a pretty high level of skill and find yourself facing increasingly harsh diminishing returns. While a beginner at weight lifting can double or in some cases even triple or quadruple how much weight he is able to lift in a year, many advanced lifters have to work for months to add a few lbs to a major lift.
An alternative example is the guy who has dialed in his personal finances to the point where he’s got tight control over his spending, he saves and invests a set amount every month, and he has built enough personal wealth to start thinking about tax implications, creative personal accounting, diversification and risk profiles. When you reach this stage you will be mired in many small details and you have to constantly keep track of a lot of small variables and the big picture.
At this point you’ve automated most of the basics, to the point where even if you don’t practice for a while you can quickly get back to a similar skill level provided your lay-off wasn’t extreme. Another thing is that, while it’s possible to be in the intermediate stage for a lot of different things, it becomes very difficult to reach this level in all but a few areas of life, the fixed amount of time we all have available to us simply will not allow for it.
Summary and Conclusions
The three stages viewed as one long narrative starts off with the guy who has never fired a gun before who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from three feet, to the accomplished marksman who is able to hit a 2 inch target from a mile away. A lot of guys want to be the man who hits the target from a mile away, but they want to get there fast with a minimal investment. Thus, in their reasoning they figure that if the learn all the theory, and buy the right equipment this will boost them ahead of the curve. The fact of the matter is that very few people are capable of achieving a very high level of performance across multiple, unrelated domains. However, the illusion of that you can is what drives many people to become average or below average at a lot of things. This is why people who are able to do this are often viewed with a sense of awe.
There are always outliers who have an extreme level of talent in a given pursuit who are able to learn much faster than everyone else. The guy who is able to just pick up an instrument and play it, the guy who intuitively “gets” how math works, or the guy who walks into a gym and can deadlift 300 lbs. However, this is not most of us. It often becomes an on-going theme within communities of people pursuing similar goals, that over time you get a population of newbies, intermediates and advanced participants who all have different needs. People like to think they are more advanced than they are, or think that they can skip basics because they have ingested the experience of others who have already gone through them, but this results in a knowledge-practice gap.
One of the reasons why being a good teacher is very difficult is that even if you deliberately practice, there are things you pick up that you aren’t aware you picked up or even do. You can tell someone what you did consciously, but not various other things that you are not aware of doing. This is why if you’re trying to learn game from a “natural” you are better off observing them than having them tell you what they do. This is a practice-knowledge gap.
Both gaps are amazingly interesting to study, because in the case of a knowledge-practice gap, a persons knowledge of something is much greater than their ability to put it into practice. Which is the case with a guy who has read a muscle magazine for 10 years but haven’t lifted a weight in his life. In the case of a practice-knowledge gap, a person’s ability to put something into practice is much greater than their knowledge of why it works. So, on one hand you have a guy talking about the effect of using 3 x 12 rep scheme with 88,3 second rest pauses using a 3-1-2 tempo with chains on sacroplasmic and myofibrillar hyperthrophy in a non-optimal hormone setting on a diet consisting of 32% protein, 28% fat, and 40% carbs while supplementing with 104 micrograms of T-Rex growth hormone, who doesn’t know the difference between a dumbell and a dumbass. On the other hand you have a guy telling everyone “just do your squats and drink 2 gallons of whole milk every day” regardless of he’s dealing with someone who has 80% body fat or 3% body fat.
The key is a balance between what you know, and what you can do. Mastery is knowing what to do, when to do it, be able to do it and knowing why it works.