Occasionally I go to the gym with my kids and play a little basketball. I like to shoot free throws, because it’s less work than layups and I feel like I can do okay.
I’m not great. I make about 50% of my free throws.
One time I measured for a whole hour. I took 50 free throws, and of each 10-shot segment, made the following:
5, 5, 4, 6, 5.
So, yeah, pretty consistently about 50%.
Now, that was about 10 years ago.
Recently I went back to the gym, and took another set of 10 free throws. How many did I make this time? Any guesses?
If you guessed 5, you’re a winner! Take a bow.
Why didn’t I get any better?
Is it because I hadn’t tried? Well, no, I’d been shooting free throws every so often all along. I concentrated more, I was careful about how I bounced the ball, I tried to be consistent each time to replicate the exact same motion when I actually made one, etc.
Was it because I didn’t care? Well, no to that, too, because I did care. I wanted to be better at free throws.
So what was it?
I was determined to be better at free throws. And I was trying all along. What was the thing I was missing?
Turns out, I was missing the one key ingredient that’s necessary to get better at free throws. And, it’s the same thing that’s necessary to get better at anything.
You Can Get Better At Anything
It’s true. Anyone can improve anything. And it’s a surprisingly simple process.
That missing ingredient in my progression from 50% free throw shooting to 75% or more will not be reading articles or watching videos about improving my free throws.
I mean, I could spend all day there. How to get better at free throws returns “about 209,000,000 results”. Thanks, Google! Who’s got time for that?
How to get better at Relationships: About 801,000,000 results
How to get better at Data Science: About 3,740,000,000 results
There is no lack of advice available on any subject these days.
So what’s the problem? Why aren’t people actually getting better at the things they want to get better at?
I suspect it’s because they’re doing the wrong thing. They’re spending a lot of time on the “7 Simple Ways You Can Be a Better Partner” website, while missing the point.
It’s a lot simpler than 7 Ways to anything.
Most of these tips and tricks actually follow an identical model, and so it’s appropriate to discuss it here.
All of that wisdom uses the same 3-step model to improve, and if you actually follow those 3 steps, you won’t need 3.7 BILLION web pages to get better at Data Science. You won’t need to review hundreds of millions of articles to improve your relationships. You won’t be overwhelmed with conflicting ideas about keeping your elbow in or out during your free throws.
You will find yourself getting better because, you know, you’re actually getting better at whatever it is you want to improve.
So what are those 3 steps?
Pretty simple. And they apply to exercise, relationships, technical skills, soft skills, hobbies, and even your mindset. They are, in a particular order:
Self-Improvement Step 1: Determination
See, this isn’t usually the problem. Lots of people want to get better, so they commit to this step. They make a Resolution on New Year’s Day. They sign up at the gym, or they tell themselves they’re going to get fit for their high school reunion, or they sign up for an improv class because they’ve got this big presentation coming up in a couple of months and they want to learn how to be more spontaneous.
Determination is simply the commitment to getting better, and many people have this in spades. I don’t see this as much of a problem.
Self-Improvement Step 2: Practice
You will not get better at anything unless you actually, you know, work at getting better at it. Having problems with foul shots? Maybe you need to take some more foul shots. Reading “These 7 Tips Will Correct Your Foul Shot Mistakes” won’t do it. Watching old clips of Michael Jordan shooting with his eyes closed won’t do it.
The only thing that WILL do it is actually, you know, going out to the free throw line and taking a few shots. Then taking a few more. And a few more. And a few more. And a few more. [Do you see the pattern?]
This is where quite a few people fall off the wagon. They think that having a determination to get better at something is enough. “I’m going to lose weight,” they say, but they don’t actually do anything to practice better eating habits or improve their exercise regiment. “I’m going to be more vulnerable in my communications,” they think, but then they never actually talk about anything other than superficial subjects.
And they wonder why they never get better.
Those that continue with Practice, however, will soon realize that it’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition for achieving those goals. They need to advance to Step 3.
Self-Improvement Step 3: Feedback
At some point you need to stop and say, “Am I getting better?” If you don’t know, then you’re probably not actually getting better. If you don’t know, it’s because you don’t have any feedback to your process.
Feedback comes in many forms. It’s the tracking calendar I hung on my wall to record my weight every couple of days. It’s the # of free throws you hit last week in practice. It’s how fast your simulations ran this month compared to last month; are you refining your code enough? If not, then your numbers aren’t going to go up at all. If you don’t know, why are you bothering to have Determination and Practice anyway?
The problem with having Determination and Practice without Feedback is that instead of improving, you’re more likely to be further ingraining the bad habits you started with.
Those 3 steps –Determination, Practice, and Feedback, are the only 3 steps that anyone needs to get get better at anything.
If you want to get better at relationships, or running, or data science, then you need to make a decision to get better; you need to try to get better; and you need feedback about whether or not you’re actually getting better.
What Are You Determined to Improve?
There’s a lot of hue and cry these days that “analytics professionals don’t have good communication skills.” Well, duh. That’s just about as useful as a weatherman who says, “Hey, there was a tornado here about an hour ago!” Yeah, it might be descriptive. But does it actually intervene to solve the problem?
So what? What are you doing with that?
It’s not enough to just claim that professionals don’t have the communication skills they need.
It’s necessary that they improve those skills, too. Which will take 3 steps (and, truly, only 3 steps):
I can’t help you with 2 of those.
The Determination, and the Practice, are all on you.
The Feedback, though, that I can do.
I can help you see where your narrative falls short and doesn’t create an impact.
Where your jargon overwhelms.
Where your explanations are too wordy, and leave the audience confused as to what you really mean.
Whether your calls to action are clear and direct or not.
If you’re not interested in communication skills, but need to improve your running speed, don’t hire me. Hire a running coach.
She’ll tell you that you’re overpronating, so you need to get some different shoes. She’ll point out that you’ve got to relax your shoulders so that you don’t waste so much energy in the first five miles. She’ll help you review your practice to see what works and what doesn’t. She’ll analyze your nutrition log in conjunction with your training log
That’s all feedback, and it’s the only part of the process that’s external to you. You need an outside opinion because, when you’re in a jar of your own problems, you can’t read the label that tells you what they are.
You need an external opinion.
Which means it’s the part that you can’t do yourself, and requires an outsider’s opinion.
Everything else is on you.
You Can Get There
You’ve got the determination. And the practice. Which encompass all of the myriad pieces of advice in all those articles above (8 simple steps to financial freedom or whatever).
You just need that last little step.
The point is, feedback is essential to the process.
I admit, feedback doesn’t have to be a coach. You can do plenty on your own. You can design your own tracking system and measure some parts yourself. Want to get better at free throws? Well, practice free throws, measure how many you make, and then practice again. Want to write better code? Write a lot of different code and see which compiles fastest.
But unless you have some way to determine just what the problem is (which, again, is unlikely without an external perspective), you’re most likely going to be reinforcing whatever bad habits and practices you’re doing from the start.
So that’s where it takes an outside eye to help you see what the problem is and how you can fix it.
After that, you’re back to square one: more Determination, more Practice, and, yes, more Feedback.
In the end, it’s on you.
You can do it. I believe in you.
If you’d like to learn more about communication coaching (i.e. my feedback on how to improve your written communication skills), send me a note. Curious about how I could help your whole team in a one-day workshop? Check out It’s Not About The Data: The Other Half Of Communications on my Services page.