Learning Any Skill 2x as Fast in Half the Time: Making Greatness, Pt. 2

by Alexander Heyne · 8 comments

<Note: This is part 2 of a three part series.  The first part can be found here.>

“Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities.”

-Oscar Wilde

The Down and Dirty: Part 2.

In the first part of this post, the discussion was exclusively on the principles of Deliberate Practice as found in the book Talent is Overrated and other sources.

This time, we’re going to talk about the following two aspects of skill learning:

A. The Learning Curve (Staying in Flow)

B. Avoiding Automation in Training Via Intention

The Flow of the Learning Curve

In my opinion, one of the most valuable contributions the book Flow gives us is the diagram on page 74.  Csikszentmihalyi describes the life cycle inherent to maintaining flow.  If you forgot, his research concluded that [time spent in] flow is one of the greatest predictors of how quickly you advance at a skill, and how much you enjoy it. 

So, take a look at the diagram to the right for a moment. Phase A1 represents the starting phases of a new skill (again we’ll use tennis as the example).

In phase A1 you are in Flow.  Hitting the ball over the net is not very difficult, so it’s likely to be enjoyable for a period of time.

But you cannot stay at that level for long.

After awhile, as your skills naturally improve you’ll get bored just hitting the ball over the net, and enter A2. Or, you meet a much more skilled opponent or task which makes you enter A3, a state of anxiety.

Neither boredom nor anxiety are enjoyable states to be in, so you’ll try to get back to the flow state.  How do you enter flow this time? By increasing your skills.

A1 and A4, however, are not the same state even though both are in the flow state. As Dr. C specifically states:

“The diagram shows that both A1 and A4 represent situations in which [a person] is in flow.  Although both are equally enjoyable, the two states are quite different in that A4 is a more complex experience than A1.  It is more complex because it involves greater challenges, and demands greater skills from the player” (P. 75)


A4 is also not a stable state.  You may think that once you’ve entered flow you can just stay there, that it’s static. Unfortunately that’s not the case.  As you keep playing tennis you’ll either get bored by the current challenges, or frustrated by your lower level of ability versus someone else.

And then what? The motivation to enjoy yourself again will push you once more to get back into flow, and this time it will be at a state even beyond A4.

“It is this dynamic feature that explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery.  One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long.  We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourself again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.”

You cannot grow stale.  The only way to reach higher states of complexity, enjoyment, and skill is to constantly push oneself to new levels.

Maintaining a balance between a task that is “too difficult” and “too easy” is one of the keys to constant, continual improvement when learning a skill.  That is equally true for sports as well as things like weight lifting, improving flexibility, playing the piano etc.

 Avoiding Automation

If there were one phrase to help you remember the principles here, in learning a new skill, it would be the following set of words: Be mindful.  Use Intention.  Avoid Automaticity.

There is one major reason why being mindful when you use a new skill is so important: A. You will be aware of whether or not you have fallen into the A2 A3 boredom anxiety states, and B. You will know how to tweak your performance to improve it.

For example: You’re practicing serving, but can’t get the ball over the net.

  • On Automatic (not mindful): You keep trying. You hit harder, you get more focused, you get more angry, you get frustrated.  You don’t know what is wrong.
  • Not on Automatic (mindful): You hit the ball 5 times.  It doesn’t go over.  You tweak your grip on the racket 45*, and try again.  3/5 Make it over.  You focus your intent on hitting the ball at it’s highest point on your serve, when your body is most stretched out. 5/5 Get over. You are feeling inside your body while serving.  Your intention is inside your serve.  Your head is in the game.
Geoffrey Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated talks about the paradox of automaticity:
“Frequently, when we see great performers doing what they do, it strikes us that they’ve practiced for so long, and done it so many times, they can just do it automatically. But in fact, what they have achieved is the ability to avoid doing it automatically.  Great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested development stage in their chosen field.  That is the effect of continuous deliberate practice — avoiding automaticity.” (Emphasis mine)

This, I think, is one of the most rewarding, and remarkable statements I have ever stumbled upon.

Put yourself into the skill you are learning.  Be aware of the work you do. Are you shooting baskets mindlessly, or are you feeling what part of your body moves as you shoot?

Keep the principles of Flow and Deliberate Practice in the front of your mind, and you are sure to succeed.

Click here to go back to part 1.

The Finale: Intention in Training.  Part 3.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

afheyne August 22, 2011 at 10:44 am

Well-said. But one of the problems is that often times “one’s own happiness” depends on the judgment of others. Obviously that is one what should try to avoid at all costs in life, but I think it’s , at lead somewhat, inevitable.


Annie Andre April 12, 2012 at 7:23 am

This was amazing. I don’t know why this never occurred to me but it makes total sense. Constant tweaking, avoided automacity. Brilliant. thanks for sharing.


afheyne April 12, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Thanks Annie —

Yeah this is one of the first posts I wrote on Milk the Pigeon and I think one of the most important.

Avoiding automaticity is key. The irony is that we seek automation in our jobs to make them easier, but if your stuff is automated you’ve stopped learning.


Aaron Black December 10, 2012 at 11:20 pm


Best to the point summary on flow I’ve read.

I’m doing my Doctoral research on the relationship of perceived competency mobilization to vocational calling (among other variables). This was another reminder of how important skill mobilization is to sensing that we’re living out our life purpose. It also lends further credence to the idea that calling is a dynamic construct that can change over time as our set of valued competencies changes.

Thanks for the great post!


Ryan Lake July 8, 2015 at 12:34 am

i want to figure out how to apply this to my music career. currently im a music director at a church in dallas where i lead worship and direct the choir and sing and play piano and organ but i want to do so much more with my skills and talents but i feel like i want to do more and im limited on money and other things that i feel are keeping me from reaching my full potential but havent figured out what they are. hope you can do more to help me i read your book and its inspired me some but i feel like i need more


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