The Trick to Getting Good at Anything


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“Santa’s gonna stop giving you gifts, and so am I.” That’s something my mom would tell me all the time as a kid.

I wouldn’t listen.

At around age 5 or 6 one of my favorite things to do was take apart toys that I was tired of playing with.

You know how it is, you get a shiny new toy and then a week later it’s tossed in the corner gathering dust. But then curiosity sets in, and I would challenge myself to take them apart, look inside them to see how it was made, and then try to re-assemble them.

I rarely succeeded, the complicated toys would never work properly again, and the simple ones just couldn’t be glued back together.

Eventually I just used the parts to create new toys. The head of a toy robot would get glued on the body of Tarzan, and the broken stock of a toy rifle would become a hovercraft for GI Joes.

The electric toys were really fun because you could take out the little working motors, glue wings and propellers onto them, and they would turn into miniature planes.

I think this little form of playing really helped me once it came time for school math and science. I developed a curiosity for learning how things work on the inside. I’m sure you probably had similar experiences. This is why the mind of a kid can learn things so quickly.

Well, it turns out that this is a not-so-secret formula for getting good at almost anything. If done properly. But sadly, as adults with lots to do and little time to get it done, we usually rush and skip the one important step that makes or breaks our ability to learn.

We usually study something, then we try to create our own. We go from dissection to creation.

But the important step that goes between dissection and creation is re-creation, or in other words, imitation.

Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, throughout his career got a lot of criticism for being a Michael Jordan wannabe. The Kobe haters will tell you “he wants to be MJ so bad. Look, he copied his fadeaway jumper, his first-step to the basket, and even the signature Jordan tongue-out dunk was done by Kobe” I don’t think Kobe did this on purpose, I’m willing to bet he got stuck that way due to the hours and hours he spent trying to de-construct how Jordan played, and then re-creating it himself.” Kobe didn’t simply study, he imitated move by move to absorb its power, then worked from there. Maybe he was a wannabe. But he wannabe’d himself into the Hall of Fame. Not bad I say, not bad.

I gotta admit, I’m a shameless imitator also. It’s part of my process

I can’t remember where I read it, but there was an interview where a writer said that he got so tired of struggling with his writing, that he took one of his favorite books and re-typed it word by word. He sat there typing away in hopes that his fingertips would pick up some of the author’s magic. No magic was transferred, but in the process he started to see the elements that made the writing work. Stuff he didn’t see by merely reading the book. As they say: learning how to ride a bike can’t be taught at a seminar.

After reading that story of the author, I went and did the same thing. I picked up one of my favorite books “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield and I re-typed it cover to cover.

At the end of each paragraph I would pause for a few moments, and ask myself, “What makes this good?” “How would I have said this in my own words?” I tried to anticipate his next sentence by coming up with the next phrase I think should go there. And quickly realized how horrible of a writer I am. I was now able to see the huge gap there both in clarity, and in wittiness. It was excruciating, but also encouraging. Even in learning how bad you are, it means you’re at least learning. You now know something you didn’t know yesterday.

That’s something you can build from. But just getting there takes a lot of work. It starts with imitation.
Before I started my podcast I did the same thing. I chose an episode of Radiolab, one of the best podcasts out there, then downloaded the audio file, and then I went to the transcript that they provide on their website. In my audio program I put the Radiolab file on one track, and then I used a second track to record myself reading the transcript. I would figure out how much time I had to read a portion of text and I’d keep trying until my voice would match up to what they were saying. I would play it back and then study what was different between the two.

In doing this, I learned to notice what they do to keep an audience engaged. I started seeing what the difficult things were, how the audio complements the writing, and how they use music to pace the whole thing properly.

Once again, there was a huge gap there between what they did and what I am capable of, but at least now I know what to work on.

I think these are the two most important reasons to start imitating your favorite creator’s work:

Number 1- Before you create, you have one idea of what you will struggle with. But then when you start, you realize you have a whole new set of problems.

Let’s say you want to start a clothing line. You think the hard part of launching a clothing line is coming up with a quirky design, or coming up with a cool brand name. But in reality, let’s say that you decide to just re-create a famous jacket for yourself and your five closest friends. You’ll soon realize that the difficult part is sourcing the materials, choosing the right manufacturing process, and getting the distribution right. But if you don’t try it through imitation first, you’re being led astray by fears and worries that are likely to be the easiest parts of the process.

The things you thought would be hard, are actually not that difficult. And the real roadblocks make themselves visible. Imitation lets you start quickly without wasting time planning something original.

Number 2- Going beyond just seeing the problems, when you imitate something good, ALL the elements of a project reveal themselves to you. You now see that a play has smaller parts than just the three acts, a joke goes beyond the setup and punchline, and a song isn’t just three verses with a repeating chorus. You see the parts between the parts. And how they work together.

So here’s how you start on your own journey of imitation:

Pick something you like and is also popular in the field you want to master. I recommend something that is a minimum of three years old. Sometimes new things become popular just for being new, and their crappiness takes a year or two to really show itself. You want to imitate something that has proven to be valuable.

Next, write down what you like about it, and what you think would be the biggest obstacle you would face if you were the one first creating this type of work. Put yourself in the setting that the first guy or gal lived in.

Then, just start re-creating it. Work in hour-long chunks of time per day, but pick an interval of smaller periods to stop and think about what you just did. Compare your expectations to what the original creator actually did. What surprised you about the actual direction versus what you thought was coming?

The final step is to do it all over again–with something else. Pick something new and imitate. A few repetitions in and you’ll have picked up the skill of noticing. Now it’s part of you, and you’ll be able to apply it instantly out in the real world.

It may not be as fun as taking apart an old toy and putting it back together, but this skill is gonna feel like a shiny new toy from Santa. One you’re gonna want to keep handy.

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