7 Principles for How to Become Good at Almost Anything

I’ve been thinking about this concept for a while: What’s a good pattern for becoming good at something? There’s a lot of literature out there on this; most of it’s garbage (in my not-so humble opinion). I’ve read a lot of it, tried many of the ideas for myself, and I think I’ve come upon a pattern that yields reliable, repeatable successes.

That said, I should start with the caveats and disclaimers: This pattern works for me. Your results may vary, but I think there’s something to this pattern, which is why I’m sharing. This pattern will help you become good at almost anything. Those two words are important to consider. What I’m proposing is that you’ll be able to become good at something, not necessarily great at something. Good means you can accomplish something with a degree in quality, quantity, or degree that’s satisfactory. In other words, you’ll be able to paint a bowl of fruit; you won’t become a Rembrandt. Also, we’re talking here about almost anything, not everything. This pattern isn’t going to help me achieve satisfactory results in the Tour de France. There are some things that are just beyond my “achievability” horizon.

Given all the caveats and disclaimers, what’s the promise here? Follow this pattern of 7 principles and I would bet dollars to donuts you’ll become good at almost anything in less time than you might think. The 7 principles are:

  • Clearly Identify the Goal
  • Break Up Goals into Milestones
  • Ensure Repetitiveness with Stubborn Tenacity
  • Accept Initial Mediocrity; Demand Good Eventually
  • Compare Yourself to Your Past, Not Others
  • Mind-Meld with Heroes
  • Help Newbies

Let’s go through each of these, because as they say, the devil’s in the details. And read though everything, because while much of this you’ve probably already heard, there are some specifics (the glue) that perhaps you haven’t heard.

Clearly Identify the Goal

This on its face seems like an obvious, “duh” sort of principle. “If I want to learn how to fly an airplane, my goal is to ‘fly an airplane’.” But it’s much more than that, and the more here will often make the critical difference between success versus failure. Ever heard of SMART goals? It annoys me that something so buzzwordy and promoted by charlatan efficiency consultants as SMART goals is actually valuable, but the truth is that there’s a huge and decisive distinction between a regular goal and a SMART goal, and the difference can lead to success versus failure.

What is a SMART goal? From the Wikipedia page, there are several definitions, but I’m going to give you mine. A SMART goal is a goal that is:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

Specific means that it’s targeted, limited, and explicit in terms of the what, why, who, where of the goal. Measureable just means there’s some way to measure results. Even better if there’s some way to measure progress. Actionable means you can actually do something to advance yourself to the goal. In other words, you have the power to influence the situation. If your goal is world peace, you’d better be in a position to have the power to influence world leaders if you want to turn this into a SMART goal. Realistic means that, well, there’s some sort of genuine pathway to success. Even if you’re the President of the United States (arguably the most powerful person on the planet), the goal of world peace may not be realistic. Timely means there’s some sort of time limit or time box or boundary to the goal.

Let’s look at a practical example:

I want to get in better shape physically, for personal health reasons.

That’s a nice base goal, but if we turn it into a SMART goal, it will actually be more effective.

I will be able to do 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups in a single sitting without collapsing in exhaustion by achieving iterative incremental steps from 1 push-up and 1 sit-up to the final goal over the course of 3 months beginning on January 1 and ending on March 31.

Now this next bit will sound obvious, but it’s where most folks fail, I’ve noticed: You actually have to do this goal identification step. So many fail because they only give this step a mild nod of recognition rather than actually going through the work of it. Don’t be them.

Break Up Goal into Milestones

The next step is to take your SMART goal or goals and break them up into milestones. Inherent in this step is the notion of project planning, whose antecedent is the determination of how to achieve the goal. Some SMART goals will include the how natively in the goal itself, others won’t. If your SMART goal is to create a new product, or company, or influence a large number of people, or write a book, or anything big like that, you’ll want to develop a plan for getting from your current state to your goal. Then identify natural milestones in that plan, which will form into measurable internal goals.

Keep in mind that you can (and likely should) include milestones for larger SMART goals that prepare you to achieve future milestones. In doing so, it helps to work backward from your end-point to discover prerequisites. For example, if you want to learn to fly, you may need to save up some money for flight lessons. If you want to save up some money for flight lessons, you may need to create a budget or implement a savings plan. If you’re goal is to write a book (and I’m assuming here you can already write well enough), you should probably start with outlining and researching rather than dive directly into writing.

Sticking with the book example, once you’ve completed the prerequisites and are ready to slog through 3 to 6 months of writing the first draft, you’ll want to break up the writing into smaller milestones. You can do this in a variety of different ways, but typically I’ve found the best two ways are “time boxed” or “work boxed”. What I mean by that is either break up the work based on blocks of time or blocks of work. It’s helpful but certainly not necessary to form blocks of roughly the same size in terms of effort. Given the book example, you could break up the 3 to 6 months of writing into “words per working day” with a given number of work days per week or “a chapter every X days”.

As with any project plan, the smaller the blocks or tasks, the more accurate (in general) you’re estimates and plan will be. And like with SMART goals, many fail because they don’t actually do this project planning step with sufficient detail. Do the work, otherwise you’re not really following the pattern.

Ensure Repetitiveness with Stubborn Tenacity

This is actually a set of sub-principles I’ve globbed up together under this title. First of all, let’s focus on the “stubborn tenacity” bit, especially that word “stubborn”, as it pertains to the concept of success. What is success? Let’s just define success as the achievement of goals. What is failure? Well, certainly I think we can agree that you haven’t failed prior to forming your goals because you haven’t even started the process yet. Once you’ve formed your goals and you start working on them, you haven’t failed either because you’re actively working toward your goals. So failure isn’t simply the absence of success. There are more than just 2 states; there are 3: success, failure, and “in progress”. Consequently, I like to define failure as the breakdown, stoppage, or collapse of efforts toward achievement of goals. As long as I stubbornly persist in actively working toward my goals, I haven’t failed. I can only fail when I stop.

That all being said, sometimes it’s important to intentionally fail, to cut your losses, to fold your hand. Failure shouldn’t be feared or discouraged unless someone’s life is held in the balance. I’ll often consider it gain if I start up 10 goals and fail at 9 of them. It’s all a matter of return on investment. Let’s say I speculate in stocks, buying into 10 different companies with prices of $50, but I place tight stops each at $1. Let’s then say 9 of my 10 holdings hit their stops, but the remaining holding climbs to $75. I’ve “failed” 9 out of 10 times and achieved “success” only 1 out of 10 times, but overall, I’ve achieved success in my speculation. Certainly, it’d be better if I were stopped out of fewer of my holdings, but my point is that sometimes you have to speculate and expect to fail a lot in order to succeed enough to net ahead in the balance. Don’t fear failure.

Another principle here are the twin forces of procrastination versus repetition. Procrastination is putting off the repeating of getting stuff done. It helps me to think of procrastination as the habit of putting something off. In other words, I have to habitually and repeatedly procrastinate. Instead, why not habitually and repeatedly just get stuff done? In the war against procrastination, success is simply not putting things off completely. Remember that in most pursuits, success is achieved by repeated, iterative small steps. So to beat procrastination, do something, even a little tiny something, every iteration.

One trick I’ve found extremely helpful is to use “Seinfeld Calendars”. You just print out wall calendars, label each with the title of the goal, then hang them on a wall. Each day you make any progress toward the goal, put an “X” in the box for the day. The game then becomes to try to keep the chain of “X”s growing. Don’t break the chain. Remember that to earn an “X”, you don’t need to accomplish a lot; you only need to accomplish something.

Accept Initial Mediocrity; Demand Good Eventually

This principle is vital. It’s ever so easy to give up after starting on a goal in the beginning because initial results aren’t what you’d desire them to be. If you’d like to learn a musical instrument (and you don’t have any music background), the first phase of learning will be painful. You’re going to sound horrible. Making even the smallest steps of progress will come only after great investment. It’s common to feel disillusioned.

When starting on a goal, it’s helpful to expect and accept mediocrity. Sometimes, you have to accept what could only very generously be called mediocre. Acceptance means being OK with it. Simultaneously, don’t be indefinitely OK with mediocrity. Don’t languish in the mediocre. If I’m starting an exercise routine after having been a couch potato for years, I need to be OK with only being able to do 10 push-ups initially, but after a month of routine, habitual exercise, I shouldn’t be OK with staying at only 10.

Compare Yourself to Your Past, Not Others

This principle goes hand-in-hand with accepting mediocre initial results. It’s imperative not to compare your progress, output, status, or capabilities with anyone other than your past self. Comparing yourself to others will result in either a false sense of not measuring up or a false sense of superiority. Both will infect the progress toward a goal.

At the same time, it’s often valuable to compare yourself to your past self to measure progress. Remember that the “M” in SMART stands for measurable. We need to be making fairly routine check-ins on progress. I’m a fan of having more frequent rather than less frequent measurements, but that requires I also not take any single data point too seriously. Imagine if my goal were to lose weight and I took a measure of my weight every 3 hours. I might see weight gain from time to time.

Mind-Meld with Heroes

What is a hero? Let’s define hero as someone who has demonstrated his or her ability to succeed at goals that are either similar or somehow metaphorically related to your goals. Finding heroes, surrounding yourself with heroes, makes achieving success in difficult and complicated goals easier. Sometimes, it makes it possible.

If you want to learn to fly an airplane, the FAA requires you find a flight instructor. The instructor is a teacher, yes; but he or she is also a mentor and a former student pilot. If you want to be a successful business owner, find other successful business owners. But don’t limit your search. As a business owner myself, I find that the greatest heroes are the smart, capable staff I hire. Surround yourself with folks who are good (if not great).

Mirror successful people. In whatever your goals are, find folks who have achieved similar goals or otherwise have been successful in traits necessary for your success. I once read a story about how a public school superintendent mirrored the organizational and attention-to-detail traits of an Army officer and achieved an efficiency and effectiveness within his school district never before seen.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery. It’s also often necessary to achieve success. When you mirror successful people, don’t be bashful about learning from their mistakes and successes by copying their good qualities and avoiding the same pitfalls.

Help Newbies

Finally, and possibly the most important principle is one of providing energy or feedback into the “system” of heroes. Every hero was once a pre-hero. You are both a hero and pre-hero, depending on which successes we’re talking about. While it’s going to be beneficial for you to find your heroes, you need to be a hero to others yourself and even seek out pre-heroes who can benefit from your experience, knowledge, and wisdom.

When you take up the role of mentor, teacher, or hero, you in effect force yourself to get specific about the how behind your successes. This helps the pre-heroes you’ll be working with, but it also helps you in that by codifying your successes, you’re in a way documenting them to yourself. It will mean your future goals will be that much easier to achieve because you’ll be building on your previous achievements.

Rinse and Repeat

This pattern of 7 principles seems to get easier after the first few successes. So it seems to me like a good way to begin is to try these principles on a set of smaller, shorter-term goals, and then grow from there into bigger things. As I wrote earlier, I’ve found this pattern yields reliable, repeatable successes, but only if its details are followed.

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