When the Risk becomes the Reward: What we all can learn about skill acquisition from skateboarders
“Rarely is it a question of talent or technique at those levels, it’s just one of belief.” – Rodney Mullen, former professional skateboarder
I was able to catch up with Lantz Wheeler earlier this week and pick his brain on a couple of things Eugene and I have been talking about over the past several weeks. One of the things that Lantz shared was the brilliance of skateboarding when it comes to learning new skills. Watching these guys in action is a brilliant insight into the skill acquisition process: There’s a goal in reach, a methodical process to get there, trial and error, experimentation, failure, resilience, palpable belief, and a relentless drive to make it happen. Feedback is required, it’s immediate, and a lot of the times it is painful. However, it doesn’t deter these guys one bit.
To me, that is one of the things that makes skateboarding truly unique: Failure is really painful. When these guys miss, they get hit hard. Every fall puts wear and tear on their bones, limbs, and challenges them in ways that are impossible to describe without actually ever experiencing it. However, none of these falls prove to be fatal. The resilience that these guys have created through years of trial and error is so much that they are willing to put their body through great lengths of pain in order to achieve a desired goal, objective, or outcome. When the guy in the video from above fell, he didn’t complain about how it was too hard or how he was too tired or in too much pain. He got right back up, dusted himself off, and reaffirmed his belief by using phrases such as “next try is it” and “I’ve finally got it.” There was no doubt in his mind he was going to nail the trick; it was only a matter of how much time it was going to take him. The risk of falling didn’t create fear – it fueled his belief. The risk no longer became the thing he was trying to avoid. It became the reward.
When we’re building a skill, we have to treat the consequences of failure just like skateboarders: We need to turn the risk into the reward. Instead of avoiding the thing that seems fatal, we need to crave them because they give us rich feedback to perform the skill better next time. If skateboarders can put their body on the line with every single move they make, we can do the same thing as baseball players; especially since we’re not worried about breaking bones if we fail.
If you can create an environment in skill development where the risk becomes the reward, adversity no longer becomes an obstacle – the obstacle becomes the way (pretty good book, by the way). The returns on this are limitless.
The more frequent the better
Eugene has since decided to use his spare time being quarantined to learn how to play the piano – and he is about as novice as novice gets when it comes to music. The only advantage he really has is he doesn’t have hard wired CNS to do it the wrong way. This process has spurred some insightful conversations about the process of acquiring a skill by tapping into exactly what helps him improve and what creates challenges for him. While he’s only a couple weeks in, there is one thing that has really helped Eugene early on: Frequency.
Eugene may practice for up to two hours a day, but those two hours are not spent all at once. He can figure out how to master a specific note or a song with time, but the game totally changes when he takes a break and has to repeat the same skill after a period of not doing it. Whenever he takes a break and comes back to it, his learning systems go all the way back to square one. This can create some frustrating moments, but it’s really helped Eugene because it’s forced him to understand the skill inside out. He can’t rely on previous practice nearly as well when he has to pick up the skill and start fresh after a dormant period. While he can’t exactly pick up where he left off at, he’s able to start at a baseline that exceeds his previous practice session. It’s a great reminder that progress is not linear.
Every time Eugene picks up the piano and starts playing, his CNS is firing to create pathways required for execution of the skill. These pathways become stronger with repetition – a process known as myelin sheathing. Myelin is the fatty substance that wraps around the pathways between neurons that are required for execution of a skill. When these pathways are used more frequently, more myelin is created to insulate these circuits. Denser sheets of myelin help accelerate the distance and speed impulses can travel between neurons across a specific pathway. This is where the idea of practice becomes perfect comes from: The more you practice, the more myelin your brain creates, the more the skill becomes automated, the better you get at it.
This is where I think frequency comes into play. If we think about the resources and attention we can allocate to learning a specific skill, more practice eventually gets to a point of diminishing returns. We all know the feeling when we’ve been working on something for a while but feel like nothing is getting done. Some guys might benefit more from longer sessions, but only if the learning systems are actively engaged. If your brain goes on autopilot when practicing a skill, no new learning is occurring. For these reasons, breaking up your practice sessions and instead doing them more frequently throughout the day or week can be of huge benefit. Don’t force yourself to hammer our three straight hours of writing if half of that time is going to be spent staring at a blank page. Space it out, put together quality work when you’re focused, and learn when to step away. Doing it more isn’t always better – doing it more frequently might be a better idea.