Friday, December 9, 2016

Are You Thinking About Self-Improvement?

Contributing Author: Gentle Heron

Can too much thinking hinder self-improvement? Aren’t we supposed to think about our performance and strive to better ourselves?

Dave Hill, 13 time PGA Tour winner, said, “Golf is like sex. You can’t be thinking about the mechanics of the act while you are performing.”

Why not?

Research on expert performance may help us understand why thinking while performing activities does not help improve our performance of them.

A study conducted by Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler involved two groups of college students who were asked to rank jams. Individuals in the first group were given no further instructions; those in the second group were asked to justify their rankings. The jam rankings of the individuals told to explain their reasoning were less in line with expert rankings, and less in line with each other’s rankings, than were those of the group who just ranked the jams. Having to explain their decisions seems to have caused them to be less consistent, which could mean they were less capable of making wise decisions.

Also there is the research by Sian Beilock (author of Choke), who had golfers say “Stop” at the top of their follow-through swing. This kind of mental effort caused “paralysis by analysis.” Their performance significantly deteriorated.

Yet we also know that concentrating and focusing on details can help prevent nervous choking. Researcher Adam Nicholls asked pro athletes to record in a diary their stresses and coping mechanisms. One common and effective strategy these accomplished professional athletes used for dealing with stress was increasing their attention and effort. This study is less objective than the previous two, but has “ecological validity,” meaning it is more like what the subjects would be doing “for real,” and less like an experimental setup using artificial tasks.

What drives experts toward expertise? Expert development does not occur through anything other than hard work.

The Pareto principle is often generalized to tell us that the last 20% of achievement, working toward expertise, requires 80% of your effort. The ability to recognize one’s flaws when judged against the stricter standards developed by expertise, to continue to see room for improvement, is what allows experts to both become experts and to continue to grow their expertise. But of course, the expert must also have a motivation, a strong desire to continue to improve. The Japanese call this “kaizen.”

In our daily lives, performing our ADLs, good enough performance is just that, good enough. Once we learn how to do these things, their performance becomes automatic. Do you think a lot about how to brush your teeth, wash the dishes, button your shirt or tie your shoes? No, these are activities you can perform nearly automatically.

But when we need to be really good at something, routine performance simply is not adequate. You must always be aware of the quality of each element of your actions.

Philosopher Barbara Gail Montero posits that golf is like sex not because attention detracts from performance, but because both are all-encompassing activities. Perhaps the actions of a pro golfer and an expert lover are stimulated by a desire to each time be “better than ever.” And that can never be done automatically.

Believing that you can achieve expert levels on any activity without a lot of conscious effort is magical thinking. If we truly want to improve ourselves, we need to make a commitment to the work that it will take. “Good enough” ability will require less effort to achieve, but you still must make a personal commitment.

Images from Pixabay


Montero, B. G. (2016). “The Myth of ‘Just Do It’.” in (Ed.) Catapano, P. & Critchley, S. The Stone Reader; Modern philosophy in 133 arguments. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

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