Give yourself 5 days to learn how to play a song on a guitar. You are allowed to take the full amount of time off work so you have as much time as possible to prepare. At the end of the fifth day you have to play the song in front of a crowd.
A big crowd.
There will no doubt be a lot of pressure on you to not only succeed in playing the song, but actually play it well enough for people to be impressed. How would you start? How would you plan out those 5 days? Who would you contact to help coach you to short-term success? Do you think you could do it?
More importantly, would this experience help or hinder your further growth as a guitar player?
Short Term Performance
This is the kind of high-stakes learning that is the topic of “The Tim Ferriss Experiment.”
In this iTunes series, Tim’s goal is to condense the time it takes to learn a new skill into a very small amount of time and to put very high stakes on it. He hires the best of the best to help him achieve a level of performance that is enough to work in real-life situations, such as taking on professional poker players.
The results of his experiments are interesting and if you are curious I recommend you check them out. However, what I’m interested in is something a bit different. While learning quickly is an amazing skill that will help you perform with more efficacy, are learning and performance at odds with eachother?
Short Term Versus Long Term Learning
If you had a short amount of time before you had to perform a new skill that you had no experience with in the past you would most likely do it the same way Tim does if you had the same resources. You would find the most effective methods of performance and shovel everything you had into developing them. You only have a short time to develop technique, habits, knowledge, etc. and you wouldn’t want to waste energy on the tiny details.
If you didn’t have the great coaching that Tim has at his disposal you would most likely take extreme shortcuts to develop those things.
Let’s say you are trying to play that guitar for a particular song. You don’t have enough time to learn the technique from the ground up and solidify it into an automatic response. You will most likely perform the kind of technique that plays that particular song. You have no interest right now in doing anything else. Whatever works for the song in the short term will be what you want to get out of your mini-training.
This may actually slow down your training if, after the performance, you want to continue with your guitar playing. The short-term habits you set up in order to perform that one song well may have to be undone in order to play other, more difficult songs.
Developing the correct techniques, habits, ways of thinking, or paying attention to cues takes a long time, especially if your interest is in mastery of the subject matter. You must think of the long term success of your endeavors, lest you end up back-tracking later to re-learn and undo bad habits. This is how long-term learning may be at odds with short-term performance. What will work best for me in 5 days is not necessarily what may work best in 5 years.
Your Training Trajectory and Goals
Is Tim wrong to go about his learning new skills this way because it may have a bad impact in the long-term?
Not at all.
It all comes down to our goals and what we want to get out of our learning.
We cannot be masters of everything and thus we can’t plan long-term for everything we do. Sometimes we have to build up the skill to perform in a certain task at a certain time and be done with it. Sometimes that task is coming up quickly and sometimes it is years down the road. How far are we willing to go before we feel we have reached a level of proficiency that we feel content with?
Here’s an example:
While I was throwing the discus in college I was interested in long term performance. Sure, I wanted to do well at each meet but not if it meant sacrificing focus on good technique for a band-aid technique that happened to work better for me at the time.
Sometimes this caused me to see a drop in performance. I would go to a meet still learning how to throw. However, this was alright. My sights were set on the long term, on making it to the national meet at the end of the year, where I wanted to throw as far as possible.
Developing the correct methods may mean an initial drop in performance but it will mean long-term success.
A year or so after I graduated and hadn’t picked up a discus in the time since I was contacted by a former teammate about throwing in a meet. I agreed. Why not?
The situation had changed, however. Some of my good habits were still around but I only had three days to practice. There was no way I was going to get to the same level I was before. So what was my strategy? Focus on the things I was still doing right and let the other things just happen even if they were pretty shabby, technique-wise.
I ended up throwing very well for not having thrown in a full year. My distance would have placed me pretty high in most meets.
The trick was to realize how much time I had and act accordingly.
Our performance in our daily activities matters. We are judged at work, school, or play by how well we can do what we do.
The stakes are high for us each day when we are called upon in tough situations to solve a problem. Sometimes we are given a chance to prepare, sometimes not. The key to learning how to perform in these instances is taking the time to consider three things:
- How high are the stakes? If I see a bit of a drop in performance because I am interested in learning how to do everything the correct way and am a bit awkward would it be okay, or are the stakes too high for me to fail?
- Am I in this for the long-term? Is the activity I’m doing something I wish to be doing with a master-level skill in several years time? If so, should I consider not worrying about my performance overall but how well I perform the details?
- Is this a one and done? Maybe I just need to do this a couple of times and don’t care about my long-term habits. I just want to be able to do it now with a high enough proficiency to get by.
These are important questions to ask ourselves when we are coming up on tough performances.
We need to pay attention to the kinds of activities we take shortcuts on as it may hinder our future growth. However, when the stakes are high enough doing whatever it takes to get the job done can be enough.