Rapid skill acquisition is not a new thing. Sure, the buzzwords still have that new car smell, but under the hood is less cutting edge Tesla and more Ford Capri.
I first encountered it back in the early noughties watching a UK TV show called ‘Faking It’. In the show, experts would spend a month training an ordinary person in a skill, then try to pass them off as a seasoned practitioner. They trained people in all manner of things: hairdressing, show jumping, fashion photography, ballroom dancing and even race-car driving. Industry experts would then try and pick out the ‘faker’ from a bunch of professionals.
According to the popular rule that it takes ten thousand hours to master a discipline, this should be utterly impossible, but they pulled off the extraordinary several times. If you’re looking to be inspired, the show is still available to watch online. I particularly recommend the episode ‘burger flipper to head chef’, in which one of the mentors is a young Gordon Ramsey.
At the time, I dismissed the show as TV magic. The results were certainly real, but surely unattainable without the help of a production team. Looking back, I think Faking It illustrates some important lessons about rapid learning.
Challenging professionals with just one month of training is possible because years of real world experience do not automatically translate into ability. The easiest way to convince yourself of this is to consider driving. Most of us know people who have been driving for years, but who are appalling at it. Not simply bad, but reckless to the point where we are amazed at their continued survival. To cap it all, these maniacs consider themselves to be excellent drivers, as though collecting points on their licenses was an attempt at an all-time high score.
Years of real world experience do not automatically translate into ability.
People don’t get continually better with experience because they stop actively trying to improve. In the professional world, getting work done on time is the primary focus and there’s little deliberate practise or detailed feedback. As my co-worker likes to say: “Do they have ten years of experience, or one year repeated ten times?”.
The show also challenged the value of innate talent by choosing ordinary people to take part. Some of the choices were gleefully appropriate, such as watching a sheep shearer train to become a hairdresser, but they all served to underline the point that hard work and high quality training are the keys to remarkable results.
This means that we have the biggest advantage competing in fields where training is rare, poor, unfocused, inefficient, or stops altogether once participants qualify or turn professional. The hardest fields to tackle are those where competition is central to the activity and lots of money is involved, such as professional sports. This practically guarantees that all serious participants will have access to excellent training, frequent feedback, and be motivated to train constantly, severely limiting our options.
Our options for out-performing other people are:
Rather obvious, but out-working the competition is what the actor Will Smith credits with his success:
“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period.”
— Will Smith
Practise more efficiently
Private tuition is an excellent way to increase the efficiency of practise, because lessons aren’t held up waiting for slower students. Other improvements can be as simple as finding a class closer to home to cut down on travel time, or finding a training partner to do drills with before a lesson begins.
Practise more specifically
The prospect of entering a competition gives training a real sense of purpose. A specific goal focuses practise on the essentials and makes it easy to create a specialised training program. In the hairdressing episode, for example, they focus on perfecting a single hairstyle to try and win a contest.
Practise more effectively
Training in the TV show is highly personalised. The students are constantly challenged, moving through the syllabus at exactly the right rate for their ability and understanding. Mentors keep them under close observation, providing clear, timely feedback and encouragement.
Given the cost of private lessons, group classes are likely to play a major role in any long term training. Asking whether a club offers a ‘fast track’ program is a good option. It’s also a simple matter to favour class times with the lowest attendance, to get more of the instructor’s attention.
According to the book Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, solitary practise can be especially effective. I wonder if this is because it improves our ability to self monitor and forces us to concentrate intently on our performance. In any case, it’s worth considering how you can incorporate it into your training.
One of the hardest aspects of ‘Faking It’ to replicate is immersion training. This is real world experience where students have no choice but to use their skills and learn at a fast pace. It rapidly builds confidence, addresses fear of failure, gives immediate feedback and allows a student to use their skills in context. Notably, it bears little resemblance to the grunt work of an internship. The hairdresser didn’t spend half his time sweeping the floor, nor did the chef spend every evening peeling potatoes.
If the real value of ‘paying your dues’ is to get access to the environment you want to train in, that access can probably be bought.
If the real value of ‘paying your dues’ is to get access to the environment you want to train in, that access can probably be bought, or gained in a voluntary setting.
Practise more recently
We need to avoid becoming complacent and ensure that our skills are constantly being sharpened.
Get better feedback
It’s easy to watch the TV show and think: “I could become a great chef too if I had a world class teacher, but that’s impossible”. In The Four Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss challenges this limited thinking, and it’s worth reading his take on it. There are plenty of former world class performers that can be approached for private coaching. I experienced this first hand when I was kindly offered the opportunity to train with an Olympic Silver medallist, simply because of an email conversation.
An unexpected lesson from ‘Faking It’ is that the best coach for a novice isn’t necessarily the best coach for an intermediate. We don’t need elite trainers to walk us through the basics; it would probably infuriate them. Most disciplines have classes for beginners. We want to pick the one where new students have the highest level of proficiency for the lowest number of hours spent training.
Hone ancillary skills
At an elite level, all competitors receive excellent training, so we need to look harder for ways to find an edge. One way to do this is to practise a tangential skill that is under-served by regular practise. In the TV programme, the budding head chef gets assertiveness training to gain an advantage.
It’s unlikely that we’ll dream up the next Cruyff turn or Fosbury flop, but we don’t need to innovate ourselves if we can find innovative instructors. This is another tactic covered in depth in The Four Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss.
Those were the elements that I picked up on. Real life is not a TV show and we don’t have a production team working to give us expert skills in record time. But when you really examine that excuse, those production staff members weren’t superhuman. They were ordinary people leveraging better training principles.