Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Future of Self-Improvement, Part II: The Dilemma of Coaching Yourself

What separates those who accomplish outstanding feats from those who don’t? According to author and researcher Joshua Foer, it’s the dedication and willpower to doggedly push beyond the “OK Plateau.” When most of us learn a new skill, we work to get just “good enough” and then we go on autopilot.

We hit what Foer calls the “OK Plateau,” where we have gained sufficient skills for our needs; at which point, we stop pushing ourselves. But experts – those who excel beyond all others in their fields – do it differently.
Foer identified four principles that he saw the experts using to remain alert and to keep learning:

1. Experts tend to operate outside their comfort zone and study themselves failing.

2. Experts will try to walk in the shoes of someone who’s more competent than them.

3. Experts crave and thrive on immediate and constant feedback.

4. Experts treat what they do like a science. They collect data, they analyze data, they create theories, and they test them.

In essence, those who excel beyond the pack are pushing themselves continually so that they are never on autopilot. As Foer posits in the last point, there are very much like scientists in a lab – constantly reflecting on the data, formulating new hypotheses, testing them, and then analyzing the outcome.

An excellent example of these “expert qualities” in action is Rhodes scholar, New York Knicks star basketball player, Olympic gold medalist, former New Jersey senator and presidential candidate, and bestselling author Bill Bradley. In 1965, when Bradley was the best amateur basketball player in the United States, an in-depth profile highlighted his unparalleled work ethic.

Here’s writer John McPhee on Bradley’s training regime during high school:

[Bradley] borrowed the keys to the gym and set a schedule for himself that he adhered to for four full years – in the school year, three and a half hours every day after school, nine to five on Saturday, one-thirty to five on Sunday, and, in the summer, about three hours a day. He put ten pounds of lead slivers in his sneakers, set up chairs as opponents and dribbled in slalom fashion around them, and wore eyeglass frames that had a piece of cardboard taped to them so that he could not see the floor, for a good dribbler never looks at the ball.

In part I of this article series, we looked at the powerful role that self-control and grit play in driving outstanding achievement. Two qualities that Bradley seems to have in spades. However, above and beyond these traits, Bradley brings something else to the equation – a formidable capacity for self-analysis:

Most basketball players appropriate fragments of other players’ styles, and thus develop their own. This is what Bradley has done, but one of the things that sets him apart from nearly everyone else is that the process has been conscious rather than osmotic… Bradley’s graceful hook shot is a masterpiece of eclecticism. It consists of the high-lifted knee of Los Angeles Lakers’ Darral Imhoff, the arms of Bill Russell, of the Boston Celtics, who extends his idle hand far under his shooting arm and thus magically stabilizes the shot, and the general corporeal form of Kentucky’s Cotton Nash, a rookie this year with the Lakers.

Because Bradley’s inclination to analyze every gesture in basketball is fairly uncommon, other players look at him as if they think him a little odd when he seeks them out after a game and asks them to show him what they did in making a move that he particularly admired. They tell him that they’re not sure what he is talking about, and that even if they could remember, they couldn’t possibly explain, so the best offer they can make is to go back to the court, try to set up the situation again, and see what it was that provoked his appreciation. Bradley told me about this almost apologetically, explaining that he had no choice but to be analytical in order to be in the game at all. “I don’t have that much natural ability,” he said.

As McPhee points out, what truly distinguished Bradley from the other players, beyond his powerful work ethic, was his relentless analysis. Bradley treated his basketball game like a scientist, or a coach, would – constantly tinkering, testing, and refining it.

If we want to cultivate expertise, or “genius,” or whatever you want to call it, we need to be able to step outside of ourselves, observe how we are operating, reflect on what could be better, theorize how we could change it, and then test out a solution. The problem is: This is very, very hard for most people.

Pretty much anyone can work hard and adapt their performance if they understand where they are going wrong. However, identifying what needs to be fixed can be difficult. This has little to do with intelligence or even talent, I would argue, and a lot more to do with being one person, in one body.

Or, as writer Atul Gawande puts it in an excellent piece on the habits of top performers, it can be difficult to be our own “outside eyes and ears”:

Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice” – sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches – showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.

A staff writer for the New Yorker, a bestselling author, and a highly accomplished surgeon, Gawande is what most of us would consider to be an incredibly talented, over-achiever. Yet, even he struggles with self-improvement:

I’ve been a surgeon for eight years. For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing – I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.

During the first two or three years in practice, your skills seem to improve almost daily. It’s not about hand-eye coördination – you have that down halfway through your residency. As one of my professors once explained, doing surgery is no more physically difficult than writing in cursive. Surgical mastery is about familiarity and judgment. You learn the problems that can occur during a particular procedure or with a particular condition, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems.

Outside of work, Gawande plays tennis. When a serendipitous encounter at a sports club led to some impromptu tennis coaching, he began to wonder: Could his surgery technique improve with coaching? After all, even Rafael Nadal has a coach, and he’s one of the best players in the world.Gawande decides to experiment. He invites Robert Osteen, a retired general surgeon he admires to observe him in the operating theatre and give feedback. As Gawande performs a thyroidectomy,  a procedure he’s performed thousands of times before, Osteen watches. This is the outcome:

[Osteen] asked me to pay more attention to my elbows. At various points during the operation, he observed, my right elbow rose to the level of my shoulder, on occasion higher. “You cannot achieve precision with your elbow in the air,” he said. A surgeon’s elbows should be loose and down by his sides. “When you are tempted to raise your elbow, that means you need to either move your feet” – because you’re standing in the wrong position – “or choose a different instrument.”He had a whole list of observations like this. His notepad was dense with small print. I operate with magnifying loupes and wasn’t aware how much this restricted my peripheral vision. I never noticed, for example, that at one point the patient had blood-pressure problems, which the anesthesiologist was monitoring. Nor did I realize that, for about half an hour, the operating light drifted out of the wound; I was operating with light from reflected surfaces. Osteen pointed out that the instruments I’d chosen for holding the incision open had got tangled up, wasting time.

That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years. It had been strange and more than a little awkward having to explain to the surgical team why Osteen was spending the morning with us. “He’s here to coach me,” I’d said. Yet the stranger thing, it occurred to me, was that no senior colleague had come to observe me in the eight years since I’d established my surgical practice. Like most work, medical practice is largely unseen by anyone who might raise one’s sights. I’d had no outside ears and eyes.

For those of us who are not natural-born scientists of self-analysis, coaching may well be the best possible solution for cultivating the skills to push ourselves to the next level. It’s not surprising then that recent years have seen an increase in coaching of all kinds: time management coaches, career coaches, executive coaches, and so on.

Yet, coaching as Gawande notes, comes at a price: Exposure. If we want to improve, we must be willing to show our weaknesses, accept criticism, and try to change. Like Bradley, a select few can self-coach, conducting the entire analytical process internally. But, regardless of who’s doing the coaching – you or someone else – the bottom line is: It’s uncomfortable.

Which brings us back to Foer’s assertion: Experts tend to operate outside their comfort zone and study themselves failing.

This ability to tolerate, and even embrace, uncomfortableness may well be the “X factor” that underpins outstanding achievement. Self-control, grit, self-analysis… these are not comfortable qualities.

But, as renowned performance artist Marina Abramovic, a woman who has dedicated her life and her body to creating uncomfortable art, has said: “Nobody ever changes when they do things they like.”

What’s Your Take?

How do you coach yourself? Or have you tried using an external coach of some kind?

Read Part I in The Future of Self-Improvement series.

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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