The Most Important Lesson (They Never Teach In School)

Of all the things I never learned in school, here’s something that should go right up at the top. That’s saying something, as it seems like there’s a million things I didn’t learn in school.

It’s pointless to blame the teachers for not teaching this lesson.

The nuns in elementary school were preoccupied with the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. And the occasional whack with a ruler. The middle school teachers had to deal with our awkwardness of adolescents. High school teachers were focused on their lesson plans. College (and graduate school) brought even greater focus on the coursework material.

For the life of me, I don’t know why a single teacher didn’t invest just one hour and explain it to me. It could have changed the trajectory of my life and career. Maybe none of my teachers knew this lesson. But, for whatever reason, this MOST IMPORTANT LESSON WAS NEVER TAUGHT.

In the end, I figured it out myself. That’s actually not a bad way to really learn something. The downside is it took me decades to figure it out; through working, reading and living. And painfully – from the real-world experiences of mediocrity and failure. I hate to say those words – mediocrity and failure. But urgh, it’s true.

It took a while to figure it out, despite the many clues from life and work along the way. To mention just a few…

Years ago, I heard someone explain that if you sign your signature 10,000 times, the last signature will look pretty much exactly like your first signature – unless you consciously work to make it different. My signature looks today exactly like it did decades ago.

Once I was training for a marathon where I wanted to do well. So, I’d significantly increased my weekly mileage and sustained that high training mileage for months. Throughout this period, if the training was a 3 mile run or a 20 mile run, I habitually ran at the same pace – which was p l o d d i n g. The result? My marathon time was slower than prior times trained on a fraction of the mileage. Basically, I’d spent hours training to run slowly.

And on the work front, I’ve experienced various endeavours that never improved much beyond the performance metrics we’d achieved early in the project.  We hit average milestones week after week, month after month.

Maybe you can relate.

So what’s the most important lesson (they never teach in school)?

It’s a fundamental lesson that specifically explains how to improve. And it works for a great many things. It’s been studied for decades, and probably known by many people for centuries.

It was something nobody ever explained to me.

It’s called Purposeful Practice, and it’s actually very easy to understand.

The best person to learn it from is Dr. Anders Ericsson. Dr. Ericsson is a globally recognized authority on improving human performance. He’s a Professor of Psychology at Florida State, has conducted many illuminating studies, written countless peer-reviewed professional papers and authored several books. Basically, Anders Ericsson knows how people get great at something.

It turns out, there’s no magic involved with Purposeful Practice. And the good news…. there’s LOTS of good news.

Purposeful Practice is:

  • Proven (it’s practically a law of the universe)
  • Simple to understand
  • Consistently shown to be the factor in moving good to great
  • Applicable across many varied disciplines, including: music, sports, chess, medicine, memory, etc.
  • Free

There’s a recently published excellent book on the topic written by Dr. Ericsson and Dr. Robert Pool called “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.”

Dr. Ericsson’s kindness and correspondence with me is greatly appreciated. And his research can help you (and maybe even me) get on the path to making major improvements.

Very simply, he’s found that Purposeful Practice is the way to achieve significant performance improvements. It consists of four Core Components:

  1. There must be a Specific Goal. This provides clarity of focus.

2. The challenge must be addressed with Intense Focus. Deep thinking and attention to the matter at hand is required.

3. There needs to be Immediate Feedback. It’s important to quickly know the effectiveness of what you’re trying. You can’t make improvements if the results of what you’re doing is obscured.

4. Frequent Occurrences of Successes and Failures. Having frequent successes and failures by definition means that you’re on the edge of what’s possible and expanding the envelope of capabilities.

Here’s a 7 minute summary overview video.

Anders Ericsson’s work is where the “10,000 hour to mastery” rule originated before being popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers.” Though the rule has often been misinterpreted. As summarized above, just putting in 10,000 hours of practice doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement. It’s why a physician may be no better at medicine with 25 years of experience, then she is after just 5. Same with an athlete or musician (and I’d think executive manager). Contrary to what we’ve been taught, practice does not make perfect. But “Purposeful Practice” is the path towards perfection.

There are countless examples of Purposeful Practice leading to success in the research papers and recent book by Ericsson. And many historical examples, like the Wright brothers, where the four Core Components were clearly applied.

This lesson of Purposeful Practice is of utmost importance. It’s a fundamental principle of how humans learn and improve, and it should be taught to every kid in school. And everyone out of school.

Yogi Berra humorously said,

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

Turns out, Yogi was exactly right. In practice… there is a difference.

Thomas Triumph
Thomas Triumph
TOM is a hands-on technology executive who helps large organizations act more nimbly in the market and small companies scale. Leading marketing and business development, he has launched numerous technology products and led cross-functional teams – including participating in two technology revolutions – less invasive medical devices and the Internet/software. Tom has been a part of some remarkable technology and business growth success stories (as well as some misfires). Building submarines out of 55-gallon drums in grade school, he eventually fulfilled a childhood dream of living aboard a research ship (Jacques Cousteau was on the Board of Directors) and tending to the mini-sub. Tom has also wrestled in the Olympic Trials, founded a consumer electronic company, and worked for leading companies to help launch and lead: medical device products, software, SaaS, Internet companies, professional consulting services, and 25 ton hovercraft built entirely from composite materials. This broad background has resulted in two unique characteristics - the depth of skill that allows Tom to contribute to the technical, business and creative process; and the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. He's an enthusiastic and collaborative team player who maintains a good sense of humor.








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