How To Get Better At Stuff

As you might be able to tell from the title, this is not going to be an academic article about self improvement. Instead, I am trying to convince you – and myself – that there is one key element to improving yourself and your life.

Let me start with an example.

Remember when you were a kid? Let’s assume I’m young again and let’s assume I don’t know how to do simple math, like adding numbers. Now, let’s assume, your job is to teach me to add small numbers.

The bad approach to teaching

Here is one way you could approach this:

  • first, you tell me: “Stefan, I want you to learn how to add small numbers.”
  • then you wait

Ok, I know. That doesn’t sound like a good way of teaching math to a child. As a child, I didn’t have any special interest in learning addition, and this approach will definitely have failed. It’s not much of an “approach”, is it? In this example, you do not really try very hard to teach me anything. You just state your own wish, your own goal that you have for little Stefan, but don’t give little Stefan any incentive or direction to act towards your goal. In this particular example you do not even check in later to see if I learned anything. So, overall, we can agree: bad approach!

What’s a better approach? Chocolate!

We need some key ingredients to help little Stefan learn to add those numbers. Let’s try again:

  • first, tell me goal: “Stefan, I want you to learn how to add small numbers.”
  • then, tell me why I should care: “You will get your favourite chocolate, if you can add all numbers from 1 through 10 by the end of this week.” (Chocolate as a motivator usually works well with me. Of course you could also use some classical lie, such as “You need this as an adult later in your life, to get a good job.” etc. I like to think that the immediate high sugar, high calorie reward would have worked much better in this case.)
  • maybe, offer some advice and help: “Go on Youtube and search for ‘adding number’. Feel free to ask me for help if you can’t find anything helpful.”
  • wait
  • at the end of the week (in fact, much, much earlier than that, I’d assume), little Stefan will insist on showing of his new math skills to get his greedy little hands on that chocolate you promised earlier.

Great. Little Stefan has learned in this ideal scenario some simple arithmetics. Also, he learned that you are willing to reward him for doing stuff. Pretty creepy.

Did you learn anything from this?

I hope it was this:

  • Use some sort of motivation if you want someone to achieve their goal.

If that someone is you, consider cutting down on the sugar-based rewards, unless your goal is to gain weight. (I am not going to bore you with different kinds of motivation, like “intrinsic motivation” (motivation from within) and “extrinsic motivation” (motivation by external factors), and which works better for what kind of goals. Feel free to Google that by yourself.)

A low-calorie alternative to chocolate is regular, positive feedback. I think. But that’s a story for another day.

So, you better stop surfing the inter-webs now. Better go and take a walk, meet some friends, read a book. Anything. But, please, stop looking at this screen! (At least for a while.)

See also