in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: May 14, 2024

Podcast #989: How to Get Better at Anything

Life revolves around learning—in school, at our jobs, even in the things we do for fun. But we often don’t progress in any of these areas at the rate we’d like. Consequently, and unfortunately, we often give up our pursuits prematurely or resign ourselves to always being mediocre in our classes, career, and hobbies.

Scott Young has some tips on how you can avoid this fate, level up in whatever you do, and enjoy the satisfaction of skill improvement. Scott is a writer, programmer, and entrepreneur, and the author of Get Better at Anything: 12 Maxims for Mastery. Today on the show, Scott shares the three key factors in helping us learn. He explains how copying others is an underrated technique in becoming a genius, why, contrary to the sentiments of motivational memes, we learn more from success than mistakes, why experts often aren’t good teachers and tactics for drawing out their best advice, why you may need to get worse before you get better, and more.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Life revolves around learning, in school, at our jobs, even in the things we do for fun. But we frequently don’t progress in any of these areas at the rate we’d like. Consequently, and unfortunately, we often give up our pursuits prematurely or resign ourselves to always being mediocre in our classes, career, and hobbies. Scott Young has some tips on how you can avoid this fate, level up in whatever you do, and enjoy the satisfaction of skill improvement.

Scott is a writer, programmer, and entrepreneur, and the author of Get Better at Anything: 12 Maxim’s for Mastery. Today on the show, Scott shares the three key factors in helping us learn. He explains how copying others is an underrated technique in becoming a genius, why contrary to the sentiments of motivational memes, we learn more from success than mistakes, why experts often aren’t good teachers and tactics for drawing out their best advice, why you may need to get worse before you get better, and more. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

All right. Scott Young, welcome back to the show.

Scott Young: Oh, thank you so much for having me back.

Brett McKay: So the last time we had you on, we discussed your book, Ultralearning. You got a new book out called Get Better at Anything. Both books are about learning. So how does Get Better at Anything pick up where Ultralearning left off?

Scott Young: Yeah, you know, it’s funny ’cause when I wrote Ultralearning, when I was like wrapping up that book, I said, well, this is my book on learning. I’m not gonna have to write another book on that. And I ended up spending like five years digging into research and was like, yep, there’s like more than another book here that I wanted to write and things that I didn’t get to say. So I would say at a very high level, the main difference is that Ultralearning was kind of dealing with very specific coroner perspective on the issue of how do you get better at things, which was looking at people who take on these intensive, self-directed learning projects. So, you know, I covered Benny Lewis, who speaks like 11 languages, and Eric Barone, who built his own video game, learning like every single possible subskill from scratch.

And it was really just to look at these kind of dramatic stories and try to infer principles from this. Whereas this book, the story that really kicked it off was actually something a little unusual, which was Tetris proficiency. Tetris is a game that’s been out for, you know, a couple decades now. And it really was interesting for me when I first heard about this story from the YouTuber John Green. And he was talking about how for the first like 20 years of Tetris, the people aren’t very good at it. Like the scores of the best players are just nothing close to what like 12 and 13 year old kids can do these days. And the sort of key to resolving this mystery was that the players who are playing today are so much more interconnected, it’s possible to quickly learn the best techniques, the best strategies, and implement them yourself.

And that’s just had this real salutary effect on the entire field, in that they’ve gotten so much better so much more quickly. And so I really liked this story, because it didn’t fit into the paradigm that I had with the last book. This wasn’t a story about like some impressive individual that like beat the odds and did way better than everyone else. But it was, here’s a fundamental ingredient to getting better at things that applies to everyone, whether or not you’re the top of the field or in the middle of the pack. And so that kind of kickstarted this real deep dive into not only stories like this one, but the research on learning to try to figure out what are those principles, what are those fundamental ingredients that you have to get right if you wanna improve, whether or not it’s an intensive project or whether it’s just something that you’re trying to get a little bit better at.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So the learning process, you break it down to three parts. It’s see, do, and feedback. So that see part, like we learn best when we see other people doing stuff and that’s like, we’re social animals. And I think that’s probably what separates us from the other primates. We’re very social and we can mimic other people very well. And we’ve been able to incorporate that into our learning process.

Scott Young: Yeah. I’m a big fan of Joseph Henrich, the Harvard anthropologist and economist, his work, he wrote a book called The Secret of Our Success, where he makes this argument that the reason that we’ve sort of succeeded as a species is that we have culture, not that we are like intrinsically just such better problem solvers than our chimpanzee orangutan cousins. Now, I don’t wanna say that like people are equally smart as chimpanzees, but the differences are not as dramatic as our kind of like, you know, as it would look like when you just see them. And part of it is that humans are excellent social learners, chimpanzees are not. And so one of these experiments that I talk about in the book is comparing toddlers, like two-year olds. So presumably at a level where they haven’t, you know, acquired a lot of our cultural tools against similarly aged chimpanzees and orangutans.

And on questions of like, problem solving. So you’re getting them to solve some sort of problem on their own. They’re actually pretty similar. It’s not the case that like humans are just so much smarter than the other great apes. But the main difference is that even toddlers you show them how to solve a problem and they’ll copy it like pretty, pretty successfully. And the other apes just can’t seem to do that. And so the argument that it’s like monkey see monkey do, that expression has it exactly backwards. That is the thing that makes us different from the monkeys is that we can see something and do it, whereas they’d have to figure it out on their own.

Brett McKay: And in this section about seeing in the learning process, you take a look at Renaissance artists and how they learned their art. And I think we typically have this idea of artists, the greats like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, even musicians like Beethoven, Mozart. They’re like these romantic geniuses who are alone in their workshop or their studio, just toiling away and perfecting their craft, but if you look at the history of art in the Renaissance, they learn by just copying the works of other masters before them. Walk us through that process. It’s really interesting.

Scott Young: Yeah. So I mean, this is something that I think if you look at kind of the, it’s not even just exclusively to art. This is true in education at large, but there became this idea, and I think a lot of people blame Rousseau for it, but this idea that you don’t wanna be teaching too much. You wanna be letting people develop their own creative talents, their own ideas, their own original voice. And I don’t wanna say that that’s entirely wrong. You do need to have creativity and originality eventually. But what this misses is that, again, what we were talking about, this ability to learn from other people to sort of not have to reinvent the wheel and solve the same problems.

And so artistic education often follows this model in, you know, classrooms today. I mean, I remember taking art classes in high school where there was, you know, the teacher wasn’t really teaching anything. We were doing these like craft projects and just like, okay, do what you want kids. And then, you know, every once in a while there’d be a helpful suggestion or the teacher would do something to your drawing, but it wasn’t like, okay, let’s sit down and learn how perspective works or let’s learn how, you know, these sight sizing techniques for like drawing something accurately. Like that wasn’t part of my artistic education when I was doing it in school.

And so it was very interesting to reflect on this sort of trajectory of art education because it really started out of this apprenticeship model. And the apprenticeship model was that the artist doesn’t matter at all. This is just a worker. This is just a laborer. And so you bring some kid in here and you’re like, okay, you’re gonna paint leaves. And then I’m gonna get you to paint leaves for a while. And then you’re gonna do this. And it was this being able to observe the master at work, doing what the master is doing, copying from masterworks. Was such a fundamental part of the education. And now if you suggest this to like art teachers or people who are in this sort of field, they’re almost like aghast that like, that’s not what art is. That’s just copying. That’s not creativity.

But the people who went through this process, which continued beyond the apprenticeship period, it became the kind of academy system for a number of years that produced many excellent painters, many excellent artists, was you’re building these fundamental skills of drawing, of seeing, of perceiving, and treating art as a skill that… Once you’ve mastered it, you have to have an original vision. You have to take all the things you’ve learned and apply it. But without that foundation, you can see the difference. You can see lots of people who… I don’t wanna be critical of contemporary art ’cause there’s a lot of conceptual work there, but there’s a lot of people who get into art that maybe don’t have that technical foundation and it’s just harder for them to express what they wanna express.

Brett McKay: And you see this idea of copying others, not just in art, but in writing. A lot of the famous writers, you think, oh, they just came up with this stuff on their own. They actually, they started just by copying the works of others. I know Jack London would handwrite and copy Rudyard Kipling’s poems. Let me see, Robert Louis Stevenson did the same thing, just copied the work of other famous writers. What was another one? Oh, the guy who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Scott Young: Oh, yeah, yeah. I’m blanking.

Brett McKay: Hunter S. Thompson.

Scott Young: Hunter S. Thompson. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Hunter S. Thompson. He actually just copied The Great Gatsby on his typewriter and he’s like, oh I did that ’cause I just wanna see what it felt like to write a good book.

Scott Young: I even talk about in a later section of the book Octavia Butler, a science fiction writer and she she had this advice to her sort of upcoming science fiction students was like, if you’re having trouble opening a book for instance get like a dozen books and copy out their openings word for word. And I think what is happening here, I mean, the actual physical act of writing it, I don’t think is what matters. What matters is that you’re forced to, when you’re copying something word for word, really pay attention to what you’re writing. And this way of just like, okay, well, what is the way that people solve the problem of opening a book? And if you see a dozen different ways people do it, you have these kind of tools of like, oh, okay, should we start off just with dialogue?

Or should we start off with some kind of like scene setting or a moment of action. And like, how does that make me feel? How does that change the direction that the book follows? I mean, when I was writing Ultralearning, I did the exact same thing. Like I had never written a traditionally published book before, you know, something of that magnitude. So it’s like, I open up people’s books that I liked and it was like, how did they structure this? How did they work on this? I’m a big fan of Cal Newport. We’ve been friends for a long time. And it was like, I opened up Deep Work and I was like, how did he structure Deep Work? ‘Cause I like that book. So the book I ended up writing is not like Deep Work.

It’s not that I was just imitating him in a really superficial level, but seeing how he solved the problem of like, okay, I’ve got an idea, what do I need to do rhetorically to make this work? I mean, that’s really big. And so I think that element of seeing from other people, copying what other people are doing, not at the superficial level, but at a deep understanding level is super important. And it’s often neglected in creative fields where we prize originality and we often punish people for going through that early phase.

Brett McKay: Are there any broad principles that people can use from this idea of copying others so they can apply to other skills, whether it’s public speaking, making a negotiation, computer programming, et cetera, these other skills in their life they might be doing besides art and writing?

Scott Young: Yeah. I mean, I do think people do this to a certain extent instinctively. Like, as I said, we are social learners as a species. So even if you don’t realize you’re doing this, often that’s what you’re doing. I know lots of entrepreneurs who like this seeking best practices and seeking out what… Like that’s just second nature to them. I think the idea of surfacing this and making this explicit and important is recognizing that often there’s kind of an opposing cultural tendency, sort of like, you know, that’s what you’re doing, but you shouldn’t be doing it, right? And I think it’s good to say, no, no, no, this is healthy. This is good to start off with.

So if you are working in like public speaking, watch great speakers, listen to like Martin Luther King’s, I Have a Dream speech, listen to people who gave moving speeches, and try to pay attention to what they’re doing. What are they doing? What do you like what they’re doing? What do you not like what they’re doing? What do you understand? What do you not understand? And again, it’s the superficial, like I’m gonna say that exact speech that does play maybe a role at the very, very beginning stages. Like you’re learning to program something, you can’t understand it. So you just copy the code line by line. But I think this act of working through and understanding why someone is doing what they’re doing it really skips over a lot of the trial and error because the alternative to doing this, the alternative to sort of finding a working template and copying it is trying to invent one yourself.

And there’s just ample research from educational psychology that people are not that good at it. Like people are not that good at inventing their own solutions. Even smart people, it takes them an enormous amount of effort. And often when they do invent the solution, they don’t even recognize that it’s the solution. And so they may not actually learn anything. So I think this seeing process is just something that you can be more deliberate about incorporating into your practice.

Brett McKay: One of your maxims of learning or getting better at something is that success is the best teacher in learning. But I think we’ve all heard that, well, no, you actually learn most from your mistakes. So why is success better than failure when it comes to learning?

Scott Young: I don’t know. I almost felt funny writing this chapter because part of me was like, well, isn’t this obvious? But it is because the kind of contrary we learn best through our mistakes or failures has become such a rallying cry for so many books that in some ways presenting what I think is the obvious truth, is actually mildly contrarian right now. But I feel like I wanna state off that there is a reason why people try to give that advice. Some of it is just to like cheer people up a little bit that, you know, you’re gonna face failures, you’re gonna have mistakes, those are inevitable, you wanna pick yourself up, you wanna learn from them. And I have kind of a couple reasons for making this point, but one of them is simply just from like information theory.

For many skills, it’s better to learn from success than failure. And the reason why, is that if you can think of like the right way to do a skill, like opening a combination lock, there’s many, many, many more like ineffective ways to do things than effective ways to do it. And so if you try an effective way to do something and you get it to work, you know how it works. If you try an ineffective way, well, you don’t know which way works. You have to like try a bunch of other attempts in order to get it. And so what you can learn in one shot, if you are shown the right way to do it, may take many, many trial and error attempts to sort of hone in on that correct answer if you are failing. So there is a real sense that success is less common than failure.

That failure can happen in many ways. Success tends to happen in a narrow set of circumstances. And so if you can succeed or you can set yourself up to succeed earlier on, then you’re just gonna cut down the amount of learning time. Now, how do you actually set that up? And I think there’s two important ingredients here. One is having the fundamental building blocks of the skill you’re trying to learn. So I spent a lot of time in this chapter talking about the very extensive research that’s been done on learning to read and how it all points to the idea that if you are very explicit in teaching the sound spelling combinations of words of like phonics and doing this kind of approach, children will learn to read much faster than if you try to give them realistic reading materials and let them guess.

So that’s one thing, is just, do I have the fundamental building blocks for this skill? And often if I don’t, it’s gonna be a frustrating slog. And then the second thing is that if you can build early successes, this helps with motivation too. That if you can have those early wins in a skill where you’re working on simpler problems and you can get a hang of it, this is gonna give you more confidence, more motivation to tackle the harder problems. So I think again, the misunderstanding is like, yeah, we all want grit. We all want perseverance, but where do grit and perseverance come from? Grit comes from the belief that even when things are difficult, I can succeed, but if you don’t even believe you can succeed when things are easy, then you’re not gonna believe you’re gonna succeed when things are hard.

So grit and perseverance and these kinds of qualities we really admire are often, again, this end product of you’ve built enough confidence, you’ve built enough self-efficacy in a domain, however you wanna think about that, so that you can tackle harder challenges and persist through them. So if I were trying to teach someone, I would wanna make sure they have the right building blocks and build them up from this base of success so that when they do get to that harder problem, they’re not like, oh, well, I can’t do this, and they just give up right away.

Brett McKay: Video game designers understand this. Whenever you play a video game, you no longer need instruction manuals to play video games ’cause you just play the game, and it’s really easy at the beginning ’cause you’re learning those basic skills that will allow you to play the rest of the game. Then it gives you those easy wins, not only teach you the basic skills you need for the game, but also it’s motivating, oh yeah this is fun. And then you’re able to get to harder and harder levels.

Scott Young: Yeah. I mean, this is such an obvious, I think, motivational principle that it’s like, it seems sort of strange to almost argue against it. But there is, again, like we’re talking about here, there is this sort of idea that, well, you should be making things as hard as possible in order to like maximize your progress. And there’s a little bit of like masochism baked into that philosophy that, oh, well, the reason that you’re not making, you’re not succeeding in life is that you’re just taking it too easy. You’re not making it harder. I mean, there’s some truth to the idea that you often do need to make things more difficult, more challenging to get growth, but it’s very important to understand where that occurs in the sequence.

And very often in the beginning of a skill, the problem is that anything that we really care about is too hard. And that’s pushing us away from actually doing it. So the early part of skill development, the early part of getting better is all about how do you make things easier, manageable, motivating. And then when you’ve been doing something for 10 years and you’re no longer making progress, okay, yeah, you need to be seeking out challenges, you need to be pushing yourself and you get into the opposite problem. But the sequencing and timing of that advice is super important.

Brett McKay: Okay. So if we learn best by watching others, it makes sense like, okay, I’m gonna find the very best person at a skill and ask them to coach me. All right? So if you wanna be a better quarterback, you think, well, I’m just gonna have Tom Brady coach me. But the research suggests that experts can sometimes be the worst teachers. Why is that?

Scott Young: What happens as we progress in a skill, and this has been well documented, is that there is a tendency for parts of the skill to become unconscious. And there’s lots of different theories and mechanisms for how this tacit knowledge develops, but the basic idea is that when parts of the skill become unconscious, either because you just remember the right answer and you don’t have to use the kind of deliberate method to get to it, or because you’ve picked up sort of like little subtle patterns from the environment. And so you’re kind of bypassing that whole explicit phase in the first part. It becomes very hard to learn from these people because they’re like, oh, well, you just do this. And it’s like, well, why do you do that?

Or how do you do that? And so teaching really is two skills. You have to first know the skill yourself, but then you have to kind of learn the pedagogy, learn the way of breaking it down, so someone who doesn’t have that knowledge, can actually like have a handle on it and learn it. So reading this research gave me a lot of respect for people who are good teachers, because again, this idea that teaching something is not simply just being good at it. There is an additional skill on top of that. And so I think this often comes up when we are trying to learn skills that are not taught in school, that are things that you have to learn in the field, in practice. You talk to people who are busy experts, they’re busy, they’re good at what they do, they don’t have a lot of time to explain things.

And you ask them for advice and you just get terrible advice from these people. My friend, Cal Newport and I we ran for a number of years, well, we still run it, this course called Top Performer. And one of the steps we get people to work through is asking people who are a few steps ahead in their career for advice to plan out what you should be doing to make progress in your career. And one of the early things we notice is that it, when you ask people to talk to these experts, they just get like really generic platitude ridden statements of advice. It’s like, well, it’s all about working hard and it’s all, the kids these days and this kind of thing.

This was the kind of advice our students were getting. Whereas what they really want to know is that like, oh, if I want to go into book publishing, they’ll be like, okay, well, you wanna get an agent, you wanna work on a proposal, or you need to build an audience that’s about this size before you can get a book deal. And like these are the advice that to the expert are so obvious they don’t even say them. It’s like, well, of course, but to the person who’s entering the field, it’s not obvious at all. It’s not apparent that that’s what you have to do. And so in this chapter that I kind of discussed this research, I spent a lot of time talking about, there’s this family of techniques called cognitive task analysis, which is the tool psychologists have developed for dealing with this problem, of how do you get an expert to explain what they’re doing in ways that you can write down, you can understand, you can learn from even when they themselves aren’t entirely sure of how they’re performing a skill.

Brett McKay: This idea that sometimes the best coaches aren’t the experts, this reminded me there was an NFL football kicking coach named Doug Blevins. You’ve heard about this guy?

Scott Young: No. But I’m very interested to hear about this.

Brett McKay: So Doug Blevins, he’s one of the greatest kicking coaches of all time. He coached, in the NFL and in college he was even considered for the Hall of Fame, I believe. But he had cerebral palsy and he was in a wheelchair, like he was in a motorized wheelchair. But he analyzed the game in kickers like so methodically and he was able to see things that kickers themselves couldn’t see. And he was like this objective eye. And he had a knack for being able to give cues to kickers so they could improve their kick. Yeah. That chapter reminded me of Doug Blevins is really interesting.

Scott Young: No. I mean, in sports I think it’s well recognized that the best coaches are not always the best players. And I think in athletic skills, there’s an additional reason why you wanna coach, which is that well, not only are motor skills almost completely tacit, so there’s a real sense in which, Tiger Woods has a hard time explaining how he swings a golf club and why he’s so good at it. But then there’s an additional reason, which is that when you’re swinging the golf club, you can’t stand outside yourself and see what you’re doing. And so, especially in like elite levels of athletics, now you have like high speed cameras and people doing like advanced kinematic calculations and be like, okay, well, you wanna actually like swing it just like 0.5 degrees to the left. Like you can give that kind of advice, which is just impossible to get that information when you’re playing the game. And so I think in elite sports they really understand this, but in regular professions I think it’s less utilized, in our everyday skills we make less use of this very important wisdom.

Brett McKay: Okay. So if you’re gonna go to an expert, some things you can do to extract information from them, just have them talk through the problem or what they’re doing. So they make explicit what they do implicitly. You also talked about ask for stories, not advice. I thought that was a good one. And then what was the third one? Oh, see where they seek answers. So I thought that was interesting. So if they’ve got a problem, if this expert has a problem, where do they go to get help? And maybe that will help you.

Scott Young: Yeah. I mean, I think, well definitely that is this sort of the diffuse nature of knowledge, especially this kind of like, writing this book, one of the things that became really clear to me is just that book knowledge for how many books there are in the library, how many things are written down. It’s the tip of the iceberg for what people actually know, right? And I think, we’re training these large language models now on like the entirety of human text corpus, but the problem with a lot of that is just that a lot of the things that we know are not really written down anywhere, especially in fields and stuff where you learn it through being on the job through practice. So you kind of acquire the tacit knowledge that way. And so this real difficulty is that for a lot of the fields you wanna do, you can’t really just Google it and be like, oh, this is the answer.

There’s a lot of things you can Google, but there’s a lot of things you can’t. And so knowing who knows the answer is, and oh, who do you talk to for advice on this and then you get a referral? I mean, that’s huge. And the idea of seeing how they solve problems and getting them to walk through it, this is a technique that’s used in a lot of cognitive science research, this think-aloud protocol has been the basis of a lot of work. Anders Ericsson’s work on expertise was based on it. A lot of the early work on problem solving was built on it, but it follows from this same idea that we talked about earlier with this sort of apprenticeship model that being able to see someone solve a problem, especially if you can interject and be like, why did you do that? [laughter] Is so beneficial.

And it’s not just about seeing the end product, it’s not just about seeing, okay, well, this is the book that they wrote, but like, if they can, try to write a little bit and you can watch them write, you’ll learn a lot about the problem solving process because you see the iterations it goes through, you see the first stabs and why they made changes. And while I’m running into this problem, so I’m gonna do this edit, do they use an outline? Like these kinds of things which are maybe invisible if you just see the end product are very important for understanding the process.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So we mentioned earlier, when you’re first learning something, you want it to be easy one so you can learn the basic skills, but also that motivational factor. But at a certain point to get better, you have to make things more difficult. So say you’re learning a new skill, When should you start introducing difficulty in your learning? And then how hard do you wanna make things for yourself?

Scott Young: Right. So I think there’s two ways to think about this. One way is just the fact that maybe the problems that you actually wanna solve in the skill that you’re working on, are too difficult. So you’re building up to those problems. So if it’s like, I wanna write a novel, let’s say, but I don’t have any writing experience, then maybe working on a short story or working on some simpler forms or little writing exercises is gonna build up those skills in a sort of smaller environment to ready you for writing the novel. Now, why do you want to build up that way? Is because the end goal is writing a novel. If the end goal was writing these small things, then there’s no reason you have to progress to writing a novel. It’s just, that’s just sort of your decision about how you’re using the skill.

So similarly, like with lots of skills, we have to really think about what our end goals are. Like I’m driving a car, for instance, definitely me competing in a race with my car would force me to learn skills that I don’t have as a driver, but I don’t really wanna be a race car driver, so that’s not really what I have to do. So I’m okay keeping driving at kind of the same difficulty level. So the difficulty really depends on where you’re trying to get with a skill. But then the second thing I think is important, is that the fine tuning of the difficulty for a skill also matters because there’s certain things that you can do to change the skill, change how you practice that make things more difficult, but make learning more efficient. So I talk about three in the book.

One is retrieval, which is this idea that if you have to apply a pattern or something you’ve learned from memory rather than seeing it again, this strengthens memory more. There’s spacing, which is the idea of spreading out when you’re practicing over time. And that’s more efficient than cramming it together. And then also variable practice, which is when you practice similar skills kind of in alternation, so that if you’re practicing tennis serves, you practice your forehand with your backhand, you kind of mix it up randomly rather than just work on the backend until you get it perfectly. And all of these things tend to make it more difficult. So there might be something that at the very early stages you want to avoid doing if you’re trying to build that confidence or you’re trying to build that progress, but they make your learning more efficient. So you’re going to acquire those skills better and faster than you would if you sort of take the easier approach.

Brett McKay: Yeah. The retrieval aspect, that’s why flashcards are such a great tool for learning because it causes you to try to get the answer back in your head and that process kind of cements it in your head.

Scott Young: I mean, there’s a really interesting kind of debate and like theoretical implications around this retrieval because when I wrote Ultralearning, I had a whole chapter about retrieval and it kind of, in some ways points in the opposite direction of what we were talking about earlier, about like seeing examples and studying examples and learning from other people. And so in this book I talk about the importance of doing it in a practice loop. Like you wanna see examples and do practice on your own. Because if you just see the example or you’re only looking at it, it’s gonna be harder to learn eventually because of this retrieval practice problem. But if you don’t see the example at all, then you’re not retrieving anything. You’re just doing this trial and error to try to invent the example for yourself. So there is a little bit of a tension there between like studying other people and doing your own practice.

Brett McKay: I did this… Implemented this when I was in law school, getting ready for an exam. So the teachers would have, they had like an exam bank, so you could see what the exams looked like and then they had like sample answers. And so when I first started studying for these exams, ’cause taking a law school exam is like a skill. Like you have to… Your grade depends on this one essay and they get basically give you a legal problem, then you have to find all the legal issues and resolve it. And there’s a format you need to follow so you can get all these points, so you can get as many points as possible and get a good grade. So when I first started getting ready for these exams, I went to the exam bank and I looked at like the sample best answer that the law school professor provided. And then after that I would get the subsequent exams and every Saturday leading up to the exam, like for a month to the exam, I would do a practice test and I would do it from memory. I wouldn’t use my notes at all. And then when I was done with the exam, I would take a look at the answer key and see if I got everything right and incorporate that feedback. Well, I missed this issue, made a note of that. So when I took the next one, I made sure I got it.

Scott Young: I mean, I’m pretty sure that that is the right way to study almost any exam. Like where you look at the examples, you get some kind of instruction, some kind of explanation of how you should be solving the problems. So I think unless you already have a lot of prior experience going straight to the exam maybe isn’t that efficient because you’re gonna, again, just gonna be doing trial and error. You have no idea how to solve these problems. But then you make some attempt and then you check what the sort of official answer is and you learn from that process. And so those kind of feedback loops of, and in this case the feedback is very much also an example, right? So the seeing and feedback are kind of almost mirrored with each other. They’re just happening at different parts of the process.

I mean this is definitely how you would wanna study for any exam. The issue I think is just that so many of the skills that we wanna get better at are not like exams. And so it’s like how do you make them more exam like? Like how do you make writing a book closer to that process where you’re seeing some example, you’re attempting something, you’re getting feedback? And I think again, the reason why people often struggle to learn non-academic skills and there’s some people get really good and some people don’t, is because of this idea that it’s just, it’s not automatic to practice that way.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So how do you get feedback? How do you do that loop for like say writing a book? What would that look like?

Scott Young: I mean, and I think every skill has its own sort of little idiosyncrasies here. So I don’t wanna be just suggesting like, oh, there’s one method you can use on every single skill. And it would be nice if that exists. It would be good for me selling books ’cause I could just make that method the book. But I think it’s good to show different examples because there’s lots of different ways this can happen. So in writing, one of the things that I really liked about this story with Octavia Butler was how important going to these writing workshops was for her process. Now, in a writing workshop, basically you’re in a classroom of other writers and you would be assigned, okay, you’re gonna write a short story for tomorrow. So first of all, there’s already this like impressive volume of practice that maybe you wouldn’t be doing if you were just on your own.

And then you bring it to the class and then the class dissects it, and then you write again, and then the class dissects it, and you write again, and the class dissects it. And so this feedback was a peer and also teacher led feedback process of it’s not the same as, okay, well, this is the right answer, this is exactly how you should have written it. But you are getting these kind of nudges, these directional things of how you can change your writing. And at the same time you’re seeing how other people are writing, you’re seeing what high quality writing in this field looks like and you’re getting lots of practice attempts. So this practice loop occurs in a workshop environment very successfully, where it’s very difficult to replicate that just on your own at home writing your national novel write month where you’re not necessarily getting feedback from anyone or you’re getting it at a considerable delay. Again, it looks different in different environments, but if you see that as being an ingredient, well, I want something like a practice loop. I want something that looks the way that Brett studied for law school. If you can do something like that in a skill where it’s not typical or it’s not automatic, I mean, that can just make a huge difference in your growth because not everyone is doing that. Not everyone is going to be practicing effectively.

Brett McKay: Okay. So to make things harder, going back to that, just to recap, retrieval, do some spaced learning. So kind of space things out and then variable. So you just wanna mix things up and don’t just study in chunks.

Scott Young: Yeah. The variable one, I just want to point out like, it’s kind of the opposite of the way we do things in school. And the way we do things in school is like we break everything into units, we only focus on one thing at a time, and you know which unit your homework is coming from. So you know which techniques apply to those problems. But I mean, the variable idea is like, well, if you just like mix those up randomly, it would be harder to do the problems but you’d learn it better. And so I think it’s an underused strategy ’cause we’re even talking about like, how do you make things a more exam like? Well, this is a situation where even in the highly controlled environment of a school, we’re often not learning as efficiently as we could be.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we’ve often been told that the mind is a muscle, but you argue that that analogy is misleading. How so?

Scott Young: So the idea here is that a lot of people have this metaphor where if I practice something, I will get good at that thing, but I’ll also kind of get broadly good at things that are of the same flavor. So this is the idea behind doing Sudoku puzzles so that it’ll like improve your logical reasoning, or I’m gonna study programming because programming teaches problem solving ability or…

Brett McKay: Chess, play chess, yeah.

Scott Young: Chess ’cause it’s gonna… Yeah. So many people who are advocates of chess and I mean, I like chess and I think you should learn chess ’cause it’s a great game. It has a rich history and cultural tradition, but it’s just simply not true that learning chess will make you a more strategic thinker. And I know right now as I’m saying this, there’s like that chess player listener who is like, well, actually chess made me a more strategic reasoner.

And I would say, okay, well, just show me the controlled experiments where you teach people chess and it makes them a more strategic reasoner and I’ll recant. But the basic idea is that this muscle metaphor is pervasive. It has been around for hundreds of years. I mean, even Plato in the Republic is advocating for this idea. So I think it’s some way baked into our psychology that this is how the mind works, and there’s lots of evidence that that’s not how the mind works. That’s not how improvement in mental abilities works. What it is, is probably a closer metaphor, is that the mind is made of a lot of different tools that are made out of knowledge. So when you learn chess, what you’re learning is you’re learning some tools that are a little bit abstract and apply broadly. So you’re learning some things like sizing up an opponent and managing your time and maybe those are gonna transfer to other kinds of games or other kinds of competitive situations.

But a lot of what you’re learning is specific patterns that are unique to chess. Like you’re learning about maintaining king safety, and you’re learning about forking and pins, and all sorts of very specific ideas that really only apply to chess and they’re unlikely to transfer to any other domain, any other skill. And so the idea here is that first of all, if we wanna have broad competencies, they really are made out of lots of smaller parts. So we have to kind of acquire the vocabulary as it were to master the language. There’s no sort of a generic language muscle that we just improve. And then second of all, that if we are trying to improve on a skill, it’s very important to pay attention to what those pieces are and to not just be sort of flippant about saying, well, I wanna be a better programmer so I’m just gonna like improve my logical thinking in some way by doing some kind of problems rather than focusing on the problems, the situations, the sort of subskills that we genuinely care about.

Brett McKay: That makes sense. Again, I experienced this in the field of law. So I remember when I was in undergrad, I was thinking about preparing for the LSAT, which is the test you do to see if you can get into law school. And a lot of it’s like logic based. So there is like these logic games you gotta do. And so I took a symbolic logic class and I mean I enjoyed it. I don’t know how helpful it was in the LSAT exam. The thing that helped me the most was just doing a bunch of these dumb logic games over and over again until I got good at it.

Scott Young: I mean, there probably is near transfer in those situations. So the psychologist distinguishing like near and far transfer, which are hopelessly vague terms in the literature, but near basically being the kind of transfer you’d expect because the problems you’re solving are in some way the same. Like that when you are solving a logic problem in a logic class versus the logic problem in the LSAT, that the problems are in some sense the same. And there is actually interesting research showing that like even in those circumstances, transfer is not automatic. We don’t automatically apply things that are helpful that we do know to new problems. But that is a kind that I think most psychologists would admit like it exists. It’s something that we can definitely do as human beings. The more questionable categories this far transfer where the skills don’t seem to have anything in common, there’s no sort of isomorphism as it were, there’s no kind of like relationship where these problems are actually the same in some sort of deep way and yet you’re going to improve from one to the other.

So I mean, it’s a complicated issue. There’s a really big literature on it. So I’m sure someone will point out some exception or something and I can get into the theoretical nuances of it. But I think just if you broadly accept that when we learn things, we’re learning information and that information helps us solve problems of that type. And it helps us solve problems that are kind of the same in some abstract level that helps you, I think, when you’re thinking about how you’re gonna get better at skills because you’re not relying on this kind of, well, I’m gonna learn something completely different and it’s just gonna boost my intelligence or boost my memory power or reasoning power, which I don’t think is how it works.

Brett McKay: Right. So if you want to get good at writing, you gotta write, do the skills of writing.

Scott Young: Yeah. And you gotta do the writing that you’re trying to get good at too. Like, I mean, there’s definitely writing exercises that are gonna be helpful for our sorts of writing, but I mean, writing poetry and writing a business memo are not the same.

Brett McKay: Right. Exactly. So one of my favorite chapters was the one on how jazz musicians learn to improvise. And one of the reasons I really like this chapter is ’cause just a few weeks ago we had a podcast guest on talking about Miles Davis and his life. So a lot of things you were talking about there, you talked about Miles Davis. So what can we learn about jazz musicians on how they learn to improvise to improve our own learning?

Scott Young: Well, jazz improvisation is a very interesting skill ’cause when you think of something like chess, a lot of what it is is just having this like extremely large library of, okay, well, in this situation you do this kind of patterns. I mean, there’s higher level reasoning than that, but that is a big part of what makes chess players good. And jazz improvisation, it’s very different from classical music where you just, you play Beethoven symphony over and over and over again until you can do it like flawlessly. It’s how do you play something that has a lot of skill, a lot of talent, but is different from anything you’ve ever played before? And so I thought this was a very interesting skill to look at because it does highlight a lot of these problems of like, well, you’re not just trying to master some sort of static pattern, but you’re trying to have some kind of flexible creative representation of the music, so that while you’re playing you can just churn stuff out.

And there’s a really interesting book which talks about jazz training and I relied on heavily when I was writing this chapter is, Paul Berliner’s ‘Thinking In Jazz’. And this is like, multiple hundreds of pages of him having these deep interviews with jazz musicians looking at their training, looking at how they practice. He’s also a jazz musician so he can like appreciate it on a deeper level than someone who’s not particularly musical like me. And what I thought was very interesting when I was reading this book is how it parallels a lot of the cognitive psychology research on this variable practice effect. So it goes by a few different names. We have like contextual interference, we have interleaving, variable practice, there’s even research on concept formation. And so I talk about how these ideas parallel, that as you practice with variability, meaning that you’re not just practicing the same thing over and over again, but you’re practicing similar things but different things in alternation in a random sequence. You’re seeing different examples, you’re trying things in one key and then in another key. This variability causes you to generating more abstract, more flexible representation of the skill, so that you can do things like improvise. And that’s particularly important when what you’re trying to get at is not just like, I can repeat this verbatim, but that you deeply understand it, that you’re able to do interesting and flexible things with it.

Brett McKay: So one chapter I wanna talk about too, is you talk about how in order to get better at something, sometimes you have to get worse before you get better. And you look at the career of Tiger Woods to explore that idea. Tell us about that.

Scott Young: Yeah. So this was an interesting choice, because Tiger Woods is obviously one of the most famous golfers of all time, undoubtedly talented. I mean, like reading his biography, you see the video clips of him at two years old lobbing balls on The Mike Douglas Show and you’re just like, this is someone who’s just a phenomenal talent, just this is like an excellent golfer. And the thing that… One of the things that he’s been most scrutinized in his career, at least professionally, has been his decision at various points in his career to change how he swings. So there is a lot of golf lore that like you should not do this. That as you develop a swing, you develop some sort of natural way of moving your body. It has its strengths and limitations, but trying to override that well ingrained habit often results in worse progress.

So there’s this sports journalist Scott Eden and he writes this long article about how countless other golfers had tried to do what Tiger did and failed, they tried to rebuild their golf swing and it just kind of dashed their career hopes. Whereas Tiger has actually succeeded with this. He has gone through phases where he’s changed his golf swing and he has gone on to play competitively. And even in some cases, after his first swing adjustment, he played even better. Like he racked up a lot of his career highlights. And so this idea that improvement is just this kind of steady monotonic increase in ability, is not actually supported by a lot of the research that often what we’re doing when we are improving is this kind of tension between, well, I have learned a way of doing something, I’ve overlearned it to the point where it’s very automatic, but to get better I need to kind of make some of those things less automatic.

I need to do some things in a different way. And this idea of this tension between automaticity or effortlessness and the need to improve was a central part in Anders Ericsson work. One of the people that’s influenced me the most in thinking about skill development, is that he made this case that like, well, deliberate practice, this thing that really sets apart top performers in many fields, is this process of kind of like, well the automatic thing would be to do this, but I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna put a lot of effort to try to do it a slightly different way and that’s necessary to continue skill growth past a certain point.

Brett McKay: So how can we do that? What are some principles to make things harder for yourself so you can get better?

Scott Young: Yeah. So I mean, in athletics one of the big things that they look at is how can you introduce new constraints so that you force the skill out of its sort of habitual way of performing it. So the one that I really like, a friend of mine who played squash competitively, he was saying that when they were learning that one of the skills that they try to get you to do is to hit the ball in the center of the racket. And obviously this is hard to do and not everyone does this. So one of the ways that they do it is they gave them a racket that had a really small head. And so this forces you to do that because if you hit it where it would’ve hit on the regular racket, but it would be at the top or it wouldn’t be right in the center, that just flies straight through now. So if you practice with the racket with a small head, it’s gonna force your skill to be more accurate in hitting the shot. And so I think with a lot of skills, introducing new constraints that definitely increase the difficulty and they inhibit an old way of doing things can sort of adjust you into a new sort of performance groove.

Brett McKay: Well Scott, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Scott Young: You can go check out my website at I have many essays, free essays free newsletter on learning productivity and self-improvement. You can also check out the book, Get Better At Anything available on Amazon, if you’re not tired of listening to me today, you can download the audible book and listen to the audible version and dive deeper into some of these principles.

Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. Scott Young, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Scott Young: Oh man, thank you for having me back.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Scott Young. He’s the author of the book, Get Better At Anything. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at Where you find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only to listen to AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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